Two Old Men and a Father’s Day Anguish

It was Monday, Valentines’ Day 2001.  My wife was five months pregnant at the time we moved into this wonderful neighborhood smothered in US Naval glory.  After I came back from work the next day, she told me a kind old man stopped her as she was wheeling out the trash bin.  She said he hobbled from across our quiet street lined with peppercorn trees then kindly wheeled them out for her.

I found out the “old man” was a World War II combat vet.  Worse yet, he was a sailor in the Pacific – he fought the Japanese in World War II.

“Holy crap,” flashed through my mind, “What if he finds out we’re Japanese?”

Twelve years later, I was honored to have been a pallbearer at his funeral.

I was so far off base about my first thoughts on Old Man Jack that even George Burns could have picked me off without being called for a balk…and this while he was in his grave.

I felt so ashamed.

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I snapped this picture of a happy Jack Garrett when we went to the Chino Planes of Fame in 2003.

“Young man, get over here and plant your butt in that chair,” barked old man Jack from his cluttered garage across the street.  Having lived in that house since 1953, it was filled with his life history.

“But I have my stogie going, Jack,” said I.

“Well, I can see it and I sure as hell can smell it.  Now shut up and sit down.  I want to tell you something.”

That was Old Man Jack, my dear neighbor who lived across the street.  I like to think we were close.

He was 87 years old by that summer’s day in 2010 when he called me over.  While he had become feeble, his barrel chest was still prominent.  He was a rabble-rouser in his youth.  He was always “mixing it up” throughout his young years…  Well, he was mixing it up even while working at Northrup in the 50’s.  That makes me grin.

His handshake was always firm and warm; you didn’t need to be psychic to sense his insight and outlook on life.  He always spoke his mind.  He earned that right having been shot at, strafed, and bombed on “those stinkin’ islands” as he so often said during a most bitter war.

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Taken on Father’s Day 2010

I had invited Jack to Father’s Day dinner that summer just two years ago; my Dad who was 91 was coming as well.

Jack knew my dad was US Army but I fretted over what they would say to each other when they first met.  Or how they would react to one another.  It was more than just a concern over the centuries old rivalry between Army and Navy.  It was the bitter war.

Dad was in the front room when Jack rang the bell – right on time as always.  Jack had on his favorite blue plaid shirt; he wore it often as it had a pocket for his glasses.  I often wondered how often he washed it, though.  Jack and Dad are shown here on Father’s Day 2010.

“Dad,” I said, “This is Jack, US Navy, Aviation Machinist’s Mate, First Class, the Pacific.”

“Jack, this is my Dad.  US 8th Army, sergeant, Military Intelligence Service.”

Although not as agile as they once were, they immediately saluted each other.

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You didn’t need a sound system to hear them.  Dad and Jack are both hard of hearing.

It was easy to hear Jack ask Dad what he did in the Army.  During the Occupation of Japan, Dad said he went into a room once a week that reeked of dry cleaning to retrieve a crate.  (The crates contained documents, photos and other personal items such as war diaries written by Japanese soldiers.  They were removed from a WWII battlefield – read on.)  He would then translate the contents for military intelligence (below).

2016-11-12_04-06-14
Dad translating captured war documents in the U.S. 8th Army HQ’s, Yokohama, Japan. 1947.

I had to tend to cooking so I lost track of the conversation.  It was regretful I didn’t keep tuned in.

_______________________

So back to being called over by Jack.  He was sitting in his favorite blue wheelchair.  He didn’t need it but it belonged to his beloved wife Carol who passed away ten years before.  They married during the waning days of the war.  They had been married for 55 strong years.

“So what did you want to tell me, Jack?” I asked.

He then went into his trance – one signaling evident anguish and remembrances.  When he went into these trances, he always started by staring at his hands while picking at his right thumbnail with his left ring finger.  He would lift his once thick eyebrows then begin talking in a slow, deliberate pace, never taking his eyes off his hands.

“I went on ID patrol…” Jack whispered while ever so slightly drawing out his words.

“ID patrol?  What is that?” I asked.

“They would issue six of us white caps M1’s with bayonets…  Then we’d follow two Marines on a patrol into the jungle.”

“Patrol?  You?  You were ground crew, Jack,” I remarked.

“Ain’t enough of them (Marines) to go around on those stinkin’ islands so we got picked,” he said, still speaking in a lifeless yet pained monotone.  He added, “If you got killed, you rotted real quick in that jungle heat.  And if you got killed with shit in your pants, you got buried with shit in your pants.”

His stare doesn’t change.  His eyes have glassed over.  He is in a different world now – one of 70 years ago in a stifling jungle, his sweaty hands trying to grip onto his rifle while wearing a smelly steel helmet. Listening in terror for any sound that may signal a Japanese soldier concealed in ambush. A world that only combat veterans understand.  Thankfully, you and I never will.  Never.

“The Marines had two bags – one small one and a big one.  When we found one, the two Marines would stand guard.  We’d hold the rifle by the butt end and use the fixed bayonet to fish out the tags.”

I then realized what he was painfully regurgitating.  They were going back into the jungle to locate the dead Marines they had to leave behind after a “tussle” with the enemy as Jack liked to say – a life or death firefight.  Jack was only 20 years old.  The Marines were likely younger.  Ponder that thought.

“We weren’t allowed to touch the dead (Marine) as the Japs would booby-trap ‘em.  We’d hand over the tags hanging on the the end of the bayonet to one of the Marines who would put a tag in the small bag.  They marked a map for the graves registration guys to come back later.”

