Category Archives: Thinking About “Why?”

Thoughts on researching and writing about past.

The Last Plane Out of Casablanca: Father’s Day 2017

I gaze at the the last plane my father ever built. Lonely, hanging from the ceiling of my office, going nowhere, slowly yawing in the artificial wind of the HVAC vent. Small, bright translucent yellow and sky blue. So like my dad, though not obvious to the casual visitor.

My dad was large, 6’4″, perhaps another inch in his prime, lean, and thin but not skinny. He bore the weight of war and the joy of family with few complaints and an ambition trimmed to meet those demands. The plane is small; bright only in places necessary to make it seen after landing in unexpected places. Pale blue as in calm. Trim, efficient, stable in the uncertainty of air high above becalmed grass and gravel. Beautiful to those who understand how to see a man and a plane doing what they need to do without pretense. Floating on the thermals of time.

FROM VALLEY TO VALLEY

On July 1, 1944 the Battle of Saipan was finally  staggering to a conclusion. The Japanese would make a sacrificial gyokusai  assault on July 7 producing a stillborn offspring in the form of a beachfront graveyard midwifed by Seabees’ bulldozers. Some of the men in the Army’s 295 Joint Assault Signal Company had survived the unholy pilgrimage through Death Valley to  realize on July 8 that they had outlived the Japanese quest for martyrdom. Death Valley would become a nightmare that needed deportation to a small dark memory vault in the JASCO brothers’ being. I know; my father survived the Valley; he survived the gayoso. He survived but never outlived the pain.

The pain began on June 20 when the 295th, attached to the 106th Regiment of the 27th Infantry Division, waded ashore on Yellow Beach. Welcome to Hell. (It is a pretty place covered in white sand, Flame trees, bounded by turquoise water, and sweetened with the lie of a constant mountain breeze) On June 23 the 106th attacked the Valley. Death walked point. Grapefruit-sized rocks looked like cover– it was mostly emotional. Boys became men; became honored dead sleeping on a floor of slick burnt sugarcane; bought ground for the price of scars that never healed when they survived.

“That’s where we lost some of ours,” he said. Fifty years had passed when my father uttered those words and struggled against a rising tide of internally generated salt water that began to cloud his vision. I do not ever remember seeing my father cry as I grew up. He was not an unemotional man, but that form of expression was alien in our interaction. When he added, “it was the worst time of my life” I knew I had to go see this place. (I did) To study history is not the same as living it, but visiting the places and touching the objects in their place generates a vibration in the web of the past that is powerful in the present.

So now, at the first anniversary of his passing, I continue to search for my father the man and by extension myself. Death Valley increasingly seems to dominate the psychological landscape. Having never been in battle my experience is second, third, fourth-hand, distorted and shaded by others and time. Yet, some days the intrusion of my father’s reality  seems as sharp and unsettling as the volcanic rock in Death Valley– perhaps because it cannot be my reality. What was that reality?

Dirt, stench, violence, death, pain. Pain, cold deep scars that no one sees. Scars that produced nightmares six years after the fact. Seeing horror for the first time painted on a canvas already displaying a background that suggested Paradise. Shades of crimson, olive, umber, and black generating images of vigorous action magnetically drawing the eye to the center of the canvas inevitably dominated by the definitive absence of life. Guernica come to life! What was a twenty-year old to make of this? Who was the artist? The Devil? Where was God in this artistic exercise? As my Dad said, “Not a pretty sight.” (Would I had his gift for understatement)

Having survived that initial exercise in “experiential art”, body covered in dirt and filth,he washed his hands in a mud hole, the first time any part of his body had been washed in six weeks. What was he really trying to get clean? What had bathed his soul in the Valley? Did he sense that he would never be clean again? He abandoned his clothes for new ones, but when did he realize he could never wash away or abandon Death Valley? Did the final Valley of Death become real for the first time at the flowering age of twenty?

He survived Death Valley and Saipan; moved on to other venues where the canvas changed, but the final picture was always the same. What and how much of it died inside him with each new landing? How many unseen scars altered the landscape of his being? Did mere survival come to define the meaning of life?

