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.