Jack’s anguished delivery dimmed even further.  “But we’d come across a dead Jap.  Nobody cared about them so they rotted where they were.  But we’d have to stick the bayonet into the rotting goo and try to fish stuff out.  The prize was a pouch or a satchel.  Those would go into the big duffel bag just as they were, covered with rot and maggots. We headed back to CP and that’s the last I saw of those bags,” he said.

He abruptly ended but his unconscious stare didn’t change.  He was still in the jungle, scared out of his wits. He was still picking at his thumbnail all this time.  His head hardly moved while he sat in the blue wheelchair that belonged to his beloved wife.

I thought to myself, “Is that the end, Jack?  That’s it?  Why did you tell me this?”  I knew not to pry any more so I kept the thoughts to myself.  He was in torment already.  Seventy years had passed but he was reliving the awfulness of a brutal war.  Nevertheless, I wondered why he chose that time to tell me about this horrific recall of something he experienced so very young.

It bugged me for several weeks.

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About a month later, I understood why Jack told me the story.  Apparently, the items they recovered from Japanese corpses were dry cleaned to remove the rotting body fluids.  After getting dry cleaned, they ended up in the crates that were in the room my Dad went into once a week when he was in the Military Intelligence Service…and why the room reeked of dry cleaning.

The brief chat with my dad on Father’s Day sparked that vile memory back to life.  It had been eating at him since that day.  He wanted to get it off his once mightily barreled chest.

I lament to this day that an invitation to a Father’s Day dinner had resulted in an unwanted recall of horror Jack was very much trying to forget.  More so, I lament he relived such horrors each night for the last 70 years of his life.  Seventy years.

Jack was a great man to have endured combat in the Pacific during World War II.  He was an immeasurable giant in learning to forgive – although he was never able to forget.

I miss him greatly.  I thanked him for all we have when I visited him today at his grave on this glorious Memorial Day.

153 thoughts on “Two Old Men and a Father’s Day Anguish”

  1. Yes, I do moderate comments, so yours is now deleted. But I do NOT know what to say about that link you sent. I went from that one to the others and so on… And I sat here with my mouth open. There’s so much that goes on that we don’t know about – like this – no wonder his parents weren’t allowed to see him right away!
    Go ahead and delete after reading, Koji.

  2. Reblogged this on pacificparatrooper and commented:
    KOJI, A MAN WHO HAD FAMILY AFFECTED ON BOTH SIDES OF THE PACIFIC – TAKE THE TIME TO BROWSE THROUGH HIS SITE – CHECK OUT THE CATEGORY, ‘WORLD WAR ii AND MY FAMILY’ FOR SOME VERY INTERESTING INFORMATION AND PHOTOS – ENJOY!!

    1. Andy, thank you for your heartfelt thoughts this Labor Day weekend. A lot of Americans today know so little about the ugly experience of WWII that I’ve done my best to report on their recollections. Did your family serve? Thank you once again. On Aug 30, 2014 6:25 AM, “Masako and Spam Musubi” wrote:

      >

      1. Sir, your family has given so much for this nation…and your families endured so much during those times of service. Thank you. I see the comments are closed for your story on your father; it was a wonderful and emotional read. Yes, nearly all of the men who survived that world war are few in number – as is the Havoc your father piloted in combat. It is so typical of true combat vets that they carry within them their horrors for the rest of their lives. Even if they did not ensure combat, some will carry with them what they witnessed or participated in from war – like my father. Although he didn’t volunteer until after hostilities ended, Dad carries with him intricate details of wretched testimony of Japanese war criminals as he had to translate during the War Crime Trials in Tokyo.

  3. Oh, Koji, what a sad story. And, yet, oddly wonderful that you are able to keep that story alive. Every day we lose these great men and women who suffered so much so that we could live strong and free. God bless your father and Jack! Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank you, Linda, for taking the time to read about Old Man Jack. It is hoped he is enjoying his wife’s cooking upstairs now – but this time, I know he won’t be complaining. 🙂

    1. Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment and for taking the time to read about them! We can read about what they talked about but will never know the fear they experienced – and the nightmares.

  4. Thank you for sharing this beautiful story about your Dad and Jack. God bless them both for what they did for us . I know it could not have been easy to carry those memories all those years. I often wondered when I was younger why my uncles and my grandfather never talked about what they saw in the war other than a few insignificant stories and they were, of course, proud of their service. As I have grown older, of course, I have begun to understand the painful memories they carried with them all their lives. It explains in some way the issues they faced in their adult lives. They were experiencing PTSD before anyone bothered to give it a name or understand it.

    1. Indeed, Elaine, they carried their pain bottled up inside them to their graves. It was humbling and sad at the same for me when Old Man Jack would regurgitate something ugly about the war. It was eating away his soul but “lived with it”… as did your grandfather and uncles. It is a very brutal thing…

  5. Maybe ‘like’ is an inappropriate word for such a story; but it helps to spread the memory of a man who should be remembered. Jack now lives on in another thousand hearts. I’m sure he does in mine. Thank you for telling it.

  6. I just finished reading the comments and I’m very happy to see the wonderful remarks you received. Please pop on over to the reblog and see what people said to me as well, since they are basically talking to you.

  7. That was a powerful, well written story of the experience. How sad that so many people experienced the horror of war like that. I’m glad he shared his burden. Having been in a support group for many years I can tell you that taking in a group helps lighten any load. Talking, sharing or venting all achieves similar results.

    1. Jackie, thank you for taking the time to read such a long story. It does seem to help but his deeply suppressed memories only came out at night. Since he was the last alive amongst his friends, I hope it helped him talking with me. What impressed me the most was how he learned to forgive even after all that brutality.

  8. I’ve already printed out the photos and are awaiting a frame large enough to include the photo of his grave and others. I would be quite honored if you would keep yours as mementos of the man who brought us together in our search for history.

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