My father, Leon Schwarzbaum, who died on Dec. 3, 2014, at the age of 91, was buried a year ago today, on Pearl Harbor Day. Fate and the protocols of Jewish burial couldn’t have provided a more auspicious date. His plain wooden casket, draped with an American flag, was given military honors at a hundred-year-old cemetery on Long Island crammed with headstones carved with Hebrew letters. He would have appreciated his tie-in to history and have had something choice to say about the ceremony’s modern upgrade: The call of “Taps” was the work of an electronic recording tucked inside the bell of the bugle held to a young soldier’s lips. The puffing was mimed. “Anti-Semites!” he might have barked, cheerfully enough, as he did often about stuff that had nothing to do with anti-Semites. Leon was a barker of punchlines. I was a roller of eyes.
As I was growing up with my two younger brothers in the second half of the 20th century, Pearl Harbor was a familiar guest at supper. Dad invoked the place often, invariably as the ba-dum-DUM to a mordant joke for which none of us now remember the set-up. “What was Pearl Harbor doing out there in the Pacific?” he would say whenever conversation drifted, in even the mildest way, to the topic of Asia, Japan, the V.A., Sony, The Mikado, or sushi. The line was his signature conversation stopper. Then he would take the day’s New York Times to the toilet to complete the crossword puzzle.
I think he repeated the question in comedy form throughout his life—jokes were his armor—because he lacked a serious answer to how such a faraway place could haunt the rest of his life. Leon Schwarzbaum of the Bronx was not at Pearl Harbor on that infamous Dec. 7, 1941, lucky for him. But, unlucky for him, he did see heavy action in the bloody aftermath of the attack. From 1944 until the end of the war, he was a combat engineer in the thick of the fighting on Guam, Ie Shima, and Okinawa; on that last island, he lost nearly half of his unit.
Dad’s war stories were set pieces we heard many times: How out of place he was as a skinny Jewish kid in a Southern boot camp. How, as a G.I. on the west coast, waiting to be shipped out, he hitched a ride in the fancy chauffeured car of the actor Roddy McDowall. My mother, brothers, and I knew that Dad’s narratives, about all things, spanned a take-it-or-leave-it continuum from truth to truthiness: Maybe it happened, or should have, or maybe it didn’t, or at least not quite that way; the guy was a raconteur. (I was a roller of eyes.)
But more and more over the years, he told darker tales about what he saw and what he had to do as a soldier, 21 years old when he was deposited on Guam. Whether it was a good idea or not I now don’t know, but I gave my father a DVD of Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima when it came out in 2006. The movie provoked nightmares that ripped a lid off feelings previously sealed for his own protection. Out came even more vivid details, often about the certain death he saw young Japanese soldiers throw themselves into. Punchlines failed him.
Of all the stories Dad told, though, one never varied. And he told it too often and too consistently for the events not to be anchored in truth. It went like this:
When he was an engineering student at Cornell University in 1939, he lived in a rooming house across the street from a Japanese student, slightly older, with whom he would walk to classes. They talked about their families, their futures. The other fellow said he had a job waiting for him in Japan, and a fiancée. But by the time Pearl Harbor was attacked, the Japanese friend had disappeared.
Dad enlisted in November 1942, received a deferment to graduate, and was called up in 1943. In September 1944, he was on Guam after the island had been taken in that brutal campaign, assigned to flushing out Japanese soldiers hiding in the island’s many natural caves. My father, a rifleman, and a flamethrower operator would play a recording, in Japanese, directing those inside to strip and come out with their clothes over their heads. After three warnings, the flamethrower did his work. Screams were often heard from men who chose to die.
Then, one day, at the mouth of one cave, Dad said, he heard someone calling in English, “Don’t shoot! I am coming out!” A man emerged. He looked at my father. “Hello, Leon,” he said. It was Dad’s classmate from Cornell.
What could he do with madness like that except bark at the dinner table? The caves of recollection were deep for the soldiers who made it home from the Pacific in WWII, Leon Schwarzbaum among them. As postwar fathers and grandfathers, an unexpected memory could send them scuttling back inside, beyond reach. Dad went to war and only later asked questions about what Pearl Harbor was doing out there in the Pacific. Buried on Pearl Harbor Day and resting in peace, the man and the unanswered question have at last become one.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.