Discovering Grandpa Huth
Sometimes it is the smallest of things that can turn an idea or a thought in to something more. Often times with me it can be a passing phrase read in a book or a news story that can inspire random musings in my mind. Other times it is some piece of theater or television that sparks my creative nature and inspires me to write. In this case it would be sifting through a box of old photos as I worked on another creative outlet and having everything fall into place at the right moment and the right time. Everything has led to a discovering of the man my Grandfather was and a greater understanding of who I am and the wonderful and sometimes tragic origins of my mother’s family.
At some moment or another we all think of our pasts and what our family tree is like, maybe we had to work on it for a school project or maybe we just get an itch to know where we come from but for whatever the reason it is always a journey of self discovery. I don’t know why I opened an account at Ancestry.com only that the whole idea intrigued me. I knew that linking to my dad’s side of the family would be difficult since my Grandpa Joe was a first generation American and his father my great grandfather had come over from Europe; they were a family of glass makers and factory workers looking to follow the American dream. My mother’s family would be far easier since I had seen some of the histories that the family had worked up at the last reunion we made it home for. Like anything else as soon as the newness had worn off I stopped using my account. I would let the membership lapse and then restart it when I felt the need to play with the program some more until finally while scanning photos on to my computer I stumbled across grandpa Ed’s medical records and my journey was begun. The culmination of this journey happening while watching Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg’s new mini series on HBO, The Pacific, which led to the understanding of a long unconsidered portion of my grandfather’s life.
My Grandpa Ed was born on May 19th 1922 into a family of 11 that included his twin sister. It would be some 52 years later when I would enter into his life. Until now I had no real idea of the hardships he faced. Due in part to my parents living in North Dakota some hundreds of miles from where both sides of my family continue to live ,my relationship with my grandpa Ed was a unique one. This absence of physical contact contributed greatly to the dearth of knowledge of my grandfather’s early life. Before the end of the 1970’s my grandfather had seven grandchildren, four boys and three girls, my cousins Todd and Ty, my older brother Rob and I, my younger sister Katie and my cousins Shannon and Shenssa. My four cousins at the time lived near grandpa and their relationships with him were something I cannot relate to or even comment on, they were relationships based on closeness, grounded in that deep sense of family my grandfather had. For my brothers and sister and I we were held in a somewhat special place in my grandfather’s heart, something my mother would point out on numerous occasions. We were the only ones of his grandchildren to ever receive nicknames from him, when we visited we were treated like guests. Todd and Ty would have to help with chores around grandpa’s house while Rob and I played. He would use the tools in the warehouse shop to cut us wooden bowie knives to fight with or buy us fishing rods to use in the pond, little things that showed he cared because that closeness that was there with my cousins was somewhat harder with us when we were there two weeks out of a year and more than three years between visits. I can remember trying to creep down the wooden steps in his house early in the morning, only to have him hear me and call me down. I remember walking in to sit on a rickety high-backed chair in the kidney machine room and watching him go through the daily rituals that allowed him to live. Sitting with him as he watched Good Morning America and wishing we could watch cartoons or that he would offer me a sour ball from the huge bowl of candy that always sat near his chair. I thought of many things in those days all of them the stuff of young children dreams never thinking about what had brought him to that point in his life, never considering the things he must have seen and done or what made him who he was and ultimately made my mother who she was which lead to me being me.
My grandpa Ed passed away in 1986, once again the distance played a factor in my relationship with him as only my mother was able to attend the funeral, I would not be able to visit his grave till many years later. I am saddened to think that he might not have known what a fundamental part of my childhood and character he was and those brief moments spent at Whistling Pines, that I could not let him know that I loved those days spent in that magical place, the times when everything seemed to slow and in his own unique way he showed me how he felt. It is sad that only after some twenty four years do I begin to ask questions about him and begin to understand who he was and in doing so hope to help those members of my family who didn’t get a chance to know him understand him better.
My grandfather came from a large family of German descent, a hard working family that typifies western Pennsylvania. As with any large family living in America at the end of the First World War times were hard and providing for a his twelve children and his wife proved a difficult task for my great grandfather Conrad and as happens even now he would drink to help cope. During those times he would become verbally abusive and threatening which forced my Grandfather to become closer with his brothers and sisters and my great grandmother Loretta something that would foster a strong maternal instinct within him. This is not the sort of thing one talks about easily nor is it a topic of proper conversation around the dinner table but it is a fact of life and while I don’t think my great grandfather was physically abusive, I can’t really be sure. I do know that because of his father’s stern attitude and work ethic my grandfather was equally stern and demanding of his children and yet showed a capacity for kindness well beyond what one would think possible.
