Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

ALBANY -- Karen Comer and Carol Roberts are about as close as two 40-something sisters could be. They laugh easily at shared private jokes, and if you talk with them long enough they start finishing each other's sentences.

The genetic link that keeps Comer and Roberts so close -- and runs a generation deeper to their children -- is their late father, Navy man and teller of tales Herbert Applewhite.

"Dad was one of those folks who believed in putting on your big boy pants and doing your duty," Comer, 44, said of the man who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam. "He served on Navy carriers, was a tail gunner, and once was the sole survivor of a Japanese attack.

"We grew up listening to all these stories, and we saw the kind of man our dad was. He had a great impact on us and on our families. Our dad was always bigger than life."

Applewhite died in 2002, a short while after Comer finished a college English paper she wrote as a tribute to her father.

"We were told to write a paper on one of our heroes," she said. "I chose my dad. It was bittersweet to do, because we'd just found out dad had cancer. I actually had to give a speech about the paper right after he died.

"My husband Barry had to do some of the interviews I used to write the story because there were things dad wouldn't talk to me about. But it became one of those things I'm really glad I did."

For his daughter's paper, written as part of a Darton College English class, Applewhite talked about his service on ships like the Franklin, the Hornet, the Yorktown, the Wasp, the Valley Forge, the Lexington and the Curtis. He also explained the celebration ritual of sailors crossing the equator and entering the Straits of Gibraltar.

But Applewhite's daughters remember more vividly some of the less savory accounts of his travels.

"One of dad's most elaborate tattoos was of a peacock that went down his arm," said Roberts, 48, a neurotechnician at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital for the past 25 years and an RN at the Lily Pad SANE Center. "He said he got it in Honk Kong to cover up the tattoo he had of a naked girl."

Comer remembers her father's tales of Papua New Guinea.

"Dad always said he liked the way the women there dressed, with no tops," the Phoebe systems analyst said. "He swears he saw women there with 'a baby on one (breast) and a pig on the other'."

Applewhite's daughters also fondly remember artifacts like the unspent shell that wound up in their dad's parachute during a Japanese attack.

"He kept it in a little cedar jewelry box that eventually burned up in a house fire," Roberts said.

Recently, Roberts' husband Keith came across his sister-in-law's English paper. He had a copy of it bound for his wife's birthday and further decided to drop the paper off at The Herald.

"The family had read and loved the stories the newspaper had run about World War II veterans, so Keith decided he'd bring (Comer's story) to you guys," Carol Roberts said. "We feel that Americans are forgetting the sacrifices of the men and women who have served in the military, especially during times of war.

"People need to hear the stories of our veterans so this history is not allowed to die. And we need to remember what these brave men and women have done for us. If it weren't for the people who served in World War II, we'd be speaking German or Japanese now."

There's no danger of that happening with the Comer and Roberts clans. In addition to Karen Comer's paper, both of Carol Roberts' children -- 20-year-old Logan and 14-year-old Anna -- have written papers based on remembrances of their grandfather, whose remains were cremated and his ashes scattered at sea at the Mayport Naval Station in Jacksonville, Fla.

"About the time our dad got sick, the business with Iraq started," Roberts said. "He said he wished the Navy would 'take us old guys and let us go over there and take care of business'. He had a simple solution: He said we should 'bomb the hell out of them'."

That, perhaps best of all, sums up the life of this Navy man and teller of tales whose patriotism and passion for his country have been passed down to two generations in the Roberts and Comer families.

"Dad taught us to respect service people, to work hard, that if we were going to do something, to do it right, and he taught us to love and respect our country," Comer said. "He's been gone a while now, but we still miss him.

"I guess it's true that you sometimes forget to appreciate what you've got until it's gone."