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.