The Youngest Marine

I am not a big “Patriotism” kind of guy, but I am a big fan of our soldiers.

That is to say, the act of openly expressing patriotism has never been something that comes easy to me, even if I am often in awe of the people who carry out the mission. Part of it is being shy; part of it is not having served in the Military myself. Much of it is likely my own politics; the talks of freedom and nobility have lost some of their tinge after more than a decade of wars fought by America, and how those wars unraveled and were managed. We all remember the early days of 2002 and 2003, and through much of the 2004 election, where questioning the validity of the war was akin to trashing the warrior, which was never the point.

This got better over time; sensible minds of differing political perspectives realize that one can disapprove of the war while effusively praising the warrior. This is true for me for the wars of Iraq and Afghanistan, wherein history will be the ultimate judge. I have friends who served in both wars, and the past several months of my career has been devoted to helping our veterans find gainful employment in the private sector.

Praising our soldiers and our nation never comes more naturally to me than when thinking of the experiences of my grandfathers, Burton R. Withee and Donald J. West. Grandpa Don passed away at 89 in January 2009, after a short illness. He was a wonderful man – kind, sunny, generous, and soft-spoken, but with a sharp wit and intellect. After marrying my late grandmother, Lois, in 1943, he spent 18 months overseas, much of it in Burma, and had memorable stories to tell us, but few of them revolved around major, brutal combat.

My other grandfather, affectionately known as Burt, is still alive and kicking, and will be honored as part of the Honor Flight Network’s tribute to World War II veterans in Washington, D.C., the weekend of May 30-31st. He was involved in major combat. Burt turned 88 this past March, and you’d be hard pressed to find as vital a man his age. Sure, there are certainly aspects of him that are “slowing” down a bit, if you can call it that. He has increased difficulty standing and rising from his glorious chair, where he spends much of his time – well-deserved – in front of the television, watching everything from old movies to crime flicks to the news, to horseracing (where one of his children, Joe Withee, has for decades now hosted TV and radio programs live from Emerald Downs).

Bringing out his German side, Burt is also a man of strict routine, rising possibly earlier than 4:00 am every morning to drink coffee, play cards, and begin his day. Hamburgers remain a strict Saturday tradition, and bedtime usually falls around 7:00 pm. He’s a great looking dude, too – strikingly handsome, with a clean face with relatively few wrinkles or “age spots,” and he sports his trademark thick, full head of hair, parted just like they did in the 1940s. (The youthful barista at a local Starbucks near his old home routinely crushed on him).

Few men of any age or era are funnier, sometimes caustically so; he seems to invent new and unusual curse words, and nobody in his path – not my infant son, or youthful nieces – can avoid hearing them. Perhaps because of his amazing wife of 65 years (and my grandmother), Colleen, he remains deeply connected to the issues and politics of the world. (While both are Democrats, Colleen is especially loyal, still giving Burt a hard time for voting for Eisenhower back in the day; he claims that if Mickey Mouse were a Democrat, she’d vote for him).

Why mention all of this? What’s remarkable to me is that all of this is true despite having seen and experienced enough tragedy and hardship to fill up a few novels. His life story has equal parts tragedy and heroism, before and after his service during World War II in the Marines. The events certainly stayed with him; my hunch is that for maybe five decades or so, he spoke very little about the hell he and many others went through during WWII; but now, it is often much of what he talks about, the memories still vivid and raw.

“Ask me what I did yesterday, and I can’t remember,” he told me a few years back. “But ask me about a day in the war, and I’ll remember the date, the time, what the weather was like, you name it!”

There is a reason for that, too. Serving as a Marine – perhaps one of the youngest, if not the youngest Marine at age 17 – Grandpa Burt fought in the Battle of Saipan, and was in the first platoon deployed to Nagasaki after the bombs were dropped. The latter I’ll repeat – he saw the immediate aftermath of a nuclear holocaust in person, with his own eyes. The tsunami in Japan a few years ago, with its startling images of devastation broadcast for the world, brought back memories.

After the war, he married Colleen in January of 1949, had five kids (four boys, and my mom, the only girl). He has three grandchildren (me, my brother and my sister), and by August, he will have five great grand-children: Gabrielle, 6, Olivia, 3, Bradley, 22 months, and two as-yet-to-be-named little boys.

Surviving World War II and these events is something of a miracle. He experienced post-traumatic stress disorder (it is unfair, really, to call that a “disorder” after deploying troops to the depths of hell) and many other private hardships. Had he moved just an inch or two out in the battlefield to the left or right, his life could have been claimed by a bullet or explosion. Meaning, I would not be here, nor would my son, my brother, my sister, my mother or any of her four brothers, my uncles – nor would the countless memories we have all shared together as family. Many others just like him can make the same claim; what they did resulted in not simply defeating the Nazis and “evil,” but, I believe, saving Western civilization itself.

