As we all reflect on the meaning of Memorial Day, I would like to share a little about my 96-year-old grandfather John Martin who was a Sergeant Second Engineer Special Brigade in the 543rd Boat and Shore Regiment of the Army Corps of Engineers in World War II. He is also our two-year-old Lilli’s best friend and we are all so fortunate to live close enough to see him every day.
My grandfather has never talked much about the war. When I was younger I would ask him about his experiences. He would share a handful of stories the same ones that he still tells over and over. I have tried to push him a little to tell me more but his response is always the same – what he did during his service was “nothing.” He tears up and gets really quiet when he talks about it. When we go to places or events honoring veterans he never stands up or accept praise for his own service. He says the “real heroes never made it home – they are still over there.”
Sergeant John Martin earned two Bronze Stars and a Silver Star in the Pacific Theatre. He still knows his serial number. (Name rank and serial number was all they were to tell if captured.) I only know how he earned one Bronze Star. He doesn’t talk about the other one or his Silver Star.
He says the “real heroes never made it home – they are still over there.”
Sergeant Martin earned one Bronze Star when his platoon was under attack and everyone was killed except him and one other soldier – they were sharp shooters and were outside of the camp. Following the attack they captured 50 or so enemy soldiers and marched them into the next camp. Upon arrival the officer in charge demanded to know who they were and where their commanding officer was and asked them what they expected to happen to their prisoners. The officer took the prisoners into a field and had them executed because the camp wasn’t set up to house prisoners and this was “war.” I know that experience understandably scarred my grandfather in many ways because he says things like “that happened to our men when captured too” and “war is a terrible thing” and shakes his head.
Sergeant Martin was enlisted and was well liked by his officers. After the war he was offered a seat home on an airplane. He declined and stayed in Australia for three years until he came home with other enlisted soldiers on a ship. To him it was a small price to pay because he says he was lucky to come home at all. My grandfather often reminds us that “the cost of war is measured not just in the men who didn’t come home but the men who came home but couldn’t reintegrate into society because of their experiences.”
So today, I pause to reflect on the Americans my grandfather served with that didn’t come home. I also think of their families and how hard it must have been on them. I also think of those like my grandfather who came home but not the same as when they left.