Michael Moore

Christmas ’43

December 24, 2011

Excerpted from Here Comes Trouble: Stories From My Life by Michael Moore

My dad had noticed for some years that I no longer wanted to shoot guns. He had taken note of when we boys in the neighborhood had stopped playing War. I didn’t know much about his time as a Marine in the South Pacific during World War II. The only clues my sisters and I got was when he would name our dogs after battles he was in: Peleliu, Tarawa, etc. In our attic he kept some war souvenirs: a Japanese flag, a sword, and the gun he had taken off a Japanese soldier. One day, without explanation, Dad decided he no longer wanted these items in our house. He quietly went and got a shovel out of the garage, gathered together the Japanese spoils of war, and went out to the large weeping willow tree in our backyard. He dug a hole — a very, very deep hole — and buried the gun and the sword and flag under the shade of that tree. When it was all done and the earth had been restored, he stood there alone, looking down, deep in thought or prayer or who knows what. I watched from my bedroom window.

“I want to tell you a story from the war,” he told me one day. “I want you to know why every day is precious and why I am thankful each day to be here.”

 

My dad was one of seven children, and they lived in twelve homes over eighteen years. They moved around a lot, dodging landlords who came to collect the rent they couldn’t afford to pay. The Great Depression had not been particularly kind to the Moore family of Kansas Avenue/Franklin Avenue/Kensington Avenue/Bennett Street/Kentucky Street/ Illinois Street/Caldwell Avenue/Jane Street and other thoroughfares on the east side of Flint, Michigan.

Francis (or Frank, as he was known) was the fourth child of the family, and now, suddenly, at the age of twenty-two, his whole life — falling down the coal chute at two, clinging on for dear life at four while stuck on the running board of his dad’s car, getting cut from the high school basketball team the game before the state championship so that the coach could make room for a younger player coming in next year, getting fired the first day of driving the Coca-Cola delivery truck because he admitted he “didn’t much like the taste of Coke,” being placed by his mother temporarily at the age of ten in an orphanage along with his brother because she simply couldn’t afford to take care of seven childrenall of this flashed before him as he lay exposed on top of Hill 250 on some miserable piece-of-shit island in the South Pacific, watching as the tracer rounds came out of the plane above, firing directly at him and his fellow Marines on Christmas Day, 1943. Except the planes, like him, were American.

How Frank came to find himself on Hill 250 on the island of New Britain made about as much sense to him as the fact that his own side was now trying to kill him with such ease.

To begin with, no one ever explained to him how these hills got their names; it wasn’t as if there were 249 other hills he had to climb to get to Hill 250. In fact, to even call them “hills” seemed like some War Department cartographer’s idea of a joke. Maybe by calling them hills they would make an American Marine feel more like he was home — and that if he were going to die for this hill, then, well, at least he’d feel like he was dying for . . . home. Home had hills. Hills with trees and wildflowers with names like Yellow Lady Slippers and Jack in the Pulpit and Shooting Stars. Hills with pleasant hiking paths. Hills to hide out in. Hills to pick berries from. Hills where hobos could find a peaceful night’s rest. Hills where you and yours could find a small, quiet space to build a quick fire and make love beside it.

What led Frank to this particular hill was a worldwide war that had nothing in particular to do with his world. His world was one of hard work and sports and Saturday nights at the Knickerbocker Dance Hall. Though they lived the shared poverty of many in the worst days of the Depression, the Moore brothers — Bill, Frank, Lornie, and Herbie — each took extra care to always have a clean, well-pressed suit, a sharp haircut, and enough coin in their pockets to buy a pretty girl the first drink, if not the second.

They took dance lessons upon leaving high school, somehow figuring out that the fairer gender liked to go dancing. Because the other young men in town were slightly less adept at picking up on this, the Moore boys were always the first ones out on the dance floor, and this impressed the ladies. If nothing else, it showed the girls that they were fearless, and that in and of itself was quite attractive. Lornie, sixteen months younger than Frank, became known as the king of the dance floor and soon found himself teaching dance in a downtown dance studio. It dawned on him that he was in fact helping out the enemy by teaching other men how to dance a cool jitterbug, but Lornie had a gentle soul and a generous spirit, and he was just happy to see more people dancing the night away.

