The following is the first of a two-part guest post by Joseph Patton, a Library of Congress Junior Fellow working with the Veterans History Project this summer.
Last month, I found myself walking the National Mall in Washington, DC, after the sun had set and the lights blazed on the monuments. The way they are lit and the warm night air create something very sacred for me, especially around the National World War II Memorial, where I often end up. As I admired how peaceful it was, I overheard a tour guide behind me commenting on the importance of the memorial’s position between “Washington, the father of the country, and Lincoln, the great savior of the nation.” That deification bothered me, but it wasn’t until I read the inscription on the monument by Admiral Chester W. Nimitz that I understood why.
“They fought together as brothers-in-arms. They died together and now they sleep side by side. To them we have a solemn obligation.”
Through all of the legend forging, we must remember that it was individuals–regular people alongside presidents and generals–who were responsible for these great achievements. This element of humanity is easy to forget and often gets lost in the history-telling process. In our minds, we regard historical figures as the inevitable heroes we perceive today, but isn’t it an even better story when you consider that they were just like you or me?
This past June, I began my time as a Library of Congress Junior Fellow working with the Veterans History Project (VHP). My task has been to examine collections of World War II veterans whose service took place in the Navy during the Pacific theater of operations. It has been an incredible experience, and the humanity within the pages of war diary manuscripts and the aged voices of the interviewees have impacted me on a deeply personal level.
Often overshadowed in modern memory by the simultaneous combat in Europe and North Africa, the Pacific theater held vast new challenges for the U.S. military. This meant that all branches of the armed forces became involved in various ways, and the men and women serving there had to learn and adapt quickly to their new surroundings. Under any other circumstances, these islands and tropical locales would be considered paradise. In war, however, they became hell, and the horror stories that ensued stay with many of the surviving veterans to this day.
Virginia native Garnett Moneymaker joined the Navy in 1937. A seasoned veteran by the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he disliked many aspects of life in the Navy, particularly the deference given to officers. However, after the attack, he signed on once more and continued sailing aboard his ship, the light-cruiser USS Boise (CL-47). In his diaries donated to VHP, Moneymaker recorded his daily thoughts and actions as he and his comrades constantly readied themselves and the ship. On the night of October 11, 1942, the Boise and other American ships became involved in a deadly brawl with Japanese vessels off the coast of the island of Guadalcanal. History would remember the action as the Battle of Cape Esperance, but what Moneymaker recorded in his journals minute by minute in the heat of the fight is a more personal description of these events. He wrote, “Can’t say just how I feel, but I am definitely scared. Just feel sorta small.” Moneymaker was hit by shrapnel above his right eye during the fight, but survived and served aboard the Boise until being transferred in April 1944. He eventually became an anesthesiologist.
Not all veterans’ stories end this well. LeRoy Combs hailed from Nebraska and joined the Navy in June 1941. Like Moneymaker, Combs was assigned to the Boise and kept a diary of his experiences. In contrast to his shipmate’s, Combs’ diary stops rather abruptly. The details revealed in Moneymaker’s diary help to explain this mystery. In October 1942, Moneymaker described the Battle of Cape Esperance and noted afterwards that 107 of his shipmates on the Boise had been killed. Combs is believed to be one of those men. Included in Combs’ collection is a letter home to his family in which he talks about his experiences on ship and wonders about everyone back home. The letter is dated October 5, 1942, and bears a stateside postmark of October 20. By the time his family received the letter, Combs had been dead for more than a week.
It’s strange to think of a letter written almost 50 years before I was born having such an impact on me, but it was only the tip of the iceberg compared to some other pieces of correspondence that I encountered in the VHP archive.
George Bender was a Californian who enlisted in the Navy in 1941 and was assigned to the heavy-cruiser USS Houston (CA-30). After months of fierce combat, in late February 1942, the Houston was sunk in the Battle of Sunda Strait. What was unknown to American command and the public for a time was that there were survivors of the sinking who had been captured and sent to different places under Japanese rule as prisoner of war laborers. Among these men was George Bender, who went to work on the now infamous Burma Railway. The Bender collection includes a postcard dated August 1942, reassuring his mother of his well-being: “Dear mother, am a prisoner of war, not wounded, in good health, love to every-one, love George.” Surely she was relieved to know that her son was still alive, and more sparse postcards followed as the war continued. Unfortunately, also included in the collection is a Western Union telegram dated September 1945, after the war’s end, that states, “I deeply regret to inform you that your son George Frederick Bender Seaman Second Class USN, has lost his life while in service of his country.” Her son had died of disease in May 1945, almost four full months before.
Every collection here has a story to tell and George Bender’s is particularly striking. Only a small part of his experiences can be examined, but it still packs an emotional punch that reveals the humanity within the horror of war.
The human element of war can be seen in more than stories of death. Join me next week as I explore a few additional collections I have come across in the treasure trove that is the Veterans History Project. In the meantime, please visit the VHP website at www.loc.gov/vets, and search the database for a few gems of your own.