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During World War II, there was a saying among the fighting Marines.in the South Pacific, and later with the Mannes in China, that the only gate they ever wanted to see was the Golden Gate in San Francisco. The USS Marsh, DE 699, the destroyer escort that carried Gilbert and me homeward bound, and a half dozen other Marines, was heading to San Diego and not San Francisco, but that really didn’t matter. The Golden Gate stood as the symbol of our “going home,” and we were going home.
I was up early, just as dawn was breaking, and found an empty gun turret to the starboard of the bow. I squeezed underneath the barrels of a twin 40mm cannon, and leaned out facing forward. I pined to see America come into view. Many thoughts raced through my head as I stood there searching the horizon; so much had happened since that day in April 1945, when we sailed away from San Diego. What a moment that was for a bunch of young, excited Marines. How innocent we all were.
I thought about that most often when we were on Okinawa, like the time I was with Terry, hugging the bottom of a foxhole in the rain, terrified that a shell from the battery of heavy bombardment whizzing overhead might fall short; or like the time when I was aboard that junk in the China Sea, with a chain around my feet, wondering when they might shove me overboard. It was times like this that I though how happy we had been. Every detail of that departure had been engraved in my mind. There was a band playing a John Philip Sousa’s march, and hundreds of people were gathered on the docks, waving and shouting, some crying, all wishing us well. And I remembered so well that lovely young lady in black slacks, high heels, and a low cut black blouse. I remember her throwing kisses, and she called out that she would be there waiting for every single one of us to return.
Well, we were back. The USS Marsh slowly entered the harbor, but there was no woman in black, no waving crowds, and no band playing a John Philip Sousa’s march. Instead there were two sad-looking longshoremen waiting to catch the lines our seamen threw to them. There was no one else, just the two of them.
The men picked up the lines, which were attached to larger mooring lines, and pulled them in. Once they had the mooring lines in tow, they threw the looped ends over two bollards. Without bothering to see if the ship was securely moored, the men turned their backs and strutted back to their tin-roof office shack at the end of the dock.
What a dismal sight, a miserable navy dockyard in San Diego! I watched the wind carry a newspaper across the yard. It swept past a pair of unused rail lines, and piled up against a chain link fence. Sea gulls came to rest on the bollards.
I threw my seabag over my shoulder, and along with the others, headed toward the gate. A Marine guard in a helmet liner and a .45 at his side said a bus would be along in half an hour to take us to the base. He said we could go inside the guard shack, out of the cold, and wait there. A half hour wait, I thought; he could have said a day, or a year. What did it matter? Where was the band?
Outside the gate, I could see a red blinking neon on a bar across the way. It was mid-morning, but it was open. “Not a friendly dump,” the Marine guard said when I asked about the place. “It’s a longshoremen’s hangout, and they don’t like navy types there.” I had no quarrel with longshoremen, and I felt like a beer. None of the others wanted to go, so I left my seabag in the guard shack and beaded toward the bar.
It was a dark, dingy place, and it smelled of stale beer. Sitting at one end of the bar were several dockworkers in overalls. They wore heavy boots and metal safety hats. They weren’t very friendly looking. Above the bar was a television. My first thought was to ask the bartender, after I got my beer, to turn it on. I’d tell him that I had never seen television before. That might amuse him. He was cleaning a glass, and when he saw me approach, he placed the glass on the bar. “Something you want?’ he asked. There was no cheer in his tone of voice.
“Yeah, a beer,” I said.
“Is that right. Well, then, you got identification?” he asked in a raised voice for the others to hear. All conversation stopped. The bartender picked up the glass, turned it upside down and placed it on the bar.
“Identification? Why do I need identification?” I asked.
“You gotta be 21 to drink in here,” he said.
“What the hell you talking about!” I said. I was hot under the collar now. “I just got off that ship, and you mean to tell me I can’t get a drink.”
“What I’m telling you is,” he said, “you had better turn your ass around, march right for that door, and get the hell out of here.”
Ten thousand gobs laid down their swabs-where in the hell are you, Terry and Chandler and Stevenson? Where in the hell are all you guys? I know, scattered out across America, sitting in your new civvies, watching television, getting fat on your wives’ and your mothers’ cooking? Where in the hell are you when it’s time to help a Marine buddy clean up a bar, as you all had done so often in China?
There were no Marines to help me here. I was home, after almost four years, and couldn’t even get a beer. Nor could I even tell these early morning drunks that when I left a couple of years ago, there were people outside waving flags and cheering, and a band was playing a John Philip Sousa’s march. There was a girl in black and she said she would be waiting until every single one of us got back. Well, there were a lot of us who weren’t coming back, ever, but there was no reason for that girl in black not to be here. Would these guys sitting there, sneering at me, would they understand about Okinawa and China, about napalm-filled caves and suicide bombers and tortured comfort women and the balu on the march? Would it do any good to tell them about Hecklinger and Melanowski, and Little Lew. They might laugh when I told them about Little Lew, and might say he was only a little gook kid anyway. Would it matter to them that Katarina might be dead, or if she wasn’t, she’d probably be in a labor camp in Siberia somewhere, and Ming-Lee might well be in a Chinese reformation camp.
All it mattered to them was that I was under 21 and not old enough to have a beer with them.
My family, of course, was thrilled to have me back. My sister sent an application for me to fill out, to enter Michigan State University under the GI Bill. I could get by without a high school diploma, but I had to pass a GED test first. Not to worry; it was easy. Electrical engineering courses were some of the best in the country. For an elective, I could take drafting. My father said it would help when we opened a shop. But I said I wanted to take Chinese studies. The answer came back. There were no Chinese studies at Michigan State. There were no Chinese studies at any college or any university in America. China was dead, they all said. There was no China anymore.
I guess they were right. We had to forget China, put it away, get China out of our minds. That’s what everyone told us. Farewell China!
But China Marines can’t forget. We just keep silent.