Souvenirs of the Pacific War

I was born during World War II, less than seven months after Pearl Harbor. For those as old as I, the name of the place is all that’s needed to specify the event, whose sixty-seventh anniversary just passed. The war was over before I was aware of very much beyond my extended family circle; it was nonetheless a dominant presence in my early life because everyone talked about it, and almost everyone’s father or uncles (my case) had served in the military. References to “during the war” were constant. A couple of my grade school chums had lost their fathers in the war. (Joe and Ronny, I never made any better friends, and I’m sorry we lost touch so long ago.)  I was fascinated by war, though of course without much understanding of it. I can remember, for example, asking my mother where the battlefield was, imagining that this word I’d heard must refer to a special place where soldiers and tanks and airplanes from warring countries went to fight, just as football teams met on a football field.

Even though my father had been 4F, I viewed fighting in a war as the natural goal of a male of our species, and I fervently hoped there would be one going on by the time I was old enough. About that 4F, the physical evaluation that meant he was unfit for military service, my father probably had mixed feelings. Although it had saved him from the risk of being killed in battle (and I have no idea how much he desired to serve his country militarily, as he had been called up in the draft), it must have made him feel uncomfortable knowing that his brothers were serving and that people probably looked at him and wondered what a young man with no obvious disability was doing out of uniform the whole war. I imagine he must have felt less a man to some degree.

The 4F decision came as the result of a urine test that showed an elevated sugar level. Although, much later, his mother would develop diabetes and die at a relatively young age because of it, my father never showed any symptoms of the disease that I am aware of. He seems to have thought the urine test was a false positive. Did he ever follow up on it with a doctor? I really don’t know. The impression I got was that he felt it was a mistake, verging on an injustice, with the implication that it was an irrevocable mistake, though I would think if he were determined enough he might have had the decision reversed should he have been able to present test results that contradicted the one from the induction line. Bureaucracy is hard to overcome though. I remember  my father recounting how the doctor had been stubbornly adamant, saying my father would require a special diet, which was impossible in the military. He had probably had to tell that story many times during the course of the war.

Perhaps the doctor liked to spare some men. Assuming my father was not one of those called up in the early lottery-selected group before the US was officially at war, then I was already either born or on the way by the time my father was drafted, which, if the doctor was aware of the fact, might have influenced his decision on a borderline reading. I should add that I never really asked my father for details about how it all happened, so exactly how he responded at the time and what he thought about it are unknown to me. I know he had a great deal of respect for those who had served in the war and would never have been a draft dodger.

One of those who did go to war was my Uncle Bryant, my mother’s sister’s husband, who had been taken by the US Army out of rural Northeast Texas and sent to fight the Japanese in the Pacific. I first became aware of his existence, at least as I remember it and while he was still in the Army, when I tasted for the first time the candy my grandmother called Divinity. Although I didn’t know the meaning of the word, and it was my first time hearing it, I would have concurred in the choice of a transcendent word to denote that candy. My grandmother had made some to send to my uncle “overseas,” and I was fortunate enough to have been there during the candy making to get my share. Forever after, I’ve associated divinity candy with my uncle, so I’m sure my memory is true.

There was at my aunt’s and grandparents’ (they lived in the same big old house in the country) a bird dog named Wewak (called Wacky) after the place in New Guinea where my uncle was. I may be wrong, but my memory is that the dog was there before my uncle came back from the war. My uncle was a quail hunter, so he put bird dogs to good use, and the dog might have been obtained in anticipation of and as promise of his safe return, as well as for the companionship. In any case, the awareness of someone important being absent because of the War was no doubt one of the first ways I came to know that the War, whatever that meant, was in progress.

It’s very unlikely that I was really there for Uncle Bryant’s homecoming, but I think that in my childish understanding of things, I took the first time I saw him as the day he returned from the War. Pictures of him wearing his uniform have made me imagine seeing him arrive in it. Or perhaps it’s a real memory.

Uncle Bryant was every child’s favorite person pretty much. No use to restrict it to children, he was probably the best-liked man in the county, esteemed by Black and White alike as a friendly, fair, and compassionate man, outgoing and giving of himself to a degree far beyond the norm of humankind. I’d have to say he was the best man I’ve ever known.

He had been a supply sergeant in the Army, so he was not carrying a rifle most of the time, but he lived amidst death nonetheless. He brought home a few war souvenirs. The most impressive was a Japanese officer’s sword. It had a push-button release mechanism to allow the sword to be removed from its sheath. So many times I have unsheathed that sword and held it high! There were also photographs. The women of New Guinea went around bare-breasted we saw. That was novel and amusing.

There was also an item taken from the body of a Japanese soldier: a black and white photo, as almost all were then, of a pretty, smiling, young woman and one or two young children. Strain as I might, I can’t make the children out across the years, though I know that there was at least one child and probably two. I can’t quite see the face of the young wife in my mind’s eye, but my heart sees her well enough.

My uncle had thought it noteworthy that the “Jap” soldier had carried a picture of his family just as “we” did. It was almost as if he were pointing out another unexpected cultural trait, like the attire of the New Guinea women, only this time one that was surprisingly the same as ours rather than different. It was another interesting thing to know. This was certainly no solemn lesson, nor was any moral teaching meant, as far as I know. I think my uncle was passing on important information which had struck him, perhaps as a discovery—information about our shared humanity with this enemy of a different race, portrayed to us only as cruel and treacherous.

My family visited my grandparents’ home, where the war souvenirs were, during school vacations. Those objects from that enormously important thing called The War and the distant place called the Pacific, where there were names like Wewak, had a great prestige for me as items in a private museum collection and as proof that my uncle had truly been involved in The War, where some men with Asian features had carried swords in battle. For years, I would always ask to see them again soon after we arrived for a visit.

I don’t know if it happened the first time I saw the dead soldier’s family photo or not, but during one of these examinations of the war souvenirs, probably when I was four or five years old, in one of those moments of epiphany that I’m realizing I must be prone to (or should I say I’ve been blessed with?), I came to see war permanently in a different way. My mind was jarred by the recognition that this was a picture of a real woman, who had lost her husband, and of her young children, who had lost their father; and I felt a great pity for them and for the man who must have treasured the images, now transported so far from the place in which they had been captured. The “Japs” were real people who had families, suffered, and, most importantly, felt love for one another. The soldiers looked at pictures of loved ones and longed for them. When they were killed, families grieved. I had understood none of this before. War was not the simple grand game I had imagined. This new knowledge, deep as it was, didn’t totally replace my idea of war and the enemy, but it revealed another reality to exist side-by-side with the romantic and heroic picture of battle, a reality in which dead bodies, rather than being a way of keeping score, recorded tragedy and grief. I wondered what had become of the young woman and the children.

The fate of the Japanese soldier’s family during the war could have been as bad as his, of course. For all I know they perished in a Tokyo firestorm or the nuclear bombings that ended the war. Otherwise, the kids, if they still survive, are a few years older than I, which means pretty old. Damn old. I hope they got through their trials all right, and I wish there were some way I could meet them; and, in a sense, be reunited with them.

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