Monday, August 31, 2015

WWII: Seventy Years of Remembering


Sam


This coming Wednesday, the 2nd of September, will be the seventieth anniversary of the Japanese surrender in Tsingtao.  My father Samuel Puglise was there.  He had fought on Guadalcanal, Saipan, Okinawa, and Guam, and then after VJ Day, his unit was sent to China.
       
The surrender ceremony.  Sam is in there somewhere.



The Japanese had invaded China in 1937.  With more advanced war materiel, they soon overwhelmed the Chinese, despite their home territory advantage.   By the time my father joined the fight to rout them from the islands of the Pacific, the Japanese were firmly entrenched in China.  After the 1945 surrender, there were hundreds of thousands of Japanese soldiers who needed to be repatriated.  Naturally, this was an operation that would take some time.  The Japanese troops were kept in holding areas while the available ships were used to transport them home.  American Marines were put on guard duty to keep them in custody until they left.

Japanese after the surrender.


But there was a big problem.  The Chinese had reasons (one of which I wrote about last week) to want revenge on the Japanese.  During the night, Sam told me, local people would crawl under the barbed wire and kill the Japanese.  And there were not enough Americans to properly patrol the perimeter and keep the inmates safe.  The solution enacted boggled Sam’s mind.  The American commanders rearmed the Japanese officers and had them walk guard duty  with the Americans.  “Think of it, Sweetie,” Sam said.  “A few weeks beforehand, we were trying to kill one another.  And then, there we were, armed and walking guard duty together.”

Card Sam sent to my mother at Christmas 1945


After the repatriation was complete, Sam and his fellow Marines were kept on for a while, guarding Cheng Kai-shek’s supply lines in his war against Mao Zedong.

Sam in China


Sam’s time in China was not without challenges.   His group—a contingent of the 6th Marines—was attached to the 1st Marine regiment.  On the one side, assumptions were made that the 6th would continue to supply them and on the other that the 1st would.  For a while, nothing arrived, not even rations.  At one point, they managed to trade with the Chinese for a cow, which they butchered and ate.   Sam made a chewing motion when he described this.  “It was old and TOUGH.  We named it ‘Confucius’ calf.”

Confucius' Calf


Sam on the extreme right, dining on tough meat.

He made friends with a Dutch missionary priest, who later escaped the religious cleansing after the Communist victory.  I wish I could remember his name.  He came and visited us in Paterson, on his way home to the Netherlands.  For years after the war, Sam corresponded with a doctor and his wife named Pfister.  I found their address on Pei Tai Road in the blue notebook shown in this collection of memorabilia:

Sam's memorabilia


Sam's souvenir photos of Chinese he served with.


Sam rescued a monk from a bombed out Buddhist temple.  As they left, the man reached down into the rubble and took up a roof ornament and gave it to Sam.  He kept it, and brought it home when on 1 April 1946, the 6th Marine Division was disbanded, and Sam was finally shipped Stateside.   By “slow boat from China,” he said, and then train from San Diego to NYC, and them by inter-city bus to Paterson, and then by city bus to home.


Coming home!


He told me much later that people at the Paterson City Hall bus stop looked askance at him and asked why he was still wearing his uniform more than six months after the war ended.  When he walked into the house, I was alone, sitting on the sofa where my mother told me to stay and not move until she got back from the store.  I had turned five the month before.  For more than a year I had been begging for a dog.  My mom told me I had to wait until my father got home.  She had written of this to Sam.  He opened his duffle bag and gave me a dog, one that used to occupy the roof of a temple in China.  Here it is:


My dog.

Sam brought home this Buddha carved from coal.

A few of the items Sam collected in China

During the first fifty years after coming home, Sam did not talk much about his war experiences. I remember only two rather benign stories.  Here they are as accurately as I can recall them:

My mother had sent my father a package that contained pairs of socks, a cake, and a box of raisins thrown in at the last minute.  The socks were something Sam had requested.  He and his buddies had found that in the soggy climate of the South Pacific, in unrelenting battle, they often did not take off their boots for a week at a time.  When they did, their socks were gone.  With endangered supply lines stretching back to San Diego, there were often no replacement socks to be had.

