EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first of a four-part series excerpted from the introduction of Victor Davis Hanson’s latest book Ripples of Battle: How Wars of the Past Still Determine How We Fight, How We Live, and How We Think, reprinted with Doubleday’s permission.
On my rare visits to the local cemetery, I am always struck by the unremarkable grave of Victor Hanson. The inscription is as spare as the stone itself–name, state, rank, dates of birth and death, and nothing much more except the nondescript “29 Marines / 6 Marine Div / World War II.” Unlike the other impressive tombstones of relatives in the family plot, there are no inscribed res gestae, not even a “loving father” much less a “beloved grandfather.” A man who dies tragically, young, and alone does so without capital, either monetary or human. When he leaves behind no progeny, it is evident in the modesty of his commemoration.
But then his mother died in childbirth, his father was blinded in the vineyard by a sulfur-machine accident. He was killed at twenty-three, without wife or children, his body eventually shipped back and reinterred in Kingsburg, California. And because Victor was an only child, when he died on Okinawa, his father Victor Hanson’s thin line perished as well. Had his memory vanished as well?
Certainly there are no Hansons left of Victor’s direct ancestry to appreciate the significance of his modest epitaph, whose calculus–death recorded on May 19, 1945, serving in the 29th Regiment, 2nd Battalion, Company F of the 6th Marine Division–reflected his presence at the nexus of one of the worst days of the bloodiest campaign in the Pacific theater, the final assault and capture of Sugar Loaf Hill and its environs. William Manchester, of the same regiment, wrote of the bloody assaults on Sugar Loaf:
Infantry couldn’t advance. Every weapon was tried: tanks, Long Toms, rockets, napalm, smoke, naval gunfire, aircraft. None of them worked. If anything, the enemy’s hold on the heights grew stronger. The Japanese artillery never seemed to let up, and every night Ushijima sent fresh troops up his side of the hill. We kept rushing them, moving like somnambulists, the weight of Sugar Loaf pressing down on us, harder and harder. And as we crawled forward, shamming death whenever a flare burst over us, we could almost feel the waves of darkness moving up behind us. In such situations a man has very little control over his destiny.
Victor was shot as his company beat back the last death-charges of suicidal Japanese to defend the hill, dying on Okinawa on the evening (May 18) before those who were left of his 29th Marines were finally relieved and evacuated from the battle. The official history of American operations on Okinawa reads, “A platoon of Company F also tried to advance along the ridge toward the west, but the leader was killed and the platoon withdrew under heavy mortar fire.” The authors then summarize the sacrifice, “On the next day, 19 May, the 4th Marines relieved the exhausted 29th Marines. During the 10-day period up to and including the capture of Sugar Loaf the 6th Marine Division had lost 2,662 killed or wounded; there were also 1,289 cases of combat fatigue. In the 22nd and 29th Marines three battalion commanders and eleven company commanders had been killed or wounded.”
In addition, the official history of the 6th Marine Division remarked of the exposed position of Company F on Sugar Loaf on the day of Victor’s death that “heavy fire continued to come from Horseshoe Hill and company F was dispatched in that direction. The assault was perfectly maneuvered; the Marines went right to the crest, where the fight developed into a grenade battle at close quarters with a terrific mortar barrage.”
To read accounts of those savage uphill assaults against entrenched Japanese is to wonder not why Victor was killed on May 18, but how in God’s name had he lived that long? After all, in just a few days, three thousand Marines were killed or gravely wounded in and around Sugar Loaf Hill, more Allied soldier casualties than lost on Monte Cassino and about the same number as on Tarawa. His 29th Regiment suffered 82 percent casualties on Okinawa and for all practical purposes had ceased to exist.
Yet without ostentatious stones, lasting works of fame, or any surviving immediate family, had the childless, young Victor Hanson really perished on that godforsaken hill with dozens of his friends on May 18? Surely not. Growing up, I heard his name nearly daily. My father was his first cousin, but the two were more like brothers, given their near-identical ages and lifelong companionship; for a time they lived side-by-side on adjoining farms, went to the same college, and joined the Marines. And so it was that the last half century our parents talked often about this mysterious dead man. “If only Vic had lived,” the refrain went, followed by all sorts of counterfactuals concerning the subsequent sad fate of his father, his high school and college prospects, whom he might have married, children reared, partnerships entered with my father, grandparents consoled, college work that presaged future success, farms saved–rather than people saddened, sickened, and cast adrift, and homesteads soon to be sold or lost. I began as a child almost to resent this shadowy moral exemplar, who had died without making a mistake, thus leaving his namesake with the burden of emulating such character.
