Semper Fi: The Secrets They Kept
We ask our young men and woman to don the uniform and go off to fight wars in foreign lands. We mouth the words, “Thank you for your service”, but how much do we know of their losses? The wounds that we can see and the many we can’t see. The loss of friends, comrades, the loss of innocence, the loss of support from a country that said, they’d have their backs. Just look at how politics prevented the passage of the Honoring our PACT Act, to help soldiers exposed to hazardous burn pits, until John Stewart and others shamed them into passing it. No wonder our soldiers kept secrets only to be shared amongst themselves and their dwindling band of brothers (and more recently sisters). I feel a responsibility to share these secrets from two soldiers I loved. They lived and died carrying burdens that no one wanted. Semper fi.
Some time after my father died I became curious about his service in the Pacific Theatre during WWII. I was lucky to have a 20+ page transcript of an oral interview he did for the Camp Tarawa Project in Hawaii and an article that Dad had written for the 1990 2nd Marine Corps Reunion. Even luckier was the fact that I was still in touch with his childhood friend Dave, who had been the one asking for the article from my Dad. My Dad and Dave had met as boys in Weaverville, California. They stayed friends through moves to San Francisco, joining the Marines, serving during the war, going to the University of California at Berkeley, weddings, the Korean Conflict, children, jobs and retirement. So when I asked Dave for help in understanding my Dad’s Marine Corps service I had picked just the right person. Not only did Dave know my Dad; they had lived through some of the same horrendous battles, although in different units. The medallion above was sent to me by Dave.
According to the article my Dad wrote at Dave’s urging, entitled ‘Why Me?: “I moved to San Francisco for my senior year and following graduation in the spring of ’42’ Dave came to S.F. so we could become able bodied seamen or cabin boys on one of the last sailing vessels still is service, a Chilean fertilizer ‘Bat Guano,’ ship. For some unremembered reason this great adventure did not materialize and we decided that joining the Marine Corps was ‘Second Best’. Unfortunately I was not yet seventeen and Dave couldn’t wait.…On my birthday in late ’42’ I was at the recruiting office in the Palace Hotel hours before it opened. Unfortunately the Recruit Depot (Boot Camp) in San Diego was full up and I suffered a long wait, til January of ’43” In this article he recounts many stories but fails to mention the Battle of Tarawa except in passing. In the 76-hour Battle of Tarawa (also known as Betio Island), the U.S. Marine Corps suffered almost as many killed-in-action casualties as all U.S. troops suffered in the six-month campaign at Guadalcanal Island. Suffice it to say that the amphibious landing at low tide turned out to be a disaster– the ocean turned red with blood. 1,009 US Marines died in 72 hours and 2,101 were wounded. From John Wulkovits’s ‘One Square Mile of Hell‘ “The smell was inescapable…it was everywhere, and it was not the kind of smell one gets accustomed to. It suffused the Marine’s hair, their clothing, and seemed to adhere to their bodies. They smelled it for weeks after the battle, and like all pungent odors, it evoked instant and nightmarish memories.” p 200
My father writes in a letter home to his Mom November 26, 1943 : “I was in the attack on Tarawa Island. And it’s a miracle I’m still kicking. I am aboard ship and headed to a safe port… I lost everything I owned in action and am now wearing Japanese and Navy clothing. I could use some pictures of the family. Well Tally Ho.” PFC Duane F. Mosier, HQ Co. Note the differences in the versions. They glossed over the tough spots to make it all more palatable for those at home.
Over several years, I pieced together what I could through letters, histories and the interview transcript and then I would email it to Dave for further insight and feedback. I knew that my Dad was injured in the Battle of Saipan and received a purple heart medal. I had seen the scars on his leg from shrapnel. As close as I was with my Dad, he never elaborated and I never knew the full story. Both my dad who was in the Marine Corps and his father who was an Electrician in the Navy were stationed on Tinian Island during WWII. Tinian is famous for being the departure base from which the bombers laden with left: Little Boy and Fat man.
It was in a letter my grandfather, Milo, sent to my grandmother dated Tinian Island September 16, 1944 that I learned the truth. “Duane’s wounds are not thoroughly healed but he gets around as if he didn’t have them. He’s got about six of them. I would have seen him months ago but he refused to be evacuated and stayed here. He is just the same Duane, only he is a little too strained, too much tension. I will be glad to see him out if it. There isn’t any part of the worst that he hasn’t been through.
When he got his legs burned up he was on the bottom of a pile of men who had dived into a hole to escape a shell burst. Those on top were blown to bits. That was rather violent but it didn’t bother him much. Maybe someday he’ll tell you of the things that did bother him, He is a very good boy. Incidentally his top sergeant used the same words when I first met him.”
