I have been thinking quite a bit recently about the power of story to get things to “settle” in one’s life, to bring about meaning and healing.
My friend Lone Heron is repeatedly telling me how important it was to her recovery to write down her story (which features a double-parricide as its centerpiece) in Inherited Rage. Finishing the book became a compulsion for her, an imperative. Once finished, she could move on. Healing was now possible whereas it was not before she wrote down her story.
As I mentioned in yesterday’s post, I ask young people who petition me for aid to write down how they have come to be in trouble with the law. Some of them, young men in their 20s and 30s, tell me this writing is the first time since committing murder as a teen, that they have ever been asked to recount their stories. I think they value the experience in deep ways.
A couple days ago I had a long discussion with my friend, Mike Boren, a gifted storyteller and executive director of the Big Bend Natural History Association, about how stories imbue a place (as in a National Park) with meaning. The story works like an enzyme in the digestion of a meal; without the story, most people just don’t get it.
Even in this blog, I am always dredging up some memory from my past, writing it down, and fixing its meaning in my life. I feel more complete as a result.
So when Frank Manning, a reader of this blog, submitted the following story about his father’s wartime reminiscences, I thought: “Why not? How perfect.”
Remembrances of Wars Past
by Frank Manning
As I started to peruse the Internet’s smorgasbord of news stories today, my eye caught a headline about commemorating the 150th anniversary of the founding of Arlington National Cemetery. It was America’s first national cemetery for military dead, created as our bloody Civil War reached its climax, and is today known as the final resting place of our most honored dead. Here, I thought, is yet another 0-ending anniversary of war.
One hundred years ago this August, the proud, magnificent civilization that crowned Europe and ruled over much of the world self-destructed in a horrific paroxysm of violence and bloodshed they came to call the Great War. A generation later the society that emerged from that carnage destroyed itself completely in humanity’s bloodiest conflict ever.
Seventy years ago this June the United States, Britain, and Canada invaded Nazi-occupied France and began the liberation of western Europe from fascist barbarism. That same month the Soviet Union began its Byelorussian Offensive, driving the Nazi war machine from the last of occupied Soviet territory and beginning the liberation of eastern Europe from fascist barbarism. In between these two great offensives, on the other side of the world, the United States Navy utterly destroyed Japan’s naval air power in the Battle of the Philippine Sea. That October the United States began the liberation of the Philippines from Japanese occupation and destroyed what remained of the Imperial Japanese Navy in the greatest naval battle in history, the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
Hundreds of millions of people were thrown into or caught up in these horrific conflicts. The broad sweep of history, spotlighting the great battles and the activities of the world’s leaders, completely glosses over the individual stories of these multitudes. Those of us who grew up after World War II heard many, many war stories from the participants themselves. We almost never heard of the horrors of combat, but every wild party and prank was told and retold over the years. My father had his collection of stories. He served in the US Navy in the Pacific in 1944-45. He died in 1986.
My father enlisted in the U.S. Navy some time in 1942. He served on USS Diphda, AKA-59, an attack cargo ship, from July 1944 to November 1945. He was a petty officer second class, in charge of the ship’s laundry, but his battle station was as the gunner on a twin 40-mm antiaircraft gun. He had a reputation as a dead-eye sharpshooter. The ship served in the war against Japan. Their two big battles, both pitting the fleet’s gunners and fighter planes against Japanese kamikazes, were the Battle of Lingayen Gulf, 4-24 January 1945, and 10 days in the cauldron of hellfire known as the Battle of Okinawa, 1-10 April 1945. Off Okinawa USS Dipdha was hit by a kamikaze and torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. Neither attack inflicted any significant damage. After the surrender of Japan the ship carried U.S. Army occupation troops to what was left of the city of Nagasaki.
When asked about what he remembered or what he did in the war, this is what my father would talk about:
• Bare-breasted Melanesian women in New Caledonia.
• Getting “jungle rot” in New Guinea.
• Shooting sharks that were trying to attack sailors painting the side of the ship.
• Putting extra starch in the shorts of officers who were becoming unpleasant.
• Getting drunk on the ship’s supply of medicinal alcohol (190 proof, mixed with OJ) while playing pinochle below decks enroute from Pearl Harbor to the South Pacific. Among those in the game were the chief pharmacist’s mate.
• Trading the Marines a shipment of fresh oranges for 50 cases of 3.2 beer, then using the ship’s CO2 fire extinguishers to freeze the pure alcohol out of the beer slush.
• Getting very drunk in Brisbane, Australia.
• The explosion of the ammunition ship USS Mount Hood at Manus, Admiralty Islands, 10 November 1944. “It just disappeared.”
• Watching helplessly as the destroyer USS Spence capsized with all hands lost during “Halsey’s Typhoon” in the Philippine Sea, 18 December 1944. He vividly remembered hearing the doomed men screaming as their ship keeled over and sank in the typhoon-roused seas.
• While at general quarters on high alert for kamikaze attacks during the Battle of Lingayen Gulf (4-12 January 1945) he watched in horror as nervous antiaircraft gunners on dozens of other ships blew a USMC night fighter patrol out of the sky. “Those poor bastards didn’t stand a chance.”
• The start of the Battle of Okinawa 1 April 1945: Being asleep in a hammock on deck and being blown out of his hammock and onto the deck by the concussion of the thirty-six 16-inch guns of the four Iowa-class battleships blasting out full broadsides of nine guns from each ship.
• Being onshore on Okinawa and coming under Japanese mortar fire. He, along with two shipmates and a couple of Marines, had to take shelter in a mausoleum in a local cemetery. It was rather full to begin with.
• The historic kamikaze naval battle, but in general, more blurry terms. He was in the thick of it, for at least 4 or 5 days straight at battle stations. He couldn’t say how many planes he shot down.
• Being hit by a kamikaze, which ricocheted off the ship’s forward cargo hatch, spun out into the sea, and exploded in the water.
• Being torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. The torpedo was a dud, so they steamed back to Pearl Harbor, sometime between April 10 and 25, across half the goddam Pacific, with the torpedo stuck in their side. He remembers the Navy evacuating the harbor before they entered.
• Shore leave in San Francisco in June-July 1945. My mother took the train by herself (!) from New York all the way to San Francisco to be with her husband for a week. They kept a San Francisco Chinese restaurant menu as a souvenir of their time together there. (The cover was emblazoned with portraits of FDR and Chiang Kai-shek and crossed American and Chinese flags.) He remembered walking down a street with my mother and then suddenly stiffening and saluting a short older man who walked smartly by. My mother asked who “that little man” was. Admiral Halsey, of course!
• Seeing Nagasaki a few weeks after the atomic bombing. “I looked out and there was nothing there. No trees, no telephone poles, no buildings, no nothing. Except for a bank vault. This big steel bank vault just sitting out there in the open.”
Groove of the Day