[Please also see “Mr. Johnson, USMC” if you wish to learn the background of this couple from the Greatest Generation by clicking on the link.]
Well, Marge, you made it indeed… To see your beloved husband Johnnie for Memorial Day.
A heroic US Marine who fought on-board the USS Enterprise in World War II.
And he was but 17 years old when he set sail for the Battle of Midway.
Seventeen. You said he was still in high school when he signed up for the Marines. Unbelievable.
We were met by thousands of American flags being planted by hundreds of Boy Scouts and volunteers. You were so happy to see the red, white and blue saturating the cemetery, bit by bit.
While the Boy Scouts hadn’t made it to your husband’s resting place yet, we had our own little flag… and your beautiful bouquet we were able to pick up along the way. You were so pleased with them but we made it a promise the next bouquet will be the colors of the USMC – scarlett and gold. You knew he would like that. Yes you did.
It was only the Saturday before Memorial Day but you were so elated to see how many people were there already…and we arrived at 10:00 AM! You were worried we wouldn’t be able to find a place to park when someone upstairs opened one up for us.
You were so anxious to visit him that you made it out of my car in record time and walked as quickly as you could!
While you used your stroller to get to the general area of his grave site, we had to leave the stroller and walk the last twenty yards on very saturated ground. You were holding onto my arm so tightly as the muddy earth gave way as we walked. Remember? My shoe sunk into the soil and inch or more.
And when we got there, we couldn’t find any water decanters… They were all being used by the hundreds of other mourners…but by some lucky grace, we ran into Vicky… She had bought 1,000 beautiful flags on her own and her niece was placing them neatly all along the columbine. She went out of her way to find one for you!
Your bouquet was so beautiful, Marge. You said quietly Johnnie – your husband of 66-1/2 years – would like them so much. You miss him dearly, don’t you Marge? I miss him…
And like the last time, on Easter Sunday, you talked with him…
You shared with me again of how he left your life…and you were there for him til the very end… and how alone you felt because you are the last one alive from amongst your friends. There is no one else. You said you still look for Johnnie at your assisted senior care center to ask him a question but he doesn’t answer…
We promised to go back in two months, yes?
I will be calling you because he means so much to you… and it means so much to me.
I wish people would understand your love and devotion.
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:
I figured if Mr. Johnson wanted to tell me more, he would have.
But as with Old Man Jack, I never asked for more.
I believe that’s how these combat vets want it.
They don’t want to be quizzed about what they said or asked to describe more.
They will tell you some things of what they experienced. Probably to let the devils out that have been eating away at them for 70 years.
They have a built in limiter to keep more memories from popping back up…the things they saw or did that they try so hard to suppress to stay sane. Every minute for the rest of their lives.
They deserve that respect. Always. And you feel honored they felt enough confidence in your character that you would accept what they were telling you as is.
I feel they appreciated that.
Mr. Johnson and I walked together into the little chapel where Old Man Jack’s funeral service was being held. His flag-draped coffin was proudly presented up front.
It was mostly relatives as all his friends had passed away before him. I felt distant as I don’t recall ever seeing them visiting with Old Man Jack. But they were relatives.
Mr. Johnson and I were likely the only ones there outside of family besides a daughter of one of his fellow employees from the old Northrop plant. We had met once when Old Man Jack was in ICU from a tremendously bad intestinal infection.
His only daughter Karen was busy going over things with the reverend. You will have to excuse me if I used the wrong term for him; it was a Christian service and I am not.
Mr. Johnson and I sat next to each other in the back row.
Karen finally approached us. It was good to see her again. I hadn’t seen her since she moved Old Man Jack up to their mountain home just five months earlier.
We greeted and it was already tough not to shed a tear. She then said, “Koji, we have enough young relatives here to be pallbearers but I know you and dad were close. I think he would like it very much if you would be one of his pallbearers.”
I looked at Mr. Johnson. I guess I was unknowingly seeking his acceptance knowing they both fought a bitter war together.
Mr. Johnson smiled and nodded his head as if he knew I was asking him if it would be OK.
It was emotional. My eye plumbing was already leaking a bit before but it broke loose.
After Old Man Jack fought on “those stinkin’ islands” and had nightmares for the remainder of his life, I was now going to help carry this great American on his last journey.
It is a mark of the Greatest Generation. Forgiveness. Honor to the end.
Just a short vid of the flag presentation to Jack’s daughter. (I apologize for the video quality but they only sell the video cameras with the little swing out screen now. It’s hard to get used to and hard to see the image in bright sun…and impossible to hold still…but towards the end, you can see Mr. Johnson sitting right behind her.)
I wondered what was going through Mr. Johnson’s mind after saying to me earlier “…funerals don’t do a damn thing for me anymore”.
He didn’t get teary-eyed once. A true Marine, I thought. I also briefly felt he had his mind on other pressing matters.
I was about to find out.
After the ceremony, I helped Mr. Johnson back to my car. He hadn’t said much at all nor showed ANY emotion.
I opened the car door for him; it would be a struggle for him to get back into my low-slung machine with his bad back and unsteady legs.
But he stopped short of getting in. He towered over the roof of the car as he was standing on the curb next to other graves. I remember clearly his right arm was on the roof of the car and his left was seeking support from the top of the passenger door glass.
Then he spoke.
“Koji, I’m sorry I was so curt with you in the car…when I said funerals don’t do a damn for me anymore. I hope you’ll let me explain why.”
I didn’t know what was coming. He continued but he had that look on his face. The same glassed-over gaze Old Man Jack had when he was going to talk about something he was trying to forget.
“Koji, the Japs jumped us and they jumped us good. Real good. We were caught out in the open. We had fighter cover but there was just a shit load of them. Just too many. They were coming down at us from every which way.”
He mimicked with his right hand that he had elevated towards the sky toy planes – just like we did when we were kids. But these weren’t toys that day. He was reliving a battle…but he didn’t say where or when. Just like Old Man Jack.
“They just kept coming and coming. We took a bad licking. A real bad one. We just kept reloading and firing at them.
We lost a lot of good men.”
He stopped for a moment. He never once said he was on the Big E.
“I got put in charge of the Burial Detail. There weren’t too many of us left that could get around.” He was, I assume, talking about his fellow Marines. He was a Private at that time and at the Battle of Santa Cruz; you will find out later how I discovered that. But it’s not good when a young Marine private who was in boot camp just months earlier gets put in charge of a burial detail on board the greatest lady of the sea.
“I don’t know who the son-of-a-bitches were. They were wrapped up in canvas and a shell would be put inside at their feet to weight them down. Then we’d dump them over the side. We’d salute. Then we’d do it again…and again…and again. I don’t remember how many times I saluted. I didn’t keep count. But that’s why funerals don’t do much for me anymore. I had been in enough of them.”
I was left humbled and voiceless. Too late I realized Mr. Johnson WAS having sickening thoughts running through his mind – from the time when I asked him to help hold ME together.
And I was ignorant to even think he had his mind on other pressing matters during the funeral.
With that selfish request, I instead helped unleash some vile memories within him.
Mr. Johnson himself would pass away shortly thereafter.
More to come in Part IV. I hope you’ll stay tuned.