In his 37 years as a Navy SEAL, Admiral William H. McRaven (retired) would command countless missions, including the raid on the Pakistan compound of Osama bin Laden. His qualities as a warrior were matched by his gifts as a storyteller when his 2014 commencement address at the University of Texas at Austin – about personal responsibility and what it takes to make a difference in the world – became a viral sensation, and led to the bestseller, "Making a Bed."
In his new memoir, "Sea Stories: My Life in Special Operations" (Grand Central), Admiral McRaven writes of the inspiration he found in his parents' generation – the survivors of World War I and the Depression who would fight in World War II and the Korean War – and how their gifts would move him to write "laughter‑filled, self‑deprecating, unforgettable, sometimes unbelievable stories of life."
Read an excerpt from "Sea Stories" below – and don't miss!
The Greatest Generation
I pushed the swinging door open just a crack and peeked out into the large, smoke‑filled room. Jean Claude, the tall young French bartender, was shuttling from table to table taking drink orders from the American officers who filled the club on a Friday night.
Moving through the door, I crawled on my hands and knees to a place just behind the bar. From there I was hidden from view but could still see the entire room.
The American Officers' Club, located in the heart of Fontainebleau, France, was a three‑story structure built in the French Provincial style with ornate molding, winding staircases, a small caged elevator, and large oil paintings of Napoleon, Louis XVI, and countless battle scenes.
As a child of five, to me the club was a special place. There were banisters to slide down, closets to hide in, and hallways to run through. I roamed freely, imaginary sword in hand, fighting pirates and Prussians, Nazis and Russians.
Using the hidden passages inside the building, I could move from the kitchen to the bar completely undetected. The dumbwaiter, which connected the kitchen to the second and third floors, served as a means to slip past the waitstaff, my two sisters (who were charged with keeping me out of trouble – rarely successfully, I might add), my parents, and the scores of other officers who knew I prowled the halls unattended.
While it was an American club, officers from every allied nation were welcome. Impressive in their uniforms, straight in their bearing, they had a swagger and a confidence that was unmistakable to the victors of World War II.
It had been almost fifteen years since the end of the war, but France was still rebuilding and the Europeans looked to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to protect it from the Soviets. The military arm of NATO was the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) – to which my father was assigned and the reason we were living in France.
As I moved to the other side of the bar, Jean Claude spied me and gave me that look, a look I had seen a hundred times before. I see you, it said. But there was always a twinkle in Jean Claude's eye. Like all men grown older, he appreciated the mischief in a young boy's heart, and I sensed there was a longing to be that lad again. In my mind, Jean Claude was my protector, the keeper of my secrets, the Watson to my Holmes.
Across the room, my father was sitting at an oval table with three other men. They all wore the uniform of an Air Force officer: a collared light blue shirt, a dark tie, slightly loosened at the neck, and a deep blue coat with silver wings on the chest.
With Dad were "Easy Ed" Taylor, "Wild Bill" Wildman, and "Gentleman" Rod Gunther, all colonels, all fighter pilots.
Ed Taylor, his hands in the air, one in pursuit of the other, was fending off an attack from a German Messerschmitt. A cigarette hung loosely from his lips and he only paused from the story to take a sip from the scotch snifter at his elbow. Ed was one of the pioneers of jet aircraft, at one point the fastest man in the world in aerial flight. He was Hemingwayish, with a flair for the dramatic, a love of good whiskey, and a need to fill every minute of life with something exciting. A fighter pilot in World War II and Korea, he would go on to serve in Vietnam and end his career as a three‑war veteran. He drank hard, smoked unfiltered Camel cigarettes, loved to be in combat, and seemed to enjoy every person he ever met.
On his wall at home were personalized pictures with Presidents FDR, Truman, and Eisenhower, Generals Douglas MacArthur and George Patton, ballplayers Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris, kings and princes, tyrants and despots, and every average Joe he ever served with. Every picture came with a story.
Ed was married to Cordelia, or Cordie, as everyone called her. A southern girl from Texas who served as the Wives' Club president and was always in charge of the children's plays and adult social functions, Cordie liked to party as much as Ed, and their marriage, which lasted for over fifty years, was a constant struggle between his love of combat and a domestic need for normality. Combat always won out.
Bill Wildman also served in the European theater during the war, but like the rest of the men, he was now flying a desk at SHAPE. Bill was married to everyone's favorite wife, Ann. Ann was the best‑looking woman in France: petite, shapely, smart, and always the life of the party.
