“It” and Memorial Day

From www.memorialdayfilm.com
From http://www.memorialdayfilm.com

In the 2012 limited release movie, “Memorial Day”, children are playing at their grandparent’s home in a rural setting. It is Memorial Day weekend.  A 13 year old boy stumbles across a dusty box in a barn.

The box is his grandfather’s WWII Army footlocker, emblazoned with the unit insignia of his famed unit, the 82nd Airborne.  It is filled with “souvenirs” he had brought home from war.

The young grandson probingly asks the grandfather for the stories behind the souvenirs to which he curtly answers no – and bitterly orders the boy to take the footlocker back to where he found it.

“It’s Memorial Day…” says the grandson.

“Damn straight it is,” barks back the grandfather.

The young lad digs in, not wanting to fall short in his quest for answers, and pushes the footlocker even closer to his grandfather.

The grandson then doggedly asks, “What is it I’m supposed to remember?”

Checkmate.

___________________________

Memorial Day.

In essence, a day to remember, honor and pray for those nameless souls who were KIA (Killed in Action).

To remember those that didn’t return from war.  Young boys.  Young men.

But as the young boy in the movie asked, “What is it I’m supposed to remember?”

Do YOU have an answer to that boy’s question?

I didn’t…and perhaps still don’t as I was not shot at, bombed or strafed…nor killed.

__________________________

WWII vets at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. July 2010
My photo of WWII vets at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. July 2010

The only thing I do know is that WWII combat veterans do NOT want to talk about “it”.

And that’s our problem, I feel.  Because these combat vets are unable to share with us the horror they lived through 70 years ago, it helps diffuse the essence of Memorial Day.

They are unable to share for their own sanity’s sake.

As WWII combat survivors (a.k.a., now collectively known as “vets”) would bravely crack open their bottled abominations to talk about “it” with me, I will venture to blurt that possibly – just possibly – they feel unbearable guilt and shame for what they saw…or did…or did NOT do…  but that they survived to talk about “it”.

But their buddies didn’t.

___________________________

(Note: World War II is the focus of this story.  WWII was a cataclysm of never to be matched magnitude again.  There was wanton destruction of entire cities and civilians.  Inflicting casualties on the enemy was expected and accepted by the majority.  This is not to downplay Korea, Viet Nam or our current war on terrorism.  There are different rules of engagement now with much different social expectations by the “good guys”.)

Perhaps you will let me take a chance with trying to bring to light some of the “it” things you may or may not know…  If you can at least read about the combat experience, perhaps it will help YOU appreciate Memorial Day even more… and of those that are not with us today.

I’ve collected these personal observations, comments and facts from talking with several bona fide WWII combat vets and just plain reading.  Nothing scientific, of course.

So here goes:

