REQUIEM FOR A VOTER

We would not die in that man’s company

That fears his fellowship to die with us…

–William Shakespeare, Henry V

I went with my daughter to vote a couple of years ago for her first time. She’s twenty-five, and actually my step-daughter, but she’s the only daughter I’ll ever have, so it counts. I was fulfilling a vow I’d made to myself when I first started to vote. You see, I never vote for someone. I vote because of someone.

For years before, as I left our polling station—the firehouse in the Civil War battle town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania—I looked up into the onyx sky and always said a silent, heart-felt thank you to a young man who probably never had a chance to vote because of another battlefield far away in time and distance from Gettysburg.

The place was Iwo Jima. The young marines there were in Hell—and knew it—the moment they placed their boondockers (marinespeak for boots) on the hot, black, smelly—like rotten eggs—volcanic sand. From February 19, until well into March, men who themselves often were too young to vote—voting age was twenty-one back then—became wizened men, killers, or dead. (Like voting today, there wasn’t much of a choice on Iwo.) Before their young eyes they saw their fellow Marines gutted like perch by whistling Japanese shell fragments, entrails dragging fifteen feet behind them as they walked along in shock; they listened expectantly for the next word as friends were suddenly decapitated in mid-sentence; they watched men disappear so completely in crimson-misted shellbursts, it was as if they had never even existed on this earthly plane.

And yet, Marine Corporal Charles Joseph Berry probably felt strangely at home on Iwo Jima. He came from Lorain, Ohio, a steeltown on the marge of Lake Erie—my home town. He lived with that sulfur smell whenever the wind blew the gases from the smelting furnaces across the Black River to his homes, first on Reid Avenue, then on Harriet Street. Nobody living anywhere near the industrial district escaped that foul odor.

As well, Charles—or Chuck as his friends called him—would also find homey solace, even in Hell, listening to the lapping of the waves against the shoreline of the hotly contested Japanese prefecture. It is every Northern Ohio kid’s inheritance to be taken to “The Lake”—not “The Beach,” or “The Shore” but “The Lake”—from infancy. We grow up with that sound, from the gentle, rhythmic trickle on a windless summer afternoon, to the great thunder you can feel in your chest in November as six footers hit the rocks like artillery bursts. We remember the sound from the time our mothers took us to The Lake in diapers; we learned how to swim in that chilly water. As teenagers we dozed on the warm sand listening to that sound mix with radio tunes, when the hormones were in fifth gear in the Northern Ohio summer heat. We took our children there to complete the circle. So ingrained is the sound that, years ago when my high school sweetheart and I got together in our thirties for a day of reminiscing in Lorain, as we got an ice cream cone and walked along on Lake Road through the sweet sorcery of a memory-laden June night, we were drawn off the street, to the back of a shoreline parking lot where the waves broke against the boulders below. Neither one of us said anything for a long time as the magic of our common memory cast its silent spell and all that could be heard were the breakers. She said one thing, a non-sequitur to anyone else who hadn’t grown up with that particular hissing roar: “Listen,” she said. “We’re home.”

And so, strangely, that is what Charles Berry probably thought, from that first night on that little stinking piece of Japan so far in distance—but not so far in feeling—from his own northern Ohio boyhood.

He may have bicycled to The Lake nearly every day, as my friends and I did in the boom-time summers—that he and his comrades-in-arms bought us—in the fifties and sixties. Then again, it was the Great Depression he grew up in, and so maybe he didn’t even have a bike. He probably ran to The Lake. He was, according to Lorainites who grew up with him, a superb athlete. He was captain of the Clearview High School track team and won three letters. He probably played basketball and football and sandlot baseball as well. My father, who grew up near Reid Avenue, remembers he was left handed from watching him shoot marbles. He must have had a sensitive side too, since he was listed as being a member of the Clearview Drama Club.

Looking at his official Marine Corps photograph, which probably sat on his proud parents’ mantle—for he was an only child—if you cover up the Marine Corps cap and shirt and tie, you see a thin kid with a crooked smile and sleepy, pale blue eyes, not overly handsome—not a “Hollywood Marine”—but just somebody you’d like to have as—in 1940s parlance—a “buddy.” He appears almost gentle, certainly not like some jug-headed, Marine-macho type, not what one would call “intrepid” or “stout-hearted” or “indomitable.” But one of the men he served with—also from Lorain—said that Chuck really loved the Corps, that he was one “gung-ho” Marine.

That friend, Joseph Magazzine, recalled playing pickup baseball on one of the islands upon which the Marines were training when a wiry young Marine got a hit and ended up on the base Magazzine was playing. He thought the kid looked familiar and asked him where he was from. “Lorain, Ohio,” was the reply. “No kidding, Mac. Me too!” They fought together at places with strange names that do not exactly ring in American Military History like the word “Gettysburg,” but killed men every bit as dead: Vella Lavella, Bougainville, and the raid behind Japanese lines at Koari Beach. They made Corporal together in New Caledonia. They were on Iwo Jima together. Joe remembered when Chuck was stationed at Quantico, Virginia, he played football, which should tell you the caliber of athlete he was, since the Quantico football team frequently played college, and occasionally semi-pro, teams.

