(originally published May 26, 2009 @16:12 EST)
All day long yesterday for Memorial day I found myself recalling various men I have felt proud to know in my lifetime and the stories they would tell; at fishing camp, at hunting camp, around campfires, over beers, among friends. Stories of their time in the service and in some rare cases of their times on the front lines. (although those recollections were more frequent in the old timers, and even then generally focused on things that had happened only to them)
It didn’t occur to me to pass any of them along until this morning, so I thought I would go over some of them in brief to share their tales (as I recall them) and pass them along.
So here’s to Reese from Sheep’s Pasture, to the stories he would tell of a bunch of young marines trained in Florida deep in the everglades running on unseen boards made to resemble walkways in rice paddies, feeling their way with sticks and risking splashing down with not only the murky waters, but the gators hiding within.
To stories of young leathernecks going on first leave after having it drilled in their heads for weeks that they were the meanest, roughest, toughest, baddest sons of bitches to ever walk the face of the earth – and to the stories of the fist fights and timely flights (from authorities) that soon ensued.
Here’s to the young marine finally coming home after his tours in Viet Nam in a full leg cast who got off the plane to see his family across the tarmac and becoming delighted, only to be confronted head on by two dirty, long haired protesters who spat in his face screaming baby killer.
And here’s to the two cops who scooped him up after he busted the first one’s face open while balancing on his crutches and was already going after the second, who in spite of the screams from the activists to “arrest him!”, brought him through the security entrance, smiled and said “semper fi brother, now get the hell out of here or we ‘will’ have to arrest you”
(Reese told no stories of the time between basic and coming home – Rest in Peace)
Here’s to Smitty, also from fish camp at Sheep’s pasture, a thin older gent who told us of the time he was brought before his superiors for a samurai sword he had found. It turned out to be an officers sword that he had picked up after entering a cave to see a smiling Japanese soldier holding his hands up in the air saying in broken English “I surrender” – and here’s to the fellow soldier behind Smitty that caused him to look down only to see the tip of a Thompson open fire from where it had been inserted under his arm, and to the hand that grabbed the back of his neck to fling him back out of the mouth of the cave just as the grenade the Japanese officer was holding in his upraised hand fell free and detonated.
To the story he told of when the zeros buzzed the Okinawa beachhead and he took (he thought) two shots in his arm, to the medic that bandaged him up and secured his arm to his side so he could, with the help of another soldier that was wounded in the opposite arm, still manage to assist in moving wounded on stretchers for the remainder of the hours of fighting that ensued. Only after which did he think to seek out a field surgeon to actually get treatment, where they discovered the third shot that had gone right through his lower abdomen.
Upon hearing the shot was more than 4 hours old and seeing where it passed, the triage nurse pronounced him essentially ‘already dead’ and went to attend to other ‘more hopeful’ patients. Obviously he was not about to settle for this and had to argue considerably to even be treated due to all the other wounded on the beach. He was made to wait even longer and eventually wheeled in to a dirty side room, given no anesthesia, cut the length of his side and ‘sloshed back and forth’ with a liquid poured into the incision that he described as having the look and smell of urine. (it wasn’t, but was some low-frills antiseptic that they could justify ‘sparing’ on a ‘dying man’)
He showed us the scars including the marks where they had sewn him back up with wire staples, as they didn’t want to waste any sinew on him either, hoping to spare it for men they actually thought could be saved.
And here’s to that stubborn man who passed out only to wake up 3 hours later in a hospice wing of a makeshift tent, damned them for leaving him to die and walked back into the OR where he finally received proper sutures and ultimately got a real bed in intensive care to continue his recovery.
(rest in peace Smitty! And thanks for the hand made net, it’s still one of my most prized possessions)
And here’s to Kenny from Spud farm who told us of how he was on board the USS Franklin when a Japanese Kamikaze nearly broke her in two.
How he and some of his shipmates had to navigate a catwalk on the backside of the control tower to avoid the flames, suspended on nothing but a 6″ ledge more than 4 stories above the ocean. About how he turned just in time to see one of his best friends for the very last time falling to the ocean below after a secondary explosion shook the whole ship.
Here’s to the three hours he spent in near freezing waters after the second kamikaze hit sent him into the frigid waters as well. And to the simple apple that helped keep him alive – as when he would grow tired and almost give up, he would see the apple bobbing 2-3 wave crests away, just briefly enough to give him something to keep swimming after.
