The island of Shemya is a tiny piece of volcanic rock at the westernmost tip of the Aleutian Island chain so close to the international dateline that from its rugged shore one can look into tomorrow. The last I heard, fewer than three dozen people are stationed there, but back in 1953 this four-mile- long piece of rock with its two-mile-long runway figured importantly in my life.
Most returning G.I.s from the Korean War could look forward to a long ocean voyage, but the seventeen-hour flight across the vast Pacific’s north polar route in a four-engine DC-6 transport plane was a “gift” from a generous commanding officer. Shemya – the midpoint in that long flight – was little more than a refueling stop, its 10,000-foot long runway originally built in 1943 to facilitate the bombing of Japan. There was little to do for those few hours, the duty station consisting of no more than a half dozen metal Quonset huts, built mostly below ground level because of the foul weather and constant winds. And so I filled the time by walking the rocky fringes of the airfield. I watched the seabirds – gooneys, gannets and gulls working the sea-washed lava shorelines, listened to the sounds the wind made across a tundra-carpeted landscape where nothing taller than a clump of sea oats survived, all the while admiring the almost iridescent blue of the surrounding ocean.
At the time, I thought nothing of this brief interlude; a mere interruption in the 10,000 mile journey home. Only with the passage of time and the coming of an emotional maturity would the real significance of Shemya dawn like a rising sun within me. Life is full of “borders”, but there is no dividing line so profoundly significant as the one separating the life-and-death reality of warfare and that other reality we call HOME.
The returning veteran might think that the PAST can be left behind. It can’t. And that from now on everything will be bright and wonderful. It won’t, entirely. The transition is far more challenging than the hugs and flags of the “home-coming” may seem to portend, no matter how well prepared the welcomee and welcomers may think they are.
Left behind is not only the bad stuff – the sights, sounds, smells and sadness of a grim chapter of life – but the close comradeship anchored in shared experiences which no other associations of a lifetime can quite duplicate; friendships which are as ineffable as they are sad and sweet. I have sometimes tried to explain to school children the conviction that I learned more about love in a few hours spent in a MASH hospital than in any other experience. So intense was the devotion between warriors I saw there that I walked out of the theatre in disgust when the Hollywood movie M*A*S*H first played in all its shallowness.
Different people react in different ways to the surge of adrenaline (epinephrine) released in the human body when in the fight-or-flight mode, but especially in a long deployment where one is subject to trauma repetitively and regularly, the taxing consequences can be long-lasting, even though masked by protective behavior. It has been said that there is no such thing as an “unwounded” combat veteran and I believe this to be true.
I have written before about a friend who survived 35 missions in a WW II B-17 who awoke in the middle of every night screaming, and had to be held by his wife – for nine years afterward. I have several other friends who have lived with an overpowering sense of guilt because they managed to come home while good buddies didn’t. I will never forget the look that came over my wounded father’s face when – 35 years after the particular event took place – he suddenly recalled vividly, and for the first time, the death of a comrade he had witnessed.
Within the past two days I have heard from two east coast veterans, one of whom I never met in person, but shared the Korean experience with, the other an old business friend I haven’t seen in 40 years. In both cases, the connection was immediate, profound and mutual. And unspoken.
As we confront another Veterans’ Day, and at a time when many American men and women in uniform are coming home – sometimes after several combat deployments – I hope all of us who await their return will say “Thank You”, and help where we can to ease their way across that difficult “border”. I know those few hours on a distant piece of rock known as Shemya was an important part of that border crossing for me all those years ago.
A “band of brothers”, tent mates, friends and members of a “special weapons” team, near Chi hyang ri, Korea – 1953. If still living, these old buddies will now be in their late seventies. (Photo by Al Cooper)
Among the unsung heroes of the Korean War, a forward air controller (FAC) flies low and slow while directing artillery fire in the Chorwan Valley campaign. (Al Cooper photo)