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November 13, 2004

Guest Post.

Long time commenter SangerM sent this along. He was going to put it in the comments, but chose instead to email it. So I'm posting it.


This started as a small post in the comments to your Vet's Day post (which I really liked, BTW), but it grew, and I didn't want to clog that. Also, I don't know if you want something this long posted there anyway, but I really wanted to tell this story. Sooooo, here it is. Even if only you read it, then I'll feel like some who understands some of this will have done so... Enjoy!

In July 2001, I bought the book "Ghost Soldiers" from the author, Hampton Sides. He was at a small table in the Hampton VA Holiday Inn outside the main meeting room where the Defenders of Bataan and Corregidor were holding their annual reunion. I bought the book and asked Sides to sign it, then I went off looking for veterans to sign it also.

I was successful beyond my hopes.

Basically, immediately after getting Sides' autograph, I started pestering veterans for signatures. In all, I was able to get about 45-50 folks to sign it. Suffice to say that the time I spent getting those people to sign the book was among the best 5 hours of my life. Of course, I was unable to just get a signature and move on; often I was treated to a story or a snippet of a story, some of which were in the book (like the one about a deaf prisoner who missed the escape), and some not.

For example, I met a fellow who said he was the youngest POW in the war, and another who was on the PT boat that took McArthur off Corregidor, and another who was actually born in a POW camp to a prisoner nurse, and so on. I met a woman--she was 98 years old the day I met her--who was one of 6 or 7 nurses who escaped from Bataan in a Navy PBY on Tojo's birthday. In fact, one of the men told me about watching an appendectomy performed in the hold of the transport ship that was taking them to a POW camp in Japan and he showed me a magazine picture of the native American soldier who had gone onto live to be around 75. I met another man who said he was only 15 miles or so from Nagasaki when it was A-bombed!

Can you imagine!?

I also met a widow of a Vet who told me that for a score of years or more she washed her husband's feet every day when he came home from work because he had foot rot during the war and had problems with that all his life. I even met a shy old fellow who was in the ETO, who actually worked on the Enigma machines. I was MI in the Army, and one of the most foundational lessons they teach is how important the Enigma decryption effort was to the winning the war. He was surprised anyone had heard of it!!! He and I had a lot to talk about.

Quite simply, I was enthralled, as I always have been when I meet people who've experienced things I would never want to. But I was also very comfortable there. These men were not strange to me, just the location and the encounter. I had not been in the presence of so many WWII vets since I was a boy, and it was strange being among them as an adult, with knowledge my 10 year-old self never had. My stepfathers, a couple of uncles, and my father-in-law had all been in the Pacific in WWII. One of my uncles was on Oahu when Pearl was attacked (his was a story too); one of my stepfathers ended up in Alaska, participated in the goat-screw attack on the Aleutians, and later flew "over the hump" into India a few times; my other stepfather was a Marine in a group called Carlson's Raiders--which I have been told the Marines of today do not like to discuss--and he was on Tarawa, from what I gathered. My father-in-law was a 22 year veteran Navy Corpsman who was on Okinawa and Tinian, and who later was literally one of only about 5 survivors of a company of Marines on some hill in Korea, and who then spent 2 years in the
Antarctic for the first of the geophysical year studies.

Quite a legacy, eh?

In fact, as a child, I spent many an hour at the Elks lodge with my father, or at the local barber shop or the drugstore, listening to these fellows (who were not so old then) talk about stuff. I and my wife and many of my friends also lived with fathers who woke up screaming in the middle of the night, or who got spooked to the floor whenever a loud noise was heard.

The point of telling all this is to explain that I felt very much at home among these old vets and their wives, and I enjoyed myself in a way that I have not done since I as a boy. It was so very, very pleasing to find myself again sitting among people who were older than me, and to just listen, and to be awed again. On more than one occasion, I was moved almost to tears as the grown-up former soldier part of me overlaid an adult's understanding on the child's wonder, but that was ok too.

What I found most astonishing was that a good many of the fellows (and their wives) said I was one of the few younger folks to actually show any interest in what they had done! Literally, more than once, I responded by saying that I knew lots of folks my age who were interested in the War, and more than once, the old guys (usually as a group) would say their kids never acted like they cared!!!! To this, I responded that if they were anything like my fathers and uncles and other war vets, they never talked much about the War, and when asked they always said they didn't want to talk about. Also, I told them about how my Mother and my aunts and grandmother (and my friend's "womenfolk" as well) would often tell me not to ask the "old man" about the War. Why? Because it would upset the guy. And so whatever we did learn, we learned by eavesdropping or acting invisible, or pretending we were doing something else. I can never remember any of the men in my life telling me directly anything about his war experiences when I was a child, so I was amazed to hear these guys complain about this. I suggested to one and all that they might be surprised if they went back and asked their children what they thought about the claim that they were not interested.

It's hard to say if I made a difference, or what value there was to all of that, but I was gratified beyond describing every time one of the Vet's spouses would lean over and "confidentially" thank me for asking her husband for his autograph, telling me how important that was, and how much he really appreciated it.

Can you believe it? Thanking me! Ha! How confused a world is that?!?

That book is one of my greatest treasures!!!