Memoirs -- fact and fiction, San Miguel de Allende, Writings

Semper Fi, Dad. Semper, Fi.

Robert J. Hawkins, U.S.M.C. medical corpsman in World War II

The machine-gun fire came out of nowhere, the way it is supposed to in war.

Or so it seemed to the Marines who were caught in an open field next to a presumably abandoned farmhouse. Incorrectly presumed empty, as it turned out.

The carelessness cost the platoon one soldier. He lay on the ground about 10 yards away from the stone wall behind which his comrades took refuge.

He was still alive. They could hear his agonizing cries for help. They could see him, lying there out in the open.

The squad’s 19-year-old medical corpsman had already seen his share of death and savage injuries since their battalion had waded ashore on the island of Saipan. And now, more of the same on the neighboring island of Tinian.

During the initial bloody assault on Saipan, the corpsman was encountering a dead or wounded Marine every 10 yards or so, by his estimate. This made his progress slower than the other Marines. They relentlessly pushed the enemy to the other side of the island and the sea, leaving a trail of dead and wounded for the corpsman to sort out.

He’d already taken grenade fragments in his hand, leg, and shoulder —  for which he’d eventually get the Purple Heart.

Before shipping off to war: U.S. Marine Bob Hawkins and his younger brother, Donald, who lied about his age to join the Navy.

And so, here was yet another wounded soldier, yet another 10 yards away.

On the sergeant’s count, the platoon opened fire on the gunner’s nest and a young corpsman jumped over the wall with his kitbag and crawled out to the man. 

“He was hit in the right leg and the side, and I couldn’t do much for him except stop the bleeding,” the corpsman wrote in a thin little memoir, many decades later.

The two men laid out there, flat beneath the steamy tropical sun, as bullets flew overhead. Some clipped leaves off the small tree next to them. Only months earlier the corpsman was lying stretched out under the same tropical sun — but on Florida beaches, as he worked as an orderly in a Navy hospital.

They were frozen to the ground, unable and afraid to move. The whizzing sound of bullets skimming just over their heads filled them with terror. It seemed to go on forever.

“Was the gunner playing with them?” the corpsman wondered. “Why didn’t he just finish us off?”

Eventually, a half-track with a 75-mm cannon was brought up and fired a few rounds into the nest. The machine gun was silenced.

One Marine jumped over the wall and helped the corpsman drag the wounded soldier to safety.

“We carried him back, and I broke down crying,” the corpsman writes. “The sergeant came over and said, ‘Let it all out, boy. You were out there for more than an hour.’ ” Tough love, Marine-style.

So, why hadn’t they been killed? 

It turns out, the machine gun was mounted in the front seat of a truck. The window was either stuck partially up or designed to not completely disappear into the door. Either way, it kept the machine gun barrel from dropping the inch or two lower that would have meant certain death for the two Marines. 

“I noticed the truck had a logo on the front of three red diamonds, my first knowledge of the Mitsubishi Company,” the corpsman writes. “I still think about that time when I see their ads.”

And ads for Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Tamaha, Sony, Toshiba — you name it.

He swore that he would never buy a Japanese car.

And my father, Robert J. Hawkins, my namesake, the teenage medical corpsman, kept that promise until the day he died at age 82.

Like the Argentine writer Jose Narosky said, “In war, there are no unwounded soldiers.” 

A box holding my father’s campaign medals and Division patch, made by my youngest brother Danial, himself a retired Air Force combat pilot.

Robert J. Hawkins was like lots of World War II veterans, subtly damaged in ways neither he nor his family would ever completely understand.

There are veterans who talk about their experience incessantly, parade in the bits of military costume that still fit a few times a year, drink with fellow combatants at the American Legion or VFW on Friday nights, and generally despise the upcoming generation for its apparent ingratitude.

The other kind doesn’t talk about the war, doesn’t celebrate it, and stuffs their Purple Hearts and combat medals, old uniforms, and haunting memories away, up in the attic. 

