Homecoming Boys of ’46

10 Aug

”We, the people of Company B had lounged for months in the hot springs resort at Hanamaki Onsen on the Northwest coast of Honshu. In Hanamaki there was no war, only the quieting curtains of pine and the scent of old cedar. Sea mists drifted and fat goldfish swam in the pools. Houseboys tended our fires and hustled to answer our wants. A haircut, shave and massage cost a dime and American and Japanese soldiers sat side by side in the waiting area pretending to read the newspapers.

Duty schedules were loose. We dined from chinaware, drank fine Kirin beer and slept on soft, clean sheets on tatamis. A soak in the hot tub ended our workdays and nobody was mad at anybody. On guard duty, I ate sesame cookies and melon slices and drank sweet tea with the Chief of Police. His family defended my post at the bridge after dark, just in case Somebody cared enough to look for me.

In the winter, January, 1946, it came time to pay the bill and lay the future on the table. Army had become home. Some of us had ambivalent feelings: doubts, expectations and fantasies. “Go home and get out or sign on and stay. You can’t have it both ways,” thus spoke the First Sergeant. The company was down to a quarter of its strength and those lounging at the hotel were being trucked out fast. Recruits were shuffling into Sendai, all sharp, creased and polished, wide eyed and wondering. They knew they’d missed the slaughter of the invasion – the excitement of it. The Captain had gone home from Okinawa with jaundice. Combat officers, married guys and older non-corns were first out, then those with points for time, sickness, medals and wounds. Many of our company were already in stateside hospitals for recovery and too many slept in our Division Cemetery. Unbloodied officers strutted about in their iron hats and weren’t sure of how to talk to us so they didn’t. They huffed, puffed and stamped about, trying to be important. They weren’t. Perhaps later in Korea.

Each of us knew his place in the home-going lottery but the day of happening came without notice. We’d long ago drawn all the mind visions: how things would be or should be or couldn’t ever be. The First Sergeant called us out after breakfast and gave us a last chance to stay on or get off the pot. “You are needed here to shape up the new people. There’ll be some promotions and some rotations.” If he could get a stand-in for himself, he’d be on the next boat, he said. I could have his job or better but no stateside vacation even though I promised to come back. “You would see all that good stuff waiting for you and you’d run like a duck in heat.” He was almost right.

I had a home in the Army – but the picture of family, the one I’d concocted, was big, safe, warm and welcoming; just as we remembered. I hadn’t been back there for eighteen months and the imaginings and expectations grew more real. Now I could wear my ribbons and wings and strut around that snowy one horse town. I’d get attention like I’d never had before as a dumb local. Home would be friends on the front porch, dances at the Woodstock Inn, nights in Forsythe park, drive-ins, hikes in the Catskills, my aunts and uncles, myoId job, my grey moldering neighborhood, Kingston High on the hill and Saint Pete’s Church. The girls would be young, pretty in their summer dresses, virginal and laughing. The thirty eight months between then and now never happened. Home is where the heart lies. I would go home.

Almost none of us expected to take our damage home with us. There were moments you couldn’t leave back there.

My barracks bag was packed by noon. A dozen of us stood outside the main gate, pacing, smoking, listening for the truck which had to come. The people inside didn’t know us. We were outsiders who’d made our choice and couldn’t turn back. They would be staying on for another hitch, or waiting their turn. Those who’d reenlisted were immediately distant. Yesterday we were close and then we weren’t. We shook some hands, wrote phone numbers … and tried to not look back as the truck groaned its way down the mountain. We waved to no one. The farmers in their bare feet and straw leggings stood aside for our lonesome convoy and looked down. They didn’t see us.

They sent us up to Sendai and we waited, the Japanese garrison still occupied their old barracks and we looked at those tough young fighters who would have met us on the shores and in their mountains. Then we waited in the Japanese Navy barracks in Yokohama, slept on short, wooden bunks, gambled, scratched flea bites and ate from tin plates. We thought about what we’d shared and how much better things would be back home. All of us had stories about how things were back home. We had pictures, too. A few of them had been with us for years. We were not yet ready for the pictures of our dead and wounded. That would come.

