A Memorial Day tale about a few very good men.
by Victor Davis Hanson
National Review Online
Yesterday, our rural mail carrier delivered to our farm a ring in a small box — of worn metal, its band cut in half, with a strange signet inset of a Roman legionary. The story of its arrival is eerie, but also informative about a generation now all but gone — and so perhaps worth sharing on these Memorial Day holidays in our current struggle against enemies once again so adamant to destroy our freedom.
For the past year or so I have been writing a book, Ripples of Battle, about the literary, cultural, philosophical, and artistic consequences that for decades or even centuries can unexpectedly follow from battles. I had completed the first two sections devoted to Delium (424 B.C.), and Shiloh (1862), and this spring was just finishing the third and last battle — the nightmare that was Okinawa from April 1 to July 2, 1945. The sources for that engagement — both written histories and oral remembrances of suicide bombing, mass charges, and fighting in caves — only make the brutal statistics more horrifying: over 12,000 American dead, 35,000 more wounded, and over 300 ships damaged. Thirty-five percent of all American combatants who fought in and around Okinawa were casualties of some sort. The Japanese lost 100,000 killed and perhaps another 150,000 civilian Okinawans were casualties — mostly as a result of hand-to-hand fighting to take an island miniscule in comparison with the far better defended and as yet unconquered Japanese mainland.
My namesake, Victor Hanson — my father’s first cousin who was raised as his brother when Victor’s mother died in childbirth — was shot and killed as his company beat back the last charges of suicidal Japanese to recapture Sugar Loaf Hill on the evening of May 18, hours before those who were left of his 29th Marines were finally relieved and evacuated from the battle. The official history of American operations on Okinawa reads of the action in his immediate vicinity, “A platoon of Company F also tried to advance along the ridge toward the west, but the leader was killed and the platoon withdrew under heavy mortar fire.” The authors then summarize the sacrifice, “On the next day, 19 May, the 4th Marines relieved the exhausted 29th Marines. During the 10-day period up to and including the capture of Sugar Loaf the 6th Marine Division had lost 2,662 killed or wounded; there were also 1,289 cases of combat fatigue. In the 22nd and 29th Marines three battalion commanders and eleven company commanders had been killed or wounded.”
To read accounts of those savage uphill assaults — immortalized in classic memoirs like William Manchester’s Goodbye Darkness and E. B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed — against entrenched Japanese is to wonder not why Victor was killed on May 18, but how in God’s name had he lived that long. After all, in just a few days, 3,000 Marines were killed or gravely wounded in and around Sugar Loaf Hill, about the same number as on Tarawa. His 29th Regiment suffered 82 percent casualties on Okinawa and for all practical purposes had ceased to exist.
For most of my lifetime, I heard only rumors in my family of the tragedy that Victor’s death entailed. His grandparents died shortly after in deep depression; my father, who had graduated from the same high school and college at the same time with him, and who joined the Marines with him (before transferring to the Army Air Corps to fly on 39 B-29 missions), rarely talked about how the loss had wrecked the close-knit Swedish farm family. Occasionally strange what-ifs surfaced — had he really been killed just hours before the mountain was stormed? Had he lived, would he have farmed the home place? Been a teacher? Had a family nearby our own? For the past 40 years I have bumped into dozens of residents of his small hometown of nearby Kingsburg, who although strangers, on recognizing my name, used to lectured on what a good man Victor was — he was killed at 23 — and how hard it would be for anyone to live up to such a namesake.
But mostly my family remained quiet, and either did not know the exact circumstances of Victor’s death, or — more likely — chose over the half century to remain silent about it. Now that my father and all who knew Victor in the family are gone, I decided to discover what had happened on May 18, 1945.
A few weeks ago, I made efforts to inquire whether a single man from F Company was still alive — anyone who had either survived the hell of Okinawa or 60 years of life since, or both and thus might have known a 23-year-old Victor Hanson. For the last six decades, what was left of my family had known about Victor’s last hours only from the official Marine letter of condolence. At the time apparently one First-Lieutenant Robert J. Sherer had written to our family of Victor’s death on July 26, 1945: “Our Company had attacked and seized Crescent Ridge on the enemy held Naha-Shuri line on 18 May and we were digging in for the night when we began to receive heavy fire from an enemy machine-gun to our left. It was at this time that Corporal Hanson was wounded. He was given medical attention immediately, but lived only a short time. He was given a fitting burial…”
What I soon discovered was quite startling. There were indeed survivors of Company F — and their recollections left me quite stunned. Richard Whitaker — a veteran of F Company, Second Battalion, 29 Marines, who was wounded on Sugar Loaf Hill the night Victor was killed and a prominent hero in George Feifer’s moving Tennozan. The Battle of Okinawa and the Atomic Bomb — helped me to locate a few surviving members of Fox Company. Among them was none other than Robert J. Sherer!
After last writing the Hanson family 57 years ago, now in his eighties, he once more on February 28, 2002 kindly sent me a second letter about Victor in the same elegant and dignified prose:
Victor Hanson, Jr. had been trained and was serving as a fire Team Leader. He was a Corporal and was recognized as an outstanding Marine and leader…I can recall seeing Corporal Hanson standing to hurl a grenade and being hit by fire from the enemy machine gun. My “Runner,” PFC Ryan in the foxhole next to me was similarly hit by machine gun fire. Both died immediately, as did PFC Madigan. Sgt. Bill Twigger was wounded in the thigh and was ordered evacuated.
