My father never talked about World War II. We occasionally found out tales from other people while he sat red-faced and squirmed at the telling. But every anniversary soldiers were encouraged to tell their first hand accounts before they were lost and every year more veterans died. One visit home I questioned him, as I always did, late at night after the rest of the family had gone to bed and he finally began to talk. I guess it had been long enough or he thought I was old enough. I had to ask questions and pull the information out of him but he finally relented. I’m working on a book that will include some of the stories that shaped my life. I thought I’d share this one with you:

Digging yet another hole in the sand and sweating in the hot Pacific sun, he asked himself again how he’d gotten here. Less than a year ago he had never been beyond McComb, Mississippi. Now he was on a beach on some island halfway around the world talking to himself.

“Hey, Jonesy! Throw me that shovel,” he said in a high voice.

“Sure kid.” he answered back in a gravelly tone like Sarge. “Now put a lid on it and get back to work.”

It wasn’t the work he minded or the heat that bothered him. He’d worked harder and hotter in the fields and the railroad shop. It was the fear of not knowing when they would come.

“These holes won’t dig themselves,” he reprimanded himself. There was no one else on the beach. He moved quietly down to the next hole.

“Did I ever tell you about taking turns sitting on watermelons in Crystal Springs to keep them cold?” he asked no one using the slow drawl of his brother. After a made up argument with himself he told the story aloud while he worked.

It really didn’t matter what he talked about. They probably couldn’t understand English anyway. He just needed to make enough noise to make them think he wasn’t an eighteen year old private guarding a shipload of supplies all alone.

But he wasn’t alone. That was the problem.

In the jungle, on the other side of the strip of beach he was digging, beyond an entire cargo ship load of military supplies, was a starving band of Japanese soldiers set on killing him and taking it all.

MacArthur had already come and gone. Rather than fight on the beaches for every scrap of sand in the Pacific, MacArthur had eliminated the main forces and bypassed the rest, cutting them off from supply lines and leaving them to starve. It was working.

There was a secure American base on the end of the island. The plan was to clear the rest of the island and build an airstrip. But this wasn’t the main force and there was some confusion in the wake of them.

His troop and supply ship had sailed from California through a typhoon, the Pacific equivalent of a hurricane, and unloaded here in preparation for the base.

The captain went to unload the troops at the main base but someone needed to stay with the cargo. It was scut work. Sarge had looked around and found the big shouldered boy with the slow drawl and pointed. Now he was here. They were supposed to come back that night.

Staff Sergeant William Allen Ritchie Jr

Staff Sergeant William Allen Ritchie Jr

Then they forgot about him.

It had been a week and would take another week before supplies dwindled to the point that some quartermaster thought about it. No one ever imagined that the jungle was full of Japanese soldiers so hungry they resorted to cannibalism. The horrifying news would only come out later and be covered up, MacArthur not wanting to shame the Japanese further during the occupation.

So, every night the jungle would move and shuffle. Angry shouts would challenge in Japanese. He would fire into the darkness. They would hesitate until morning when they would fade back into the jungle.

But they could easily overrun him. And they were getting hungrier. His only weapon was deception and a rifle. Hiding behind the crates he started shouting to himself and changing position in the darkness, firing to make them think he was an entire squad.

After several days and long nights he realized he was forgotten. He was running low on food and ammunition. He finally broke into the crates. Theft was a court-martial offense under normal circumstances and he was a trustworthy soldier. But these were not normal circumstances.

In the crates he found K-rations, 2,830 calories of what the Army called food. He also found ammo, weapons and other things he could use in the game. That’s how he thought of it. He and his brothers had played Army for hours in the woods using nothing but sticks and rocks.

He was well-practiced and it was working. But it worked better at night. Now he had more props. The stack of crates had helped. The Japanese simply couldn’t imagine the Americans would leave a beach full of supplies to be guarded by one teenager.

During the day he dug foxholes down the beach and built fires out of driftwood. He scattered gear and moved behind the crates making noise, singing songs and talking.

At night he waited quietly until they came, growing in number and getting bolder. Then the battle began. At some point he was going to lose.

Two weeks passed before a boat sailed around the island to find the supplies. By then he had eaten the last of his food and was getting hungry. Two weeks alone on a hostile beach. Two weeks of mosquitos, no sleep and fear. Two weeks of nightly battles for his life against desperate, battle-hardened soldiers.

The sergeant looked at him in surprise and said, “I forgot about you!”

That’s all anyone ever said. The fact of the matter is that nobody cared. It was a desperate time of heart-searing stories. Everybody had one. My father had worse ones than that.

So, why tell it?

Because it’s not about what happened. It’s about how he responded. That’s the part that’s instructional. What it gave me was a pattern, an example of how to handle desperate situations. How my father had handled them. When no one was watching. When no one cared.

That’s what I thought about in waiting room after waiting room when Suzie was getting bad news leading to more bad news. That’s what I’ve thought about many times since. It’s how we set our “normal.” It’s how we decide what to do.

So now, whenever I face something difficult, when I’m looking for the easy way out, when I know no one is watching except God, when I’m not going to get any credit, when it’s dangerous to do the right thing, I remember that story, among others.

It makes it easier – and harder. If he could do that, then what can I do? Chances are, more than I think.

Another post about Dad


Photo credit USFWS Laura M. Beauregard – August 2009
Ritidian Beach view of the Guam National Wildlife Refuge