Sailing day came and went several times and then we were aboard, looking over the rails. Japanese dock workers grinned, waved goodbye, yelled Banzai and dropped the hawser lines. Engines rumbled, smoke belched and whistles blew. Tugboats nudged. It was cold. There were so few of us going home that we could bunk anywhere or not at all. I stowed my blankets and gear in the forward chains and stared at the hissing bow-waves until long after nightfall. We were moving too fast and were not told where we were going, perhaps to Hawaii. We were going home; that we knew. Home was a mosaic of laughing, loving, living images.

The Pacific became warm, clean and smooth; the ship’s lights were ghostly bright and big band music played. There were expectation and emptiness. They’d taken away my rifle, my pack and shovel, my purpose and my identity. We docked in San Diego less than a week later … and home. Millions of us were drifting back long after those who had done their time in Europe. We didn’t know that the schools were jammed, jobs were scarce and the town we left was strange and small. Strange things happened and no one told us. Those few who remained were tolerant, from a distance.

Some families wondered what they’d do with us and we wondered what to do with them. Most gave us time to find our way. We were now different, they were different and the girls already had enough of uniforms, dead loves, lost romances and bad news yet undelivered. Bridges had been burned and we didn’t expect that; Bridges are supposed to be forever. They can be crossed and crossed again. The letters we’d gotten from home had been treasured, well intended and less than honest. Many of us found security and new lives with the heroes of our homecoming, the women who had watched, waited and worried.

These stories are about some of us who wondered as the ship was nudged against a dirty grey warehouse pier in San Diego. There was stillness except for short signals from the tugboats: no signs, brass bands or girls and the docks were empty. We were months too late to be heroes.

I’ve added comments from veterans who came home from different services at other times on other paths and other wars. Those who returned grievously harmed in mind and body are a different reality that’s not for this simple essay. I went to the VA hospital recently. My medicine needed changing. Some residents were waiting and dozing in the lobby and we talked a little; they need people like us to talk to especially now with so many young casualties coming home. Charlie Smith visits the Veterans’ Hospitals regularly. I wish he’d write about that. We may need reminding that this new generation is “us” all over again. For too many, their roots have been cut, just like ours. They can’t let go of their memories, those damned night pictures. They need to find their rightful places, and set in some new roots.


Short stories from those who came home.

George: I never came home because I never left home. They made me a Supply Officer in a Depot a half hour from my house. I worked my tail off. The closest thing I came to combat was breaking up fights among the stock handlers and truckers. Once, a couple of tons of toilet paper fell from the storage racks and almost got me. Yes, I was uneasy going home on the local bus every Friday night in my uniform without any ribbons. It was an hour’s ride to my parent’s door. I had myoId room and everything. Maybe I developed a slight limp so people could draw their own conclusions. I didn’t have any war stories. When they cut me loose, I took an executive job on Park Avenue. I got my BA in business management in night school and found my wife there, too. Want me to tell you I missed the shooting? No way. Homecoming? Home cooking? Every Friday night for four years.

Kenny: The day they tried to ship me home, they found a miserable disease. A kind of meningitis. Nobody’s fault, the timing was lousy … and if they hadn’t spotted it, I’d be a dead duck. I gave back my transfer papers. So it was January and they sent me to a base hospital in Singapore where I got worse. A month later they realized they couldn’t do anything there so they sent me to Guam, where they couldn’t do anything either. I wasn’t getting worse or better. The next stop for a couple of months was a heartbreaker … at the Greenbrier Hotel for recuperation and a pass to go back to Indiana whenever I felt like it. With three and a half years in the Army as an engine mechanic, I decided to enter law school …. passed the bar and passed up the big money. Opened a small hardware store with a relative, married a girl I didn’t deserve and had a hell of a good time of it. Haven’t had a sick day since but I’m losing my hair. Who needs it?

