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.

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