It is hard to believe thirty years have passed since President Reagan commemorated the 40th Anniversary of D-Day – in person.
I feel his love and support for our military – and Nancy – is without question.
But few people recall that President Reagan gave not one, but TWO stirring and emotional speeches that day at Normandy.
The first and most replayed speech was the one at Pointe du Hoc, flanked by surviving soldiers of the United States Army Ranger Assault Group.
Below is an average shell crater at Pointe du Hoc; that is my daughter standing in it back in 1999:
Shortly afterwards, President Reagan gave a second speech… in front of The Wall of the Missing at Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. Private Zanatta was in the first wave hitting Omaha Beach; his daughter Liz wrote to President Reagan about what her father told her about that day. During this speech and while reading passages from the letter, even the unflappable President Reagan becomes overwhelmed with emotion. While the beginning of the video contains important recordings from that day in 1944, his emotion-laden speech begins at the 0:30 mark:
I feel this is one of his most moving speeches. At the end, he says, “…a D-Day veteran has shown us the meaning of this day far better than any President can.”
I pray in my own way for those young souls who were killed – on both sides – as well as their families.
We will not see a mass of humanity assembled for such purposes ever again…and the remaining representatives of that humanity are leaving us each day.
After recovering and meandering next to his plane, he simply let out, “Some of (the pilots) just didn’t come back. I could never stop thinking, ‘Did a Jap get him… or was it me?’”
He said that because as Ground Crew Chief, he was responsible for the airworthiness of the plane a young Navy or Marine pilot would take out on a mission…to shoot at the enemy…or be shot at. These planes had to be in the best fighting condition as lives depended on it. But he frequently said “they had to make do” because they never had enough spare parts… so they HAD to improvise.
One time, he said a bushing had been shot out on a plane that had to go on a mission the next morning. Old Man Jack did what he could. What he must. He soaked two pieces of coconut logs in engine oil overnight. When it came time for the pilot to take off, he clamped the oil soaked wood around the cabling and used baling wire to clamp them together as tightly as he could. The plane left on its mission – with the young pilot behind the stick…in a plane with oil soaked coconut log as a bushing.
Now perhaps you understand the depth of his utterance of, “…or was it me?”
I will never have an answer because the question could never have been asked of him.
But I feel Old Man Jack carried tremendous guilt in his heart about something that happened on those stinkin’ islands.
Not just bad; real bad.
Deep down, my heart tugs at me that someone within Old Man Jack’s reach died that shouldn’t have… and that Old Man Jack feels personally responsible for his death… and he carried that anguish for all these years.
As Old Man Jack said, some of the young pilots didn’t come back.
They were killed or are forever missing in action.
That is for whom Memorial Day is all about.
To remember and honor those that did not come back…and not a Memorial Day sale.
“When it comes to giving, some people stop at nothing.”
– Vernon McLellan
That was Aunt Michie. She gave all of herself and of her life strength to others because her heart knew no other way.
At the moment Aunt Michie watched the ugly mushroom cloud rise from her field that day, her older siblings – my dad, Aunt Shiz and Uncle Yutaka – were all imprisoned in the “war relocation centers” scattered about the United States. These were truly prisons and the popular view is that FDR imprisoned them “for their protection” because they looked like the enemy.(¹)
Life within these “camps” was “sub-standard”. They were forced to live in small, shoddily built wooden barracks covered only with tar paper with little or no privacy. No running water inside their barracks – they had to go wait in line outside, whether it be rain, snow, dust storm or searing desert sun to use public latrines or showers. Food was served in mess halls on pot metal plates at specific times, just like in the military. The food was miserable according to Dad and worse yet, they had to wait in line again. For the first month or so of imprisonment, he said all they had was liver, powdered eggs and potatoes.
But then again, he said it was food.
Aunt Michie and her family were near starving in Hiroshima while dad was imprisoned in the good ol’ US of A.
It is assumed like for the rest of America, Dad and his older siblings heard the news of the atomic bombing but while in the camps on or about August 8th… that one enormous bomb had wiped out Hiroshima. There must have high anxiety and anger as many of the inmates in Dad’s camp (Minidoka) were from Seattle; they had family in Hiroshima as their parents had immigrated from there.
