My parents Henry and Elna Polis on their wedding day,
Dec. 24, 1942, Quantico, Virginia
He shipped out to the South Pacific front one week later,
not to return until June 1945
Sometimes, as a child, when I was bored, I’d grab a step ladder, pull it into our hallway, climb half way up and carefully lift the plywood hatch that was the portal to our unlit attic. It took some effort to climb up into the attic from the ladder, juggling a flashlight at the same time, but once seated safely on the beams above our ceiling, being careful not to put my foot through the carpet of insulation, I could explore what was stowed and normally inaccessible to me.
All the usual attic-type things were put up there: Christmas ornaments and lights, baby cribs and high chairs, lamps and toys no longer used. Secrets to my parents’ past were stored away there too. It was difficult imagining them as young children growing up on opposite sides of the state of Washington, in very different circumstances, or as attractive college students who met at a dance, or as young marrieds unencumbered by the daily responsibilities of a family. The attic held those images and memories like a three dimensional photo album.
My father’s dark green Marine Corps cargo trunk was up there, the one that followed him from Officer Training in Quantico, Virginia, to beach and mountain battles on Tarawa, Tinian and Saipan in the South Pacific, and three years later back home again. It had his name and rank stenciled on the side in dark black lettering. The buckles were stiff but could be opened with effort, and in the dark attic, there was always the thrill of unlatching the lid, and shining the flashlight across the contents. His Marine Corps dress uniform lay inside underneath his stiff brimmed cap. There were books about protocol, and a photo album which contained pictures of “his men” that he led in his battalion, and the collection of photos my mother sent of herself as she worked as a high school teacher back home.
Most fascinating was a folded Japanese flag inside a small drawstring bag, made of thin white see-through cloth with the bold red sun in the middle. Surrounding the red sun were the delicate inked characters of many Japanese hands as if painted by artists, each wishing a soldier well in his fight for the empire. Yet there it was, a symbol of that soldier’s demise, itself buried in an American attic, being gently and curiously held by an American daughter of a Marine Corps captain. It would occur to me in the 1960s that some of the people who wrote on this flag might still be living, and certainly members of the soldier’s family would still be living. I asked my father once about how he obtained the flag, and he, protecting me and himself, waved me away, saying he couldn’t remember. I know better now. He knew but could not possibly tell me the truth.
These flags, charms of good luck for the departing Japanese soldier as he left his neighborhood or village for war, are called Hinomaru Yosegaki (日の丸寄せ書き). Tens of thousands of these flags came home with American soldiers; it is clear they were not the talisman hoped for. A few of these flags are now finding their way back to their home country, to the original villages, to descendants of the lost soldiers. My brother, who now has the flag, has returned it as well to its rightful owners.
Seventy some years ago doesn’t seem that long, a mere drop in the river of time. There is more than mere mementos that have flowed from the broken dam of WWII, flooding subsequent generations of Americans, Japanese, Europeans with memories that are now lost as the oldest surviving soldiers in their 90’s pass, hundreds of them daily, taking their stories of pain and loss and heroism with them. My father could never talk with a person of Asian descent, Japanese or not, without stiffening his spine and a grim set to his jaw. He never could be at ease or turn his back. As a child, I saw and felt this from him, but heard little from his mouth.
When he was twenty two years old, pressed flat against the rocks of Tarawa, trying to melt into the ground to become invisible to the bullets whizzing overhead, he could not have conceived that sixty five years later his twenty two year old grandson would disembark from a jumbo jet at Narita in Tokyo, making his way to an international school in that city to teach Japanese children. My father would have been shocked that his grandson would settle happily into a culture so foreign, so seemingly threatening, so apparently abhorrent. Yet this irony is the direct result of the horrors of that too-long horrible bloody war of devastation: Americans and Japanese, despite so many differences, have become the strongest of allies, happily exchanging the grandchildren of those bitterly warring soldiers back and forth across the Pacific. I care for Japanese exchange students daily in my University clinic, peering intently into their open faces and never once have seen the enemy that my father knew.
More than seventy years later, my son still teaches, with deep admiration and appreciation for each of his students, those grandchildren and greatgrandchildren of the soldiers my father hated and likely killed. Not only does my son teach, but he married a granddaughter of those my father fought. Their daughter is the perfect amalgam of once warring, yet now peaceful, cultures; symbol of blended and blending peoples overcoming the hatred of past generations.
In coming to the land of the red sun, in coming full circle, my father’s descendant, the teacher and missionary, redeems my father, the warrior.
It is, on this Remembrance Day, as it was meant to be.