About Bob’s father: I was born in the late forties so I didn’t know him as he was before the war. He served four years, one in a German POW camp. We have some medals, some letters he wrote home and his army papers. They’re in a big picture frame in the living room. It’s all we have of him. My mother said he came home a different person, she didn’t even know who he was. There was no doubt they cared for each other. He was a good, loving father but he never came out of hiding. I thought it was supposed to be that way. Now, I think he was glad when his time ran out. He worked hard, came home every night and disappeared into his private space. We kids felt like he wanted to be close but didn’t know how. He was somewhere else, watching, maybe afraid. He’s been gone for a long time and you might say he never came home and we understand that. He left his spirit in that prison camp.

Matt: Coming home? You were on the same ship. It was O.K. I know what you mean. Real life. Not everybody had a safe harbor like I did. I met a lot of losers after the war. They were drifting about, always had something big around the comer. They all had good reasons why they couldn’t connect. Maybe tomorrow. Nothing changed for me, the neighborhood was smaller and my best girl married my best friend. My uncles had a plumbing business. I worked my way in and twenty years later bought them out with their blessing. I didn’t have problems till long after the war, lying awake till daylight remembering them. I’m alive because I ran. They’re dead because they didn’t. People don’t know that one terrible incident can stay with you, won’t let go. You try to drive it away and you’re guilty for being alive or for not helping them. Or maybe you could have. Yeah, I struggle with that. I can name every one. It was done in ten minutes. We carried them down days later in their own ponchos. That’s a long way back from the plumbing business. Forget it.

Jack: No, it wasn’t fair. I had everything waiting for me. When I hear about the tough times people had getting back to a normal life, I bite my lip. I knew guys who came home badly hurt and others who lived the war in a hotel. Maybe I should have gotten a Purple Heart or two, the odds were there, but the truth is I never saw an enemy or fired my rifle at anybody. If I had any war stories, I must have forgotten them. Sure, I dodged around for a few weeks, spent my discharge money and bought things for my family including a car. Some guys tried to hang on to the old days, wore their uniforms after they were discharged. Looking for what? The hero veteran stuff is good for thirty days. I kept the overcoat and tossed the rest. My dad had connections and got me work as a machine operator. The pay was good for a few dates every week. My wife-to-be was not the campus queen, she was more than that. She wrote a letter every week and kept in touch with my family while I was away, asking how I was doing. My folks never mentioned her. They figured she would interfere with college. Nope. I did it all our way. Mostly her way, which is fine.

Perry: I came home twice. Once after Korea. I stayed in the Marines. You’d think I would know better. After a comfortable in-between time we were shipped to Viet Nam and I had two tours there, I was getting old. After that I came home for good, a little beaten and scarred. Nobody made a fuss about us, and some people thought we’d let them down. But I had a solid Italian family to come home to and they made it work. Today they call it tough love. The second time, I had a wife and a pair of twins waiting, and all the help I could want. My father died while I was in ‘Nam. That hurt the most. He died young, but he was always my Mom’s strength and my hero. A lot of us lost family heroes. I might have stayed in the Marines but I was needed at home. Besides, I got twenty good years and that helps with the groceries.

Sol: That whole thing was scrubbed out of my mind. Coming home started when they hit Pearl Harbor. We wanted to get into the service right now; it might be over before we got into it. You’d have to know our crowd. Small town, hard workers, no big shots, little or no money, all-American. We weren’t a big happy family but there were going away parties every week as our friends left town. We’d never traveled more than fifty miles. We would get together and drink beer and tell wild stories. Some small towns were famous for how many names were on the memorial plaque. That was us. The bad news was far away and unreal. One day of reality shattered me. I looked at my friends and choked. Two of them had shattered faces. Maybe that was better than dead. Our neighborhood jokester holed up in his house and never came out. On his way home our quarterback flew into a mountain. Some of us stayed but most moved away. Except for strained words at a class reunion we didn’t meet again. What can you say? What should you feel? What should you do? I should have tried to reach them. College made it easier; going far away from home was my homecoming.

