I knew today's post had to be extra special
To all the soldiers... fallen or living; military families... grieving ,waiting or celebrating;
today is recognized in your honor.
I am proud to share with you today an amazing part of not only my family history, but a piece of American History that I had not opened and looked at since I was in high school.
I am immediately thwarted back to a phone call I had with my Mémère 24 years ago when given a History assignment to interview someone from World War II. I was so proud and excited to be "lucky" enough to call my own flesh and blood for this assignment, so I picked up the phone and dialed that Massachusetts number. My Mémère answered the phone and as I explained what I was calling for, I remember the worrisome tone that emitted from the other end, this many years later. She told me that my Pépè would not want to talk about the war with me but that she would get something to me that I could use for my paper. Although I did not quite understand why my Pépère would not want to talk about his days of service; something that we were taught a man should be proud of... I accepted what she had offered and waited.
The day her letter arrived in the mailbox and I eagerly opened the dense envelope, I never knew it would be a personal history lesson. It was not the kind of lesson we learned in the history books... it was a lesson that came straight from a soldier at war. Enclosed in this envelope were 6 pages of copied transcript from my Pépère's journals during his last two years of service and 6 photographs that changed the way I thought about war forever...
Rene A. Giard: CMM-C. Company
Thirty-Third U.S. Naval Construction Batallion
World War II 1942-1944
" What can the Seabees offer a man of your age?" The recruiting officer raised a craggy brow, scanning the applicant from critical, if somewhat veiled eyes. "Fifteen years at your trade? With your background and qualifications mister, you are first class material!"
"It did not take long for John to make up his mind, nor did it take long for Uncle Sam to decide just what to do with John; for in September came his orders to report for training at Camp Bradford for six weeks. From Camp Bradford, we boarded a dirty, debris littered milk train for Norfolk, Va for our physicals. We had never had to face such a column of impersonal medics and coppsmen in white jackets and the array of hypodermics, depressors, gauze, stethoscopes, ether and iodine. Our next stop was the barber shop where a man's glory got a Houdini in no time flat. After three weeks of waiting for and communicable sickness to show up, we were granted a five day furlough. Needless to say, I was happy to see my family in Massachusetts and say our good-bye's for many months to come.
I returned to Norfolk, Va. only to learn we were packing gear for another trip; this time, Gulfport, Mississippi. Again, the battalion was jinxed by dirty ill- managed trains. It was a pleasant surprise for both the city of Gulfport and Camp Halliday, for it far surpassed all expectations for comfort and convenience. We were received with real southern hospitality, fried chicken and burgundy sauce, but that was cut short as scores of telephone calls were made declining invitations from Camp Halliday, as "liberty" was cancelled in participation of another move. On Thanksgiving, 1942, we boarded the train for the last stop in America; California. Outside the Quonset huts of Camp Rousseaux, officers were busy making last minute check-ups. On December 18, 1942 Sea-bags, duffle bags and lockers were hoisted aboard at 3 pm and at 3:30 the M.S. Sommelsdyke got under way. X-mas day came, and moral was low. Chaplain M. Dewitt Safford came to the rescue, but it too was short-lived.
New Years Day, 1943
A hurricane was in the making. Ship officers and crew turned attention to the lashing down of cargo, both above and below decks. Dawn came and winds increased to 120mph. Deck houses and life rafts were hurled into the sea. Forty-foot launches hurtled through steel railings to quickly fill and disappear. Not until 1300 were there any signs of the storm diminishing. As fast as it had risen, in an hour, thirty-foot waves dropped to five feet and the ship rode out into a welcomed calm.
January 3-Feb 17, 1943
New Caledonia; "Garden Spot" of the Pacific. Most of the small shops were closed for the duration, lacking stock to do business. The French, mostly ran these small shops. The large stores were controlled by the Vichy French. Prices were very high, so very little money trickled into the hands of the Vichyites. Passes were used for sight-seeing of "points of interest." I will remember the Bay of Scuttled Ships and a filth- ridden waterfront where scores of kinky-haired urchins fought and scrambled for a meal from each incoming load of table refuse, as impassive Javanese mothers stood by. The time had come for our next move. In hours, the battalion was on it's way. The next stop would be Guadalcanal.