  1. Nearing death, as grievously wounded young men take their last gasps, the most often said word was, “Mama”.
  2. Under fire, many would curl up into a fetal position shaking uncontrollably while their buddies would somehow raise their weapons to shoot back… only to get showered with their blood and brains as a enemy round obliterated his buddy’s head.  It is not about cowardice.  It is FEAR.
  3. About 25% of them peed in their pants.  About 10% shit in their pants.  (Old Man Jack did both…and he was not ashamed to say so.  Ergo, his quote from Two Old Men and a Father’s Day Anguish: “If you got killed with shit in your pants, you got buried with shit in your pants.”)
  4. Another 25% of these brave young boys and men were so scared or were so repulsed at the gore, e.g., at seeing liquified brains spewing from a shattered skull, they vomited.
  5. One Marine told me he was to silently kill a Japanese sentry using a makeshift garotte only to find the sentry had fallen asleep face up.  He couldn’t use the garotte as the enemy’s helmet was in the sand and the enemy could let out a scream if he used his Kabar.  At the appointed minute, my friend had no choice but to jump on the sleeping soldier and grip his Adam’s apple with all his might… to keep him from yelling, too.  He knew the enemy died when his body went limp and urinated.  My friend did, too.  He said he thinks he gripped the enemy’s throat for over two minutes.  His hands couldn’t stop shaking.  It was his first hand-to-hand kill.
  6. After hearing sounds at night, frightened soldiers or Marines would unleash a violent and impenetrable barrage of carbine and machine gun fire.  When they reconnoitered at day break, they discovered they had mistakenly slaughtered unarmed men, women and children.  They would vomit then, too.  (I can’t imagine what went on in their souls for the rest of their lives.)
  7. Sometime in 1943, Army psychiatrists took a survey of “frontline” troops.  Less than 1% said they wanted to go back into battle (I understand this was exclusive of the more higher trained units like the Rangers or Airborne).  Almost NONE of the Silver Star recipients wanted to go back.  But they did.
  8. Army psychiatrists found that 60 days was the limit for being on the front lines…before a soldier would crack.  Old Man Jack was out on the front for just about a year for his first deployment on “those stinkin’ islands”.
  9. A Nisei 442nd vet told me just the sound of the Nazi MG42 machine gun would make them shit in their pants.  It could fire up to 1,500 rounds a minute and chew through tree trunks behind which they were seeking cover.  Sometimes, a buddy’s top half would be separated from the bottom half by the MG42…and they saw it happen.
  10. Another Nisei vet told me they were on patrol when they came under a barrage.  As he and a buddy dove into a shell hole for cover, his buddy’s arm went into a rotting, foul mass of a decomposing German’s remains.
  11. Human souvenir hunting was rampant – and most extreme in the Pacific Theater.  Correspondents documented in their reports that a number of Allied military “boiled” Japanese skulls or left them out for the ants to eat away most of the flesh, then kept them.  Sailors would leave a skull in a net trawling behind their ship to cleanse them of flesh.  For some, the skulls were too large or awkward so they would keep ears or noses.  (In fact, Customs had issues with these skulls when a military man would bring them back to the US after discharge.)  And as Old Man Jack witnessed in “Old Man Jack-isms #4“, some would collect gold teeth.

    SKULL
    A souvenir skull. Someone had etched “1945 Jap skull Okinawa” onto it.
  12. In a battle report, several very young Marines cut off the heads from Japanese corpses, impaled them onto stakes and pointed the faces at the enemy across the way to taunt them.  When their commanding officer ordered them to take the severed heads down, they replied something to the effect of if we eat like animals, fight like animals and look like animals, we are going to act like animals.
  13. Old Man Jack mentioned something he called “squeakers”.  He didn’t elaborate on it too much but it’s when fear becomes so overpowering, men would get dry mouth or start gagging… a problem if you were an officer trying to give orders under fire to keep men alive.  They would “squeak”.
  14. “Take a very, very ripe tomato.  Throw it with all your might against a weathered cedar plank fence.  Listen to the sound of the impact.  That’s what it sounds like when a bullet hits your buddy.”  A Nisei vet told me that.

___________________________

These next images, to be politically correct in today’s world, will be very upsetting to some so a warning to you…  But these must be seen to help comprehend why many combat veterans don’t want to talk about “it” and therefore, the difficulty in helping us answer, “What am I supposed to remember?”:

A frozen Nazi propped up like a road sign.
A dead and frozen Nazi is propped up like a road sign.
Non-chalant
The booted feet of a dead Japanese soldier, foreground, and his hand protrude from beneath a mound of earth on Iwo Jima during the American invasion of the Japanese Volcano Island stronghold in 1945 in World War II. U.S. Marines can be seen nearby in foxholes. (AP Photo/Joe Rosenthal)
Perhaps this is similar to what Mr. Johnson saw during the Battle of Santa Cruz Islands and Guadalcanal where he was gravely wounded.  National Archives.
Perhaps this is similar to what Mr. Johnson saw during the Battle of Santa Cruz Islands and Guadalcanal where he was gravely wounded. Note the position of this dead sailor’s feet relative to his upper body. National Archives.
Okinawa
A US Army soldier lays as he died on Okinawa while the fighting continues around him. National Archives.
Dead Japanese soldier on Luzon, 1945. US Army photo archives.
Dismembered Japanese soldier on Luzon, 1945. US Army photo archives.
British military removing burned German corpse from knocked out tank. National Archives.
British military removing burned German corpse from knocked out Panzer IV tank. National Archives.
Dead Japanese soldier in advanced decomposition.  Perhaps this is what Old Man Jack tried to suppress in his recollection of "ID patrol".
Dead Japanese soldier in decomposition. Perhaps this is an example of what Old Man Jack tried to suppress in his recollection of his morbid experience in “ID patrol“.  US Marine Corps archives.
Two from the US Army 3rd Armored killed in action in France. National Archives.
Two from the US Army 3rd Armored killed in action in France. National Archives.
j pilot
Dead Kamikaze pilot. Notice the rubber glove on the US sailor’s right hand.  US Navy.
flame
Dated March 3, 1944

