Memorial Day

The grandpa that I ate burgers with as a kid in smoggy San Pedro, CA was no adopter of high technology and could not have predicted his return on the Internet. When the court’s IT staff installed a 1980s monochrome terminal in his judge’s chambers, he rejected the device as a mystifying intruder.

“What is a computer?” he used to ask us from his large black easychair. I don’t think he wanted to know the answer. My brother would say something about 6502 machine language and Grandpa would lose interest.

But this year when we received word from advertisers in New Zealand that they wanted to use one of Grandpa’s letters to promote Stephen Spielberg’s The Pacific in their country, we agreed, to pay respect to Grandpa and his service.

Grandpa was one of three brothers who served in World War II, triggering the Saving Private Ryan Rule. Along the way, he interrogated POWs, became a guerrilla chieftain and saw himself as a soldier in a struggle between Japanese feudalism and American industrialism, as he wrote home in 1945 to his wife Clara in L.A.

He would have been the last guy to get sentimental about some fuzzy idea that Americans owe him our Bill of Rights for witnessing horrors in Okinawa and sleeping under artillery shells in Leyte. Instead Grandpa agreed with General Smedley Butler, who called war a racket.

But Abe hated brutality in all forms. And in the yellowed box of letters that my dad and I converted to blog entries in the last couple years, you can see Grandpa’s distrust of warring nations mingling with hope of helping people like Acquilino, a young Filipino with med school dreams blocked by poverty and a brother imprisoned by the Emperor’s troops.

And so that’s why people waiting for their MAXX buses in Auckland, NZ can look up from their iPods at a poster reprinting the story of an Army mail call in summer, 1943, when GIs dug a hole in the earth for a candy bar.
– John

Oahu, Hawaii Territory

August 4, 1944

August 4, 1944, Oahu, Hawaii Territory

I suppose that everyone in the U.S. thinks the war is over for all practical purposes. You’ll find a very different attitude among the guys have to do all the fighting. It’s allvery well for the arm chair strategists to proclaim that the war is over, butfor the “dogfaces” the war won’t be over until the last shot is fired—because the last shot may still be the one with his number on it. For me, the war won’t be over until I can hold you and Wm close and know that I can stay with you as long as I like, and that is forever.

Pictures: Everyone has copies of those negatives I have mailed you. So no need to make additional ones. I am enclosing another picture—taken just before we departed for the parade in honor of F.D.R. You’ll probably have difficulty in recognizing me—but it really is. I expect soon to have some more pictures for you—taken during the parade yesterday—showing me shaking with the General as he congratulated me on the decoration! People who don’t know better will think I killed at least a thousand Japs.

Is anyone living together happily

July 27, 1944

July 27, 1945, Oahu, Hawaii

Bronze Star: There were 8 awards in Hq. Co. Although it is not a high decoration, it is still one degree higher than a Purple Heart—However, there has beenso much unfairness in the award of medals and decorations that they mean nothing to the men in the ranks, although civilians are probably very much impressed with them.


Is anybody living together happily? I think they should join the Army and then they will get so sick of fighting that they won’t have any energy left for fighting with each other.

Cake for the interpreter

May 21, 1945

As you may have read in the papers,10 men from the 17th have already left for home, on May 18th and 7 more left yesterday. I hesitate to arouse any false hopes, but if the process continues I should be on the way home in a month or so. I am now number 63 on the quota list. I hope the thing keeps rolling along regularly.

I meant to ask you about the Bronze Star medal. I would like very much for you to give it to my father, because I think it means much more to him than it does to you. I know it would give him a lot of pleasure to exhibit it to everyone. It has already served its purpose so far as you and I are concerned. The medal was worth 5 points and the [oak leaf] cluster was worth 5, which helped a lot.

I gave a slice of cake to Tommy—a Hawaiian Japanese—who serves as an interpreter, and he especially instructed me to send his thanks and compliments. It wasn’t your best, but still pretty good.

Looking Clean

June 29, 1943

After having written long letters answering the mail received June 22, I learned that some of the matter which I wrote might conflict with the censorship regulations. You may or may not receive those letters. Now I have to start all over again. I’m sure you won’t mind the duplication, however.

