Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day

I found this photo a few months ago on the National Archives website while I was searching for information on my grandfather’s service in World War II. The caption read: "These men have earned the bloody reputation of being skillful jungle fighters. They are U.S. Marine Raiders gathered in front of a Jap dugout on Cape Totkina on Bougainville, Solomon Islands, which they helped to take." The photo was taken at the beginning of January 1944. I believe that my grandfather, John Berberian, is pictured front and center.

I’ve talked to my grandfather a number of times about the war. He always relates the same train of events: how he heard about the bombing of Pearl Harbor while working as an usher in a movie theater in Richmond, Virginia, and immediately convinced a friend to drive him to the local post office to enlist. When they got there, they saw young men lined up around the block. Upon closer inspection, they realized that there were actually multiple lines – one for each branch of the service. They got in the shortest line, which turned out to be for the U.S. Marine Corps. John was 16 years old when he enlisted.

He went to boot camp at Paris Island, South Carolina, for six weeks in early 1942. In the summer, he joined the 1st Marine Division in San Diego and was sent to American Samoa to prepare for battle. On August 7, 1942, they Marines went into battle on the island of Guadacanal. John has told me about the landing of the Higgins boats, and about the sights and sounds of 11,000 Marines storming the island at once. That’s where his detailed story stops and becomes a rote recitation of names and dates spanning the next two years.

In December 1942, the Japanese withdrew from Guadacanal and the 1st Division of the Marine Corps went to Australia and New Zealand, to regroup and recover. John stayed behind and did battle with malaria. In early 1943, he joined up with the 3rd Division. They trained on Guadacanal in the summer, and went into battle on the island of Bougainville on November 1. In January 1944, the Marines were replaced by Army soldiers and they returned to Guadacanal to rest and retrain. After that, he served on the islands of Saipan (cleanup for about a week in June) and Guam (fighting began on July 15; he stayed on the island until October). The 3rd Division remained on Guam until the Battle of Iwo Jima, but again John fell ill (filariasis - a tropical disease that causes massive swelling) and had to stay behind until he was eventually sent home.

That’s where my grandfather’s detailed story picks up again. In early October 1944, he was put on a hospital ship headed for Honolulu. He remembers that every day at noon the engines would stop for a few hours. After a few days of this, he asked one of the nurses if the captain was stopping to go fishing. She explained that noon was when the surgeons performed operations every day. The trip took 30 days and the ship arrived in San Francisco on November 1. Five days later, my grandfather was moved to a hospital in Klamath Falls, Oregon.

Today, John doesn’t like remembering the war. He will proudly recite names and dates, but says he no longer understands the “kid” who went overseas and fought with such naked aggression. “That’s just not me,” he says. When he saw the photo above, he claimed it brought a lot of bad memories flooding back… but he wouldn’t fully concede that the “kid” in the photo was him. He quickly moved on to another subject, and I didn’t push. I can’t even begin to imagine the things he saw and did all those years ago, and I don’t believe I have any right to make him re-live those experiences now.

I have all the respect in the world for my grandfather. He and I have very different ways of viewing the world, and very different political beliefs, but that has never caused any tension in our relationship. We have always been able to express our thoughts and beliefs to each other without criticism or argument, and from him I have learned to always try to see the human faces behind an ideological stance.

When I think of war – particularly the current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – I tend to focus on their inhumanity, considering the physical and psychological effects that extreme violence can have on soldiers and civilians alike. Even so, when I talk to my grandfather about his service in World War II, I have to agree that some sacrifices are worth making, because this is not a perfect world. War is a complex subject, to say the least – and today, of all days, we have to consider the topic with the utmost seriousness and the utmost compassion, to honor those who have fought and those who have died.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous6/10/2009

    Your experience is not unusual. The things that our WWII veterans, particularly the Marines fighting in the Pacific, experienced are beyond anything we could imagine. However, I commend you for having the conversation. As you know, the Veterans History Project at the Library of Congress is seeking to preserve the wartime memories of all of America's veterans. It is important that we have them as a source of inspiration and education for future generations. We cannot forget the men & women like your grandfather who answered the call and particularly those who gave everything.
    Hope you can keep the conversation going with your grandfather.

    BTW, my Dad was also a WWII veteran from Richmond, VA.

    Bob P.