Monday, November 10, 2014

On Veterans Day, 2014

Marines withdrawing from the Chosin Reservoir

   A couple of entries ago I posted a poem from "A Rose Blooms Once," a book of poetry by Kester Hearn, who was a U.S. Navy chaplain with the 7th Regiment, 1st Marine Division in the Korean War. With the exception of four of the poems, the work is mostly light-hearted, spiritual, amusing, like this paean to a feline:

A Cat and Her Tailor

As I stooped to pet my kitty
   this thought came pouncing upon me
What a lovely coat she's wearing
   it fits her to a T.
It fit her as a kitten
   it fits her now she's grown.
It is a seamless coat of beauty
   her Tailor is well known.
Super Artist with His colors
   no two coats are just the same.
Every coat is flawless fashion
   chic is she with Royalty.
And when I quit my petting
   my pet cat purred to me.
"Don't you wish you had my Tailor?
   You could be
A well dressed cat like me."

   So it seemed terribly incongruous, among Hearn's poems about the Korean War, to see in his comment following one of poems, written 33 years after the war, the use by this longtime Methodist minister of a pejorative word for a fallen enemy soldier.
   In my earlier post I reprinted Hearn's poem "The Home-Coming" along with his comment following the poem. Today I'll present his three other poems about the war, which perhaps illustrate how for so many veterans, the images they've seen never really go away.

War Is Such a Lovely Thing

(My experience as a chaplain in the Korean War -- 1950-52.)

He gazed at me with glassy eye
As my battalion and I passed by. In that clobbered town he sat
With burned legs crossed, and leaning back
Following a napalm bomb attack.
Dead and swollen there he sat
Naked -- roasted -- bloody-- black
His buddies nearby in a stack
A gruesome scene, intense the stink,
Autumn trees lay among the foes
Wisps of smoke still slowly rose.

Somewhere back home this word would go
"It is with regret that we report
Your son -- your husband --,
Daddy Ling his ID says,
Was killed in action ten days ago."
His children do not understand
Why they'll never see their Dad again.
Thirty-three years have passed that day
Yet memory forbids him go away.
Ling still sits there by that tree
His glassy eyes still fixed on me.
To militarism the world must cling
War is such a lovely thing.

Hearn's comment following this poem: "Just after breakfast, August 9, 1985, I was thinking about the Korean War. As the First Battalion, 7th Regiment, First Marine Division, of which I was chaplain (Padre, they called me), was moving north, we came to the third hydro-electric power plant south of the Chosin Reservoir. Here we passed through a devastated town; and here I saw the burned, blackened and swollen North Korean or Chinese soldier sitting on folded legs, slightly leaning back. His glassy eyes were fixed on me and all who passed by. I was thinking of this gruesome scene when the thought came to me, "War is such a lovely thing." And this last line of the poem became its beginning and its title. Finished August 11, 1986. Written 33 years after the War.

Where People Used to Live

How lovely the celestial sight
With all its peaceful spheres so bright,
Except that small terrestrial ball
Where people used to live.

But ever since that mushroom day
When great white clouds blew man away
A shroud enfolds that scorched land
Where people used to live.

No ships arrive; no one's in sight
The traffic's dead, all days are night
Vast heaps of desolation lie
Where people used to live.

The earth still turns, sustains its blow
The tides, twice daily, ebb and flow
When Winter's done and sky is clear
Then joyful Spring will come again.

The earth will heal, life will resume
The birds will sing and roses bloom
On this old scarred and peaceful earth
Where people used to live.

Dumb Smoking Steel Monster

Dumb, smoking, steel monster --
   It's done!
It knows not what's done, nor cares.
The recoil returns, the smoke
   curls down.
Beyond a mountain a flash is seen
Fifteen seconds counted -- three miles away
   It's done!

Words cannot tell but
   It's done!
God's choicest handiwork who breathed
Loved and were loved lie scattered on
   the ground.
Load in charges "six and seven," reach out
Ten thousand yards away the thunder says
   again it's done!

When will God's will reach out and
   be done
Beyond the mountains and every sea?
And the smoke cease curling from this thing's
   unfeeling throat
And men rise above their ancient ways
To Christ -- and loving wisdom in every heart
   be done?

