I remember hearing those words from my dad as a child. I was about ten or so. I was chasing one or another of the myriad of neighborhood kids who came to play at our house. We were in the basement and their must have been some sort of kerfuffle between us that did not work to my advantage. He ran up the stairs and I was in hot pursuit. On my ascent I shouted, “I hate you!”
I was met at the top of the stairs by my dad and he uttered those words in his usual, matter-of-fact tone. There wasn’t any anger in his voice and he didn’t raise his voice to say it. It seemed more like a piece of advice than a scolding. My dad was a man of few words. When he said something it was usually meaningful and you paid attention to it. It would be some years before I learned the story behind those four words.
It is Memorial Day weekend 2020. It has been seventy-five years since the end of World War II. And seventy-five years since the death of my uncle, Cpl. William Edward Downey, USMC, on a godforsaken piece of volcanic hell known as Iwo Jima.
Bill was a farm boy born in Ferryville, Wisconsin and raised in the Coulee Region of the state. He followed his older sister, Mary, to school one day. And then the next. They let him keep coming to school even though he was not old enough. Because of this he graduated from high school in the spring of 1941 having just turned seventeen. He enlisted in the Marine Corps in January 1942 three months before his eighteenth birthday.
He completed training and was assigned as a rifleman to the Ninth Marine Regiment, Third Marine Division. They kicked around the South Pacific. He spent time on Bougainville and he participated in some mopping up operations on Guam. Somewhere along the way, he contracted malaria.
In late 1944, he was on orders to the Fleet Hospital to convalesce from the malaria. The regiment was preparing for what they knew was going to be a big operation. By this time, Bill had been advanced to Corporal and was a team leader in charge of handful of other Marines. Instead of heading off for easy street at the Fleet Hospital, Bill and another malaria patient in the unit stowed away with their comrades on the vessel that would take them to their objective — Iwo Jima.
On February 27, 1945, Bill’s platoon was engaged in active operations against the Japanese defenders of the island. They had lost communications with their company and Bill volunteered to accompany their platoon leader to try to re-connect. They worked their way back towards their higher echelon, moving from fighting position to fighting position. At an inopportune moment, they were joined in a foxhole by an artillery shell. Three of the men were killed instantly. Bill was evacuated to a medical facility in the rear but by that afternoon he succumbed to his wounds.
The family did not get confirmation of his death until late in the Spring of 1945. Upon receiving the telegram from the Department of the Navy, my grandfather brought the family together. One of the things he told them was this: “People are going to say things to you about the Japanese. Remember, you don’t hate anyone.”
And a numismatic note. Uncle Bill apparently developed into quite a poker player while he was overseas. He mailed my dad a $5.00 Hawaii overprint note which was part of his poker winnings. My dad folded it neatly and hid it in the nose of a model airplane that was in his room. Unfortunately, at some point, grandma threw the plane away and that $5.00 note went with it.