At least, that’s where I found my dad’s military stuff, including his olive green Marine Corps uniform jacket, his Purple Heart and a story from the hometown paper about how he took hand grenade fragments in a foxhole, meant for fellow Marines. There was also a heavy wooden-stock Japanese sniper rifle that Dad would sometimes use for deer hunting. There was also a Japanese soldier’s wallet with military papers and family pictures.

Pressed about all this stuff, my dad would demur. “It was war. Things happened, good and bad.”

I was a kid. I just wanted to hear war stories, like those John Wayne movies and ones I saw on TV — heroic Americans outgunning and out-foxing the enemy in neat little 30 minutes tales of singular heroism in black and white. 

Reluctantly, he told us very few. There was the apocryphal tale of the soldier who went into a latrine one dark night and struck up a conversation with a guy sitting on the next seat. The guy was disturbingly silent. The soldier slowly pulled out his knife and …

“Yes, Dad? Yes? What happened?”

“Mother? Isn’t it time these boys were in bed?” He’d let out a long slow exhale. ” I’ll finish the story another time.”

And so it went.

He was even less forthcoming on a story that I believe was not only true but deeply personal. We called it “The Boy in the Banana Grove.”  I don’t think he ever told us the whole story. Not to me, anyway.

“When you are older, boys,” he’d say. “When you are older. It isn’t a story for children.”

From little inferences over the years, I surmised that the boy was an orphan and that something very bad happened to him in a grove of trees.

My father’s Purple Heart remained for most of his life either in the attic or a sock drawer.

If my dad was reticent to discuss his experience with the Marines in the Pacific, his feelings about Japanese people were out there in not so subtle ways. In casual dinner table conversation, he called them Japs and Nips and worse — a habit we began to protest as we grew older and more aware.

And, as I said, when Japanese cars began appearing in the U.S., he swore he would never buy one. He never did.

I don’t know how deep these feelings went because we were not a family that talked about feelings. We still don’t, my seven brothers and sister and I. 

The trouble with war is, soldiers are trained to hate their enemy and when the fighting is over, nobody teaches them how to unhate. Late in life, my father learned to love his former enemy, during a one-off visit to Japan. His first since the war.

Even later in life, my Dad decided to write his memoir.

Too late, I think. He managed 32-single-spaced typed pages. His entire childhood was compressed into 11 pages under the title “YOUTH.” But the remaining 21 pages tell the horrific story of a teenage Marine medical corpsman in the heart of combat in the South Pacific.

That section is titled: “The Great Adventure War in the Pacific.” 

It holds every detail that we had begged him to talk about. 

Today, I get it. I don’t think we could have handled this story as kids. I don’t think he could have handled telling us.

From his retirement home in Florida, he sent me a copy of the memoir, bound in a Sixties tie-dye folder, covered in peace signs. A curious choice for a man who deeply despised my generation for its loose lifestyle and the “unpatriotic” stand that we took against the Vietnam War. 

With it came a handwritten, terse, post-it note that echoed our on-again off-again estrangement:

“Bob

Re-read

if you want

Dad”

Re-read? If I want? He was handing me his life story, the mysterious war years, with what amounted to a shoulder shrug. 

“If you want.”

I read it. I had to.

It reads like the script for an action-dense Spielberg war movie, in the terse and ungarnished prose of a Hemingway. 

My father’s war was an unimaginable hell. Of course it was. He was a Marine. You know: Marines. The guys with the slogan “First to Fight”  — and all the carnage that conveys.

Bob Hawkins was drafted into the Navy three months after Pearl Harbor. He was 18 years old and still a senior in high school. The Navy gave him ten days to get his stuff in order. He spent nine of them in the classroom and on the 10th he took his final exams in the principal’s office. The next morning my grandfather drove him to the recruiting center.

Pre-war family portrait of the Hawkins Family, left to right, mother Hortense, oldest son Jim, daughter Mary Lu, youngest son Donald, Robert, and father James M. Hawkins. Lieutenant James Hawkins, U.S.M.C., earned a Silver Star, a Purple Heart, and died on a beach in Okinawa, very near the end of the war. Don served aboard battleships in the Navy. My father went from high school to Saipan with the Marines.

He trained as a Pharmacist’s Mate. That was his third choice after Gunners Mate and Aviation Radio-Gunner. The Navy found him too tall to kill.

