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Reflections of a Career Surface Warfare Officer–Honoring the Greatest Generation

By Capt. James R. “Ros” Poplar, USN (Ret)

As we approach Veteran’s Day many members of America’s Greatest Generation are no longer with us and in the not-too-distant future there will be none as 2025 will mark the 80th anniversary of the end of World War II. One of those silent warriors was my father James R Poplar, Jr. whose military service and subsequent contribution to American society typifies many of the silent warriors of that era.

My father was enrolled in Duke University when the war broke out, but he was able to obtain his parents’ consent to enlist in the United States Navy at an early age where he volunteered to serve in submarines upon completion of boot camp at Bainbridge MD. As a child I can remember playing “navy” with his dolphins and various campaign medals only to lose them and regret that immaturity years later. Like many of his generation he earned his college degree through the G.I. Bill – eventually earning a Juris Doctorate while working full time and going to night school. He raised a family and contributed back to his local community without fanfare but somehow you know his wartime experience shaped his formative years.

He never talked about his wartime exploits, but he was proud to have been a Sailor and his love of the sea service this inspired me to seek a career in the United States Navy. It was only after both of my parents passing at an early age and the completion of my thirty years of active duty that I yearned to find out what my father did during his service in the Pacific Theater, so I requested a copy of his service record, and it arrived in the mail several months later.

Upon examining it I was astounded to find that upon completion of basic training, submarine school, and Quarter Master “A” School he had served in several submarines to include the USS Barb (SS-220) ! Barb compiled one of the most outstanding records of any U.S. submarine in World War II. During her seven war patrols, Barb is officially credited with sinking 17 enemy vessels totaling 96,628 tons, including the Japanese aircraft carrier Un’yō. In recognition of one outstanding patrol, Barb received the Presidential Unit Citation. On her twelfth and final patrol of the war, she landed a party of carefully selected crew members who blew up a train, the only ground combat operation in the Japanese home islands.

What was even more fascinating was that as the boats junior Quartermaster as a then Seaman 1/c my father was responsible for maintaining Barb’s deck logs and through a process of knowing his dates of service in Barb and through the magic of the internet I was able to ascertain the deck log entries he entered during his time in the “silent service.”

They were not the typical “underway as before,” but rather along the lines of “under depth charge attack,” “engaging contact,” etc., etc. What struck me about them was event though Barb was engaged in mortal combat with an enemy determined to sink her the matter-of-fact way in which they were transcribed as if they we are taking a walk in the park!

So, after over fifty years of silence it was as if my father was talking directly to me through deck log entries to me through entries transcribed in 1944 and the mystery of his service was solved. In addition, as a child I can remember Disabled American Veteran (DAV) magazines arriving at our home and often wondered (though never asked) why we were receiving them. It was only after obtaining S 1/c Poplar’s service record that I determined he was injured in the Pacific Theater and required hospitalization before he was awarded the “Ruptured Duck” signifying completion of successful war time service.

Like my father, many World War II veterans are no longer with us. As time passes, the ones that remain will soon be gone along with their individual stories of self-sacrifice and service at a time when America’s very survival was in peril. As Veteran’s Day approaches, I would urge you to take the time to talk to them and document their unique contribution to our nation while they are still alive. Like me, I suspect you will be pleasantly surprised!

During thirty years as a Surface Warfare Officer (1110), Captain Poplar, a 1974 University of Mississippi NROTC graduate, commanded two ships and an Amphibious Squadron, He has served on the Joint Staff, the SECNAV Staff, the OPNAV Staff and attended the US Army War College and has taught at both Vanderbilt University and the National War College.

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