“…the experience of battle forever divides those who talk of nothing but its prospect from those who talk of everything else but its memory.” – James Hornfischer, Neptune’s Inferno: The U.S. Navy at Guadalcanal
I’ve never been to war. I was not in the military. And although I know a lot of good people who were in the military and a few who’ve gone to war, I know no one in my circle that was killed in a war. Memorial Day, for me, is an abstract thing.
As a visual person, pictures can make things more concrete. The photo above was taken more than 75 years ago, almost a decade before I was born. It could be just another fading shot from an ancient war except that one of the guys in it is my father. Dad’s the little guy in the sailor’s cap, standing second from the right. I don’t know who any of the other guys are. Somebody wrote, “#1 Gun Crew” on it. If the stories I heard are true, most of them were killed a few months after the photo was taken.
Dad wouldn’t talk about the war. I think this photo shows some of the reasons why.
It’s a candid shot, taken aboard his ship, the USS Crescent City, probably in spring or early summer, 1942. These guys don’t know it yet, but they are on their way to Guadalcanal. The Crescent City is a troop transport. On board, as well, are over 1,000 Marines of the 2nd Marine Division. The #1 gun is an anti-aircraft gun on the bow of the ship. This gun and its crew are crucial in protecting those Marines when the invasion of Guadalcanal begins.
The battle for Guadalcanal lasted over six months. There were a few big air, land, and naval battles, but mostly it was countless vicious little fights spread over and around the Solomon Islands. In one such fight, I was told, the Crescent City came under attack by a Japanese plane. Most of the guys in the picture above were killed. The bullets missed Dad who was directing fire apart from the gun. He acted immediately, jumped into the gun’s saddle, and shot down the plane. This story was later told to Mom by the ship’s executive officers that witnessed it from the bridge.
They put Dad in for the Congressional Medal of Honor. He refused it. Late in life, he admitted this. But never told the story.
Memorializing things abstractly is easy. It’s not forgetting that can be tough.