So, where’s the rest of your party?
The gentleman posing this admittedly legitimate question is seated behind a folding card table in the Hospitality Room. He is the keeper of the keys that grant access to every event in the following week, flanked by an honor guard of friendly, yet stoic sailors and Marines. A tag attached to his lanyard informs me that he is a veteran of the Vietnam War, and though his fighting days are far behind him, he looks more than ready to secure his event against possible infiltration.
Especially from long-haired civilians who have to account for the absence of four servicemen, for whom the event was intended.
I’m only here in Jacksonville because of a good friend. The name George Smith is a familiar one to most of my history-based acquaintances; he’s a veteran of A/1/24, an old machine gunner who served under the command of my ancestor, Phil Wood. George and I have known each other for about eight years; I’ve cooked many a steak and shared many a glass of whiskey with this remarkable man, and we’ve even attended reunions together in the past. However, after the Fredericksburg reunion, George decided it was time to hang up the spurs. Too many of his buddies were on the memorial service list, too much time was spent bickering over who was in charge, nobody was interested in our mission to recover three missing Marines from 1/24. “Just a bunch of old men arguing,” he growled, and vowed never to go back.
However, about a year ago I received my orders. The Final Muster of the Fourth Marine Division Association would be held at Camp Lejeune, from 3 – 7 August 2015. I was to clear my schedule, ready my notebook, and choose my banquet option (steak, chicken, or salmon). “Gunga Din” was going to show me how to do liberty in Jacksonville, 1942 style. His sons and grandson, two veterans and a current Parris Island senior DI, would come too for a full week of Marine-themed memories and mayhem. And then dual illnesses struck the Smith family. George was bitterly disappointed, but as he reasoned, what choice did he have? He had to stay and be a caregiver. However, he insisted that I go according to plan. And orders being orders, I rented a car and took off on my own.
You’re not Smith? Then who the hell are you?
I have never been good at confrontations of any kind. They make me go all weird and clammy. If you’re the kind of person who really enjoys painfully awkward comedy, you should watch me try to call a bank representative sometime. Truly cringeworthy. While trying to explain a problem or situation, I am quietly running through every single way it could possibly go wrong and, in trying to outguess my competition, end up shooting myself in the foot. To my credit, I did a good job at check-in the previous night, even though the reservation was under a different name and there was a slight credit card issue. But the hotel concierge was one thing: it’s her job to help the easily confused. The Check-In Czar was there to keep the unregistered out, and he was doing a pretty good job on me.
Our conversation went something like this:
Prima: They’re not here? Where are they?
Secunda: Well, sir, there was a last minute illness in the family, which unfortunately prevented any of them from traveling, so–
P: So nobody from this party is here?
S: Well… I’m here.
P: *thinks about this*
S: Here’s my name on the list.
P: You’re Smith?
P: Which Smith?
S: No, sir. Roecker.
Helpful Petty Officer: Yes, I have you right here, Mr. Roecker.
P: *studies his list of names. My name is sixth on the list.*
S: I’m registered as a guest of Mr. George Smith, a veteran, and as I say he couldn’t make it, so–
P: None of the Smith group made it?
S: Well, I did, as a guest.
P: So someone did make it?
S: Just me.
P: Then where are they?
HPO: *wishes his volunteer shift was over*
This went on for some time. Eventually, the man behind the desk decided to call for reinforcements. “Elmer!” he yelled. “Elmer! Mr. Dapron!”
A tall, stern-looking man turned at the sound of his name. From 1944 to 1945, Elmer Dapron served as a private first class with the 10th Amphibious Tractor Battalion. From 2014 to 2015, he wore the hat of President of the Fourth Marine Division Association. This final reunion was his show, and his determination to do it well was reflected in his face every time an issue arose. He motioned me over to a table and sat down. “So. What’s the problem here?”
I really did not want to be a Problem.
Within fifteen seconds, Elmer was sorting through my paperwork, with a reassuring “don’t worry, we’ll get you squared away.” I picked out one each of the tickets for the weekly events, returning the extras to Elmer and saving the unused nametags for the Smith family. He gave me a rundown of what was going on for the week–times to report for busses, where to go for chow, with growing and infectious enthusiasm. He finished with what would become his refrain for the week: “I’m sorry your party couldn’t make it, but I hope you’ll have a good time for all of them.”
I’d made a friend already.
