Tuesday, November 11, 2008

For God and Country

Donald was a Marine. He was a Marine a long ago in China and he was still a Marine fifty years later. Though he was active duty for only three years he did get the clear message that “once a Marine, always a Marine”.

It took me some time to catch on to just what this meant. At first I thought it was just a kind of a motto, like the Marine Battle Hymn, "From the Halls of Montezuma….”. Gratefully, early in my process of researching Donald’s past, another Marine tipped me off, “Diane, You’ll want to refer to Donald as a former-Marine, there are no EX-Marines.” It would seem that you can be discharged from all of the services for crimes of many kinds, but you never stop being a Marine.
The other layer of my realization about, “there are no Ex-Marines” came into full focus as I began to correspond with other men who were in China when Donald was. I began by subscribing to the Marine Gazette and Leatherneck magazine.

I laughed to imagine what my postman must think when my new Marine magazines arrive alongside my copies of Vogue and The New Yorker. I look at the pictures in the Leatherneck: men in camouflage and covered with mud. In the past I held men who looked like this apart. But now I can’t quite hold that separation. I feel my own class judgments and stereotypes creep in. Do I even understand what it means to be a soldier?

I placed a small ad in each of the Marine magazines. The notice said that I was trying to locate Marines who served in China 1937 to 1940. I gave my address, phone number and email address. I hoped was there might be someone alive who could help me with descriptions of setting, and tell me about the transport ship, the USS Chaumont. I expected to hear from family members who perhaps had their father’s scrapbooks or maybe an uncle’s clippings from China. I was unprepared for what happened.

The first ad appeared in the Leatherneck in September 2000 and the day that my copy of the magazine arrived I began to be drawn into the Marine world and into a very old world. The key word is old. I came home from work one day and my message machine was flashing that I had seven messages. I grabbed a pen to jot down numbers, but when I heard the first message I couldn’t write at all.

A firm male voice said, “This is Staff Sergeant Clifford Wells. I am responding to your notice in the Marine Gazette. I believe I can assist you. I served in China 1938 and departed Shanghai on the USS Truman 23 March 1940. Please call me”. He gave a number—I was sure this person was saluting as he spoke--and then he said; “Now I usually bowl on Monday and Wednesday so it’s best to call me on Friday.” I knew that no matter how young he had been in 1938, this was a really old guy, and he sounded like he was still “Staff Sergeant Wells”.

That week I had several messages like that. Most delivered in the clipped tones of radio bulletins. I also got a call from the son of a former-Marine, one from a nephew of someone who served in China during the war, and I got letters.
The letters echoed the phone calls:

“Dear Mam, I am writing in response to your recent notice in the Marine Gazette. I believe that I may be able to help you. I am… and they gave rank, name, duty assignment and location in China, which always included full date of arrival, and departure. The letters each described for several pages their assignment and duties, special services rendered—chauffeur to the Commander, chef for enlisted men, engineer or corpsman. Somewhere near the end of each letter the writer would tell me his current age—86, 87,88, 89---and how best to contact him. The closings were poignant: “I am happy to help you learn more, but please don’t call. I am extremely deaf.” Or “I will write back to you again but only when my son comes on Thursday to help me with the mail.”

But there was another face of former-Marines: I got email. The ghosts of China came to me through the Internet. The emails were slightly less formal: “Hi Diane. Rcvd ur email msg. My tour of duty in Shanghai was 3 Nov. 1938 thru 18 May 1940. Fourth Marines regimental Hdqtrs. I was C.W. radio operator. I have some phone books of Shanghai…”

That was the other wonder and a writer’s gift: Each man had documents.
Some had scrapbooks, or copies of the Walla Walla, a weekly newspaper put out by and for Marines in Shanghai in the late 1930’s. (The name Walla Walla was a joke, a mimicking of the sound of Chinese speech.) The former-Marines had saved 1938 Thanksgiving dinner programs that included the menu; they had box scores of Chinese ball games, with the roster of players. And they wanted to send it all to me.

Cliff Wells, Frenchy Dupont and George Howe became my phone and pen pals. Along with other former China Marines, these men became my friends and my teachers. They told me what it was like to be young and far from home, to see death all around them and then to have to kill. These men, older than the Greatest Generation, shared that group’s reluctance to talk to family about what they’d experienced, but they were willing, almost waiting, to tell me. It was Cliff who one day said, “Do you understand what “hand-to-hand combat” really means? And then told me in gruesome detail. It was Frenchy who explained what starvation felt like and his panic and fear when, as a prisoner, he realized he was going blind. And it was George who described seeing a guy “go off his rocker” when we talked about what it was like to see dead bodies every day and the strain of being surrounded by violence.

It did make me wonder, as it has since this began: Hadn’t any other historian or journalist stumbled across these guys? Had no one uncovered a group of men who could write the real “We Were There” story of events leading up to World War II? But no one had, and from the urgency I felt from these strangers, their push to get these materials into my hands, there weren’t a lot of people in their lives –not at their own Thanksgiving dinners or at the bowling alley who were willing to listen either. Here were the men who saw the Rape of Nanking and the bombing of the Panay, who lived the high life of Shanghai—“Paris of the Orient”—and the lowest of low life as prisoners in Battaan and Palawan, and who had survived. These men, who had been through all of that, and who still identified themselves first and always as US Marines, had been waiting 60 years to tell their story.

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