Letters from the Good War

A running series of World War II letters written by a Navy Seabee who served in the South Pacific theatre taking the reader through the entire war experience.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

The Americanization of a Village

                                                                                7/28/44
Dear Mom,
We hear so much about the havoc and destruction in Europe that we take pity on the populations there. We are like healthy people watching cripples, and we have no way of understanding their plight. Only a cripple can know what being a cripple is like.
Here the destruction is far less drastic. We have no big cities, only the torrid forests and small, unimportant villages. Yet, the local village in this area demonstrated for me on a small scale what war can do to someone's familiar back yard or field.

On the day that I first landed in this small, tattered village, I tried to reconstruct in my mind what it must have been like before the war. I saw stuccoed mansions, and cute thatched homes. I saw green fields, running springs, flourishing flower gardens, small children walking down the country road lined with blossoming trees, that passed through the center of the village. I could see it all as if it were still there. It took little imagination, and the longer I remain here the more realistic the scene becomes.

The ruins left me with that picture. But now those remnants have disappeared.

What I saw that day of my arrival was actually a town that had undergone a terrific naval barrage. Every structure, cozy bungalow, and thatched cottage was gutted and torn by bomb fragments. While no doubt the Japanese had changed the town considerably from what it was, they made use of its buildings. One home became a dispensary, another a headquarters, another a brothel. The Japs made use of every house. But the Americans are different. We are accustomed to using automotive and mechanical devices when waging war and building things. Narrow country roads and pretty homes don't fit our requirements for creating a base. So we change everything.

On that first day, the church, a simple stucco chapel with a corrugated tin roof and mahogany pews, had been completely riddled with machine gun bullets such that the plaster was crumbling from so many holes. Sections of the tin roof were falling off and not a window was left. Today both the army and navy are using the chapel in the very same condition it was in when I first saw it. Suffering least from the bombardment, a few of the sturdiest stucco mansions with mahogany verandas and attractive shutters were still standing. Some had antique furniture inside.

When I first arrived the army converted one of the homes into a headquarters. An order was flashed: Send a patrol into the hills to rescue two wounded Americans with two Jap prisoners.Orders such as this were common. The invasion was over, but the results were still ongoing.

As trucks and Jeeps ground sour rice into the earth, its stench clung to the air. Filth was everywhere. Rotting food manufactured flies by the second. A European car was a curiosity. A few cheaply made Jap trucks were the only things mechanized. With bullets and shells scattered helter skelter everywhere, souvenirs were plentiful. On the beach old European and Japanese vessels stood wrecked and desolate, their hulks combed over by us curious Americans.

The only unmarred remains were the crystal clear springs and gurgling brooks that crossed the town in a checkered pattern. These still flowed, somehow revealing the original quaint atmosphere that the village once had.

I found children's shoes scattered about, European footwear, European literature and children's primers, all evidence of a quiet, pleasing civilization of mothers and fathers, sons and daughters. In some dismembered front yards, roses still survived and picket fences still stood in defiance of the bombs and bullets.

Not far from the village, in a pretty green glen beneath low branching trees, there was a small burial ground overlooking the bay. During scarcely twenty-five years, no more than a dozen people were buried there. It wasn't hard to surmise that each grave had a yarn to tell. A man with a European name had died at the age of forty-two. A woman died at twenty-three. A child lived only two weeks, June to July 1939. The stones were carefully carved, awesomely spelling out human sentiments of devotion and love. They were unlike our burial stones. Small thatched canopies were constructed over the length of each grave and an inscription in glass was framed at the head. A small spring ran through this hollow to the ocean, as if to keep the dead cool in the tropical heat.

Everything has changed. The grand scale of Americans in action has dwarfed and crushed everything. The weaker structures were razed and enormous warehouses now occupy their sites. After tarpaulins were thrown over their roofs to cover the bullet holes, the mansions became offices. The once green lawns have been trampled into dust. A supply depot now stands next to the chapel. The streets have been widened, filled with the hustle and bustle of Jeeps and trucks that kick up swirling, choking dust. Telephone poles dotting the area support a criss-crossing network of wires. Even the once clear brooks have been made into drainage ditches. The beach is coated with oil slick from the big freighters that tie up to docks only one hundred feet from the shore.

I don't recognize the burial ground now. Stones have been stripped away, name plates torn off the graves, broken glass strewn everywhere. A blue mark on one grave serves as an elevation point for the surveyors. A chipped stone on another grave bears witness to some American boy souvenir hunting. A road now passes through this once green paradise, and dust and mud insult the sturdy graves. In war there's no respect for the dead.

Now beside the Stars and Stripes a European flag flies over this unrecognizable village. Will the original inhabitants ever return? I wonder. The hundreds of thousands of dollars spent excavating, building warehouses and ditches will leave a permanent scar on this place. To bring it back to its former luxuriousness would cost countless millions. The fields and brooks and burial ground are gone forever. The spirit that once pervaded this green valley can never be revived. Those poor people.

The Americanization of a village.
I guess this letter is quite impersonal, but perhaps it will help you visualize what it's like here, what I see.