His military career got off to an inauspicious start. He became “a bedpan jockey” — his words — and spent a brief but idyllic stint at a Florida Naval hospital in mid-winter — heaven for a boy from Buffalo — with beach days, bathing-suits, and warm sunshine.

His beach boy idyle was cut short by a sudden transfer to the U.S. Marine Corp. 

After the bloody battle for Guadalcanal, the Marines were really short on medical field corpsmen.

At Camp Lejeune, Navy Corpsmen and Pharmacists from all over the East Coast were retooled into combat-ready Marines. They learned how to field-dress the wounded, fire a rifle, and kill the enemy — a world away from being a Florida “bedpan jockey.”

Before even reaching the combat zone, my father and thousands of Marines nearly lost their lives at Pearl Harbor. Not the Japanese bombing — it was the Second Pearl Harbor, which did not make it into newspapers. A dozen side-by-side ships — loaded with combat gear, fuel, munitions, vehicles, and soldiers — caught fire and unleashed a horrific chain of explosions. 

Marines jumped overboard to escape the conflagration, including my father who was picked up by a Higgins boat, an amphibious beach-landing craft. They spent the next few hours hauling in other soldiers. Eight of the ships were lost and scores of men killed or burned.

Three days later, the Second Marine Division was re-equipped, re-armed, re-supplied, and shipped off to war.

In early 1944, my dad headed for Saipan, Northern Mariana Islands, in the South Pacific, as part of a 10,000-Marine invasion force. Classic Marines strategy —  soften up the enemy on exotic-sounding islands, take massive casualties and cause many in return, and soon the Army will follow and clean up. 

Side by side with combat Marines were the corpsmen with their rifles and kit bags filled with gauze, sulfa, morphine, and tourniquets. They would run and crawl from wounded Marine to wounded Marine, trying to staunch the flow of blood and slow the exponentially growing number of the dead.

During the assault on Saipan, the first Marine out of the LST in front of my father went down “in a hail of machine-gun fire” in waist-high water. My father grabbed him and pulled him to the side of the landing craft but he was already dead. So he let him float away.

On the beach, he was surrounded by dead and wounded Marines. The Japanese dropped mortar rounds on the invaders and fired down on them from atop the sand dunes. Sitting ducks. Dad crawled from Marine to Marine to see what could be done to stop the bleeding. He quickly ran out of gauze, morphine, and sulfa.

He grabbed the medical pack off the body of a fellow Corpsman and resumed working on the wounded. A bullet grazed his helmet and tore the camo cover off. Another landed on the ground between his legs. A third shot the canteen off his belt. Somehow, he made it over the dunes and across a road. He jumped into a trench on the other side — where he landed atop a Japanese soldier. 

He hit the soldier as hard as he could but the man was already dead.

While crawling over the bodies of about 20 Japanese soldiers in the trench, the Marines ahead of Dad took no chances that any were alive and waiting to ambush them. They fired bullets into each body. 

My father’s progress was slow. He encountered a wounded Marine about every 10 yards. As he patched up the wounded, he learned that all of their executive officers were dead or wounded and that captains were now giving orders. Half his platoon died between the beach and their target position, a train platform. 

It is at this point in my father’s memoir that he starts referring to the Japanese soldiers as Nips and Japs, as he had when I was a kid. Long-tamped emotions surfaced through his writing,

On Saipan, his war had barely begun.

The next four or five days were non-stop in-your-face warfare through valleys and jungle, along ridges, and in an endless series of caves as the Marines worked their way to the top of Mount Tapochau, the highest point on the island. Nights were filled with endless mortar and grenade barrages and suicidal Banzai assaults.

It was on the way down the other side of the mountain that my father saw an incoming grenade and pulled his sergeant down into a foxhole. They both ended up taking shrapnel.

Dad patched up the sergeant and two other men who’d caught shrapnel, then tended to his own bleeding hand which had been hit by three pieces of the grenade. He didn’t even notice until he was back in the field hospital that shrapnel had pierced his shoulder and leg and embedded in the bone. He also lost some of his hearing.

