As Mike began to think again about his war experiences and the impact they had upon his life and the lives of the men of his generation, I could sense the anguish he was experiencing as he began to think about events and people that he usually tries to suppress now. So, I asked him to stop, that I would put down on paper some of what he has told me through the years.
Mike was the first son of Serbian immigrants. In Serbian culture, a man’s greatest achievement is to be a junak, a hero. So, when the United States entered World War II, Mike saw his opportunity to become a junak.
He enlisted in the Marine Corps, and because of his test scores, was qualified to work in intelligence and have a desk job, but he rejected that option. His desire was to see combat. After his basic training in California, he was recruited to be in a special raider battalion. This was right up his alley.
But the reality of combat proved not to be as glorious an enterprise as he had thought. Thirty- six days in the battle for the island of Iwo Jima in February of 1945 taught him that.
He was in the first wave of troops to land on the beach, and even before they left their landing craft, Japanese shells hit the left side of the craft, killing and injuring all those on that side. Mike was lucky; he was on the right side of the craft. As he struggled up the volcanic sand to get off the beach, he sought cover in a hole, only to find one of his buddies dying there. It was Big Red, a tough Oklahoman, who had been in the brig at Camp Pendleton shortly before they left the states. Mike had been on guard duty at the brig and would surreptitiously throw in a candy bar to Big Red who was limited for three weeks to a daily diet of one piece of bread and a cup of water. Big Red looked up at Mike, asked him if he had been hit, too; called out for his mother; said, ”Thanks for the candy bars, Mike;” and died.
This was what combat looked like, no glory here.
For thirty-six days he experienced horror upon horror—the deafening sound of mortar shelling around the clock; dead and bloated Japanese bodies everywhere, huge flies hovering over them; killing Japanese soldiers who refused to surrender; patching up or carrying his wounded and dying pals, his uniform soaked with their blood.
There were plenty of junaks on Iwo, heroes who sacrificed their own lives to save others, and I know from what his comrades have told me that Mike performed many heroic acts, that he was a junak, but these acts are not ones that human beings should ever have to experience.
After the island was secured and they were aboard the ships that would take them back to their base in Hawaii, no one looked out to sea. They were all turned toward the island, looking at the white crosses of their buried comrades. No one spoke; it was utterly quiet. Only when the island was out of sight did they turn away and begin talking.
One month after atomic bombs destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Mike landed in Japan and was stationed near Nagasaki at Sasebo. Looking at Nagasaki he saw the unspeakable horrors that the war had wrought. Combat against Japanese soldiers had made him think of Japanese as near- devils; the occupation taught him otherwise. He saw suffering: devastating illnesses as a result of radiation from the American bombs, grieving parents who had lost their soldier sons in combat, stunned survivors of entire families killed at Nagasaki.
For many veterans, Mike included, reentering civilian life was exceedingly difficult. Civilians seemed to have trivial concerns. He was criticized for using foul Marine Corps language and brawling in taverns, behavior that seemed tame compared to what he had just experienced in combat. Civilian life was boring. It lacked excitement and meaning. It lacked structure and purpose. For the older veterans, relating to spouses and children, after such a long absence, was a strain. They suffered from nightmares; they could not concentrate or settle down and focus on anything. One of Mike’s close friends committed suicide; another couldn’t stop killing and ended up sentenced for gruesome murders of civilians.
In Mike’s case, he suffered from combat nightmares for over 20 years. He did not have a wife or children to return to in 1946 and he said that because he knew he wasn’t stable enough for marriage he shied away from serious relationships with girlfriends. He started college, but lasted for only a couple of weeks his first semester; he could not sit still or concentrate on lectures; he could not focus on his reading assignments. He could not stick with a job for long; he would quit job after job. Finally, in his early thirties, he completed a bachelor’s degree in education, history, geography, and began a career in public school teaching. And, he married.
For 45 years Mike rarely talked about the war, not uncommon for combat veterans. They want to forget; they want to get on with their lives. I have heard many stories of Iwo Jima veterans who died as old men without ever talking with their families about their experiences. In 1990 Mike finally reconnected with some of his Marine pals. And, it was as if floodgates opened. He had not seen or heard from any of them since they left Japan, or since he had carried them to an aid station on the island; he didn’t even know if they had survived their wounds. They began to talk, and talk, and talk on the telephone and he began to attend reunions where they would reminisce, and cry, and talk hours on end. At these reunions he also met wives, children, siblings, nieces and nephews of men killed on Iwo Jima. The families still grieved.
But today in 2013, his old pals are mostly gone. Three only remain.
On his 89th birthday on Christmas Day of 2012, we were in Washington D.C. visiting our daughter. That morning Mike asked to be taken to the Iwo Jima monument. He wanted some quiet time to remember all those young men, his comrades, whose lives were cut short on Iwo Jima, who never got to live the long and full life that he has had.
About war, Mike often quotes Robert E. Lee who said, “War is hell. We should not become too fond of it.”