Sunday, August 7, 2011

Why We Fight and Why We Remember December 7 1941



The USS California is seen on fire after an attack by t
he Japanese on Dec. 7, 1941, in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
 
This is the story of how my grandfather died. This is the story of war on earth. This is the story of the bravest man I knew: my grandfather.

Several years ago, almost a life-time away now it seems I stood there and watched my grandmother barely able to stand as she pressed her hand against the wall screaming and crying, reaching into the void for her husband. On the other side of that wall was my grandfather, a WWII veteran lost for all time in the void of space and time. His life-less empty shell of a body carried away for the last time in a casket by his grandchildren; loaded into a hearse and driven away to be cremated. But, grandpa was far from dead. There stood, in his absence: us, the children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren of a man who went to war, who risked his life, who gave up so much so that we could live. This however was little consolation for my Grandmother who was now so grief-stricken she cursed the wall and vowed to reach through it. If she could not pull my grandfather back through, then she would follow him into it. Death would not do them part. As Dylan Thomas might say, “death shall have no dominion.”

My grandparents weren't strangers to breaking down walls. When my grandfather enlisted with the Navy, he met the biggest obstacle of his life- my grandmother, a waitress in a naval pub/dance floor. To borrow from Top Gun, she “saw new hot shots every 8 weeks” and had no interest in the advances of the boyish grins just out of basic training. But grandpa wasn't just anyone and on one starry evening he showed up with a “borrowed” Willys Jeep before her shift. “you just can't expect me to get in?”, she asked him, the story goes. He retorted “If you don't you'll spend the rest of your life wondering.” Apparently Grandpa's psychological warfare worked, and they drove to a airstrip where he managed an impromptu dinner of bread and cheap beer watching military planes land and stargazing from the hood of a Willys MB. He pointed up at the stars and said “You and me, we're just specks of light in the darkness of space.” If my grandfather's charm had softened my grandmother's reluctance, she didn't let on and stopped his attempt at a kiss by saying she “didn't see the point kissing men she couldn't see herself marrying.” The next day he would be deployed as apart of tactical exercise and training in the South Pacific. They would write to one another the next few months and during December 1941, he arrived back at the bar only to surprise her from behind and request a dance. By now my grandmother had capitulated to her heart through his words and quite likely, they were heading to their happily ever after when war walked in the door: Pearl Harbor had been attacked, the Earth was at war and according to the story, Grandpa then turned to her and said “looks like that kiss might just have to wait” then walked out the threshold.

War; I think, is about love. If not love, then the antithesis of love. You must love something to fight for it or else hate something enough to die for it. War without sacrifice or risk of sacrifice defies the human experience. You must risk losing it all, to have something ripped from your hands and torn apart in front of you for it to be meaningful. The truth is the events that superseded that evening in the bar was rarely talked about by my grandfather. On one occasion my father recalls his attempt to take my grandfather to visit the USS Wilmington which sits permanently anchored off the shore of North Carolina when he came to visit in the 1990s. The answer was “no”. Grandpa had absolutely no intention of resurfacing memories he had purposely forgotten. Memories so grotesque it's difficult to imagine that they were my own families story of this world. Maybe more legend than fact, better articulated with each retelling. This I suppose is common among the families of war veterans, and deservingly so. It's how we want to remember our veterans, and as they say “when legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

In this Dec. 7, 1941 file photo, the battleship USS Arizona
belches smoke as it topples over into the sea during
a Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor
We know his best friend died in his arms while at war, and countless friends were killed, but the clarity- the vividness of detail was something only grandpa knew and he censored, and protected us from. We knew it had a profound effect on him though just by looking at photos prior to his World War II deployment compared with after the war. A grinning young man transformed into the stoic face of my grandfather as if his wrinkles were made of war. The war had shaped who he was, and who he became, perhaps on some core genetic level which would later be passed on to us. Some of the stories throughout the years yielded a bit of luminance upon the war he fought, but much of what was experienced; was never ever told. It was mostly factoids where he'd criticize the cop on television for how many rounds were in his gun, or Rambo for holding the grenade longer than five seconds. He was a master of tying knots, and was the master of handshakes. You don't hug Grandpa... oh no, there is protocol with grandpa! The darker side of war, the unspeakable bits were rarely shared other than with grandma. Only after his death would she share some of former unspeakable moments in his life. My grandfather's best friend mortally wounded and in anguishing pain grabbing my grandfather's hand- begging that he ends his misery, and asking him to tell his family he died bravely. Holding death, witnessing the extinguishing of existence and my grandfather somehow then managing to stand up again and replace his friend's position manning artillery. His destiny was to survive while others perished, the war became personal, and justified as he witnessed death around him. He was no longer a soldier fighting a war for his country- but a man, a single human with a vendetta against the evil he had witnessed. For any force capable of such vile must be pure evil I imagine he must have thought. When orders came down of a joint allied attack to take back France he quickly found a way to be apart of it. The night before operation he felt that he wasn't going to be coming back, and wrote a final letter to my grandmother. Knowing he was likely writing his concluding words he chose to say “I now know why we fight, or more importantly why I fight. I fight so that someday you can give that kiss to the man you're going to marry. I hope someday you find him, because that's something worth dying for. Remember me as that speck of light in the night.” The next day was D-Day.