My cousins tell me that sometime after war’s end, Michie’s “American” siblings – my dad, Uncle Yutaka and Aunt Shiz – managed to re-establish contact with Grandmother Kono and Michie. With the Japanese infrastructure destroyed, it was a miracle. And it was no easy task as letters to and from Japan were not only prohibited, it was impossible. There was no telephone in the villages where Grandmother and Michie lived.
But her American siblings somehow managed to send much needed clothing to them. When my father finally reached Hiroshima while a sergeant in the US 8th Army, he carried two duffle bags full of C-rations, candy and Spam. They said it was a feast for them after years of hunger.
Sadako (who savored the white rice Michie made them on the day of the bomb) told me at a farewell dinner two years ago that she fondly remembered my dad taking them to a market of some kind where he bought her a little coin purse. She remembered Dad gave her the money to buy the little purse and was told she could keep the change. She remembers then handing the change – which was a LOT of money back then – to Michie who humbly accepted it. Sadako said she cherished that little coin purse for years.
From exhaustive laboring on her farm… to taking precious sashimi to her brother Suetaro… to walking ten miles with children in tow to care for Grandmother Kono after her stroke… to the pain of learning of her brother being killed in action… to being thrown onto the ground and watching a huge mushroom cloud rise over a small hill… to pulling a wooden cart over a hill… to tirelessly aiding the victims… and most of all, sacrificing her own health for the sake of others…
She never gave up in those thirty years. Would you have? I don’t believe I would have had the fortitude.
But because her soul would not quit, she got everyone to tomorrow… but in doing so, her own tomorrows dwindled.
Michie is still here. The fruit of her sacrifices can be seen today in her six children, all of whom have lived – and are still living – full, joyous lives.
They have their mother, Michie, to thank and they cherish that… and that they were all there at the farmhouse when she looked at each one of them intently one last time before leaving this world.
A most grand mother.
They all love food to this very day.
I wish to deeply thank my Hiroshima cousins for sharing their memories of their life with Michie with us.
Like all Hiroshima citizens I have met, they simply pray for peace.
(¹) There are declassified US intelligence documents which show that a small number of Japanese and Japanese-Americans were performing espionage. Intelligence was able to determine this by intercepting and decoding secret Japanese communications. This information was given a cover name of MAGIC and these documents were typed up for FDR and a very small number of trusted officials. However, rounding up the spies would clearly indicate to the Japanese that their code had been cracked. These documents present another view contra to the widespread belief that FDR imprisoned the Japanese and Japanese-Americans from discrimination and war time hysteria. In other words, FDR used that hysteria as a cover story; by doing so, he was able to remove the “spies” from the West Coast without alerting the Japanese. FDR also stated in communications that there would be “repercussions” from such action.
Day after tomorrow – two years ago – Old Man Jack left us. He would be free of his nightmares of war which plagued him nightly for seventy years. While it is self-serving to reblog your own story, I am reblogging this for the sake of men like him who gave away their youth to serve in hell. People today need to KNOW and REMEMBER. I regret the huge majority of Americans today are ignorant of what people had to do so that we can enjoy – and complain – of what we have today.
Rest in peace, Jack. I will try to visit you today to say hi.
“Koji, don’t let anyone tell you different. War makes good boys do crazy things.”
That was the first time Old Man Jack shared something with me about the war in a voice of unfeigned remorse. In turn, it was one of my first journeys in his time machine in which he allowed me to ride along.
Front row seats. Free of charge.
It was in 2002 to the best of my recollection. It was just before my littlest firecracker was born.
KA-BAR. If you are a World War II US Marine who served on “those stinkin’ islands”, there is no explanation necessary.
A KA-BAR was a Marine’s most prized personal possession. It was always at their side.
They opened their C-rations with it. Dug foxholes with it. Chopped coconut logs with it. Hammered nails with it. Indestructible.
Most importantly, for killing. Designed for slashing and stabbing. Desperate hand-to-hand combat. To the death.
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:
Just two months after Old Man Jack passed away, so did the young boy who stood in the US Marine Corps Recruiting Station in Louisiana in 1942.
The man who told me funerals don’t do a damn for him anymore.