February 1946 he returned to his beloved Gulf Coast and walked from the bus station to    “P” Street where he had spent most of his life. His mother and his African-American neighbor were ecstatic that he returned with no visible scars. His father had survived the Battle of the Marne in the Great War, and now he had survived Death Valley in another great war. They both walked most of their lives knowing in ways I cannot that we all live in the Valley of the Shadow.

On July 1, 2015 my father passed into the valley we must all travel. The young enlisted woman knelt before my mother, presented the flag, recited the ritual on behalf of a grateful nation; they played taps. My father taught me not to fear walking through the Valley of the Shadow of Death.

 

 

CASABLANCA 2014: RICK’S PLACE

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When does the last plane for Lisbon take off? The background mutter of the Lost waiting for exit is sisyphian. No white house, but white minions hovering. Sam tickles a low hum-hiss tune with no melody–lower key from an apiary. No one will buy his piano at auction–you can get this noise from any HVAC unit.

Rick watches.

Table number 1 for the Hero’s party.  The geography does not matter; the Germans (actually it was the Japanese) are gone. Drinks arrive–plastic bags with long twisting straws. No color, salty taste that doesn’t kill the Hero’s real pain. Your cash is good at the bar. Nothing is ever on the house. Casablanca is a gold mine.

Rick watches.

Ferrari sweeps in, a bombast of certainty. Draws and gulches gullied in his face.  Opinions for sale; remember last week, or was it earlier today? Our conversation is self-generated. It is nonsense; it is all we have.

Rick watches.

Uncertainty is the fog. The parrots are green not blue. They hover and flit with the metronomic regularity absent from the flight schedule to Lisbon. Ilsa waits too. Can there be two exit visas? Most certainly, but not with the same date. Will she take the plane if the Hero is on it? Everyone arrived with letters of transit—Ugarte is already gone.

Rick watches.

Inside the Hero’s compressed world the desert of time and an unseen sab0teur have destroyed the travel schedules. This morning you are the valued Carl; at midnight the breakout was on and you were the mirage-guard in need of a thrashing. Now you are No One in his desert. Ilsa is his only constant. Oasis that is evaporating as her shores erode under the weight of the waiting.

Rick watches.

Watching the old man wait, and wait, and wait, and wait, and wait. Louis brings the news. No plane to Lisbon! Casablanca is terminal, but not this week.

Rick watches, but not in Casablanca.

MEMORIAL DAY 2014

They died at Thermopylae. They died because they lived.

They died at Syracuse. They died for no reason.

They died at the Delaware. They were certain they knew why.

They died at Eylau. They believed they knew why.

They died in Camaron. They thought they knew why.

They died in Death Valley. They never worried about why.

They died in Dien Bien Phu. They weren’t supposed to ask why.

They died in the Ia Drang Valley. They weren’t sure why.

In reality they died for each other, but as the Athenians knew, hubris had seduced their final breath.

Apologies To Tim O’Brien

“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?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

INTO SUMMER; INTO THE VALLEY

Summer is approaching and my research is behind schedule. What to do?

Trying to make sense of the past that lives in each of us could be a full-time job but for the reality that the labor does not pay the utility bill or the mortgage unless you arrived, PhD dissertation in hand, and then parlayed it into a national best seller and a tenured position . Given the current economic and academic landscape that arrival occurred sometime during the Jurassic period.

For those who continue to scratch and dig into the past with or without pecuniary compensation the struggle to unearth understanding involves a number of issues. One of these is deciding where to begin the search. Most of us have a wide variety of options. “My family came over on the Mayflower” has the attraction of lending deep-seated substance to personal history, but is likely to be rewarded by a harsh reality about the family’s journey to the present. Pure curiosity combined with the inspiration of a favored mentor leads some into the breach of the past; such is the birth of many a M.A. thesis. For others of us the confrontation of a family member’s personal experiences open the portal to the maze of a “place where they do things differently.” Hence, the shadow of Saipan hangs over my trail.

