Letters bring a war back to life
By Katie Watson ’07
As I see the flags out for Memorial Day, I am reminded of my grandfather, a World War II veteran who fought in the Pacific theatre.
He died before I was born, but I've gotten to know him this year by reading the letters that he sent home to his family during the war.
My grandfather, Roy Watson, never talked about his experience as anything unusual, but it is his refusal to make a special claim for himself that makes me admire him.
He was drafted into the Army after the attack on Pearl Harbor as an optimistic 22-year-old excited to be away from home for the first time. He had grown up in the small town of Brookhaven, Miss.
In another lifetime, my grandfather would have been headed off to college. Instead, he got his education on the battlefields of the Pacific region. He spent two years training at Fort Ord in the desert of Central California, which he initially described as "the most beautiful place I've ever seen. I don't think I'm going to have any hard work." But, in time, he grew weary of the training and was hoping to be sent into battle. "This army ain't nothing but a lotta crap. I'm ready to do some fighting now," he wrote in March 1942.
My grandfather finally got his wish on April 29, 1943, when his 7th Infantry Division was set to reclaim Alaska's Aleutian Islands from the Japanese. He went from lazing around in California to fighting the Japanese in one of the most brutal battles of the war. He did not tell his relatives many details about this battle, partly because he was not allowed to and also because he did not want to worry them.
Attu battle set standard
Later, my grandfather started weighing future battles against what had happened in the Aleutians, where close to 1,700 U.S. servicemen were killed or wounded, and almost the entire Japanese army of more than 2,000 men died. The four weeks of fighting on Attu, the westernmost of the Aleutian Islands, were some of the most fierce of the war. "This campaign hasn't been so bad so far," he wrote. "I still judge them by the Attu battle, and don't believe any of them will ever equal that baby."
After being sent to Hawaii to await his next assignment, my grandfather had a chance to think about the experiences he had gone through. He had lost the innocence and cheerfulness that filled his pre-battle letters. "Dear Pap: Just a line to let you know everything is still SNAFU," he wrote. "Wish I were at home. Maybe it won't be long. We will go out to the pit and catch every damn fish in the lake."
My grandfather no longer went on and on about shooting contests in camp. For him, hitting the target no longer meant getting into town before the other men; it meant living longer than the enemy.
In February 1945, when my grandfather was in the Philippines, he received word that his older brother Sidney had been killed in the Battle of the Bulge on the European front. "Help mama and pap to bear it. I know how terrible it must be for all of you," he wrote to his older sister, Bessie Watson. "Maybe you can make them believe that he died for something greater than ourselves. I cannot. I have seen so many of us die, that I can't believe that there is any reason or justification for it."
My grandfather became so despondent it was hard to recognize him from his letters. "You get so used to death," he wrote. "You feel as if you can look at it without emotion, but when it's somebody dear to you it hurts awfully."
Much to the dismay of his family, my grandfather stopped writing for a few months after his brother died.
Weary of war
When he began writing again, the war in Europe was over, but he still saw no end in sight for himself. My grandfather joined the war to do his part for his country, but in his fourth year he felt finished, exhausted. By August 1945, when Japan had surrendered, he wanted to skip partaking in the occupation to come home. "We fight for 30 months and then they want us to occupy some damned place," he wrote.
When my grandfather's hometown paper, the Lincoln County Times (today called The Daily Leader), finally ran his brother's obituary, they wrote: "A member of a large and esteemed local family, his loss to his devoted parents, brothers and sisters, is a tragedy, tempered only by the thought of the patriotic sacrifice which he made, and which they share."
I do not think my grandfather would have found his brother's death softened by his patriotic sacrifice. My grandfather believed America had fought a "good war," but nothing could ease the fact he would never see his brother again.
My grandfather survived the war and came home in the fall of 1945. He returned to his prewar job at the local gas company and went on to marry and have two children, one of them my father.
Like those serving in Iraq, my grandfather was simply a son and a brother, trying to make it through the war. He was scared and frustrated with his situation, but it is his courage and perseverance in the face of all of these doubts that make me admire him.
This Memorial Day, I will think not only of the bravery it took for my grandfather to make it through the war. I will think of the men and women serving in our armed forces and will know that like him, they might be scared or frustrated. In the end, they too are brave and courageous for the sacrifice they are making for our country.
Katie Watson ’07 is attending graduate school at Trinity College, Ireland. This article was originally published in USA Today on May 24, 2007.