My father, Navy Chief Petty Officer Salvino Paul Tobia was working in a hangar at Pearl Harbor on Sunday morning, Dec. 7, 1941, when Japan launched its attack. Eleven men in the hangar died and many planes were damaged. My father was wounded and given a Purple Heart, but the worst was yet to come.
On Sept. 11, 1942, he was part of an air crew patrolling near the Solomon Islands. They spotted a Japanese destroyer and started to make a bombing run. Out of nowhere, two Japanese Zero fighters fired upon the aircraft and forced it down into the sea.
The crew and my father were picked up by the destroyer, interrogated, beaten and kept in isolation for 10 days before being sent to a series of forced labor camps in Japan. He was held as a POW for three years.
I didn’t follow my father’s footsteps on a military path. In fact, I was the war protester of the family. But as I grew older, so did my respect for his decision to serve, his sacrifice, and his unflinching courage and determination to survive unimaginable circumstances. I am proud of who he was and what he did.
On my way to Penn’s Landing Monday morning, I passed the Philadelphia Vietnam Veterans Memorial on Spruce Street.
I thought about the passing of Sen. John McCain, war, lives lost and where we are today as a country. McCain, who was a POW in Vietnam for five years, refused an offer of early release from the Vietnamese, choosing to stay with others who had been held captive longer. He suffered intense torture for that decision, and he spent more time in solitary confinement. It is hard to argue that his actions were anything but heroic.
In 2000, as a photographer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, I covered McCain’s bid for the Republican nomination for president as he campaigned across the country. On one leg of the campaign, outside of San Jose, California, I introduced myself to McCain as he walked down the aisle of the press plane.
We shook hands, but he seemed to be in a hurry, until I told him my father was a POW during World War II. He stopped, leaned on a seat, and asked me about my father and his time in the service.
“Those guys were the real war heroes,” he said.
It was a gracious, humble and unselfish thing for him to say. He smiled, gave me a nod and thanked me for letting him know.
As I walked home Monday, recalling that conversation, I passed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial once again and noticed the flag flying at full staff. I thought about the many people who are mourning McCain and honoring his life of unflinching service.
I wondered why that flag has not been lowered to mark the passing of another real hero.
Peter Tobia was a staff photojournalist for The Philadelphia Inquirer from 1993-2008. petertobiaphotographer.com