It’s not about a three day sale or a BBQ, folks.
I was out front one morning, enjoying a gorgeous holiday weekend. While pointing in my general direction, Old Man Jack said to me from across the street, “Koji, she needs to come in at night.” My car was in between Jack and me. He loved my car…almost as much as his F4U Corsair.
Why would he tell me to put my Grabber Orange Mustang into the garage? He knows it’s parked outside 24/7 because the aggravating ex took away my garage space without saying a word.
“Say what, Jack?” asked I…
I was humbled shortly thereafter by this exceptional and aging WWII combat vet who went to war as a young boy.
Indeed, I had to park my supercharged, car show winning Grabber Orange Mustang at curbside 24/7. Blistering sun, rain, ashes from wildfires, toxic sea gull poop and dog pee on my chrome wheels, I tell ya. The sea gull poop was the worst: unless you got if off before the desert-like sun microwaved it, it would leave the vinyl graphics underneath stained. Crap.
But I had to park it outside on the street, as I mentioned, as my darned ex decided to secretly take over my man-cave just months before I got the Mustang GT.
If you thought Pearl Harbor was a sneak attack, the ex’s takeover of my man-cave was a blitzkrieg. Let’s just say it was a helluva shock to come home from work one day to find an illegal alien well on his way into putting up walls in the garage. She was building a “massage room”. Well, in the end, it was used for much more, unfortunately.
But back to Old Man Jack telling me that “she needs to come in at night”…
“Jack, I can’t put the car in the garage. You know that,” I said.
“No, not the car, you dumb shit. The flag!” he said with his boyish trademark grin and with great fondness.
“Huh? The flag?” I asked.
“Shit, didn’t they teach you anything in school? You gotta put a light on her if she’s staying out at night,” he said.
I then realized he had pointed to the flag behind me and not my car. Duh. I had put the red, white and blue out for the holidays as always and had simply left it out – and yes, for convenience. He must have seen it left out the night before. But then again, he must have been biting his tongue for years as I had left it out before.
As Popeye, the Sailor Man would say, “How embarrassinks.”
Well, Old Man Jack was right; there has to be a light shining on the flag at night. And yes, I had learned that exact flag etiquette as a youngster in school but just plain forgot with time. Heck, me and this other kid had the honor to take down the school’s flag at the end of the day on a regular basis then properly fold her up while in the 6th grade. I can still hear the clamps clanking on the metal flag pole as we lowered her.
Anyways, I had remembered that story with today being Memorial Day. I had the flag out in reverence to our fallen. I even caught the tail end of a flight of four WWII T-6 Texans just north of us in a missing man formation.
It is now dark outside and yes, I brought her in. Can’t upset Old Man Jack, you know.
But it ate my heart out to see it draped over his casket just about three years later.
Thanks for reading and revere our fallen.
“….The son-of-a-bitch had no legs…” said Old Man Jack from his wife’s blue wheelchair. His arms were making like windmills. Well, windmills as fast as his 88 year old arms could go. He had a comical yet strained look on his face, his bushy white eyebrows still prominent.
But you could see the pain behind those eyes…and in his deadened voice.
Several months have passed since I visited with Old Man Jack at his grave. With Memorial Day around the corner, May 17th was a beautiful day to visit him. A recent rainstorm had just passed and the blue skies were painted with thin, wispy clouds.
I could see no one had stopped by since my last visit; at least no one that left flowers for his wife Carol and him. The hole for flowers was covered up and grass had crept up onto his gravestone.
I had brought along something for Jack this time; something I thought he would enjoy. So after cleaning up his resting place, it was placed atop his gravestone – his beloved F4U Corsair:
I’m hoping he was beaming. He couldn’t possibly be happier, being with the two most beautiful ladies in his life.
But back to his story.