His education was cut short due in equal parts to his feelings of inadequacy about his clothes, the looking poor in comparison to more well to do classmates and his trouble seeing in his left eye from a bout of diphtheria in his early childhood. He was an average student who had to work at it and was often caught daydreaming. Due to his vision problems he had problems understanding the homework and since the family did not have enough money he could not afford glasses, this would lead to him leave school in the ninth grade and begin working. In those days the emphasis on education was not the overriding factor in finding employment, companies wanted hard workers more than they wanted educated ones and so he had no problem finding odd jobs. Prior to his enlistment in the Marine Corp in 1942 he was working at an aluminum mill for six months. As much as my grandpa home life, early childhood and school career shaped who he would become it is the enlistment in the Marines during WWII which would define the rest of his life.
Shortly after completing boot camp my grandfather would end up undergoing what at the time was called a neuropsychiatric evaluation. He had been a repeat visitor in the sick ward at his duty station with numerous complaints, chief among them lower back pain. I have to confess that at this point in my research I became very angry both at what I was reading and what passed as expert opinion at the time. During the Second World War military doctors were far more concerned with soldier and sailors shirking their duty, in essence being a coward than diagnosing the underlying problem. I could take the medical records to any modern psychiatrist and from just the family history they could tell you what was going on with my grandfather but I will get to that in a minute. As far as the lower back pain goes, it was noted that he wouldn’t notice the pain during strenuous work unless specifically asked about it obviously meaning he is faking it. I’m sorry but the blue collar mentality prevalent in that area and instilled in these men at those times was to work through the pain and you don’t complain about it. His back was x-rayed and some exploratory surgery was done but nothing found again they concluded he was faking it to avoid duty, again the overwhelming feeling of the time was get those boys back out there. My mother had lower back pain for years before they found a bone chip rolling around on the nerve that was being hidden by muscle and that was using modern technology so without being there I won’t say my grandpa was faking anything. Now back to his using all this as a way to avoid his duty and the statements he made that he would like to be released from service to take care of his mother, my great grandmother Loretta. In the detailed and I do mean detailed notes of that family history he reveal s just why he is having so much trouble in the corps and why it is easier for him at the hospital where is treat nicely and asked politely to do things. He comes from a family where his father is loud and verbally abusive this makes him nervous and jittery. It tends to make him shy away from authority figures that use loud voices and harsh words to get their point across and responds better to alternative forms of instruction. I mean how dumb they were, it took me all of five minutes to figure that out. In the end they certified him fit for service and he returned to his unit.
He was part of the 1st Marine Division and saw action at the Battle of Peleliu, this is where I began to understand just what everyone who served in the Pacific had to deal with in terms of personal horrors. There was plenty of criticism for the HBO series the Pacific and the way they chose to portray the gruesome nature of what the men who served in that particular theater of war faced, but in my opinion if you had a father, uncle, grandfather, great grandfather or know someone who served in the Pacific then watching the miniseries will open your eyes. Peleliu was a meat grinder, it was thought that the men of the 1st marines would take the island in three days the stark reality was that it would take two months and cost the allied forces almost 2000 men dead and nearly triple that wounded. After a month of fighting the1st marines had lost over 1200 men and had five thousand wounded, effectively knocking out more than a third of the divisions strength. The Japanese forces had altered their tactic at that point of the war using a strategy that would become standard operating procedure in that area of the world for decades to come. The tiny Island was riddled with caves, bunkers, pill boxes and hiding spots that the Japanese forces dug into forcing the Marines to fight inch by bloody inch. At one point during the assault on a place known as Bloody Nose Ridge Capt Everett Pope lead his ninety men against a heavily fortified Japanese position, they became trapped at the base of the ridge and held off the Japanese counter attacks throughout the night, when they ran short of ammo the threw empty ammo boxes, jagged pieces of coral, and used their knives and bare hands. When dawn broke the following morning nine men survived Pope among them. This was what it was like on Peleliu and some where amidst all the death and destruction, the struggle for one human to live and another to die my grandfather was struggling along with his fellow Marines. What exactly he did during that month long struggle that the 1st Marines saw, we can’t be sure of, from my understanding he didn’t talk about this time in his life much. His service record could shed light on the subject but since the massive fire in 1973 that gutted the St. Louis building where all these records were stored we can never be sure of just what he did at Peleliu. Shortly after watching the episodes of the Pacific concerning the battle I discussed it with my cousin Bo who never got a chance to meet grandpa having been born the year after his death. Bo thought that our grandfather has served in a rear support capacity and wasn’t a front line member of the division, however since he was a member of the MEF he had to have been in some form of combat, his medical records list him as seeing combat there. In any event the fighting at Peleliu was some of the bloodiest of the war; it served little purpose outside of giving the pacific command a taste of what it would be in for as allied forces made their way towards the Japan. The original reasoning behind the attack was to use the islands airfield as a base from which to launch the retaking of the Philippines and beyond that to bombing runs against the heart of the Japanese Empire. After the battle the island never saw significant action in the push on the Japanese mainland and the loss of life seemed like a waste. One other thing of note did happen during the battle which would impact my grandpa’s future, the Japanese army began to infiltrate the American lines at night hoping to isolate portions of their defensive positions and make them more vulnerable to attack. The marines would combat this tactic by having two man foxholes where one marine could sleep while the other would stand watch.