Things had been looking up in Flint by 1941. The Roosevelt policies of putting everyone back to work, plus the beginning of industrial production in anticipation of American involvement in a war that had started two years earlier in Europe and the Far East, was enough to prevent a factory town like Flint, Michigan, from collapsing entirely. Bill and Frank and Lornie all had WPA jobs right out of high school (a fact they tried to hide when speaking to girls). By the summer of ’41 Frank had already held down numerous jobs from hawking flyers for a local grocery store to driving an egg truck to (briefly) driving a truck full of the maximum-size (6 oz.), green-tinted Coke bottles. Each of the boys eventually landed the coveted General Motors assembly-line job. Frank, not looking forward to the monotony and repetition of placing the same nodule on an AC Spark Plug 4,800 times a day, took a night class to learn how to type, hoping to get a clerk’s job in the factory’s office. But he couldn’t type as fast as the girls, so he was relegated to Plant 7, line 2, spark plug pin insertion.

Eventually his three brothers saw a bigger world in their future and quit the factory (“Sales, Frank — that’s where the money is!”), and their combined incomes in 1941 were enough to pay the rent on their mother’s home and cease the constant upheaval of being two steps ahead of the landlord and his good friend, the county sheriff.

And after the rent and the food and the coal bills were paid, there was enough left over for the bus ride to the Knickerbocker. Or, if it was a special weekend, to the Industrial Mutual Association auditorium where the likes of Tommy Dorsey and Frank Sinatra would play as they passed through the Midwest. It was, for young working men, a version — a version — of paradise.

So it came with some disappointment that the Emperor decided to interfere with their lives on the morning of December 7, 1941. The attack, the elimination of nearly the entire Pacific fleet, came as a shock to the nation. The following day, even as President Roosevelt issued his call to arms, young men flocked to recruitment centers like the one in Flint, Michigan, which had been hastily set up in a large grade school on the near east side of town. The Brothers Moore, though, would not be among those signing up that day, or the next day, or the next week or the following month, or the month or two or three or six after that. It wasn’t that they weren’t upset at Hirohito or any less patriotic or any less eager to go kick some Axis ass. After all, they weren’t known at St. Mary’s High as “dancers.” They were Irish, and they never shied away from a fight.

It’s just that this new war was, well, poorly timed. Bill had just gotten married, and Frank was sweet on a girl who had been the valedictorian of her class at Flint Northern. She planned to go to Ann Arbor, to the University of Michigan, to study medicine, which in those days meant she would become a nurse. Frank had some ambition for further education, but the recent union victories at GM meant that he was making good money, and Ann Arbor might as well have been on the moon. Nonetheless, the valedictorian seemed worth pursuing, so this war was unwelcome at best.

Frank’s father had served in the Marines in World War I, and his uncle Tom had been a doughboy in the trenches in France during that same war. Having been gassed by the Germans, Tom was of ill health and thus lived with Frank and the family in Flint. Frank got to see up close the effect that nasty war had on these two good men. Neither could explain to Frank why America had gone to war in 1917, and so when the drums began to beat again, Frank wanted to know exactly what this one was all about. Yes, it was enough that the nation was attacked — but was there something else we should know? Anything? Something? OK, well, those bastards destroying our fleet was certainly good enough for Frank. He was ready to go fight.

He waited until the last minute, until the draft notices started to arrive in July 1942. He decided he didn’t want to be drafted into the Army — “every man’s for himself in that operation,” he would say — and so on the first of August, 1942, Frank went down to the recruitment center at the large grade school and signed up to be a Marine. A Marine? “The Marines fight as a team,” he told his friends. “They look out for each other.” But his brothers (all of whom would soon enlist themselves: Bill in the Air Force, Herbie in the Navy, and Lornie in the paratroopers, where he would die from a sniper’s bullet in the last months of the war) told him, “Marines are sent into the worst of situations. You’ll get killed in the Marines.”