Hearn's comment: I began this poem, Dumb, Smoking, Steel Monster, while resting in the 121st Army Evacuation Hospital at Hungnam, Korea, on November 7, 1950. It reflects what I saw and experienced on November 4. We had moved a few miles north of the third water power station from the Chosin Reservoir, and spent the night in a G--- mud hut. Our artillery was nearby and fired all night, shaking dirt from the ceiling. The water in our canteens froze solid that night. The "Dumb, Smoking Steel Monsters" were our own 105 Howitzers. After each firing, as the barrel of the 105 slowly slid back to position, the smoke -- lazily -- idiotically -- curled out the muzzle and down the muzzle. It appeared so dumb and unutterably stupid! From flashtime to report time and multiplying by 1,100 feet I roughly knew the distance shot. Charges "six and seven" meant the weight of powder used, and distance shot. This is my first poem; and I worked on it many hours aboard ship while I was coming back to the States.

   Kester Hearn died on Dec. 6, 1997. I don't think it would be a reach for me to assume that he suffered from post traumatic stress disorder. Every veteran has his own way of dealing with the after-effects of war. For Kester Hearn, I imagine it was a combination of religion and poetry. The section of his book immediately following the four poems about the Korean War is a group of limericks.

"By George, I'll Wait"

There was an old man named Bumper
He was the world champion jumper
   When he saw the Royal Gorge
   He said, "By George,
I think I'll wait till next summer."

The Big Pitch

A world-famous cowboy named Newt
Rode Midnight out of the chute
   Who pitched him so high
   His head bumped the sky
He returned to earth by parachute

- - -

With that, I'll say thank you to all the veterans who've kept our country safe at so often a terrible cost.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

And here's to you, Joe DiMaggio

Joe DiMaggio
         Lately I've been researching the Korean War, in particular the Breakout from the Chosin Reservoir, for a book John Caruso and I are writing about John's brother, Marine Sergeant Mathew Caruso.
   In an online version of "Combat!" magazine, I found an article by Korean War veteran Stanley Modrak in which he described receiving the last rites from Father Griffin, the chaplain whose Life Mathew saved at the cost of his own.
   I found a listing for Modrak in California, and reached his wife, who said he was in the hospital but that he would be happy to speak with me. A few hours later, while his wife was visiting, he called me back.
During our conversation, he mentioned that he wrote a book about his experiences in Korea. The book is called "Hostage of the Mind: A Korean War Marine's Saga of War's Trauma and the Battle That Followed Him Home."