Scratchers and diggers face an additional challenge. How to stay motivated. The past, especially the personal past, is seldom easily tilled soil.  Like Death Valley and Mount Tapochau on Saipan it is often a dense tangle of bush, burned-over sticky sweet sugar cane memories, and hard, sharp, porous, unyielding rock. As I pursue my own quest into the borderlands which define my story and my father’s I need and find external motivation in the work of my friends and colleagues. One such place is the blog (http://georgelamplugh.wordpress.com/) of my longtime friend and colleague. His latest entry about the difficulty of teaching the Vietnam War as history is an example. The Boss’s exploration of how to deal with that which is too personal to permit perspective reminded me of the necessity to push on and on in the pursuit of finding meaning in our personal pasts.

Thanks, Boss, for the spur as I  spend the summer once again digging in Death Valley.

STILL SEARCHING AND SCRATCHING IN THE VALLEY

While studying the past seems, from one perspective, to be an exercise in autobiographical discovery none the less it generates other benefits or problems. My school is currently involved in what has become known in the larger world of consultants and pundits as a “transformational change.” The experts confidently present data that indicate at least 30 percent of an organization’s company will leave by the time the change is complete. Thirty percent casualties! According to at least one accounting the British Army fighting on the Western Front in WW I sustained 43% casualties. Napoleon’s Army suffered approximately 35% casualties at Waterloo. The U.S. Army and Marines sustained less than 20% during the capture of Saipan in WWII. So we beg the question first posed in the movie What Price Glory? “What price glory now, Captain Flagg?”

Does the past help us decide what price we should be willing to pay for change? Death Valley, Saipan, Northern Marianas, July 2005, sixty-one years after my father and his comrades ran, crawled, and prayed their way through the burnt sugar cane, tangled bush, and Japanese projectiles I search for the answers to unknown questions. In that instant I realize that my father’s experience was extraordinarily costly.When members of the 295th JASCO attached to the 106th Infantry of the 27th Division were told to take the Valley “regardless of cost” they faced an unspeakable reality: many of them would never witness another sunset over the Philippine Sea. Yet, in a larger sense they knew why they were spending their lives in that little corner of hell. Their sacrifice would buy the security of their families, friends, and descendants. The cost was high but so was the value of their purchase. Losing their lives and health for a known, believed-in, yet unrealized outcome meant you dealt with the horror by trying to keep the man next to you alive.

Paying the price for the benefit of those who suffer with you brings an emotional and psychological foundation that would otherwise be inaccessible in the midst of uncertainty, deprivation, and loss. Conversations and interviews with veterans in combination with post-war research indicates that most combatants stay and endure the absurdity of battle out of sense of obligation and concern for the man next to them in the fray.

If transformational change involves high casualty rates,  who are the beneficiaries, and what are the outcomes which justify the losses? Presumably the necessity of transformational change is found in the future. But whose future? In business it is inevitably the stockholders who are supposed to derive greater returns from the process. This logic is neatly sterile in that few stockholders watch their relatives lose their jobs as the corporation becomes lean and mean. The stock price jumped; all is good. Schools on the other hand are not in the business of improving the price of their stock. Ask any teacher, there is no money to be made in the profession. Again, who benefits from 30% casualties?

If the 30% are to be validated  their loss must be the students’ gain, not merely the institution’s. Here in lies the pain and the doubt for those in the foxholes. Most teachers would like to believe that a better school means a better experience for the students, but in the heat and dust of change the process is not always reassuring and the outcomes seldom certain. So how to cope with the demise of valued programs and the departure of long-term colleagues who are friends?

Focus on the students. What will their world be like if we never change? Deal with the present and support colleagues in the midst of the fray rather than trying to understand the absurdity of the language and the process. The men in Death Valley could not afford the luxury of questioning the present; they had to make it work so that they could have a future. To hold ground was to die. Honor those who stay as well as those who leave. All have made the present possible. No matter what you do you cannot predict the outcome.

Thus the past can help us evaluate the price we are willing to pay and to understand it in a larger context. The analogy may not be precise, but much that is educational lacks certainty. So we ask; so we learn.

Still searching and scratching in the Valley.