April 1, 1945 the men of the 1st division along with the sixth marine division and the 10th army would invade the Ryukyu Islands of Okinawa once again my grandfather was among the marines that participated in the battle. The eight-one day battle was if possible even more horrific than Peleliu. At Peleliu allied forces had only to deal with the entrenched Japanese forces, at Okinawa they faced not only the Japanese Army but also Okinawans forced into military service and hundreds of civilians which the Japanese would turn into living bombs. If that was not enough the marines faced the elements as well, torrential down pours turned the whole island to mud making it next to impossible for the mechanized forces to advance. It also made evacuating the wounded difficult, the Japanese dead were left to rot sometimes by their own men and as the marines advanced they were just as likely to stumble a dead body while digging their foxholes as they were to find a booby trap. It was nearly eighty-one days of hell with nearly 13,000 causalities and twice that wounded for the allied forces and a devastating 110 thousand Japanese dead, almost ten thousand captured and estimated 42,000 to 150,000 civilians killed this was perhaps one reason why President Truman chose to use the bomb to end the war quickly, the loss of life at Okinawa was staggering and that was just to one island an attack on Japan’s home island would be even more difficult.
During a counter attack by the Japanese 23rd on April 12 it was determined that the American front line was vulnerable to night infiltration but that due to their superior firepower any offensive attack against the American position was extremely dangerous and the Japanese reverted to their defensive positions and strategy. It is these night infiltration that would change my grandfather’s life forever. While manning his defensive position on night of April 11 a grenade went off near his position, in the ensuing chaos he and his fellow Marines opened fire, my grandfather fired his weapon three times into a body he saw moving near his position thinking it was a Japanese infiltrator. As the morning broke and the smoke cleared it was discovered that the man my grandfather fired on was a member of his own unit, what he had been doing out of his position or who had thrown the grenade that triggered the firefight is not known but was is known is that it devastated my Grandfather. He was admitted to the sick list on the 12 of April 1945 with a diagnosis of psychoneurosis, anxiety neurosis and an inability to control his emotions; he was evacuated to the fleet hospital at Pearl Harbor on the 23 of May 1945 effectively ending his tour of duty in the Pacific. The Marine Corps official story is that my Grandfather did not kill his fellow Marine; the initial grenade explosion resulted in a fatal wound to the marine’s head and the three rounds that my grandfather fired were not the cause of his death. My Grandfather would never see it that way, he was so overcome with grief and guilt that he could not even think about killing another human being. He was convinced that his guilt could be assuaged if only he could talk to the dead marine’s family and explain it to them. However he never got that chance the corps would not supply the information and a potential friendly fire death was not something they were going to advertise while still trying to sell war bonds. Once again I was upset by the total lack of skill the medical community had with dealing with post traumatic stress disorder or shell shock as they knew it in those days. The men that came back from war would be haunted for years after those horrible days in the Pacific, my grandfather among them. The one positive thing to come from all the medical attention he received after the incident would be finding the start of his kidney problems. By the 14th of September 1945 he was transferred to the marine barracks at Mare Island California to await an honorable discharge after being found medically unfit to return to active duty.
His experiences in the Marine Corps made my grandfather into the man I knew, he was quiet, reserved and yet at times he had the same quirky sense of humor that I have come to recognize in myself. He married my grandmother in 1947 and they had six children, my mother and her sister along with four brothers. Haunted by his experiences both growing up and during the war his marriage crumbled and he was left to raise the six children on his own. My mother has shared the stories about the trials and tribulations of growing up with me and that is a subject of a later work suffice it to say my grandfather was not an easy man for my uncles and my mother and aunt to live with but they made it through and the bonds of love and family brought them closer. I would come to know my grandpa as a kind yet stern older man with a large heart that called me twig and was always happy to share a piece of candy with me. I knew nothing of what he had lived through nor what demons haunted him things which I now understand in greater detail.
The journey that I started on with this project has opened me up to a greater understanding of the man I got my middle name from, a sad yet compelling tale about family. It is a tale about discovering those things that we sometimes don’t talk about and yet when we do they open our eyes and help us to see what it is that goes into making us the people we are. Grandpa Ed taught me many things many of which I sure he never realized and some I am still discovering, it is an endless journey but one I do gladly.
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