I am interested in the goddamn sad science of war.
Anzio, Italy 30 May 1945: The war is over. Lyn Crost stares out over the desolate plains of Anzio, her blue eyes burning under the midday sun. She still doesn't understand how the news of May 8, 1945 changed anything, how Eisenhower's radio broadcast could mean that the Germans had surrendered. She is still here among the bombed-out, stuccoed houses, the slim, spiny trees that scar the sky. The air is heavy with the ocean's salt, but she cannot hear the waves; the Anzio seaport lies just over the sloping hills that cushion the horizon. The soldiers' voices are swallowed by the wind tearing across the endless field. They are no more jubilant today, Memorial Day, than she remembers them on V-E Day; their mood is one of waiting, of yearning for home.
And now it is time for the ceremony. She balances her reporter's notebook on her knee and plucks a pencil from her Army-issued overcoat. She watches as Lt. General Lucian Truscott ascends the wooden platform and takes his place before the American flag. He stares out over the assembled soldiers, who have traveled from regiments all over Italy to attend this, the first peacetime memorial ceremony in Europe. His voice wavers as he launches into his speech honoring the 7,000 Allied soldiers killed during the brutal Battle of Anzio.
The Allies had intended to storm the beach, in the manner of the D-Day operation at Normandy, in order to draw German reinforcements out of Rome. But they had stalled too long on the beach, the Germans pinned the army in, and they were unable to break free until five months later, in May 1944. The siege was one of the most devastating of the war.
"We, your comrades, miss you," says Truscott. The battalion Crost is attached to, the 100th battalion, shipped out of the US in September 1943. It was comprised of 1,300 Japanese-American soldiers; by February 1944, there were 521 men remaining. Then, the US government issued a draft of Japanese-Americans, or Nisei, drawn mostly from Hawaii and internment camps on the mainland. These 3,800 new soldiers became the 442nd. The service of Japanese-Americans was unparalleled in the US Army. The 100th/442nd Battalion saw a 93 percent casualty rate and earned 9,486 Purple Hearts, more than any other unit in US military history.
Crost remembers the battlefield, but mostly, she remembers the men she marched alongside for those final months of the war. She thinks of her first night with the battalion in April 1945, how the men welcomed her as a fellow Hawaiian and then searched the French village for a feather mattress and a typewriter. They propped the typewriter on a sewing machine table. From then on she spent her nights perched on a stool, typing articles for the Honolulu Star-Tribune on translucent airmail paper.
General Truscott's speech ends and another soldier takes the stage to recite the Gettysburg Address. "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here," he intones.
Her memory drifts to the day she stood with several soldiers in a field flush with spring blossoms as they taught her how to shoot the guns. One soldier hacked at the soil with a shovel, scattering the wildflowers; his partner drove the base of the gun into the hole and pressed the topsoil smooth around it.
A week ago, she watched as Capt. Bert Nishimura doused a Nazi prisoner with delousing powder. As the Nazi stood before them, covered in white, pungent powder, his arrogance was undiminished. He said to Nishimura in a haughty voice: "America must first fight your people [the Japanese] and then the Russians." In that moment, Crost hated him and she stammered: "This is a regiment of Americans." The Jerry stared back at her, silent.
She believed all along that her boys were greater than the other American soldiers, the Nisei who fought valiantly for a country that had imprisoned their families, drafted them from internment camps and refused to grant them Medals of Honor. The German prisoners thought the Hawaiian boys "sort of crazy" for their reckless bravery in battle, but she loved them for it. These were men who had something definite to fight for; some of them died to prove they were not traitors, but Americans. "Go for Broke" read their regimental banner--and they did.
Before the memorial ceremony she had looked at the graves, marked by the fallen soldiers' dog tags. She had gazed out across the cemetery; white crosses stretched from where she stood back to the hills where the Germans lurked a year ago as the Anzio siege raged on. The image of the crosses burns, simply and unforgettably, in her mind. There is little that she will ever forget about this war.
She remembers March 26, 1945, when she traveled to Washington DC for her Army physical. They fitted her for a gas mask, checked her for lice and gave her liquid gas ointment. She thought then that the Army left little to the imagination, as to the dangers she'd face abroad; she wrote in her first article as a war correspondent "If you survive the paces they put you through, it's a cinch, you can do anything."