My mother and father both offered these what-ifs, since all three of them had left farms in central California to attend the College of the Pacific together up in Stockton. “He was a wonderful man,” I would hear from her as a youth. After my mother’s death, Victor’s high school girlfriend, now widowed in her eighties, with great-grandchildren, often emerged from the past to keep up the refrain of praise and honor; she has now supervised the construction of a small memorial to the four fighting Hansons in the center of Kingsburg Memorial Park, once the site of their ancestral homestead. She visits still, and just a few weeks ago left me a formal handwritten note that ended:
Cpl. Hanson, only son and child of Victor Sr. and grandson of Nels and Cecilia Hanson, was killed in action on May 19, 1945–age 23 years and 3 months, along with another 12,500 valiant young men. The Kingsburg Recorder said of Victor Jr.–”He reflected the gentility emanating from his grandmother Cecilia (reared by her when he became a motherless infant). Those who knew him, all apprised him as a gentle man.” Victor Hanson, Jr. never returned to his home on 1965 18th Avenue, Kingsburg, California–Hanson Corner. He was awarded the Purple Heart posthumously.
From his surviving yellow letters on Marine stationery, I had already sensed just that humility, unusual even for the accepted modesty of that better age. And then recently I received a phone call from eighty-year-old Michael Senko, who occupied the foxhole where Victor died, and without warning had replied to my efforts in learning about Victor’s last moments. He too emphasized his “gentleness,” adding that he was a “perfect guy”–this remembrance from over a half century later. In a letter to his grandparents from basic training at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, after briefly and nonchalantly detailing all sorts of trial amphibious landings, marathon marches, and assorted tests of endurance, Victor was far more concerned with the health and safety of his octogenarian surrogate parents back home here in the 1940s small farming town of Kingsburg. The final paragraph reads: “I’m really glad to hear that you are all fine, because I wonder all the time if you are all O.K. I’m just fine, couldn’t be better and never weighed more. I guess I weigh over 200–not enough hard work I guess. Well I guess I better close for now. Hoping this letter finds you all well and fine, Love Victor.”
Occasionally a few sketchy details would emerge about his demise. “A damn machine gun got him from when he wasn’t looking,” my Swedish grandfather offered twenty years after Victor’s death, before coughing in mid-sentence and in anger–his own lungs had been ruined from gas in the Argonne. Other vague accounts mentioned his company being cut off and surrounded. Until this May I have often wondered how anyone knew of his last moments.
“They had no business putting those boys there on Okinawa in that way,” my dad also on occasion spit out at the end of one of his angry monologues. “They played right into Jap hands. Hell, we were bombing Japan to bits anyway, and they could have just passed that damn island by. But no, that was not the Marine idea of how to get things done.” What an odd thought: my generation who knew no battle had thought that we bombed too severely and unduly punished the Japanese; my father’s who fought the war was convinced that the air war was too late and not enough–and thus did not prevent the Japanese from punishing fellow Americans on places like Okinawa.
Both cousins had, in fact, joined the Marines; for an altercation with his officer my father was drummed out of basic training but not formally charged–the embarrassing details were never revealed to us–on the stipulation that he join the Army Air Corps, which eventually led him to something as equally horrific as Okinawa. Still, even armed with that disclosure I never quite understood why his anger was sometimes turned inward; surely it was not from a failure to fight on Okinawa side-by-side with Vic. At his other outbursts the remorse appeared even more bizarre, as he hinted that had the murderous B-29s–he had flown on thirty-nine missions from Tinian over Japan as a central fire-control gunner–firebombed Japan earlier and harder, Okinawa would have been irrelevant. In his logic, if a three-hundred-plane B-29 aerial armada had carpeted Japan in 1944 rather than in the spring and summer of 1945, Victor would perhaps have had garrison duty only, mopping up a few stalwart resisters on the charred island of Kyushu. Given the dreadful incendiary missions he had flown–only his crew and one other of the sixteen bombers in his original squadron survived–I, the solicitous and embarrassed college student in the mid-1970s, had once tried to offer solace. “Well, Dad, it’s hard to think you guys were slow; after all, you just about burned down the entire country in two months as it was.”
Ripples of Battle can be purchased here.