It has arrived—the 40th Anniversary of my departure for war. There were times I never expected to live to see it—or to see the next morning, for that matter. There are times when it seems to me to be a dream, and others when it seems as if it happened only yesterday.
I think that one joy of Division reunions is that, for a few short hours, we are once again 19 or 20 or 21. Each of us carries with him in a special place in his heart the memory of shipmates who will always be 19 or 20 or 21, who gave all of their tomorrows for our todays.
On ANZAC Day, at every formation and memorial service, the Aussies always recite a verse from Laurence Binyon’s poem For The Fallen, written in 1914.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
December 18, 1968
My leave sped by. When I got home from Quantico, there was a letter waiting from my draft board noting that I was “apparently no longer attending college” and offering me “the opportunity” to show cause why I was not eligible for induction.
I donned my uniform and drove over to the Selective Service Office in Edwardsville, our County seat. As I walked in, a nice, older lady looked up and smiled. “Good afternoon, Lieutenant. May I help you?”
“I don’t know, ma’am. Are y’all going to draft me, because if you are, I need to let my Commanding General know that I may be a little late in getting to the war.”
She laughed and took the letter. “I think we should just take that and clear that up right now, Sir. When do you report?”
“I leave on December 18.”
She came around the counter and gave me a big hug. “God bless you, son. I’ll be praying for you.”
I wasn’t drafted.
At Thanksgiving, Maryann and I were formally engaged. We had met in February, dated steadily at school until I graduated. We had Labor Day together in Chicago, when, a week after the Democratic Party “Days of Rage” Convention, I made the mistake of wearing my Dress Whites into a restaurant in The Loop. She came to Quantico for the Marine Corps Birthday Ball, and then we had several weekends together before I left.
It was a whirl-wind romance that, looking back, was doomed to failure, although the collapse took another 15 years to start and 20 years to happen. We were kids who did not know one another.
I came down with a fierce chest cold, complete with hacking cough. Mom was frantic. “The Viet Cong will hear him and it will be all over!”
She finally called my pediatrician, Dr. Ben Berman, who told her “Tell him to come up to the back door and I’ll give him a prescription for some cough medicine.”
I came through the office/waiting room, to the amazed stares of moms with their little ones, and was ushered back to Dr. Berman’s office. We talked and he gave me the prescription. He told me, “This is cruelly hard on your Mother, so be patient with her.”
He continued, “You know, no matter how much you have thought about this, it will be unlike anything you can imagine, right?”
“Yessir.” I realized that I was now standing, not with the gruff old doctor of my youth, but with LtCol Benjamin B. Berman, Army of the United States, a battalion surgeon on Omaha Beach on that harsh June morning for which he was awarded the Silver Star Medal. You listen to men like him, those who have “seen the elephant.”
“Good. Be careful. I’ll see you when you get home.” He said some soft words in Hebrew, patted me on the back, shook my hand, and sent me on my way.
On the Sunday before I left, we worshipped at my Mom’s church. I saw some high school friends and stopped to talk with them, while Mom went on into the Sanctuary.
As I walked to join her, she was talking to a friend of hers, the mother of one of my high school classmates. I saw Mom’s face fall. Then the other lady turned, saw me, blushed and paled at the same time, and turned back to Mom. “Oh, Ruth, I am so sorry. Please forgive me.”
I later learned that when she saw Mom, she rushed up and said, “Oh, Ruth, they have drafted my [son]. They wouldn’t extend his deferment while he worked on his Masters. Why would they do that? Why him? Send the stupid ones, not the intelligent ones like my [son].”
We both made it home safely. He was a mail clerk in an Army unit, back in the rear with the gear. But three other guys from our hometown were also in that unit. All three were KIA on the same day within yards of one another. I later heard that one was killed when he tried to pull another, who was already gone, out of an exposed position. Greater love hath no man that this, that he lay down his life for his friends.
Our Moms’ relationship was never the same.
And finally, that day was there.
It was a cold, sunny day. At Lambert Field St Louis International Airport, I met Pat Oates for the start of our journey. Rita was there with their daughter Elizabeth, who may not even have been walking. I remember her happy little smile as she sat in her stroller. (Liz, if your kids ever read this, sorry for giving away your age. For me, you and Steph will always be sitting at the card table in our house in Milwaukee with Michael and Matt that night when Matt went to sleep with his face in the spaghetti. At least I have embarrassed you all. Sorry Margaret, you weren’t around yet!)
My Mom and grandmother had brought me to the airport. There was a lot of silence and forced conversation. It was not a happy day. Finally, our flight to San Francisco was called away and it was a blessing.
From San Francisco, we caught a bus to Travis AFB. Within a few hours, Basic Class 12-68 was having a mini-reunion. Our flight was called away at about 2100, and off we went.
The flight itself was unremarkable. We were on a Pan Am jet so it was like any other commercial flight of that time. Pan Am and a couple of other airlines contracted with the Department of Defense to fly those routes.
Our first stop was in Honolulu. We landed at about midnight and were told that we would depart at 0230. A lot of the guys went looking for a bar. Pat and I just strolled around, ending up in a quiet area that had big pools and huge carp swimming in them. We just stood talking and throwing pebbles at the fish.
At about 0050, Pete Porello came dashing up. “Where the [universal adjective] have you guys been? We’re leaving and you are almost UA! [“UA”—unauthorized absence; awol] Not a good way to start things, gents!”
We all ran back and boarded the plane. The war could get back on schedule.
Our next stop was the next morning at Wake Island, where it was already December 20 thanks to the International Date Line.
Wake is a special place for Marines.
In January 1941, the United States Navy began to construct a military base on the atoll. On August 19, elements of the 1st Marine Defense Battalion arrived. Armed with six 5 inch and twelve twelve 3 inch cannon, plus heavy and light machine guns, the 449 officers and men of 1st Defense Battalion, under the command of Maj. James Deveraux, USMC, began to establish the island’s defenses.
Starting on 8 December and lasting until 23 December, the battalion reinforced with sailors and civilian construction workers, held out against overwhelming odds, repelling one amphibious assault, destroying 2 Japanese destroyers, one submarine, and 24 enemy aircraft. Finally, after fighting off numerous air attacks and a second amphibious assault in a 12 hour battle against a vastly superior Japanese landing force, Wake surrendered on the afternoon of 23 December 1941. Between 700 and 1000 Japanese soldiers and sailors were killed in the attack, while American losses were 52 military and about 70 civilians.
One of the legends of the battle is that after the initial Japanese amphibious assault was repelled with heavy Japanese losses, the Defense Battalion commander, Major Deveraux was asked by his superiors if he needed anything. The newspapers back in the States reported that he said, "Send us more Japs.”
After he was released from a POW camp in 1945, Deveraux denied that any such message was sent. "As far as I know, it wasn't sent at all. None of us was that much of a damn fool. We already had more Japs than we could handle."
After our plane was refueled, we re-boarded and commenced our trip to Okinawa, having visited a shrine to the courage and valor of combat Marines.
It was now our responsibility to ensure that no one tarnished that reputation.
© 2010 Michael R. McCarty. All rights reserved.