Saturday, May 25, 2013

Memories from Soldiers Not Memorialized

It's Memorial Day weekend here in the United States.  
It's an odd holiday.  You don't wish other people, "Happy Memorial Day."  I noticed that this week.  You write something like, "Have a great long weekend," in your emails.
I have no one in my family to memorialize this weekend, though several served.  
My Grandpa, Roy H. Melton, was a Seabee in World War II, for instance.  He was in a unit called "Acorn 51."  It's a designation for an advanced construction base, building things like airfields and the like.  
I don't know much about Grandpa's experiences.  On the voyage to his base from San Diego they served so much sauerkraut and hot dogs that he got sick of it, and never ate it again after the war.  The closest he got to action was watching some fighting taking place, "across the river" from the construction site he was working at.  
Dad was in the Marines.  He almost saw combat.  It was while he was on a Mediterranean tour that the Lebanese Crisis took place.  This was when the muslim portion of the Lebanese army revolted, threatening the Christian, pro-Western government at the time.  President Eisenhower sent my dad, along with about 54,000 other Marines, soldiers and sailors, in response.  
The Marines landed on the beach outside of Beirut City.  My dad was in the third wave to go ashore.  The way he put it, "People got scared, man," when they started passing out the live ammunition.  
Fortunately, the landing was uneventful.  They met more sunbathers than jihadis on the beach.  The only delay came from a Lebanese Colonel who used his car to block the road.  I've seen pictures of this officer with a group of Marine officers, reviewing their papers, maps and identification and things.  Once he was "satisfied" the orders were authentic, he gave the Marines "permission" to proceed.  
Good thing he gave them permission. That road didn't look wide enough to turn all those tanks and APCs around and send them back to the ships.  
The story I remember best about Dad's experience was this one:
Dad was walking the perimeter of their camp.  He came upon a bunch of boys scuffling outside the fence.  There were three or four other boys beating up on another.  Dad shouted at them tand the bullies ran away.  He talked to the kid that was being bullied then sent him home.  
The boy came back the next day with his family.  They wanted to thank my dad for helping him.  One of the people that showed up was the boy's older sister.  
The sister apparently took a liking to my dad.  She came back to visit him several times, and sent him gifts as well.  The family was an affluent Christian family so the gifts were pretty impressive.  New watches, new suits, things like that.  The last gift she sent him when it was announced that the Marines were pulling out was a voucher for a One Way airline ticket from the United States to Lebanon.  
After he got out of the Marines, Dad stayed in Southern California.  After he met and married Mom, she threw away the remaining stuff from that Lebanese woman.
My uncle, Ray Wilson, my Mom's older brother, served in the Army in Korea.  He actually saw combat and was awarded a Bronze Star.  
This is the story I've heard: My uncle was on patrol and got separated.  While trying to find his way back to his lines, he stumbled across a Chinese patrol.  This could have been bad, but it happened late at night.  They couldn't see my uncle's uniform.  Also, my uncle was something of a polyglot.  My Pops, my Mom's father, once told me Uncle Ray spoke six languages fluently, including some Chinese.  Plus my uncle was something of a con-artist, a ballsy guy that could convince you of anything.  
So, when out of nowhere this Chinese patrol stumbles out of the bushes and raise their weapons toward Uncle Ray, what does he do?  He steps up to them and says something like, "You guys lost, too?"  
Yes, the members of the Chinese patrol reply, lowering their guns.  We got lost, too.  
"I think our camp is this way."  Ray hooks his thumb in the opposite direction of where the Chinese came from and starts heading that way.  He picked the right direction, and when they reached the American lines, Ray took his rifle and pointed it at the startled Chinese and told them to surrender.  
It sounds far fetched, but I've seen one photo of Uncle Ray holding a gun on the Chinese as he was leading them in, and the official photo of him receiving his Bronze Star.  And I used to play with the Bronze Star as a kid, so I know something happened.  
My brother, Philip Melton, was in a war, too.  
It was the First Gulf War, when Operation Desert Shield turned into Desert Storm.  My brother was a mechanic for "Large Power plant Vehicles."  Basically, he fixed tanks.  
My brother has always been the most mechanically inclined person in our family.  When we were teenagers, and I was in my room reading science fiction and fantasy novels and writing up scenarios for Dungeon and Dragons, my brother would be in the driveway taking Mom's car engine apart for fun.  When he joined the army, he made his goal getting qualified to fix tanks.  I remember the phone call I got when he got his qualification.  It came in about five in the morning...
"Hey, Erick...?  You awake?"  
"I am now."  I wiped my face, wondering if he thought I was answering the phone in my sleep. "What's up?  Anything wrong?"  
"I made it!  I qualified!"  
"Huh?  Qualified?"  
"My MOS.  They're gonna let me fix tanks!  And..."  I could picture him waving his hands at the phone, thousands of miles away, to keep me quiet and let him finish.  "They're going to teach me how to operate the M88."  
"Yay.  Good for you.  Congratulations."  I woke up a bit more.  "What's an M88?"  
My brother explained to me, in somewhat exasperated tones, that it was a tank recovery vehicle.  It used the same chassis as the M1 Abrams, the Main Battle Tank the army uses, but the turret was removed and replaced with a huge crane.  As I was listening, I was nodding.  It made sense.  To pull an 80 tonk monster of a vehicle you'd need something about as big.  
But then something else came to me.  
"They're gonna send me to Ft. Benning for my mechanical training, then Ft. Hood..." 
"Hey, Phil...!"  
"What?"  I could tell he was annoyed that I was interrupting his good news.  
"This, Ehm-something, something..."  
He sighed.  "M88." 
"Yeah, that.  With the turret gone...  This tank tow-truck of yours, does it have any weapons?"  
"Naw!"  His tone told me he thought I was missing something obvious.  "There'd be no room for the crane if the turret was there.  Duh!"  
"Ok...  But, think about...  A tank gets broken...  You get sent to get it..."  
"So, what do you do if you come across the people that broke it in the first place?"


