Friday, March 23, 2007

Memories of war

There are tears welling up in his eyes. “I was given the Navy Cross. But I’ve never worn it.”

Joe is more than 80 years old now, but he is still pained to think of what happened when he was just a teen. A frail, slightly bent man, Joe is the recipient of numerous professional association awards. A man who made his career in Civil Engineering, a man who tells me, to my surprise, that he was taken prisoner by the Japanese during World War II.

We talk in the hallway of the hotel, near the ballroom. It is time for cocktails as the guests arrive for the banquet that is part of the annual spring conference. Idle chatting turns solemn.

“I’ve never talked about it. How can you,” he says. He describes his service in the Pacific, driving landing craft for five separate invasions. “How can you describe seeing a young man’s scalp torn off, a young man that may have been riding in the landing ship on an earlier trip, his brain washing in and out of his skull with the wash of the waves?”

Joe, I tell him, it’s good to talk about these things. You should be proud of your service.

“I don’t deserve that medal,” he says. “Not after all those boys who didn’t come back. What did I do?”

You did your duty, I say. And you should talk about what you went through to honor those that didn’t make it and to educate young people about the sacrifices of war. You did your part, and you should be proud for what you and all those other guys did.

He nods, but I am sure he is not convinced. We talk of the National World War II Museum in New Orleans, how they are working to document the stories of his generation—before they’re all gone.

“Stephen Ambrose hounded me for years,” he confesses. “But I never wanted to talk about it.”

He finally admits that someone from the museum recently did get him to talk. She came by his office with a video camera and taped about three hours of his war memories. Joe says she was pretty.

I laugh. You dirty old man, I say, so that’s what it takes.

It was his fifth landing that was the worst, he says. They told him there would be little resistance. They told him there would only be a hundred or so Japanese on the island they attacked that day. There were 9,000.

The Japanese thought Joe knew something about the Navy’s special ordinance. Joe says he thinks that’s why they didn’t kill him. That’s certainly why they tortured him. Joe survived more than a year in their brutal hands.

“They used to wake us up before dawn by jabbing us with bamboo sticks,” Joe recalls. “Then one day, the sun was up, and nobody came to get us.” He hitched a ride with an Aussie soldier on a battered personnel carrier all the way to Singapore. After more than a week, he arrived and found a Navy Destroyer anchored in the bay. They told him the news. The Japanese had signed a treaty of unconditional surrender. It was September 1945.

Joe’s eyes glisten as he speaks, but he manages not to cry. So many years ago, and yet so clearly near to him.

“Hey, this is supposed to be a party!” he says suddenly.

Yes, let’s go get another drink, I tell him. You deserve it.


ashley said...

Tell Joe I said "Thanks".

TravelingMermaid said...

Thanks for sharing this. I am so touched... we owe these men so much. I was recently talking with the night guard in my office building...he was in the first wave on Guadalcanal and was wounded. It was such a surreal moment to be talking to someone who was actually there. And he was so humble about your guy. A quality in short supply these days.

Leigh C. said...

I finished reading "Flags of Our Fathers" a while back. I then noticed the framed certificate and letter on the wall of one of the rooms in my grandfather's house. Though he never went overseas, he trained many bomber pilots out of Alamogordo, N.M....and then one fateful day, he'd had to bail out of his plane when an engine caught fire.

He carries a "Caterpillar Club" membership card with him to this day, given to him by the manufacturers of the parachute he used. Your post also tells of the other things he and others of his generation carried - the burden of all of this country's hopes, and the awful task of being put out there to fight and to die for those hopes.

Tell your fellow he deserves so much more than another drink. God bless him.

Sophmom said...

What a lovely post! My father was an OSS officer in the Pacific theater. He spent most of his service in China, remaining after the war to fight the coming revolution in China. He told a few carefully packaged stories.

My husband also had his Vietnam stories, all cleaned up for the telling, until Oliver Stone made it okay to talk about the bad things good boys did in Vietnam. I think that finally confessing some of it helped him in some ways. I hope so. I suppose that only warriors can fully understand the real loss of war.

Perhaps if we insist on telling the stories of warriors, then, in time, we will have fewer wars.

mominem said...

Joe, like some many of his comrades in arms don't see what he did as special. It was always their buddies who were heroes.

They were all heroes, and there are so few of them left.

Cursed Tea said...

I found your blog through dangerblond and I'm glad I did.

This story touched me . Both my granfathers were prisoners of the Japanese. They were taken captive in Singapore. One was a doctor - and he had to run a hospital in the camp - they shared their rations with the sick who given none and every week he'd go and ask for medicine and get beaten up and every week he'd go back for the same just in case one week they'd change their mind. My other grandfather was a corporal in the Gordon Highlanders. He always said he'd wouldn't have missed his adventures for anything - and had the time of his life in Singapore until the Japanese turned up. But my mother remembers him screaming in the night. He was never bitter like some of his friends. When I went to Tokyo in 2004 he said to me - "tell them I'm still here"!

The doctor died before I was born but my other grandfather died at 86 this past October. He was an incredible man. My grandmother gave me a small book of Scottish songs that he had kept with him during his entire time in the war. I treasure it.

Thanks for your post.
Best Wishes

Mike H. said...

Did Joe tell you that he lost his Navy Cross in Katrina? His house flooded.
I presume that you left out his last name on purpose, so I won't reveal it, but I used to date his daughter in college. One night I noticed the medal in a display case. Since I was in Navy ROTC at the time (and went on to serve 22 years), this made a big impression on me. I have kept in touch since then.