There were other young men from Lorain who choked on that stinking volcanic dust. Their names reflect the melting pot melting iron ore had made of Northern Ohio. Besides Magazzine: Pastelyak, Fletcher, Kozar, Savulak, Taylor, Patajcik, Oebker, Evans, and Maj. Lofton Henderson, a Marine pilot shot down during the Battle of Midway, after whom Henderson Field on Guadalcanal, and the airfield on Midway was named. Colleges now strive for “diversity” to be politically correct; Depression-era Lorainites grew up with it because of steel.

Actually, what the Depression-era generation experienced wasn’t diversity; it was adversity. At every football game or after bar hours it was the Hunkies against the Polacks against the Ruskies against the Slavs against the Croats against the Micks against the Ricans. Every country, it seemed, was represented by its own hyphenated club with a bar and a bowling team: “The Croation-American Club;” “The Polish-American Club; The Slovakian-American Club.” But it was when the war came, because of the common threat, that all the tainted nicknames melded, like the coke and iron in the smelting furnace, and the diverse became one magnificent, unbreakable, American alloy.

It is a long way from the firehouse cum voting place near the Civil War battlefield of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to Lorain, Ohio; it’s even farther to Iwo Jima. But as I walked across the parking lot and looked at my daughter on that second Tuesday in November, I felt very close to Charles Berry. In the town that knew no small number of heroes, that night the deep, infinite, formless darkness of heaven seemed a very appropriate mingling-place for them all, no matter what century in which they lived and fought.

It was night when Chuck was mortally wounded. Just after midnight on March 3, 1945, the Japanese infiltrated and launched a surprise attack in an attempt to overrun Berry’s machine-gun crew. Berry and his buddies were in a foxhole—no doubt a pitiful one because of that lousy, dusty, stinking, loose sand that kept falling in on the Marines there—when the Japs started throwing hand grenades. It wasn’t uncommon for some crazy Marine to start catching the grenades in mid-air and pitching them back, like he’d seen his heroes Lou “The Iron Horse” Gehrig, or Phil “The Scooter” Rizzuto do with a baseball on steamy afternoons at Cleveland Stadium.

Go figure. The Japs just happened to pick on the foxhole of one of the better athletes in the United States Marine Corps, a wiry left-hander from a tough steeltown in Northern Ohio. He scooped a couple up like some hot grounders at New Caledonia, or at the Clearview High School diamond, and pitched them; he probably caught a couple too, and tossed them back at the enemy.

Then one got away.

Whether it was an error or just too hot to handle, we’ll never know. But Chuck smothered it with his body, just like an all-star catcher would a wild pitch, just like a veteran shortstop would pounce on a bobbled ball in the World Series, just like Chuck himself had done on some Lorain ball diamond in the summer with the air smelling of sulfur. That’s just what the grenade must have felt like for a few terrifying, prayer-filled seconds under Berry’s herringbone-twill battle jacket against his stomach: a tattered hardball from the Depression-era sandlot of that Depression-era steeltown by “The Lake.” But there was no getting up off this one: it exploded, digging a hole in that hateful volcanic sand, but leaving his comrades untouched, to fight on, to drive off the surprise attack, and to eventually win the battle that was to become the bloody trademark of the United States Marine Corps where “uncommon valor was a common virtue.”

But a young man’s extinction is nothing to trivialize with sports analogies; the writer, in this case, has become too full of himself. Corporal Charles Berry saw the smoking, sputtering grenade in the tiny foxhole before his machine-gun crew-mates did. He had to make a choice before any of them. Men in combat are compelled to do two things: they try to do their duty, and they try to survive. The two, sometimes, are mutually exclusive. At twenty-one years of age, Berry made a choice, more difficult than any of us will ever make in a voting booth: When he could have leapt from the foxhole and saved himself, he chose to save the others. There is absolutely nothing in the Marine Corps manual about this one. But there is in the Bible: Greater love hast no man than this: that he should give up his life for his friends.

The term from that generation, as I said before, was “buddies.” And although most of the men in that Depression-Era military knew each other for only a few short months, through Boot Camp or Basic Training and the various combat schools, it was evident from the first that their generation was a brotherhood of the damned, and they’d known it from their youths. Charles Berry’s generation—my father’s generation—was chosen to start life in the literal squalor of the Depression, and to struggle against the greatest evil the century knew, and to triumph, and to rise to an unsolicited glory. Could they have suffered the stinking sand of that volcanic island if they hadn’t been raised in the crimson, foul-smelling glow of the smelting furnaces? Could they have jumped from a troop ship into an amphtrac if they hadn’t practiced jumping into frosty Lake Erie instead of some country club pool? Could my father have climbed into that PBY night after night at Jacksonville Naval Air Station, never knowing what student pilot the Navy was throwing behind the yoke, if he knew he had a Mercedes Benz and a BMW sitting in the garage at home?

