Near the end of WWII on the Pacific front, my grandfather Cuyler, who was in the Navy, was stationed in Okinawa. He was a member of a PT boat crew that didn’t have a PT boat. They were camped on the beaches during the late spring and summer of 1945.
He was a creative sort of person, that Cuyler, and somehow his tent was the only tent on the beach other than the officer’s mess that had a plywood floor. Somehow around the same time that happened the officer’s mess seemed to shrink a little. Hmmm… It’s a complete mystery.
According to him, canned peaches had a value that was at least equal to if not higher than gold. When the sailors discovered their officers had been enjoying peaches on their own, they went to Cuyler. He, of course, was able to creatively acquire peaches. No one ever asked him how he did it and he never told, not even to me.
When I was a child my great-grandmother died. She was buried in Fort Logan National Cemetery next to her husband, a colonel who had served in the Cavalry long ago when they actually rode horses. Her son, a lieutenant colonel, was there with us and regaled us all with stories of wagons rolling over on the Oregon Trail, living in a boarding house with Doc Holiday (yes, that Doc Holiday), and World Wars. Drawn into the spirit of story telling, Cuyler told me a story about single-handedly capturing a platoon of Imperial Japanese Army soldiers shortly before the end of WWII.
From that day on, I would occasionally ask my mother what she knew about that story and she was adamant that no such event took place: she had never heard that story as a child or as an adult. She asked Cuyler about it and he denied knowing anything about any platoon of anyone on Okinawa other than his own.
Then about 17 years ago Cuyler’s memory began to go and it was not long before he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
After I graduated from college with my bachelor’s degree, I took two years to spend with Cuyler and to help my mother sort through his things, arrange his affairs, move, and many other things you never think about being important until suddenly they are. At this point, he would look at me and he would see different people. Sometimes I was his beloved wife, Kit, and other times I was his sister, his mother, or one of his daughters. In any case, he saw in me someone he knew and someone with whom he was safe.
One day, on a whim, I decided to ask him about that platoon on Okinawa.
When we think of the great battles of the Pacific front, we think through the war from one campaign to the next starting for the United States with Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 and followed over the next 3 years by the Battle of the Coral Sea, Midway, Guadalcanal, and Iwo Jima, which was made even more famous in large part due to that iconic photograph of marines setting up a flag, before finally landing on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. But one battle that is often perplexingly glanced over in the last months of the war in the approach to Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and Japan’s final surrender is the battle for Okinawa.
There were, when the U.S. landed, between 115,000 and 125,000 Imperial Japanese Army troops, along with the island’s population of around 300,000 civilians. Before the U.S. declared victory after 82 days of fighting, it is estimated over 110,000 Imperial troops would be dead (about 67% of their forces although some sources call for up to 94% lost) and nearly half of the population of the island’s civilians would be dead or missing.
In one particularly gruesome tactic, the Imperial Army brought as many as 1,800 school boys between the ages of 14 and 17 to the front lines as “volunteer” soldiers, the same ages as younger brothers and sons. More than half of them would not survive the Battle, often being used in guerrilla operations and as suicide bombers against our tanks and LTVs. Girls of the same age were sent to work in the hospitals as nurses. When the battle was in its close, the Imperial Army gave civilians grenades and instructed them to commit suicide to avoid the atrocities and rape that were eminent with Allied troops, orders that were sadly very closely followed owing in part to a propaganda rich education system that taught Okinawans to be more Japanese than the Japanese. (Battle of Okinawa. en.wikipedia.org. Retrieved 11 Nov 2017.)
The Imperial Army allowed U.S. Army and Marine troops to land on the beaches before attacking both the troops on the ground and our naval forces with more than 4,000 planes, many of which were Kamikaze suicide planes. We lost 36 ships total, 763 planes, and some 225 tanks and LTVs. Over 12,500 American servicemen were killed or missing by the end of the battle: 4,907 sailors (which was more than the number injured), 4,675 soldiers, and 2,938 marines, but keep in mind these numbers do not include those who would later die as the result of their injuries. Our casualties, between 12,500 dead, 36,600 injured, and non-battle (psychological, combat fatigue, etc.) casualties, totaled more than 82,000.
More mental health issues arose from the Battle of Okinawa than any other battle in the Pacific during World War II. The constant bombardment from artillery and mortars coupled with the high casualty rates led to a great deal of personnel coming down with combat fatigue. Additionally the rains caused mud that prevented tanks from moving and tracks from pulling out the dead, forcing Marines (who pride themselves on burying their dead in a proper and honorable manner) to leave their comrades where they lay. This, coupled with thousands of bodies both friend and foe littering the entire island, created a scent you could nearly taste. Morale was dangerously low by the month of May and the state of discipline on a moral basis had a new low barometer for acceptable behavior. The ruthless atrocities by the Japanese throughout the war had already brought on an altered behavior (deemed so by traditional standards) by many Americans resulting in the desecration of Japanese remains, but the Japanese tactic of using the Okinawan people as human shields brought about a new aspect of terror and torment to the psychological capacity of the Americans. (SSgt Frame, Rudy R., Jr. “Okinawa: The Final Great Battle of World War II | Marine Corps Gazette”. Mca-marines.org. Retrieved 11 Nov 2017.)
