ONE MAN’S WAR
They had the same conversation many times. “You didn’t have to go”, my mom would say. She meant, of course, go to war. My dad would reply, “Uncle Sam would have called me up eventually“. Her answer to that was always the same. She would say, “You were too old for the draft”.
My mother had lost a brother at Normandy and she didn’t want to listen to war stories. But my dad was a natural born story teller. Now that he is gone, I believe his story deserves to be told.
Thirty one years old and caught up in the wave of patriotism that swept the country after Pearl Harbor, my father, Art joined the US Navy. He said, “Let’s get the job done”, and he joined up. Hard work didn’t faze him. He had survived a meager life on the farm as the eldest of seven children, experienced a CCC camp during the Great Depression, rode the boxcars to California and worked himself up in the lumber industry. When he enlisted, he left a good job managing a hotel in McCloud, California.
Serving aboard the USS Dorothea L. Dix, he saw the world: New York, Liverpool, Glasgow, Naples, Casablanca, Rabat. For his part in the invasion of Sicily he received a citation for Commendable Action “in the finest tradition of the Navy” in which he performed his duties with no regard for personal safety.”
Italy fascinated him. He spoke of how Mussolini had spent the American tourist dollar to restore the ruins of Pompeii. At Naples he stood for hours in line to get into an opera house as light ash from Mount Vesuvius fell on the city. The churches and public buildings there were decorated with gold leaf. There was also poverty. A nun asked navy personnel to give a group of orphans a boat ride. They had no authority to do so. The children’s bellies were swollen with hunger. The rank smell of the harbor permeated everything. When he got back to the ship, Art washed all his clothes, including the bottoms of his shoes. Years later, he would ponder the fate of those children. “I wonder what ever happened to them”, he’d say.
Scotland was as close as he would ever come to his beloved Norway, land of his ancestors. It was there he overheard Norwegian sailors in a pub conversing in the dialect that his father and uncle spoke. In Scotland he learned the difference between the high road and the low road, and the correct pronunciation of place names like Greenock and Gourock. “The Scots don’t say lake”, he would tell us. “They say loch”.
In England, he dove into a river to save a boy from drowning. He was puzzled at the attitude of the red-haired woman who had summoned his help. “I thought she should have invited me in to dry off my uniform”, he would say. The incident colored his view of Britain. “British ships are filthy and the officers are arrogant”, he would say. I don’t think he knew about the slogan the people in England had to describe their allies, the Americans. It was said the Americans were “overpaid, oversexed, and over here”.
And then there was Normandy.
His younger brother Clayton, also known as Glenn, describes Art’s experiences the best. “Art was a boatswain mate first class. He told me that he had been n France five times but had never touched French soil. What his job was as a boatswain mate was to take the soldiers in on the LST, drop the ramp down, they got off, then he had to go back at night, find his ship, and take another load. Five times he went, which is quite a remarkable feat, and to come out of it alive”
Of Normandy, Art himself had this to say, “I witnessed around the clock bombing of Normandy Beach. The battleship Nevada took twenty seven hits but kept firing. There was still resistance. Some of the people on the landing crafts broke down and refused to go out on a second trip so crews had to be revamped. One of the highest ranking officers in the fleet committed suicide because of pressure”.
On one of his five trips my dad had Ernest Hemingway as a passenger. The history books say that Papa Hemingway traveled back and forth during the Invasion, so more than one skipper could have made the same claim. I have no reason to doubt my dad’s story. It was too vivid, too rich with detail.
As he was transporting troops from a battle ship to the shore at Normandy, the relatively short journey took hours and hours. He had to swing out of the line of fire time and time again, avoiding the enemy shells that were peppering the water. Aboard were about thirty men, singing songs, talking bout their families, remembering the homes to which many of them would never return. The highest ranking man on the boat was very young, inexperienced, and arrogant. Art was ten years older than the average sailor and had at this point already seen a lot of military action. As the young ranking officer (in Art’s words, a “shavetail””) became more and more unreasonable and demanding, Ernest Hemingway jumped to Art’s defense. “You leave that man alone”, said Hemingway. “He’s doing the best he can”. “I’m the officer here…”, began the young man. “Officer?!” replied Hemingway. “Why, you couldn’t even officer my ass!”
