If you were to visit the South Pacific islands today, you would likely be overwhelmed by the beauty of sandy, palm-laden beaches and by the soft, tropical breezes. Nowhere on the planet is the sea bluer nor the sky more peaceful. I know because I grew up in this environment. There is one markedly ugly scar on this picture. If you were to look closely, you would see the rusty, metal reminders of a war that was staged on these scenic islands a mere half-century ago. It is in this setting where our story begins.
October, 1942: Ten months following the Japanese attack on U.S. military holdings in Hawaii, American troops are being expressed to strategic islands in the Pacific. Australia and New Zealand are in peril of falling into Japanese hands. Rabaul and other key islands have already been taken by the Asian swarm. Marines from troop transport ships have made a landing at a small, seemingly insignificant atoll in the Solomons called Guadalcanal. This will prove a costly gambit for the Americans. Always the game ones, U.S. Marines have dug in and begun their assault on Japanese positions.
It would be easy to forget that these stoic, tortured men represent families from across the land. They come from Brooklyn and Des Moines, Boise and Dallas, Baltimore and Del Mar. Not a town in America goes without a sacrifice of life for the cause. The whelming threat has brought a nation together against the firestorm of the Emperor’s best fighters.
Buffalo Bills coach, Marv Levy was once asked by a reporter if a particular game was a MUST WIN. “There has only been ONE must win” Levy replied, “and that was World War II.” You would have to be of a certain age to fully appreciate that sentiment. It seemed as if history hung in the balance.
Amidst the ranks of the young heroes in the group of Marines was a private from Shulerville, SC. He was rugged and handsome. No doubt he was lonely as well. He had left a new bride behind and she had just written telling him that he would soon be a daddy. Against the backdrop of war, with the sickness that accompanies the tropics, I’m sure he wondered if he had been wise when he enlisted just two years prior. Those had been days without any thought of war. Now the world was an inferno of strife.
I believe that war is the closest we come to experiencing Hell on earth. – young men thrown together to kill and to die. And die they did; hundreds upon thousands fell in this conflict.
I can see in my minds eye a routine patrol into the dense, island jungle. Steel pots pushed back on their heads, cigarettes lit and rifles in hand, a small band of Marines scouts for any sign of the enemy.
Suddenly, there is the report of a rifle…then another. The patrol drops to a defensive position. Machine gun fire follows, first one way, then another. As the smoke and the apparent threat clears the group begins to account for their comrades. One Marine lets out an expletive under his breath as he drops to one knee in the taller grass. Lying there is his buddy, felled by the sniper’s first shot. The young man lies still – too still. One leg is buckled under him, carbine still clutched in his right hand. His friend claws at his bloodied shirt, all the while calling his name.
It’s no use – the young private from South Carolina is dead. Like too many other men in this miserable war, his trip home will be in a pine box. It will be months before the body can be claimed by his family.
More than a life was lost on that day. One man’s heritage dissolved into thin air. He was forced to grow up, largely not knowing who he was. Soon his mother remarried and took her new husband’s name – Bailey. But the boy was not a Bailey. In fact, he was unsure of his identity. Although he yearned to know his father’s family, the silence that came from them told him that they did not reciprocate his feelings. The pain of being left behind was intense. His only attachment to this father he never knew was his posthumous Purple Heart and a few blurry photos. And these were things he treasured with all his heart.
One day the phone rang in a small cottage in Jacksonville, Florida. An answering machine picked up and gave its’ standard announcement. A voice on the other end dutifully left a message. “I’m looking for Gordon Bunch. This is Lonnie…”Before he could finish, a voice, a live, human voice overrode the machine on the other end. “This is Gordon Bunch.”
February 11, 1997: Two grown men walked toward one another in the lobby of the Ramada Motel. They looked familiar to one another, yet they were complete strangers. The two embraced and each unsuccessfully fought back tears. Fifty-four years had kept them apart, yet something wonderful had brought them together. You see, when that young man from Shulerville died at Guadalcanal, one of these men had lost a father and the other one, his closest brother.
As Lonnie and Gordon became acquainted over dinner, most of the other diners were oblivious to the miracle that was taking place. Few of us could appreciate the moment. I could see in the two mens faces a sorrow mixed with joy and satisfaction. It was the beginning of the end of a long journey for each of them.
Gordon looked a Lonnie. “Your voice sounds just like your dad’s!” I was amazed at his perceptiveness and a bit jealous. After all those years he could still hear his brother’s voice.