   "As each November nears and northern California's blue skies and wind-blown clouds flee, surrendering to a glowering, gray overcast," Modrak's description of the battle at Sudong-ni begins, "I recall a bleak fall of 1950 in North Korea. Disquiet memories intrude; discordant bugles blaring, echoing from hill to hill high above; sudden shock and fear as fingers of death clutch; a shadowy figure hovering."
   Sudong-ni means "town by the river," Modrak said from his hospital bed when we spoke on the phone. He is recovering from heart problems at the age of 85.
   His battalion's commander, Colonel Homer Litzenberg, he wrote in his memoir,once said "The only Marines I want in my outfit are Purple Heart Marines."
   "As the crisp, darkening night air found the 7th Marines breaking out sleeping bags and preparing to sleep," his book continued, strains of 'Goodnight Irene' filtered through our bivouac area" via Armed Forces Radio Tokyo. "Meanwhile, unknown to the slumbering Marines, the Red Chinese 124th Infantry Division of General Sung's 42nd Field Army poised its 186th and 187th Regiments to hit Marine hill positions in a classic military double envelopment."
   "A double envelopment is usually pretty damn deadly," Modrak said on the phone. To make matters worse, he added, General Sung told his Red Chinese troops, "Kill these Marines as you would kill snakes in your homes." Despite decades of post traumatic stress, Modrak noted in his book with a sense of Marine pride that those snakes delivered a powerful bite.
   At 11:30 p.m., Modrak wrote, he was awakened by cries of "Here they come!"
   "We scrambled from our sleeping bags arming ourselves with M1 carbines and .45s. ... A blare of discordant bugles echoed eerily from hill to hill above. Soon shadowy forms rose from the murky darkness in the river bed to our left. As we let go with a fusillade of weaponry the forms faded into the deepening gloom. ... I marveled at the guts of our battalion officers as they stood tall in the valley's center, directing their Marines' defenses even though parachute flares exploding overhead bathed the tiny valley in a ghostly yellowish aura.
   "As mountain rivulets unleashed by a spring thaw form, multiply and then rush downhill following paths of least resistance, so too came the Red Chinese. Breaking past and veering around strong points, relentless bands of quilt-garbed Chinese infantry cascaded into, through and around Leatherneck hill positions intent on swarming into the valley floor battalion command posts."
   As the battle raged, a noncommissioned officer shouted "One of you, come with me!"
   "Marine discipline kicked in," he wrote, and he ran with the officer for 50 or 60 yards "that seemed like a hundred." as tracers lit up the night and the sound of gunfire was all around. "Miraculously" making it through the gauntlet of fire, Modrak "dove into the shadows behind a low stone wall."
   When the burst of three machine gun bullets struck, "slamming into my side and forearm," he wrote, "sound, feeling, disbelief all jumbled together in a disjointed sensation as I realized I was hit."
He tried to shout "Corpsman" but "only a murmur emerged. Marines nearby took up the call as I slumped  to the rocky earth. With consciousness rapidly fading, Colonel Litzenberg's words, 'Only Marines ... my outfit ... Purple Heart,' were my last thoughts.
   "Reviving sometime later in the still smothering darkness, I sensed a shadowy form hovering over me. Was it an enemy, a fellow Marine, or ...? Quiet, firmly enunciated words broke the chill night air: 'In nomine, Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus, Sancti, amen.' I then realized that the form must be our regimental chaplain, Father 'Connie' Griffin, pronouncing the Last Rites of the Catholic Church. Growing up through twelve years of Catholic schooling I knew full well their dire implications. 'Am I dying, Father?' I murmured. Passing out once again, I never heard any response. Awakening the next morning to daylight in a medical tent with other litter-bound wounded, it sure felt reassuring to be still among the living."
   "Waking to daylight," Modrak wrote, "I found myself ... in the 1st Marine Division Hospital in Hungnam, North Korea. ... For some days I was only conscious and alert intermittently.
   "Sometime in December, our hospital room had an unexpected and unusual pair of visitors. One afternoon two tall figures clad in heavy parkas and fur caps appeared. The famous baseball icon and New York Yankee superstar, Joe DiMaggio, known as the 'Yankee Clipper,' was at my bedside. Wow! Right in the middle of a “Hot War”; I couldn't believe my eyes. As a rabid baseball fan and admirer of DiMaggio, his appearance was a Korean War memory I'd never forget.
   "Joe was accompanied by 'Lefty' O'Doul, a baseball star in his own right and DiMaggio's friend and mentor going back to their San Francisco ball-playing days. Right here in North Korea and not too far from action, Joe and 'Lefty' were braving the bone-chilling North Korea winter to visit and cheer up American hospitalized military. This unselfish act greatly enhanced my admiration for Joe. I also knew that in the pantheon of Yankee greats only the 'Babe' ranked higher.
   "Asking how I felt, Joe handed me an authentic American League baseball autographed with his distinctive signature. Turning the ball over it read: 'To Stanley, best wishes – Joe DiMaggio.'
   "Overwhelmed, all I could do was murmur 'Gee. Thanks Joe.' After DiMaggio and O'Doul left, still not ambulatory, I gave the ball to our room corpsman to mail home for me to Pittsburgh. Big mistake! When I returned home some months later I learned that my wonderful trophy never arrived: What a disappointment! It probably was either stolen or lost in the wartime mail. As rabid baseball fans would understand, the loss bothered me for years after Korea. Having this uplifting experience in the midst of war and then the loss, I'm sure you can understand my feelings.
* * *
   "Forward to a sultry L.A. summer in 1991, now a 39-year civilian after Korea and Honorable Discharge. The loss of the DiMaggio baseball still caused regrets over the years as the “Clipper” would be in the news from time to time. His marriage to Marilyn Monroe was prominent, then his devotion to her memory as he placed flowers on her gravesite every year on their anniversary. The much-valued baseball and its loss seemed to be another layer of depression added to the other somber and regretful Korean War memories.
   "My wife , Roulti, knew the story of the “lost trophy.” I had referred to it over the years and she realized how much it troubled me. Near my birthday in July of 1991 I checked the mail, finding a few letters, a bill and a small, square box. Curious, I turned it over to find that it bore the return address of the Oakland Athletics Baseball Club. Wondering what it could be, I eagerly opened the intriguing package. It held an authentic American League baseball. Turning the ball over, autographed words read: 'To Stanley, a replacement – Best Wishes, Joe DiMaggio.” Wow! After 41 years – what a birthday present! Happily showing the prized ball to my wife, she smiled with a “knowing” grin, admitting that it was her doing.
  "A week earlier I had mentioned to her that DiMaggio was to be honored at an A's game celebrating his 56-game hitting streak in 1941 -- a record still intact. Remembering the “lost ball” story and unknown to me , she had phoned the Oakland A's offices and spoke to General Manager Sandy Alderson. As it turned out Alderson was also a former Marine so that coincidence along with my wife's feminine persuasion struck a responsive chord with Alderson – and DiMaggio.
   "The treasured memento represents a happy closure to a long-ago disappointment and now bears an honored niche in our home. We have a time-honored saying in the Corps: Once a Marine, always a Marine. It certainly rang true with Sandy Alderson – Semper Fi Sandy!"
- - -