I WAS inducted into the Army of the United States on October 9, 1942 at the age of 20. I entered active duty on October 23 at New Cumberland, Pennsylvania. I left Pennsylvania several days later on a troop train and headed for Camp Stoneman in Pittsburg, California. I stayed in California until November 8, when we were loaded on a troop ship and headed for God only knew.
The brief memoir my father recently wrote about his years in the Army tells what fighting a war was like, but the pictures in the old photo album tell me how it must have felt. The album is filled with shots of young GIs posing, playing, goofing around on the beach. In one, my father crouches against a background of coconut palms, stripped to the waist, knees spread, forearms propped on his thighs. His skin is dark, his hair black, his body lean and muscular. In another picture, he strums a guitar. In another, he shoulders a rifle, a stance that seems to me out of character.
Those pictures were taken in Hawaii before Company C shipped out to where the fighting was going on. The following shots are of Scranton, Pa. In one, my father and his brother -- my uncle -- stand proudly in uniform beside my grandparents beneath a big banner saying "Welcome Home!"
My uncle once cornered my brother and acidly inquired why he drives "Jap cars." My brother prudently backed off. A Vietnam veteran, he told me he understood how my uncle could still harbor such bitterness after all these years. But, he added, "At some point, you've just got to say, 'The war is over.' "
The war is over. It ended 45 years ago. But my father still can't talk about it for more than a few minutes before his thoughts circle back to the buddies he lost, and he starts to break down and cry.
Morale at that time was very high, as well as patriotism, for after all, we were in the place where it all started for us when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and each day as we trained we could see Kolekole Pass, where the Japs first came through to wreak havoc on these beautiful islands.
The museum where I work displays the weapons of the air war, painted and polished and sleek. The old fighter pilots I've heard or read about all tell the same story -- how theirs was an impersonal war, how it wasn't the man they were after when they trained their guns on a Messerschmitt or a Zero, it was the machine. Like them, the enemy pilot was just a guy doing his job.
But there was nothing impersonal about my father's war in the Pacific jungles. He didn't shoot at machines, he shot at men -- and the bullets shredding the air and clipping the palm fronds all around were meant for him and his buddies. The slug that brought him down was fired by a man who was trying to kill him, a man probably just as young and scared as he.
We lost a lot of good men trying to secure Clark Air Base. I was wounded, I believe it was the 16th or 17th of February, I don't remember now, but I saw a lot of my buddies die or get wounded. I saw our K Company get wiped out to the last man and couldn't do anything about it. Our company started with 225 men when we landed in Lingayen Gulf and after about 40 or 45 days was pulled back when Clark Field was secured . . . . I learned later, only 85 men walked out under their own power.
In a Smithsonian Institution storage facility just outside Washington lie the pieces of a B-29 bomber taken apart for restoration, its fuselage emblazoned with the name Enola Gay. In August 1945, it dropped the first of the only two atomic bombs ever used in war. As much an icon as an airplane, it rests at the eye of a swirling controversy over the effectiveness, cost and morality of the Allied strategic bombing campaigns that leveled such cities as Dresden and Tokyo.
To many, the Enola Gay remains a symbol of infamy, the means by which thousands of innocents were slaughtered. But my father was, in a sense, innocent too, and he might have been just as dead, along with countless others on both sides, had the war continued. I doubt that many GIs who slogged through the jungles with my father, fought malaria and dysentery or held dying buddies in their arms would have argued against dropping the bomb.
Combat training they called it. We had a bunch of new replacements fresh out of basic training. The first time out . . . the scout in my squad got killed, 18 years old from Texas, my company commander and 3 or 4 other kids. Some training . . . .
My father returned stateside after the war, moved to Buffalo to work in the steel mill, married, raised five kids and settled into a contented suburban life. But he He suffered recurring bouts of malaria, had his first heart attack before he was 40, retired with a frail heart before he was 50. A sensitive, quiet, devoted family man, he never socialized much, never had another friend that I ever heard him refer to as a buddy, as if no one else could measure up to what that word meant.
Once a year the men of Company C, 108th Infantry, gather in Syracuse or Columbus or Louisville as they have every year since the war ended. They talk about their families and their ills, drink too much beer, tell jokes and stories they've told before but never tire of telling again, and quietly note who else hasn't made it back this year.
When we got back to join our company, the Japs opened up with their artillery again. We all headed for the creek bed for some protection. My buddy Mike Stefanik from Nanty Glo, Pennsylvania, the best buddy I had in the army, was about 10 feet away from me when an artillery shell hit between us and ripped his abdomen open. I almost went crazy. I grabbed somebody's Browning automatic rifle and headed for those hills to get at the artillery all by myself. The guys had a hard time holding me back and calming me down. Mike never made it to the air strip and to the hospital. He died before he got to the plane.
There is no wall in Washington etched with the names of my father's buddies. But the names are etched in his memory, and the faces of men forever only 18 or 20 years old haunt him to this day. They came to him a few years ago at the Buffalo Naval Park aboard the USS The Sullivans, as he read down the list of the ship's engagements. They came to him as he tried to write a furious letter to his congressman last year, after he was denied a passport because he had no birth certificate to prove his citizenship and was told his Army discharge papers would not suffice. The old general in the movie "White Christmas" reminded him of a sergeant of his who had to lead his men into an almost certain Japanese trap, but who refused to order them forward; he would only ask them to follow. They did, every one. The company was mauled during the fight, but most of them made it back. The sergeant was not so lucky.
Thirty years later, my father returned to Hawaii with my mother, fulfilling a cherished dream. Aboard the USS Arizona memorial in Pearl Harbor, an eerie feeling swept over him, perhaps the realization that the hundreds of men resting in the waters below had all been someone's buddies. I cannot imagine how he could bear to visit the Punchbowl Cemetery in Honolulu, where so many of his own buddies are buried.
Before many more years pass, all that will remain of history's most terrible war will be the books and cemeteries and monuments and museums. No one will remain to remember those who fell, where they came from, why they fought, how it felt to watch them die. There will be no reunions of old soldiers retelling improbable tales. There will be no names of buddies carried like lockets close to the heart.
After we got a bunch of new replacements and some of the older guys went home on rotation, we started to get ready to invade Japan. The A-bomb was dropped on Hiroshima when we were almost ready to go. We had started to board our ships when Japan surrendered . . . .
I came home as a Staff Sergeant with . . . a Purple Heart, an aching hip and a limp, a bad case of malaria, nights of nightmares, sad memories of a lot of good men, and no fanfare, nor did I expect any. I did it for my country in a war that we hoped would end all wars. I wouldn't have taken a million dollars to have missed it, nor would I take 10 million to go through it again.
I wonder, sometimes, how he feels when I visit, stepping out of my old Toyota, once with a Sony tape deck that I brought for him to fix. But if any hatred festers in him, if he ever hated at all, it doesn't show. He greets me at the door and wraps his arms around me in a big hug befitting the bear of a man he has become. He holds me close, like a memory of his beloved Hawaii before the dying began, like a son too long from home, like a precious gift, like a buddy.
For my father and his buddies in Company C, 108th Infantry, on Veterans Day, 1990 -- D.R.
David Romanowski is a Washington writer and editor.