A few months before he was taken away from his home, we had been sitting in his cluttered garage, talking about this and that; I just can’t recall what. But something in our talk triggered an ugly war flashback from his tormented and mightily buried subconscious. By that day in 2011, I could tell when he was enduring one, having sat in his garage with him for ten years.
He began as he did before. He would suddenly stop then gaze down at his hands for a couple of seconds. His left ring finger would begin to rhythmically pick under his right thumbnail. His white, bushy eyebrows now made thin with time would partly obscure his eyes from me when he lowered his head.
While I am unable to recall his exact words, he slowly allowed an ugly event to surface:
Old Man Jack began, “We were ordered to go on a patrol. We were issued rifles and hoped to God we wouldn’t come across any Japs,” he said in a remorseful way.¹ “Then, we came to these rice paddies… We could see hills around us… but that also meant the Japs could see us.”²
“We just followed the guy in front of us like cattle,” he said. “We were making it through the rice paddies when a couple of shells came in. Man, I hit the ground real quick.
Then all of a sudden, all hell broke loose. Rounds were coming in like crazy all around me. They had this area zeroed in real good.”
He continued. “I ain’t ashamed to say it. I was scared real bad. Then we all started to scram. I got up and started to run. I dumped my rifle and ran like crazy.” While in that blue wheelchair that belonged to his beloved wife Carol, Old Man Jack made like he was running, much like Popeye in this clip:
He then took his gaze away from his hands. “Then I saw this guy flying through the air with his arms making like he was still running… but the son-of-a-bitch had no legs!” He pointed his finger and made an arc like a rainbow, then swung his arms like a windmill. Apparently, an enemy round had hit his comrade, severing his upper torso from his legs then throwing him into the air. Although the comrade met a violent end, Old Man Jack was describing how he saw his arms flailing.
He stopped. His eyes returned to his hands. I still cannot imagine the torment he was enduring, even after 70 years.
I never will. I just hope he didn’t take it to his grave with him.
Combat tormented him forever.
Let us remember this Memorial Day our fellow Americans who perished so young for the sake of their families and friends, no matter which conflict… and also firmly support those in uniform as I write. They, too, are being forgotten by many, even as they fight – and die – for us in godforsaken faraway places.
1. I would like to remind my readers that Old Man Jack had no hatred to me or my family when he uttered the word “Jap”. He is digressing to a most vile period in his life in which he could be killed the very next moment. If you are offended, it is suggested you participate in an all-out war; perhaps you will understand why.
2. At his funeral, the minister read off the islands he fought on. Based solely on his description of the large rice paddy and hills combined with what the minister said, I firmly believe this was Okinawa 1945. Oddly, while Old Man Jack mentioned Guadalcanal, Rabaul, Bougainville and Green Island, he never mentioned Okinawa.
A journey to the Riverside National Cemetery for this Memorial Day weekend was deemed in order.
Just my way of saying “Thank you” to three men… and Marge Johnson as well.
I was told that the Boy Scouts planted over 200,000 flags for this weekend. Well, there’s a few more flags now… albeit just small tokens of appreciation from me, they are recognition of what America deeply owes them.
If you never served (like me), you should be grateful that these men did… instead of you.
In a documentary, a paralyzed Marine who made it back from Iwo Jima said one indescribable smell resonates in him to that day: the sweet, distinct smell of fresh blood squirting out from a wound to the jugular vein. He said if you smelled that, it signaled a dying Marine.
The Riverside National Cemetery is the third-largest cemetery managed by the National Cemetery Administration. It is also home of the Medal of Honor Memorial and only one of four sites recognized as a National Medal of Honor Memorial Site. The Medal of Honor Memorial’s walls feature the names of all medal recipients.
(Note: By clicking on the images, you should be able to download full rez image files.)
The uncle of one of our most patriotic bloggers, “pacificparatrooper“, is interred here.
Master Sergeant James O’Leary, USMC.
