I wrote the post below last year for Memorial Day as a tribute to my Dad, who served as a soldier during World War II. I’ve thought of his service often, and have read many books about war and military history to try to understand what he did, what he went through, and also who he was. As Dickens pointed out in A Tale of Two Cities, the human heart is a mystery even to those closest to us, and there are many things I know about my Dad, but so much I don’t.
I do know this much. He was born to farmers, he farmed before he went to war, and he came back home to farm. In a way, he was a descendant of the citizen-soldiers during the Peloponnesian War — farmers who left the land to put on armor and engage in a widespread conflagration, shipped out to fight in places they knew little about. For soldiers in the era of classical Greece, the highest honor was not to kill or stand out as a hero, but to stay in line, not run away, and support the man standing next to you. And so it is to this day. (The classicist Victor Davis Hanson has done impressive work in tracing the origins of Western military discipline, methods of fighting and ethos back to ancient Greece). I also know that my Dad was wounded once — some shrapnel from an exploding artillery shell struck him in the neck — but he must have refrained from applying for a Purple Heart, because it is not among his battle decorations. I know of it only because I directly asked him once if he had been shot during the war, and he never mentioned it to me again. Knowing my Dad, he would have been embarrassed to get a decoration for his wound when so many others were hurt much worse or killed.
I also know this: he was a tough, tough man in every sense. He did whatever work he could find to earn money during the Depression — he was one of 12 kids in his family. He did some farming for his father, he dug ditches and planted trees for the government. He enlisted before the United States entered World War II, and came back home after a brutal war in which he had seen a great deal of savage behavior by Japanese Imperial Army, but I never heard him say one word of hate against the Japanese. He was the kind of man who worked on the oil rigs in 40-below weather in the winter to feed his family during years the crops had failed. When it was too cold to start the car, he walked four miles to town in a blizzard to get kerosene and supplies. He was tough enough to fight some of the best soldiers that ever lived — Japanese Imperial Marines — in jungles and mountains (how much he must have hated that, being from flat, treeless North Dakota). He was tough enough to have seen many people killed — besides deaths in straight-up combat, his unit was chronically short of officers because they were constantly killed in camp and behind the front lines by Japanese snipers — and never talk of wanting to hurt other people. And he was also tough enough to deliver me and one of my older sisters when we were born, with the nearest doctor 20 miles away. I guess he had helped so many calves to be born, he thought how hard can it be to bring a baby into the world. He taught me how to work hard, how to see humanity even in people you don’t like, how to keep going ahead when things don’t go your way and you feel like quitting. He died in 1984. I don’t think a single day has passed since then that I haven’t thought of him.
Here’s the post from last year, updated to make the year current.
Sixty-two years ago this month, the men of the Sixth Infantry Division, U.S. Army, were in their fifth month of fighting the Japanese Imperial Army on the island of Luzon, the Philippines. They had just cracked the Shimbu line after a two-month battle in which the division’s three regiments were thrown into a battle against 14,000 Japanese soldiers waiting in bunkers, pillboxes, trenches and caves. During the Shimbu line battles, every attack was met with a counterattack from the Japanese, who favored night actions and the banzai charge. Many of the Sixth’s soldiers were ill with diseases like malaria from fighting in the jungles of New Guinea the prior year against elite Imperial Marines.
At that time, in late May 1945, plans were being drawn up for Operation Coronet, the invasion of Honshu, Japan, which was to begin on March 1, 1946. Operation Coronet was to follow Operation Olympic, the invasion of Kyushu, which was scheduled for November 9, 1945. How many American dead and wounded were expected from these two invasions is disputed, but this much is known for sure — the Army manufactured 500,000 Purple Hearts in anticipation of the battle for Japan, a stockpile it has yet to exhaust in all the years since. The Order of Battle for Operation Coronet included the landing of eight armored and infantry divisions west of Tokyo Bay. These divisions were then to fight their way north and take the city in conjunction with other U.S. forces. Among those divisions was the Sixth. Among the three regiments of the sixth was the 63rd Infantry Regiment, and among the 63rd’s 12 companies was Company C. Among the soldiers of Company C that would have fought their way toward Tokyo, presuming they had not already been killed in their landing transports before they hit the beaches by one of the 10,000 kamikaze planes assembled to oppose the landings, was a young staff sergeant named Fred Rossmiller, my Dad. In addition to the perhaps 400,000 American dead expected in the battle, it was thought 5 million to 10 million Japanese soldiers and civilians would die.
As we now know, Operation Coronet never happened, because the war ended in September 1945. If it hadn’t, my Dad might never have made it back to Wildrose, North Dakota, where years later, he delivered me, the fifth of five children, one October morning on our farm. My Dad never said much to me about the war. I asked him once if he had killed in battle. He said he didn’t know: he fired at the enemy and they fired at him. If he had killed someone, he had not personally seen it. He then told me a different story, about how when he was fighting in Luzon, he and his unit came upon some members of the Filipino Army, who had captured a Japanese soldier, tied him to a tree and were beating him. My Dad stopped them, but his unit was involved in a battle, and had to move on. They couldn’t take the prisoner with them. After his unit moved out, my Dad said, he didn’t know what happened.
The mutual enmity between the Japanese and American armies in World War II was extremely high. Yet my Dad had tried to protect this enemy soldier, and apparently thought this a more appropriate lesson for his child than his other combat experiences, because he never talked to me about them in the same kind of detail. Mostly, what I know of the Sixth and its battles I have read in the official division history and elsewhere.
In the abstract, it may sound like a cliche to talk about honoring those who have served and sacrificed for our nation. But that abstract concept of service and sacrifice is made up of millions of individual real acts by real people who did things like carry a 70-pound machine gun on their backs through dense, mountainous jungle, and sleep with their boots on both to keep snakes and bugs out and to be ready for an enemy suicide attack. People like my Dad, who fought in 306 days of combat, the last 219 of them consecutive, and then went home and farmed, didn’t complain, and didn’t talk much about what he had done. There is a word for people like that, people like my Dad: heroes. And they have Memorial Day lest we forget.