“Perhaps,” said Frank, “but the Marines never leave a man behind.” After thirteen years of crushing Depression, Frank had had enough of being left behind.

The enlistment officer asked him when he could get his affairs in order to ship out.

“What’s the last possible date I have?” Frank asked.

“August 31,” the recruiter replied.

“I’ll take that day.”

Frank spent that final month enjoying the life he had: working, going to Knickerbocker’s, helping his mother. On the day he packed his duffel bag, he left quietly and went down to the bus station by himself. When he arrived he found himself waiting on a bench with fifteen other Marine recruits. A photographer from the Flint Journal snapped a picture of them and captioned it “READY!” The look on Frank’s face in the photograph was anything but READY! and apparently this wasn’t noticed by the copy editor, who let the ironic caption go through and be printed on the page the next day. By that time, Frank was on a train, on his way to basic training outside San Diego, California.

The delay in enlisting not only had bought Frank a few extra months of peace, it caused him to miss the first large Marine amphibious landing in the war — on the island of Guadalcanal. Over 7,000 Marines and soldiers would be killed, along with 29 ships sunk and an amazing 615 planes lost. Frank would not arrive in the South Pacific until the end of the Guadalcanal campaign, and thus he avoided one of the worst massacres of the war. But there would be plenty of other opportunities to die in the next three years.

“Private Moore,” the sergeant whispered. “Cap’n wants ya.”

It was sometime around 11:00 p.m. on Christmas Eve, 1943. Frank Moore wasn’t sure if it was Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, and he didn’t care much for this thing called the International Date Line that meant he was always a day ahead of his life, the life he left back home. Instead of trying to do the math, he just decided to keep himself on “Flint time.” Easier. Friendlier.

He and a thousand other Marines had bunked down early on this night on the transport ship as it headed toward the battle on New Britain, an island that was part of Papua New Guinea, a few hundred miles off the coast of Australia. There wasn’t much Christmas celebrating going on, though there were, no doubt, many, many prayers being said. Because at 0700 hours they would be loaded into amphibious assault vehicles and lowered into the Pacific Ocean just a mile off the coast of Cape Gloucester, New Britain. But for now, Captain Moyer wanted to see Frank.

“I hear you can type,” Moyer said to the young private.

“Yes, sir, sorta,” replied Frank, not quite understanding what typing had to do with killing Japanese or Christmas.

“I want you to stay behind here on the ship,” Moyer said. “I need someone who can type up the casualty reports.”

“But sir…”

“Listen, this is important. We need to be accurate and we need to be accountable. If not to HQ , at least to the families of these men.”

This was, Frank realized, a free Get-Out-of-Dying card being offered to him. Stay behind on the boat. Don’t die in the wave of bullets and mortars that will spray across the chests and the necks and the heads of his friends and fellow Marines. Live for another day. But there were no guarantees of living in the days or weeks ahead.

He had figured out in the previous months of fighting on New Guinea that the South Pacific theater was a slaughterhouse. He wondered: If he had joined the Army instead of the Marines, would he be somewhere in the Mediterranean right now? He figured there was no way that Italians and Germans were fighting tooth-and-nail like these Japanese. Sure, the enemy in Europe wanted to win, but not at the expense of everyone in their unit dying. After all, what’s the point of winning if you’re all dead? He would like to ask a Japanese soldier that question, but never really got the chance as none of them were into being captured, or worse, surrendering.

The offer from Captain Moyer seemed mighty tempting, but Frank knew that staying behind on the ship was only delaying the inevitable. If your time is up, you might as well go on Christ’s birthday.

“Captain, I’d rather stay with my battalion. If it’s OK with you, sir, let me stay with my buddies.”

