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?”
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.
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:
- Nearing death, as grievously wounded young men take their last gasps, the most often said word was, “Mama”.
- 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.
- 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.”)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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”.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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”.
- “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?”:
Perhaps some of the other “it” they saw involved civilians.
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.
Thousands of graves on a “stinkin’ island”… all killed in action.
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: