For many years I took my children to visit my father, who is buried on the mound at the Golden Gate National Cemetery in San Bruno and place an American flag before his headstone. I believed this was necessary because his memory will someday pass onto them to tell their children. I told them this is the kind of tribute that men like my father deserved.
Standing before it I would point out the many details carved on the headstone that tell a story about his life. His headstone is a small unpolished biography of him. It lies along the surface of the stone.
Like a dog tag it records the important facts about his life: his religion, name, branch of service, rank, date of birth, date of death, and conflicts in which he fought. I knew these facts. From these facts came the stories about his life. Looking down at the stone, I recounted some of the stories of the man buried
At the top is a cross indicating that my father was a Christian. He was born a Baptist but he never practiced nor discussed it. He said he didn’t give it much thought. There were many other subjects about his life that he just kept to himself. I always felt this discretion gave him an aura of mystery. I don’t think he liked religion. The fate of hellfire and brimstone in hell for the unfaithful did not appeal to him because frankly he really enjoyed sin and wasn’t about to give it up.
One of my children asked while pointing at the cross, “Was Grandpa a Catholic?”
I answered him with a story about one Friday night during Lent when my brothers and myself had to eat fish for dinner. My father was served pork chops. I complained to my mother that Dad didn’t eat fish on Friday so why do we? She smacked the back of my head and chastising me she warned “you just wait. Someday you will be in the Marine Corps and be in combat. You just remember that there is no such thing as an atheist in a foxhole.” My father abruptly looked up from his plate and said “now how in hell do you know Eleanor? You’ve never been in foxhole.” I looked at him with his glass of beer, cigarette and his pork chops and thought “that’s right! My father has been in plenty of foxholes and look at him. He doesn’t do any of this.” That evening compromised my faith and directed my religion in an entirely different direction.
Down near the bottom was the date on which he was born. November 10th. It is the same date as the Marine Corps birthday. It was the biggest holiday of the year in our house as it is for Marines all over the world. One birthday morning, the division bandleader who lived next door, brought the First Marine Division band to our front lawn to play Happy Birthday and the Marine Corps Hymn for him before heading onto the base for the Marine Corps birthday parade.
My dad rounded us up that morning by telling his us to hurry so we didn’t miss the parade that the Marine Corps was holding to celebrate his birthday. I remember thinking my dad must be the best Marine in the world to be given his own birthday parade. It must be true when he said that he won the war for us. He maintained that joke long after everyone knew it wasn’t true. He found himself very amusing with some of his tales.
Deep down under the under the chiseled words World War II lies the battle of Guadalcanal. A battle that would define his character and pride. Sitting with him over countless hours, bars, and kitchen tables he would eventually come around to tell me once again this story. Listening to it I noticed that it would reveal more about the campaign than it did about the man who told the story. He would talk quietly as he conjured up the elements of the story. Weaving images, facts, people and emotions he would describe the darkness and isolation of life at the edge of the world. Listening to him when he talked he was always calm, quiet and unemotional when he discussed it. He never glamorized it. I never heard him tell a story about war with any excessive emotion or display of inner pain, sadness or conflict. He accepted it. It was his job but I knew as boy that this battle marked him and though I spent many years around him, I could never figure out how.
Guadalcanal was the first American offensive campaign in WWII against an enemy that controlled the land, sea and air throughout the pacific. Their purpose was to land on the island on August 7th, 1942, capture the airfield that the Japanese were constructing and deprive them use of it. The value of this island is revealed in the ferocious efforts that the Japanese took to sweep the Marines off of the island after landing.
Word had come down the night after they landed that the Japanese navy was steaming south to the Solomon’s to exterminate the Marines on the island to retake the airstrip they occupied.
The next morning, they awoke to discover that their fleet had departed during the night leaving them with only 10 days of supplies and no sea or air protection. They would not return for 3 months. When the food ran out the island was given the name “Starvation Island.” The average Marine lost 30 lbs. during that five months.
The Marines knew that there would be no cavalry coming to save them. They were abandoned to protect the ships. Hawaii was thousands of miles to the north and the Japanese navy controlled the seas. They were cut off from supplies, reinforcements and left alone to keep the airfield or die. The Japanese fleet arrived offshore cloaked in a starless night. When the firing started the Marines watched from the shore the giant fireballs erupting from the big guns.