Moyer had been impressed with Private Moore and how he had volunteered to help the chaplain during Mass, serving as his “altar boy.” Though Moyer was Episcopalian, he often attended the close-enough-to-count Catholic services and observed how reverently Moore treated the whole ceremony, even if it was being said on the stump of a fallen coconut tree. He thought he’d give Moore a chance to live another day, but the kid wasn’t biting.

“OK,” he told the private, “you’re dismissed. Get some sleep.”

“Thank you, sir.” Frank returned to his bunk and for the first time in a long time had no problem falling asleep.

At 0500 hours the booming sounds of the artillery guns from the nearby American destroyers made Frank stop and wonder if he had made a mistake turning the captain down.

Someone mentioned that Moyer and a reconnaissance party had slipped down into the bay two hours earlier with the intent of landing before the invasion, under cover of darkness, in order to find out just what the First Marine Division was about to face.

Tucked tightly into his amphibious lander with thirty or so other Marines, Frank said one final prayer before the door came down and deposited everyone into the slosh of chest-high saltwater. They were nothing more than the fish in the Japanese shooting barrel. The first thing Frank noticed was that it was nearly impossible to walk, that it was impossible to fire his gun, and although he was a human target for Japanese snipers in need of some early-morning target practice, Frank’s focus was on some very short-term goals: one foot forward, now the other foot. Keep gun above head so it doesn’t get wet. Now one more foot forward. This seemed like it took an hour or more (it took less than five minutes), and Frank kept wondering how it was that he was still alive. Dumbroski, a sergeant who had been the big, tough bully of the unit until this moment, was frozen in place, weeping. Keep moving. Leg. Foot. Rifle. Dry.

And then suddenly he was on the beach. A beach of black volcanic sand. Red blood on black sand made for an odd mixture; both caught the light of the morning sun and glistened with more life than they deserved. The brush of the jungle was just a few yards away and appeared to offer the best chance for cover from the incoming shells being fired from a cliff about a mile away. Within a couple hours most of the Marines had landed and the casualties were not as great as anticipated. The Japanese had decided not to fight this battle on the beach, perhaps because the Marines had set off enough smoke bombs so that the enemy had difficulty seeing the invading Americans.

Frank’s battalion moved out on the left flank to head toward higher ground, while other battalions pushed straight through the jungle. Frank and his men were again surprised at the absence of Japanese gunfire or resistance. Within the hour, moving fast, they began to climb Hill 250. It seemed too easy.

They were right.

For some reason they had found a magical crack in their own front lines and, without realizing it, slipped right through it with no one noticing. They were now in Japanese territory, a good thousand yards ahead of what everyone believed were the front lines of the United States Marine Corps.

Their map indicated it might be Hill 250. It is generally believed that during a battle, it is better to be on top of the hill than at the bottom. You don’t need to be a West Point graduate to understand that. So Frank and the others began to make their way up the hill. The Japanese at the top of the hill didn’t want any company that day, so they lobbed everything they had on the lost battalion. Then, out of nowhere, a monsoon rain erupted, making it impossible to see more than a few yards ahead. That gave the Marines the cover and the advantage they needed, and they quickly made their way up Hill 250. With grenades, 37mm machine guns, and sheer force of will, they took the hill. The Japanese on top of the hill had no way of knowing that this was just a small unit of Marines; they assumed that they were facing an invading horde of hundreds, if not thousands, of Americans. So they retreated down the other side, where the larger force of their Japanese army lay in wait.

As the Marines secured the ridge, the rain stopped. This first victory felt good — not exactly flag-planting good (they had barely advanced onto the three-hundred-mile-long island) but good enough — and there were remarkably no casualties.

It was then they heard the sound of airplanes. This was a welcome sound, as it was the sweet hum of a Wright Cyclone engine on a B-25, the sound that said, Here we are, boys! The Cavalry to the rescue! The grunts on the ground had cleared the hill — now it was time for the flyboys to swoop in and take out the valley!

But as Frank squinted at the planes backlit against the now-punishing tropical sun, he saw a plume of smoke coming out of one of them. The plane had been hit. How could that be? They were coming from behind, coming from American-held territory — who would have shot at an American plane from back there?

