Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day: Letter From the Front

My father and an unidentified soldier in a work shack on Ie Shima. If you look carefully at far left (on the top of the files) there is a lethal-looking bayonette. 

My father and the 1902 Engineer Aviation Batallion arrived off Okinawa on 15 April, 1945. As they circulated through those dangerous waters on board LSTs, General Simon Bolivar Buckner made the decision not to have them land on Okinawa, as planned--since the fighting there remained intense--but to land on nearby Ie Shima, where there were a couple of runways in need of repair.

The battle for Okinawa, that had begun April 1, was still raging and would not end until June. General Buckner would not himself survive.

There was still a battle raging on Ie Shima, just a few miles off Okinawa, when my father went ashore on or about April 20, just after correspondent Ernie Pyle was killed there. Just a few miles off Okinawa, Ie Shima was the single most mined island in the Pacific and would not be secured until April 24-25. For about a month my father lived in a poncho-covered trench.

But as soon as they could, the engineers went to work on those runways for the planes that could give close air support to the marines and infantry on Okinawa; the fighters that could protect the nearby Allied armada from Kamikaze attacks; and the bombers that were hammering the Japanese home islands.

In return, night and day, the men on Ie Shima faced bombing attacks from what remained of the Japanese Imperial Air Force. And they lived in mud.

The day the pyramidal tents came ashore was a happy day. Capt. Chapman on Ie Shima, 1945.

On Memorial Day, 1945, My father wrote my mother: "Sweetheart, Guess what! It has rained almost all day--and hard too.  Same old torrential dowpours. We really needed this one though because the island had dried out until the mud was only ankle deep.  We like to maintain the old knee deep average."

Capt. Chapman on Ie Shima in the mud, 1945.

His letters were censored, so he writes mostly about the food, the weather, and how much he loves his wife. He downplays the danger and tells her she's the one who needs to be careful and not slip in the bathtub.

But as he closes a letter on 23 June, 1945, he adds a hastily written note:  "Dear Girl, Before I mailed this an unfortunate accident occurred.  Due to censorship I can't tell you anything but that just now. It isn't me--I'm still fine and safe so don't you worry."

The next day he writes: "My wife, The other day I told you an accident had happened. That was to prepare you for when I could tell you about it. Ray (Capt. Raymond O. Kidd) was killed early yesterday morning.  Having been with him so long and considering him such a friend I am heartbroken. It is hard to realize that he is gone. Golly, honey it is an awful thing.  I can't express my feelings.

"He wasn't being careless. He was in his air raid shelter, but that just wasn't enough that time. We have one thing to be thankful for. It was quick. He did not suffer. Please do not worry, Darling, these things are not too common here, but this time it has affected us through a loved one ... "

Dad and his friend Ray Kidd met when they both served on Ascension Island, with the 38th Engineers.

The next day, for the first and only time that my father was overseas, he did not write my mother a letter. He does not explain why. But it was a Sunday and I suspect it was the day his friend was buried.

My father spoke about none of this until the last year of his life and even then, only rarely. It was only when I found his letters, a year after he had died, that I learned about most of these thing. On his island, he was part of the last and most terrible battle of World War II and a witness to many things he kept locked away.

He often did say one thing: "I'm with Franklin Roosevelt," he would say. "I hate war."

On this Memorial Day we remember all those who have lost their lives serving this nation, and the families who sacrified with them. My father lived a long and rich life when he returned home. But he never forgot those who did not.

At Loon Lake, Washington, summer of 1944, before my father left for Okinawa. My mother is at center, sitting next to Capt. Ray Kidd on her left and Ray's wife Betty. Far photo left is my father's fellow Alabaman, Capt. Gaston Holliman.

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