But certainly not because of the results of the game. Instead it was a chance to see my grandparents who I had not seen in nearly 10 years. I vividly remember visiting them as a child and being struck how such an old man as my grandfather could still be so imposing. He was a blessed young man, gifted with superior athleticism, strength and gravitas. He commanded a room the moment he entered it. But not in the offensive way other brutes might have. By all accounts, he was a quite, mild mannered young man with dreams of becoming a school teacher in small town Ohio. (a dream he ultimately realized)
That all changed on December 7th 1941. I can’t begin to imagine the feelings young men must have had that day, although I’d bet a strange mixture of anger, fear, and resentment. Despite having never ventured more than a state away from his home in Kentucky, my grandfather signed up for military service as soon as he could. After some minimal training, he volunteered for a relatively small unit that was to be sent somewhere in the pacific. This unit was given a task of cutting off Japanese supply lines. The volunteer unit came to be known later as “Merrill’s Marauders”. That was as much as my grandfather would ever tell me. I was able to piece together more of the story from tidbits my grandmother dropped, but until recently had known very little of his service to America.
Fast forward to October 10th 2008. My grandfather’s health has long since begun to leave him. He is nearly blind and struggles to hear anything but a shout. His once booming voice and firm handshake have (he is pictured here) been replaced with the whispers and delicate grasps of an old man. He had always been an unselfish man, but his one wish was to visit the World War II monument in Washington DC. The four children he struggled to raise on a teacher’s salary got together and arranged for him to visit. I worked my way down to meet up with them once they arrived in DC.
It pained me to see this man, once so athletic, so proud, so imposing, reduced to a wheelchair. I had talked with him recently and knew his health was failing but until you see a man dying, it doesn’t sink in. Almost immediately, the family was moved to tears. A young man dressed in army fatigues quietly approached, and in one motion, knelt to reach eye level with my grandfather and gently extended his hand. He expressed his gratitude in a manner more sincere than I do justice. My grandfather was a bit taken aback and just for a moment, his voice wavered…. ever so slightly, something I had never seen happen. The solider asked us to wait a moment, dashed away, and returned moments later with water for the family. He asked that we enjoy our trip and we reluctantly parted to make our way to the main entrance.
We had gone no more than 20 feet when another young man stopped us. He too was a solider but was not in uniform.
As we proceeded around the monument we came to the wall of stars. We explained to him that each golden star represented 1000 American’s killed in the war. He paused for a moment and for only the second time I can ever remember and the second time this day, his voiced quivered as he asked if we could take his picture. Although the monument was crowded, everyone seemed to sense the importance to my grandfather and parted like the red sea. The crowd gathered around in a semi-circle as I moved the wheel chair aside and he was left alone standing in front of the symbols of his fallen compatriots.
The crowd continued to grow as I got my picture taken with him. I left his side to recover the wheelchair when a young man walked slowly out of the crowd towards my grandfather. He had a large scar on the side of his head and walked with a slight limp. He approached and shook my grandfathers hand and simply said his name, “United States Marines”, and then “Thank you so much, sir”.
My grandfather must have somehow noticed the scar and they began talking about the injuries each had received. I kid you not, the crowd went silent. The only noises I could hear were the sounds of camera’s quietly whizzing away. The two men briefly shook hands again, the young man saluted and they parted ways.
After we left the monument, the rest of the afternoon was spent on lighter subjects from football to my wife to who could eat more chicken wings, but it was clear to me my grandfathers mind was elsewhere. I wondered if his feelings were again mixed, though this time equal parts happiness, longing, and contentment.
He still hasn’t (and likely never will) share his experiences in the jungles of Asia. And I won’t ask. Not even to see the Bronze Star that every solider in his unit was awarded. Or the Presidential Unit Citation all received. Or about the 80% casualty rate they took. He has earned the right to keep those memories locked away for his own use. In my research about his unit however, I discovered this poem written after one of their battles by an unknown author:
“At Myitkyina today they lie at rest
There were soldiers all and gave their best
They fought and died in days of rain
And preyed for sun that never came.
Through mud they crawled to find their foe
They cursed and swore but on they go
As days went by and night fell
They all slept on the walls of hell.
Artillery shells with their melody of death
Whizzed by with each and every breath
As dawn came to light the earth
Amid sniper fire through dirt
In falling rain they fought on
Hope to live by those had gone.
Myitkyina has fallen at last
They would be glad to know of the finished task
But the trails are filled with yankee blood
Of gallant men who fought died in Burma mud
Courageous men these, they fought and fell
Bless them all, God; treat them well.”