The difficulty in writing is finding the time. Contemplation of “why we do history” is an ongoing process with me, but writing is about thinking carefully and deeply; a much more challenging process. In an attempt to move forward and create a broader discussion I turn to some old thoughts about “why”.
WIND ON THE MOUNTAIN—DEATH IN THE VALLEY
Standing on Mt. Tapochau in July 2005 I strain to see the valley below as it was in June 1944. The Americans called it Death Valley; they died there between the rocks, in the gullies, and on the slippery burnt sugar cane. Historians are supposed to “look at the past”; we are supposed to “discover” what happened; we are charged with “giving it meaning”. We are trained to be “objective”. I stare at the valley and begin to know that the degree to which we are able to meet these expectations may be more a matter of our inner-selves than how well we have been trained.
Sixty-one years after my father waded ashore at Yellow Beach 2 on the western coast of the undersea mountain known as Saipan, I walk Yellow Beach 2. The sun is bright, the Philippine Sea is calm, and the world is quiet. From the pinnacle of Mt. Tapochau which stabs its peak 1545 feet above the Pacific Ocean the valley below appears to be part of a Disney-created jungle. Green dominates. The wind always blows across the peak, weathering the historical markers. The smells of cordite, burnt sugar cane, and rotting flesh are gone. The pain is not. Somewhere the pain remains. While the world watched the events of the post-Normandy invasion in Europe American infantrymen were fighting and dieing in the heat and rain of Saipan.
On the floor of Death Valley gazing at the summit of Tapochau surrounded by the heat and the greenery I sense the reality of the past. No wind, no far horizons, no visible way out. Unpaved roads lead to dead ends or merely circle around to where I began. Which direction did they go (does anyone go) to avoid death? This is a tangled world which appears to have no way out. The smell of cordite, burnt sugar cane, and rotting flesh are gone, but they seem more real in the valley than on the mountain.
After two weeks and numerous trips up Tapochau and drives through Death Valley, I know that I will never know what my father knows. Yet, the knowledge gained by walking the ground, by feeling the air, by understanding the limits of my experience all serve to illuminate the extent of my arrogance. Only those who were there can testify. I can merely comment.
Writers and movie producers immortalize the beaches of Normandy and the battlefields of Europe. Few Americans seem to know what happened in the Pacific Theatre during World War II, and even fewer know what happened on Saipan. Visit a local bookstore’s military history section and compare the number of volumes dedicated to World War II in Europe with the number of volumes devoted to action in the Pacific; then count the number of volumes which focus on the U.S. Army’s role in the Pacific War. (This will not require the use of your toes as you count.) . The history of Pacific operations is usually filtered through the lenses of the U. S. Marine Corps.
At the urging of my friend and colleague Lasley Gober, I finally interviewed my father in March of 2002. He was always reluctant to discuss the war, but time and my chosen profession apparently led him to a place where he saw purpose in opening the door to his past. Listening to the precision of his memories and hearing the pain of fifty-eight year-old psychological wounds unlimbered my inertia. The sound of his voice saying that Saipan “was probably one of the worst times of my life” reverberated in my being. I knew I had to go to that place.
Fortunately Westminster has a sabbatical program of the first magnitude. The committee generously granted me funding for three summers of research to investigate the history of my father’s unit. The 295th Joint Assault Signal Company was a child of necessity. Created to help coordinate land, sea, and air attacks during amphibious operations in the Pacific Theatre, the unit ceased to exist when the Japanese surrendered. My father’s first real combat experience was on Saipan, thus, my visit. My research is far from complete, but the experience has rejuvenated my spirit and heightened my appreciation for my father’s contribution to the Republic.
At this point, I would expect most readers to wonder what in the @#%$& is this waste of electronic space about. Short answer: if you teach history find a project that demands you do historical research in primary sources on a topic in your own past. Walking the ground of your personal past and delving into the records filled with partial information and a multitude of mysteries can be a great revitalizing experience. The task of untangling the web of documents in the National Archives has proven to be as profound and energizing as my walks up Tapochau and through Death Valley. Discovering yourself through the complexity of your past means you will never be the same.