He carried some of that shrapnel inside him for the rest of his life. A reminder of his Purple Heart moment.

During the second night of recuperation, he was on watch when a commotion broke out in the adjacent banana grove. Yes, that banana grove. A shadowy figure stepped out from the trees, about 50 feet away. My father took aim, shot, and brought down the intruder. They could hear the guy talking, so my father took aim and fired off another shot.

The talking stopped.

In the morning, they found the body of a Japanese soldier with a grenade in his hand. Beside the body was a blanket, beneath which was a young boy, three or four years old, curled up in a ball. 

My father took the terrified boy’s hand and led him back to their makeshift shelter where he fed him K-rations, water, and crackers. He ate a whole can of beans.

“He was starved,” writes my father. “I could tell by the way he ate the food.”

A captain told him to take the boy to Civilian Affairs, about a mile away at the Battalion headquarters. As my father turned to leave him there, the boy cried and clung to his leg. So Dad sat with him for two hours and fed him more rations as they waited for the boy to be evacuated.

“As the Jeep left, the little guy was crying and looking back at me,” Dad writes. “The major gave me a look that said, ‘Well, you have just given us one more problem, haven’t you?’

“I guess I did, but the little guy had lost his dad or someone trying to get him someplace safe, I presume, or had no choice but to take him with him.”

At the time he wrote this, around 2004, my dad estimated that the boy now would be about 60 years old.

Two days later he rejoined his company just as they were entering what was left of Tanapag Harbor.

A few days later they jumped over to the next island, Tinian, and started all over again.

In this memoir, the carnage just never lets up. In surreally calm prose, my father describes firefights, suicide attacks, incoming mortars and grenades, and friendly fire from American planes. 

It alternates from the dead and wounded Marines to piles of dead Japanese soldiers. In a farmhouse, he finds the bodies of six soldiers in a circle. They’d blown their brains out with rifles in their mouths and toes on the triggers, rather than be captured. He writes, “A mass suicide, a terrible sight.” He saw Japanese soldiers jump to their deaths from a cliff, taking civilians with them.

The Marines moved so fast, they passed over hidden Japanese soldiers. One night as Marines watched the movie “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,”  a band of these soldiers broke into the camp, guns blazing.

“We had quite a time getting all of them,” my father wrote. “I never did see the end of the movie.”

With most of the fighting over, the Marines turned to coaxing civilians out of the warren of caves that perforated the island. A captain called my father over to tend to a woman who was lying on the ground, moaning.  Out there in the jungle, surrounded by the horrors of war, he delivered a baby.

As they were loading the woman and child into a Jeep ambulance, a civilian came up to my father. He bowed and gestured toward the jeep and then pointed to himself.

“I knew he was the father,” writes Dad. He got the smiling man into the ambulance with the mother and child.

Back on Saipan, the Marines set up a more permanent camp with pyramid tents, a real mess hall, and showers. They began rebuilding strength with fresh replacements and training for the next island assault, Okinawa.

To this point, my father’s Marine 2nd Division, 6th Regiment, Third Battalion, had lost seven corpsmen with five more wounded in battle — a pretty high number.

While regrouping, his older brother, Jim, a Marine second lieutenant out of Iowa State, flew in for the day from Guam for a surprise visit.  Dad proudly showed his older brother around the camp and beamed as he took off in a plane headed back to Guam to join the 1st Marine Division.

Four months later, back on Saipan after the Okinawa campaign had wound down, Dad got called into the chaplain’s office.

“Bob, you’ve seen us lose a lot of Marines,” said the chaplain. “Well, we have lost another one. Jim was killed on Okinawa on June 10th.”

They had been fighting the same battle at opposite ends of the island.

For Dad, his war was over. In fact, the whole war was over by August 1945.

A month later, he was aboard one of the first Navy ships to sail into the harbor at Nagasaki. He was struck by the eerie silence, the absence of people. For three days he did not see a single civilian beyond the two dockside crane operators.

On the fourth day, a young girl scurried down the street with two buckets yoked to her shoulders. No one shot her. No one ate her. Soon, the city began to bustle with people, merchants, and traffic.