In fact, it was Americans back on the beachhead who had actually fired on the American planes, thinking (wrongly) that they were Japanese bombers. The American planes, in turn, thought that the Japanese had hit them (two of the B-25s went down in flames), and so when they looked down on Hill 250 and saw the “Japanese” whom they thought fired on them, well, it was payback time.

But, of course, these were not Japanese on Hill 250; these were the men of my dad’s unit.

Swooping in at almost treetop level, the B-25s strafed Hill 250 with their bullets. Frank and the men had no time to signal that they were on the same side. There was nowhere to run for cover. They threw themselves down and prayed for the best. Frank could see the tracer rounds coming from the planes straight at them. He accepted that this was the end of his life, and he closed his eyes as that life, with all of its scenes of joy and poverty and family, sped by him in an instant. He knew that the next instant would be his last.

When Frank opened his eyes, his life was not over. But the scene in front of him was one he had never wanted to see. Lying beside him was one of his friends. His face was gone. Frank looked up and over the body to see a dozen or so of the men in his unit lying there, riddled with bullets, many crying out for help, some alive, some perhaps dead, their uniforms beginning to stain broadly with the blood that was oozing out of the numerous wounds. In all, fourteen Marines were hit and one was dead. Only Frank was alive and untouched. For a moment he was convinced that he must be dead, too, as it was simply not possible to survive that many bullets fired from so low, bullets that not only penetrated the bodies of his comrades but also chewed up the volcanic rock all around him. How could this be? Why was he untouched? And why in God’s name did this good Marine next to him die at the hands of other Americans?

Frank had little memory of what happened next. Apparently the Marines on the front lines behind him had witnessed the whole stunning incident. They reached Frank and the others as Frank was trying to administer first aid to his buddies. Medics and stretchers were called in, and after the wounded were attended to, Frank was brought back down to the staging point near the shore.

 

“I’m OK,” Frank said after a few hours of rest. “I’m ready to go back.”

“It’ll be night soon,” a corporal told him. “I think it’s OK if you stay here with us.”

He thought perhaps someone would want to talk to him, to file a report or something. But there was a war, a real war, going on, and after he asked one lieutenant why this tragic mistake had happened, he was told this happens in war all the time. “You just have to move on and win.” After that, Frank never asked about it again.

The following day, he got word that Captain Moyer and the five men with him had all been killed on their recon mission. He could see that this was the way it was going to be. Death, then more death. Soon another captain from the front line appeared with two privates who had “cracked” under duress.

“These guys are my wiremen,” he told the officer in charge. “They’re no good to me now. Trade me these for one of your guys.”

The lieutenant looked at Frank.

“This guy’s a machine gunner. I’ll trade you him.”

“Don’t need a gunner, need a wireman. Someone who can carry spools of radio wire, run fast, and duck.”

“This guy knows how to duck. Believe me.”

“A wireman?” Frank asked. “Carry and run the radio wire from the front lines back to the command post?”

“Yup.”

“No more firing a gun?”

“Nope. You can’t fire a gun and carry wire at the same time. But they will fire at you. They go after the radio guys first so we can’t talk to HQ. You take this job, you better have some guts and know some fancy dance moves to dodge those Japs.”

Guts? Dance moves? Why didn’t he say that in the first place?

“I was a wireman for the rest of the war,” my dad said as he finished his story. “I would never carry a machine gun again. I would be shot at over and over, but I couldn’t shoot back because I had to carry the spool of wire. It was kind of a crazy decision.”

I thanked him for telling me all this, but I was thirteen and, by the end of it, I was fidgeting around and checking the clock. I wanted to go outside and hang with the guys. My dad noticed none of that, as his mind was still back in 1943.

“Every Christmas I think about that day. I got to live, somehow . . . lucky, I guess . . . ,” he said, his voice trailing off.

“Dad, um, can I go, now? Maybe you can tell me another war story later?”

It would be years before I heard one again.

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