War took my dad away before I was even born. And it never completely gave him back. (More)
That’s my dad standing out there in front of the M7 armored vehicle during the battle of Okinawa. You can see another soldier too, in the foxhole in the foreground. This was not a quiet moment in the line.
I found this photo a couple of months after my dad died. None of us knew he had it. The Signal Corps photographer gave him a copy with a message to my dad on the back, identifying him.
I can’t fully describe the impact that photo had on me. I’ve always known my dad fought in the Pacific, including Okinawa. He rarely mentioned his war experience, but there was one time he said something that left an indelible imprint on my heart. I asked him why he wasn’t going to his division’s reunion (I was all of 11 or 12 at the time), and I argued he must have friends he wanted to see again.
His answer: “All my friends are dead. And I didn’t want to get to know the new guys because most of them would be gone in a week.”
I learned something that day, and as hard as it hit me, it was only a whisper of the horror he endured. In reading his letters home, I recognized how much he changed during the war. He came home physically, but he lost part of himself over there.
My Dad was with the 96th Infantry Division. In trying to learn something about where he’d been and what he’d experienced, I’ve collected a lot of information. I can trace his tracks from basic training to the Pacific Northwest where they trained with the Marines in amphibious assault, to San Francisco where they boarded ships, to Hawaii where they received special training in jungle warfare. I can follow him to the landing points where they were in the first assault waves at Leyte and Okinawa. I can read the cold clinical descriptions of who did what.
But until I read his letters, I never saw the change.
My dad was was born in 1925, and his earliest memories were of the Depression. His first job, when he was still just a kid, involved caddying at a local golf course. There were still people well off enough to golf and, if he was lucky, one of them might pay him for his day’s work by tossing him a nickel.
Old family letters and diaries describe the kid he was: warm, loving, dutiful, witty, and full of promise. His maternal grandmother thought his visits, when he’d hitchhike out to her farm, important enough to mention in her diary, and she always worried about whether he got home safely. He acted in school plays, lettered in sports, and got good grades.
Then came Pearl Harbor. He was seventeen years old. The day after he graduated from high school, he enlisted. He needed special permission from his parents, and I have copies of the form they signed.
After Leyte, where he was in combat for 47 days without relief, he became so ill with dysentery he couldn’t even stand. They evacuated him to a hospital where he stayed even longer because he was also diagnosed with battle fatigue. Once he was physically healthy they assigned him to the motor pool, and he enjoyed the work. At home he had been reported killed in action, and it was his letters to friends and family that let them know he was still alive. At one point, describing the fighting in Leyte to a friend, he wrote, “I hope someday we can find a better way to settle problems than war.”
Just before Christmas 1944, he made a fateful decision. The army would have kept him in the motor pool for the rest of the war. But he wrote to his parents, “I’ve decided to return to the front lines. I owe it to all my buddies who died.”
That was the decision that put him in the first wave at Okinawa, the decision that put him in the one of the bloodiest battles of that war, and the decision that would change him forever. Three months of fighting an enemy who would not surrender and were deeply entrenched in the fortifications of the Shuri Line. His division took the brunt of it. He would later say, “Any day when we didn’t stack a thousand enemy bodies, we figured we hadn’t even been in battle.”
He once told a story of clearing out caves on Okinawa. Their training was never to look in a cave until they’d thrown in a hand grenade. But one day at one cave, he decided to look inside first. He found and rescued an Okinawan family. He had no idea why he decided not to throw a grenade into that one cave, or whether he had thrown grenades into caves with civilians before.
Those of us who haven’t seen it can’t imagine the brutality, the carnage, or the horror. I read an opinion column recently in the New York Times about how soldiers must become Stoics in order to survive. It’s worse than that. They must armor themselves not only against what they see, but against what they must do. And if they ever drop that armor, they become vulnerable to their own memories.
My Dad was was a good man, a good father. He took care of his family. On the surface he seemed Stoic, except for occasional outbursts of anger. But anger was the only thing he could allow himself to feel deeply anymore. It was the only “safe” emotion.
So at long last, at the age of 60, I’ve realized a couple of things about my dad. He studied that war endlessly, and at last I understand why: he was seeking justification, context, understanding. And that distance I felt in him, those places that never could be touched, had been ripped from him by three months in a living hell.
After Okinawa, he no longer spoke of finding a better way than war. To the contrary, in his view it had become inescapable. He didn’t favor war, but he never questioned the government’s decision to go to war. How could he? If Vietnam or Iraq were wrong, how could he be sure World War II and what he’d done in it were right? It was a can of worms he could never open.
Toward the end of his life, he even started collecting the medals he’d scorned all the decades before. He put them on display. They were his assurance that he’d done the right thing. They were the only absolution this world could give him.
And I am left with his letters, with the record of changes and experiences that made him the man I knew. The man who could never quite connect with any depth, but who was still a good man. At least now I understand why.
The war changed him, and that change affected all his relationships for the rest of his life. I can’t blame him for that. I’m very proud of him actually. But I mourn the Dad he might have been, as well as the one he was.
War is a terrible undertaking, and it’s never over when it’s over. I am the woman I am because of the man my dad became. To some extent, I can see that I am still paying part of the price he paid. I now understand bits and pieces of myself, and I can now see how they arose directly from a bloody battle on a tiny Pacific Island.
I treasure the photo above, and I have hung his medals on the wall beside it. Because they answer questions for me, and explain so much. They are the key to my Dad, and thus they are the key to parts of me.
History books say the Battle of Okinawa ended on June 23, 1945. Sixty-five years ago today. But history books often approximate dates. The 96th Division history records their last casualty on Okinawa on June 30th.
And for my dad, the Battle of Okinawa finally ended on February 10, 2010. That’s the day he died. The echoes continue long after the last shot is fired.