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A Soldier’s Identity Before and After War

Members+of+the+5th+Regiment+return+to+Waimea+to+celebrate+their+68th+annual+reunion.
Members of the 5th Regiment return to Waimea to celebrate their 68th annual reunion.

Members of the 5th Regiment return to Waimea to celebrate their 68th annual reunion.

Heidi Buscher

Heidi Buscher

Members of the 5th Regiment return to Waimea to celebrate their 68th annual reunion.

Lucy Callender

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Each year, as Veteran’s Day approaches, we are reminded to thank our troops and pay respects to those lost in battle. How often, however, do we recognize these men as more than a singular identity?

I sit down with Carl De Haven on October 19th. He is a 94 year old World War II veteran attending the 68th annual reunion of the 5th Regiment in Hawaii, where he and his fellow soldiers trained at Camp Tarawa for the battle of Iwo Jima as teenagers. Today 12 veterans and their families enjoy a luncheon in Kahilu Hall. For many of them, this is their first time back to the island since their training days, and the small bustling town of Waimea contrasts sharply with the dusty, tent filled grounds of their past.

De Haven immediately asks me questions about my life as a teenager in Hawaii. I am struck by his amicable and soft spoken manner, and while I am supposed to be the interviewer, I share much about my life to him before I can begin my own inquiry. Although I had over 20 questions prepared, it suddenly feels impossible to ask Carl any of them. I realize that none of them have anything to do with his life other than those about his experience in battle that I am sure he has heard millions of times before. I don’t even know how to begin, so I start by asking him some of the same questions he has already asked me.

De Haven slowly reveals his fascinating life piece by piece. He and his friends registered for the army at age 16. De Haven stops and chuckles softly to himself. He recalls hiding at his aunt’s house after signing up, building the courage to ask his father to sign his papers. Once he finally returned, he received permission from a reluctant father. One year later, De Haven began training. “My dad wasn’t too happy about it, but the fact that I came back alive helped,” he says.

We must remember, after all, that most of these soldiers were little more than children. Games were a crucial part of their time off. Carl was an avid baseball player before and during the war. Baseball was a welcome break from rigorous training sessions on the beach and on the rolling hills of Waimea, preparing for battle at Iwo Jima. The regal “Buster Brown” hill mirrored the size and slope of Suribachi, the hill they would eventually climb once they reached Japan. Soldiers lugged heavy packs up and down, until late December in 1944, when they finally departed for Japanese soil. Another veteran, Don Graves, recalls the three days it took him to go 600 feet on the beach of Iwo Jima. He was chosen to carry a 70 pound flame thrower because his small stature would be less of a target. Still, he too was just a kid. Graves recounts sitting in the foxhole, “I feel like hot chocolate,’ so I took my G-bar out of my ration, diced it up in my helmet and I put a demolition charge under it and lit it,” he said. “I poured my canteen water in and I’m just cooking that chocolate.”

Considered one of the bloodiest of the war, the battle of Iwo Jima lasted 36 days, although it was only expected to last three. After the battle was won, Graves remembers walking through the Iwo Jima cemetery to say his final farewells. “We walked through and it was so sad and we came out and not one of us had dry eyes.” The young men returned to Camp Tarawa in 1945, mourning the loss of thousands of their comrades and friends.

Meanwhile, De Haven speaks so casually about his accomplishments, and I remind him what an incredible life story he has, for I cannot fathom signing up for battle at the age I am now. Instead of filling out college applications and studying for tests like I do, these boys watched their best friends die as they fought bravely. For the first time, I have faces to connect to Veteran’s Day. We become so wrapped up in the titles that we give these soldiers, yet we forget that they are people with lives and personalities that make them unique human beings.

1 Comment

One Response to “A Soldier’s Identity Before and After War”

  1. Mr. Smith on November 14th, 2017 1:46 pm

    Lucy, what an insightful piece. I can hear in your voice how much this meant to you. Congratulations on doing a great job of conveying that emotion to your readers.

    [Reply]

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