I’ve always had a fascination with history; I couldn't really tell you why because I don’t know what it is about it that captures my interest. I’m a pretty introverted guy so I spend a lot of my time looking into it. I particularly enjoy learning about World War II; after all, my grandfather served in the Pacific which I always thought was neat. He rarely talked about it though, I still asked him about it when ever he came to visit. I was pretty young back when I used to see him a lot so it didn’t occur to me that I might have brought back bad memories.
I don’t think I ever upset him though; after all, he was a kindergarten teacher and was probably used to kids asking a lot of dumb questions. He only ever answered when I asked about his time out of combat, like the pranks he and his platoon would pull on he each other and things like that. I eventually only asked questions about innocent things, like what kind of food they had in their rations. “Food is a strong word” was his reply (still makes me chuckle a bit, the way he said it) but my curiosity never left me. I once asked my mom if he’d ever told her any stories, but she told me that he never talked about it. She did tell me that he’d won a bronze star which I’d never known up to that point. I asked her how. She said she’d tell me if she knew; she also told me that I should stop bothering grandpa with questions and, “let sleeping dogs lie.”
One day, I decided that I wanted to figure out why he never talked about his service. I thought I kind of knew the answer already, but when I asked my grandmother if he had any sort of issues after the war she assured me that he never got PTSD, flashbacks, nightmares, or even seemed depressed. The closest thing to despair he ever showed was when the neighbors dog would bark through the night and he’d say something to the effect of, “I slept better at Iwo Jima.” I thought this was a little odd but I stopped thinking about it after a while.
For the last few years of his life, my grandpa was rarely around. I only saw him on the holidays and the subject of the war was never the topic of conversation. When he died a couple years ago, it was very sudden as he hadn’t had any health issues aside from the normal things that come from old age. It was devastating for me and my family, and took us all some time before we felt like we could move on. My grandmother had given me a small but heavy red wooden chest with an old rusted lock on it. She told me that he’d kept some memorabilia from the war in it, and thought I should have it. She said she couldn’t find the key but that didn’t bother me too much as I didn’t have the will to open it at the time, and if I did that old lock wouldn't stop me.
This morning, while digging through my closet, I found that old chest again, now covered in dust. I felt a flood of grief come back to me for a moment when I placed my hand on its rough wooden top, and thought about how I’d neglected his last (sort of) gift. I quickly collected myself, picked up the chest and walked it over to my desk. I dusted it off with my hands and examined the rusted lock. It was one of those old generic locks with a keyhole like the kind you see in cartoons except this one was in very poor condition. I remembered that my grandmother had lost the key before she gave it to me, so I gave her a call to see if she found it, but had no luck. I tried for a minute to pick it, but sadly hundreds of hours of Bethesda games had done little to improve my actual lock-picking skills. So I decided upon the most rational course of action, hitting it with a hammer. Damaging my grandpa’s chest hurt me far more than it did the inanimate lock but it gave way with a thud, and I was able to pry it open at last.
Inside was a large, leather bound book with a picture of my grandpa, grandma, mom, and uncle standing in a park. They all had bright, wide smiles, except for my Grandpa who never gave open-mouth smiles. My Grandmother used to joke that he was afraid of another wasp flying into his mouth (another?) and my grandpa would just chuckle. I opened the book to find an array of pictures of my family, some of which I had seen before. I flipped through the pages, and saw plenty of pictures of my mother and uncle from when they were young. There was a handful of pictures with me as a baby, and just a couple of my cousins. As I flipped through the pages I found a few that caught my attention.
One was a black and white of my grandfather as a young man in a marines ceremonial uniform, something which I’d never seen, and another was of him dressed for combat, sitting on a log with his back to a beach, holding what seemed to be a coconut with a bayonet sticking out it. I could just about see some other marines in the background. It was pretty cool, but these were the only pictures like that in the photo album. I flipped through the book some more and found some pictures of him with various kindergartners, some were with the whole class and others were just with a couple kids. In the all of them, he had his same closed and small smile, something that made me realize just how much I missed him. He had always told me how much he loved all his classes and how much he missed teaching; I asked why he stopped, and he said that he just got a bit too old.
