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!"
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