Perhaps it was in war when humans first encountered the failure of language to convey the enormity of experience. After 70 years, Marine Corps veteran Jack Watson still struggles with that gap between word and meaning.
Jack Watson joined the Marines in 1942 because he liked the Marine Corps hymn, which he heard on a radio network sign-off late at night as a teenager. The Marines were a good fit for Jack, whose family had broken apart after the death of his mother. He experienced another break-up in 1943, when his boot platoon went into the newly formed 4th Marines, while Jack shipped off to radio and then radar school. He tried to flunk out so he could get into the fight and rejoin his buddies in the 4th. “My reason for joining the Marines was not to further my education.”
Then, according to Jack, “someone realized the Marines don’t HAVE radar.” He was shipped to Maui, where he joined the 24th Replacement Unit, a backup reserve of the 4th Marines, which had already fought on Roi Namur, Saipan, and Tinian.
He first heard the name “Iwo Jima” aboard the USS Artemis as a commander unveiled a map and pointed to their destination. The battle would last three days, the commander said. Sgt. Watson’s 24th Replacement Unit wouldn’t see combat. They would land after the fighting was over.
On February 19, 1945, Jack peered through binoculars given to him by a Navy shipmate from radar school. He saw men land, advance, and then crumple under withering fire. Radio reports, again passed on by Jack’s Navy friend, confirmed what Jack had suspected: casualties were so high that the 24th Replacement Unit would have to join the fight.
Combat was an out-of-body experience for Jack. “It wasn’t me there on Iwo,” he says. “I was the one telling me what to do.” The worst was hand-to-hand combat, and there was plenty of it. After one ferocious fight between Jack’s squad and several Japanese, an exhausted Jack looked around and saw a survivor, an enemy, a few feet away. The men locked eyes, plumbing deep beyond the hatred, the savagery, the instincts for survival. Each man turned and walked away. “If I saw that man today I would recognize him instantly. I’ll never forget that face.”
On March 17, 1945, the battle was over, and Jack was preparing to board the small boat to deliver him to the troop transport to take him back to Maui. It occurred to him that he was now 21 years old. His birthday had passed in combat, and he hadn’t realized it. Checking his equipment, he frowned at his bayonet, coated with human gore. He jabbed it back and forth into the black sand. But nothing could scour it clean. So, he left it there, a small monument of war stuck in sand.
He picked up another discarded bayonet, inserted it into his scabbard, and boarded the craft for home.