Not Forgetting May Be The Only Heroism Of The Survivor”

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WAR IS A COUNTRY no traveler ever forgets. It haunts those who survive the journey as no other experience. The memories of war cling to the mind with astonishing tenacity, and sometimes in the dark of night when the glow of your cigarette is a distant fire on an island most people have never heard of, nothing seems to equal their demand for attention. Why? Possibly because the memories raise so many questions about oneself, particularly the unanswerable one: Why am I the one here to remember? Perhaps, however, that’s the point—to remember. Indeed, the ordeal of not forgetting may well be the only heroism of the survivor.

Sometimes these memories assert themselves so strongly that you decide to have it out with them. One way to do that is to go back. In early 1968, after a quarter of a century, I returned to Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands in that vast stretch of the Pacific where islands hump their coral backs out of the ocean like so many whales at rest.

Here on little Betio, the last island in the Tarawa atoll, from November 20 to 24,1943, there took place one of the bloodiest and most intense battles of the Second World War. The newspaper reports referred to the carnage as the most shattering experience in Marine Corps history. It may well have been. What is certain is that those who went through the ordeal and those who fell there remain bound together by unusual ties. Tarawa is the only battle I have ever heard of where so many who survived wished to have their ashes returned there.

For most of us Tarawa began in New Zealand at a little railway crossing about thirty miles out of Wellington called McKay’s Crossing. And that’s where my pilgrimage began. It is hard to imagine that this ordinary stretch of rolling land between the hills and the sea once felt the presence of several thousand men. In the intervening years the area had gradually taken on in my mind the tone of some tented encampment preserved for posterity by Mathew Brady. The last of the New Zealand winter was still with us then, and there was often a kind of damp blur in the air; we all scrounged wood and coal for the old Franklin-type stoves in our tents. Although there is always a certain impersonality about military camps, here there was an intimacy we never had again. The messes were small, and late at night if you had the duty, the cooks would fix you bacon and eggs, draw warm cake fresh from the oven, and pour hot coffee into large white mugs. There was no real sense of regiment or division. It was a village existence of companies and platoons.

We all got tired of maneuvers up and down those damned hills ringed with sheep paths, and the hills themselves naturally became higher and higher with every passing year after our departure. I was surprised in 1968 to discover that their summits were not perpetually hidden in clouds after all. The whole area is now a national park, with imposing gates and a bronze plaque. “Half the world distance from home they camped here,” it reads. “They camped at this spot from June 1942 to November 1943 while helping to defend this country. Later they fought in the Pacific Islands where many of them made the supreme sacrifice and cemented everlasting friendship.”

I often had the feeling that I was trying to tap out a desperate message to my new wife, thousands of miles away.

Now, beyond a few broken concrete slabs in the under-brush, there was nothing to indicate this was a wartime camp. Nothing to indicate it was a park, for that matter, except the sign.

This is not to say that New Zealanders have forgotten. Wellington of course was large enough to absorb a division of men, particularly when most of its own were far away. It would be hard to find a Marine who did not have a family he visited regularly on liberty and with whom the closest relationships developed. In 1968 the New Zealanders who had known Marines told me again and again that they seemed to be looking for a home. “The thing that struck me most,” said one woman, “was that when you met them and you liked each other, then you sort of belonged to them and they belonged to you. They weren’t interested in meeting other people and going around and that sort of thing.”

Time has, to say the least, been kind to the Marines who have passed through the filtering process of New Zealand memory: everyone apparently was an Eagle Scout. Neat, clean, polite, generous, gentle with children. In 1968 when I asked a friend what her impression of me had been in those days, she said I was courteous, intelligent, lovable: “You recited poetry for my mother.” My own image from those days was very different: gauche, confused, anxious, lost. Did I talk about the war? Never, she said. Yet it seems to me that it was always on my mind. How could I not have talked about it? But this, too, was a common observation. “No, they never talked about the war, where they had been, where they were going. They talked about New Zealand, what a lovely country it was, how they liked the people. Things like that. We were old-fashioned compared with America, I suppose. I think they liked that for some reason.”