When I saw this last year in London, it resonated with me.  It was part of
an exhibition at the British Library about World War I

The cake was a mess of moldy crumbs.  But the raisins!  Drinking alcohol, except for wine at dinner, was not part of my father’s culture.  His best buddy, a guy of Scottish descent from Connecticut, however, saw a marvelous opportunity.  They were, at that time on a beach getting a few days of R&R.  Sam climbed a palm tree and came down with five coconuts.  They used their bayonets to cut off the tops, put a handful of raisins in each one, recovered them, and buried them in the warm sand.  Three days later they dug them up and drank the fermented coconut milk.  Sam laughed out loud when he recounted how after their “cocktail hour” he could not stand up, but had to crawl through the trees and underbrush to get back to his tent that night.

On Okinawa, after the last major battle, they were “mopping up.” Sam and two other Marines were patrolling a rocky part of the island pockmarked narrow caves, some of which went straight down into the ground.  Snipers were hiding in these as well as in caves on the sides of the mountains.  American patrols investigated the holes in the ground by shouting for anyone hiding in them to come out.  If no one did, they dropped in a grenade to make sure no sniper would pop up later and kill them.  Sam and two others from his platoon were on such a patrol after weeks of jungle fighting without any let up. "We did not look very spiffy," he said.  At one such hole, they stood poised and ready, with rifles pointed down and called for any one inside to come up. To their astonishment, a gray-haired gentleman in a perfectly clean linen Panama suit, complete with white shirt, tie, and vest emerged, followed by two equally pristine young women in silk dresses, wearing white gloves and fashionable little hats.  "I never felt so filthy and smelly in my life," Sam said, laughing.


Uncle Paul in his Seabees uniform


In true Sicilian fashion, even with the war raging, Sam managed to wangle transportation to visit family members who were also at the front.  His older brother, who was beyond combat age, joined the SeaBees (Construction Battalions).  When Sam was still on Okinawa after the conquest of the island, he found out that Paul was with a group building an airstrip on Saipan.  Sam talked his CO into letting him hitch a ride on a transport plane and spent a day with his brother.  He learned that my mother’s youngest brother Joe was on Peleliu.  Following that battle, Sam found a way to get there and spend some family time.  Sam could do that sort of thing.  He was a modest, but thoroughly engaging and charming man.  Whoever you were, his sincerity made him irresistible.

It was not until a few months before he died that Sam told the horror stories.  The only family members he talked to about the awful parts were me and David.  When you read them you will see why he did not want to talk about it.

During that mopping up operation on Okinawa, those same three who found the pristine people in the hole in the ground, on another day, emerged from the jungle toward a cliff overlooking the ocean.  Scores of Japanese had been driven to the edge, but no one knew they were there.  “Though there were only three of us, they must have thought we were leading a large force coming through the trees,” Sam said.  “As soon as they saw us, some of them threw themselves off the cliff onto the rocks below.”  Some killed themselves by falling on grenades.  Pairs of them pulled the pin on a grenade held between them, embraced, and went over the edge headfirst.

This last story made Sam weep with anger and sadness when he told it to us more than sixty years after it happened.  He and a member of his platoon were having a smoke under a tree.  There was no enemy action anywhere in the area, and no one else was around.  An elderly Japanese man, resident of Okinawa, came along the road walking with great difficulty with a cane, making very slow progress.  The Marine sitting there with Sam picked up his rifle, aimed it at the old man, and killed him.

At ninety-four, Sam looked at us through his tears.  “I spent my life trying to forget these things, Sweetie,” he said to me.  “But I never could.”

Annamaria - Monday    



    



32 comments:

  1. It's astonishing the way war distorts people's lives, and yet, during the worst moments many retain their humanity like your father, while others lose it. What must it have been like to return to the civilian world after experiences like that? No wonder most veterans never spoke of their experiences--who would have understood?

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    1. Thank you, Allan. My son-in-law is a clinical psychologist who interned at the Veterans Hospital here in NYC, a decade or so ago. He said that the aging vets, who had sublimated their anguish in jobs and family responsibilities, developed a kind of boomerang PTSD in their old age. Sam was typical, I guess. As age diminished his opportunities for activity, the memories sometimes overwhelmed him. I hated seeing him upset by them, but I am glad that David and I were there to hear and console him.