Anyhow I can toell you about my bath. I used to feel sorry for Wilyum because he had such a small both-tub. Now, however, I would gladly trade him and pay 50 pesos besides. How about it Wilyum? My tub consists of one G.I. helmet. Not having a wash-cloth I used my old underware. This has the advantage of washing the underware clean, even if the bath itself is unsuccessful.

Nevertheless, it was quite refreshing. The best part of it was the Sierra Pine soap. (Remember Yosemite?) I look clean, anyhow, and smell so pretty that I’ll bet you wouldn’t mind kissing me.

While on the subject of baths, how about sending me some wash cloths. Pur P-X will probably have some in stock by the time yours arrive, but send them anyhow.

After combat

June 24, 1943

I hope that by now you have received some leters from me more recent than the one of April 29. Starting with this letter I am going to start numbering each one, so that you can know whether all of them are reaching you. I have written quite a few in the last 3 weeks.

Censorship regulations having been relaxed to a certain extent I can now tell you that I have been in combat against the Japs and have seen plenty of action. I may later be able to locate the guy who took a picture of a gang of us after 3 weeks without shaving, washing, brushing teeth or combing hair. If you see the picture you probably won’t be able to recognize me. That Cyrano de Bergerac nose may give you a clue, however, in spite of the thick layer of mud with which it is camouflaged.

I shall never forget the day we first contacted the enemy. Many times at camp I have heard shells going over head, but that certainly does little to prepare one for the time when a determined enemy is directing shells at you —as fast as he can —with deadly intent to kill. I had only half-finished digging my fox-hole when an explosion was heard about 500 yards to the right of us.

Our own artillery had been firing all morning and when I heard the explosion I assumed it was caused by the firing of one of our guns. I continued digging. A few seconds later another explosion was heard. This one was much louder and much closer. Someone yelled, “They’re going the wrong way!” (Meaning that it was an enemy shell and not our own.) Everyone hit the ground. I crawled into my very inadequate fox-hole and hugged the ground, in spite of the 4 inches of water in which I was lying. Not too soon either. A third shell landed and a cruel, razor-edged piece of shrapnel came bouncing over the ground, landing about 5 yeards from the fox-hole next to me. I thought to myself — “So this is it, this is war.” At the same time I cursed the ancestors who were responsible for the long nose which made it difficult to get closer to the ground. It seemed to make such a difference at the time. My heart was pounding violently — threatening to tear itself loose it seemed. Although my face was flushed and hot, I was shivering — whether from the cold or from fear I cannot say. It was probably fear, because the intense cold was completely forgotten.

The candle-light grows dim and flickering. The sputtering wick is about to expire — and so must this letter. I will continue the story in my next letter which I will write tomorrow.

This belongs to Johnnie

June 25, 1943

Yes I’m still in a very happy mood after receiving all of those letters from you. But mail call has its sad interludes. Some names are called, and there is no answer. There never will be an answer. Always there is a moment of silence — a brief memorial — before the mail call resumes. There are packages, too, in such bad condition after the long search for the owner, that it is impossible to return them to the sender. One of these packages was turned over to me to be distributed to the men. It was full of all kinds of good things, put there by loving hands — with loving thoughts. A little note was wrapped around one of the candy bars.

I carried it up the hill to where we live. The men were gathered there—playing cards, reading, talking and joking. The soft light was gradually dimming in the cold, grey sky.

“This belongs to Johnnie,” I started to say. There was a complete silence. All activity ceased. The men appeared as statues of grey marble — faces expressionless. Then a single thought seemed to run through all. One of them picked up a shovel, and we went outside.

Carefully, I lowered the package into the earth and waited until it had been covered. We returned to our shelter. Activity had resumed, but men’s minds were on the other things. I know mine was.

Memorial Days will be celebrated in the future. The stadiums will be crowded, flags will fly, and bands will play. There will be eloquent speeches and impressive ceremonies, but my mind will go back to this single little incident and others like it. It will always mean more to those who were there than all the formal ceremonies of the future.

Some day I think I shall write a story of the “Good Earth.” Unlike Pearl Buck’s story, it will tell of soldiers and the foxholes which protect them from the bullets and cruel, jagged pieces of shrapnel that seek to maim, kill and destroy them.