My Dad’s service included the Battles of Tarawa, Saipan, Tinian, Okinawa and the occupation at Nagasaki. Those may lead to other posts, but at the end of my research, suffice it to say, I had a totally different view of what hell my father had lived through. He was just barely 18. Both Dave and Duane joined the Marine Corps Reserves while attending UC Berkeley. A way to stay in touch with Marine Corps buddies and bring in some extra money. Then the Korean conflict arrived and Dave was sent to serve overseas. My Dad was luckier and was stationed stateside in San Diego. He wrote his parents October 4, 1951: Dear Mom & Pop, I don’t know whether this year in the corps is going to mature me or bring about a premature second childhood. Since I last wrote I have done a lot of thinking about the Marine Corps lost time and I find that the facts regarding the Corps achievements in the past haven’t changed much, but my sense of values has and I feel that I fear, misinformation, disregard for human life, narrow mindedness, naive pride and prejudice tied together by mutual suffering and so called guts have made the Marine Corps what it is and was — a myth that accomplishes its end by drawing a curtain in men’s minds– like a religion—if you begin to believe there are no questions, no problems, no nothing, but glory.
In a letter from another of my Dad’s friend Ken, wrote to me April 10 2007: “He [my Dad] once told me of an incident of seeing a Japanese soldier getting out of a truck where he was camped several hundred yards away; Duane had a rifle on his lap; he aimed from the hip and fired one round—the soldier fell out of the truck; that really bothered Duane about killing a man.” In the interview below, my dad speaks more broadly from the interview:
Q. So did you take prisoners? A. Occasionally, sometimes we did on Okinawa. It’s a long drawn out battle, but when you’re confronted with enemy civilian forces they’re coming toward you. Any time they find anything like food, help, anything, they stop, that’s as far as they are going. That really plays havoc fighting a war, going out and hunting down their military brethren and so forth. So people do things like the My Lai [Viet Nam] incident, only much worst, you know, just get rid of these people.
Q. Did it happen to you? A. I was present when that order was given to somebody other than me. And had it rejected—“If you want to get rid of then, do it yourself.” But also, “Oh boy, we’re in seventh heaven, we’ll carve a few more notches on our rifle butts,” -–just slaughter.
Q. You mean they were killed? A. Yes. And we’re talking hundreds.
Q. And you saw it? A. Yes. These things happen and who knows what’s the right move.
Q. This was outside of which town? A. Oh, this was on Okinawa, south of the Kunishi Ridge.
George Feifer in Tennozan: The Battle of Okinawa and the Atomic Bomb Chapter 25: American Atrocities speaks in more detail. When men are trained to kill and placed in a steady diet of cortisol and adrenaline bad things happen. We lose our humanity and respond like machines trained to do a job—but not able to discriminate and turn the training on and off at will. Seems like there are echoes in our current news diet of endless, breathless, anger, horror and manufactured rage. Study history, it is the stuff of authoritarian regimes…
65 years later in 2016 I received an email from Dave’s daughter telling me that he was in the hospital and he wanted me to call him. It took a couple of attempts, I finally reached him not long after he had a meeting with his doctors and wife, Ruth. He had received sobering news that there was not much more to be done. When I asked what he wanted he said, “I want to walk out the front doors of the hospital and if I have a heart attack and die that will be okay.” I felt he was a yearning for one more bit of normalcy. He wanted to go home. He wanted to tell me something about what had happened on Saipan. I could tell it was important to him. I said: ” I am not a priest, but that if it would help him I would listen.” He was a devout Catholic and said he had tried talking to a priest, but he was too young and didn’t understand. It was flattering to think, he thought I would. He then proceeded to tell met me about a woman who surprised him coming around a corner where he was on guard. He shot and killed her before he could completely assess the danger and it had haunted him ever since. I hesitated then responded, “War is hell. It is kill or be killed. You didn’t know, she could have been armed—and you could be the one that was dead. God knows you had no malice.” He listened attentively and I added, “On behalf of a merciful and benevolent God, you are absolved of your sins.” He was grateful and seeed satisfied. He died a couple of days later and when speaking to his daughter I assumed that she knew the story. As it turns out he had not shared it with his family. These are the secrets soldiers keep. These traumas they carry in a lifelong rucksack of memories, horrors and regrets.
These are not pretty secrets—but they are the secret casualties of war. They are important components of our family histories, but also of the toll of war on all humans and our collective history. We dare not shy away from the unpleasant stories. We owe it to our veterans to remember them and to learn their bitter lessons.
“Only the dead have seen the end of war.”― Plato
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