Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day

In 1945 my dad was 17 years old, a new high school graduate, when he went west to join the Navy.  While he was in boot camp in San Diego, the war ended.  Nevertheless, he went on to serve on a minesweeper in the Pacific.  He used to tell stories about standing on the bridge of the ship with a rifle.  When the lookout spotted a mine, they would draw up near it, and shoot it with the rifle until it exploded.  High tech stuff back then.  It doesn’t seem like much now, but I guess they were doing an important job, making sure the ocean was safe again.  He told stories about salt water showers and how miserably hot it was on the boat.  He had a lot of Navy-isms, like “Take all you want, but eat all you take.”  He spent time in Subic Bay, Philippines; ironic that we ended up coming back to the P.I. all those years later.  It’s times like these that I wish I had gotten him to tell me more stories about his Navy life.

He only served a year before returning to the states for college at the University of Texas, on the GI Bill, like so many other veterans of the day.  He graduated in 1950 with a degree in mechanical engineering.

My grandfather, my dad’s father, was a doughboy in World War I.  I have seen a picture of him in his uniform, but I don’t know where or what became of it.  I don’t know if he ever saw combat, but I do know that everyone who served played a part in the outcome, whether it was a foot soldier or an ambulance driver or a weatherman. 

My mother’s father was gassed in World War I, and he died at a very young age in 1934, as a result of his injuries.  My mother was only four years old when he died, so she never really knew him. 

It’s not very ladylike, but I am so curious and fascinated about war and history.  About the type of people with such courage, such selflessness.  My bookshelves are lined with books about the Pacific theater of World War II.  From where I sit I can see a book by Stephen F. Ambrose called “The Wild Blue” about WWII aviators.  Next to it is a book called “Duty” by Bob Greene, a memoir about a son getting to know his dying father.  It turned out that Paul Tibbets, the pilot of the Enola Gay, lived in their hometown.  Greene got to know Tibbets, and in turn got to know his father, and learned about the mettle of the men who won the war for us.  I recently read “Unbroken” by Lauren Hillenbrand, about an Olympic sprinter who later served in the Army during WWII.  His plane was shot down, and he spent 90+ days with another man on a leaky liferaft, drifting, barely surviving on the fish they could catch.  They were “rescued” by a Japanese ship, only to be sent to a prison camp in Japan.  Their rations were constantly cut in half, so that at the end of the war they were barely more than living skeletons.  The will to survive, to overcome, to live, kept them going.  For many, too many, it wasn’t enough.  

I have books about the Bataan Death March.  I have memoirs about American families (and their children!) who were interned during the war at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila, under unbelievably harsh conditions.  There are books about the American nurses who stayed behind after the fall of Corregidor, nursing soldiers in the jungle, exposed to the elements.  The brutality of the Japanese military during the war was unimaginable, but these people survived, with creativity and sheer determination.  In my comfy cozy world, I ask myself often if I would have been one of the smart ones, or would I have given up?  I am struck by the contrast between the Japanese of the war, and the Japanese of the country where I lived as a child.  None of the Japanese that I encountered in my life there were anything but kind, polite and generous.  Their capacity to embrace humility is remarkable. 

In Manila we lived close to Fort Bonifacio, where there was a military cemetery.  I remember the moving sight of the acres and acres of white headstones, not really comprehending what I was seeing.  It meant hundreds and thousands of dead soldiers who gave their lives so that the world could be at peace.  I feel that it is my obligation as a human being, to read about and know the story of these men and women, so that they will be kept alive in our memories, and so that their deaths were not in vain.  

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