Rod Gunther was a southern gentleman, prematurely gray, with a slow friendly drawl and a knack for making everyone around him feel special. His wife, Sadie, and their three girls were like part of our family. I had a crush on their youngest daughter, Judy, thinking she liked me too until I mistakenly put a firecracker in her hat that was meant for my sister Nan. Somehow, after that the romance went out of our relationship.
As Ed Taylor finished his story, with one hand diving sharply into the tabletop, all the men roared with laughter, though I knew they'd heard the story before. My father took a drag on his cigarette, rubbed it out in the ashtray, and waited for the next tale.
Among the men at the table, my father was the most reserved, although that wasn't saying much. Dad loved to tell stories as much as the rest of them. He was blessed with "movie star" good looks, as the women would frequently tell my mom (although I never could tell how she took the compliment).
He had jet black hair, made darker with the touch of Brylcreem he added every morning, along with a prominent nose, a slight cleft in his chin, and steel blue eyes that twinkled when he smiled – and he smiled often.
At five foot eleven, Dad stood tall, but not overbearing. In his younger days he was a remarkable athlete, receiving honors in foot‑ ball, baseball, basketball, and track at Murray State Teachers College in Kentucky. He worked his way through college by gambling on Mississippi riverboats, teaching tennis to "old ladies," and racing against Kentucky thoroughbreds – man against beast. Exceptionally fast for his day, he ran the hundred‑yard dash in 9.8 seconds. At that speed he could beat most horses in a short sprint (sixty yards), and he often gambled a few bucks against local trainers to make his point.
After college, he played two years of professional football with the Cleveland Rams, and in one promotional shot, highlighting their new Murray State running back, the Rams had a picture of Dad bolting from the starting line with a horse and rider in hot pursuit. He later confided in me that he lost that race, "but only by a nose."
Football was "lucrative" employment. Dad made $120 a game and with Wheaties radio commercials cleared almost $130 a week. But as the possibility of war in Europe loomed larger, he left football and drove to California to sign up for the Army Air Corps.
When I asked him years later why he joined the military, he said that as a boy he watched soldiers march through the streets of his home town of Marston, Missouri, and board a train bound for the trenches of France. His father, an Army surgeon, was one of those men. He knew then that he wanted to be a soldier.
After graduating from aviation officers' school at Brooke Field in San Antonio, Texas, he received orders to the 309th Fighter Squadron, 8th Air Force. The 309th was part of the first American contingent to be posted in the United Kingdom. At the time, the Americans were still working to build a fighter aircraft that could compete in aerial combat against the German Messerschmitt. So when Dad arrived in England he and the other pilots of the 309th were given British Spitfires.
The "Spits," equipped with the powerful Rolls‑Royce engines, new guns, and sleek aerodynamics, were good enough to go toe to toe with the Germans. Dad flew the Spitfire throughout the war, going on to fight in the campaigns in North Africa, Sicily, Salerno, and eventually at the Normandy invasion.
He registered two confirmed kills during the war, but would himself be shot down over France in 1943. The saga of his escape and evasion from France back to England was told many times during our posting in France, not by Dad, who rarely talked about his wartime service, but by the French resistance fighter who helped him back to freedom and now lived near us on the outskirts of Paris.
Jean Claude suddenly appeared behind the bar. He reached for a glass, poured it halfway to the top with Coca‑Cola, and then added a heavy dose of cherry juice. A Roy Rogers, he announced, handing me the drink. He knew not to call it a Shirley Temple. I sat cross‑legged behind the bar as he fixed other drinks and then moved out to serve the patrons. Soon my mother and the other wives arrived. As with all wives of that era, you didn't come to the club unless you were "dressed to the nines." Their hair was large and starched to perfection, with not a strand out of place. Each cocktail dress showed just enough neckline and just enough leg to be sophisticated but not showy. With a cigarette in one hand and a drink in the other, they took their place by their men. But while they were "the wives," there were no demure shrinking violets in this group. These were women who married men of adventure – fighter pilots. They knew what they were getting into when they said, "I do," and in spite of all the hard times that were to come (and there would be a lot of them), every marriage survived until death parted them.
As the ladies sat down, Jean Claude headed to the table for more drink requests. As he bent over to take an order I saw him nod his head in my direction.
My mother turned around, smiled, and waved me over to the table.
I put down the Roy Rogers, ran to the table, and hopped on my mother's lap. She hugged me tightly and kissed me on the cheek. With Mom there was always the subtle scent of perfume and cold cream. I can still smell it to this day.
Rod Gunther rubbed my crew cut ("one like the astronauts had ...") and in his soft voice said, "Billy, my boy, what have you been up to tonight?"
It was an invitation to tell a story, to be part of the adult conversation, to try to match my adventures with bomber missions over France, dogfights over North Africa, traveling with Chiang Kai‑shek or dancing with Vice President Nixon (my mother's favorite). Stories filled the rest of the evening, with my mother occasionally covering my ears when the men said something "too adult."
After last call, when the drinks were finished and the packs of cigarettes lay crumpled on the table, the men stood up abruptly, as if completing a mission brief, shook hands, and laughed about something in an earlier story. The wives hugged and kissed each other on the cheek, promising to meet again on Monday for some social function.
Friday nights at the Officers' Club were a ritual during our three years in France. The stories of air‑to‑air combat, life on the front lines, and daring escapes all fueled my longing for adventure. The stories never focused on pain and sorrow. Even when they recounted lives lost, there was generally a glass raised, a toast made to a good man who fought hard and died gloriously.
In late 1963, Dad had a mild stroke (something to do with cigarettes and Jim Beam whiskey, the doctor would say). He recovered, but our family was reassigned to Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, to be near Wilford Hall Air Force hospital. Ed, Cordie, and the four Taylor boys were right up the road in Austin, and we kept in touch with the Gunthers and the Wildmans for many years to come. In Texas, my parents made new friends, and with them came new and better stories. There was Colonel David "Tex" Hill, one of the original Flying Tigers who served with General Claire Chennault in China. Tex was military royalty in San Antonio. Tall, gentle, with an easy way about him, he was a legendary pilot in both Air Force and Navy history, with over twenty‑eight confirmed kills. Along with his wife, Maize, he became part of our large family of friends and the vibrant social scene that revolved around the military in the 1960s.
There were also Jim and Aileen Gunn. Promoted to full colonel when he was twenty‑five years old, and then shot down a week later in a combat mission over Romania, Jim managed to escape from a prisoner‑of‑war camp in Bucharest in the belly of a Messerschmitt – flown by a member of the Romanian royal family. Jim almost died from exposure as the unpressurized fighter made its way over the Alps to Italy, but upon landing, he thawed out, contacted the American military, and gave them the precise location of the POW camp. Had he been a day later, German aircraft would have bombed the camp, hoping to destroy the evidence of POW abuse. Seventy years later Jim Gunn was awarded the Silver Star for his heroism.
Along with Tex Hill and Jim Gunn, there was Major Joe McCarty, who worked for U.S. intelligence during the war, Colonel Bill Strother, a decorated bomber pilot, and Bill Lindley, the only general in the group. All were part of the families that raised me. Their wives, Betty, Ann, and Martha, respectively, were like surrogate mothers, and often, as in the case of Ann Strother, told me bawdy jokes and adult stories at an age well before my mother would have approved.
The years at Lackland Air Force Base were filled with dove hunting in the fall, deer hunting through the winter, bridge for the women, poker for the men, golf on the odd weekends, and frequent trips to the Gulf Coast for fishing and more storytelling. I'm not really sure when the men got any work done, but as a kid, I thought it all seemed part of the rhythms of life – and I loved it.
Like all the men and women of their generation, they were children of World War I, lived through the Depression, and the men all fought in World War II and Korea. They were survivors. They didn't complain. They didn't blame others for their misfortune. They worked hard and expected the same from their children. They treasured their friendships. They fought for their marriages. They wore their patriotism on their sleeve, and while they weren't naïve about America's faults, they knew that no other country in the world valued their service and sacrifice as much as the United States did. They flew their flags proudly and without apology.
But I'm convinced that what made this generation so great was their ability to take the hardships that confronted them and turn them into laughter‑filled, self‑deprecating, unforgettable, sometimes unbelievable stories of life. My father used to tell me, "Bill, it's all how you remember it." The stories in this book are how I remember my life. I think I could sit at that table in Fontainebleau now ... and tell a story or two.
Excerpted from the book "Sea Stories: My Life in Special Operations" by Admiral William H. McRaven (U.S. Navy Retired). Copyright © 2019 by William H. McRaven. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.
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