Prior to the invasion, he had accepted an invitation to share a meal with a family in Scotland. The sailors were advised that upon accepting such invitations, they were to bring gifts from the ship to their hosts, such as chocolates or cigarettes. The country was suffering great poverty and almost anything was welcome. After the invasion was over, he looked up that family again. He rapped on the door and the lady of the door answered. He said, “Well, I made it”. And she burst into tears.
Africa was exotic and unsanitary. There, the US military fought the Vichy French, the officially neutral government that was secretly collaborating with the Nazis. There too, he washed his shoes upon returning to the ship after walking around in the city. I think it was in Morocco he acquired a distaste for tattoos. In those days only sailors got tattooed, and it was often in unhygienic hole-in-the-wall parlors. The procedure caused infection and festering sores.
There were stories my dad told time and time again, and stories he told only once. Into the latter category falls his recollection of MP duty in Morocco, and how he had to round up the sailors and get them back to the ship. In doing so he had to raid the local brothel.
Another of his oft repeated declarations was, “I made every beach head in Europe and Africa. And then there was one more”.
The war in Europe was over, but my dad got a one man transfer from his ship. On a date with a WAVE in New York, he showed her his papers and she said, “That number means Okinawa”. An unpleasant surprise. I can just see him scratching his head. He had served his three years as an enlisted man. Wasn’t it time to go home? Maybe he was just too mature, just too good at his job. In his own words, “They made a marine out of me”.
My dad was more inclined to elaborate on the details of his experiences with neighbors, acquaintances, and other veterans than with his family. Recently, a relative-by-marriage, also a WW2 vet, explained how my dad happened to join the Marines. “Art was driving an Amtrac, (a vehicle for transporting the dead and wounded and supplies),and it was blown up. He couldn’t get back to his unit so a rifle was thrust into his hands and he was told, ‘Now you’re in the Marines’.”
In one of the few instances that I persuaded him to talk or write about his experiences, he had this to say about Okinawa. “I had been trained in hand-to-hand combat and had been issued a rifle and fighting gear. The battle was raging when I went in and I didn’t know if I would get out alive”.
He had just joined the bloodiest battle of the war. Never had so many men been sacrificed for such a small piece of real estate. The hill was taken, and lost, 14 times, inch by inch and foot by foot. The battle has been described as a “melee of bayonets, flashing knives and bare hands”. My dad thereafter called it “nasty stuff”. Hand-to-hand combat, upon which he would never elaborate.
I did not fully appreciate his stories about Sugar Loaf Hill until I saw vintage color footage of Okinawa on a PBS special, and until I read the book Killing Ground on Okinawa: The Battle for Sugar Loaf Hill by James Hallas.
My dad turned 34 on the day the battle ended. Most of the troops were very young. According to the book, a Marine who was 25 years old was called “Pop”. I don’t know what terms they would have reserved for someone my dad’s age. But of course, he was not really a Marine. He was a sailor. Boatswain Mate First Class. His younger brother Glenn Clayton was in the Navy as well and they met in the Sugar Loaf Hill vicinity shortly after the battle. This encounter was remarkable. Both brothers were lucky to be alive. Clayton says that the ship next to his was hit by a kamikaze plane. He recalls that his ship was carrying not only men but the invasion currency to be used after the war was over. He too was a seasoned sailor by that time and had his own encounters with shavetail officers. And he got to drive Chiang Kai Shek’s car. (It was a Dodge).
In recounting their meeting, my dad always said, “So I said to him, Clayton, come here. I want to show you something”. And then the story would end abruptly. Sixty years later I have not yet gotten a definitive answer about what they saw.
