Monday, March 2, 2009

World War II Dad: Remembering the Best of Times and Forgetting the Worst

Beards? No shirts? After almost five years of war, the battle-hardened Americans had dispensed with many of the formalities. My father is at right on Ie Shima near Okinawa, 1945.

For my father, with his sad disease of lost and confused memory, his participation in World War II is the one constant in his conversations these days. He told me recently that he's sorry he hasn't been able to get to know my sister better but that being away at war all that time must be why he hasn't seen her since she was born. The war was over sixty four years ago, and my sister wasn't born until he returned from overseas, and he sees her frequently. But this is less and less clear in his mind.

He talks almost exclusively about the first two years of World War II, during which he served as a unit commander and aviation officer in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Just a few months after Pearl Harbor, he was sent aboard a converted ocean liner to Ascension Island, where he and his men had orders to build what became Wideawake Field. It was used by 25 thousand planes ferrying supplies, troops, and munitions into the CBI theater. And, it was about the safest place a young officer could be in those first bloody years of World War II. It was isolated and exotic and quite an adventure for the kid from Birmingham and perhaps that's why he talks about it all the time today.

Consequently, I was very interested when I came across an album of photos that had apparently been kept by my mother's mother, my Grandmother Latta. It includes photos of my Dad during the second phase of the war for him, on a little island called Ie Shima, a place he served that he almost never talks about. There, on Ie Shima, he was in harm's way during the part of the war (he told me once long ago) that he didn't think he would survive.

Captain Chapman showing off the swell accommodations he had on Ie Shima.

The island is one of the Japanese islands in the Ryukyus chain, the best-known of which is Okinawa. Fighting on Okinawa in the early months of 1945 was so terrible that the Pentagon told the President he could expect at least a million casualties in the invasion of Japan, that was expected to come next. While U.S. troops mopped up on Okinawa, on April 16, 1945, U.S. Marines and the U.S. Army Infantry swept onto Ie Shima where there was an airfield that had to be neutralized and could be reused in the days ahead. The fighting was bloody there too.

The uniforms were old and worn. Captain Chapman with his men on Ie Shima. He returned from Ie with a Bronze Star. Today he doesn't remember anything about receiving this award for valor.

Dad once said Ie Shima was secure when he arrived. But I've looked at his Army records now and the history of the war and have learned that Dad arrived on Ie Shima on April 22, 1945 and that the last assault on U.S. troops on Ie took place during the night of April 22-23. While he and the Corps of Engineers were rebuilding the airstrip on Ie there were daily assaults by Japanese planes. "We just kept on working. We had to. We were on a deadline," he once said to me with a shrug. "I felt kind of sorry for those Japanese pilots. They flew over and dropped bombs on us, but every piece of artillery on the island opened up on them. They almost never got away."

My Dad's friend, Capt. Ray Kidd, was killed as the result of just such an assault. It was just two weeks before the war ended.

And there were thousands of bodies--both Japanese and American--that had to be buried in those early days on the island. Being on Ie Shima was not the fascinating, exotic, assignment that being on Ascension Island had been. Being on Ie Shima was really being in the war. Maybe your mind would want to forget it too.

The company commanders during the good years on Ascension Island. Captain Ray Kidd is at far left. 2nd Lt. Ashley Chapman is second from right.

Dad has always said that journalist Ernie Pyle was killed on Ie just one day before he landed there. The record shows that Pyle was actually killed on 18 April, four days before my Dad got there. But Pyle's death was devastating to American soldiers and they were probably still talking about it when my Dad and his unit landed. Pyle was a journalist who traveled with soldiers and wrote about their lives back home and the daily grind of their lives in wartime. In fact, his death on Ie calls to mind the closing scene of The Story of G.I. Joe, a movie based on Pyle's dispatches. As their officer lies dead after a battle, his men, one by one, file by him. One soldier takes off his helmet and says: "I sure am sorry, sir." That's the way American soldiers felt about Pyle's death on Ie.

My sister and I wonder why my father's memory record is stuck on the months he spent on Ascension Island. But, maybe that was the last period in his young life of absolute optimism, before he knew about the really bad things that can happen. Maybe that was the end of the innocence for William Ashley Chapman, the much beloved son of Roy and Mary, who made it safely home from war and still, deep inside the recesses of his brain may wonder why.

My sister Kimberly was born after my father returned from World War II. She laughs at this picture, taken in Palo Alto, California, because the cars look so old. But we always remind her that they didn't manufacture automobiles during the war so she really isn't of Model T vintage.

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