Under those same stars on June 6, 1944, the landing of Normandy commenced. It served as “the single largest amphibious landing in the history of war.” My grandfather later remarked an often used phrase to describe that day: it was “the day the world stood united together against a common evil.”. This was the end of times, this was Armageddon and my grandfather was kneeling down in a landing craft vehicle under the full moon armed with the intentions and the ability to protect the world as he knew it.

The English channel was filled with an armada as the dawn broke over the bow of the rough waters. Sea-sick soldiers climbed netting down into swamped landing vehicles that required the use of their helmets to bail out the water. According to the recollections of my grandfather via my family, a silent sand filled beach gave way to mayhem just shortly after the first landing craft vehicle's barge gates lowered and the soldiers waded in. The ocean midst transformed to the smoke of land mines. The crack of the the waves were over-powered by the sounds of guns. “And then?”, I ask. But according to everyone in my family Grandpa recounts nothing of the events that would follow on the French shore. In the 30 years up to his death he maintained that the run up to the barbed wire was “a dance with shrapnel where he imagined he was back at the bar dancing with Grandma.”vi The events of this historic day had been rewritten in my grandfather's mind into dancing with a lovely woman three-thousand miles away. My grandfather's account of the war seems almost poetic, almost sort of beautiful in contrast to the accounts of entrails and dismembered bodies upon the beach you watch on tv. He wasn't fighting against the Germans that day, he was fighting for love. Fighting for grandma. What is war with no purpose, no one to fight for? What is love if there is no sacrifice?

As they say, the rest is history. My grandfather would end up surviving that day and eventually return back home to find grandma waiting. They would run up to one another, embrace, and alas kiss. He would propose, and marry then have three children, 6 grandchildren and 6 great grand-children living out the American dream. A dream uniquely his, born on the sands of Normandy.

The final battle for my grandparents occurred just a few short years ago after my grandfather passed away. This time, he could not save himself and died from heart complications. I like to believe his heart loved so much it wore out. My grandmother became depressed and eventually quit taking her medicine, and shortly thereafter we lost her. Her final words were “I'm coming to find you Don.” She left this world under the belief she would find a way to save him, just as he saved all of us. Indeed none of us could find fault with her logic despite the obvious.

WWII was a war about walls. Walls around people who believe they're better, against those who are different, fought by allied countries who also artificially created walls and borders. In fact the only true wall is that which separates humans which we cannot control is death. In the end all of us, German, Jewish, American or Japanese end up on the other side of that wall. Our bodies incinerated, our ashes spread, we become apart of the Earth, the soil which we rage war on. From space, this Earth is but a speck of light- a star. We are that speck of light. I often look up at the nights sky and find two twinkling stars and think of my grandparents, and their sacrifices which have gotten me where I am today.

Because of their existence, their journey, I exist. Last year I chose to travel to France and stood out under those same stars to gain some perspective on my grandparents deaths. Here I stood where men such as my grandfather brought down the walls of fascism, of genocide, of man-made borders. His contribution evident as I journeyed from Belgium to France through the Schengen zone, made possible by a post WWII agreement (The Schengen agreement, a broader expansion of a 1948 accord to eliminate borders) that sought to tear down “walls” which returned Europe to a pre-WWI state where you could travel from from Paris to Saint Petersberg without a passport. Here I was traveling freely through the walls that had been torn down by the successes of my grandfather. As my Eurostar train crossed the English Channel in complete darkness I had several minutes to take in the gravity of the situation. Just a few feet above the Chunnel were the waters my grandfather crossed to risk his life and now his DNA in me, a part of him was back. As we pulled into London, and traveled by Underground which platforms and stations doubled as bomb-shelters during the Blitz, we made our way by rail to Wales, home of Dylan Thomas who writes about that final wall, death:

And death shall have no dominion.
Dead mean naked they shall be one
With the man in the wind and the west moon;
When their bones are picked clean and the clean bones gone,
They shall have stars at elbow and foot;
Though they go mad they shall be sane,
Though they sink through the sea they shall rise again;
Though lovers be lost love shall not;
And death shall have no dominion.

The above is a partial work of fiction based on real events.

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