Mr. Johnson was gone.
The neighborhood was in shock. I had waved to Mr. Johnson just three days earlier while he and Marge gingerly got out of their car. I said in a louder than normal voice from across the street: “We’re still on for breakfast on Saturday, right Mr. Johnson?” We were to go have breakfast and chat about Old Man Jack – and perhaps learn more of Mr. Johnson. Instead, he died suddenly just three days later. Three days.
After 66-1/2 years of marriage, Marge was now a widow. A sudden illness took his last breath away when bombs could not 70 years earlier. He was 89 years old.
Marge surprised me when she asked if I would video Mr. Johnson’s funeral. I told her it would be my privilege. I was elated to be of some service to her.
After Old Man Jack’s funeral, Mr. Johnson invited me over after I got home from work that night. That was when he volunteered that story about how “he got suckered into becoming a Marine”. Lovingly, of course. You could tell he had esprit de corps in his blood to that day. He was proud of not having BEEN a Marine, but of BEING a Marine. He had all the right to be.
He also talked about how he met Marge. What a wonderful story it was. I will try to capture the essence of what he told me.
By early 1944, Mr. Johnson (now a sergeant) had been taken off the front lines to recover from his grave wounds. He was “pretty messed up,” as he put it. Didn’t say much more. He was put in charge of the motor pool at Camp Pendleton during convalescence.
The base commander’s wife, a proper lady, he said, had come to the motor pool to get her car fixed up. Mr. Johnson said it was a beat up Chevy especially on the inside but it was better than most for those times.
After she commented on the car’s condition, Mr. Johnson said he’ll do his best to make it more presentable.
He had come to know an upholsterer in Oceanside so Mr. Johnson arranged for the interior to get tidied up some. He also had it painted. She was elated.
I wish I had jotted down the commander’s name. Darn.
Sometime towards the latter part of ’44, he said, there was some scuttlebutt about a big operation that was brewing.
But then, the base commander called Mr. Johnson into his office.
“Johnnie,” he said, looking through his file, “you’re pretty used up. I’m sending you to rehabilitation.”
So off he went. While Mr. Johnson used “a hospital out in San Bernardino” as a description, the hospital was likely somewhere near the mountains because he mentioned Lake Arrowhead.
As I write this, there is a good probability it was Naval Hospital, Norco, as it was officially called back then.
During rehabilitation, he ventured to a USO dance being held at the hospital. The USO was such a morale booster for these young men. Mr. Johnson was no exception.
There, against the wall, he said, was this pretty young thing. It was Marge. She was studying to become a nurse…which she did.
…and if I understood him correctly, they got married the day after he got discharged from the Corps in 1945. It sounded like if Marge just didn’t want a husband that would go off to war, let alone as a Marine. She got her way, of course:
Don’t you think they are a gorgeous couple? A gift of chance… and war.
(As a historical note, the “scuttlebutt” ended up to be… Iwo Jima. Part of the 3rd Marine Division, Mr. Johnson said that in a way, he was glad he didn’t go… Not that he DIDN’T want to go but because of what the Marines horribly found out after the first waves landed ashore. He learned from the Marines that made it back that all vehicles that went ashore in the first couple of days were sitting ducks for enemy artillery. This was made worse by all the volcanic ash being spewed up by the artillery rounds, just choking off the engines just minutes later because it would clog up the air filters. Some of boys were burned alive, he was told, after their vehicles got hit…in the same vehicles he was in charge of at Camp Pendleton.)
One reason why I was never able to find any military record on Mr. Johnson became obvious on his funeral day; that’s when I – and the other neighbors – found out his name wasn’t Johnnie, but Doreston.
I was partially successful in videotaping Mr. Johnson’s funeral. It wasn’t as smooth as I wanted it to be for Marge’s sake. There was a bit of disorganization and miscommunication, too. Many of us following the hearse were just waiting in our cars wondering what to do next…when I saw the Marine burial detail getting ready to escort Mr. Johnson’s urn to a covered area. Time for a mad dash.
A couple of notes about the video below if you wish to watch…
I’m not much an editor but I managed to insert the “Marine’s Hymm” from my all-time Marine Corps classic, “Sands of Iwo Jima”. Gives me goose bumps every time. It starts a bit after the 1:00 mark.