We were joined at the table by a middle-aged man, who immediately started talking to Elmer. I was still sorting through my schedule, but I caught a few words of the conversation, about photography and a book the man had just finished writing. It sounded familiar, so I stole a look at his nametag and introduced myself to Theo Servetas. Theo is the nephew of Sergeant Theo Hios, a Fourth Marine Division combat photographer, and wrote a series of books featuring his uncle’s photographs and paintings. When I mentioned being a fan of the series, Theo laughed–“I think you’re my only one!” (This is not true, but he deserves more readers: the ebooks of “War Paint!” are available online, and I fully recommend them. First volume is free.) Theo also gave me a business card; suddenly I remembered that the few cards I’d brought were for my old job. I would spend the rest of the week hastily writing contact information and website addresses on blanks.
The room was bordered by tables on all sides: registration, a handful of snacks, and dozens of big red binders. Each binder was full to bursting with articles, newspapers, interviews, and original documentation all pertaining to the Fourth Marine Division. Second Battalion, 24th Marines was particularly well represented; I found muster rolls detailing which individual men were in which squad and fire team, documentation I’ve only dreamed of finding for 1/24. (The kicker, of course, is that if such paperwork existed for Second Battalion, it must have existed for the First–whether it still does is a mystery.) Other binders contained Japanese souvenirs, burial records, and photographs.
The center of attention was a battered football in a Plexiglass case. A brass plaque on the front commemorated the “Maui Marines” football team–the Division’s own, who were not only undefeated in their only season of play, but never allowed a single point. One season was all they had; too many were killed or wounded on Iwo Jima. The ball was autographed by the players; I had to look closely to find the spot where 2Lt. Charles “Scooter” Anderson scrawled his name. Anderson, a machine gun platoon leader with C/1/24, earned a Silver Star of Iwo Jima, but lost his life in the process. And here I was looking at a ball he likely played with.
Theo was wondering aloud if he’d be able to set up a display on one of the tables; he had some artifacts he wanted to put out for the veterans to look at. I had a similar question–my own collection of binders and albums quite literally filled a suitcase. Three weeks of sizing, printing, and trimming photos from the website was not about to go to waste, nor was I risking damaging my original albums and Phil’s letters just to have them sit in my room. However, the displays were under the control of a sergeant major–one of many assisting with the event–and he could not be found. I went back to my room to load up my backpack, just in case.
When I returned, the room had filled somewhat. Theo was talking about War Paint again; the fourth volume was released that morning, so I pulled out my computer and downloaded a copy. Theo was overjoyed. “Hey, my biggest fan AND my first customer!” People gathered around the screen as he gleefully pointed out pictures and handed out business cards. (Seriously, it’s a really interesting book and you should download it.)
In the midst of the chatter, I heard a familiar-sounding name. He was moving away from me, but I caught a glimpse of the nametag–he was with the 24th. And then he sat down and I recognized the face. A press photo from The Pacific premiere. Smiling with Tom Hanks. This had to be Robert Johnston.
It’s one thing to meet someone whose military career you’ve studied by mail. It’s how I make most of my initial contacts. Take a name, an age, a family member and a last known address, and it’s surprising how accurate one can get. Sometimes the letter bounces back; sometimes you hear nothing. And sometimes you get a phone call. Many of the veterans are a little taken aback at first at how much research I’ve got on their service, but the ones who choose to contact me back tend to think it’s pretty interesting.
Face to face is another question. It’s surprisingly easy to come across as a creepy stalker–a thought that occurred to me as I walked over to Mr. Johnston. “Excuse me… sir?”
He smiles. He looks like everybody’s grandpa. He’s here with his family. “Well, hello there!”
“Are you Mr. Robert Johnston? Headquarters, 1-24?”
The smile gets bigger. “Why, yes!”
“Who got a field commission on Iwo Jima? From corporal to lieutenant?”
This surprises him. “Yes! How did you know that?”
I know you’re from Boston originally, and you enlisted in 1942 and were with Headquarters as an MOS 835 and your best friend was Hunget and you were together when he was killed on Saipan and–
Luckily, I don’t say any of this. And luckily, Robert Johnston is one of the nicest, friendliest people I’ve ever met. Yes, he’d be interested in checking out the website. Yes, he was sure we could find time for an interview. Yes, he was very pleased to meet me as well. We show his 1943 picture to two young ladies at the front desk, and they immediately request a picture with Bob.
I can see I’m out of my league (and who can blame Bob?) so I make plans with his family to meet up later in the week.
