You see… one of my grandfather’s jobs was to release the prisoners in the Japanese POW camps. Naturally he did not do this alone. But he did do this. And he suffered. I know what you are thinking– how on earth could he have suffered like those inside the camps? Surely you speak cheap platitudes to say your grandfather did suffer!?
As it happens, people who actually suffered through the camps had better outcomes in their lives after the war then those who worked to liberate them. My grandfather was among the luckier ones. Most of the others wound up homeless, alone, broke, and broken– or even dead by their own hands.
What he saw ate at him all of his life. Though after he did this, he proceeded to write the papers that ultimately led to the desegregation of the Armed Forces and the modern rules of engagement for urban warfare. After he retired, he spoke about the honor and glory and bravery and honest patriotism at many a Memorial Day gathering. He did all of this with a hole hidden in his heart. His wounds were deep– yet few would see them. That cross was not made of balsa wood–but ironwood and rusty nails.
The only physical wounds he got during war time was when he was erecting a stake and barbed wire fence on his property on leave, and he fell on it– leading to a line of wounds across his belly that looked like a cartoon stereotype of a line of machinegun fire. That fence nearly killed him. Only because his father in law (a world famous surgeon) was home that day did he survive.
Yet, he went right through the middle of the Battle of Okinawa on a boat. Or I should say four different boats. He managed to survive being sunk four times. He barely managed to miss boarding the Indianapolis not long before she was destroyed– said to this day that he “had a bad feeling” about it– for no good reason at the time.
But his men knew how to follow orders. Though miserable in their lifeboats, and greatly desiring the apparent safety of a larger vessel, they flagged down a tiny frigate instead. The one saw them through to the end of the rain of death.
I loved him dearly, but our relationship was difficult. For one thing, I was a lousy granddaughter. For another, his experiences were so far removed from mine that I could not understand him, nor even see that what he had to say was of far greater importance to my life than the rainbows I was chasing.
My grandfather wasn’t perfect, but he had his wife and children, and he managed to keep a job and a roof over his head. Though alcohol remained his favorite lubricant for quite some time. The thing that made him different is that he never used it as an excuse for bad behavior. He did say some hurtful things, but he never lashed out or became physically abusive. He would just curl in on himself and tell tall tales and make true and insightful comments intended to barb and reveal in the most incisive way possible. But not a single one of those stories was true, and he never talked about the war in my hearing for as long as he lived.
Well, it’s not like I’d earned such a privilege, let’s face it.
All of the true war stories were told to me by my father, on the drive home from visiting my grandfather. But I did have my moment of grace, when I went to Arlington Cemetery in 1989 with a class trip. I took a medal to the Wall and went to look to offer it to a worthy soldier. For once I actually wished I was at home, so I could have given it to my grandfather. But being where I was, I had to comply, considering that black hulk watching me from afar. You don’t appreciate the presence of the thing until you’ve actually seen it. It’s like the monolith only it builds up gradually until it towers over your head with name after name after name…
I saw a man staring at a name. He touched the name and looked haunted. I knew by his bearing and poise that he had served. I offered the medal to him, and he burst into tears. It was not something I was expecting. Bewildered, I backed away and apologized. Then he laughed, confusing me further. He said that I had to go meet some real heroes. I said, “At least take it in memory of your brother.” And he gave me that look again and said, “Come with me. I have some people you need to meet.” IT turned out he had served, but stayed stateside throughout the war.
Now, keep in mind, I was a middle school kid who’d gotten separated from a school trip. But, I knew a lot of military people, and I had this strong sense I could trust him. So I followed as he led me into a forested area which may or may not have been on the Cemetery grounds. There, a Vietnam era tent was erected, and quite a number of veterans in camo were inside. IT was well camouflaged from the outside so it was like I disappeared from the world into another time and place.
They told stories to each other in hushed tones, drank * water* from canteens, and just often just supported each other with silent camaraderie. I know because I got to taste some. I was in awe. It was what a set from MASH would have looked like if it had been real. There were lanterns, amo boxes used as furniture, a beat up old radio that was playing era appropriate music softly, and the walls were hung with framed medals with name plaques on them. I heard the man breathe to me “you are standing on sacred ground.” Then he vanished.
I was so overwhelmed by the gestalt of the place that I could only gape openly in the most respectful mein I could manage. I heard stories– real stories from the Vietnam War. They were secret things, and they were shared with me, all for a momentary kindness given to a stranger.
Somehow, I became for a brief shining moment their mascot. I listened with wide eyes, quietly with tears in my eyes but I could not cry. They seemed greatly cheered by my presence, even if I was solemn. Then word got to the camp that I was being sought. So the man who was the informal leader of the band escorted me back to my school group, and patiently explained to our chaperone that I was in good hands, and had given a smile to many a man who needed it badly today.It saddens me to admit that I don’t remember the name of a single soldier that I met that day– even the name of the brother whose name was etched on that Wall. I felt I got to know him pretty well though his brother. I just wanted to thank all of you who served, and those who were kind beyond the call of duty to one who did not truly understand how fragile or valuable freedom and civilization are.
God bless all of you, and the dead who paid the ultimate price for the sins of Man. See– when Christians say, “The wages of sin are death.” we aren’t just talking about Hell in the hereafter. We also mean that war is an unfortunate consequence of man’s nature. We can never rest on our laurels– we must always strive for peace.
But when that fails, we must also bow to the necessity of defending our own– our family, our country, our way of life, and true freedom itself.