There is some footage at the National Medal of Honor Memorial; Mr. Johnson would be interred just yards away. Sgt. Hartsock is my friend’s first husband who was posthumously bestowed the Medal of Honor. You will also see the names of some of the 22 Nisei’s who were also bestowed the Medal of Honor during WWII.
The bugler you see is a long-time friend of Mr. Johnson. I understand he is also in his 80’s and volunteers his services everyday. A very fitting and personal tribute.
This was also the first 21-gun salute I was ever able to have the honor to witness in person. I am glad it was for Mr. Johnson:
During this time, and now armed with his true first name, I was pretty determined to uncover some of his unspoken valor during the Solomon Islands Campaign and the Battle of Santa Cruz Islands…and I was partially successful.
These are two pages from CINCPAC’s official, confidential after battle report. They were called “War Diaries” and are daily operational journals created by various naval commands throughout the Navy during WWII (The Marine Corps is an arm of the US Navy). I was only able to find this single battle report for the Solomon Islands Campaign:
I do NOT know for sure if Mr. Johnson fought on the islands but Old Man Jack never mentioned anything except him serving on the Big E…
As for Mr. Johnson’s wounds, Old Man Jack muttered once “Johnnie was hit twice. The last time was pretty bad.” He didn’t say more.
But Mr. Johnson collapsed at his house in 2011. Marge called me over to help while waiting for the ambulance. Mr. Johnson was on his side, left hand gripping the bed sheets and right arm pinned in under his body. He was too big for me to lift him off the floor by myself. So I yelled, “C’mon, Marine! Get your sorry ass off this floor!” Seriously. With that, he grunted, grabbed the bed sheets one more time, and together, we got his upper body onto his bed…
But in the process, I saw his chest.
Tears of Remembrance and Closing
Two days after the funeral, I had finished putting the video together for Marge. We watched it together on my laptop as she didn’t have a DVD player that worked. Dry eyes had to take a back seat. She was so grateful.
But she called me at work a couple of days later. She asked if I could stop by after work again…and show her the video one more time. I was so surprised by her request…but so happy. She must have liked it.
When I played it for her – and when the “Marine’s Hymm” from the John Wayne iconic classic “Sands of Iwo Jima” began playing, her left hand began to rhythmically and softly beat to the theme song… ever so softly. Then her head bobbed along with the beat. That broke me.
She asked me again to explain the page from the Solomon Islands Battle Report which clearly states how he valiantly fought and incurred his wounds… Then when the 21-gun salute played on the screen, that was it… She broke down. I cannot imagine how large those floodgates may have been for her emotionally.
She thanked me immensely…
But it was so humbling as it was me who wanted to thank her and her husband… the same young boy in that Louisiana recruiting station who did what he had to do… and had enough humanity left in him to forgive.
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.
“Koji, funerals don’t do a damn thing for me anymore.”
That was Mr. Johnson’s reply while I was driving us to Old Man Jack’s funeral. I had asked him to help hold me together as I knew I would fall apart.
“Oh-oh,” I thought to myself when I heard that curt reply. “I guess I hit a nerve…”
Mr. Johnson was Old Man Jack’s next door neighbor.
Nearly SIXTY years. Hell, I ain’t that old yet. Well, I’m close.
They got along real well for those 60 years… except Jack was a WWII sailor… and Mr. Johnson was a WWII Marine. They reminded each other of it often.
Lovingly, of course.
Old Man Jack happily reminisced that “…us white caps would also tussle with them Marines ‘cuz they thought they were better than us”. But Jack would have gotten the short end of the stick if he took on Mr. Johnson. He towered over Jack and me…
And Mr. Johnson was a decorated WWII Marine.
Decorated twice…that I know of.
Our cozy neighborhood called him “Johnnie”. I always addressed him as Mr. Johnson…He used to say, “Damn it, Koji. I wish you’d stop calling me that.”
I never did call him Johnnie. I just couldn’t.
But in the end, we found out his real name was Doreston. Doreston Johnson.
Born August 1, 1923 in Basile, Louisiana. A tiny town, he said, and everyone was dirt broke.