Artie: I never thought much about it, coming home. When I got to Europe, the Germans were on the run. We punished them, they earned it. We had a month in clean-up combat; mostly we did police work then it was over and we were to redeploy to Japan. I had no wish to tangle with those crazies. The ship home was like a puking outhouse but we got into New York, got assigned to a base of sorts and went home for a week. It was like I never left. My two brothers were working. They’d been in the Navy. It was like times past, even though we were harder and older. When I went back to Dix we heard about the bomb. Then I went back to the real world. For a while, I did handYman work then got into college where I was drafted into coaching sports. That’s where I was for twenty five years. Now, my kids teach there. Sounds good doesn’t it? You knew that my wife died when our second boy was born. Seems like God grabs the good ones first. If I hadn’t come home ….. I still wonder about all of it. Something out there works In wondrous ways.

Gordon: I collect Nonnan Rockwell calendar pictures. He painted the New England small town scene … the hills in autumn, skating on the town pond, swimming at the town beach, “picnics and hay rides and midwinter sleigh rides” … fairyland pictures out of the last century. He may have designed our town. We had fourteen public parks. Community nights every week and fireworks on Saturdays. I was a teenager in the Depression and that’s how it was; also it was suffocating with the heat of poverty, holiness, purity and labor. Everybody had a job or two and we got through it. We had no crime that I knew of but our police force was tough on teenagers. When movie makers wanted the perfect one-horse town that’s where they’d go … my town. I hated it and I counted the days till we could join a carnival or work on the river boats and see something beyond cows, apple trees and mountains. In December of 42 Camp Upton was like hell frozen over. For the next three years all I could think of was home. Of course it was just the way I left it, still small, old and empty. But when I arrived at our bus station, I knew that I would never leave. I want my ashes dropped in a surging mountain stream. We winter in Florida, but that doesn’t count.

Dick: We never learn. The vision of home pulls us back and then maybe we wish we’d taken another road. My father was a brutal drunk. He beat me and my mother so badly that one night she just escaped with a family friend. That left me alone with him and it got worse. It wasn’t the strapping so much as loss of self, my pride. I promised that when I could I’d run away. I was ten or twelve. Thanks to his new wife, I got shipped off to a junior military academy. Those were good years, then they decided that I should come back. I couldn’t do anything right so when I hit sixteen I enlisted. Why did I think of going home after the war? What was the compulsion? It was a kind of bad habit with me; a glutton for punishment. The next month I shipped myself out alone and glad of it. They’re long gone. No way will I go back. I used to think about what the old town must be like. When I had my pilot’s ticket I’d fly over and look down and wonder. I’d get that itch. I think I wanted to punch somebody.

Moore: For three years I put away a little each month so when I got home I would have a prepaid, deluxe, sex crazy, drunken rampage. That is preposterous and true. It started out normally. I looked around and talked to people who didn’t know me anymore. Old buddies are not always welcome. One illusion was wrecked. The girls were sweating for me. Not true. And the money was forever if I hadn’t given it away. In ’46 there was a society of freeloaders out there. Guys like me didn’t give a — for anything, scam artists, cheap crooks. You learned to get a place to sleep, a shower, food and a drink. Wear an army jacket; you can bum ten bucks or work in the ware houses if you’re sober and don’t smell bad. In hard times you get along. What a story that is. True? Mostly, but only for a short, confusing time. I met people on the streets who couldn’t connect or go back or forward. One guy had no chin. They gave up their names, pride and willpower. They’re still there philosophizing on sidewalk radiators. I see them in today’s homeless young. If you’re thinking about it, don’t. Somebody penned, “You can never go home.” Yes, you can and I haven’t had a drink in thirty years.

Ray: Coming home? I knew for four years that I wouldn’t make it … and I did. I joined at seventeen, big for my age and the Army needed big men. Very patriotic of me, I lost a scholarship but that was the thing to do. It was my chance to see the world but not the best of it. Talk about travel: Africa, then Italy where I got wounded the first time. Then the Balkans in winter and it was mean. The second wound was more serious and I was sent home for surgery. The trains weren’t running, so we traveled by truck. On top of the Red Cross van we wired on a white sheet. We quickly surrendered. I was hospitalized near my home town. Sherman said ‘War is hell.’ We lived with my wonderful in-laws for two years while I got my engineering degree. That got me into Canada. My wife and I were admitted to the U.S.A. fifty years ago … this is home. God bless America. I sing it loud. Anybody complains about this country will face my anger. You figured out that I was in the German army?

