Veteran Voices Pt. 1: Don’t Let Silence Be the Story of Your Life
by David Chrisinger
This first appeared in the Havok Journal December 28, 2014 as a debate waged among The Havok Journal’s fans about the utility and appropriateness of sharing the experiences of war. On the one hand, some think that veterans not only have the right, but the obligation, to tell their fellow citizens about the wars waged on their behalf. On the other hand, some veterans feel that discussing the intimate details of warfare violates both directives and cultural norms of the military. Both arguments have merit. As part of the continuing discussion on this topic, we are including excerpts from Professor David Chrisinger’s blog “Stronger at the Broken Places,” from 2014.
Anyone who has studied war or its after effects in any depth has probably heard simply that “war is hell.” That’s it. Nothing more. Iraq War veteran and author Tyler Bourdreau disagrees:
“They say that war is hell, but I say it’s the foyer to hell. I say coming home is hell, and hell ain’t got no coordinates. You can’t find it on the charts, because there are no charts. Hell is no place at all, so when you’re there, you’re nowhere — you’re lost.”
Oftentimes, veterans who have come home from war remain “lost” because of our society’s reluctance to shine a light into the otherwise dim and neglected recesses of war’s after effects. “There are guys who come home from war,” Bourdreau continues, “and live fifty years without a narrative, fifty years lost. They don’t know their own story, never have, and never will. But they’re moving amidst the text every day and every long night without even realizing it…. They live inside the narrative like a cell, and their only escape is to understand its dimensions.”
For the past couple of years, I’ve been trying to piece together my grandfather’s narrative — the “truth” about what happened to him during the Battle of Okinawa. Before I started my research, I knew next to nothing of his experiences, yet I know from his behavior that something must have happened. For him, the war did not end on the battlefield — it followed him home and had a life-changing effect on both him and his family. The trauma he survived reverberated through the generations, leaving no one in our family unaffected.
I know from his discharge papers that he was assigned to Company A of the 193rd Tank Battalion, which was attached to the 27th Infantry Division. My father knew that Grandpa had been a tank driver. Armed with that information, I tracked down nearly every book and article I could find on the Battle of Okinawa, looking for any reference to the 193rd. It wasn’t long before I found that my grandfather had fought in a devastating battle on April 19th, 1945, that resulted in “the greatest one-day loss of U.S. armor in the Okinawa Campaign.”
A couple of months ago, I discovered that my grandfather’s battalion’s “Operational Report” was being stored at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. I contacted one of the archivists there and they sent me copies of those records.
Here’s what the commander of the 193rd wrote, in part, in his report on April 19th:
“As the first tanks neared TA 8176B, they were taken under fire by a 47mm AT gun from the left flank. Two (2) flamethrowers and three (3) tanks were hit by this gun before it was spotted and destroyed by the Assault Gun platoon. From approximately 0830, when the movement of all tanks across was completed, to 1200, the remaining tanks, assault guns and flamethrowers remained around the town of Kakazu, moving to various firing positions and firing on enemy installations and personnel on the South side of Kakazu ridge, to the flanks and along the base of the prominent ridge from TA 7976H to 8075B. During this time five (5) tanks, one (1) flamethrower and two (2) assault guns were disabled by mines of various types which were buried indiscriminately over the entire area. One (1) assault gun stuck in a bog and the crew was later forced to abandon it. They were also subjected to intense artillery fire and mortar fire, but with little damaging effect.”
Shortly after the war ended, a small group of Army historians set out to write the official history of the Battle of Okinawa. The resulting book, Okinawa: The Last Battle was based not only on records like the ones I had found, but also on (1) manuscript histories of the units that fought there; (2) interviews with the combatants; and (3) official records, including Japanese records and prisoner-of-war interrogations.
Here’s what they had to say about the battle for Kakazu Ridge. Notice the differences, not only in terms of the particulars, but also in the depth of what was reported:
“As the tanks moved down the road in column, a 47mm antitank gun, firing from a covered position to the left on the edge of Nishibaru Ridge, destroyed four tanks with sixteen shots, without receiving a single shot in return.”
“[The 193rd Tank Battalion arrived] in Kakazu shortly after 1000. They moved around and through the village, spreading fire and destruction; Kakazu was completely shot up and burned during the next three hours. Fourteen American tanks were destroyed in and around the village, many by mines and 47mm antitank guns, others by suicide close-attack units, and more by artillery and mortar fire…. A majority of the tank crew members were still living after the tanks had been disabled, but many were killed by enemy squads that forced the turret lids open and threw in grenades.”
What did my grandfather have to say about this battle?
Not a word.
He never told anybody about what happened that day. Like most men in his generation, my grandfather preferred silence to expressing how he felt about the horrors of combat and the struggles and emotions of coming home.
I wish he had met someone who could have helped him tell his story and share it with others. After all, if your life does not become a story, silence will become the story of your life.