I wish I knew why he wanted to go by “Johnnie” but later, I discovered Doreston was his father’s name.
After Jack passed away, I visited with him. He opened up a bit.
The Depression made it tough on everybody but then war…
When war broke out, he was gung ho like many young boys at that time.
It was expected. You were branded a coward if you didn’t enlist or eluded the draft. You were at the bottom of the heap if you got classified 4F.
He said went to the Army recruiting station. They said they met their quota, couldn’t take him right away and to try again next week.
He then went to the Navy recruiter. They also said pretty much the same thing but that there was an outfit “over there that’ll take ya”.
It was the United States Marine Corps.
The Marines “took him”…right then and there, he said.
Mr. Johnson said, “I was a dumb, stupid kid at that time” – slowly shaking his head…but with a boyish little grin.
It was 1941… When the United States Navy had their backs against the beaches… MacArthur blundered after Pearl Harbor and thousands of soldiers were taken prisoner in the Philippines.
The country’s military was poorly equipped and poorly trained. With outdated equipment like the 1903 Springfield and the Brewster Buffalo. And most gravely, the US Navy was outgunned.
One of the few times Old Man Jack would tell me what island something happened on, it would be humorous – as humorous as he could make it.
He HAD to laugh off some of the horror. He needed to survive being under attack by his own thoughts.
On January 16, 2011, eleven months before he passed away, we decided to go to Denny’s for breakfast. He hated that place – except for their (gawd awful) coffee. He loved their coffee. And he complained about the coffee on the islands. Imagine that. Denny’s coffee couldn’t have tasted that much different. Denny’s uses ocean water, too, you know, for their distinctive flavor. Perhaps that is why he liked their coffee.
“Green Island” was Jack’s last combat station when he earned enough points to be rotated back home. He told me when they yelled out his name, he just ran straight onto this makeshift pier where a PBy was starting up. He jumped in wearing only his shorts and boots. They took off. He was on his way home.
(Click here if you wish to see official US Navy photos of Green Island when Old Man Jack was stationed there.)
In my internet research, I did come across some detailed battle history of Green Island. I printed it out and not knowing how he would react (even after 11 years of friendship), I presented it to him before the (gawd awful) coffee came. I didn’t want him to be TOO alert in case things didn’t go well. 🙂
Well, you can see his reaction. He was “tickled and pickled” I went through the trouble.
During breakfast, he told me about one detail he was assigned to on Green Island – the digging of new holes for latrines. Never mind my eggs were over-easy. But he’s gone through hell whereas I was spared. This was everyday fare for him.
He told me he picked out two “dumb new guys” who thought they knew everything for the detail. They went out where the other “used up” latrines were. He ordered them to start digging new holes in this hard coral-like stuff not too far from the other “used up” holes while he “supervised”.
I knew I would get his goat if I interrupted him. That was part of the fun.
So I interrupted him. For fun.
“Jack…dig? Why didn’t you just have them make a small hole then throw in a grenade?”
Well, I asked for it… in Denny’s… on a busy Saturday morning.
“You dumb shit,” he declared with that boyish grin. “YOU could have been one of the dumb new guys. YOU would have fit right in. We didn’t need any more craters! We had LOTS of craters – all around us! So we dug holes like we were ordered to. So shut up and listen!”
Whooo-ee. That was fun… in Denny’s… on a busy Saturday morning.
I never asked him if he read the history on Green Island. Later on, though, Old Man Jack said he had wanted to go back to those “stinkin’ islands” just to see. It felt as if he wanted to let some demons out.
He never made it back.
Perhaps he’s there now saluting his young buddies he had to leave behind.
In an earlier blog, I praised Old Man Jack for his forgiveness. It is not possible to write about what he did or saw out on the god-forsaken islands in the Pacific during World War II. Only he truly knew what was in his soul.
But in spite of his exposure to combat in that very personal and bitter war, Jack’s practice of forgiveness was his most important contribution to the healing of this world. The world we enjoy today. I truly believe that.
Old man Jack loved my kids – perhaps his warmth and the forgiveness in his heart will shine through.
True stories about World War II – One war. Two Countries. One Family