At the end of Angelo’s memorial service, the old men came forward from the back of the church. They wore navy blue American Legion hats–hats that look to me like two felt envelopes stitched together, hats with gold and red embroidery. They walked slowly, slowly, to the little cloth-covered table where Angelo’s ashes, in a smooth wooden box, waited. Next to the box was the glass-faced wooden triangle that held the American flag.
The silent procession inched forward. As each veteran came to the head of the aisle, he stopped before the ashes and raised his hand in a salute. He held it for a breath of time and then slowly, slowly, lowered his hand in a determined, studied arc.
Over and over, a salute of honor. The first men in line must have all been at least eighty–many were older,–probably, like Angelo, veterans of World War II.
Ironically, the book I brought with me was Unbroken, and at night, in the hotel room, I sat and read about Louis Zamperini, another Italian boy from western New York (Louie was born in Olean, New York; his family moved to California when the kids were young) who fought in the Pacific theater in World War II.
The book has been sitting on the to-read pile since Christmas; I have been leerily inching my way toward it. It’s not that I don’t enjoy Hillenbrand’s writing: SeaBiscuit was a great read. It’s just that I worried about what I might learn.
And ‘worrisome’ is the least of the adjectives that apply to the story Hillenbrand tells. After a kind of chaotic childhood, after a transformation into an Olympic-class runner, Louie Zamperini was sent to the Pacific theater in World War II. He was part of a tightly knit crew of heroes; they flew a B-24 they called Superman. Superman, like all of the planes of its class, was faulty (the statistics Hillenbrand sites about the number of soldiers killed during WWII because of equipment failure is shocking); on its final flight, only the genius of the crew, and especially of pilot Russell Allen Phillips, brought them back to base safely.
And there was human error to contend with, too, including the misguided attempt at rescue that sent Zamperini’s crew out in a borrowed, unfamiliar, unreliable plane to search in the wrong place for missing comrades. That flight, with no clear destination and little hard data to drive it, ended in disaster–resulting in Louie and Phillips’ capture and imprisonment, and in the deaths of the rest of the crew.
I look on history, sometimes, as an inevitability, but reading through different eyes, I realize that the Allies’ victory was certainly not a foregone conclusion when Angelo and his compatriots fought in World War II. The Japanese and the Germans had years of preparation to bolster their surge. In addition to all the paraphernalia of war, they had been preparing a generation of boys and young men to be warriors. In Japan, Hillenbrand writes, that meant inculcating a love of violence, and a disregard for the dignity and lives of the enemy, into many. The most sadistic, the most dysfunctional of the Japanese soldiers, were removed from actual combat situations and sent to monitor prisoner of war camps. The Geneva convention was not their concern.
Hillenbrand’s narrative carries me into a story I don’t necessarily want to hear–to the grieving of a family, convinced their son is still alive, but frantic about how and where,–to the trials endured by Louie and his colleagues in absolutely intolerable conditions. I put the book down each night, and I think: can I read more of this?
The next night I go back, drawn as if to a sad duty. These were realities for soldiers like my father, sailors like Angelo…the things they saw, the stories they didn’t tell.
As the line of veterans at the church neared its end, the faces and the ages changed. Younger. A young woman stepped forward to pay tribute. The veterans saluted their comrade in the broad, hushed silence of the old church, and Angelo’s ashes were borne away to the cemetery.
There, on a gray, cool day, the final rites took place. The priest, a kind, bluff, open man, read the prayers, asked for perpetual light to shine upon Angelo. The veterans stepped in and presented their final ceremony.
A line of men shouldered rifles and sent off three loud and jarring rounds. Hands shook; the guns looked for some as if they were heavy burdens. But the faces were stoic and frozen.
At the camp where Louie is sent, a Japanese guard (the men call him “the Bird”) singles him out for terrorizing. The guard is a sadistic man, and thoroughly unhinged; his goal is to break Louie Zamperini. Louie responds in the only way he can to maintain his dignity. He endures without fighting back, but without groveling or pleading. His dignity drives the Bird to even crazier excess.
How can a man endure it without cracking? What sent the Bird over the edge, into sadism and utter lack of human concern?
There are other questions, too. Why did some Japanese military, schooled in the same violent classrooms as the Bird and others, defy great danger to extend kindness? Hillenbrand shares stories of guards who snuck out at night to cover freezing prisoners, tied outside in frigid weather, with their own coats. She tells of guards ordered to beat prisoners who staged mock violence; she chronicles guards who slipped prisoners food and blankets, books and letters from home.
Why does one man choose one path, another veer down a completely opposite trail?
At the reception for Angelo, held at the American Legion, the veterans relax. They loosen their matching American flag ties. Some of them reach for beers. They fill plates from the burgeoning buffet and sit at tables with their families. They become, again, the known members of our community. Smiles crease lined faces. A hand, gnarled from years of hard work, rests gently on a lively grandchild’s sleek head.
The curtain covering experience lifted for a shared interlude, and then it came back down. We’ll never know the extent of what the veterans saw, what they endured, what they had to do. How did they find the wherewithal to pick up their lives–to create new lives–on returning from a kind of existence most of us can’t imagine? But they did; they do. They do meaningful work; they raise exemplary families. They coach, they teach, they lead.
The aches and the horror can’t be gone, but somehow those burdens are managed. The veterans continue on with a knowledge they wish they’d never learned; they bear it and move forward. Like Louie Zamperini, they are eternally changed by their military experience. But they move and live and love and work among us, amazing examples of a long-term kind of heroism.
They are, truly and heart-breakingly, unbroken.