The July 4 holiday and this week’s 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg has me thinking about my family’s own history of military service. My father served in Vietnam, and my grandfather was in the Pacific Theater in World War II. Both graduated from West Point. I never enlisted in the military, but I have always been extremely proud of my family’s West Point ties and am grateful that Dad and Grandad never winced (at least not in front of me) when I opted to major in journalism at Mizzou instead of joining the Long Grey Line.
As a kid, I loved listening to my grandfather’s stories about the war in the Pacific. That is a credit to his brand of storytelling, because Grandad saw no combat and, as far as I know, never had to dodge bullets from an oncoming Japanese Zero. For much of the war, he commanded an antiaircraft battalion. By the time he was shipped out, the U.S. had established air superiority over much of the Pacific and had little need for antiaircraft protection. Most of Grandad’s stories about the war were wry, humorous tales about bouncing from base to base and, later, island to island, usually after most of the fighting was over.
My favorite was his account, told with a slightly ironic glint in his eye, of the December 1944 Liberation of Fais Island, a tiny speck on the map near the Caroline Islands. Don’t be alarmed if you never heard of Fais Island in your study of World War II history. As Grandad describes in his memoirs, it was a small operation:
In December, after the lagoon at Ulithi had been free of any enemy presence, a Japanese submarine managed to enter the anchorage but fortunately did only minor damage. This immediately pointed suspicion to a small phosphate island about 60 miles east of Ulithi, which aerial reconnaissance indicated might have a small Japanese radio station. Further close-in offshore observation located a small native population, and from them we learned that there was a small detachment of Japanese there. This island was called Fais… about which very little was known, other than it had been an active phosphate mine like so many of the other small islands of the Caroline Group.
In order to remove any possible threat to the security of the anchorage at Ulithi, a small detachment from the 81st Division… landed on the island without opposition and, after securing the safety of the natives by collecting them in a small area near the beach, began the search for the Japanese. None were discovered on the first day, but on the second day, they disclosed their position by opening fire from a well-concealed cave. One prisoner was taken but the other died in the cave. Two others were found in another part of the island, but they had committed suicide… as it turned out, a radio station was found and destroyed, but it is not known whether it had ever been used for Japanese military intelligence.
The natives were happy to be free of the restrictions imposed by the Japanese on their fishing privileges and freedom of movement on the island. After a small ceremony celebrating the liberation of the island with speeches and native dancing, and the donation of many “K” and “C” rations, which the natives liked, the small task force departed.
During patriotic holidays, we recall those crucial turning points in our country’s history like Gettysburg and Normandy and Iwo Jima. But, for every famous battle, there have been hundreds of mostly forgotten operations that also contributed to the war effort. Some of them, like Fais Island, were almost bloodless.
My grandfather died in 1999 at the age 96. I often think about sitting at the candlelit dinner table in his home, hanging on every single word as he told stories about the war, most of them involving troop movements or training exercises. They might have been short on action, but those stories, told with Grandad’s droll delivery, were for me a window into history. I am smiling right now just thinking about them.