A Memorial Day Memory Re-visited

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Today my brother Bob and sister-in-law Janice will drive to Indiantown Gap National Cemetery to lay flowers on Dad’s grave.

Protestant Service on Saipan led by my father, Kenneth Campbell Stewart, end of WWII.

Our father served as the Army Air Force chaplain for troops in the South Pacific before, during, and after the bombing of Tokyo. During Dad’s absence, my mother and I lived with my grandparents in Boston and South Paris, Maine, where Dad’s safe return was foremost in prayers before every meal.

I was three-and-a-half when Dad came home at the end of the war. The memory is clear as a bell. I watched as my father emerge from the B-29 bomber, walked down the ramp and across the tarmac at Boston’s Logan Airport. When he picked me up and took me in his arms, I reared back and asked “Are you really my Daddy?” “I am,” he said, “and I’m never going away again.”

All these years later, my hair has turned white, my skin is wrinkled, the world is mute without the hearing aids, my bones ache, and my head hurts most days. But I’m still the three year-old who felt the heavy weight of concern around my grandparents’ table listening for news from the South Pacific

It takes a lifetime for some memories to become clear. “Memorial Day and the Soldier’s Helmet,” published two years ago in Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness (2017 Wipf and Stock), offers a Memorial Day example.

Today I’m remembering again that night when the burly WWII Marine veteran unburdened himself of the locked box of hidden artifacts from the Japanese soldier he’d killed in hand-to-hand combat during the American invasion of Saipan. The ending of the story written just a few years ago is sorely incomplete.

So…today I observe Memorial Day by returning to the original sense of Memorial Day as a day to remember the fallen – ALL of them – but even more, a day to re-commit to ending the insanity of war itself. It’s a day when I remember the in-breaking of sacredness – three men in the living room – two live Americans and one Japanese – and pray for something better for us all.

Be Still! Departure from Collective Madness, p.12

This Memorial Day the three-year-old who waited for his father’s return remembers how strange memory is. As Bob and Janice lay flowers on Dad’s grave today, I am more conscious of a glaring omission. There were not three men in the living room that night. There were four. Dad was the first man there. Bless you, Dad. RIP.

photo of Indiantown Gap National Cemetery
Entrance to Indiantown Gap National Cemetery, East Hanover Township, PA

Grace and Peace,

Gordon

Gordon C. Stewart, Chaska, MN, May 31, 2019

Every head was bowed

A reader of yesterday’s “On the Ship and on the Train” left a comment. The post featured this photograph of my father and his Army Air Force unit on board ship on the high seas on their way to Saipan in World War II.

My father, the Chaplain, on board ship to Saipan, WW!!.

My father, the Chaplain, on board ship to Saipan, WW!!.

Karin wrote:

“I clicked on the picture which made it large enough to fill my screen… I was amazed. Every man’s head was bowed. That brought a realization that they all knew what they were headed towards. Profound.”

My father was the Chaplain leading the prayer. Indeed, EVERY HEAD WAS BOWED.

Prayer came naturally to him. My brothers and I were blessed by his prayers every night at the dinner table. His head would bow. My mother’s head would bow. Our heads would bowed. There was a short, reverent silence – a time for centering, as we would call it today – followed by words. He addressed the Divine as “Thou”, not the familiar “you”. Antiquarian by contemporary standards, there was never any question that the “Thees” and “Thous” were not spoken to another one of us.

A remnant of his prayers – a sample of the kind of prayer by which he led the soldiers on the ship – was left in my possession in his old Bible.

God our Father, who hath commended thy love for us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us: worthy was the Lamb that was slain to receive honor and glory and blessing.

Remembering once again him again whom we have pierced by our selfishness and folly, we acknowledge our sins and beseech thy forgiveness. We would learn of thee to forgive,  with thee to suffer, and in thee to overcome. Lord, in thy great mercy we ask that thou remember us now in thy kingdom – confirm our faith.

Forbid that we forget among our earthly comforts the mortal anguish our Lord Jesus endured for our salvation. As we behold him following the way of faith and duty even to the crown of thorns and the cross, grant us grace that we may learn the sterner lessons of life.

So endue us with power from on high that taking up our cross and following our Savior in his patience and humility we may enter in the fellowship of his sufferings and come at last to dwell with him in his eternal Kingdom.

I learned to pray at my father and mother’s table. Over time his theology changed in many ways, but his faith in Divine Goodness never waned.

In my last conversation with him before he died, I asked, “How are you doing with your faith?”

