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Saturday, November 11. 2006
By Lieut. Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918), Canadian Army
In Flanders Fields the poppies blow
We are the Dead. Short days ago
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
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Hi birddog. Thanks for publishing In Flanders Fields.
I found this in my Moms' papers after she died. It was written by a Navy Ensign from Dearborn Michigan. It is a bit long and not politically correct but it is a remarkable first hand account that still echoes today.
-It used to be that I liked the moon, especially when it was full, now it only brings memories of bombers and death. Right now we are having a full moon and the once thought of passion and love, has given way to the blessings of a clouded sky.
When we entered our last theater of operations it reminded me of the anthem of Francis S. Key “O say can you see, by the dawns early light”, for we entered the harbor amid the flash of rockets and star shells-----about four one morning. It was D-Day plus six and I’d said a few Ave Marias and put a few searching glances at the Heavens.
You couldn’t smoke because that would give your position away-----but I’m happy to say there wasn’t the clatter of teeth for Wrigley’s downed the clink of the ivories. Happily enough, nothing happened. The only aircraft the we saw that morning had the blue stars on her. We saw all hell breaking loose out ahead of us, and a little to our starboard side—and hundreds of ships were pounding the installations on the shore. In the front row were the Destroyers and the Destroyer escorts---then the Cruisers and a little further the big Battleships. Naturally we were behind all of this and feel safe as hell, and we were too. Our only worry was the Nips, form the air and those yellow ba----- never came over in the daylight---so we steamed up the channel in comparative safety.
The place where we were originally told to land was not taken yet---and so there was nothing else for us to do but keep on going---but definitely, and await further orders.
The Marines had knocked hell out of one of their enemy positions and it was there that we were given orders to land. The tide was going out and with a ship like ours, that runs right on to the shore---that is an all important thing. When you got to go through, you got to go---so we tear on in. What we didn’t want to happen did happen---and we were stuck on a shoal. Damned if we didn’t fishtail and get stuck again. There we remained until high tide twelve hours later, like a duck on a rock-----and bowel movements were easy.
There were about ten other ships, ranging fro LST’s to LSM’s, LCM’s and most of these had reached the shore. In the meantime we found that we had bent our screws and our rudder was in bad she from the coral bottom. About six hundred yards in front of us was a knoll and it was here that the Marines were entrenched in their own respective foxholes.
All that night, and it did pass, was spent in watching sporadic fighting. About one that morning you got so darned tired that you just didn’t give a darn and went to your sack figuring that the hell because you hadn’t had any sleep for the past few nights and every one's nerves were on tension. So we took up our watch---and each officer took his turn of looking out over the bridge for something he hoped he would never see.
The yellow boys have a cute trick of getting on a log and strapping dynamite on their backs ---floating out to a ship and boom. Of course the Nip meets his ancestors pronto and the ship is demolished. They have a funny philosophy which you undoubtedly read about—so we had men stationed around the ship with guns to help them meet their kinfolk—just a little bit sooner than they expected.
About four in the morning the tide came in and with the aid of some LSM’s we got off the shoal and made the beach. This started the process of unloading, and this was done in record time. We didn’t want to set any record but the soldiers were just as anxious to get of the ship as we were to get off the beach.
Late that afternoon we were unloaded. In the meantime (the army engineers took care of all of the unloading) the crew were allowed to forage for themselves. At the time it didn’t seem like such a bad idea but before we pulled out orders came from the O.D. that no man could leave his ship.
Believe it or not but our crew and the rest of the men of the beach went over the knoll and up where the fighting was---just to see what they could see---and of course to get the souvenir to bring home. Mind you here is a tank heading for the entrenched Nips and I’ll be if one of our men don’t thumb a ride. The Marines on the tank were so astonished that they stopped and picked him up---and carry him up to where a man’s life is separated by the alertness of a slant-eye.
Rather go into all the horrid details of seeing dead men---and we did see that, our boys and the out-of wedlock beasts,---they made you a bit nauseated when you saw one of our men. You gloated with pride and then an intense hatred, and I might say a fort of pleasure, to see a Jap with his guts blown out, or a slug through the head. It gave you a warmth inside and you felt like going over and kicking the son of a b---- in the face. It burned you still further to find that some of their equipment was American made, and the language some of the men said about this, even I am too modest to print.