Here’s to the guys that eventually showed up to scoop up the dead bodies onto their already overflowing flatboat, only to tell Ken that they would send a crew back for him as they had no room. And here’s to them agreeing to pick him up after hearing him say “if you do that, you’ll be picking me up instead along with the rest of the dead!” (try to imagine that ride back, where the only room is on top of the bodies!)
Here’s to Mike who’s story I almost didn’t want to include as I didn’t want to make him look bad, but the state of mind it details I doubt anyone reading could imagine doing otherwise.
Still trying to shake off the experiences of combat, he decided to accept an invitation to ‘relax’ by going hunting on a friend’s private property. As he walked to his blind, some ‘slob’ who was trespassing and poaching on this friends private land, apparently thought it was a good idea to shoot at any sound of movement.
Being fresh out of the service, Mike told us (trying to be funny but still showing in his face how much it disturbed him) the sound of the shell hissing by his head caused instinct to take over and the next thing he knew, he was hiding behind a 5″ ball of dirt and had emptied his shotgun in the direction of the fired ‘near miss’. (fortunately enough missing as well)
(thank you Mike for teaching me your variant of Darwin’s rule, “people that are prone to do stupid, dangerous or self-destructive things…. should!”)
Here’s to my cousin Jim who also didn’t go into a lot of detail about his experience in Iraq, but did comment on the frustration he and his other marines had when coming within sight of Baghdad during Desert Storm – only to be pulled back at the last minute. I still remember the certainty in your words back then that “we should have been allowed to finish, we’ll only end up having to come back”.
To my namesake Webster Abial Wood who dodged musket fire and cannon balls at Gettysburg in the war to preserve our union. Who at first I wondered about his ‘bravery’ as he was a member of the drum core and played the fife in the 24th Michigan band.
That is until I read more on the civil war… about the battles on fields covered in white smoke from black powder muskets and cannons. Story after story where men wrote in their diaries of looking to their immediately left and immediately right to barely make out just one of their fellow soldiers through the smoke and to hear the pace of the drum to match their steps as they had been trained. The drums marking the pace to keep the line in step, the steady beat as a heart to the line signifying their ranks had not been broken. And the stories of returning fire where the sounds of the ‘enemy’ drums and the bugles on the other side of the field often gave you the only point of aim through opaque clouds of smoke.
To stories of friends, neighbors and brothers meeting as opponents in our nations bloodiest war, but still being civil enough to pass letters, foodstuffs and other token items in small boats across the blood stained rivers separating their lines after the sun set and fighting subsided for the night.
And to the knowledge of Webster leading the army band for the melancholy honor of playing for an assassinated president’s funeral procession in Illinois.
Here’s to my grandfather ‘Woody’ who also didn’t speak to much around me about his time in the first world war while in the Navy. But who raised my father and consequently passed on to me an understanding of the values that made this country great and an appreciation for the men that helped make it that way.
You may have noticed by now what I already eluded to. These men would tell stories of the good times, of the times before the war or immediately after. Of things that happened only to them where they got out alive in spite of adversity. But many of such a story would bring up a name, or refer to a person and the story would finish, the men would either bow their heads or stare off into space and go silent for a long time. After which they would turn to one another as only their fellow veterans could understand, raise their glasses “To them!”
There was yet another theme that ran through the stories as well. I ran across an interesting quote yesterday from none other than George Orwell:
All the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting.
All the men I named believe in their country, treasure their freedom and would fight for it with their lives. Some of them signed up voluntarily out of a sense of duty and honor, others out of little more than need and no where else to go, and still others were drafted and answered the call. None wanted to repeat their ‘unspoken’ experiences, but I have no doubt any one of them would join up with such a cause again if the need arose and our country was threatened.
But don’t be mistaken!
As every one of them told their stories, it was easily understood. When they were in the line of fire, on the front lines and in the middle of a firefight, they no more fought for ideals of freedom or country then they did out of a sense of duty or honor. No, they fought for their fellow soldiers – their friends, and for the hope that someday soon they would be home with people they loved.
So most of all, here’s to the men I never met, to the stories I never heard, to the laughs we never made about the good times. Here’s to the horrors I never learned from those that did return, from the stories they kept to themselves and their sleepless nights. Here’s to the silent moments, the hung heads and the solemn toasts. Here’s to the old man in his dress uniform shedding a tear over some memory only he holds – always trying to keep it out of his mind but making sure he never forgets. Here’s to the unknown soldiers in the unmarked graves on battlefields far away, and to the events that never made best sellers or Hollywood movies.