Frank: Don’t look into my mind, all you’ll see are numbers. From the day went in I had this plan and a schedule. I studied for my license as a CPA, right, a Certified Public Accountant. Everybody else read adventure stuff and hot romance. I read about accountancy. Can I say I saw some action? Yes, most of us did, from a distance. I never even went to the Division cemetery. Whenever I had a chance, I volunteered for desk jobs, record keeping, stock keeping, rosters, payroll, all of that. It’s crazy but every day included numbers even in Korea. We fought over maps and ledger sheets. After, when other vets were going for higher goals under the GI Bill, like bartending, art school, engineering and medicine … I studied business management. That was almost sixty years ago and I still enjoy it … I do it for free. An old lawyer friend does the same thing … free. My wife thinks I’m out of my head. Maybe so. Should I tell you things were lousy? Is that what you’re looking for?

Mack: They wanted a hero; I wasn’t it. Football, hockey, senior class President, King of the Hill … Purple Heart and Bronze Star. I did it all, so what did they want from me now? I don’t know if they were something else or I was. Like in great expectations, no way did we see things the same way. What I wanted and needed was walking around time to get straight, find a path I liked, then we’d see. Instead, we had arguments, guilt and silence. They seemed offended by everything I did or said. They wouldn’t let me be, not my family or relatives or the church. They wanted war movies so I walked away, hit the saloons till the money ran dry, hung out with lost souls till they ran dry too. Panhandling was not my game, but I could have been good at it. What did I do? I took the next train out and wound up on the docks. I paid my dues and got over whatever was bothering me and them. A year later I made Union steward and then delegate and if the clock hadn’t caught up with me, I’d still be there. Those young guys think I’m a hero, like Marlon Brando. Remember that?

Wes: One week after college graduation in 1942, I enlisted in the Army Air Force. I was nuts about airplanes. They had too many volunteers and too few training bases; I was put on hold. I worked as a reporter on our local weekly until December. The telegram told me to “be in New York at eight ayem … tomorrow.” A year later I was a second lieutenant flying a B-24 heavy bomber. Six months after that, I flew the first of 30 combat missions over Europe: Germany and Munich for good measure. I never lost a ship or a crew member. On my first mission I sat transfixed as 12 out of our 24 bombers went down over Berlin. I ducked into the clouds and flew home alone with an engine out. A year later, I was Captain Sheffield, Squadron Assistant Ops Officer. When I got back to Long Island, I learned that my grandparents, who raised me, were gone. So was the house I grew up in. Within a month I had an apartment and took a reporter’s job on NEWSDAY. Some years later I traded up from night editor to the pulpit. That’s where I belonged from the start and it occupied all of me for the rest of my life. I married my college sweetheart and together, we’ve made a very good thing of it.

Tommy: Funny you should ask. I was in Hawaii when the Japs hit. It was a good life, but quick as we could load up, we were on a ship to Australia and then we were on Guadalcanal. You know that story. For me, not much happened except for a few seconds that won’t let go. This Japanese guy, small, about my size came at me with a short sword, yelling his head off. We had ’03s then with the long bayonet. He ran right into it and hit me with that sword, here’s the scar. I almost bled to death. Then he stood there for a minute looking at me, wondering what in hell just happened. When I got out in ’45, I skipped the GI Bill and took the first job available, the first of about fifty jobs in my life, I could never settle down; it’s been o.k. and my first wife was my angel, she glued me together. There are four of us, believe it or not me, my first, patient, long time wife, my second wife who is my best friend, and that damned Jap; every day he’s there watching me, asking what happened. I’d like to tell him I don’t know what happened and I wish he’d buzz off.

