i drove a hearse to mississippi
Back in control now, gripping the big ol’ honkin’ steering wheel of Uncle Scoop’s mighty death ship — like O Captain! My Captain! Peerlessly sailing down the shiny blacktop, so happy and relieved, now that the flat’s behind us and the open road beckoning ahead and all’s good between me and Dad. I pat the steering wheel, thinking this old beast is a pretty smooth ride, and I’m feeling it again. With Dad snoring away, I jack it up to seventy-five (!) on a smooth straightaway with no car in sight, just the signpost up ahead, next stop — The Twilight Zone, I’m thinking.
Dad must really be needing to catch up on his sleep, because he’s dozing off again, ever so slightly shifting his knobby-boned frame and leaning his Marine-shaved head on the car window, using a rolled up jacket as a pillow. Rolling along, the silence is broken by an almost inaudible murmuring from his purplish, pursed lips. I can barely make him out saying, “Goddamn fucking” something or other. Then he spurts and stammers again— and this time I can make out the jarring word “gooks”.
“Goddamn fucking gooks”.
What am I supposed to do? Please tell me, Good Lord, what am I supposed to do with that?
I cock my ear to hear more of the gibberish Dad keeps muttering. I soon discern he’s sleep-talking in some sort of nightmare trance he’s having about his war days as a grunt Marine, tough as they come, heroically defending freedom in the Pacific Ocean Theater in World War II. (Oh, sweet Jesus, what brutal “theater” it must have been! And what a stupid thing to call it — theater! Yeah, like they were acting or something!)
It forces a memory to surface. I must have been ten or eleven, when poor Dad was in the darkest days of dipsomania black-outs and hallucinatory visions. He was an obliterated person, mentally and physically. One muggy night, unable to sleep in his own bed, I heard him get up and stumble downstairs, so I followed him surreptitiously as he went out to the back porch and dropped to the cement floor. I peered through the screen door watching him crawling around on his belly, naked but for his baggy boxer shorts. I stood frozen like watching a live animation movie as he fake shot a tommy gun at spectral enemies — “goddamn gooks” — that he was forced to kill as a young man just twenty-three. Can you imagine? And not just shoot and kill Japanese men soldiers, but boy soldiers as young as fourteen that he knew in his mind and heart he had shot and killed because they were ordered into battle, and worse, they used women and children as human shields when crossing enemy lines. “Shoot to kill.” Just a few years older than me today, at sixteen. Can you imagine?
“Dad! Dad!” My voice rises and cracks. Dad sputters to consciousness.
“Holy shit! How long have I been out?”
And I’m thinking, too long, Dad, too long. Now, I understand why.
You see, Dad had been a “mama’s boy”, I’d been told, but by the time he was in college, with the war raging and patriotism at an all-time high, he enlisted in the toughest outfit no money could buy — pure grit and gumption — the United States Marine Corps. After toughening up for a few weeks of grueling training at Parris Island, he was assigned to Company One, Third Battalion, 5th Marines, 1st Division.
The Old Breed. Semper Fi.
I didn’t know much, but Dad’s unit, I did know, was one of several waves that stormed ashore in World War II’s horrific and bloody battles of Peleliu and Okinawa.
“Dad, are you all right,” I ask, taking one hand off the wheel to reach over and touch his shoulder.
Dad yawns, straightens up and wastes no time admonishing, “Get both your hands on that wheel, now, son! What did they teach you in driver’s ed, for Chrissakes! What did I tell you! Never drive with just one hand on the wheel!”
“But, Dad . . . Dad, you were having some kind of nightmare or something. I was worried for you.”
“Uh, nightmare, what are you talking about?”
Hesitantly, I try to inform him that he’d been quite agitated in his sleep and saying some strange things over and over about the “ . . . . . . ”
But I’m unable to bring myself to utter another word. Finally I manage to squeak out in a meek voice, “Goddamn gooks, Dad. You were saying it over and over.”
Dad’s reaction surprises me. He shrugs it off with a smirky chuckle, like no big deal. “Lemme tell you a story, son. I started to tell you the other day, remember, but got derailed. Now’s the time. You need to hear some things, and it’s about time I get them off my chest.”
And so for the next hour, after pulling over to get Dad a cup of coffee and a pack of Luckies, and me a Coke and a 3 Musketeers, we’re rolling down a single lane black top road in the heart of Mississippi, and Dad starts unloading about his war experiences — telling me things so horrific I gasp every so often and say, “Dad, no way!”
“Yes way, son.”
Dad slowly nods his head sideways, closes his eyes, and gathers up the emotional stamina to continue. “Son, I joined the Marines because I had something to prove. Not just to my Mother, who mollycoddled me to death my whole boyhood, but to myself, to prove I wasn’t a sickly little pussy the way she always treated me. No sir, not me.”
