In 1943, 1944, 1945, the world was struggling through a Second World War. My dad enlisted and at some point before he was sent to the Pacific Arena, he was honored with his first award. He was one of the Top Ten Marksmen in the nation. Cool, huh? He was a Marine and reached the rank of Sergeant. But he really wanted to be a pilot and fly a jet. He couldn’t because he didn’t have 20/20 vision. Ah, the irony – good enough to shoot anything on the ground, but not good enough to fly.
He was sent to a tiny island in the Pacific. The trip over there involved being on a troop carrier. Hundreds of Marines – the toughest bad asses ever – crammed together with Navy sailors. Grunts and grounders, rookies really, with no idea what was about to hit them. The sailors knew; they’d been out there, they had survived a few hits.
During the passage, the ship came under fire. Being a troop carrier, they didn’t have the option of fighting back. They had to run the gauntlet, let the better armed and fortified ships do battle. Imagine the bowels of that ship, hundreds of young men (my dad barely out of his teens) crammed into crew quarters built for a handful; many of them had never been near the ocean and most of them were seasick. There weren’t enough life jackets for all of them, and the Marines were under orders to keep their gear with them.
My dad asked a sailor what they should do if the ship got hit and started to sink. He had to look up to ask – that sailor was over six feet tall, built like a battleship, and seasoned; he had cold seawater for blood. The guy shrugged and glanced at the heavy pack my dad was clutching. “Ship sinks, you’ll sink. Better ‘n burning.”
Ouch. But I’ve lived with a Merchant Marine for 30 years, I know that tone my father heard in that sailor’s voice, I know what he meant – the ocean is a bitch, but she’ll kill you faster and less painfully than any human. But for my dad, first time on the ocean, far away from home, that was a wake up call: Death’s right here, boy, stay alert!
They survived without taking any hits or damage and made it to the island. It wasn’t a combat post, really, just a supply base with a few jets and jeeps, Quonset huts, those few hundred men – carved out in the middle of that island with a dirt road – trail, really – leading to a tiny village near the shoreline. My dad had made a few friends. His best friend was a pilot. The day Mike took him up in a jet for a flyover…ah, my dad’s face lit up at a memory he cherished so that he couldn’t find words to describe it.
Dad often got the job of taking a jeep to the village to check for supplies dropped on the beach or to pick up fresh fish and local produce – the Marines couldn’t befriend the islanders, but they didn’t want to alienate them entirely. One day, he was on his way back to base, fighting to keep the jeep straight on that muddy rutted track, when something he didn’t remember what ran across the road. He jerked the wheel, the jeep hit something and went flying. Dad remembers it flipped and he woke up beside it in the ditch.
As his blurred vision cleared, he saw something that made his blood freeze and his heart stutter. He was surrounded by six Japanese soldiers, all of them staring silently at the unarmed Marine lying on the ground. Dad slowly got to his feet, fighting off the vertigo, urging his body to stand tall and proud, stoic in the face of Death.
And then, something miraculous happened. All six soldiers politely dropped their weapons at his feet, raised their hands, and surrendered to my dad. No one spoke – why bother? He didn’t speak Japanese and they didn’t speak English. Dad picked up their weapons and glanced at his overturned jeep. As one, the soldiers went to it and heaved it upright. They stood in the road and waited while Dad got in and prayed the vehicle would start. When it did (thank god for good old fashioned solid manufacturing!), he drove up onto the road to his waiting prisoners. They marched back to base – six men ahead of the barely mobile jeep and its barely conscious driver.
Dad thought they surrendered because they were tired and hungry and scared. Maybe they were deserters. They were in ragged mismatched uniforms, muddy, far too thin, and young, so heartbreaking young. He never found out what happened to them. The MPs and his CO took over the second sentries spotted his little parade. By the time Dad was out of the medic’s hands, the Japanese boys were gone.
These are the only war stories my dad ever told us. I don’t know if he ever saw real combat; maybe I was deemed too young to hear the other stories – the ones that weren’t funny or weird. I wonder about that because there was a hint of something, a brief sentence overheard…
“He stepped off the ramp and just sank. We couldn’t help him; we were dying.” What ramp? Where? My immediate thought brings heartrending images: men in those boats, trying to hit the beach at Normandy and some of them drowning before they make it ashore because of their heavy gear, and others being shot in the water while struggling to swim…My dad barely able to watch that beach sequence in “Saving Private Ryan,” the tears running silently down his cheeks…Where WAS my dad? What else did he see and do? He never said.
Ask any WWII vet and they say, “It was the worst time of my life…and the best.”
I salute you all and thank you. May we always remember and honor you, our guardians of freedom. Semper fi!