“I Find Evidences Of Its Presence Every Day.”—Ambrose Bierce, The Damned Thing

If we believe that studying the past will help us find meaning for our present then we must generate the will to respect those things we discover or uncover as we toil in the fields of yesterday. My decision to travel to Saipan grew out of respect and love for my father, who fought there in 1944. So I began my quest with  a clear sense of obligation. As I prepared for the trip in 2005 my father sent me off with a simple wish. ” I hope you find what you are looking for.” At that moment, I confess, I did not know what I was looking for in that distant place. Moreover, in June of 2005 distance was a force of space, but it would soon become a force of time.

Landing on Saipan was substantially easier for me than it had been for my father. I did not have to wade several hundred yards in chest-deep water because the landing craft could not cross the reef separating the Philippine Sea from Laguna Garapan. The Japanese I encountered by the dozens were friendly and cheerful with no desire to drive me back into the sea. I slept in a fine bed; not on the sand. The rainy season was remarkably dry compared to its 1944 ancestor. Clearly my experience on Saipan would be separated from my father’s by time. On July 1, 2005, I began to wrestle with distance as a force of time, as the space had been conquered.

Wrestling with the forces of time is the stock in trade of historians. We strive to walk the edge between “thinking in time” and “thinking out of time” so that our conclusions generate meaning without doing violence to the people and events of the past. How well we walk the edge determines the quality of our contributions to the world’s historical vision. Saipan taught me that walking the edge is much more difficult than I had imagined.  Time might generate a vast distance between my father’s experience and mine, but time also eliminated distance between me and my father. Fifty-four years of familial intimacy with my dad had generated a bond that made bridging the sixty-one years of space since he had walked on Saipan very difficult. Emotions soon clouded the walk-way between “in and out of time”.

Saipan is actually the summit of an underground mountain that rests on the floor of the Marianas Trench. Approximately twelve miles long by five and one-half  miles wide it is a collection of hills, ravines, cliffs, and one 1560 foot high mountain. Driving and walking the landscape mirrored my thoughts and emotions–highs followed by lows. The up and down journey led me to an answer to the original question. What was I looking for?

My students might have been able to expedite finding the answer because I had been violating Byrd’s First Law of studying history. “Never overlook the obvious.” After numerous treks to the summit of Mount Tapochau , I found, like Luke Skywalker who entered the cave, I was looking for myself. As with most historical discoveries the realization that I was chasing autobiography emerged from putting many small fragments of evidence together.

The environment was a major piece of the puzzle. At 7:00 AM Saipan is bright, bathed in cool breezes, and straight from a travel agent’s brochure describing paradise. At 9:30 AM someone flips the switch and the island is nothing but a large microwave with instant heat. Growing up on the Gulf Coast of Florida the sun and heat brought a familiarity to my days during the two-week visit. Everything was green and bright like the world of northwest Florida. Salt air and fire-filled vibrating sunsets resonated deep in the well of personal experience.

The visual evidence of a time and set of experiences that I could barely imagine constituted another shard of the evidence. Standing on  Tapochau and attempting to visualize the Hades of Death Valley sixty-one years earlier was an emotionally charged exercise I repeated four or five times in two weeks. How did my father survive? Why was I here?

Driving the island with the government historian took us to one of the many caves the Japanese Army constructed or enhanced as they prepared their defenses in anticipation of the American invasion. In one cave the pick marks left by forced Korean labor are still clearly visible in the walls and on the ceiling. Scratched reminders leaving hard evidence that the pain was not confined to soldiers.

During one of my soujourns at the summit overlooking Death Valley I met a Korean family on vacation. No doubt their trek to the top was an after thought to their vacation in one of the island’s resorts. They knew nothing of the battle which had raged around the mountain during a long-passed July. After I answered a few questions about the historical marker which briefly describes the view something nudged me to have the little girl write her name in both Korean and English in my journal. In retrospect this may have been a moment when my experience began to coalesce.

Out of time and years afterward I look back at the experiences which form a pile of evidence about my trip and realize that the environment, the attempts to understand the past, the confrontation of a variety of physical evidence, and the encounter with a family whose link to the island was quite different from mine constitute a  mosaic. The mosaic is a flash image answer to the question of “What am I looking for?” Who and what am I?