Perhaps some of the other “it” they saw involved civilians.

russ fem
Records related to this photograph of a slain young Russian female indicate the photo was taken from a dead German’s wallet.
PolandDeadSister
A description that was attached to this photo state a young girl is led away from her sister who was just killed.  Notice the camera in the old man’s hand.  He also sports some kind of arm band.

_____________________________

So why these gruesome photos of carnage and violent death?

Are they REALLY necessary for you to see?

I believe so… and the preceding photos were relatively tame to be quite honest.  There are much more gruesome ones in private collections.  Old Man Jack had a collection but I only got a glimpse of ONE picture early in our relationship and it was of a severed Japanese head.  He never brought the photos out again.

But it’s important that Americans today understand “it” went to the hundreds of thousands of now silent US military graves… and “it” also remains tightly bottled up in the few surviving combat vets from WWII.

They have a right to keep “it” bottled up.  Vacuum sealed.  To keep their sanity although they relive and suffer horribly through “it” each night.

Field grave for an unknown US Marine.
Field grave for an unknown US Marine.  Some souls will never be identified.

Thousands of graves on a “stinkin’ island”… all killed in action.

Iwo Jima
Iwo Jima.  US Marine Corps.
saipan burial
Saipan burial of a Marine killed in action.
French civilians erected this silent tribute to an American solider who has fallen in the crusade to liberate France. Carentan, France., 06/17/1944
French civilians erected this silent tribute to an unknown American solider who has fallen in the crusade to liberate France. Carentan, France., 06/17/1944
waves1
Some souls will never be found.
margrat
Somewhere in northern Europe.
iwo jima cem
Like this torn photograph of an Iwo Jima battlefield cemetery, memories of young boys who lost their lives so violently are fading away.

___________________________

Memorial Day.

To remember those killed.

But without seeing, understanding or accepting the horrible demise these young fighting men encountered ending their short lives, the true meaning of Memorial Day is lost.

It is not truly about the combat vets alive today or who passed away since war’s end…  but they sure the hell are part of it.  Those alive mightily grip a key to their secrets – preventing your entry into their private internal hell.

__________________________

I will remember this when I visit the graves of Old Man Jack and Mr. Johnson this Memorial Day and will think of their fallen comrades.

And I will thank them and their unnamed buddies when I enjoy my barbequed hamburger this Memorial Day weekend and a cigar.

They died for me.

So I could enjoy my hamburger and cigar.

And I shall

A final, short tribute to those resting in graves today:

86 thoughts on ““It” and Memorial Day”

  1. You know I have tears streaming down my face. This is exactly what is missing from my father’s story….. the truth, but they could not tell. We must remember! Thank you for this great post!

  2. Koji, as always your tribute to the veteran’s is heartfelt, truthful, and yes-sometimes difficult to read. But you are right, we need to read it. We need to know the truths they carry and suffer with for ever.

      1. At first I thought you meant ask him his plans. Okay, you mean not to ask about his history. Fortunately we have enough knowledge of one another we can talk about other things and if it leads to him talking about other things, I’m okay with that. But if not, I’m okay with that as well. I will let him just bask in our appreciation of him. 🙂

  3. I had to skip the pictures, I didn’t have the courage to look at such again. But I remember them (the one in my family who survived ‘it’ and the one who didn’t). I remind my kids to be grateful for the present because of what they did and try to teach the kids to take care of the freedom we have. Great post. – Mary

    1. Thank you, Mary, for reading this from so far away. I can’t help but to feel we have a strong connection based upon our two family histories yet so dissimilar 70 years ago…

      1. It’s interesting, this period in time. I don’t know if this means anything, my uncle (he married my father’s youngest sister) is half-Japanese and half-Filipino (but he’s an American). His mom is Japanese as far as I know, from Okinawa.