February 21, John and Jack American donned fedoras and pigskin gloves against a crisp, February air. American armed guards donned helmets of steel and gloves of asbestos. Hot gun barrels would need changing amid the spitting hell of angry gun turrets. We didn't have to wait long as the word came of an impending attack. There was no light but the light from the burning flares swaying high above a spread out convoy. The high-pitched hum of the Japanese aircraft and more flares to envelope a target area of American shipping. Above, Sons of Nippon weaved around torpedo planes into position for the attack; suddenly going into a screaming power dive. Just as suddenly, a roaring inferno of tracers blasted out to meet and toss both plane and pilot into a sizzling whirlpool of crossfire. There was no way out."Honorable Jap" had lost out. Other Rising Sons set off the port bow, only to drop from sight in a flaming lake of fire. Thus, the battalion's first taste of warfare. U. S. convoy; no hits, no losses, no damage.
The convoy arrived at Guadalcanal the following day and anchored off Koli Point. Since this was to be a short stop, all gear was put into a large supply yard close to the beach, where when the time came, it would be loaded on the L.C.T.'s which were to transport the battalion equipment to the final destination, the Russel Islands, some 60 miles to the northwest. We worked in the most humid, hottest, miserable place in the Pacific; Guadalcanal was all of this and more. Malaria, fungus, infection and other ailments hit the men badly. There was always regular bombing runs over Henderson Field by "Washing Machine Charlie"; the Jap's night owls. The 33rd camp was close by, so it didn't take us long to learn how to get into a foxhole, but quick.
On February 20, 1943 the first L.C.T.'s left for the Russel Islands with 10 officers and 22 men. I was promoted to Chief Petty Officer in charge of equipment. The rest of the battalion stayed behind to load the L.C.T's. Each day they would be sent out in a small but steady stream. On April 14, 1943, the last L.C.T. with the 33rd left Guadalcanal for Banika in the Russells. My work was done for a while. Upon arrival on Banika, equipment had to be set up, large trees cut down for logs. The 33rd mill was the only one on the island and was kept busy 12 hours a day for priority work, over a million feet in six months.
Construction projects were started, a base hospital, aviation gasoline tank farm, building essentials to the operation of the airfield. Weather conditions were bad, lack of proper equipment and spare parts, and sickness of personnel on the field. The runway was finished to accommodate emergency landings. In spite of the rain and mud, mud, mud, construction went on. Jap attacks on installations were mostly during the day, but later increased to the nighttime. In the heaviest attack, one man was killed and several wounded.
The Island of Banika consisted of about two-thirds coconut groves and one -third dense jungle. A large herd of beef cattle roamed the island, keeping the grass neatly mowed. Other wildlife were land crabs, frogs, lizards and mosquitoes. Come September, I wasn't feeling good, I had pains in my stomach. My men would sneak cans of peanut butter and saltines to me. That lasted about three weeks, and I collapsed from exhaustion. I was evacuated to New Hebrides, and spent a month in the hospital. November 30, 1943 I was transferred to a Naval hospital in New Zealand for another 14 days. January 17, 1944, I was told that I was being sent back to the U.S.A; a job well done. The voyage back to San Francisco, January 29, 1944 on the U.S.S. Seabarb proved that it could be a calm and restful one. The greatest joy was seeing the shores of the U.S.A. Several more months at the Naval hospital in Oakland, California, and onto Santa Cruz where I received an Honorable Discharge, and it was back home to Massachusetts to pick up my life where I left off."
As I read this again just before typing it word for word just as my Mem had transcribed it, it was hard not to notice where I get my writing skills from. The intricate detail that my Pépère wrote made me feel like I was right beside him as the smell of gunfire and death filled the air. Because of the letter she included with these excerpts telling me so, I know that my Mémère left things out due to the fact that much of what he wrote in his journals was much too graphic for me at the time, but even still, this piece of family and American history is priceless to me. War has always been a necessary evil; like it or not. What we don't always realize is what our men and women actually experience... what they go through when faced with situations that are far beyond their control. What I want you to remember today as you honor our veteran's is that they make this choice. They decide that their safety is less important than fighting for freedom as they leave their loved ones behind to dive into crossfire, uncertainty, death and ruin for something that is taken for granted every single day. I can't say that I could make that decision so days like today I will remember, thank and honor every single person who has served. Hats to heaven Pépère... I love you!
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