I put the book down and turned my attention back to the chest. There was a couple more items of interest left. The first was a bayonet in surprisingly good condition, which would have made my day. The second was a manila envelope hidden beneath some bubble wrap at the bottom of the chest. It was a bit worn out, but inside were about a dozen or so black and white pictures. The first I looked at were of him and another marine. Both looked a bit haggard and dirty with various rips and stains of I-don’t-want-to-know-what on their uniforms. They were standing in front of a tent with their rifles slung over their backs. The next picture was, well… unsettling at first. My grandfather was standing with his rifle drawn next to a palm tree.
There was a few bullet holes stuck in the base of the tree along with what was certainly blood splattered against it. At the foot of the tree was a dead Japanese soldier. The details are difficult to make out but he was slumped against the tree trunk with his hands resting on his stomach. The low quality of the photo robbed it of its goriness, but I could assume what had happened. My grandfather was smiling in the photo, but he wasn’t looking at the camera so I didn’t think he was posing for the photo.
I didn’t feel disgusted by this, but it was rather upsetting to see my grandpa seeming to take joy in such a grim situation. Perhaps, I was assuming too much. I had no idea what happened here, or what my grandpa was smiling at. With this in mind, I took a deep breath and continued to sift through the photos. The next couple I looked at weren’t anything particularly interesting, and were just pictures of the various islands he was probably stationed on. Then I came across a peculiar picture. It was of my grandpa in uniform standing with his back to what looked by a village. He was giving a piggyback ride to a young Japanese girl that looked to be about five or six. She was wrapped in a camouflage tarp that marines used to keep dry when it rained.
In the background, I could see a group of other villagers talking with some Marines. This might have taken place in Okinawa. I’d never actually asked if he’d ever fought there, but I guess it was a possibility. He had once told me that after a battle they had to occupy a small town. The children had been scared half to death by the sound of the battle that had taken place just two miles away, and the adults were having trouble calming them down. My grandpa had helped hand out spare rations to the locals, and had eventually earned their trust. He and a few of his buddies had even started playing games with the local children. My grandpa said that this was what made him want to become a kindergarten teacher after the war, and it was the closest thing to a combat story I ever got out of him.
When I put this photo aside, I realized that the pictures had writing scrawled on the back in pen. After noticing this I looked back on the previous photos. The one of him and the other Marine said, “Me and King ‘42.” Him with the dead soldier read, “...wasn’t me ‘43,” which only made me think that it was him who killed the man in the picture even more. The picture with the girl read, “Troubles almost over ‘45.” I thought this was a bit odd considering most soldiers thought the war was going to go on for at least a couple more years at that point. Then again I wouldn't be surprised if my grandpa stayed in the military for a bit after the war, and that picture could have been somewhere in Japan during the military occupation. Regardless, I put the picture aside and reached for a different one.
This was another of him with his rifle drawn, standing near what seemed to be a small wrecked, wooden house with ruined windows and a missing door. He was standing with one foot raised slightly while half standing on something. At first, I couldn’t tell what it was because of the quality of the old photo. It just looked like a camouflaged blob, and I thought it might have been a kit bag until I managed to make out what seemed to be a horribly broken arm with a hand that was missing a finger.
It was a small hand. I wasn’t really comprehending what I was seeing at that point. I looked back at my grandpa, and on his face was a wide, toothy, grin that I had never seen on him before. He looked like he was having the time of his life. I didn’t think it over though. I flipped the photo around and saw the very faded writing which read:
“A lot of fight in this one.”
I dropped the photos into the chest and shut it loudly. I then took it and shoved it into the deepest darkest corner of my closet. I decided it was best to let sleeping dogs lie.
Written by Czar Theodore III