Saturday, December 10, 2011
“I will never forget you….”
We arrived in Okinawa last night just before midnight after having flown for nearly ten hours and crossing the International Date Line, losing a day. I remember loading into a bus, driving to a Marine Corps base, and getting my room key. I think I fell asleep before my head hit the pillow. Today, we travelled to some historical landmarks on the island such as Kakazu Ridge, which saw some of the bloodiest fighting in the battle for Okinawa. We also had the opportunity to walk through the Japanese Navy Underground Headquarters, which was a maze of tunnels. Although my veteran, Mr. Parke Piper, was never at Okinawa during the fighting, being on the island triggered some of his memories as a Sergeant in the Marine Corps at Bougainville, Guadalcanal, and Ewa Airfield at Pearl Harbor.
Parke Piper is who I think of now when I hear the phrase, “Once a Marine, always a Marine.” Whenever he enters a building, he takes off his USMC ball cap and carries it with him, promptly putting it back on as soon as he exits the building. He is a quiet man, but has plenty to say if you sit down and listen. I stayed up several hours one night with “Sgt. Piper” listening to his military experiences. As I sat next to him listening and looking through some of his wartime memorabilia, my respect for him only increased. In two years of service, this man had seen and experienced more than most people do their entire lives. Once, while he was serving on the aircraft maintenance crew at Ewa Airfield, he witnessed an airplane crash nearby. He was one the first on the scene and pulled the pilot out of the cockpit. Because of severe burns from the gasoline and oil fires in the airplane, Mr. Piper said the pilot’s face was completely black, but he was surprisingly very conscious and looked up at him and said, “Marine, as long as I live, I will never forget you.” Unfortunately, the pilot died the following morning. I’ve read about these types of things but at that moment it became real to me.
While it means a lot to the students to get to spend time with these men and hear their stories, I think it also means a lot to the veterans. We have become special to them because we are interested in their lives and their experiences. Not only have I gained a better understanding of what WWII was really like through the eyes of someone who lived it, but I have also gained a friendship that will last a lifetime.