This news surprises me. Dad, a sickly little pussy? Well, actually, I guess I can halfway see it.
“Talk about toughening up, son. After the hardest month of my life in basic training, I was a new man, a big cocky stud. They shipped my unit off to the Pacific Islands to join the Army and Navy in an all-out assault to defeat the Imperial Empire. Mine was part of the first wave that landed in the decisive campaign of Okinawa on April 1, 1945. Maybe you didn’t know that. Enemy forces were entrenched on hilltop fortified bunkers and hidden caves, but those goddamn gooks, they were no dummies, lemme tell you, they tricked us by letting us storm the shore safely, so naturally our commanding officers thought the coast was clear.”
I interrupt and ask Dad, seemingly lost in deep reverie, what happened next. In his slow, deliberate manner, he goes on. “So, the commanding officers sent successive waves of Marines ashore and . . .” Here Dad pauses for a long five seconds, not so much trying to remember incident details, but reliving it in his mind and body, seeing it again through a filtered lens of time and perspective. “My fellow soldiers were systematically mowed down, it was like shooting fish in a barrel, son.”
I try to imagine, from visualizing scenes in the movie Tora! Tora! Tora! I’d recently seen, but have a hard time conjuring up the carnage heaped upon one of nature’s most beautiful beaches, as Dad described it. “So what happened next, Dad. What did you and the other guys on shore do?”
“My unit of 100 men, we were forced to take cover in foxholes for three days until they could bring in reinforcements. It wasn’t pretty, son, and then it got uglier. We were low on water, running out of food. I ate grubs and scorpions and chewed on scraggly bark, and . . .” Again, Dad pauses in a lengthy moment of tension-filled silence, before resuming, “. . . and then those goddamn nips . . .”
I cut Dad off, “Nips?”
“Yes, nips, from Nippon, what they called their homeland we were on the verge of taking over once we could seize Okinawa. We called ’em nips and gooks, that’s just what we called ‘em. I know it’s not right or proper to refer to them as such nowadays, but we’re not talking about nowadays, son. We’re talking about those days. You have to understand. So, the nips came down out of their bunkers looking to kill us in our foxholes. I had to bayonet more than one of those little fuckers. That’s not something you care to dwell on, son. It’s one thing, killing a man from a distance, with a gun, but up close and personal, just to survive, intimately ending a man’s life with your bare hands, it elevates the horror and brutality to another degree, son.”
I’m awestruck by Dad’s descriptive language, his use of terms I consider offensive, without even knowing why, really, but they just sound offensive, but I guess after hearing Dad’s explanations and listening to his experiences, I can understand him using those derogatory terms. At the same time, I’m dazzled by the raw imagery of poor Dad being down in that foxhole, scared shitless of getting killed right at the outset of “Operation Iceberg” as he called it, and having to defend his life however possible in that hellish trench, having to kill other young men, no doubt as scared and desperate as Dad.
“Son, we were never safe, not from the get-go. By the time reinforcements arrived, the battle turned ugly, we were in a limbo of smoking hell, of flames and fury, rampant death and gore and destruction all about, yet by God’s Good Grace, son, I survived.”
“Wow, tell me more, Dad! This is so amazing and so sad, too. I had NO IDEA you went through all this, saw and experienced so much suffering and destruction.”
Dad seems spurred on by my interest. “Well, you gotta know, because you won’t read about this in any history books, except maybe one by an old war buddy of mine, Eugene Sledge, but we all regressed to savages. This is what war does to a man. War is hell, son, a barbaric thing, and don’t you ever forget it. I hope you don’t ever have to experience the things I did.”
I wondered if Dad was thinking what I was thinking: Thank God I was too young to fight in the current war raging today in a different Asian country.
Still, I want to know more. “Dad, please share more details of what it was actually like.”
“Oh, son, you want nightmares, too, I see,” Dad says darkly. “Things were ugly and gruesome. Eternal battles and deadly skirmishes and dangerous scouting missions. The atrocities and horrors were never ending. You couldn’t sleep. You couldn’t even take a piss without fear of getting blown to bits. It wasn’t possible to keep your head about you. We were all madstruck by the constant stress and fatigue and fear and filth of being in a combat zone for weeks on end. It was impossible to keep dry or maintain a semblance of hygienic conditions in the mud or coral ground beneath us.”
“Geez, Dad, it’s amazing you didn’t come down with diarrhea,” I sort of joked — as though that was the worst possible thing he could have contracted.
Dad laughs, “Let me tell you, fear and filth and hunger — it turns a man’s brain and soul to mush. War makes a man do things he wouldn’t ordinarily do.”