The first thing a good soldier does is to dig a foxhole. No matter how tired or weary he may be, he knows he must dig. It may mean the difference between life and death. Many times I have been so tired that I could easily have fallen asleep in the snow or rain, but in the end I always found the hidden reserve of energy needed to dig, and the deeper the better.

Never have I known such fatigue as comes after hours and hours of ceaseless march over mountain peaks so steep and treacherous that a single false move meant disaster. But there was always the time and energy needed to dig a foxhole. I remember one occasion very distinctly. It was very late —about one o’clock in the morning. I was so tired that I felt I could not move even if the whole Jap army had attacked. Yet a few moments later I was at work digging. At the head of my foxhole was a huge rock. I had chosen the place because the rock afforded such good protection. The job was done, and I sank into the hole—completely exhausted.

The next morning, I was awakened by the terrible scream of Jap artillery. It had started about a half an hour earlier and already there were a few casualties around me. I happened to notice the rock more closely. It was shaped like a tombstone. I felt like I was in a grave, but in this case it had been a guarantee of life.

HEY! Snap out of it! Don’t be depressed. I thought you might be interested in some of the depressing realities of war, but just as real are the beautiful things to be seen here. Not the least is the country itself. It is terrible, awe-inspiring almost, and yet most beautiful. Rather than run into trouble with the censor, I won’t go into detail, but must tell you about the little waterfalls. High up in the snow-covered peaks, the tops of which disappear into the fog and mist, like the mountains of Shangri-La, the processes of life are taking place. There are born the streams and waterfalls that delight the eye of any nature-lover. Many times I have been high enough to locate tremendous snow masses which give them birth. Emerging from the mother snow, they cascade and tumble over a never-ending terrace of grey-green granite and volcanic rock. Here and there in their dizzy descent to the valleys, little pools are trapped, full of icy, crystal-clear water. I have never passed such places without stopping to drink, even when I was not thirsty.

Then there are the birds— delightful little creatures. Whistling and singing and totally unconcerned with the destruction over which they fly with effortless grace. There is one in particular that has always warmed my heart. It is one of the tiniest, completely snow-white except for its black wingtips. Often during lulls in the battle, they would come flying over, whistling their cheerful tunes. I would close my eyes and imagine that I was in a park. Not for long, however, for the demands of war are stern and unrelaxing. What a strange and powerful contrast.

A poor selection of books

June 20, 1943

I finally discovered a library here and although the selection is poor there are 2 or 3 books that will occupy my attention for a while. Most of the books are a “Gift from the people of the United States to the Armed Forces”–as the little note reads. They were secured through the Victory Book Campaign. The poeple must not consider the soldiers very intelligent, or else they merely cleared their closets and attics of all the old trash they didn’t want. I picked up one book entitled–“Things Japanese” It looked very intriguing until I noticed the date–1890.


May 3, 1945

Received your letters of April 12 and 20. I usually dig my fox hole 6 inches deeper every time I get mail from you. Out here, one sometimes gets careless. There’s so much death and destruction all around that it doesn’t seem to make much difference whether you live or not. But mail from home usually reminds us that there is another world that we can come back to, and the will to live is revived. I am in the best of health–a little nervous perhaps, but otherwise in pretty good condition.

A struggle between Japanese feudalism and American industrialism

January 26, 1945

As for your questions about the war, it seems to me that the Jap defense on the Philippines is much less fanatical than it was at other places. They have abandoned tremendous supplies of guns and ammunition and have retreated from positions in great disorder instead of making the ussual last ditch defense. I am convinced that the majority would surrender if they were not held in check by their officers.

On Kwajalein, there was a Jap officer who, in the closing hours of resistance, charged a U.S. tank with his Samurrai sword. He was cut to ribbons by machine gun fire.

That incident characterizes the whole war in the Pacific. It is a struggle between Japanese feudalism and American industrialism. The Japanese Army, just as in the case of that Japanese officer, thinks that the “spirit” of the Samurrai warrior will prevail over the “materialistic” United States. There is no question that this war is being won not only by the front line soldier, but by the producers on the home front. I think that if the people of Japan were not so thoroughly “propagandized” and could see the real picture, there would be violent repercussions in the home land