  4. Mustang Koji – Thank you for reminding us of what we must remember… because those who do remember are disappearing and then there will be no one to tell their story. We must do all we can to keep their ultimate sacrifice in the minds of future generations.

  5. You have put “it” in the most memorable of ways, Koji. I had been considering going to one of the cemeteries this Memorial Day to participate in one of the many ceremonies, and you’ve given me the reasons why I must. I will never really understand the cost or the long-term suffering our Vets have experienced, but I feel such a love for each one of them. Thank you for your sensitivity and the way you always share so personally.

    1. Quite humbling to read your kind words… On Saturday, I will be escorting Mrs. Johnson once again to the Riverside National Cemetery. I hope you will meld with those souls you encounter on your journey…

  6. Powerful and a thought provoker. Thank you Koji. “What is it I am supposed to remember?” Lets hope that the young will learn and not have to wittiness it first hand.

    1. I recall a couple of years ago we chatted about posting some of your battlefield photos on flickr. Remember? And here I am doing the same… May their souls be at rest.

  7. It is with days like Memorial Day that the unnamed graves must be remembered – they represent all those that were MIA and never found.

  8. Reblogged this on The Chatter Blog and commented:
    Another emotional and provoking piece by Koji in honor of our veterans. There are some very graphic pictures included. I don’t say this to steer you away, but to prepare you to get a glimpse, and only a small glimpse, of what our service men and women saw.

  9. Koji,

    That you have your father (a veteran of this war) with you to this day is clearly the impetus of why you focus on the conflict (in my opinion). That your family sustained tremendous and monumental loss due to the horrific nature of war and yet you have a tender, concerned heart for and recognize that the warriors are both role players and the traumatized of this conflict is quite telling.

    As you know, I’ve been researching the services rendered by the multitudes of my ancestral lineage as they fought in support of the struggles of this country dating back to the very beginning. I have also learned that I have had ancestors fighting on both sides of this nation’s earliest wars (however so far, I haven’t discovered any within the Confederate ranks). Some would suggest that wars fought in the 18th and earlier Centuries were less atrocious than those of the 19th and beyond. The effects on the survivors of those battles would suggest quite the contrary. All war is mighty and terrible.

    As a veteran and through my connections to my brothers-in-arms and our common bond, I have NEVER encountered a single person who ever pursued or sought to go to war nor did they seek to return to the battlefield. Yes, we all hear of OEF/OIF combat soldiers’ efforts to return to duty following MEDEVAC and recovery periods or even reenlisting to serve following combat tours. But people have to understand what that truly means. These circumstances aren’t examples of soldiers’ blood-lust but outward demonstrations of the rock-solid bond between brothers who have been in “the suck” and walked through hell together. Leaving a buddy to endure that while you sit idly by in the comforts of three-squares, a warm, comfortable bed and the pleasantries of home are unbearable to ponder. I am mentioning this as I scoff at the ideas of organizations such as Veterans for Peace or the back-channel discussions about war-mongering soldiers.

    For those of us who have been in combat, Memorial Day has a meaning that defies definition. For those who endured the loss of comrades on the field of battle, the day is one that will almost always be met with the same silence that surrounds their day-to-day, on-going battle with their past.

      1. Koji,

        Keep up these sorts of posts. People need to come to terms with the realities that (those who fought on their behalf) deal with every day. War permanently changes the veteran.

  10. I cannot even begin to imagine the mental strain our vets go through trying to deal with the horrors of war. It is disheartening to see how we celebrate those who died with memorial sales of products made in the countries from which so many of our vets never returned. Thanks for reminding me of the true meaning of Memorial Day.

    1. You are welcome… And I in turn thank you for your wise words… I think about those 7,000 young American men and 21,000 young Japanese men who met horrible deaths on Iwo Jima… and see the product of their sacrifices – a close alliance between the same two enemies 70 years ago.