Imagine seeing a Chevy or a Ford truck. Of course you tried to console yourself that they might have been made in Japan, but you just wondered. It was then that you remembered about all the scrap iron that we sold them back in the thirties----and how we were getting it back---and some men had to get it back the hard way.
That P.M. they brought in four prisoners that I got a first hand glance. A woman about sixty, a man about forty-five and two young boys about nine and twelve respectively. They all set in a circle and bowed and scraped and our boys offered them some water out of our canteens. What a commentary compared to Batan.
There were a few other prisoners taken that day but darn few. The suicidal tendencies of the yellow men inhabit them with a fear of capture. Without exception, they all believe that they will be killed the minute that they are taken prisoner. This has been instilled into them with such a schooling that it is almost impossible to break down what the war-lords told them.
Some of the tricks they try are agile---getting some women (I say women because anywhere from one to six will try the same stunt) to walk towards our lines like the virgins of peace. They know the weakness of Yankee men for killing women so the first few that tried to walk to our lines succeeded in their mission . There is a bomb on the back of their shoulders and a quick jerk of the head will blow hell out of them and all who are near. So if any of the women want to surrender they must strip. Of course all the men have had to do this for some time. Now it covers all of them----why? What was their next move? Yes, send the little children running toward our lines. Do we shoot them? Affirmative because they’ve got charges on their backs too.
Well the boys finally came back from the hunting of their mementoes, and it was fortunate that none of them were killed form our ship. Some others weren’t quite so lucky. One of our boys got a rifle and he had to cut three fingers off a dead Jap to get it, but he said that he didn’t mind, just wished that he could of killed him in the first place. (Of course it is strictly wrong for any of the men to do this and a Court Martial would result. Of course the Nips just decapitate our wounded and dead).
A young Navy doctor came into our wardroom that night and his buddy and him killed eight Japs between them that afternoon. They sat there eating a sandwich, just as nonchalant as when you hear about a guy killing six snakes---a job well done. The last guy he killed was only singed so the Nip promptly pulled out a hand grenade, pulls the pin, and places it over his head and has a quick meeting with his ancestors.
We retracted at four that morning and then the fireworks began. All day long we had our work to do and all night long the Betty’s and Sally’s would come over. Of course our only protection in the night would be the smoke screen---so we’d promptly proceed to “make smoke” and try to cover the entire harbor with a thick like fog so they couldn’t tell where to drop their bombs. Of course we had guns but what good are they in the night time when the plane can spot you first.
For three weeks we went along with this routine until we were finally given orders to call. Every night they would come over and many nights the men stood by the guns for ten and twelve hours. Sandwiches were served about two in the morning and Joe (Navy term for coffee) was always available.
One particular night, and I shan’t ever forget. It was General Quarters and we had just sighted Betty in the lights---and down she swooped and bombs away---the ship 800 yards away is blown all to hell—settles by the stern and bows majestically as if to take one last look and then cover herself beneath the blanket of the sea. In twelve minutes it was all over---no more ship---and rescue boats went to the scene to pick up survivors. Why they picked on that ship and not ours is just something for the books. We just didn’t get off at that station. If your ticket is punched for a certain stop you just get off and the train moves on. No sense in an argument, it just happens that way.
In the meantime they are pumping this Betty with everything in the harbor---and she careens before that final plunge into the sea---another one to meet his ancestors, but it is an awful price to pay.
Our fighters do a wonderful job. One night in particular, it was the next night, they shot down 54 out of 55 planes that came over. Now your question is when you are covered with smoke how can anyone shoot---why wouldn’t you hit your own planes? A few paragraphs ago I told you that guns weren’t any good in the night time---and a little later I said we shot at a Betty. Seems a little incongruous---but that is something that I can’t say for now except to say that they do know when to shoot and when not to shoot.
Censorship now permits me to tell you that these operations took place at Okinawa---and that our beachhead was Iwo Jima---where Ernie Pyle was killed.