Earlier in the day they landed additional 20,000 Japanese Marines further up on the island. Moving behind the Marines they pinched them in between the navy and their army. Bombers from Rabaul and Bougainville were loaded for day time bombing runs.
In the darkness sitting among the palm and Mangroves, my father chose to sit there rather than along the airstrip or in a bunker. From that vantage point he could watch the giant fireballs erupt from their big guns hurling thousands of rounds on the airfield and beach. He said there was no point going anywhere. The constant barrage turned the sky into a canopy of death. He knew there would be a round for him. In this rain of fire, there was no safe place. He told me he knew, they all knew that no one was going to get off this island alive. My father was a 26 year old, Sergeant.
The sound of the shells flying over was a relief he said as it indicated that it had past you. “You don’t hear the one that is going to hit you.” Did you ever hear a 16-inch shell explode nearby? He would ask?” It is not a sound you will want to hear again. There are no wounded men left lying around.
At night the Tokyo express made a run down the slot unmolested and fired at their leisure. As the ground shook from each explosion and the shrapnel from shells and blasted trees filled the air around him, he wondered: how did a God forsaken place like this become so important?
He went on to complain “Christ. I tell you if it wasn’t the bombs or the bullets that would kill you it was the snakes, diseases and saltwater crocodiles.” On this island, you were either the enemy or food. It was primeval. The jungle, the heat, humidity and the bugs would drive you out of your mind. At least a bullet kills you quickly.”
The Marines fought and held that airstrip for 5 months on Guadalcanal before they were relieved. By the end of the battle 1/3rd of the Marines had contracted malaria. For every Marine killed or wounded by the Japanese, five Marines would be hospitalized with malaria. My father’s malaria was so severe that he had to be returned to the states after the Marines were relieved in December.
He would laugh sometimes when he told some of these stories but if you were within his presence when he told them, you would suspect that the man before you had returned from the land of the dead.
53 years later I visited Guadalcanal. My plane landed on the same airfield that my father fought for in 1942. I stood on the tarmac near the old conning tower, gazed up at Bloody Ridge and read a couple bronze plaques in front of the little terminal. There were no monuments or tour buses. If I didn’t know what happened here I would have just walked by and never give it a thought. But I did know what happened here. I knew it since I was a boy. I took a cab up a deeply rutted muddy road through the elephant grass to Bloody Ridge and then down to the old cemetery. Walking towards the beach I came upon an old cannon embedded in the sand as a memorial. The barrel pointed in the direction of the where the landing ships anchored and marked the spot where my father and the Marines came ashore. Other than the two small bronze plaques it was the only memorial on the island to commemorate what happened here.
Walking down the thin ribbon of sand I came upon the mangrove and palms trees under which he spent so much of his time. Looking into the meager shelter I wondered how he felt sitting there being shelled. What did he think about while he waited for the shell that had his name on it? I will never know. I thought that I knew him well but in the end I had to admit that I knew very little about him. His life was what happened between 1936 when he joined the Corps to 1957 when he retired. I knew almost nothing about his family or life before the Marines. Everything that occurred during those years was the world he lived in and talked about. In that world he was larger than life. Outside the Marines he was like everyone else. Spent all my life with him and I really had little idea of who he was. I knew what he wanted me to know. Everything else seemed unimportant. If they were important he preferred to keep some things to himself. It was part of his mystery.
My mother may know or his friends but his children? No we were not part of his inner life. In his world he believed that if the Marine Corps wanted him to have children they would have issued him some. Not only were we children but worse: we were civilians. We would never understand. I could only speculate about what was on his mind during those nights when he would sit quietly alone at the kitchen table. Sometimes a name would surface to cause him to talk about a friend who either survived or died in battle. The story would always be a humorous anecdote about the life and personality of his friend. Then with little notice he would cease talking and looking at his drink raise the glass to his lips and move back within his thoughts. Regardless of being on the outside of him I found him deep and fascinating.
Looking out across the channel I imagined a line of warships pummeling him while he sat there. What must he have been thinking knowing as he said so many times that he and all his comrades would die on this obscure jungle island in the middle of the pacific? He told me there was nothing he could do but sit there and wait. If I pressed him with questions on how he felt he would look at me like I asked a dumb question. “What kind of question is that? How do you think I felt? You act like I didn’t mind getting blown bits. Don’t ask such ridiculous questions.”
He was a fatalist through and through. For men like him, war is his primary occupation and he believed you had to live in the moment otherwise you get distracted and when you are distracted you make mistakes.
