Ghosts & Survivors

War memories of a man I never knew.

by Victor Davis Hanson

National Review Online

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second of a four-part series excerpted from the introduction of Victor Davis Hanson’s latest book Ripples of Battle: How Wars of the Past Still Determine How We Fight, How We Live, and How We Think, reprinted with Doubleday’s permission. Part I of the series can be read here.

Most of my fellow university students at the time — to the degree they even knew or thought of World War II — in lockstep condemned the bombing, both conventional and atomic, as barbaric an act as Vietnam was then. My strange father, alone in the world, I gathered, felt that the horrific firestorms had been too little and too late! Such are the lifelong wages of rage when farm boys reluctantly leave their homesteads to kill those who have killed their own.

Victor’s Marine picture was — and still is — on our wall. Where his effects of a half century earlier went I don’t know. Only a few were apparently given to my late father. They usually turned up only by accident when I was a child. One day in 1962 in the barn I pulled out of the rafters a massive thirty-five-ounce Louisville Slugger with “Victor Hanson” burned into the wood; we used it for five years, put in screws, tape, and resin until at last it shattered with age and overuse. It was a massive bat, fitting seventeen years earlier for a young Swede of well over six feet three inches and 200 pounds.

When I went to UC Santa Cruz in the early 1970s, I took his college briefcase, then already thirty years old, with “VH” stamped in two places. Its age and queer construction on occasion brought offers of purchase from affluent would-be renegades from Los Angeles, who found its strange canvas and leather bindings, now stuffed with Greek and Latin books, either exotic or perhaps even organic. “His grandmother bought it for him,” my father explained, adding, “With his degree he was supposed to be an officer, not join the Marines at the front.” Even at eighteen I had been aware of the ludicrous contrast between the two Victor Hansons leaving the farm with that same satchel — one halfheartedly entering the indolent, self-absorbed culture of UC Santa Cruz, the other eagerly departing for the inferno of the United States Marine Corps of 1944.

Despite the daily reminder of the monogrammed briefcase, I tried to forget about Victor, but he nevertheless seemed to return on the most unlikely of occasions. Four years later at graduation, the pleasant parents of a Japanese friend from Okinawa ate with us at a postbaccalaureate dinner. I spotted my father sitting nearby and grimaced at what I knew would — had to — follow; this was, remember, Santa Cruz in 1975 (nearly thirty years to the month after Victor’s death). Our roommate’s mother made a perfectly sensible remark about the Americans and the hardships of her childhood growing up in wartime Japan; her husband from Okinawa also mentioned the war and the American bloodletting on the island.

In the smiling, laid-back atmosphere of a June graduation on Monterey Bay, everybody became more candid amid the white wine, the polite chatting, and the table talk. Could we not all agree about what the Americans had done? Comfortable in the university climate of rising diversity, attuned to what they saw as the new American enlightenment of shame and remorse over the recent bombing in Vietnam, someone let slip the B-29s, the firebombings, the suicides on Okinawa, and all those regrettable acts of American barbarity.

It was all downhill from there. I have tuned out everything of my beet-red father’s response to these gracious middle-aged Japanese except his last crude sentence: “It was not enough for what the Japanese did.” In their defense, who at such a place and at such a time — the students and their folk at Santa Cruz were not of the warrior class — could anticipate Victor’s ghost?

His letters to his grandparents mostly worried that he might not be good enough for the Marines, that should he fail various endurance tests, he might not make the cut for jungle fighting overseas, that through some imagined lapse of muscular strength — he was a highly sought-after scholarship college athlete who, with my father, played for Amos Alonzo Stagg at the College of the Pacific — he might not be a good enough Marine and so be replaced by someone more deserving, someone better. In one note to his grandparents, he expressed concern that the Marine-issue rifles might be insufficient for jungle warfare:

Could you be on the lookout for a .45 cal. Automatic Pistol? The model is 1911 or 1911A1. They don’t issue them to you any more but they are desirable to have besides a rifle in combat. They come in handy in case your rifle or carbine fails to fire. They look something like this [a sketch follows] — that’s a rough idea. If you happen to run across one and it is a good one we’ll buy it; you can use the money I sent you to put in the bank. I think you can get a new one from $45 to $60, but I don’t believe you’ll be able to find a new one. Let me know if you have any luck. . . . Today it is sure a beautiful day, nice and spring like. We still have cold mornings. Well I guess I better close for now. Love, Victor

I imagine that his two eighty-five-year-old immigrant grandparents immediately left their small Swedish farm to drive up to Fresno in search of a .45 pistol for their grandson so that he might kill, rather than be killed by, the Japanese. To no avail; whether they found one or not, I have no knowledge.


As I said, in the spring of 2002 I made efforts over six decades later to discover whether a single man from F Company was still alive — anyone who had either survived the hell of Okinawa or sixty years of life subsequent, or might have known Victor Hanson. For nearly sixty years, what was left of my family had known about Victor’s last hours apparently only from the official Marine letter of condolences. A first lieutenant, Robert J. Sherer, had written 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, 2nd Battalion, 29th 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 locate a few surviving members of Fox Company. Among them was none other than Robert J. Sherer!

After last writing the Hanson family fifty-seven 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 the previously mentioned phone call from a 6th Marine Division 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 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 and recollection, Twigger wrote of Madigan’s 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.

©2004 Victor Davis Hanson

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