"Phil...?  You still there?" 
"Uh...  Yeah."
"You didn't think about that.  Did you?"  
Uh...  No."  
During Desert Storm, my brother was in his tank tow-truck.  His unit was right behind the front line, behind the tanks doing the fighting.  He didn't tell me anything about it until years after it happened.  
It was during a family reunion.  My brother and I were sharing a bedroom at our Uncle Jerry's house.  The first time in decades we'd done that.  We were laying in our separate beds.  We were talking in the dark about stuff.  We hadn't seen each other in about a decade at the time.  I remembered the time he called to tell me how he'd qualified to fix tanks and how I burst his bubble.  I told him I was sorry I'd done that.  He said it was no big deal. 
"Did you get to pull any tanks to safety in your...  Ehm-number-something."  
"M88," he said.
"Yeah.  That thing.  Did you?" 
"Naw...  None of ours got shot up for me to do that.  I moved their vehicles though."  
"Yeah.  Iraqi."  I could hear him swallow across the room, in the dark.  "After a fight, they'd be in the way.  I'd have to move them."  
"With your Ehm-Eighty-something."
"Not always.  Like the first time..."  
I waited.  I turned my head on my people and looked toward he was.  I could hear him breathing, slow and steady.  It was oddly familiar after all those years.  
"The first time?" 
"Yeah...  We... They'd shot up a convoy.  Trucks.  On this waddi.  They were using it like a road and they were in the way.  So I was told to go up and drive them off.  So...  I ran up to the first truck and opened the door..."
"Where was the guy that was driving it."  
"He was there...  What was left of him."  
We were both quiet for a time.  
"What did you do?" 
"What I was told to.  I pushed him to the passenger side, started up the truck and moved it."  I could hear his shoulders move up and down against the bedsheets in a shrug.  "Kept doing it till I got them out of the way."  
He told me some other things after that.  Finding Kuwati refugees in the desert that had been hiding out for weeks, with no food and little water.  After giving them all the MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) they had, they'd drive over the next dune and find another group of Kuwatis in the same situation.  
And everything was black.  The sand.  The vehicles.  From the oil wells Saddam Hussein had set on fire.  "Hell isn't burning," he said to me in the dark that night.  "It's greasy and black."
Two people died in my brother's unit.  Both times when they came under enemy artillery fire.  One of them was killed by accident.  When the shelling started, he jumped into a depression in the ground seeking cover.  An American vehicle, spreading out to avoid fire, ran over him.  
I don't personally have anyone to memorialize this weekend.  All of my family that went to war came back, unscathed.  I'll take this weekend to rest.  Have some fun.  Go to a movie.  Go to a barbecue if someone invites me.  
I will remember, though.  The two guys in my brother's unit.  And the others.  I can do that much at least.


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