Matthew: I came home in February. Like a postcard, my town. Snow and ice like in the days before the Army. I still feel it – the skating parties, hay rides … something going on all the time. That was 1940. In ’46 I wanted everything to be the same. Friends were gone, the family changed. Nobody knew me. What was crazy that winter was that I tried to live 1940 all over again and it couldn’t work. There’s a mountain place called the Mill Wheel Inn; it was once a grinding mill with a water wheel. Big fireplaces, old fashioned bar and my initials on every table. I drove there every night, had something to eat and sat in the dark lounge trying to recreate whatever had been. Peggy S. came in now and then and we were good for each other. Her husband had been a friend. We didn’t have dates – we talked about old times, shared drinks and sang with the music. We got teary and bleary. One night, we got so low that we laughed at ourselves and went out back and rolled in the snow and that got us going again. In the spring I moved away. We met about forty years later in SF, applying for the same job. Her hair was grey and she’d plumped out a little. I was well married and we’ve had six great kids. She never married again but became famous in political circles. Maybe some people think of what might have been. No thanks.

Smitty: I’m not a good looking guy so my love life before the war was pretty thin, zero. Like that gorilla on the poster, “Sometimes I sit and think, but mostly I just sit.” In a hole in the ground, you think about home, or food or dry socks or getting hit or killed. People thought I was praying … but I was thinking about girls … the girls who never knew me, untouchables … all kinds of girls, homely, beautiful, big and small, flat chested and busty, in  party gowns and naked. I had a running romance with all of them. Aside from weekend dates, it was phantasy island. Some mothered me, not what I had in mind. My cousin Angie said, “you’ve got crazy ideas about girls; we’re mostly just like you; we’re not all Sisters of Saint Agony. Get that out of your head, corne down to earth. Have a good time, turn off the guilt.” Ninety days later I had a tender affair with the most long-suffering woman there ever was. She’s still beautiful. I can’t remember how many kids and grandkids we have. I don’t remember those stuck-up ones I was supposed to ravish when I got home. You’d be amazed at what I don’t remember. I don’t watch war movies though I’m told they’re good. I have my own dark movies.

Arnie: Why are you asking me that, why is it your business? I hated the Army, it took three years out of my life. You know I got a medical discharge. I needed to be out of it and left alone. I’m a loner by choice. Paranoid? Not likely. They sent me home and my family came at me like jackals so I stayed in my room, went to bed for three months and didn’t talk to anybody, no phone calls, not even from people I knew. No buddies either; I didn’t want any. I let my dumb relatives do everything except annoy me. When we crossed that field – that was stupid. The Japs were everywhere and I ran around like crazy, shooting at everything. When we got over that wall, I laid down and wouldn’t get up. I wasn’t scared, but nobody would get a chance to kill me. They sent me to the Chaplain’s office to work with the medics. Want your eyes opened? Do that for a couple of months. That’s why I’m a doctor – a specialist in simple nut cases like mine. Married? No. I don’t want people plaguing me, no blood sucking attachments … I’m healthy, wealthy and free. Why am I talking to you? Don’t use my name.

Chuck: Going home was the only thing on my mind; other things, too, but that was the big one. I had this image: a nice apartment, dear old Dad and his newest wife. Dan, Jim and Pat, my friends since first grade. My uncles and aunts, especially my Grandfather in his workshop. I had some girlfriends when I went away … and one of them should have been there. That whole picture is a lot of $h&t. My home was empty and cleaned out. Two of our gang were dead and the others were screwed up. I don’t know. My favorite uncle stayed alive long enough to welcome me back and died the following week. That’s the real picture. I bought some civvy clothes and took the next bus to Chicago. Between what I had saved, plus my discharge allowance and the 52-20 club I had enough. It lasted three months. The State got me some cheap jobs and when I got over my hangover, the VA got me into college under the Bill. Those two years living on peanuts in one room, were the happiest years of my life. No, the following fifty six years were the best. You’ve met my wife.

Vince: When I think about it, which I didn’t back then, the hardest things were to get out of the house, get moving, get a job and finish school. A lot of us dropped out of High School to enlist in ’41 and ’42. No way could I go to twelfth grade as a twenty four year old. A HS equivalent was worthless, but you could get into a trade school for machinists or draftsmen. The world was up to its ass in machinists and draftsmen. But number one priority was any kind of a job. Look at it. Millions of us were coming home. Millions of women were doing men’s work. The defense plants were closed and the schools were filled to the walls. It wasn’t all that tough. We started up our own businesses, doing what nobody else wanted. I was an apprentice painter for a year waiting for something to turn up. That got me into wallboard and spackling, not what I wanted to do so I hired a couple of disoriented veterans. We gave value for a fair price. You learn quick or fold your tent. Once I had fifty guys on contracts.

