This past Saturday, Dec. 7, marked the 78th observance of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. My Grandpa Mac was working in the Kansas coalfields in 1941, living across from the railroad tracks in a small wood-framed home with my Grandma Thelma and my dad, who at the time was 8 years old.
Grandpa, who went by Squirm, and his brothers, Tince and Red, AKA Doug and Glen, drove to Topeka to enlist in the Army on Dec. 10, which was also Grandpa’s 31st birthday.
Grandpa, like so many others who have seen combat, declined to share his experiences – despite my refusal to take no for an answer.
My father didn’t share his personal war stories either, and he died before I had the chance to break him down. Grandpa Mac, however, lived until he was 76 and I helped care for him the last few months of his life.
One evening I gave him his daily glass of ice water with a capful of Old Crow on top for taste and then lit his Pall Mall. He looked me in the eye and out of the blue asked if I still wanted to hear war stories. I hadn’t mentioned them in a decade, but he remembered.
We talked almost every evening for weeks. When we finished his oral history, I had a newfound appreciation for him and Dad and my son, Shane, and Uncle Red and Uncle Tince and all the other men in my family who answered the call at one time or another.
Grandpa was short, but he was still a man of stature. He enlisted as a private but they sent him to Officers Candidate School. He left with the rank of second lieutenant and came home a captain. His matriculation through the ranks was extraordinary. He would retire a lieutenant colonel. Not bad for the son of an Oklahoma Indian agent. He never went to college and his public education wasn’t any better than mediocre, but he had natural intelligence, intense curiosity and he read enough books to fill a public library.
After OCS they sent him to Colorado to learn how to snow ski and fight against Hitler’s Nazis somewhere in Europe. After learning he could ski like an Olympian and shoot the eyes out of a chicken while doing so, the Army in its wisdom sent my grandpa to the jungles of Burma, where he was placed on detached service leading Chinese soldiers loyal to Chiang Kai-shek and with a grudge to settle with the Japanese.
He said the Chinese were brave and, once they were properly trained, exceptional fighters. He served under the overall command of Gen. Joe Stillwell in what was known as the CBI Campaign – China, Burma, India – and the weeks-long battles in which he fought often ended with hundreds of casualties on both sides – but these were not nearly as deadly as the diseases that killed more troops with more efficiency than any army.
He admitted with a tiny note of embarrassment that combat provided the most exciting moments of his life. He said the difference between a warrior and a coward was one of degrees. Fear could get the best of any man, he said, if he spent too much time thinking about all the things that could go wrong, like dying.
He was awarded two Bronze Stars with Valor and one Purple Heart. The Chinese also bestowed a handful of honors on him when the war ended.
The citation for his first Bronze Star said that 1st Lt. George McMurdo was patrolling with Chinese troops through the highland jungles when what was supposed to be a friendly unit approached from the south. They were not Chinese. They were Japanese dressed in Chinese uniforms. The two groups were about 40 feet away when the bullets started to fly. The fight lasted until the ammunition was gone. Miraculously, the Chinese suffered only a few casualties while the Japanese were annihilated. “Our gunners (artillery) were better than theirs.”
That was not the most exciting moment of his war. That happened near the end in 1945 when they were marching prisoners of war to the British, who would babysit them. Nobody was quite sure of what to do with POWs and the tension was high. Japanese soldiers rarely surrendered. It was that kind of war.
My notes from my talks with Grandpa in 1986 say this: “It was damn hot. The skeeters were angry and so were the men. They kept telling us the war was going to end, but it never did and some of these men didn’t think it ever would. There was talk of killing the prisoners, which would have been a war crime, something I could not abide.
“Things were getting tense and I stopped the march for a smoke break. That’s when a (expletive) snub-nosed monkey jumped out of the (expletive) canopy and landed right on my (expletive) back. I emptied round after round into that little (expletive) and made sure it was (expletive) dead.
“The men got a good laugh out of that but it put a stop to the murder talk. And that, Doug, was the most exciting moment of the war for me.”
These days we don’t seem to appreciate the significance of Pearl Harbor and the lessons we learned that day – and what we would learn about ourselves as a nation over the next few years. That’s a pity.