I Remember When . .
REMEMBERING L. J. BOYLES
Watching World War II film footage of the battle for Iwo Jima, I scan the faces, looking for the face of a certain Marine. I don’t see him, but I know he was there. His name was L. J. He was a soft-spoken boy, with a shy smile and a tendency to blush when someone looked at him straight on. In the mind’s eye, I see a hard-scrabble time and place, and the two of us dragging cotton sacks along the rows of a neighbor’s field. We picked a little cotton but mostly we talked, making conversation out of very little. We didn’t know much about life or the world. We had no past and our dreams of the future were still unshaped. Sometimes we forgot about cotton and stood rooted in the rows, talking. The exasperated neighbor finally made us work on opposite sides of the field.
Soon after that, either his family moved or mine did. I don’t remember which, but we lost touch. And then one day I opened a newspaper and saw his picture. The story below, in the terse language of wartime, said that he had been killed at Iwo Jima. Ah, no. Couldn’t be. There were always pictures of scrubbed-face boys decked out in uniforms of one kind or another. They were always strangers. But this face I knew. This name I knew, and it surely was a mistake. The jump was too far from a cotton field to an island in the Pacific.
The picture burned into my memory, but the meaning escaped me. All I really understood of war was what I saw at the movies. Twenty-three years later, in 1968, I read that the United States had given Iwo Jima back to Japan.
This time I wanted to scream. I thought of firing off a telegram to the president: I knew one of the boys who died for that island. How dare you give it back? Instead, I lapsed into melancholy rumination on the wastefulness of war. The worst of it was that this time I did understand.
Iwo Jima is eight square miles of rock and ash coughed up by a volcano, an ugly place to live, a dreadful place to die. But for a brief time in 1945, it was a choice piece of real estate. It had location, location, location. Between Tokyo and the American bomber base on Saipan stretched 1,500 miles of ocean. Iwo Jima was halfway between. The Japanese used it as a radar warning station and there were three airfields for fighter planes bent on intercepting American bombers headed for Japan. The Americans had to have Iwo Jima come hell or high water.
The Marines went ashore on Feb. 19, and for 26 days they churned across the island, inch by bloody inch, with tanks and flamethrowers. Sometimes the fighting was so close that American warships offshore held their fire for fear of hitting the wrong side. By the time the island was secured, 6,800 Marines were dead and another 20,000 had been wounded. Of 21,000 Japanese, only 200 were taken alive.
Less than five months later, the United States dropped two terrible new bombs on Japan, and the war ended. By 1968 Americans were fighting in Vietnam. Japan was a friend. Iwo Jima was just a cinder in the sea. We gave it back and closed the book.
It could be argued that there is some glory, even a surrealistic beauty, in war. But war’s overriding reality is always waste—waste of life, waste of property, waste of resources—and horror. The grave marker of another Marine on another island spoke for all of them, my friend as well.
And when he gets to Heaven,
To Saint Peter he will tell:
One more marine reporting, sir,
I’ve served my time in hell.
No one has written more eloquently of those times than Herman Wouk in his massive novels, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance. In a foreword to the latter, Wouk wrote: “The beginning of the end of War lies in Remembrance.” Books have been written. Memorials have been built. Movies have been made. Pearl Harbor will be remembered again and again in the next few days.
But remembrance, I think, is smaller and more personal. Remembrance is seeing one face in a statistic like 60 million dead. Fifty years ago, the “winds of war” began to scatter ordinary Americans across the globe. My remembrance is for one of them. His name is L. J. He is a soft-spoken boy with a shy smile. His dreams of the future are still unshaped, and he is forever young.