Each generation has its own war; my parents had Vietnam, and my generation has lived through Iraq and Afghanistan. Each war has been met with different societal reaction and participation. The stories told and seen by veterans and filmmakers reflecting upon World War II is that of nobility and courage. The country was in it together, led by a president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who would be elected to four terms (dying in office) during a remarkable period of American history. Each war since then has been received with increased scrutiny, leading to polarizing viewpoints. Back during my grandfather’s time, fighting a war was a national effort – everyone pitched in, be it on the battlefield or at home. Today, less than one percent of the current population has served in our most recent wars, with many being deployed repeatedly, over a span outlasting WWII by several years. I cannot imagine what our troops today have gone through, and how much care and help they will need. That they cannot get the healthcare and mental support they need from the United States Department of Veteran Affairs, coupled with the denial of critical funding needed from the shameless ideologues currently controlling our Congress, is a national disgrace.

This upcoming weekend will be a major event, I presume, in my grandfather’s life. I wish I could be there to see it. He will be in the company of surviving veterans from his generation, which is shrinking precipitously. His normal, relaxed routine will be replaced by a whirlwind weekend schedule of travel to key sites across our nation’s capital city, relieved only by the in-person support of my mom and two of her brothers. It will be something for them to see, too, at this tender age in my grandfather’s life, with hopefully many years left to come.

I keep thinking to myself, what can all of us do to better support our veterans and our troops? When he made “Schindler’s List” in 1993, Steven Spielberg later launched the Shoah Project, which was simply to locate as many Holocaust survivors as possible and film them as they simply told stories. It was a brilliant and important thing to do; it has been more than twenty years since that film came out, and imagine how few survivors remain with us today. What a great idea to extend that work to our veteran communities, particularly in the era of social media, status updates, endless “selfie” photos that litter our news feeds.

Just imagine the hell these men (and their families) have gone through and seen first-hand. I remember the first time I realized I met a Holocaust survivor, too; while working at local video store (Island Video) in Seattle in the 1990s, a colorful, joyfully happy couple came in, chatted with us, rented a movie. The woman paid me for the rental, and I noticed a series of numbers running down her arm. Not long after leaving, I realized it was her Holocaust identification tattoo. How could someone who had gone through such a horrible, momentous ordeal have the ability to be so full of life, energy and good cheer mere decades later? The same thing applies to my grandfather. How can any one person – let alone a generation of warriors – wake up each day and find the time to enjoy himself after having gone through such a dramatic ordeal?

Perhaps that’s just it – when you’ve seen pure hell, experienced and lived it, you have an idea of what to be thankful for in life. Family. Friends. The comfort of a quiet evening at home. I am a bit of a cynical person, especially around politics, and especially around what Eisenhower called the Military-Industrial Complex. But I would never hesitate to raise a glass to people like my grandfathers, whose sacrifices and lives have literally given me the life I have today.

Additional information on the Honor Flight Network program can be found at their website, http://www.honorflight.org.

Some photos:

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About paulmwest
By day I work as a staffing consultant for Microsoft, but my real passions are film, politics, social media, food, wine, and more -- and not necessarily in that order.

4 Responses to The Youngest Marine

  1. Sue Brandeberry says:

    Paul: Your article is touching. Thank you for sharing this remarkable story.

  2. Georgia Withee Joseph says:

    Hi Paul. I found and read your blog post with great interest. My father was George Allen Withee, your grandfather’s older brother. He died 48 years ago, when I was very little, so I don’t remember much about him. He also served in WWII in Europe.

    • paulmwest says:

      That’s terrific! How great to hear from you! Do you keep up with my parents, Mary & Steve West?

      • Georgia Withee Joseph says:

        I know very little about my Seattle Withee relatives, just the names of my dad’s siblings and their spouses, and some of their children. Since you said in your blog post that you were the son of Burton’s only daughter, I assumed that must be Mary.

        I did write Burton several months back to see if I could find out more about my father, but haven’t heard back. Ruth Mast Withee (my grandmother, your great-grandmother) visited us several times when we were growing up and I had the chance to visit her in Seattle with my husband shortly after we were married. I remember her as a very beautiful and kind woman.

        Family history research is a hobby of mine and I’ve done a lot of work building out the family lines as far back as I can go. We Withee’s have a very interesting history. The Withee name itself goes back to the early 1600’s when a Scottish prisoner of war named James Mackerwithey came to the colonies as an indentured servant. I’m sure you know that August Zachau, our Prussian ancestor was one of the first white settlers in Superior, WI. And I have been told that we are Mayflower descendants through Jennie (Allen) Withee, but haven’t been able to prove it yet. The relatives on Jennie’s side are quite a colorful bunch and have been great fun to study.

        I loved reading your post about Burton’s WWII service. It’s easy to forget what a huge sacrifice they made by serving in the armed forces at that time. No wonder we call them “the greatest generation”.

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