Winston Churchill: “The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you can see.”
Forty-two years ago, I went for a boat ride. I can’t say with one hundred percent certainty that it took place on Memorial Day, but then again, I can’t say that it didn’t. Therefore, with the factual leeway that automatically follows someone who calls himself “the Ol’ Philosophizer,” I chose to say that this memorable boat trip occurred on Memorial Day, 1971. I think that you will agree that even if it didn’t, it probably should have.
By Memorial Day, 1971, I had been on active duty in the Navy for nine months. One of the first things I learned after reporting to duty as an enlisted man was that (a) you go where, and (b) you do what those who outrank you tell you to. In my case, that was practically everyone in the Navy, so accordingly, in August of 1970, I followed the orders I received and reported to the U.S. Naval Air Station, Cubi Point, Republic of the Philippines. Upon arrival, I was assigned to the legal office which, in light of my recent graduation from law school, gives some credence to the conclusion that service assignments were not entirely random. Once firmly installed in the legal office, it became my absolute good fortune to be detailed to assist the XO (Executive Officer) in the performance of XO’s masts, a task that would prove to be more beneficial to a future lawyer than any one single thing I had learned in law school. But it wasn’t the method of these disciplinary proceedings that produced the benefit; it was the man who performed them.
The Executive Officer of Cubi Point Naval Air Station during my term of service was Commander Jerome A. “Jerry” Rouse, a most remarkable man. Commander Rouse entered the Navy during World War II, serving as an aircraft carrier pilot. After the war ended, he taught for a while, but was reactivated during the Korean conflict. It was then that he decided to make the Navy a career. By the time our paths crossed, he had amassed a great deal of knowledge and experience which gave him a complete understanding of both military procedure and military personnel. Having also developed a wonderful grasp of human nature, he understood that when dealing with sailors, especially young ones, sometimes those two military “P’s” weren’t always on the same boat. When they weren’t, something needed to be done to effect a course correction, and at Cubi Point, the man to do this was Commander Rouse. It was because of those occasions when rules had been violated that I was able to watch a master in action.
Every Monday, it was my duty to put together the schedule of the poor souls who had run afoul of naval regulations during the past week; they would now have to explain themselves to the base’s Executive Officer at an XO’s Mast. This was primarily a screening procedure to determine if the infraction could be resolved there, or whether more serious action needed to be taken in the form of a Captain’s Mast, or possibly a formal court martial. The vast majority of “offenses” that came before the XO, however, were generally minor transgressions, the result of a combination of two factors: the seemingly unlimited amount of distractions off the base, and phenomenon that watches and clocks didn’t seem to work very well outside the gates. It was a combination that left many a poor sailor high and not-so-dry when, on stumbling back from town hours after liberty had expired, he found the gates locked and himself about to receive an invitation to see the XO.
Depending on any number of unrelated factors influencing the frenetic energy level associated with local nightlife, such as whether there was a full moon, or maybe an aircraft carrier in port, or heaven forbid, both, the Monday line of penitent personnel waiting to have an audience with the XO might range from two to twelve, possibly more. Each one would be thoroughly scrutinized, and that meant that the last person in line had a long time to contemplate his fate. A fair amount, in the form of money and liberty, was at stake for a young seaman barely making $200 a month. After allowing for some initial hemming and hawing, during which our now sweaty sailor tried to place the blame on everything or everyone but himself, Commander Rouse would slowly lead the supplicant to acknowledge his own responsibility for his predicament. Once this breakthrough was adequately accomplished, Commander Rouse would point out several very practical ways to avoid a repeat performance, and then pause as if in serious contemplation. It was inspiring how long he could let silence fill the room, never giving a hint as to what he was thinking. Finally, he would become almost grandfatherly, and if he felt that the transgressor was sufficiently chagrined, would utter his favorite lines:
“Well, it’s not like you committed a crime of moral turpitude, like robbing the poor box or burning down the orphanage … I don’t think we need to do any more about this … do you?”
Then he would smile, the sailor would recommence breathing, and after a sincere wish that the sailor (a) enjoy the rest of his tour at Cubi Point, and (b) but not enjoy it so much that he would appear before the XO in this capacity ever again, Commander Rouse would dismiss our now grateful sailor. During the two years that I assisted Commander Rouse, very few sailors came back a second time. He simply had a way of leading you to the brink of the right conclusion, but then let you take that last step all by yourself. And that leads me to the boat trip.
It was after we had completed a session of Monday masts that Commander Rouse mentioned to me that he was putting together a boat trip for some of the young personnel in the Administration building, and inquired whether I might like to go. I’m sure he knew what my answer would be, but that didn’t stop me from blurting out an enthusiastic “yes,” probably followed by an equally enthusiastic “sir!” Despite the fact that he was so vastly my superior in many of the ways that matter in life, and in all of the ways that matter in the military, we had developed a relationship that permitted a certain amount of casualness. This emboldened me to ask where we would be going. “To an island in Manila Bay,” was his reply. Wow, I thought, we’re going to Manila! So naturally I asked what was the name of the island.
Of all the trips I took while in the service, my trip of less than one day to Corregidor was the one that altered me the most. Having been born shortly after the end of the hostilities of World War II, to me that conflict fell in the category of “history.” I was aware of the terrible local events that occurred in late 1941 and early 1942 – the battle of Bataan, the fall of Corregidor, the Bataan Death March – but had consigned them to events that happened in the past, just as the American Revolution had. But they really hadn’t happened that long ago, at least that’s how I see it now. By going on this trip, I was able to witness the haunting remnants of terrible consequences experienced by men and women of the same generation as Commander Rouse, consequences that he had to feel both deeply and personally. It was a very illuminating experience.
I took several pictures while on Corregidor which somehow have survived over the years. They are not the greatest quality, but they still convey more through images than I can in words. I don’t believe that Commander Rouse had any other purpose in mind when he scheduled this trip other than for us young folks to “look and think.” That we did, and the return ride to Cubi Point was more subdued than on our way to Corregidor.
There have been so many wars, and so many fallen, that for those who have not lost a relative or friend, it can be difficult to put Memorial Day into a specific, personal context. I am among the fortunate in that regard, and so on Memorial Day I am nudged by the tenuous connection of this trip of over forty years ago to think about the men and women who served on Corregidor. To have done so, while probably knowing full well that things were not going to turn out in their favor, is hard to grasp. There is a wonderful movie that, in my opinion, captures the atmosphere of what it must have been like in those last, fateful days. Turner Classic Movies likes to schedule that movie, “They Were Expendable,” on Memorial Day weekend. It’s on again this afternoon, and I have already programmed my recorder to capture it. Somehow, viewing this historical perspective seems to me to be an appropriate way to spend Memorial Day. It helps me comprehend the scope of the vast amount of sacrifices that have already been made, as well as those that yet may be.
[Note: For anyone interested in more insight on “They Were Expendable,” I have included links to two YouTube clips. The first is an informative piece by Peter Bogdanovich on the merits of the film, while the second is a clip from the movie that underscores the notion of sacrifice. If you enjoy movies for concept and dialogue, and can tolerate black and white with special effects from 1945, then I recommend this film to you.]