My father saw first-hand the horrible power of the atom bomb. He spent two months there, much of it working with a German priest at a Jesuit mission in the hills beyond the city. He treated lots of blast victims. In his memoir, he says he received many first-hand descriptions of the blast and the days following it from his patients — but he says nothing more.

Though he does spend a few paragraphs rationalizing the bombing.

By November, he was on a slow boat home. An even slower train took him from Los Angeles to Chicago where he boarded still another train for Buffalo.

On that last train, a band of tipsy Marines was making their way through his car when one of them stopped and looked at Dad.

“Hey, Doc!” he yelled. “Hey, folks! This guy saved my life on Saipan!”

“I took a short drink and they were on their way,” he writes. He seemed little interested in joining the revelry. 

On the last page of the memoir, my father writes that he “never regretted a day spent in the service of my country.”

On the same page, he writes, “Thank god it was over.”

It’s a complicated world. Both statements can be true. 

He was a good father, if a sometimes too-stern one, in my opinion. He was more a Rotary Club and PTA guy than a VFW member. He got involved in schools and the community. He married his high school sweetheart. And as best he could, he was there for us kids — all nine of us, eight boys and a girl who all turned out to be successful, well-adjusted, people with families and decent careers. My two youngest brothers graduated from military academies and had distinguished careers.

Other than his references to “Nips” and “Japs,” I never saw a racist act or heard a racist epithet from my father. Though his anger eventually channeled into a huge dislike for my generation — the long-haired hippies who were fighting against the war in Vietnam.

I loved him and I know he loved me, but between us, it sometimes got ugly. Until he died at age 82 we found it difficult to spend more than 10 civil minutes in the same room. We both had buttons and knew how to push them. It was Archie Bunker and Meathead without a laugh track.

In his 50’s, my father became a college professor, teaching ceramic engineering. Being in the same room with students opened his eyes. And his heart. His students were bright, ambitious, and attentive. They loved him and he loved them.

On the Hocking College campus in Ohio, there is actually a monument dedicated to my father, a tower made from materials gathered from every brick factory in the state. Ohio is a big brick manufacturer.

Another thing happened that changed his heart. He was invited to Japan as part of a delegation of academics to an engineering conference. He was embraced by his Japanese counterparts and he in turn embraced them.

Weeks later, when I next saw him, he still had a sense of wonder when he talked about the trip.

“Bobby, these are such good people,” he marveled. “They welcomed us so warmly. It was like nothing had ever happened between us.”

He seemed to be a nicer, kinder, happier man. Or maybe I had just grown up a bit. As a father with three sons of my own, I had a sense of the pressures parenting put on him. Maybe we both grew a bit.

Re-reading his memoir now, I wish so much that we had spent time together talking about it. I wish that he had told me these stories when I was still in high school, say. I’m not sure how it would have changed our relationship but I suspect it might have. And for the better.

My mother and father, Patricia and Robert Hawkins

He went through hell and came out a pretty decent guy on the other side. A lot of his generation did. They were just sort of expected to get on with life when the war was over.

If, as Narosky said, “In war, there are no unwounded soldiers”  I would list my dad among the wounded — physically and emotionally. His wounds healed in time — not without scars — but they healed.

I don’t know how you thank a guy like that kind of service. “Thanks” just never sounds adequate, especially coming from a draft evader.

I do thank him for setting those wounds aside and loving us with all his heart.

Semper Fi, Dad. Semper Fi.

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3 thoughts on “Semper Fi, Dad. Semper, Fi.

  1. bfdsds says:

    Wow, great piece. It’s not the first time you’ve made me choke up, but I am deeply moved by this, having wondered so long about my own dad’s war experiences…. You are so lucky to have that memoir!

    On Sun, Nov 21, 2021 at 9:05 AM Musings, Magic, San Miguel and More wrote:

    > robertjhawkins1 posted: ” Robert J. Hawkins, U.S.M.C. medical corpsman in > World War II The machine-gun fire came out of nowhere, the way it is > supposed to in war. Or so it seemed to the Marines who were caught in an > open field next to a presumably abandoned farmhouse. Incor” >

    Like

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