After receiving her uniform, she learned that seasoned war reporters did not wear the giant "C" (for correspondent) armband. When she went into a shop looking for the black-and-gold shoulder tabs favored by veteran reporters, the clerk pointed to a grizzled man in the back room. She approached the man and he dug in his pack for an extra set of tabs. She asked his name, and he replied, "Ernest Hemingway."
Soon after her arrival in Europe, she encountered another side of war. She saw gunners camped out not 100 feet from the body of a German soldier--but no one paid attention to him. While some soldiers fired the gun, others roasted a chicken they had captured.
She was one of the first American war correspondents to enter a Nazi labor camp outside Karlsruhe, Germany. Liberated prisoners pressed against her, telling her that they were fed only turnip soup, and ate the meat of horses killed by bombs. The German villagers crowded her too, saying they hadn't known anything about the camp until the French army had discovered it a few days before.
The next month passed in a blur of marching and fighting, until finally the Nazis surrendered on May 8. The 100th/442nd did not stop to celebrate but instead marched as usual. Crost felt as numbed as they did by the news, as though they were merely entering into the next stage of combat.
Later on, on July 3, 1945, Crost followed the trail of bodies left by the Nazi-forced death march of the Dachau prisoners as the Allies bore down on the camp. She walked along the train tracks leading into the camp, which was surrounded by barbed wire and lit by floodlights. She saw the liberated prisoners out in the snow, clad only in blue-and-white striped pajamas, eating animals' corpses. Her stomach lurched when she saw the crematoriums and smelled the stench of burnt human flesh.
A few days later, she looked on as US soldiers processed prisoners. By then, they had learned to look for the tattoos on the Stormtroopers' biceps, a pair of lightning bolts. She cringed when she saw the gashes on those who had gouged out their incriminating tattoos.
A three-volley salute resonates; as the last strains of the national anthem fade, Crost realizes that this is the first time she's heard silence in months. There are no sounds except for the birds, in contrast to last year's ceremony, when soldiers heard enemy guns echoing in the distance.
She had grown used to the sound of war, so used to it that even when she lay awake and watched the sky light up as the gun crews fired at the Germans, listening for the report of the gun and the dull thump as the shell hit its target, she wrote in the Star-Bulletin the next day that it had been a quiet night.
Today, in spite of the silenced guns, it is an uncertain peace. In Rome, the 100th/442nd struggles to control Nazi prisoners. She finds it pleasantly ironic that the American soldiers now watch as the Jerry prisoners clear minefields. In the Star-Bulletin, she declares, "the Jerries are no longer supermen."
Tonight she will fly back to Rome to rejoin the battalion she loves. She will mingle with the soldiers, listen as they read snippets of letters from home. But then, she will go to her tent and sit in front of her typewriter.
Tonight, she is a war correspondent without a war, and this has left her stranded on the front. She finds it hard to begin writing about the memorial ceremony. Sometime today, the veneer of professional detachment slipped away, at some point between the benediction and taps. She winds a piece of paper into her typewriter and pauses. Her fingers find their place on the keys: "Taps sounded today over white crosses, which mark the graves of Americans who died on this beachhead..." She wants to convey to the readers back home the realities of this peace. The Germans have surrendered, yes, but there is much to rebuild: "En route from Rome today, I could still see the evidence of battle. Jerry material remains along roadsides, buildings are mostly gaping holes--and the road is gutted with mortar shells."
But more than that, she wants them to understand that the articles she wrote were not only tales of battles, of casualties, of medals. This place, she muses, is full of thumbnail sketches which, taken together, tell what war really is.
She sits back from her typewriter and looks out of her tent at the soldiers, who are frying eggs around the fire. They don't bother to conceal the flame from the enemy tonight; if it weren't for their uniforms and their guns, they might be any group of men back home, grilling out on a Hawaiian beach.
The war is over now. It is time to go home--and time to grieve more fully for the dead, to let down the stoic facade worn by soldiers and war correspondents alike, to understand what was nearly lost to the Axis in this war.
And then, she knows how to conclude the article: "During the morning, Italian men, women and children could be seen along the roads taking armloads of flowers to the cemetery, where grass is just beginning to grow between crosses on the shadowless plains of Anzio."
AUDREY VON MALUSKI B'09.5 finds the local connection.