10/03/2007

Painful memories of The War


UPDATE May 25, 2014: I recently came across the notes I made after talking to the elderly World War II vet pictured in the 1996 photo above. I had his name, address and phone number in my notes, and I also saw in my notes that the experience he told me about did not take place on Saipan but on another island late in the Pacific war. I did a Google search for his name and discovered that he died a couple of years ago. The information in his obituary enabled me to confirm that he was the same man in my photo. Since I wasn't able to contact him before his death, I felt that I should not reveal his identity. The experience he told me about, however, is a sad and poignant reminder of the horrors of war. So I'm updating the post with this information, but I am not changing the original essay. I hope he found some peace of mind before he left us.
I watched all but a few hours of the Ken Burns documentary on World War II, and I thought the most compelling moments were when the elderly vets talked about the difficulties they’d had in trying to tell other people about their worst experiences in the war. It reminded me of a brief but poignant encounter I had with an aging World War II veteran in Florida more than 10 years ago.

I shot the above photo in 1996 at the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola. My intent was to get a shot of the airplane, which is a World War II-vintage Grumman TBF “Avenger” torpedo bomber. As I was about to snap the shot, the elderly gentleman on crutches stepped into the frame and started studying the display. He added something to the photo, so I shot it.

I went up to the display cabinet to take a look at the photos. The gentleman was still there, totally absorbed. A few moments passed. The man turned to me and said something, I don’t remember what. But we struck up a conversation.

I believe he said he lived in upstate New York. He told me he’d served in the Navy’s Construction Battalion during the war. Those men were known as Seabees, a play on words based on the battalion’s initials, “CB.” Said he’d served in the Pacific, driving a dump truck with the Seabee crews that built airfields and did other construction work.

He said the reason he was walking with crutches was because of an accident he’d had during the war.

The dump truck he drove was designed for combat zones, which meant that the driver had to be able to get out of the truck very quickly if someone started shooting at him. So that meant the truck had no seat belts and no doors. If bullets are whizzing past you, you don’t want to have to take time to unbuckle a seatbelt and open a door. Basically, you want to instantly dive from the seat out of the truck and find cover.

The vet said he’d been driving his truck on one of the islands late in the war when he ran over something – a big piece of coral, a log, something – that had caused his truck to bounce and swerve. The jolt threw him out of the cab. He landed on his back, seriously and permanently injuring his spine.

As he got older, the old injury caused his spine to deteriorate rapidly until he could no longer walk without crutches.

That was a touching story, to say the least. But what he told me next was sad beyond belief. I don’t know why he decided to tell me, unless it was simply because he needed to tell someone.

I believe he said he was on Saipan, before his debilitating injury. Saipan was taken by American troops in 1944.

The Japanese civilian residents of Saipan were caught between two armies locked in fierce combat. Spurred by Japanese propaganda that said Americans would brutalize them, many committed suicide rather than surrender.

The old vet said that one night he and all other truck drivers were ordered to the airfield immediately. Once there, they were told to turn their headlights onto the landing strip.

The lights revealed dozens of Japanese teenagers and children, armed with grenades, running across the field. They apparently intended to detonate the grenades among American soldiers, killing themselves and everyone around them.

The Americans were ordered to open fire. The old vet said they had no choice. It was kill the children or be killed by them.

The memories of shooting children – even though they were carrying grenades – had tortured the old man for more than 50 years.

I didn't know what to say when the old man finished his tale. “I’ve never told anyone that story before,” he said.

We talked for a few more minutes. I wrote down his name and address. Sometime before I left Florida in 1997 I called the phone number he'd given me, but there was no answer and no answering machine.

After the last episode of Burns’s documentary that included the vets' comments about their painful memories of the war, I started digging for the contact info and brief notes I'd jotted down after my conversation with the old vet in Pensacola. But that was 11 years, two states and two major moves ago. I couldn’t find them. Perhaps that’s just as well. But I did find the photo.

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