An unusual request came my way via twitter…It is 2018 after all. A 96 year old Marine veteran, recently admitted into hospice care, desperately wanted to talk with someone who, like him, had been in the battle of Guadalcanal. A surprise attack launched in August of 1942 and lasting until February of 1943, that battle was the first major victory and first offensive attack by the allies in the Pacific theater (https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-ii/battle-of-guadalcanal). My Navy veteran father, age 97, a navigator on an LST during WWII, was not at the battle of Guadalcanal; he was there a year or so later picking up marines that had been in that battle and taking them to Peleliu, another Pacific island where lives would be lost or forever changed.
When I heard about this dying marine I knew it might be a longshot to find someone who had exactly his experience. So, I asked my dad if he would be willing to speak with a comrade-in-arms. “Yes. I certainly would.” It’s been at least 10 years since I got my courage together and asked my father to tell me his own war story. In all my growing up, he had never mentioned those experiences. As a child, I saw him as wise and patient, sometimes too patient and conflict avoidant, seemingly content with a calm and quiet life while I craved drama and adventure. That deep quiet was not so much choice as necessity, a balm to a 19 year old psyche subjected to years of intense, life-threatening experiences. But now, at 97, those memories don’t seem like quite the enemies to keep at bay that they once were. He seems glad to have people like my husband and sons who are intensely interested in what he we went through and what he learned. So I asked my father why he thought it was so important for this marine to speak at the end of his life about these experiences. There was a pause. “I expect he saw some bad old days there.”
My dad is not one for verbosity leaving me to create my own stories about the dying marine. What were the choices he made at 19, 20, or 21 years of age, choices that he perhaps had to make but hated to? Were there choices he wanted to make but could not? What did he witness that haunts his last days? My desire to help this all-too-familiar stranger was strong. Finally I asked my dad, “So does he want absolution?” “Probably. He needs to know he did the right thing. That it meant something and it did. Those supply lines had to stay open. He did what he had to. He did what he could. Someone should tell him that.”
In the end, the social worker who sent up the signal to find kindred spirits for her dying client said the family had decided that the old marine was not up to talking with anyone. She promised to pass along the flood of messages from people across the country who wanted to help. By email, I conveyed my father’s good wishes and respect. Of course I know nothing of what troubled this marine veteran. Perhaps he wondered why he lived such a long life while others were cut down so young. Perhaps he still worries about decisions made in the fog. Perhaps he again feels the terror of knowing death is close at hand. We will never know all of the secrets these old soldiers keep. Their stories remind me though that what happens to us when we are 19, 20, 22, and 25 shape us. It was true for them, true for me, and true for my 17 year old son whose time is coming. When I listen to my dad’s war stories, my heart hurts for the young man that he was. But I cannot judge or absolve, cheer-lead or minimize. I can only listen with an open heart willing to break in honor of that brave young man who is my 97 year old father. The stranger/brother marine fought, and maybe still fights, a terrible battle. As the social worker suggested, maybe my father’s ship, the good ship LST 222, picked that young man up at Guadalcanal and took him on the next leg of his difficult journey. We will never know.
Godspeed to the old marine. God bless the ships at sea and the boys, and girls, in kakhi. Anchors away.
Coda: It looks like the marine got his wish after all. See this link for more.