“Good,” he said with the heartiest smile his Parkinson’s would allow. He died two days later. His head was bowed.

On the Ship and on the Train

I was 18 months old when my father shipped out for Saipan in the Mariana Islands of the South Pacific in WW II.

My father, the Chaplain, on board ship to Saipan, WW!!.

My father, the Chaplain, leading worship on board ship to Saipan, WW!!.

I don’t remember the ship. But I remember the emotional wake its departure left behind: the memory of my mother crying on a train. The sounds of the clicketty-clack of the wheels rolling down the track and the whistle blowing like a lost child in the night still plunge me into existential loneliness.

Late in her life, I shared with my mother the memory or her crying on the train.

Because I was so young when it happened, she was surprised that I remembered it, She confirmed it in great detail.

Dad felt “a call” to stand with the brave men who were risking their lives in the war against fascism and imperialism. With my mother’s blessing, he resigned his pastorate in Mechanicsburg, PA to enlist as an Army Air Force Chaplain. After six-months in the States, he left my mother and me behind.

While he was preaching on board ship, my mother and I were on a train from Los Angeles, his point of departure, to Boston, the home of my paternal grandparents.

I never saw the photo or thought of him aboard ship until a phone call and subsequent picture arrived by email from a researcher of my father’s unit on Saipan last month.  Dad was tending his “flock” on board ship. I never knew. Some things, like wine, take time.

Not everything is as it seems or feels. We do the best we can and pray it’s good enough.

Memorial Day and the soldier’s helmet

Japanese soldier's helmet

Japanese soldier’s helmet

Memorial Day once honored the fallen soldiers of the Civil War, both Union and Confederate soldiers. They called it “Decoration Day” when they laid wreathes and flowers on the graves of the dead soldiers.

When I learned this in elementary school, it struck me as more than a little strange. My father had served as a Chaplain on Saipan. My father was a good guy. The people he went to war against were not. How strange to honor soldiers who fought against each other, “heroes” all, killing each other, especially when one side was good and the other was evil. And then, on top of that it seemed to pay homage to something we were also taught to scorn: war itself. It was more than a little confusing.

Many years later, it’s a Monday morning. I’m a pastor. (The person in this story is since deceased.)

A 70-something year old ex-Marine calls the church office. He’s a big ma, what tough guy call “a man’s man,” a World War II Marine, 6’2”. 250 lbs, part of the invasion of Saipan in the South Pacific when he was 17.

“My wife’s out of town. Can you come over tonight for a drink?”

I’ve never been to their home. I’m guessing he wants to talk about his marriage.

He takes my coat. We sit down. He pours us each a Scotch.

“You know, your first couple of years here I didn’t come to church much. I didn’t like your preaching. I’m not one of these peace guys. But something made me keep coming back. I started to listen and I kept coming, and all this peace stuff and Jesus stuff started to get to me. It’s been a long time now. That’s why I called you. I hate the Japs! I know I’m not supposed to call ‘em ‘Japs’. I hate them! But I can’t hate them anymore.”

He gets up and walks over to the mantel above the huge stone fireplace.

“My wife has no idea what’s in this box. I’ve never told her. I can’t tell her. I don’t want it anymore. I’m asking you to take it. I can’t live with it anymore.”

He takes the box from the mantel, places it on the ottoman in front of me, and opens the locked box with a key. He is shaking now and crying.

“This poor bastard! I killed this [expletive] with my bear hands!”

His whole body shakes as, one by one, he removes the contents from the box –

a soldier’s helmet;
a lock of hair;
two eye teeth;
dog tags, and
a gun –

that had belonged to the Japanese soldier he killed in hand-to-hand combat on Saipan.

“All these years of hate. And this poor bastard was just doing the same thing I was. He was just doing his duty to his country. How will God ever forgive me? I just want this stuff out of my house. I want it out of my life! How will God ever forgive me? I can’t hate any more. I can’t.”

We stand in the middle of his living room. I hold him like a baby: a grown man – a “man’s man” – sobbing and shaking with guilt, sorrow, and grief.

I take the box and the contents home. I give the gun to a friend who’s a gun collector. I have no memory of what I did with the box or the artifacts of what remained of the Japanese soldier. Memory is like that. It was too personal. It was too hot.

_____________

So…today I observe Memorial Day by returning to the original sense of Memorial Day as a day to remember the fallen – ALL of them – but even more, to re-commit to ending the insanity of war itself. It’s a day when I remember the in-breaking of sacredness – three men in the living room – two live Americans and one Japanese – and pray for something better for us all.