  11. Well done Koji, I sit here staring at my computer screen, watery eyed and grateful for those who suffered and sacrificed on our behalf. As always you have a great gift of writing, and an even bigger heart in tribute to our war heroes. Just what was needed as we head into this Memorial Day weekend.

    Thanks

      1. Dr. Rex … is the blog name: It is what it is. I also have a “like” Facebook page: It is what it is, Dr. Rex …. check it out!
        And call me Horty!! 🙂

  12. Our young generation is so unflappable, they can’t conceive working HARD for a living like we did when we had to. Their idea is different. I cannot imagine their concept of WAR, those who have not served in recent years.
    We must teach our young and hopefully, they can make our world a better one than those leading up to WWII, the current wars.
    There is no way to sugar coat this experience.

    1. There is great truth in your words. Our youngest generations know generally of having – and not even encountering a day when there was nothing AVAILABLE to eat as my mother’s side did.

    1. Most of us hate war, too… When it becomes necessary, those folks who do are unwilling to accept it should just stay quiet and not insult those who are forced to go off to war and then criticize their battlefield actions…like urinating on enemy corpses.

      1. Exactly, Koji. The mindset of a warrior is a difficult thing for the non-combatant to comprehend. Civilians don’t possess the experience or faculties to understand the physical, spiritual and mental preparations that must be made in order to pull the trigger and kill an enemy combatant. As you pointed out, all the training in the world doesn’t necessarily translate into producing a brave, all-giving fighting man.

        I personally know men who were recruiting-poster, picture-perfect GI Joe-type sailors. They worked their tails off to get accepted into BUDS (SEAL training). Two of the three guys I knew dropped during the first two weeks (literally during “Hell Week”). The other guy I knew that graduated and donned his trident was a scrawny, under-sized yet mentally capable sailor. It is a transformation of mind, body and soul. Mostly, the training is a weeding-out process.

        Those who criticize what happens in a combat theater from the comfort of their couch are going to continue to do so regardless of facts. They carry signs and stand outside bases shout bull-crap slogans, “Not in my name” or “You don’t fight for me.” It is too bad that they can’t see past their own noses. However, their self-centered nature is the only thing that motivates them. They have no concept of the self-less nature of a soldier. These “anti-war” hacks would never sacrifice their lives for anything.

  13. I am glad you posted this…I often think of my father who witnessed the atrocities of Bergen Beltzen. He never told us and kept everything inside, he became an alcoholic to hide the horrors he saw. I pray that one day people will see these pictures, read the stories of those who fought in wars past and learn from history and stop this senseless killing and brutality. We need to talk about what happened – we need to learn from those men and women – we need to honor them by finally getting along with each other. But how difficult to get along with others who only want to kill. I am thankful that we have you and a many other bloggers writing on this topic.
    To honor these men let us all extend a hand in friendship and love to those around us. For me I pray for God to bless you and to honor your tradition I pray for Buddha bless you and your family.

    1. Patty, your thoughts are genuine and filled with compassion… I hope things will fall into place as quickly as possible for you… Nothing but the best for you! 🙂

      1. Thank you – you did a wonderful job as always remembering and honoring your friends along with all the men and women who served honorably.

  14. An engaging tribute to the soldiers who were in ” It “. As always, you have given us a deep and thought provoking insight into what is to the majority a mundane topic. Most Americans will indeed enjoy their hot-dogs and burgers, along with a paid day off and never relate to WHY they are able to spend this special time with their families. Thanks for the reminder Koji!

  15. I’m glad you posted this. The pictures were fine; I’ve seen a lot worse in my life. In today’s army/navy/marine corps you would find yourself up on charges if you did a lot of things they did back then (e.g. cutting a corpse’s head off, collecting ‘souvenirs’, disrespecting the ‘enemy’ (e.g. some guys urinating on terrorists bodies). Those who do that – raise an outcry, insist we press charges, and court martial those involved – they are the ones who “don’t get IT”. They’ve never been to war. They don’t know those emotions: the fear, the frustration, the fear, the pain, the fear, the constant barrage of . . . *everything*!!!

