A few years back I wrote about some of the research I did on my grandfather and his life. One of the people I interviewed was another member of Company K in the 23rd Marines, Wilbert Hager. As the story goes, I got reconnected with those who served under company commander Captain Paul E. Smith (my grandfather) and got a mailing list, only to find that Wilbert lived literally walking distance from my office at the time. I drove over on a hot August afternoon and spent an hour talking with him, about the war and not just the remembrances of his CO but also all of his memories of war. The Fourth Marines - first in action - Roi Namur, Tinian, Saipan and Iwo Jima - he kept mentioning that. Sadly, I discovered that Wilbert passed away a couple years ago. When I'd mentioned awhile back to other members of the company that I spoke with Wilbert, they'd told me he'd been sick and unable to attend previous reunions (this was a month after I met him). He seemed in good health when I'd met him and neither of us really wanted to bring up his health.
I recently found more photos graphs of my family including multiple albums of my grandfather's time in the military. I recognized the face of Felix Buvens, another office who served with my grandfather but was killed with many other Marines in Iwo Jima, before he ever got the time to meet his daughter Anne (a wonderful woman I spoke with on the phone). In Anne's emails, she referred me to another soldier, Wilford Overgaard. I'd not thought to look him up until last week when my mother and I found the boxes. Sadly, I found the same result - Wil had died, and just this spring. Another true hero from the great war of our grandfathers.
I don't get letters about reunions anymore. My mother and I tried hard, but work obligations kept us from traveling to the last reunion we heard about a couple years ago in Tennessee. They are all gone now. All those soldiers. Those who died in battle, like Felix, and those who lived with the torment and eternal heroism of our freedom, they are reunited once again.
As a genealogist, I've run into road blocks. Rule one of genealogy - Start Today. You never know when someone will be gone or a document will be destroyed (like much of the Marines, Army and Air Force records of WWII which were destroyed in a fire in 1973.)
We found my grandfather's two bronze stars and his purple heart while going through a shed and my mother reminded me that those incidents were with him the rest of his life. No man should endure war like that and no leader should ever put our bravest Americans in such a conflict without just reason. Such was the case in World War II when our country was attacked and we arose like a sleeping giant to become the most powerful nation in the world - built on the backs of our soldiers, our laborers and our leaders. These men didn't ask to be put into war; it just happened at a time that they happened to be born. The courage and valor of their actions, is eternal. Unfortunately, the voices that carried that history are not eternal. There's not many left from that generation. It's time now to ask them about it and to listen to their answers. Listen to the way they delivery their answers. That is what will be lost when they are gone. Even words can be recorded, but not the way they are said as it comes from their minds. I have albums full of photos of unidentified accidental heroes - never to be identified.
I don't think my grandfather liked having his image used to recruit Marines or contribute to the war effort. Maybe, much like John Basilone, he thought his contribution was with the troops he served with, or perhaps he just wanted to distance himself from war. Earning a PhD, teaching students for 30 years of his life and working in farming and agronomy - that's probably more how he wanted to be remembered - that and being a husband and father (to my mother). But his stories and the stories of those who served with him should be told - as lessons - lessons in courage, lessons in action. Lessons in the value of war and in life and in country.
My grandfather barely made it back from Saipan alive. My mother told me the story how they chose the "most expendable" man to take him back to the hospital boat (from the photo above). As they went back to the boat, they slipped and fell down a ridge moments before Japanese soldiers opened fire on it. Had the man, who is nameless, who's name I'll never know, hadn't slipped - there would be no me - no children of mine and no mother of me. Fate changed in one misstep. I wonder how many other tens of thousands of soldiers have stories like this? Where the heroism of their lives was just as important as surviving to contain their families.
There's one last man I can contact - Major Everett (Bud) Hampton. He served with my grandfather. We spoke before a bit. I do know that he is alive still down in North Carolina or Virginia. I think I will call him this week, try to send him some of the photos I found.
Soon they will all be gone. Those brave men who were born at the wrong time, or, at the right time, to serve our country in one of the many ways that has made is special.