Read an Excerpt
PACIFIC WAR STORIES
in the words of those who survived
By Rex Alan Smith, Gerald A. Meehl
Abbeville PressCopyright © 2004 Rex Alan Smith
All rights reserved.
Excerpt from: Pacific War Stories
A man in his eighties sits down as the table and carefully spreads out in front of him ten or so small black-and-white photographs. They have all now taken on a kind of amber hue, after some sixty-odd years, but their images are still sharp and clear. All the photos picture very young men, teenagers clowning for the camera, hats at jaunty angles, on beaches, in front of tents, palm trees always in the background. I’m this fellow here. He points to one of the smiling lads in the photo closet to him. You look up from the old photo to the face of this amiable, distinguished, Pacific war veteran, and it’s difficult to imagine that they are the same person.
Then, as arranged, he starts to tell his story, first what made him enlist in 1942, then the crazy things that happened while training Stateside for war, then being crammed into a converted Hawaiian cruise ship with thousands of other teenagers, crossing the Pacific with a sense of high adventure, and then further stories of wild times on leave in wartime Honolulu. Then he finds himself on another ship, this time going to invade an enemy island he has never heard of, an island few people even remember today. Then, in an uninterrupted stream, there are stories of terror, violence, and death, interspersed with bizarre and even humorous events, You marvel at how easily he can switch his narrative from a truly gruesome experience to one that is so funny he has trouble getting it out between fits of laughter. Ultimately he tells about hearing that atomic bombs had been dropped on Japan, and he confides that he felt a profound sense of relief when he learned that the war in the Pacific was finally over, that he would indeed survive the war. Then one last story, about another ocean voyage, on another ship, but this one is taking him home.
He stops for a moment, and you think the stories have ended, but it is just a pause. Perhaps unexpectedly, he has somehow tapped deep into a well-secured vault of Pacific war memories, and now they begin to resurface one after another. His face brightens again and again as more images of things that happened come into focus. And I remember one time—and, you know, I don’t think I ever told my family this story…” and he launches into a humorous, R-rated experience he had in Honolulu. Then another island combat anecdote. Then a story of a strange thing that happened to a friend of his on one of the islands. He will later say he’s told you stories he hasn’t related to anyone for a long time, and some of them he’s never told since the war.
When they first came back, most Pacific war veterans didn’t seem to talk much about what happened to them in the islands. They needed first to get on with their lives, and of course they knew that many other veterans had similar stories they could tell. What a vet had personally done, as just one individual embedded somewhere in the Pacific islands, might not have seemed all that spectacular, unique, or even interesting to others, at the time. Sometimes when tempted to tell their stories, the vets could see family eyes roll and hear a chorus of, THere goes dad again with his old war stories.” But even with an interested audience, Pacific war veterans would seldom tell anyone about the bad things that happened. They figured was was tough for everybody one way or another, and nobody would want to hear about the horrible things anyhow. However, half a century later, it dawns on some veterans that they actually did have a part in world history, and that what they did then was even fairly interesting. Since more people appear ready to give them an ear, many are now willing to share their experiences, willing to acknowledge that they did play a role, however small, in the outcome of the Pacific war.
Listening to a Pacific war veteran tell his stories is not a relaxing experience. You strain to imagine the scenes he is recalling, and you struggle to keep up, in your mind’s eye, with the images he describes. But as you begin to relive with him his varied experiences, he is no longer an eighty-two-year-old man sitting across from you but a young man stationed on a South Sea island long ago, recounting events with an immediacy that also transports the listener to the Pacific. It’s a form of time travel, and you are there on exotic Pacific islands, living hilarious events that happened on leave in Honolulu, experiences horrific scenes of violence and death, feeling the discomforts of rain, heat, mosquitoes, and the oppressive humidity of the tropics, seeing stunning beauty in lush, island scenery, contemplating all those spectacular sunsets, enduring the boredom, waiting for something big to happen even on rear area islands.
As he talks, the face of the elderly man appears to merge with that of the smiling teenager in the photos. You no longer see the thinning hair and creased face but focus instead on a pair of eyes, the same eyes that saw everything he is describing, the eyes that have not aged, that are still as clear and blue at age eighty-two as they were at age eighteen. Those eyes recall all the Pacific islands he describes, all the events he witnessed, all the tragedy and humor of his experiences in the Pacific war. Yet, through his eyes you see but one part of WWII in the Pacific, a tremendous series of historic events staged and played out across one third of the planet’s surface. At the end of the interview, you look at the old photos again, and they seem familiar now. You don’t see just old black-and-white snapshots anymore—the palm fronds are dark green, the tropical sky is brilliant blue, the beaches are searing white, and the uniforms are rumpled khaki against the tan, forever young faces.
It is this sense of time travel that we attempt to convey in Pacific War Stories. Having interviewed dozens of war veterans for our earlier book, Pacific Legacy (Abbeville Press, 2002), we sensed that some were aware that their island experiences had been overshadowed in the popular media by stories about the European theater of war, and we knew they wanted to be heard. But of all the eyewitness stories collected, we could only include a fraction in Pacific Legacy. Nevertheless, we were determined to all let them have their say, before it was too late. So in this volume we have been able to present the firsthand war stories of more than seventy veterans, just as they recounted them to us, in as much detail as they remembered, with a level of clarity that is at once remarkable and fascinating.
Pacific war veterans are now all close to eighty years of age, or older, yet they still remember in spectacular detail what they did and saw during World War II. Their stories, in this volume, range from up-close and terrifying island combat, to perilous encounters at sea, to aching boredom on rear area islands, and include all the myriad feelings in between that comprise the cast scope, the color, and the vivd imagery within this rich tapestry of stories by veterans who put their lives at risk for their buddies and their country. The result, we hope, will provide those who weren’t there a small sense of what it was like to have had a part in history, to have been out in the Pacific during World War II with a generation of brave and selfless individuals.
During the preparation of this book, Dave Levy, a PT boat skipper in the Solomons who served with John Kennedy, told us, Everybody who was out in the Pacific has all kinds of stories of what they did during the war, and those stories are worth telling, of course. But what I find fascinating is how the war affected the course of our lives. I know my entire future was changed by my experiences in the Pacific with the Navy. Why don’t you let the veterans finish their stories?” We agreed, and include an epilogue to many of the stories, so the veterans can reveal just how this war altered the trajectories of their later lives. For some, the impact was profound, either due to lingering effects of wounds suffered or because of horrifying memories that continued to resurface for years in nightmares and flashbacks. Some simply picked up where they left off and continued with what they had set out to do before the war. Others who could never resume their former lives headed off in entirely different directions, in careers perhaps energized by their Pacific war experiences.
But whatever the war veterans did after returning from the islands, all of them agree that their war experiences in the islands have become central elements in their lives. They have found that memories of what happened ten or even twenty years ago are not nearly so vivid as those harsh or humorous events on tropical islands recalled from sixty years ago.
The Pacific was veterans who have carried their memories deep inside them all this time are now, in this volume, ready to share their stories.
Excerpted from PACIFIC WAR STORIES by Rex Alan Smith, Gerald A. Meehl. Copyright © 2004 Rex Alan Smith. Excerpted by permission of Abbeville Press.
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