As is my custom I seek out reading material to provide background and context; to further enlighten in seeking understanding of answerless questions: “What was it like?”; “How did the fighting men endure and ultimately prevail against what, in light of the combat unreadiness of the United States armed forces as the Axis Powers unleashed their conquering armies in Poland and Manchuria as the thirties gave way to the 1940s, must have seemed invincible foes?”. Hidden below the surface of such questions is my own questioning as to whether, being so tested, I would have been found wanting.
The answers to all these questions remain decidedly, “I just don’t know”. As indeed it is impossible to answer with certainty, the study of history perhaps able to answer questions of what happened, and even perhaps why, but cannot answer with satisfaction how one, transported back in time though the exercise of vivid imagination, would have performed or even coped with, what the recollections and historical recordings bring to light as the unmitigated horror and deprivation of those who fought and died, doing only what they were asked to do – doing only what they must, to assure their own survival and, by extension, the survival of our way of life – the enemies of which were determined to threaten if not destroy should they have indeed triumphed.
That the answer was never in doubt seems obvious in light of the historical record. But to the men of the 1st Marine Division, fighting a fanatical enemy in the jungles of Guadalcanal in 1942, the question of ultimate triumph was far from certain, standing orders being that, should they be overrun units were to scatter to the hills and continue the fight as guerilla forces.
One book I am currently reading is E.B. Sledge’s epic story of his Pacific War, With the Old Breed, his character being one followed in the miniseries in part of the Producer’s attempt to put real faces and personal stories into their depiction of the savage battlefields of the war against Japan. The book, written in 1981, pulls no punches in recalling the weariness and constant state of fear and exhaustion the grunts dealt with as they slogged through the island hopping campaigns designed to take back the region, so vast beyond comprehension as to make the European Theatre battlespace seem inconsequential in comparison.
Usually I am a fast reader and devour a book in one or two sittings. This book has taken much longer. Not for any lack of interest as the writing is riveting and stirs the emotions as only a thrilling novel writer can, yet made all the more sobering being a recollection of things that actually happened; the constant and brutal reality of death being a constant companion for the men so engaged. There were, what now gets judgmental scrutiny, the atrocities committed on both sides. Recalling the widespread practice of some Marines collecting gold by extracting teeth from freshly dead Japanese, the author brought back a story I was told, or more precisely a snippet of a story, by my Uncle L. W., who, having participated on the D Day landing on Omaha Beach, found himself later in the war participating in the invasion of Luzon, being part of a joint Army/Navy fire control team that would direct Naval gunfire in support of the advancing troops. It was one of those times of family gathering where the adults would talk about this and that and somehow the topic of the war came up. These were not common and if I had to guess it probably was in the context of the, then raging Vietnam conflict, and the reports of massacres at places like MyLai, the criticism being harsh in the press. My uncle offered a statement, a sentence or two only with little elaboration on the subject, recalling the darkness of that horrible earlier time, described being on the invasion beach at Luzon, some number of days after the initial assault, seeing someone removing teeth from bloated Japanese corpses with “linesmen pliers”. I recall nothing exact of his words but the phrase “linesmen pliers” and had no revulsion or comprehension of the impact of the event. No comprehension of the scars of the wounds not visible could impart on a 19 year old mind participating in and being witness to such carnage and waste of humanity – if humanity was even able to exist in such an environment.
Much has been written of late of the comments of Tom Hanks that the war in the Pacific had huge racial overtones. I have no position on the merits of the comments nor the appropriateness of the words being said. One has only to read the accounts of those who witnessed it up close to realize that the Pacific was a different kind of fight than that endured in places like Normandy and Bastogne.
I worked with a man a few years back who recalled that growing up he had a difficult time with his father, a father who’s anger was always just below the surface ready to erupt in outbursts that, directed often at his son, constituted the type of mental abuse so often written about in books describing the how not to parent a child. It was only as an adult, with his father nearing the end of his life, that he was finally to gain an understanding of the inward torment his Dad had endured, and to finally forgive the suffering he himself had endured, at least partially as a result. His Dad had been a Marine on Guadalcanal. At the twilight of his years with the end clearly in sight, in one of those moments we all hope to have when our burdens can truly be lifted by the telling of them to those we love, he recalled a particularly horrid example of the price paid by the participants in that campaign. It seemed a particularly harsh tactic of the Japanese defenders of that jungle, was to, upon capture of a Marine alive, to torture them within earshot of the Marine lines and, in the worst case, skin them alive. The screams of agony would produce in the Marines a predictable result. A patrol would be sent into the jungle seeking to rescue their comrade. The Japanese, having anticipated the reaction, would lie in ambush, inflicting greater casualties as a result. In time the tactics of the Marines would evolve, and, my friend’s father, being the highest qualified sharpshooter in the Company was tasked, with a small force of two or three others, to respond to such a capture by crawling through the jungle, not seeking to rescue, but by applying his talents at a safe range, to identify and then, with the mercy only a well-aimed shot can deliver to one in unspeakable agony, silence the screams.
I have no way of validating the veracity of the story. But reading of the Pacific it is not hard to imagine such thing to be true. The costs of battle are not borne solely by those who are die or are wounded through gun or shellfire. The scars may hide but the wounds remain deep.
In reading the book last evening, the Saturday night before Easter Sunday, I was struck by a passage written to recall an event during the Okinawa campaign, the first campaign on Japanese territory where Japanese civilians lived as well as Japanese soldiers. In the midst of weeks of unbroken combat E.B. Sledge wrote:
Nearby our regimental Protestant chaplain had set up a little altar made out of a box from which he was administering Holy Communion to a small group of dirty Marines. I glanced at a face of a Marine opposite me as the file halted. He was filthy like all of us, but even through the thickly mud-caked beard I could see he had fine features. His eyes were bloodshot and weary. He slowly lowered his light machine gun from his shoulder, set the handle on his toe to keep it off the mud, and steadied the barrel with his hand. He watched the chaplain with an expression of skepticism that seemed to ask, “What’s the use of all that? Is it gonna keep them guys from getting’ hit?” That face was so weary but so expressive that I knew that he, like all of us, couldn’t help but have doubts about his God in the presence of constant shock and suffering. Why did it go on and on? The machine gunner’s buddy held the gun’s tripod on his shoulder, glanced briefly at the muddy little communion service, and then stared blankly off toward a clump of pines to our rear – as though he hoped to see home back there somewhere.
“Move out” came along their file.
The machine gunner hoisted the heavy weapon onto his shoulder as they went slipping and sliding around a bend in the trail into the gathering dusk.
And so I stopped reading after a few more paragraphs for the evening. With the beauty of spring in the air and thoughts of the miracle of Easter filling my mind, I paused once again to marvel, with undying respect and gratitude, the sacrifices made by others so that I may enjoy the life I lead.
That it inspires a feeling of humility words cannot possible describe only begins to acknowledge the feelings such accounts stir.