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  2. Harrowing. My friend was part of the UN 'peace keeping' force around Sarajevo. The time may be different, the people different but the stories are much the same. Sadly.

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    1. Caro, Sam came home a pacifist. To quote him:
      "War is the stupidest way of answering a question mankind could have invented." AND "No one who had ever been in combat would start a war." I patterned a veteran of war in Invisible Country after him. Samuel Frank Puglise was the Americanized version of his name imposed on him by school teachers in his Pennsylvania childhood. His real name was Salvatore Francesco Puglisi. I named my Paraguayan character Salvador. At one point in the story he says to his priest, "It is impossible to obey the Commandments in war."

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  3. Thank you for this story. It's a good reminder for all of us.
    "War may sometimes be a necessary evil. But no matter how necessary, it is always an evil, never a good." -Jimmy Carter

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    1. Thank you, Rosary. You and I share a great admiration for Jimmy. Sam taught me to hate war. I think it is never an answer. Only a crucible to create more problems.

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  4. Amazing story, Annamaria and wonderful photos. Yes, how can anyone understand what went on unless they were there. It's part of a writer's task to express the emotions without, one hopes, necessarily having to suffer the experience first hand.

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    1. Zoe, I had the temerity to write a novel against the background of a brutal war. I don't think I could have gotten close to understanding if I had not had Sam around me for all those years. Sometimes I could just feel that reservoir of sadness and mourning under his charming exterior. I have not stopped missing him. I am sure I never will.

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  5. I'm very grateful never to have experienced these types of situations from either side. It is hard to imagine how one can live with the memories for the rest of one's life.

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    1. Neither can I, Michael. Sam had a brand of stoicism that boggled my mind and elicited nothing short of hero worship in me.

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  6. Thank you, AmA, for sharing this. A touching, heart-piercing work!

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    1. Thank you, EvKa. I am so flattered that you found it so.

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  7. War is stupid was what my father taught me. In occupied Norway his experience was much different than your father's, but there was little to be positive about. Thanks for sharing those stories.

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    1. Jono, "stupid" was a word Sam used often when he described decisions made regarding the war. Your father had different experiences but came to the very same conclusion. That alone tells us something.

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    2. Jono, my father was a quiet man who said it how he saw it. During the North Africa campaign he and his commanding officer never saw eye to eye. My father thought he was a dolt. One day he marched into his commander's tent and asked for a transfer, which was granted in record fashion. The week following my father's departure, his previous battalion was overrun by the Germans killing or capturing all. He attributed his safety to luck, but I've always thought there was a touch of good judgement there too.

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  8. My father was with the South Africans in North Africa and Italy. I could never get anything out of him about the war, but even though a quiet man, he would hook up at monthly reunions of his regiment until he was no longer able to attend - and perhaps there were only a handful left then. My mother's first husband was a bomber pilot with the South African Air Force and was shot down on a bombing sortie to Italy - he died aboard an American navy ship and is buried in Sicily. I think many people forget (or perhaps didn't know) how many men from little countries all over the world came to Britain's aid at the beginning of the war.

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    1. That is the strange thing about war, Stan. As an endeavor, it is horrid and horrifying and yet we can admire the self-sacrifice and nobility of purpose of the men who serve. The war our fathers fought in actually achieved a noble purpose, but the phoenix of other, even more intractable problems seems to have risen from the ashes it left behind.

      Do you know where your mother's first husband is buried? If I ever convince you to take that trip to Sicily, we can find his grave and pay homage to him.

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  9. Great story, Annamaria; Sam looks like one tough dude. I recently read that one of the reasons for dropping the atomic bombs in Japan was that there were one million undefeated Japanese troops in China, and there was great doubt that they would surrender under normal circumstances. It would have been a tough and deadly fight if they hadn't.

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    1. Thank you, Jim. Sam was gentle and gallant, but I am sure he could have torn his way through a stone wall with his bare hands if that was called for. After the war, I met that Scot who showed Sam how to brew booze. He told our family that one pitch black night he got separated from the other guys and ran out of ammo. He knew that if he could find Sam he would be alright. At first light, he confessed he crawled around and when he found Sam he wept with relief. Sam always criticized war movies because the troops in them were never carrying enough ammo. He said he looked like Pancho Villa when he left camp with bandoliers criss-crossing his chest. I am sure that says something about why he survived so much fighting.