It could have had something to do with the Himayuri Nurse Corps, who were sent into the battlefield to care for Japanese soldiers and suffered the universal fate of women in war zones. Or the documented evidence that Japanese soldiers committed acts of cannibalism. Of course, that is an accusation often made of enemy soldiers, to dehumanize them. It could have been the sight of bodies driven over time and time again and flattened into the muddy soil. Or American Marines kicking or otherwise extracting the gold teeth out of dead Japanese bodies.
He did have this to say (but he said it only once). “After the fighting was over I saw some of the most dreadful sights that any human has ever witnessed. They buried the Americans in a big hole dug by a bulldozer. The Japanese bodies just laid there and rotted. Where the Japanese had hidden out in the caves, the army had exterminated them by the thousands with flame throwers. I saw American soldiers and sailors so shell shocked that they could barely walk and had to be led away. I don’t know what happened to them.”
What my dad did talk about freely was the rats. One mother rat built her nest in his helmet and had her babies there. She nibbled on his toes while he slept. His fear and loathing of rats was intense. Their presence on the island may have been due to Okinawan burial practices. They practiced the Shinto religion, in which dead bodies were laid out in limestone caves and later the bones were interred in huge clay jars, along with scrolls, and placed on shelves inside these caves. The war forced the rats from their customary habitats.
After Okinawa, Art and eight others were picked up on a rainy night in the Pacific by another ship. There was someone on board from Bemidji, a man named Pat Boyer whose job aboard ship was making ice cream, who claimed to have nursed him back to health. He said “Your dad was a broken man. He was only 34 but his best years were behind him”.
I remember my dad saying that food looked good to him after Okinawa. He picked up his fork to eat mashed potatoes but after days of field rations, he could only swallow a bite or two. His stomach had shrunk. He was lucky. Some survivors couldn’t eat at all. Something like the seeds in tomatoes reminded them of maggots crawling in the rotten flesh of the dead Japanese.
The battle for Sugar Loaf Hill, historians now agree, was the fiercest of the war but was relegated to the footnotes of history by other events….Roosevelt’s death the surrender of Germany, the atomic bomb. What was unique about Sugar Loaf was its apparent insignificance. It was fifty feet high,and 300 yards long. According to one veteran, ‘It wasn’t a mountain. It wasn’t a hill. It was a piece of shit”. It was, however, essential to General Ushijima’s defense of Okinawa and the Japanese, who were masters of camouflage, would defend it to the death. It was also riddled with tunnel and caves for movement of men and supplies.
Hallas interviewed over 90 men who were there at Sugar Loaf. The recall of names, faces, hometowns, these veterans still had of their fallen comrades is amazing. In most cases they remembered the precise circumstances of their friends’ deaths. The battle was grisly (including hand-to-hand combat) and the losses horrendous. More than 2000 dIed on that small hill (not counting enemy dead) and at least that many were wounded or suffered battle fatigue. Picking up the dead for burial was a challenge after bodies laid many days in the rain, mud and hot sun, and after the hill had been pulverized by grenades and mortar fire.
And what of Sugar Loaf Hill today? For the Okinawans, life went on. They were not Japanese. They were of the Ryuku kingdom, which had been taken over by Japan centuries earlier. Their language and culture was different. Even their physical appearance was distinct. And in that war, and the battle for Okinawa, they suffered great losses. A fourth of their population died.
For me, Sugar Loaf Hill was frozen in time, as I am sure it was for my dad. No longer is it out in the middle of nowhere. Urban sprawl from the nearby city of Naha has taken over. One side has been excavated for a shopping center and at its peak stands a water tower. The only evidence of the fierce fight that took place so many years ago is a small commemorative plaque. I was surprised to read on the internet the comments of many who reacted to this development the same way I did. One’s gut instinct is to say this place should not have been developed, but should have remained a memorial to the suffering and death that took place there.
One sentence epitomizes the Sugar Loaf Hill experience: “It’s impossible to describe,” recalled a survivor. “Horrendous noise, continuously, you know…from behind you and both sides of you…smoking and blazing and eerie at night with the flares constantly above it. It looked just like Hell is bound to look”.