“You can’t spend time thinking about it what is going to happen. Thinking takes time. Time in which men may die.” I figured that steady and firm calm of his was part of his character and strength and why he loved the Marine Corps.
I sat on the sand in front my hotel and looked across the slot towards Tulagi. There were no stars or moon out that night, so the water and the sky erased any horizon. Gazing out to the solid black void it looked like I was sitting on the end of the world staring out into an empty universe.
As I boarded my dive boat the next morning someone asked me why I picked such a remote location to go diving. I told them my father fought here in World War ll with the First Marine Division and I came to see it. They asked me “Is your father still alive?” and I answered, “no.”
“Gee that is really wonderful you came. I am sure he would have appreciated that you traveled this far to honor him. What would your father say if he knew you were here?”
“What would my father say? He would say “What’s the matter with you? Why in the hell would you want to go to a God forsaken place like that for?” Down at the bottom of the stone is the inscription of the Marine Corps motto “Semper Fidelis.” which is Latin for” Always Faithful.” This is the creed that binds all Marines together.
When my father died, I arranged for him to be buried at the National Cemetery in San Bruno. He was entitled to a color guard, a rifle detail, a flag, a chaplain and a bugler to blow taps.
The cemetery assigned him a spot on the mound which is watched over by the American flag at the top. People waiting by the grave are watching a squad of Marines in their dress blues practicing their drill for the burial service. The slow cadence of the drill and the quiet movement of their rifles while marching in a tight perfectly aligned formation gave the grounds an atmosphere of solemnity and respect.
Looking at them lined up in single file with each Marine down the line standing perfectly behind the Marine in front of him, they looked like one man rather than twelve. The Navy bugler dressed in his whites reached the top of the mound and stood at the base of the flagpole. With the giant flag unfurled at half-mast above the Colors stood guard over the grounds. People gathered around the grave-site waiting for the service to start. Family members made a point of thanking each one for coming.
The cemetery director came out to bring invite my brothers and myself into the office to sign the necessary papers for the internment and headstone. Once all the documentation of his discharge and retirement was turned in the director handed me the form to sign for the inscription on the headstone. My father’s form read:
Robert Alden McLalan Sr, M SGT US Marine Corps, World War II Korea
Born Nov 10, 1916 - Died Aug 19, 1986.
After I read it, I picked up a pen and added another line to the form. In the blank space beneath the dates, I wrote the words that gave purpose and meaning to my father’s life: “Semper Fidelis.”
The director pointed out that personal designations were not allowed on the stone. Cemetery policy only allowed official information. I took a minute and reflected on the objection and responded “look if it is question of space, then take off the cross because he was not religious.” No, he said it was government policy that personal statements were not allowed. Tersely I replied that this is not a personal statement? This is the Marine Corps Motto.” It is written in the banner on the Marine Corps emblem. We discussed it until I finally told him that “We can stand in here all day and debate this but I will leave my mother and all those people out there all day if necessary. I will not put him in the ground without it.”
When I returned with my signed document, I apologized to the Marine Sergeant in charge of the detail for taking so long and explained the conversation about including the motto.
He looked at me and said, “Isn’t that why we are all here?” Yes, I thought it is why we are all here. My father was faithful to that motto. It defined his life and even though he had been retired over 30 years the time had come for the Marines, his friends and family to honor that devotion.
He didn’t need to die on the battlefield to be remembered. Marines are taught that the Corps will live forever and therefore the memory of all Marines will never die. His service to the Marine Corps recorded on that marble headstone would be a monument to that spirit. As a former Marine, I write to help fulfill that promise. I also write it to remember him.
His funeral overlooks and forgives his excesses and fallibilities as a man and as such he is redeemed by the risks he took so that others may live. The funeral recognizes that he was a remarkable man and one who lived his life faithfully to a standard of ideals that are very exceptional.
Faith is not a uniform. It manifests itself differently throughout the lives every individual. His faith was predicated upon a motto on a sign over the entrance to boot camp. It says “a Marine is loyal to his God, his country and his corps.”
Facing the late afternoon sun, the bugler, dressed in his whites, standing erect at the base of the flag raised the bugle to his lips to blow Taps. The polished brass of the bugle sparkled in the afternoon sunlight as he prepared to play the solemn notes. These are the notes that travel around the world with every American serviceman or woman in the military. It is played every evening when the Colors are struck, at every funeral service for the fallen and on any day of remembrance. Now today, it is being played for him.