Joe B.: Our whole family were coal miners; if we didn’t work underground, we still got the grit in our lungs. My father was like Jimmy Cagney: short, loud and tough. So was all of my family … we had a lot of love. Why I didn’t want to come home, I can only imagine … not to the mines, or the town or the miners. “Who in hell did I think I was?” That’s what he said when I got home six weeks after my discharge. I got to lay around for only one day, and at six a.m. he and I were heading down the lifts, the elevators. I had no idea he’d ever worked so hard. Even though things were mechanized, it was sweaty, dirty bull work. If I ever had any problems leaving the Army, I left them in the bottom of shaft #3 at 4 o’clock. I was falling down tired but we stopped for a beer after work. There were crusty old guys who could never scrub out the dirt, when they laughed, they had to spit. That night, he said “You are going to do this for three months, so you learn that you don’t want to do this for the rest of your life.” I got my degree in mining engineering and safety and wore a white shirt, a suit and tie on my job. My pop owned one suit for all of his life and never had a white shirt. He was buried in that suit.

Ross c.: They didn’t know anything about me. They called me the Invisible Man because I’d stay away bumming, sometimes for a week. I would have reenlisted, but I was damaged goods. No thanks. They never cared when I lived there and paid the rent and now they wanted to show me off. “My son, my boy … look at those medals. Look how big he got. How many Nips did you kill? I’ll bet you’ve got great stories. Right in the thick of it Yessirrree!” I didn’t tell them squat. They didn’t want to hear anything but themselves. Maybe they were sorry the war ended, I heard a lot about overtime and time and a half, lonely women and gas rationing. We paraded around for a couple of nights, checked the bars I couldn’t go into when I was younger. The regulars were offended because I wouldn’t drink all night with them and tell them war stories. I checked out the old friends to see what they looked like. It was like we never knew each other. I stayed for two weeks, mostly invisible, did a little nauseous reflecting on a high cliff overlooking the river. In fact, I wanted to jump – one last long flight, a headliner. lowed them that. Maybe lowed it to the twenty or thirty Japanese I killed. I hate that word. Killed. It’s too final. The Vets Administration was my family in ways I won’t describe. Those are the only folks I am indebted to.

Paul: The hardest thing about corrring home, was the fact that I had lost three years to guys who weren’t in the service … mostly for deferments, like critical to the war effort. Still, I was desperate to catch up. That was a problem, until a job counselor changed my attitude and set me up with an on-the-job training program. We did drudge work for half the time, and professional work the other half. Employers got big money for doing nothing. That special program was for people who couldn’t go back to what they’d done before. My first boss was years younger than me and had finished design school. I was his apprentice. But I had something he didn’t. Fear. I was so afraid I wouldn’t catch up I worked double hours and weekends, went to night school and gladly did all available dirty work Thanks to the old timers I got free lance jobs. After two years, the agency laid off all ex-G.I.s. We were trouble. By that time, I was married. My boss became a friend and years later I gave him a good job in my company.

Clarke: This may be the dullest story in your article. Having finished college with degrees in Theology and Romance languages, I was fully qualified as an infantry officer. When it was done, I came home, honored, discharged and helpless. Luck, hard work and insolence did it. I rented a typewriter, read everything I could find and wrote articles of my own making. Armed with unlikely credentials, I went to see one of the editors at the local newspaper. “What do you want?” I told him I wanted a job as a news writer, or anything else that would get me past the door. “Rewrite this ” he barked, “bring it back in a half hour. That’s the way we work” He tossed a canned release in my direction. It was terrible and I made it good, I thought, having used a few Celestial tips from my theology courses. “Start now” he muttered. “Thirty five dollars a week” My week was sixty hours or more with no interval between night and day. I told you this would be a dull story. My left arm still squeaks.

