Colonel Clark used to bring his son down to the dojo where my brothers took judo lessons. My grandfather had registered my older brother first, and then my two younger brothers enrolled when they were old enough. I sometimes came along to watch these lessons because, first of all, it was something to do on a boring school night, and I liked to look at the cute boys dressed in their gi (white uniforms.) Grandpa Ray always sat with Colonel Clark, if the old gent happened to be seated in the chairs around the mats. That meant I sat with Colonel Clark, too–not fun for a twelve-year-old, boy crazy girl. The two old men would talk and talk, seated next to one another, though they kept their eyes on their boys competing out on the mats. They never seemed to look each other in the eye, but still seemed caught up in their conversation.
With the attention span of a hummingbird, I only caught snippets of the quiet discussion. “MacArthur, Wainwright, and Bataan,” were among the many utterances exchanged by Grandpa and the Colonel. And despite my commitment to shallow-minded teen angst, I sensed something grave, something momentous in the back and forth of these two old men.
My brother later translated the mysterious conversation I involuntarily witnessed. Colonel Clark had been left on Bataan when General Douglas MacArthur was ordered from the Philippines in 1942. Under the new command of General Jonathan Wainwright some 22,000 Americans surrendered to the Japanese victors, among them young Clark. The Japanese forced this defeated army on a death march (along with their Filipino comrades) some sixty miles in the jungle, suffering from heat exhaustion, deprived of water, barefoot and hat-less. When a captive stumbled, or fainted, the penalty meant an immediate beheading. Colonel Clark had witnessed that brutality and suffered in ways words fail to capture.
In defiance of any odds, Colonel Clark lived. And that was the man who murmured with my Grandfather, watching a young son he should never, in reality, have sired.
Now I know today is the anniversary of D-Day, “Operation Overlord,” the Second Front promised by FDR and Churchill to relieve Stalin and his Red Army. I am a much better listener now, and realize that valiant warriors cleverly disguised as old men, have enriched my understanding of the past more than I thought possible.
For example there was George, the janitor. He pushed a mop after the lunch hour at my school. This mop was wider that he was tall. I’d often find George standing outside my classroom door listening to me blather on about the Second World War, as if I understood. Later I discovered that mild mannered George had once carried, not a mop, but a M-1, deployed on one of those Higgins boats aimed at Omaha Beach. “So George, what do you remember most about D-Day?” “It was awful early, and the water was cold.”
Then there was Roy. Smiling white-haired Roy. As a teenager he had gone straight from the Civilian Conservation Corps right into the Army. “What do you remember most about D-Day?” “I lost everyone in my outfit. I was real scared. Later I was regrouped with survivors from other platoons. You see that was bad because I’m Mexican, and my first platoon got used to me, and stopped calling me Juan or Jose. I had to start all over with the new bunch. Days after, the boys were giving me the business. One guy said, ‘Mexicans can’t shoot.’ I said that I could. So he said, ‘Ok Manuel. Show me you can shoot. See those birds on that tree branch up ahead? Shoot one of those birds.’ I lifted up my rifle and aimed at the branch and pulled the trigger. I missed the branch, the birds flew away, and twelve Germans came out of the grove with their hands up.” Astounded, I couldn’t speak. Roy simply chuckled. These were just boys who defined their lives in ways civilians can never absorb. They were scared, and hot, and cold, and lucky, and irrevocably changed. That’s All.
Gail Chumbley is the author of River of January, a memoir. Also available on Kindle.