He rests in this peaceful grassy knoll next to our other patriots…
To learn about MSgt. O’Leary’s military service, please click on this link to read one of gpcox’s stories about her uncle: MSgt James O’Leary. You will also learn how gpcox’s family has been serving our country for many decades, including her father “Smitty” who endured combat with the famed 11th Airborne during WWII.
Of course, a visit to Mr. and Mrs. Johnson was in order.
Mr. Johnson was a decorated Marine fighting on board CV-6, the USS Enterprise, during the Battle of Midway and the most brutal Solomon Islands campaign in WWII.
Marge recently passed away; I was unable to fulfill my promise to take her again to visit with her husband… but then again, they are together for eternity now. I felt Marge would like some flowers and took an Old Glory for Mr. Johnson. He loved the Corps. You can read about Mr. Johnson, USMC here: Mr. Johnson, USMC.
Interestingly, I learned something about Mr. Johnson’s service in the US Marine Corps. His enlistment was longer than what I was led to believe. He was but 16 when he “got suckered” into enlisting. I’ll need to write about that later, I guess.
May they both happily rest in peace together.
I have come to know Grace and her husband Bernie though a close knit national Mustang club. No, not the horse. The car.
Her first husband was US Army Staff Sergeant Robert Hartsock. His name is etched into the Medal of Honor Memorial wall. He was killed in action at just 24 years of age in Viet Nam. He was but two months away from ending his tour of duty and left a son, Dion.
Staff Sergeant Hartsock’s official Medal of Honor citation reads:
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity in action at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty. S/Sgt. Hartsock, distinguished himself in action while serving as section leader with the 44th Infantry Platoon. When the Dau Tieng Base Camp came under a heavy enemy rocket and mortar attack, S/Sgt. Hartsock and his platoon commander spotted an enemy sapper squad which had infiltrated the camp undetected. Realizing the enemy squad was heading for the brigade tactical operations center and nearby prisoner compound, they concealed themselves and, although heavily outnumbered, awaited the approach of the hostile soldiers. When the enemy was almost upon them, S/Sgt. Hartsock and his platoon commander opened fire on the squad. As a wounded enemy soldier fell, he managed to detonate a satchel charge he was carrying. S/Sgt. Hartsock, with complete disregard for his life, threw himself on the charge and was gravely wounded. In spite of his wounds, S/Sgt. Hartsock crawled about 5 meters to a ditch and provided heavy suppressive fire, completely pinning down the enemy and allowing his commander to seek shelter. S/Sgt. Hartsock continued his deadly stream of fire until he succumbed to his wounds. S/Sgt. Hartsock’s extraordinary heroism and profound concern for the lives of his fellow soldiers were in keeping with the highest traditions of the military service and reflect great credit on him, his unit, and the U.S. Army.
May they all rest in peace.
I looked at these two old keys in my hand. They belonged to Old Man Jack and the thought of Memorial Day instantly crossed my mind.
Two old keys to Memorial Day.
A year ago, I had written a blog about Memorial Day (“It” and Memorial Day).
At times, I feel the meaning of Memorial Day has either faded or has changed.
In essence, many people living in today’s “politically correct” society have taken the sacrifices of our fallen to mean a three day weekend.
Sad…but that’s how I feel.. and it angers me.
When I looked at those two keys, my mind raced to some of the things Old Man Jack said.
But mostly, to the things he could not say.
In the twelve years I was honored to know him, he would abruptly blurt out something once in a while when we were talking in his garage… while sitting in the blue wheelchair that belonged to his wife.
There was no story associated with these mutterings.
“Boys got killed on those stinkin’ islands…” then raise his thick, white eyebrows.
Or, “Hell, I pissed in my pants.”
Or once in a while, he would make a muffled smack with his lips then slowly shake his head left and right… and not say anything more.
One such utterance was mentioned in “Old Man Jack’s Love”.
Upon gazing upon his beloved Corsair in front of him after over 60 years, he began weeping.
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.
Two old keys to Memorial Day…
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: