I didn’t know Joseph Carlini. Terri, my wife, told me about his death on September 29. She knew him. He was the son of Emilio and Anna Carlini. He was born on November 28, 1922. In May of 1941, he enlisted in the Marines. On the sleepy Sunday morning of December 7, 1941, Joe Carlini was in Hawaii. It was peacetime, though the winds of war had blown across Europe, Russia, China, Asia, and North Africa
On that December morning, while Joseph Carlini was asleep in his bunk in Pearl Harbor, Alice May Bunt my mother, and her brother Albert Nelson were attending the funeral of their father, whose coffin was being carried from the parlor of the family home to the cemetery in Richburg, New York. My father Charles van Heck, Jr., his parents, and sisters were gathering around their dining room table in North Bergen, New Jersey. He had spent the night at work in a dairy where he was a pasteurizer. His best friend Cy Sommer was at home reading the Sunday paper with his wife. They had finished lunch. Terri’s Uncle, Philip Tardiff, his parents, and sisters were eating their Sunday dinner in Detroit, Michigan.
The planes came in over Kahuku Point, Oahu’s northern tip. They banked right, and then flew down the island’s west coast. Mitsuo Fuchida looked through his binoculars at the ships in the shallow Hawaiian harbor. Checking his watch, he saw the time was 7:49 A.M. He gave an order. Mitsuo’s radioman signaled, “T0-,to-,to-” the syllabic abbreviation for “Totsugeki,” Japanese for “charge” (WW II: Time-Life Books History of World War II, 162)
August, 1914, when the nations had stumbled into a world war, was a memory—haunting for some, barely remembered, forgotten, or merely the distant past for others—on that December morning of 1941. Between August 22, 1914 and November 11, 1918, nine million military personnel had perished. An additional five million civilians had died from hunger, disease, and bombardment. Of the First World War, Barbara W. Tuchman wrote:
“When at last it was over, the war had many diverse results and one dominant one transcending all others: disillusion. ‘All the great words were cancelled out for that generation,’ wrote D.H. Lawrence in a simple summary for his contemporaries. If any of them remembered, with a twinge of pain, like Emile Verhaeren, ‘the man I used to be,’ it was because he knew the great words and beliefs of the time before 1914 could never be restored” (The Guns of August, 440).
My grandfather van Heck had spent World War I in the Dutch army along the Belgium border. Terri’s grandfather Tardiff had been a doughboy; he spent the duration of the war building railroad bridges in Washington State.
During World War II, my father would train the machine gunners for the bombers, then irritate his commanding officer to be transferred to the European theater. Instead, he was sent to the Pacific and a desk job. Again, he would become a nuisance until he was allowed to fly as a machine gunner on missions over Iwo Jima. At the war’s end, after the bombing, he was sent to Hiroshima. He knew the crew of Enola Grey, knew the reports. He wasn’t prepared for what he saw. He wrote on the back of a photo he took, “Never again. Never again.”
My mother enlisted a few days after Pearl Harbor. Following boot camp, she would be sent as a WAC to Texas, where she met and married my father, then to Washington State and Georgia serving in supplies, and eventually was transferred to the University of Kentucky.
My Uncle Albert Nelson Bunt fought in North Africa, was sent to Louisiana for training, then England. He landed in Normandy on D-Day +6, fought through the hedgerow country, the breakout, and at the Battle of the Bulge. For a few years after the war, Uncle Albert was fine. Then the memories and trauma swallowed him. We used to visit him in the V.A. Hospital. His fingers were stained yellow from the cigarettes he held in trembling hands. He would just stare and sometimes speak quietly. During one visit he took my grandmother’s hands. “Mama, I want to come home.” She took him home, caring for him until the day he died. Years after his death, I began to inquire about what happened to his outfit the 801st TD. They had been assigned to the 99th Infantry Division. The responses I received from the men of the 99th told of finding the bodies of the 801st frozen in the positions they had died in the following spring after the battle.
Cy Sommer, Uncle Cy as I called him, fought in North Africa, Sicily, then Italy. He was at Casino, the Purple Heart Valley, then landed at Anzio, a fifteen-mile stretch of beach that became hell for those who landed there and pushed into the rocky terrain.
Philip Tardiff died in the crash of his B-17 bomber flying a classified training mission in Georgia.
Joseph Carlini’s war began on the morning of December 7th. He never said much about that morning to my wife. What he said was enough to understand the death and destruction he had witnessed. He would continue to see combat for the remainder of the war; then he was stationed in Japan during the occupation. Six years after Pearl Harbor he married Virginia Batalucco. Like many others of his generation, he went on to obtain a college degree. Joseph then coached and taught high school physical education. He was active in his church. Terri told me he liked to tease and joke. He always made her smile.
The argument can be made that the Second World War actually began at 7:00 A.M. on November 8, 1918 when German and French officers faced one another in a railroad car in the mist shrouded forest of Compigène to negotiate an armistice. Others mark the date as September 1, 1939, at 10:00 A.M. the day Poland was invaded and France declared war on Germany. By the end of the World War II, 8:55 A.M. September 2, 1945, 55 million military and civilian lives had been lost.
I remember as a schoolboy watching them. They were the veterans of the Spanish-American War riding in Cadillac convertibles; shrunken men waving from the backseat. Then came the World War I Vets, a handful marching with stooped shoulders, their hair-white, their shortened strides, their eyes taking in the cheering crowd lining the sidewalk. They were followed by the Veterans of World War II, shoulders backs, eyes straight, some wore VFW hats, and others were bareheaded in the warm sunlit mornings. And others, like my father stood in the crowd. My father never gave a reason for not marching.
There were the Korean Vets, proud, quiet about their service, comrades of the harsh winters and sweltering heat of summers. They seemed to think of themselves as lessened by the stalemate of their war, yet proud and cynical of war, slipping quietly back into the society the war had taken them from.
And I recall the night of my high school graduation. As we walked off the field after the ceremony, someone began to sing a slightly modified version of a song by Country Joe and the Fish. “One, Two, Three, Four what are we graduatin’ for? / Don’t ask me why I don’t give a damn / Next stop is Vietnam.” For some of us, Vietnam was the next stop. For most of my friends, it was the last stop.
There have been too many wars since the last chopper lifted off the U.S. Embassy in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City). Now as I watch the Vets of Iraq and Afghanistan passing through airports, train stations, bus terminals, see them in the hospital, or observe their funerals at Arlington and in their hometowns, I am reminded of Leslie Coulson’s poem “From Somme” written during World War I.
I played with all the toys the god’s provided,
I sang my songs and made glad holiday.
Now I have cast all my broken toys aside
And flung my lute away.
A singer once, I am fain to weep.
Within my soul I feel strange music swell,
Vast chants of tragedy too deep—too deep
For my lips to tell.
Photos are by Charles van Heck – All Rights Reserved
Recent Charles van Heck Articles:
- The Importance of Color and the Composition of Light: An Interview With Janet Vanderhoof
- Dispatches From Mayne Island: Lessons on Life, Death and Leadership
- Dispatches From Mayne Island, Part Two: Conversing with Stevens, Einstein and Carr
- Dispatches From Mayne Island: Meditations on the Writings and Paintings of Emily Carr - Part One, Possession
- Intimate Stories from a Two-chambered Heart: An Interview with Roberta Murray