Just a few days after the letter from Robert Sherer came a phone call from a 6th Marine veteran, Mike Senko, with a wealth of detail about Sugar Loaf and accounts as moving as Sherer’s. And then arrived the next day an unbelievably dignified narrative from none other than once-wounded Bill Twigger, who, like Robert Sherer, six decades later shed more particulars upon Victor’s death not before known to any in our family. “The news came down the line that Vic Hanson had caught an enemy machine-gun burst in his right thigh, and, before a corpsman could reach him to administer aid, he bled to death. The report was quickly confirmed that by reason of the shock of so massive a wound, Vic did not endure prolonged suffering, but died virtually instantly.
And then Bill Twigger finished with a final, heartrending last anecdote — which I think I can quote without embarrassment to the parties involved: “There is a tragic sequel to this event. Upon hearing of Victor’s death, young Peter Madigan lost his moorings, rose from his thus-far secure position and with loud shouting and cursing rushed into the open only to be cut down by rifle fire.” In explanation Twigger wrote of Madigan near simultaneous death, “Trivia and vulgarity had no places in Victor’s vernacular. A hulk of a guy, the heftiest of us all, he was befriended by the “runt” of the bunch, Peter Madigan.” Twigger elaborated on what a fine person Madigan had been, in moving language, like Sherer’s, that today’s graduate students could only hope to emulate.
But still this was not the end to this strange unfolding cycle of events. Finally on March 31, 2002, on the eve of the 57th anniversary of the landing on Okinawa, I received an unexpected call from one Louis Ittmann, another veteran of Fox Company who had also learned of my inquiry. Yes, he too, had known Victor Hanson quite well, and confirmed the picture of him — a massive, good-natured Swedish college graduate who bled to death from a machine-gun burst on Sugar Loaf Hill. After an engaging conversation, Lewis Ittmann finished by requesting something quite unexpected: would I, he asked,like Victor’s ring?
Was this 1945 or 2002 I thought? Ittmann then explained. In a premonition of his death on Sugar Loaf Hill, Victor had earlier asked his friends in the event of his demise to remove his treasured ring and send it home. They had tried; but in attempting to deliver it to Kingsburg, California, out of courtesy they had first called our farm. The distraught family — my uncle, grandparents, and cousins — was too upset to come to the phone. Thus, the good steward, Louis Ittmann, since that awful night 57 years ago, has watched over Victor’s ring. Yesterday, it arrived in the mail, apparently cut from the finger of Victor sometime after he was brought down from Sugar Loaf Hill. I am now holding it as I write this, and as a classicist I am mesmerized by the engraved silhouette of a Roman legionary. When did Victor buy it? And why was a Roman soldier on a ring of a farm boy in central California of the late 1930s and 1940s?
Since my parents are dead and the rest of most other Hansons as well, those and others questions I suppose will remain unanswered. But I do know that I have never communicated with more gracious men than those veterans of that awful night on May 18 on Okinawa — Whitaker, Sherer, Senko, Twigger, Ittman, and a few others — who kindly and freely shared their remembrances with me by letter and phone some 57 years later. There was no bitterness evident in their prose and in their voices against the questionable strategy of sending them all head-on against the entrenched and veteran crack troops just weeks before the war’s end; nor any lasting hatred mentioned of the Japanese; nor apologies for their tough combat; nor anything but moving appreciation expressed for this present country, especially in this current trial of our own. When I asked whether there could have been another way to win Okinawa, one sighed and said, “Maybe — but Okinawa was an island of thousands of enemy soldiers in our way to Japan, and we couldn’t just leave that many of them behind us. We were at war.” When I pressed further whether the tactics of head-on charges against entrenched troops made sense, the general consensus was “Who knows? But that was the Marine way and we accepted it. It was our job to take the island, and we did it.” Despite the horror of what they went through, there seemed a Virgilian sense of pride in their sacrifice: Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit (“Perhaps there shall come a day when it will be sweet to remember even these things.)
I accept there are critics of the Okinawa campaign. Too many civilians were killed in the crossfires. So many were lost so close to the surrender. The fighting on both sides was atrocious — with Marine flame and dynamite the reply to Japanese snipers, booby-trapped dead, and faux-surrenders. And so on. But I also know that America has never quite produced a generation like those Marines who went up Sugar Loaf Hill — educated, idealistic, and as dangerous in war as they were benevolent in peace. Now in their eighties, their letters and voices seem strangely tranquil and with astuteness of a distant age that will not return, so at odds with the cacophony of the present. So on this Memorial Day and once more in a time of war, we Americans must be duly conscious of who they were, what they did, and how we must try to preserve and be worthy of what at great cost they have passed on.
This Monday, as on past Memorial Days, I will be surprised by the nondescript grave of my namesake. The inscription is as spare as the stone itself — name, birth, death, and nothing more except the nondescript “6th Division, 29th Marines.”
Unlike the other impressive tombstones of relatives in the family plot, there are no inscribed res gestae, not even a “loving father,” much less a “beloved grandfather.” A man who dies tragically, young, and alone does so without capital, either monetary or human; when he leaves behind no progeny it is evident in the modesty of his commemoration. But now there is at least something more, and as I grasp this ring with its cut band, and remember the letters and conversations this spring from the stewards of his memory, I pray to God that we still might see the likes of such giants again. And so perhaps we shall.
©2002 Victor Davis Hanson