If you were touched by that poem, and the story above, you will also get a lot from the poetry of Wilfrid Owen. Here are a few of his most famous ones: http://www.pitt.edu/~pugachev/greatwar/owen.html
There were dozens of answers written to "Flanders Fields" at the time but the following by a Mr. Lillard, that appeared in the New York Evening Post, is my favorite:
"Rest ye in peace, ye Flanders dead;
The fight that ye so bravely led
We've taken up."
I would like to have been able to call this piece “My Dad”— but that suggests a relationship built on the gift of time.
I knew about him before I had seen him, or smelled him, or had even been held by him. I had heard whispers— there were hushed conversations among the tall people. I waited for him every day— before, I understood what the verb to wait meant. Before, I had seen his silhouette or heard his voice.
I was born while he was in a POW camp in Germany. I had been told he was in a camp especially for pilots. If someone should ask you when a child begins to know—perhaps, to know without understanding—I would tell you that time begins with hope. I would tell you that time begins very, very, very early in life.
My earliest memories are standing in front of the radio and listening to Mr. Roosevelt. All those, who made me feel safe, listened to Mr. Roosevelt on the radio— mother, grandma, grandpa. They all listened, waiting for something. They listened and we waited.
Then, finally one day they were talking fast and laughing. Then there was silence again. My Father had been brought home from Europe: oh such happiness. But, there would still be months in a place called hospital: a place, I was promised, which was not nearly so far away as Europe. But, he was still not visible to me.
Then the day came when we went to the train station. The big white clouds coming off the train warmed my bare little legs. I had on my best coat and matching hat. Two trains came and went. I loved the warm clouds of steam. Then— he was here. He stepped down from the train and hugged me first. The tall ones told me that he could only stay for one day and a night—he would have to go back. Back to where I begged? I did not understand hospital. But, I had known from the moment he first hugged me, that he loved me beyond all else in the universe. I did not know what love was, I just knew I was special to him.
That night I woke to the horrible screams. I ran to the room at the end of the hall. He was standing on the bed screaming. My mother was in the corner, at the foot of the bed—something was very wrong. Next day, he was gone again. Grandma said, he was back at the hospital. Grandpa said, that before my father went to hospital, he had been in a place where very mean people had done very bad things to his friends, and that was what had made my father very sad.
Months later there came a time when he could come home on EVERY Wednesday. He would come on Tuesday evening and sometimes we would go straight to the airport so we could watch “the boys come home”. The airplanes roll in over those strange blue lights. But, it was Wednesdays I loved—still do. He and I would spend all day together on Wednesdays. I remember him telling my mother that I had to have ballet lessons.
She tried to explain to him that she did not make enough money working in the hospital laundry to pay for ballet lessons. She was tired—he insisted.
Every Wednesday of the time we had together was spent thus: mornings in ballet class (he was the only father there); afternoons in the park. We listened to the pretty music. He would read to me from his book of poems. Sometimes, in the late sunlight when most of the people had gone home, we would waltz on the grass in front of the small group of musicians. It was glorious to hold his hand and dance with him on Wednesdays. We danced with our shadows.
My father had everything. That is to say he had two legs, two arms, two eyes, and a face with no marks; so often in those days we saw men who did not have everything.
The only bad times were at night when he would stand on the bed and scream; or, in the day time when we would walk in town. Often a car would make a big bang like firecrackers, when that happened my father would lie down on the street next to the curb, and cover his head with his hands. Strangers would come and help him get up.
Momma didn’t like him anymore.
Finally, one day he came for me in his own car. He was going away—he did not say those words—I just knew it. We went to ballet class, and to the park—but, he was different. I held his hand so tight. In my panic, I struggled to push away all the empty years to come. He kept looking at something else, something outside of the park. We walked for awhile and listened to the music, and when we came back to the car he kneeled down in front of me: he put his hands on my thin little shoulders, and looked at me from my level. His beautiful grey green eyes searched deep into my own: “remember daughter, remember to look for the truth—always, always— look for the truth.”
I have kept faith with my father.
Thank you Dad.