Roving war correspondent Ernie Pyle was famous for his no-nonsense writing about the American soldier’s war experience during World War II.
Pyle’s matter-of-fact honesty was understood by Americans across the country – from big cities to small farming communities. His words were to the point, his ruminations direct in a way few writers writing about war appreciate.
Was the fighting of 1943 or 1944 less complicated than it is today? Probably not, but communication from far off places was certainly more difficult. Words could not be wasted.
Pyle was the master of economy of language in war.
And so it is fitting that I begin my Atoll Journey, which retraces the World War II itinerary of my grandfather, the then 17-year-old Marine Edward W. Shiok, by paying my respects to Ernie Pyle.
Killed by a Japanese bullet through the temple on Ie Shima near Okinawa in April 1945, Pyle was laid to rest, as he would surely have wanted it, with the soldiers whose respect he strived to earn, and whose love he most certainly did. Pyle is buried at the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu – the “Punchbowl.”
Flanked by two “Unknown” soldiers, Pyle’s headstone is identical to the 34,000 others dotting the peaceful landscape of the volcanic crater. Looking out, I know full well that my expanding experience of the Pacific was made possible by the sacrifices of those buried beneath me – of men like my grandfather and so many others. It is in their presence that I feel the full weight of the peace their sacrifices allow me. I take a knee, pray for guidance, and then knock on Pyle’s headstone with my knuckles for good luck. Who knows if he or any of them can hear me? In my peaceful world I like to think they do.
In the distance a funeral team from the U.S. Navy assembles by a path to an outdoor chapel. As I make my way toward them, the rifle team marches into place. Three young sailors stand at attention by a small table supporting a brass-colored box. Inside are the remains of a sailor being laid to rest. After approaching the civilian funeral director and explaining my journey, I am given permission to bear witness and take photographs.
The ceremony, not unlike the thousands that have come before, is precise and solemn. The American flag is unfolded, the minister reads a Bible passage selected by the sailor’s daughter who flew in from Florida, the rifle team fires its salute, Taps is heard in the distance, the flag is refolded and given to the family, and the funeral team exits with the same respectful pace with which it entered.
The ceremony honors the service of one specific sailor, but by extension, all who have served or are serving in locations around the world. I think of my grandfather, who left my then 15-year-old grandmother – his sweetheart – to join the Marines in September 1941. I think of friends back from tours in Iraq, of an embedded reporter in Afghanistan whose work I follow online, and all the announcements of a Stryker Brigade from Fort Richardson near my home in Anchorage, Alaska. I accompany the family of this sailor to the newest internment wall to conclude the ceremony. We bow our heads as a final prayer is offered by the minister.
The daughter touches her fingers to her lips, and then to the box, which she notes is hot from sitting in the afternoon sun. She murmurs a quiet, tearful prayer. She squeezes her husband’s hand. “Finally here,” she says. “Where he belongs. After all these years.”
With her permission the attendant screws oversized bolts through the stone door to hold it shut. A trade wind blows through the palms. The sweet scent of volcanic dirt overturned by the
landscape crew nearby fills the air.
The value of returning the remains of a service member lost to conflict overseas is impossible to measure. For loved ones such a measurement defies human understanding because the emotional experience is so intense, so personal. In the best-case scenario, families feel a sense of closure or the conclusion of an over-extended grief period. For some, the grief continues like a visible scar of a wound suffered long ago. Yet for the families of those who never made it home, loss is a phantom pain that aches like a limb no longer there. The brain knows, the heart remembers, and the soul aches for reunion. This is the surest reason for doing all we can to ensure that Americans who fall in conflicts abroad are brought home whenever possible using all means necessary.
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Jeremy Edward Shiok is a writer from Anchorage, Alaska. His current book project, Atoll: A Historical Journey to the Central Pacific, retraces the World War II service timeline of his grandfather through the Pacific. Read more at www.atolljourney.weebly.com.