“Summer time and the livin’ is easy,” but in the late spring of 1944 on Saipan only death had been easy (the dying was hard). Well before the summer solstice the island was “secure” and the Japanese troops had been defeated. Sixty-one years later when I visited, the living was easy for the tourists and more peaceful for the inhabitants. Nine years removed from my initial landing I have yet to make my way back across the Pacific to that small pinnacle which bores its way out of the Marianas Trench. Yet, I return every summer as I work my way through documents and books searching for a path to understand my father’s experience there.
Creeping, crawling, sliding through page after page of photographed documents conjures boredom, brings surprise; engenders fatigue; begs for finality; lacks glory. A cold reflection of a deceased hot war. Following footprints of crumbling yellow pages and smudged carbon copies through the wet, green, burnt cane and rocky draws seventy years and 7748 miles away. A tall rail-thin boy-becoming-man throwing rocks during a lull in the noisy slaughter-house of Death Valley. An aging son searching for. . . for what?
Re-walking the ground of 2005 and 1944 in 2014, informed by research, reading, and thought raises two questions: What did my father carry to Saipan and why? What did I carry to Saipan and why? For a historian the former may generate more satisfying answers than the latter. After all, the distance of time and space can flash cold unsparing light into many dark corners; whereas the intimacy of here and now is often clouded with the haze of infrared emotion.
As he waded ashore on Yellow Beach 2, Saipan, June 1944, my father carried the junk the US Army issued him: an M-1 carbine, a poncho, a canteen, a backpack with rations, ammunition, probably hand grenades. He usually threw away everything but the poncho, the carbine, ammunition, rations, and canteen. Travel light, stay alive. He often carried a large bulky radio. He was a scout in a JASCO team charged with spotting Japanese targets for offshore naval gunfire. A frightened disembodied voice scratching and cracking its way across 5,000 yards of disrupted air and turquoise water asking for a sky storm of death in 5-inch drops to explode on an unseen enemy. Who was he in 1944?
What did he carry as he survived his way through Death Valley? He carried the knowledge that the white sand shouldering the Gulf of Mexico was unmatched by any beach he had seen in the Pacific. The shimmer of that sand must have given force to the memory of long fishing trips on Perdido Bay with his father. A time of joy, communion, and a primary battlefield in the family’s war against the Great Depression. The grinding stench of war surely contrasted with the aroma of my grandmother’s cooking as well as amplifying the knowledge of her fears thousands of miles away. Fears so terrifying that he knew that he must avoid receiving a purple heart because she would imagine the minor cut as life threatening. All soldiers carry home into the slaughter-house, but can they really afford the memory?
Did he carry hope? For what? Survival! Were those horrifying periods of waiting in the false quiet filled with hope for another fishing trip and family or was hope one more piece of GI equipment jettisoned on D+1 as something too burdensome to carry while trudging through the sand and bush of the present? Faith, was it among the carbine magazines, C-ration cans, and six-week-thick coat of dirt that he dragged into his hole each night? Many WW II veterans swear “there are no atheists in foxholes”; but is desperation “faith”?
He definitely carried “desire”–to go home! Under the relentless inquisition that only a naive little boy can generate, he repeatedly told his son “I wasn’t angry at anyone. I just wanted to go home.” So perhaps that is the only answer that matters. Any and everything he carried was brick and mortar in a wall he built to keep home safe and alive, in that far away space and in his soul.
Space is a limited commodity on Saipan, forty-four and one-half square miles, 12 miles long, five and six-tenths miles wide. The beaches are narrow, the water in the Chalan Kanoa Lagoon shallow. The island is riddled with caves, many made forever impenetrable by the savage tools of war. The physical space constricts and shapes navigation for a seeker and so does the distance of time. The small Inquisitor who repeatedly interrogated his weary father with “how many Japanese did you kill in the war?” now wonders what he carries ashore in that narrow place.
Curiosity rode in the red North Face backpack that traversed up and down the isolation that is modern Saipan in 2005. I wanted to see the arena that led my father to describe those days as “the worst time of my life.” What environment contributed to such life-shaping, and enduring pain? Excitement swung as if tethered to the shoulder straps of the pack; I’d never seen the world of the Pacific War. Hell is a bright and beautiful place. Yes, it can be hot, but also wet. Buried deep in the pack under the survival blanket, waterproof notebooks, emergency light, camera, and rain jacket was anxiety, perhaps even fear. I was not entirely certain what I was looking for in the here and now of the past so failure haunted the opening days of the journey, but shared the space with hope.
I hoped that I would find some kind of understanding. That ill-defined vague statement cannot be clarified. As time has progressed the hope seems to be that I might have a deeper appreciation for how my father came to be the man I have known for sixty-three years. What did the war do to him? How would he have been different if he had never seen Saipan?
As is the case with all historians I carried questions and those questions only led me to ask more questions. Now, as I return to the Valley through the books, papers, data stick files, and maps which clutter my office I wonder. Have I thrown away enough junk? Can I travel light and survive the journey?