Firing from the Lip

A collection of thoughts, stories, tall tales, half truths and opinions from the Heartland of America.

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Location: Missouri, United States

An irreverent but loving grandfather of five and father of three, I enjoy writing of family, love, life, and the never ending fascination of it all.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Reflections; Lunch with a World War II Marine

I had a lunch date yesterday with an old friend. Norman is eighty-two years old, a wonderful, wise, sentimental, old man that longs for his late wife and despises growing old. He told me he never thought he’d live as long as he has, and talked of his days in the Marine Corps during World War II.

A hell of a time to be alive, is how he put it. He talked of flying in bombers over Japanese held territory, looking down to see the anti-aircraft defenses firing and wondering if he would survive another moment? He remembered the beauty of the sea carrying vast armadas of warships bearing down on those islands, and he spoke of his brothers aboard waiting to go ashore.

The names are known to us all. Iwo Jima, Tarawa, Saipan. The bloody island-hopping campaign of the Marine Corps in the Pacific during WWII. They are chapters in history books to me, places and events difficult for me to imagine. To him, they are all too real.

“It was so odd, to look down over the ocean, how beautiful and peaceful it seemed from great heights, and reconcile that beauty with the utter devastation all around us. The Japanese we hated, we had seen what they would do to prisoners, we knew they wouldn’t surrender, and God help me, I didn’t want them to. I wanted to kill every one of those sonsofbitches for what they’d done to my brothers.” My brothers. Not my ‘fellow Marines,’ or ‘my buddies,’ my brothers. This is how Norm remembers his friends.

A part of him feels guilty for surviving when so many didn’t. He spoke of the hardest thing for a man to admit, abject terror under fire. His eyes still fill with tears as he relates hearing screams from other crews as their planes went down and they couldn’t escape. “They all cried out for God, son, but there was no God in that hell hole. It was the Devil’s playground and he had a field day with us.”

Despite the carnage and death all around him, he loved to fly, to soar above the clouds, and for a few brief moments, put the fear aside and be moved by the immensity and beauty of the ocean. “I had a hell of a vantage point,” he laughed. “I was the belly-gunner so I could see everything unobstructed. Too bad I was such a damn inviting target though. Japanese pilots liked to shoot belly gunners. I guess we were just such damn easy pickings they couldn’t resist. Lucky for us, our escort fighters seemed to take it personally and did their best to shoot em’ down before we had too do it ourselves.”

“You’re a brave man, Norm. I’d have been scared to death.” “You think I wasn’t? Hell, boy. I was scared out of my wits half the time, but we had a job to do and we did it. The really brave men were the grunts. The ones that had to wade ashore. God, what men they were. Tough as nails and hard. They were the ones with guts. I flew above them and I saw what they went through. I don’t see how any of them survived, but they did. God, they were the best Marines I’d ever seen. I was damn proud of them, I still am.”

Talking with Norm gives me an appreciation for this land and her people. He has also convinced me of one thing. They were indeed “the greatest generation” of Americans. They are leaving us quickly now, and if you are fortunate to have one in your life, please talk with them. Learn what they want you to remember, and let them know you appreciate their sacrifice. That’s really all the old warriors need to know, that they are appreciated.

Someday soon I’ll lose my old friend to the passage of time but I’ll never forget him. I’ve treasured our time together. The lunches, the jokes, the easy camaraderie of two people that enjoy each others company. Norm is one of my heroes, and in getting to know him I’ve been blessed.

For his part, Norman is comforted in his old age, far from his family, by the knowledge his friends will look out for him. That he won’t be alone, and that he won’t simply go to his rest and be forgotten like too many others. My task, when he’s gone, is to keep a fresh Marine Corps flag on his grave. He’s asked me to do that for him, and I was moved that he trusts me not to let him down.

I am a better man for having gotten to know him, and I am so grateful to him and his brothers of that war, for protecting our freedom when it mattered most. God Bless all of them, always.


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