    Nor can they really understand the camaraderie among men-in-arms. That statement “Men In Arms” means more than just carrying weapons – at least to ME (goosebumps rising on MY arms just at the phrase). You don’t want to know; neither did I. Some things remain unseen and are best not known – but other things are. What our men had to go through, the horrors they endured . . . (shudder). War IS a terrible thing.

    But I am sure glad there are patriots like you – a person who’s family was on both sides – able to take a fair and balanced look at what people gave for their land – on both sides of the equation.

    I don’t know if people will care. But I know I do. As it appears you do, too – and many others, I’m sure.

    I’m looking forward to the time when we can end this thing we call “war”. As the old saying goes: It’s not good for little children, flowers, and other living things. And the hell with “It” forevermore. (Say hello to Jack for me. He did his service well – for I can see where even in his old age, he had lessons to tell.)

    1. That is the one thing we Hope to accomplish, yes? Perhaps if we all “blog”, our country will eventually know truth. The media? We know they won’t. They forget who got them the freedom of speech…

  16. You are right, we should all know. I have spent the last three years working with my father’s memoirs and with letters from the relatives of the men who served with him – all captured at the Fall of Singapore. My father was a lucky survivor and led a positive productive life, but even in the last weeks before his death, he woke in terror, hallucinating that he was back working on the Thailand/Burma Railroad. I hope when my research is complete to publish these.

  17. Words are powerful, but nothing underscores what soldiers and sailors went through like the photos you posted. From time to time, we should be exposed to upsetting reminders of war; war is an upsetting proposition. We’re fortunate to have had (and have today) men and women who were willing to put their lives on the line and, in some cases, die for us.

    1. The question is…how can we get those intent on slandering their efforts to stop?? Like telling the world snipers urinated on the enemy corpses? There really handicapping our men in their ability to come home in one piece… Thank you food reading this long post.

      1. I wish there was an easy answer. Some folks will use whatever means are at hand to attempt to discredit the US, even if it means putting servicemen and women at risk.

        Thank you for taking the time to put together such a detailed and informative post.

  18. We must remember lest we repeat. The wars of today are just as brutal, but we are not allowed the photos or news coverage as in prior military actions. The current generation will never know or believe the sacrifice of our elders. They do not appreciate our country because they have never learned about the battle to create it or salvage it from destruction.

    God bless

    1. Ray’s Mom, your kind words ring so true. It seems as of late that we have to rely on our soldier’s and Marines own videos to bring back home life on today’s (media scrutinized) battlefields.

  19. I’m afraid in all honesty that I had to fast forward through most of the photos. War is nothing short of hell. I think the photos should be shown so people realize the truth. It’s hard to imagine something when you are not involved or it doesn’t affect you directly.

    1. I understand completely, Linda. Frankly, the story is too long so just having read it makes me happy…and the vets most of all. And it is so true… you just DON’T know or UNDERSTAND unless you were there, shaking in a foxhole.

  20. Hi – and well like Linda – I forwarded through some of the pics – but what a great post you give us – and I may have to quote you – and link this – (if you do mind my friend):

    Memorial Day.

    To remember those killed.

    But without seeing, understanding or accepting the horrible demise these young fighting men encountered ending their short lives, the true meaning of Memorial Day is lost.

    It is not truly about the combat vets alive today or who passed away since war’s end… but they sure the hell are part of it. Those alive mightily grip a key to their secrets – preventing your entry into their private internal hell.

    1. Thank you for reading such a long story. I appreciate it very much. I just wish today’s people understand something they may have no concept about… In combat out there in the Pacific, if you took one step to the left… or one step to the right, a bullet may have found you.

      I see you quoted the first few sentences here in your comment but you are more than welcome to link this post as you wish. It is a public story and the more people that read it, the better…

      Thank you again.

      Thank you again.

    1. Gallivanta, thank you once again for stopping by. It was much too long a story… 🙂 but there was no other way I could think of to get the story of “It” written…

    1. I am sorry if it upset you, Jacqui. I still believe many young Americans have the impression war is fought by special ops like the SEALs…or like in video games. They truly are isolated. Even myself, I have not been in the services so I truly don’t know.

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