Studying the past can lead us to find portals into realms of self-awareness and understanding because the evidence is often surprising and outside our control. Our search for a meaningful past often leads to revelatory experiences in the present which illuminate the true nature of our search. A chance encounter with a little Korean girl on mountain far from the Florida Gulf Coast has shed new light on why I study the past. I have little faith in my ability to move my autobiography and self-awareness beyond T.S. Elliot’s “heap of broken images”, but my understanding of  the past, and why I study it is becoming more complex and nuanced.

GHOST IN THE GARDEN

Why does a person rummage around in the past? As with many human experiences and endeavors a simple answer is probably a poor explanation. No doubt some of us do not prevaricate when we make the case that we are seeking help to cope with the present. After all, not every member of the AHA could be lying! Yet some of us may prefer the past because it allows us to escape the tangled mess of the present while the past can be manicured into a quiet mind garden.

One suspects that many of us who are seriously engaged in practicing and teaching history were first attracted to some kind of intellectual glade by the romanticism of a story or perhaps the antiquarian fascination of an artifact found on the family premises or seen in a museum. On the other hand, perhaps the lure was escape. The young often see the present as undesirable. Past or future–anywhere but now!

Yet those of us who have come to a place of serious historical study most assuredly stand in the present. A present we know we cannot escape except in our minds and escapism seldom exerts the same powerful pull it exercised in our youth. So while we may have been drawn to the gate of the professional garden by antiquarian curiosity, budding romanticism, or unvarnished escapism we  entered the garden and stayed to cultivate it for other reasons. Probability suggests that our reasons are highly personal with a hint Freudian complexity; yet trying to prune them has brought us to this place.

The intensity of sixth grade fascination with all things ancient Roman, to junior high enthusiasm for the military exploits of Americans in World War II was an excursion in romantic escapism riding an unbridled reading expedition. The almost perpetual consumption of  history books was a staple of my early life. Lessons to be learned from the past remained in the barn while the steam-driven engine of pure curiosity carried me closer and closer to the fieldwork of my life. College did little to develop my self-awareness of why I chose to study history. The fascination factor was still very powerful, and the discovery of interpretive debates helped fuel the engine. Only in graduate school did I begin to grow into understanding that the complexity of the past was the complexity of the present. Few things bring self-awareness into focus as quickly as the exhausting work of cultivating an M.A. thesis that the author finds mediocre for its lack of explanatory power.

Being forced from the hothouse of graduate seminars into the rock-strewn fields of high school history classes was both a step forward and sideways. Forward because the cultivation was no longer a tightly managed communal exercise but a real world practice. Sideways in that so much of the daily work was merely removing brush, weeds, and stones that hindered even the planting of historical awareness among teenagers. The cultivation of a variegated  and sophisticated historical reality was seldom possible, but the cutting, weeding, and lifting never ceased to create meaning. Season after season of generating seedlings of historical awareness; gardens of hope that others will value what we value and  shape their own flourishing understanding of the past.

After so many seasons in the field reality sets in. Rewarding as our little plots may be they are not the grand, lush developments we envisioned when we acquired our skills and tools in graduate school. Discovering that we have walked our fence-line over and over, and that it circumscribes limited acreage can be a source of despair or discovery. If the 160 acres of teaching lacks the space and shape for intricate greenery it is not necessarily infertile. Any student of agricultural history knows that diversifying the crop can enhance fertility and increase yields.

Thus after team teaching with my good friend and English colleague for several years when we assigned our students to write a brief “family history” the idea of finding greater fertility in the current field seemed a logical path to more sophisticated work in the garden of the past. Indeed, at my colleague’s urging I returned to my earlier interest in World War II by exploring my father’s experience. A return to primary research became an even more invigorating experience when fertilized by the strength of my own past.

So in July 2005 I stood on the summit of Mount Tapochau, Saipan and viewed the garden of my father’s past. While both the real and the historical landscapes were fertile the field was yet open to cultivation. As any student of the past knows, venturing into new lands has always required dealing with the current inhabitants. There were ghosts in the planned garden.

Dealing with the ghosts in Death Valley.

Old Thoughts To Get Started

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.