Although U.S. estimates on troops and losses do not exactly match the numbers located on the Cornerstone of Peace, a memorial on Okinawa naming all those lost during the battle, one thing is abundantly clear: Okinawa was bloody and brutal.
So there I sat in Cuyler’s office one day about 14 years ago, ready to hear the story as an adult that I’d heard that one time as a child:
“Cuyler, tell me about the time you captured that platoon of Japanese soldiers in Okinawa,” I asked, my mother looking at me like I had lost my mind with a look that said, “Really, Gwendolyn? I thought we’ve established that this never happened!”
And as Cuyler sat there looking at me, possibly thinking I was Kit that day, he told a story my mother had never heard:
It was sometime between April and August 1945. The exact date and month weren’t recalled when he talked of Okinawa that last time 14 years ago, but when I was a child he included details of the battle that I’ve forgotten and that he didn’t mention in that last telling.
The PT boat Cuyler was a part of the crew for was somewhere at the bottom of the Pacific. He wasn’t.
Sailors without ships were either on other vessels or staying on the beach while the army and marines were inland. Kamikaze pilots had done what they had done to both the land and naval forces. Cuyler didn’t talk of it.
If he was involved in any land based fighting, he wouldn’t say. But when I asked what it looked like and smelled like to live on that beautiful beach he got a far away look and would say only that the water was beautiful… not the island, and no sweet island or salty ocean smells would be recalled. Then he would find other things to talk of: peaches and plywood floors.
One day, he had gone for a walk off the beach by himself, breaking (he knew) so many rules. By that point, it wasn’t supposed to be safe to wander off the sand but he didn’t hear anything in the distance to make him think there was anything interesting happening close by so he went, although of course he took his rifle just in case. As he walked up a wide path away from the water, he heard rustling in the bushes to his left. He stopped and pointed his rifle as hands emerged from the bushes above the heads of Japanese troops numbering somewhere between a section (15 men) and a platoon (50 men) (Organization of the Imperial Japanese Army. en.wikipedia.org. Retrieved 11 Nov 2017.). Keeping his rifle pointed at them he jerked his head toward the beach and they began to walk toward the water with his rifle trained on their backs.
That was all he would say and try as I might I don’t think I was every able to get him to tell the story again.
Knowing what I know now about the Battle of Okinawa, it isn’t surprising to me at all that Cuyler didn’t share this story with his children, bringing it up only once after sitting for 2 hours in a National Cemetery surrounded by the dead from America’s wars and on only one other occasion after Alzheimer’s had taken away the part of him that kept the stories with the worst memories hidden away and for just himself. I will never know the whole story because even in his declining state, Cuyler held details back that I recalled him mentioning as a child, which to me is a tragic loss of his story. What I do know is that he was in a place and experienced things that most of the rest of us can’t imagine.
Cuyler’s generation, the Greatest Generation, is rapidly decreasing. With them die stories and experiences that if we hope to avoid repeating should be remembered. They will at some point in the near future be followed by Veterans of the Korean War, and then Vietnam, and their stories will be lost as well. Before long the same will be able to be said of the first Gulf War and the Global War on Terror. In fact, with suicide as common as it is with the Veterans of our current military actions, we are already losing stories and experiences we need to hear and to remember so that we, collectively as human beings, can be better in our future than we are in our present.
Yet sadly I see a society where we can’t even remember what Veteran’s Day is really about let alone remember to take time to hear, remember, and share the stories our Veterans have to share about their experiences on and off the battlefield.
Veteran’s Day is a day to reflect on the lives, sacrifices, and stories of those who have gone to war and come back to tell their tale. It’s a day to sit at the feet of those who were there, learning from the truth of their experiences, reveling in that which they overcame, and hearing of their accomplishments and losses at home and at war. It isn’t a celebration of war but rather a stark reminder that although war is ugly it is also sometimes necessary. I’ve never met a Veteran who told me that they wanted to go to war and relished their experiences, but I’ve heard many stories of the band of brothers they found themselves a part of and many stories of the evil they were fighting. I can’t think of one that has ever said to me that they enjoyed the violence they experienced in combat but every one has said that they would go to war again in a heartbeat to protect the ideals this Nation stands for, to protect her citizens, and to bring freedom to those oppressed worldwide.
**Factual information contained in this piece not otherwise cited can be found in the United States Army Center of Military History. Check out Okinawa: The Last Battle for 500 some pages of light reading on the subject.