War, What Is It Good For: Straight From A Vet's Mouth

Taken in front of Plaque at Hudsons, picture from the Detroit Free Press

Taken in front of Plaque at Hudsons, picture from the Detroit Free Press

I was on my way to fill in last minute for a fellow co-worker in a classroom.  My mind was on several things; get the hell out of there as it was the last hour of the day, my upcoming sleep study, and the pain of relationships not realized.  I wasn't expecting to walk into a classroom with four adults preparing for a presentation.  What kind of presentation is this, I wondered, seeing two very older men sitting at a table.  Nursing home older. The other two were walking around conversing and I wasn't even sure who the teacher was but I was pretty sure it wasn't these older men. They looked tired, somewhat somber and ready for a nap.

As I introduced myself to the teacher, I was ushered to a seat uncomfortably close to the presenters and that's when I took notice of the metal army helmet on the table. I also noticed several cameras around too with senior high students manning them.  This was at least mildly a big deal. Maybe the cameras were for the student news or a student project. Who knew, but it was disconcerting to me that the cameras would be focused my way--I was almost close enough to look like a presenter myself.  I thought to myself, 'Don't take a nap, whatever you do, don't fall asleep because this will be forever on film'. The aide I was replacing had already been scolded for falling asleep once in this person's class. Hopefully, these guys were interesting enough. 

Falling asleep was never a struggle as these now fragile war vets began sharing their stories about WWII, Pearl Harbor, and the Draft.  Never did I expect to gasp, get choked up, want to hug a stranger so strongly as I did these two gentlemen.  The first gentleman was the younger of the two, born in 1924, no less, with a story that was gentler than the second man, nicknamed "Pinky".  Both had attended Plymouth High School.  When the news of the events surrounding Pear Harbor came to light both wanted to join the war, though one ended up getting drafted first instead.


The first man was a good break-in story. It was more gentle, in that because of a hernia that eventually turned into an infected wound, alongside all the training to become an "electrician", he came in at the tail end of the war.  He had the choice of the Navy or Army, and he chose the Navy because "the food was better and you got more".  His ship was to create a smoke screen for the Pennsylvania, but it didn't work and the Japanese pilots hit the stern of the ship, killing many on board.  I had to wonder how awful that must have felt.  He talked about an island (I can't remember the name) that was largely used as a landing field that they kept bombing, and the Japanese would rebuild and they would bomb again. Eventually, as the war came to the end, the Japanese admiral of this island was to surrender but refused ultimately because the highest ranking personnel on the man's ship was a captain.  So another 'Destroyer' had to be sent out with a ranking Admiral on it, then the man surrendered.


By far, the most moving story, the most passion, came from the older gentleman "Pinky". He was nicknamed this at high school because whenever a girl looked at him, he turned pink. He actually was pretty pink during the entire presentation.  At many points in this man story, he yelled or broke down in tears and I had to fight them back myself.  The horror was indescribable.  He kept emphasizing there were no electronics, no phones and that even some of the most prestigious Universities, by todays fame,  they trained in within the States were nothing but shacks at the time.

Like the other man who was drafted, Pinky wanted to sign up but his parents wouldn't allow it. The Draft was his ticket in. With a dash of humor, he remarked that his training in New Zealand had a lot of great looking women but that in Hawaii it was 60 men to one woman so there was no one pretty to look at there.  He remarked about seeing the devastation of Pearl Harbor and ships on their sides though he himself was still abroad when the attack happened--he came afterward.  Apparently, one of the ships still had ammunition on board and it blew up in an explosion killing 300 men while he was on the base. "We thought the Japanese were attacking again...but they weren't", Pinky said tearfully.  He said that the Japanese would send out women and children and his troop and other troops were tricked into thinking they were coming for aide. But, then a Japanese soldier would shout to the women and children to lay flat down and behind those women and children were soldiers that would shoot down many of their men. 


The most heart-wrenching story was something Pinky said still couldn't get over, gritting his teeth and crying momentarily. Nevertheless, he has a mission to tell this story so he reigned it in and carried on, like any good soldier. He told the story of seeing women and children out near a cliff side. The soldiers didn't know what they were up to, so they shouted to them to ask what they were doing and surrender any weapons.  Instead, the mothers one by one threw children off the cliffs and followed after them to their deaths.  He spoke passionately of how deadly WWII was, killing 25 million people.  He got choked up talking about the gathering of all his friends before they went off to war here in Plymouth, Michigan...smoking cigars and ready to go.  8 of them in total, only 4 came back alive.

He also got choked up speaking of the naval ship Indianapolis. It was said that the captain of that ship, Captain McVey, did not follow procedures by zig-zagging so as not to alert the Japanese submarines of their direct location at any one time. Instead, he steered the ship in a straight line and the ship was hit on her starboard bow by a Japanese I-58  with 2 torpedos. 300 of 1,900 on board died and the others were set adrift for 3 days.  No one was told about her sinking so many of the men were eaten by sharks since there weren't enough life boats. Out of the 800 surviving in the waters, only 300 made it after those 3 days.  McVey lived and they were going to court marshall him, Pinky said, but then it was determined that it wouldn't had mattered if he had zig-zagged or not. However, ultimately the weight of all those men lost was too much for the Captain and he ended his own life. 

It was interesting to hear the 2 men's answer to a student question that I also had myself. Had they seen any benefit of having been in the war and in the military? Would they serve again if they could?  The first man said he grew up fast and the training and everything along with it was a great experience. However, he concluded that if he was offered a million dollars, he wouldn't want to do it again.

Pinky was more adamant, continuing to quote the number of millions of lives lost. That every day at this point, those remaining who are still alive, die at a rate of 600 per day.  To which the partner said, "Boy are you old."   I'm sure there was a maturing process for Pinky too but the only positive he came up with for the war was that the Atom bomb of two Japanese cities was the only thing that prevented the war from taking millions of more lives.  A pretty sobering thought since we surely don't want to be using those bombs today. 

Many of my own great uncles served in WWII and I'm pretty sure all of them are passed now. Like "Pinky", it was difficult to talk about so they rarely did.  There was a published article on them that I don't have access to because it was unique that so many brothers of them chose to serve the military like they did in the Detroit area.  I know they were proud of that. I also remember hearing that my Grandmothers worked in auto factories converted to make weapons and other military items, something they were proud about.

But, I can't help to think of passionate Pinky, that to this day, a man well into his 90's, who get's so choked up. It was clear he had a message to give to these kids. War is not good. And this is appropriate in this time where language that inflames differences and cultures is being thrown around like it doesn't matter anymore. Where we have a new President and a cabinet who essentially has an attitude of "like it or lump it" and literally as one Trump advisor said about the Japanese "if they don't like it, screw 'em".  We are for the first time in a long time in grave danger of forgetting our lessons about the impact on human lives in war. How easy it is to create frozen relationships that lead to mistrust and war.  But most of all, for us average voting citizens, we are in danger of forgetting that the war machine and those that empower them, don't think about your life, or my life, or even thousands of lives in the face of an objective of winning.  They don't care because it is not them fighting the fight, except within the realm of egos and greed.

Real stories though, like these two men, can change your entire day just like war can change your entire life. Today wasn't a lesson for just for those kids but myself as well.