I’ve never written much about Walt, yet he was the center of my life for more than 20 years. We met in college where the GI Bill made him the gift of an education following WWII. He seemed a happy-go-lucky guy. A cute red-head; attractive and funny, he was the son of an insurance salesman and a stay-at-home mom. They were staunch members of the Methodist church where as a teen-ager Walt played piano for evening services … until his dad yanked him from the bench as he plonked out “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” with a boogie base. In college he majored in Business Administration with an eye toward going in with his buddy whose family owned the local lumber yard.
We laughed a lot, enjoyed each other’s company, and began planning a future together. When we became engaged our promise was sealed, not with an engagement ring, but with his most prized possession, a small black-metal Marine Corps emblem. He had worn it through his entire enlistment, he said. I felt moved and honored.
It seemed a good match, and we married in 1952 with expectations of raising a family in a tidy home in Indiana. But then our future changed forever. The Korean War necessitated the call-up of Reserves to active duty, Walt among them, now commissioned a 2nd Lieutenant. So, as a bride at Camp Lejeune, I sat with the other wives while our husbands, veterans of WWII, huddled in the kitchen swapping war stories they wouldn’t – couldn’t – share with us.
Walt’s love of the Marine Corps led him to make it a career, and the dream of life in Indiana was replaced by the exciting idea of a future in the military.
As in any marriage, we had our ups and downs, but occasionally a cold, dark cloud descended to envelop our lives. Walt stopped speaking for long periods of time, freezing his family out of his life and totally devastating me.
Recently there have been a number of books written about World War II. One, especially, was an eye-opener for me. “With the Old Breed: at Peleliu and Okinawa,” by E. B. Sledge, exposes the horror of what so many of our young men endured in those battles half way around the world. On Okinawa the author was in the same battalion as Walt, and fighting at the same time, only a few hills away. His descriptions are graphic and sickening – and educational.
Afterward they came home, these warriors, went to college and then married us; young college, farm, or working girls with little or no experience of unspeakable violence and bloody death. When I married Walt I was 23. My highest adventures had been at Campfire Girls’ camp, and at a college party or two. How could I begin to empathize with, much less understand, a Marine who was among the few survivors of the battle for Okinawa?
I tried. I memorized the name of his outfit: Easy Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division. And learned about his buddies, Josh, and Ira, and the “Gunny.” I laughed with him when he told about herding prisoners back from the front and teaching them some English along the way. (“Tojo eat s–t.”) And I was fittingly awed when he showed me the blue specks of shrapnel the medics missed when picking the pieces from his body after a hand grenade exploded on top of his pack. He was proud of the nickname he earned then. “Scrapiron”, his buddies called him.
Looking back, though, I wonder what might have been different if we had been helped to explore the cause of his long silences. These bleak periods went on for weeks, even months, with only ‘pass the salt’ kind of words being said aloud. I took them as punishment for some unidentified misdemeanor on my part. When they ended and I asked for an explanation, he would say, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Could those silences be traced back to Okinawa? To the blood and gore and the death and dying? To the loss of friends whose unbreakable bonds had been forged in the heat of battle? Now I believe that it’s very possible, even probable, but it didn’t occur to me at the time, and there was no one to point it out or to help me to understand those dark days.
I’m ashamed to say I was no better equipped when he came home from Vietnam. Did I expect him to leave a war, fly home, and in one day pick up where we’d left off as a normal couple in a normal home in a normal land? It seems the Marine Corps did. There was no ‘intermission’, no time to make the transition from warrior to husband and father. And also, no help for me to understand what demons might lurk beneath the surface or to learn some ways to help him move from that world to this.
Our marriage eventually ended in divorce, no surprise. There were other factors, of course. I won’t enumerate. But as I sift through the memories I become more convinced than ever that war should never have been invented.
Multiply Walt’s story by the millions of lives over the years that have been irreparably damaged by war; many ended altogether.
Can’t we do better than that? We call ourselves civilized. Surely, we can do better than that.