Sunday, June 15, 2014

New Guinea and the Philippines

My dad died almost thirty-five years ago.  I was born in the mid-fifties, and the fact that my dad served in the second world war was, to me, the most unremarkable thing about him--at that time, pretty much all my friends' fathers had so served.  It was a fact as common as having a black-and-white TV or riding your bike to school.  I was supremely uninterested.  Not hostile, not defiant, neither ashamed nor particularly proud--just uninterested.

My dad had two "war stories," the guy who would yell, "Hand grenade!" in his sleep, and the time they stumbled across a banana plantation and made themselves sick gorging on fresh bananas.  My parents had about fifteen record albums, one of which was "Songs of the U.S. Armed Forces," and my dad particularly liked "Those Caissons go Marching Along," since he was in the field artillery.  Beyond those facts, and his having been in the Pacific rather than in Europe, I knew nothing, and really cared nothing.

In every way he was the least military of men.  He never owned a gun, never swore, rarely drank, took us to church every Sunday, and had no temper.  All the kids in the neighborhood loved him, and, unlike almost every other father I knew, he didn't have us say "yes, sir" and "no, sir."

When my mom died a few years back I found, among her papers, a service record she kept for my dad, recording a very few facts about his time in the military.  Most of the record was left blank, but there was enough from the itineraries to show that he participated in the 1944 New Guinea campaign and the "mop up" operations in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao in the spring and summer of 1945.  He would have been around 28, 29 years old, just a little older than my son.

It being far too late to ask about any of this, and really knowing very little about the war in the Pacific, I came across, and recently finished, Stephen Taaffe's MacArthur's Jungle War:  The 1944 New Guinea Campaign.  Though I have absolutely no military experience, I enjoy reading war books, accounts of battles and campaigns.  Part of that is the vicarious pleasure taken in reading about terrible things you will never have to experience--climbing Mount Everest in a snowstorm, crossing the Arabian desert with supplies running low.  But, in addition, the practice of war, horrible and irrational as it is, is a large part of human history and human existence.  We don't know ourselves unless we know It--even those of us who have been fortunate enough to escape its direct terrors and atrocities.

But here there was a third perspective, not only the secondhand thrill of hardship not experienced, not only the awe of a massive endeavor of an emerging Western power to destroy the geopolitical threat of an emerging Eastern power, but also the consciousness that, in the middle of this maelstrom of destroyers and battleships, amphibious landings, firefights, bombardments, jungle and hilltop and swamp and cave assaults, heat and disease, my poor dad was slogging along with the rest of them, making the best of it.

And pretty much keeping it inside when he came home.

My mom notes that he looked awfully thin when he got back home toward the end of 1945.  She described him as "attabrine yellow," something which puzzled me until I learned in Taaffe's book that attabrine was something the soldiers were given as a preventative against malaria.  It tended to turn your skin yellow.  And when I asked one of my mom's sisters about it, she told me something I never knew:  dad came back from the southern Pacific with malaria, and never quite shook it his whole life.

So much there, so much I blithely overlooked.  So much stoicism, so much love.

Happy Father's Day, dad.

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