Back in 1994 was the first time I met Uncle Bill. All the California family went to Iowa for the 50th wedding anniversary of Uncle Bill and Aunt Doris as I mentioned in the previous post. Family and friends came from all over the country, including a lot of Bill’s Marine buddies. The reunion lasted for most of a week, and culminated in a big party in the town meeting hall. There must have been several hundred people there. We may have almost outnumbered the people who lived in that small town.
I told you that I was allowed the honor of doing a short speech to commemorate Uncle Bill and his Marine Corps pals. I had been working on it for a few weeks, and I had all the background information. But once I talked to Uncle Bill about his experiences in the war, I realized that I couldn’t go into any real detail about the fighting. There would be women and children present, and people would be eating food. It wasn’t the time or place to give a speech about blood and guts. On the other hand, I didn’t want to remove all of the horror. People needed to understand that it was indeed hell on earth.
So I came up with the idea of using a metaphor of children’s games. I know that sounds ridiculous, but hear me out before you decide. I gave the speech on stage, with a band behind me playing the Marine Corps Hymn. The problem was that the trumpet player was right behind me and even though I had a microphone, I couldn’t hear myself or tell if anyone else could hear me. And lights were shining in my eyes so I couldn’t see anybody. So I just plowed ahead.
This is what I read;
Close your eyes and picture a place hotter and more humid than this, with steep hills and deep gullies covered with thick woods that keep the damp, steamy air dark and still. In these woods, and up and down these slopes, young men from farms, cities and towns play a deadly game of hide and seek, and when you are tagged ‘it’, it is with rifle and bayonet, grenade and mortar. All the while the hot sky above is a tangle and swirl of diving planes, whooshing rockets, singing shell fragments, zinging sniper and machine gun bullets and malaria carrying mosquitos.
The young men playing this horrid game in this God-forsaken playground joined the game mostly because of a simple American value called fair play. On December 7th a few years earlier at a place called Pearl Harbor, other young men had made it known that there were other teams on the playground that would not play fair. Well, our men could play a new game by a new set of rules also, even if they didn’t like it, and the new bully boys on the block could be taken down a peg or two.
On April 1st, 1945, Easter Sunday and April Fool’s Day, these young men, some really just boys, met on a new corner of this world-wide playground where the game was played for keeps. They brought all their gear, 50 pounds or more each, that would be needed for the game. The only thing missing were referees. Because there were no rules except don’t get tagged, tag the other guy, any way you can.
And they, the guys raised on fair play and rules to follow, were getting pretty good at rough housing with these new cheaters who were trying to run the playground their own way. Among the teams in this chilling game were the 6th Marines under the overall command of Lt. General Simon Bolivar Buckner, son of a famous Confederate war leader.
These bad boys had learned the new rules quickly and had lots of practice at it. They liked to play rough. This corner of the playground was called Okinawa, and it was right in the bad part of town, the backyard of one of the bully boys who had picked this fight in the first place.
One of the worst parts of this bad part of town was a mound of coral and volcanic rock with the inappropriately beautiful name of Sugar Loaf Hill. Maybe 50 feet high and 300 yards long, it may have been beautiful once, but now the trees were blasted away by shellfire, and it looked like a large meteor smashed into the desolate ground, cratered and smoking, scarred and blackened. And in every hole and crevice determined men from the team, led by Lt. General Mitsuru Ushijima, lay waiting for the game to begin again.
In mixed company I won’t go into details. Suffice it to say that this game of king-of-the-hill went on for days. Sometimes one team was king, sometimes the other. Sometimes one team owned half the hill while the other team had the other side, and a crazy game of toss developed, not baseballs but grenades arching over the crest of the hill, and the game continued into extra innings.
Up and down, back and forth, this wrestling match between two cultures rocked, punctuated by the frightening sounds of the ultimate game of chance, the high-stakes game of war.
Please bear in mind that I use the word ‘game’ only to soften the imagery. It is not something for those of us who were not there to dwell upon too deeply.
But what about those of us who were there, on the ground and in the air? To these men, many of whom never returned, and to those who waited breathlessly at home, we all owe a debt. As someone who has always been interested in history I am acutely aware of how the world we know has been shaped by these brave individuals. Picture a world run by the Nazis and the Japanese of that era.
Our children play on their playgrounds without fear because of the horrors their Grandfather’s endured. Although, to hear them talk now, it all seems like a glorious game, a Don Quixote-like adventure, we must remember that after all war is no game. More lives, including civilian lives, were lost on that small island than in both atomic blasts at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
I personally and humbly thank you all.
I was moved to see that when the lights went down and the band stopped playing, there was not a dry eye in the house.
I know that in my usual self-absorbed manner I managed to make this post more about me than about Uncle Bill, and all I can say in my defense is that when my speech was over, I was crying too. Because that is how much it meant to me to have that chance to say a few words in tribute to all the heroes of that war that never got speeches or parades. And Uncle Bill was one of those.