It is one of those inscrutable mysteries of combat that has ever eluded me, a military historian, for most of my career. Joe Magazzine, wounded, first in the arm, figured he could still help his “buddies” on Iwo and returned, only to be wounded again, this time so severely so as to be forced to go home; and Mike Pastelyak, though shot three times in the side by a machine gun and burned, figured he wasn’t hurt badly enough yet to leave his fellow Marines and go home. Gangrene set in from the wicked volcanic ash, and so he was eventually evacuated. Why did Pastelyak return to the fighting when he had a free ride home? Why did Magazzine, after receiving the proverbial “million dollar wound” through the arm, get patched up and return so that the Japs could shoot him down again? Why did the only son of Raymond and Caroline Berry lie down to die on that burning grenade?

The real answer is, I don’t know for sure. But I think I can piece together enough from what I know to guess. Their sacrifices—each and every one of them—are sort of summed up in Berry’s citation for his Medal of Honor. “Stouthearted and indomitable, Corporal Berry fearlessly yielded his own life that his fellow Marines might carry on the relentless battle against a ruthless enemy and his superb valor and unfaltering devotion to duty in the face of certain death reflect the highest credit upon himself and upon the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.”

And he gave up so much more than that.

Though all in my father’s generation didn’t have to do what Charles Berry did, they were all prepared to, if they had to. Were they like that because they were tougher than the generations before or since?

No. The “tough guys” of that generation, that hard-lucked its way through the Depression, and had their draft notices in hand before their high school diplomas, those grizzled, gung-ho, marines and sailors and soldiers are not what they appear, because the answer is simple, as World War II Marine and author William Manchester once observed.

They didn’t fight because they were naturally mean, or tough or because the hated the enemy or because they were angry. They did it for love.

In spite of the raw deal their generation got from this country, they still loved America enough—in that often derided, old-fashioned way—to rise when she needed them, and go. They all knew they’d come from the same hardscrabble background and were headed for something perhaps even worse. But at least, they figured, they were picking up a few dollars a month—and extra for combat or flight pay–and so volunteered for that hazardous duty, to send much-needed money home to their families who knew about the Depression too. As well, they took comfort in the fact that, since they were fighting the enemy there, the enemy could never get over here to the ones they loved.

And they loved each other. Chuck Berry knew the men for whom he died probably just a few months, perhaps even less, since they may have been replacements after the initial carnage during the landings. But since they—replacements or veterans—had gone through the same miserable Marine training he had, and had grown up cursed by The Crash of ‘29, and played marbles in the dirt or ran track because they couldn’t afford equipment for any other sport, and because they were stuck on the same piece of shifting, black sand that the Devil used as a crapper, he felt for them.

But, in the broader view, he died for other things too, things he grew up learning in his boyhood in Northern Ohio, but things he never thought about as he tossed himself on that sizzling Japanese grenade.

It certainly wasn’t on his mind while he was fighting desperately on Iwo Jima, but he fought to end the war so that I, and my generation, wouldn’t have to, on American soil, twenty years later. Though he couldn’t have thought about it lying on that burning bomb, he fought so that the miserable totalitarian world some would have imposed upon the United States, after Pearl Harbor, wouldn’t come to be.  It probably never crossed his mind, but he fought so that I and all other writers, published or not, could write any damn thing we want, and not be censored or banned or burned by a government out of touch with human beings’ natural inclination to express themselves. He fought—and died—so that my daughter could spend a few precious minutes alone with her own conscience, instead of government bayonets at her back, in a voting booth in any American town on certain second Tuesdays in November for the rest of her precious life.

In Tokyo, there is the Yasukuni Shrine. It is elaborate and bedecked and venerated. They write their heroes’ names on little pieces of rice paper. It is the most holy of places to the World War II era Japanese, for it is there that the Japanese warriors’ souls return and remain, hovering, apparently, for all eternity, in peace.

We do it a little differently in America. And for me no elaborate, carved marble edifice to honor our military heroes quite does it; frankly, I don’t think one multi-million dollar building would be honor enough, since that’s what politicians build to honor themselves. Instead let the memorial be ten million little wood and canvas voting booths in volunteer fire halls across the country, each one a most glorious shrine to an American boy who fought and died to make the canvas on those voting booths bullet-proof and bayonet-proof. That is the shrine I will visit religiously to worship at every chance I am allowed by law, to write down names of people on little pieces of paper, who are not worthy to have untied Charles Berry’s boondockers.

As I dropped my daughter off at her own safe home, I lifted my head to the heavens and whispered, “Thank you, Chuck.”

Mysteriously, I swear I heard, echoing from somewhere, in the majestic darkness, the words, “No. Thank you.”

(Charles Berry was initially buried in the 5th Marine Division Cemetery on Iwo Jima. He returned home in 1948 to be re-interred in Elmwood Cemetery in Lorain, Ohio.)

 

 

 

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