“Like what, Dad?”
“Like . . . ” Dad thinks better about sharing this part, I can tell, but I nod, like “Go on, Dad, tell me, I can handle it.”
“Like once we were out on patrol the night after a brutal skirmish where we killed maybe 200 gooks and they got 50 of our men. I was leading a search party looking for a couple of MIAs, two of my comrades, who we thought were still alive out there and we wanted to get them before the nips did. Unfortunately, we didn’t make it in time.”
A lengthy pause. “And . . .?”
“We found their naked mutilated bodies lying in feces and blood-spattered mud with their dicks cut off and jammed in their mouths. I broke down, I couldn’t take it, I was so angry and disgusted and full of vengeance, but what was I gonna do? I had to do — something!”
I’m speechless, but finally manage to squeak out a trembling sentence, “Oh, Dad, that is the most terrible thing I’ve ever heard.”
He pauses, collecting his words carefully. “So you know what I did? I went over to some half-dead nip motherfucker begging for mercy and sliced off his nuts and gouged out his eyeballs, that’s what I did in the heat of my anger and madness.”
I’m heart-wrenched hearing this, my stomach is in knots, and I can’t believe my own Dad is revealing this atrocity he committed on the dead Japanese soldier. It explains a lot now that I think about it.
Dad continues, “Son, it’s like I was saying, war changes a man, makes him do irrational things, evil things, just to get even, or have some sense of victory or superiority over the enemy, I don’t know, but I wasn’t done. I came across another half-alive nip and busted out two of his gold teeth and stripped him of his pistol and bashed his skull in. So, there you have it. A couple of nice war trophies, huh! I still have them to this day.”
“Dad, I’ve seen that pistol up in your desk drawer, but I didn’t know about the gold teeth. Where do you keep them?”
Dad says, “You know that little lockbox, they’re in there. I also got a shrunken head, I think it’s real, from a buddy who fought in Guadalcanal.”
Silence befalls our company for a few minutes, then Dad resumes, “Let me share a couple more things with you. You studied about Ernie Pyle in school, didn’t you, the famous war correspondent. Well, he and I shared a week together just before shipping out to Okinawa. We caroused and drank and had us a great time while it lasted. I think we were good friends and would have stayed in touch. Unfortunately, he was killed the next week on nearby Ie Island. Later the next month, my unit was ordered to take Shuri Castle. And by God, did we ever take it. It was a helluva blow to the nips and a turning point in the campaign! Your Uncle Scoop, why the son of a bitch, he was a Navy man on the U.S.S. Mississippi — funny, huh! — and had shelled nip troops defending the castle for three days, which made our advance easier, but not any less gruesome, because many Marines were picked off by retreating snipers and more even, believe it or not, died from friendly fire.”
I gulp and wince and grit my teeth. “Geez, Dad, it all sounds so awful and terrible. I can’t fathom it. I had no idea. I guess you were pretty lucky, huh, to have emerged unscathed.”
Dad laughs. “Unscathed! Hardly, son. I witnessed death and destruction beyond what any man should have to endure. Countless dozens of my Marine buddies were slaughtered, and once the monsoon rains started up, things got so muddy we had to leave our fallen companions lying where they were killed in the muck and ooze. Shit and piss and gloom and destruction everywhere, I felt like I was sleeping in it and eating it. Plus, I got this foot rot thing that nearly caused me to lose ’em both.”
Dad stops again with his gruesome reminiscences, so obviously still affected by the demons who accompanied him home to torment him years thereafter. “Son, listen to me carefully. That war — any war — but those battles I fought in, Okinawa and Peleliu, in particular exacted not only physical casualties, but mental health woes beyond measure. The psychiatric casualties were so awful that men returned home and committed suicide or went insane or became . . . like me alcoholics or drug dependents. It got so bad that I saw many of my brave men unable to shoot or kill the enemy, unable to eat or react emotionally. They called it ‘shell-shocked’ or ‘battle fatigue’ . . .”
I interrupt Dad. “I’ve heard of that before, Dad. Were you shell-shocked?”
Dad affirms that it was natural to experience it. “But let me clue you in on something, boy” — Dad always called me “boy” when he had something of profound importance to say to me — “it goes beyond shell-shocked. It sticks with you for life, the trauma and stress of hardened combat. That’s why I am the way I am, son. You live through hell, it’s hard to escape. I’m trying to get well, but the goddamn VA considers it like some untreatable disease, not the alcoholism but the shell-shocked condition that is a traumatic psychiatric disorder. Someday maybe they’ll figure it out, son.”
Stay tuned for CHAPTER SIX!