Billy S.: Maybe we learned from the past half dozen wars. Iraq and Afghanistan will produce thousands of veterans who will look good on the outside and be all fouled up on the inside. The Vets Administration people know that what they see is not what they get. Some of these kids have seen the bottom circle of hell and that will enlarge in them unless they get help, like I did. No matter the honors and medals, they hurt. Some slide right back into civilian life and many don’t. Wars produce strength and purpose. It builds character. Leadership and self reliance. It also makes drifters, derelicts; homeless, helpless and angry. The right counselor can make every difference. For a half year I carried heavy baggage. Friends, family and church all saw what they wanted to believe. One VA counselor didn’t stand up when we met because he’d lost his legs. He told me I’d talked myself into something and I could take charge and talk my way out of it. I won’t forget him. I met guys who didn’t want help or were too proud or scared to admit that they couldn’t make it alone. We’ll see lots of them because that’s how it’s always been and always will be. Damn wars.

Anders: Look at the facts. Most of us came home, whole, sane and clean. We came back to a nation that had rolled out of a miserable depression, built an instant army and destroyed the worst tyrants the world had ever seen. For that, our people died and were mangled. Others carry hard memories. That was almost sixty years ago. It wasn’t my fault, I did my best and I can’t do a thing about what happened. I saw and felt the same things, I carried my best friend until he died, but that don’t drag me down. Life is about now and doing. I loved those guys but I don’t sweat it. My coming home gift was a wife who was helping my folks. I was a farmer from the day I fell off the porch into that good, wet dirt. So they bought me a little farm. Now, it’s a big farm. The sweetest smell on earth is springtime mixed with cow manure. When I walk the fence lines I wish we could sit awhile over evening coffee and biscuits. About my coming home? I just rolled up the sleeves, took a deep, sweet breath, thanked God and got to it. If you live in the past, you miss the present.

You ask a Professor of English Lit. ? You’ll get a book, not a paragraph. You can’t define “home” therefore not “homecoming.” A learned Doctor who has studied that subject for years … says home is the people in and around it, the events and influences, traditions, rituals, trusts and dependencies, not a digitized prototype. To one a castle is home, to another it’s a storage tank with one friend and a window. Read Steinbeck. “Home is where you want to be when you’re somewhere else.” “It takes a heap of living to make a home.” “It’s just a house when there’s no one there.” My home was all of downtown churning with relatives. We had three dozen families within throwing distance. Church was in the middle and God help the defector. We nosed into everyone’s business and intruded without notice. For any reason we’d assemble en masse. There would be baking, cooking, drinking, fighting and loving. Three hundred people came to our Grandparent’s 50th anniversary. At Christmas we had the biggest tree in town and everyone got a homemade gift. At Easter we hunted colored eggs. We went to every Baptism, graduation, wedding and funeral but the bonds broke when the first of our young died in battle. He’d joined the Canadian army and was killed at Dieppe. The religious rules, traditions, connections and affections crumbled. Coming home was quiet. I still hear the noises of love and the craziness I knew as a kid and I am thankful.

Most of these comments are factual. Some are the similar feelings of several people melded into one. A writer asks ‘why?’ Maybe it’s something that’s biting inside and he has to get it out in the open where he can see it clearly and dispose of it … or help somebody else dispose of their private devils.. The world at large doesn’t know what a combat soldier sees and feels after the guns go quiet. It’s not fear. Not guilt or sorrow. Maybe it’s the eternal, infernal question “Why?” No answer.

The subject of medals sometimes raises eyebrows. Most medals are well earned, paid in full It seemed unfair when two guys rushed in to take out a bunker and one got a medal That happened in our company. At another time, a man blew out a Jap position and went to the hospital with heavy wounds. Those who arrived after the action were honored at a field ceremony.

Somebody left the radio behind when the platoon moved out. Can you believe that? About a mile into our march, Sgt. Bob Foster realized what had happened, left his squad, without permission, and went back for it alone. Some would think he would get a medal or a note of thanks for doing that, but he got busted instead.

Andersen had no choice. He remained alone far out on a post that should have had four people. There was rain and fierce lightning. The other three sneaked back to safety and comfort, each with an excuse. The guy who stayed watched a large formation of Japanese go by. He should have gotten a citation for integrity or stupidity.

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