I’ve been meaning to write about this for a while, and Memorial Day seems like a fitting time. It’s one of those holidays that is so often celebrated so differently from its original intention; it’s no wonder, because it’s hard to do what the day asks us to do: remember those who have given their lives in service to our country. Someone too familiar with loss once said to me that Memorial Day and Veteran’s Day should be reversed — we’re supposed to remember those who died on Memorial Day, but instead we celebrate the beginning of summer; Veteran’s Day is to honor those who have served and have lived, but it comes as the weather is getting darker and colder. I think of this every year as each day approaches, and strive to remember and to appreciate what others have given for my benefit.
Lately, I’ve been remembering by reading and learning. A couple of months ago I fell into a sort of self-study of World War II. I had read The War That Saved My Life with my daughter, which follows a young girl who is forced to leave London and live with another family in the country, safe from the bombs expected to come any day. It was engrossing, and I bought myself the sequel at the kids’ next school book fair. Around the same time, I spent a night on the USS Hornet, a WWII-era aircraft carrier, with my daughter and some other Cub Scouts and their parents. I learned all about the war in the Pacific Theater, to which I really hadn’t ever given much thought. I knew about the atomic bombs, of course, and I had some vague idea of American pilots dying over the ocean – my paternal grandmother lost her then-fiance in the Pacific Theater (more about that later).
Then COVID-19 happened and I spend a week in quarantine in my guest bedroom, during which I read a lot of books I’d been meaning to get to but hadn’t had time for. These included the aforementioned sequel, called The War I Finally Won, and Lee Richie’s Black Bones, Red Earth, which isn’t about the war at all but taught me about the struggles of Bristish WWII orphans shipped to new homes in Australia after the war. These books helped open my eyes to hidden parts of the war, things I’d never learned about or understood, and reminded me of the cascading effects of war on everyone. Every lost life affects multitudes of people around them.
My interest piqued, I next picked up Angela Petch’s The Tuscan Girl, which tells another unseen side of the war: the reality of the ground war in Italy and the lives of Italian POWs, who I had no idea spent a great deal of time in England, helping work the farms while British men were away fighting. It caught my eye because my maternal grandmother lived in Italy during WWII, though not in Tuscany, and I welcomed the opportunity to learn about what her life may have been like.
Continuing on the theme of learning about aspects of the war with which I was previously unfamiliar, I happened upon a Kindle deal for The Things Our Fathers Saw, Volume I, which is a compilation of personal accounts from soldiers and marines who fought in the Pacific Theater in WWII. I was shocked by the brutality of the fighting, the fierceness and ideology of the Japanese, and the astounding numbers of men killed on both sides. And I was humbled by the candor and the emotions of these men who lived through hell on earth, witnessed and participated in so much depravity, and then went home to live “normal” lives. Again, I thought of ripple effects. The scars these men carried home were physical and emotional, and surely impacted their wives, children, and grandchildren. In a way, all of our lives have been shaped and impacted by what feels like ancient history to today’s kids, who may not know anyone personally who lived through that time.
In that book, they kept mentioning Eugene Sledge, with whom a few of the men profiled had served, so I used a Great on Kindle credit to purchase his first book, With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa, which was one of the books used to make the HBO miniseries The Pacific. My husband and I then watched the ten-part series, which visually presented many of the battles I’d read about in The Things Our Fathers Saw. It’s an emotionally draining series to watch; in many cases the homefront episodes were worse in that way than the battle episodes. But for the first time, The Things Our Father Saw and The Pacific showed me what the Pacific Theater actually entailed. As a kid, it was equated for me with the black and white photo of Grandma’s fiance, Joey, who was shot down over the Pacific. My child-brain turned this into a neat, non-fiery plane crashing into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of California; a sort of sanitized picture. For the first time, I understand that these men–people’s husbands, brothers, fiances, sons–were fighting brutal battles on tiny island specks thousands of miles away from home, against an enemy that preferred death to surrender. It is tragic, both the loss of life and the emotional burdens placed upon an entire generation of men who survived the brutality. Mixed up in these emotions, though, is this weird sense of gratefulness to Joey – for fighting, but also for dying. Had he not lost his life, I would not ever have been born. My grandmother would never have met my grandfather, who himself fought in the war in the US Navy in North Africa, and wouldn’t have had my dad, who wouldn’t have had me. Ripple effects.
So, my WWII reading list is still growing, of course. I just started reading Sledge’s book, which is apparently considered a military classic. I also have a scanned copy of my grandather’s journal, written as he crossed the Atlantic en route to Libya as a young Navy Lieutenant. This journal came into my family’s possession after my grandfather had passed, and I wish we had had the opportunity to talk to him about it. But, though intensely proud of his service, he rarely talked about the war, so perhaps it is better this way. I also have on my Kindle a book about US-Japanese relations, and how they’ve been shaped by the Pacific Campaign, which I happened upon via a chain of tweets that started with Japanese Literature. Switching back to the European theater, my husband and I are planning to watch Band of Brothers together, and he helped my six year old pick out a book for my birthday, Erik Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile. I have to intersperse happier reading among all this war, but I am so grateful to have stumbled into this self-study. I am learning so much, about history but also about humanity and how WWII shaped not only The Greatest Generation, but those of us who have come after.
I realize my musings have been a mix of focusing on both those who have lived and those who have died, but really it all points to intense sacrifice. So, I hope you all have a Blessed Memorial Day, and take some time to reflect on the many, many men and women who have given their lives in service of our country, and on those they’ve left behind, who suffer the ripple effects of their deaths.
This post is written in thanks, particularly to Joey, whose death indirectly brought about my life, and to Sgt. Alessandro Carbonaro, USMC, whose death during Operation Iraqi Freedom will always cause me pain and has made it so I will never forget that each casualty number represents a human being.