Tag Archives: Pacific

“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.

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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.

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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.

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(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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

Mr. Johnson, USMC – Part II


Yes, Mr. Johnson was in for it.

The carnage he was to experience would be absent even from the worst possible nightmare a nineteen year old boy can possibly have dreamed.

Violence no young boy of 19 should have to endure.

He would have two lives after he stepped into that Marine Corps recruiting station: one of reality during the day and of a nightmare he would never awaken from at night.

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I took them to breakfast for a belated 66th wedding anniversary and 88th birthdays. It’s softened as that’s how Marge wanted it.  Seal Beach, CA. August 14, 2011.

I was not close to Mr. Johnson as I was to Old Man Jack; perhaps it was because for the first five years after I moved into this patriotic Naval neighborhood, he and his good wife Marge traveled about the US in their motorhome.  They were gone for perhaps six to eight months out of the year.  Man, did they enjoy seeing the US of A.  After all, he fought for her.

He stayed indoors most of the time when at home while Marge would walkabout during the warm summer nights with her wine and chat with neighbors and me.  She enjoyed her Chablis very much.  Slowly, her legs would give way to age.  Mr. Johnson’s, too.

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In the early part of 1942, Mr. Johnson found himself on a little boat out in the middle of the Pacific – the Big E.

The USS Enterprise.

CV-6.

She was one of only three operational carriers in the Pacific.  The Enterprise, Hornet and Yorktown.

The Battle for Midway

He was on his way to the Battle of Midway (Mr. Johnson did not tell me that.  Old Man Jack did.).  June of 1942.

A tremendous gamble of scarce naval assets and young men by Admiral Nimitz.

PFC Doreston “Johnnie” Johnson manned her anti-aircraft batteries as a US Marine.

Thousands of young lives were lost during the most critical sea battle – on both sides.  But the critical gamble paid off for the US.  The Japanese Imperial Navy lost four carriers.  They would never recover.

But we lost the Yorktown.  A tremendous loss for the United States…but the tide of war changed.

The USS Yorktown on fire at the crucial Battle of Midway. She would later be sunk.

Miraculously, the Enterprise escaped damage.

And as far as I understand, so did the young boy from Basile, Louisiana, Mr. Johnson.

At least physically.

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Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands Campaign

His next trial would be Guadalcanal and the Solomon Islands campaign.

It would be an insult to to all the brave men that were there if I were to even try and express in writing what brutal sea combat was like.

I was not there.  But every young man there thought – every second – that there was a bomb coming at him.  Constantly.

Like hearing shrapnel from near bomb misses ricocheting off the batteries – or striking flesh.  The deafening, unending thundering of “whump-whump-whump” from AA batteries.  The yelling.  The sound of a mortally wounded enemy plane crashing into the water nearby with a likewise young pilot.  The screams of wounded or dying boys.

This is taken from a naval summary: “After a month of rest and overhaul, Enterprise sailed on 15 July for the South Pacific where she joined TF 61 to support the amphibious landings in the Solomon Islands on 8 August. For the next 2 weeks, the carrier and her planes guarded seaborne communication lines southwest of the Solomons. On 24 August a strong Japanese force was sighted some 200 miles north of Guadalcanal and TF 61 sent planes to the attack. An enemy light carrier was sent to the bottom and the Japanese troops intended for Guadalcanal were forced back. Enterprise suffered most heavily of the United States ships, 3 direct hits and 4 near misses killed 74, wounded 95, and inflicted serious damage on the carrier. But well-trained damage control parties, and quick, hard work patched her up so that she was able to return to Hawaii under her own power.”

“Repaired at Pearl Harbor from 10 September to 16 October, Enterprise departed once more for the South Pacific where with Hornet, she formed TF 61. On 26 October, Enterprise scout planes located a Japanese carrier force and the Battle of the Santa Cruz Island was underway. Enterprise aircraft struck carriers, battleships, and cruisers during the struggle, while the “Big E” herself underwent intensive attack. Hit twice by bombs, Enterprise lost 44 killed and had 75 wounded. Despite serious damage, she continued in action and took on board a large number of planes from Hornet when that carrier had to be abandoned. Though the American losses of a carrier and a destroyer were more severe than the Japanese loss of one light cruiser, the battle gained priceless time to reinforce Guadalcanal against the next enemy onslaught.

Regardless of who is correct – and we’ll never know for obvious reasons – Enterprise gunners shot down more planes at Eastern Solomons in 15 minutes and at Santa Cruz in 25 minutes than did the vast majority of all battleships, carriers, cruisers and destroyers throughout the entire war.

She was the last operating carrier in the Pacific.”

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the violence of World War II, perhaps these photos will give you an idea.

Try – just try – to imagine you are on that ship…  Nineteen years old.  The Japanese planes are shooting at you and dropping bombs on you.  Dead and wounded boys are everywhere.  Fires are raging…  The ship is listing…and through all this, you must continue to man your anti-aircraft guns…  Protecting the ship and the lives of your fellow Americans.

A Japanese bomb explodes on the USS Enterprise
One of the direct bomb hits.  All the young men in this area (Gun Group 3) were killed. Many could not be found.
The USS Enterprise under attack. A near miss but men were killed or wounded by the shrapnel.
The USS Enterprise on fire. August 24, 1942. Mr. Johnson was on her.
A Val bomber on fire goes past the radar mast on the USS Enterprise. Perhaps one of Mr. Johnson’s rounds hit it.
Damaged hull from one of the near misses.
More hull damage from bomb shrapnel.
The USS Enterprise listing from battle damage.
Burning Japanese planes seen from the deck of the Enterprise. That’s how close they were. Up close and very personal.  Aug. 24, 1942.
Burial service at sea for 44 of the men after the battle at Santa Cruz. Oct 27 1942

Remember these young boys.  I always will.

Mr. Johnson was one of them.

Mr. Johnson was one of those wounded.

Twice.

And I have proof of his valor and guts on board as a US Marine.

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More to come in Part III.

The Forgiveness of a WWII Sailor


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.

Jack was in the hospital often in the last five years of his life. We went as often as we could to say hi.
When Jack was laid up in the hospital and couldn’t make the block party, my kids wrote him a special 4th of July greeting. They wrote “Big Jack” as my son was known as “Little Jack”. Yes, I named my son after old man Jack.
Old man Jack loved it when my Mustang won at car shows. Here are the “two Jacks” in my life. You can see old man Jack’s trademark grin.
We’d sit outside on our front lawn whenever we could… He’d share his sailor’s wisdom (with appropriate restraint) and my kids would smile.
My kids lead the way to one of our breakfasts. Against my wishes, he’d insist on paying for the kids’ chow as well. I could never win.
He loved it when we’d all visit with him in his home. He loved my kids. Imagine that…
My oldest son loves to work on his muscles – as did old man Jack in his youth.