- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 7, 2007

Perhaps the last battle of Tom Franks’ war was fought with his daughter.

In this haunting and haunted memoir Lucinda Franks writes with poignancy and with pain of the risks of exploring the hidden life of a loved one — especially when it meant intrusion into a dark and forbidden zone. The world of war in the 1940s did not produce many who came back and talked about what they had done and where they had been, and what it had cost them psychologically unless that communication was with someone who had shared the experience.

This was especially true of men like Franks, who was not only bound to secrecy but half a century later still didn’t want to talk about it. As his daughter found out, he had good reason.

He was a spy and an assassin. He was the kind of operative who was dropped into a Japanese-held island on a suicide mission and survived. He undertook the dirty and dangerous work of espionage, and he carried out orders.

Ms. Franks’ determination to find the secret man beyond the father she thought she knew took her on a tortured journey into the past, at a time when Tom Franks’ mind was fragmenting into dementia. Her search began with a discovery of mysterious items sealed in cartons — a square of silky material with a map inked on it, a German Iron Cross, rolls of negatives showing snapshots of ships, and a Nazi cap complete with swastika.

Yet all she knew about her father’s military service was that he was a Navy lieutenant assigned as a liaison to the U.S. Marines in the Pacific.

As a reporter for The New York Times and the wife of New York county district attorney Robert Morgenthau, Ms. Franks is admirably equipped to dig. She doesn’t expect what she discovers, though, or its impact on her and her father.

For years she has bottled up anger that when she asked about her father’s wartime experiences she “was met with his usual stony silence. He was still the Man Who Wasn’t There.” That is also how he reacts to her discovery of the wartime memorabilia. He doesn’t remember, doesn’t want to. All he has disclosed is that he was with the American forces that liberated the German concentration camp of Ohrdruf, where an estimated 10,000 died.

Flippancy is her father’s chosen line of defense, as when he deflects serious questions with stories about how a pet pig was roasted when he was in the Pacific. And his daughter’s quest is muddied by her awareness that her parents had a troubled and sometimes violent relationship, and that the other woman in his life seemed more important.

Ironically, the collapse of her parents’ marriage turns out to be linked to her father’s wartime secrets. In her search, Ms. Franks finds love letters written by her father to his wife from overseas that speak eloquently of a passion that apparently eroded into bitterness as a result of what he did in the war.

She tracks down her father’s old comrades and unearths military records, recreating the man he once was and probing why he was so irretrievably damaged by the war years. Relentlessly, she interrogates him and her questions at last elicit chilling answers.

Her father tells her, “I did the killing. I was an assassin.” Groping for an explanation she can rationalize, she suggests what he did was in self-defense. He says flatly, “No. It wasn’t self defense. I executed people. Twice.”

She sees no remorse in his eyes, but she notices that his hands are white knuckled as he grasps a table. When she smiles “thinly” and says, “Well, that’s war, I guess,” she sees pain in his face.

He admits he carried out an order to kill a friend who was a double agent for the Communists. He adds the calculatedly unemotional comment,”I knew his wife and two children. I’d been to his home. She made me this delicious soup out of cherries.”

Yet his long submerged anger emerges when he turns on his daughter and asserts, “I had to do this. If things like that weren’t done, you might be living in a dictatorship, a damn police state, right now.” And for the first time in her life, she sees her father weep.

Ms Franks has found out what she wanted to know, and she realizes that now she has to live with that knowledge. Sadly, she admits to herself, “For so long, my father — an inventive, clever Daedalus, had tried to protect me. He’d made wings for me to fly. I’d invited myself into his labyrinth, determined to free us both, and when he’d warned me away, I hadn’t listened. Like Icarus, I’d flown too close to the sun and plunged us both into the sea.”

In the end, Tom Franks’ daughter asks herself,”Did I ever know before that he was brave? I haven’t lived inside a war, or a revolution, a crumbling society, a state where I needed to show what I was made of every minute. But I knew now what he was made of.”

By the time her father dies, they have come to terms with each other and there is a new gentleness in their relationship. She finds that what she has learned has brought her a peace that goes beyond “any sense of expectation or duty.” She is reminded of the words of Sufi poet Rumi, “Outside ideas of right doing and wrong doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

It is a fitting end to her mission, and perhaps an epitaph that her father would have chosen.

Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.


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