      He said there were 700,000 Japanese to be repatriated after the surrender. I have always been completely conflicted about the dropping of the A-bombs. Hideous as it was, how could anyone approve? Yet, I know that Sam was with a group preparing for the invasion of Japan and China. Without the bomb, I would have had next no chance of getting my father back. I was a "babbina"--a daddy's girl'' before he went away. I am forever grateful that I got to grow up with him as my dad.

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  10. My first thoughts were - what a handsome man!!!! Then, as I read more, I saw what a deeply sterling person he was. You are such a lucky girl to have had such a dad!!!! Thelma

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    1. Thank you, Thelma. You are right! He was drop dead, movie star gorgeous. But he seemed to have no awareness of that as any particular asset. I love your words "deeply sterling." So apt a description. And I am deeply aware of how lucky I was and am, since I still benefit from the beautiful connection I had to him. He taught me forbearance and patience, to love education and how to work hard. LOTS of really important stuff

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  11. We all have such different backgrounds. My father was also very handsome, kind of a Robert Taylor- but I don't think he had any background in family life - I don't recall his ever hugging me or being able to be a father, though he was a gentle soul and played the piano by ear. Thelma

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    1. Thelma, I think that many men of our fathers' generation were brought up to think that men did not show their emotions, or take much of an interest in children. One of the nice changes in our culture over the past few decades, in my opinion, is the involvement of fathers in the rearing of children.

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  12. I think that everyone who knows you agrees the apple of your daddy's eye didn't fall far from the tree, for as you wrote, "He was a modest, but thoroughly engaging and charming man. Whoever you were, his sincerity made him irresistible."

    The most influential man on every child in my father's family line was his sister's husband, our irresistible loving Uncle Benny. His time in arms would have played the perfect Sergeant Bilko (ala Jimmy Durante) to your dad's Burt Lancaster. He went into the Army Infantry in 1939, and never got out of the European Theater again until the war ended with him as a prisoner of war captured in the Battle of the Bulge. Strangely, I never heard him tell a war story to an adult but he would mesmerize children with tales that brought home morals of decency and fair play. Late in Uncle Benny's life my son interviewed him and recorded his stories. I must find those tapes. Thank you for reminding me, Sis.

    God rest Sam's and Benny's souls...and all the others from around the world who've past on from that Greatest Generation.

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    1. What a lovely thing to say, Bro. Thank you.

      I say Amen to your last paragraph. I have tapes of Sam's memories too. Actually, you are reminding me to find a way to get them into a format I can access. They are in 20th Century formats. Let's go for it!

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    2. There's a place on 17th or 18th Street in your neighborhood that converts tape to CDs...thought not sure that takes us into the 21st Century. :)

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  13. Beautiful recollection. I loved every minute of it. Such wonderful stories about the way war shapes people. Your father must have been an amazing man. I'm so glad he can live on through your stories.

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    1. Thank you, Suzanne. I wondered when I thought about writing these personal family stories whether anyone would find them anywhere near as interesting as I do. I'm so glad I gave it a try.

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  14. Apropros of your column last week, AmA, I'm currently re-reading Tim Hallinan's CRASHED, and as Junior is driving Thistle to the studio for the first day of filming, he tells her that, amongst other books, he's reading THE RAPE OF NANJING by Iris Chang. Queue the music from The Twilight Zone...

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    1. EvKa, Do-do,do-do,do-do! I read Crashed when it first came out, as I am sure you are doing. I don't remember that reference to Nanjing, I am thrilled to think that I might be tapped into the same part of the cosmic consciousness as Tim Hallinan is.

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    2. I meant to say I loved Crash, etc.

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  15. You were very lucky to have had such a wonderful, kind, caring father. My father was charming and charismatic, and a reader, and he looked like Jimmy Stewart sort of.

    But what your father endured and remembered about the war does reinforce the view that war is the worst thing; it is about destruction and not about life.

    It's great that you have such fond memories of a good father and that he lived such a long life with a loving family.

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