We are surprised to realize, so late, that our veteran father is now a “fallen war hero,” just not in the way Hollywood might have it. Dad died from mesothelioma two months ago. It lay hidden in his body for decades, discovered in a routine x-ray in its last stages just four months before he died, leaving us all bewildered.  

Dad never served in combat per se. Yet his silent killer targeted him at duty stations throughout his three decades of service building and repairing ships of the U.S. Navy as an engineering duty officer. That Navy, he would often remind us, presided over the longest period of peace in our nation’s history. It was the strategic key to, as sequential Presidents put it, making the world safe for democracy, bringing down the Iron Curtain, and vanquishing an Evil Empire.  As our president grapples with ways to rally a more reticent, and perhaps more jaded, nation to fight today’s strategic foes, we need, but do not have, that kind of Navy.

The Secretary of the Navy recently testified that U.S. shipbuilding capacity is in “crisis mode” even as Congress pressed him on why the Navy is culling the fleet of ships and missiles they consider a “legacy” of the Cold War. The Chief of Naval Operations lamented that when he joined the Navy the United States had more than thirty shipyards, but today there are just seven.

At Dad’s funeral at Miramar National Cemetery last month a family friend rose to describe how America was able to raise and maintain that now “legacy” fleet.  The son of one of Dad’s engineering shipmates, he recalled the day our then-young families were setting off for some occasion when his father realized their car couldn’t move. Without fanfare, our father rebuilt the car’s drive shaft before an awe-struck boy’s eyes. That young man later made shipbuilding his career as well. “What made the Cold War Navy great,” he said, “was that our fathers took that same quiet can-do attitude to work with them every day.”

That diligent spirit meant close supervision of the repair of every valve, pump, and gasket changed on Dad’s watch in engineering spaces at sea or in the yard. Close enough to inhale—unwarned by the components’ manufacturers—the asbestos that would kill him.

” What made America’s Navy great, was that our fathers took that same quiet can-do attitude to work with them every day.”

Dad’s passion for the Navy, and the craft of engineering, was unwavering. “Leave it better than you found it,” was his motto from his first deployment in the engineering spaces of a destroyer escort in the Pacific to his last tour as Shipyard Commander in Long Beach, California. He was determined that every ship he touched was delivered better than he found it, ready and capable of fulfilling its mission, and it earned him the respect of the teams of professionals at the shipyards that he led.

As teenagers, we tagged along with him while he toured the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard and crawled all over the aircraft carrier under overhaul there, we saw him in his happy place – checking out the alignment of the catapults on the flight deck, the newly remodeled berthing compartments, and clambering down to the boilers in the main spaces. We were exhausted and we were inspired. We both followed Dad into the Navy. Dad’s passion assured us that our Navy was indeed an extension of our family.  

The day Dad retired, he came home to his hillside ranch home in Rancho Palos Verdes, California and looked out over the ocean. After thirty-one years in it, he didn’t want to go inside and take that uniform off for the last time.

Experts say that the Navy is adrift and at its current pace cannot catch up to China, whose Navy is more powerful than the one our father’s generation faced. China is the world’s shipbuilding superpower now: it already has the world’s largest Navy and is developing a naval strategy to fight and win a war at sea. 

The good news is that there are plenty of people like our father in the fleet: talented, ambitious young officers waiting to pick up where he and his generation left off. The Navy can honor our fathers’ sacrifices by getting back on track and giving today’s sailors the chance to do so.

Dr. Susan Yoshihara is founding president of the American Council on Women Peace and Security and a retired U.S. Navy helicopter combat logistics pilot. 

Captain Dan Fink is a retired Navy surface warfare officer. He is the Senior Manufacturing Quality Manager at Northrop Grumman in Huntsville, Alabama.