I was the BARman. I got myself in the back of the landing craft going in to Saipan. There was sort of a raised part at the stern, where the engine was, and I got up on there. Wouldn’t you know, the damn Japs dropped a mortar shell right down on the engine. Everything below me just blew out. Me and two other guys got out. There were seventeen men from my platoon that didn’t-
The week is full of stories like this. The storyteller will break off suddenly as words quite literally fail him. Silence, a heavy sigh, rapid blinking because even at ninety these men don’t want to cry in public; some can’t help it. Only one of their buddies, someone who was there, can break this spell by shouting “And how the hell are you still here, young man?” They’ll chuckle, having used the same line for years, and the conversation will switch to grandchildren, or something funny that happened in boot camp, or why the bar this year only has light beer.
I spot another man with “HQ-1-24” on his nametag. John Murach. It takes me a moment to place him, but once we’re made our introductions and he tells me he was in the comms platoon, we’re on good ground. John pulls up a chair beside his two sons as I hand him the binder of photos devoted to his company. Most belonged to Sergeant John Waytow, a communications NCO whom John Murach recognizes immediately. “What a great guy,” he sighs as we look through the pages. “Killed on Saipan.”
John has an easy smile, a great sense of humor, and an incredible memory for names and faces. We come upon a few group photos for which I’ve forgotten to print identification keys, and John goes straight to work. “Saggus, Wellington, Schnell–I think he took off before we left the States–Lehrman! This fella here, he was allergic to something in California, broke out in a full body rash. Miller didn’t have an ounce of fat on him, except for his ass, and of course that’s where he got shot…. Culp, oh we didn’t much care for Culp–got promoted and transferred, things were great, then three months later, guess who’s back and demoted? Oh, geez.”
By now, the reception room is well filled with veterans and their families. Someone has already gone on a beer run, and the Marines are happily sipping on their cans of Yuengling, noshing on Little Caesar’s and watching the commotion. I excuse myself from the Murach detachment to introduce myself to Joseph Solecki, yet another 1/24 veteran, who is here with his son Mike. Joe was an 81mm mortarman, and until very recently lived just a few blocks from George in Cape May, New Jersey. (Earlier this year George went on a mission to contact Joe, but discovered that he had recently moved to a retirement home.) Joe was exhausted from the trip, so Mike and I caught each other up–discovering in the process that we are both MMH graduates from Norwich. Small world.
At some point, I finagle a copy of the registered list to scan for names. I’m hoping for someone from Company A–but alas, no Williams, Jackson, Girdano, Rigdon or other familiar name can be found. However, I do spot Tutalo, Paulini, Allen, and Mervosh–Charlie Company will be well represented.
Carl Caldwell is one of those searching for C-1-24. His uncles, Carl and Howard Cooper, were Dog Company machine gunners; Carl was killed on Namur, and Howard made it through the entire war only to die in a car crash in 1947. Carl’s mother, Mrs. Doris Caldwell, was the Cooper brothers’ next of kin, and through her Carl learned the family history of his Marine uncles. He has only recently begun to delve into the military side, using some of the resources on this site and some compiled through the excellent work of Brad Logan. In person, Carl speaks softly but with intensity: he is on a mission, and happily reports that he has already met “Iron Mike” Mervosh and shown him some pictures. He’s in another hotel so our first meeting is brief, but we promise to exchange texts if another Charlie Company Marine shows up.
In the few moments when I’m actually sitting down, I’m fielding questions. Barring the veterans, nearly everyone here is an armchair researcher, but I have the signal advantage of a laptop. I can (and often do) spend hours happily poking through muster rolls and shipping rosters, but I rarely get to do it with an audience–let alone a receptive one. It was sort of like being back at Norwich during residency week. “Everybody here speaks my language,” I text my fiancée. “This is awesome.”
Someone has scribbled a schedule on a whiteboard in the corner: a 0630 muster, then a 0700 departure for Camp Lejeune. The veterans, tired from a long day of travel, socializing, and a few friendly brews are starting to head for their rooms. It’s getting dark by the time I return from buying a new toothbrush; a few die-hards are still holding down tables, and about fifty registration envelopes are still unclaimed behind the desk. I try to settle down, fail, and head across the parking lot to a steakhouse chain to write down some notes and pick bits of plastic out of a dubious hamburger.
Even that rouge toothpick can’t ruin Day One.