Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The way it was

Today is Veteran's Day, formerly known as Armistice Day. On the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month in 1918, they finally stopped the bloodshed in World War One, the War To End All Wars. My grandfather fought in that war.

But the fates were just getting warmed up. World War Two, the Big One, came next.

I rode a tank
Held a general's rank
When the blitzkrieg raged
And the bodies stank

My father fought in that war.

At a place called Peleliu. Never heard of it? Then you're obviously not either a former Marine or the descendant of someone who was there. Because no one else knows a thing about it.

On that island in 1944, the First Marine Division, 15,000 strong, locked itself in a struggle with 13,000 Japanese defenders in a fight to the death. Strategically it was insignificant, but the enemy garrison was wiped out entirely while 5,000 Marines went down. You do the math.

The Marines fought for three months amidst razor-sharp coral hills in places with names like Bloody Nose Ridge and the Valley of Death, in temperatures soaring to 118 degrees. It was hell on earth.

As a young boy, I wanted to hear war stories. My Dad was a likely source, because he had seen the elephant. But he only told funny stories. Like the time he wandered down to the river alone on Peleliu to bathe, naked, with only a towel in his hand. Nineteen year-olds obviously don't always make the best choices. He encountered an enemy platoon in full combat gear.

What happened? As my Dad related it, deadpan, they all got away.

Anyway, he had another story he thought was funny. About the time he was crawling along a trench when he encountered two riflemen and a flamethrower hunkered down trying to deal with an enemy machine gun nest some thirty yards away. The flamethrower didn't want to stick his head up and draw fire so he stuck the nozzle of his weapon over the lip of the trench and, moving it around blindly, asked the other two Marines, "Over here? Is that the direction?"

Those Marines assented that he seemed to have the nozzle pointing about right and he discharged his full load without ever looking. Those heavy flamethrowers only had about an eight-second capacity.

My Dad thought this image of a flamethrower firing blindly, one-handed, was funny. This was the end of the story, and it was always told with a twinkle in his eye.

But I was a persistent young boy. One day I insisted on knowing what happened to the machine gun nest.

"Why, we got it."

I wouldn't let it go. "But how do you know, Dad?"

I remember my Dad's voice tightening and his eyes losing their lustre. His look became distant and detached.

"Well, because we got up and charged them, and they were burning so we shot them."

He never told the story again.

You can't imagine how much I miss my Dad. He was a hale and hearty 60 year-old before he fell ill with lung cancer and died the next year, in 1986. I was only thirty-four. I regret that only one of my three children was ever held in his strong hands.


Sunshine said...

Bless you for a deep and thoughtful post on this Veteran's Day.. and gratitude to those of your family who served... Wishing you peace for all that the stories and losses have meant to you.

I remember a West Wing episode .. where the President ordered a bombing ... while attending a musical performance... the last line of the finale was "What was triumphant in war has been made glorious in peace."
War is all of that, I suppose.

Ah yes, Minnesota voters!! The senatorial results are still in limbo. It should be noted that for the last 3 weeks before the election, the Republican Senatorial election committee poured millions of dollars into the coffers of the TV stations here with their hateful negative ugly comic-like anti-Franken ads .. after Coleman had said he was stopping his negative ads.

Wow, after this long comment, I hope other people will comment too....

David said...


I was channeling you last weekend in my racing double. Thanks for the shirt.

CewTwo said...

I love the way that you combine human baser emotions in your posts. I smile, I frown, I laugh, I contemplate life.

Thanks, Peter! I am a vet. No war, no action... Just a missileman in a very safe area. The only stories I have are of long hours, lots of inspections, and excellent memories of other men that served in the same place and at the same time. I still communicate with some of those that I served with!

Rainmaker said...

It's amazing to see the photos of that ridge (and that island) during the war. Looks more like a bombed out sand lot with not a strain of vegetation on it.

Very well thought through post.

ShirleyPerly said...

Nice tribute to your dad. Sad that he passed away so relatively young. Being a history nut and a former Marine, I'll bet my husband knows about Peleliu. Thanks for educating me.