While most of us use the day to go to the beach, barbecue meats or watch television, since the Civil War a day in May was set aside for the dead.* War dead, specifically–those men and women in uniform who died serving their country.
John Absalom–known for years on Maui radio airwaves as “Johnny A”–has in intimate understanding of the day’s true meaning. A Marine Corps veteran himself, Absalom grew up admiring his grandfather, a marine officer who fought in Guadalcanal and Peleliu during World War II.
On May 14, Absalom and I sat down at Wailuku Coffee Co. and talked story about his experiences and insight into the true meaning of Memorial Day:
MAUITIME: When were you in the marines?
JOHN ABSALOM: I entered on Sept. 11, 1984 and got out on Sept. 10, 1988. Four years.
MT: And when you left you were a…
MT: What was your job?
JA: 0811–artillery. They called us “Cannon Cockers.” We worked on the guns.
MT: So why did you join up?
JA: I joined the Marine Corps because of my grandfather, Charles Rigaud, who fought on Guadalcanal. I joined out of a sense of service. In high school, I wanted to make it my career, But once I got in, I saw that four years would be plenty.
I grew up in Columbia, Maryland, and wanted to see the world. It’s about halfway between Washington, DC and Baltimore.
MT: You knew your grandfather when you were growing up?
JA: Oh yeah. I was closer to him than my other grandparents. He taught me to shoot at age eight. He taught me about the Marine Corps. But he never talked about the war–he definitely had psychological scarring. Growing up, I didn’t know him as my “grandfather.” He was “the Colonel.”
MT: Did your grandfather live long enough to see you join the marines?
JA: Yeah–he even came to my boot camp graduation at Parris Island.
MT: That must have been great.
JA: Yeah, but the night before graduation, we were allowed some free time to see our families. Somehow–I don’t know how–I got a scuff on my boot. And the very first thing he said to me was, “What the Hell kind of place is this where they teach you to call non-commissioned officers ‘Sir’ but they don’t teach you to clean your boots properly?!” I was so embarrassed.
MT: Now when did you find out that your grandfather figured prominently in John Hersey’s classic 1942 book Into the Valley, about a marine unit that, to be honest, get the hell beaten out of them during a vicious fight for Guadalcanal?
JA: Oh, at a very young age. Maybe when I was 10 or 11, I read Into the Valley. And yeah, it’s a very dark book.
MT: As I recall, it ends with then-Captain Rigaud and his officers talking about how they messed up.
JA: Yes, but remember that Hersey wrote that during the darkest days of the war. We weren’t going from victory to victory–we were just holding on. Guadalcanal was the first big American [infantry] offensive of the war.
Basically, in 1942 the U.S. Navy came and unloaded the 1st Marine Division on this little island, where the Japanese wanted to set up for an invasion of Australia. But night following the second day of unloading, the Japanese navy came in and sank four American cruisers. The navy pulled up anchor and left, leaving the marines holding little more than an airfield. In my reading of history, back in Washington officials were about to write off the marines like they did to the defenders of Bataan [in the Philippines].
They didn’t have all their supplies, and had old Springfield rifles from World War I. But they held on, and eventually they became better supplied. By 1943, the Japanese gave up trying to take over the island.
But in the book, there was a point when his marines were going to bug out in a battle, and my grandfather stood up and yelled at them. He shamed them into fighting. He was a big hero to me.
MT: What did he do after Guadalcanal?
JA: After the book came out they sent him on a war bond tour of the US. He wasn’t able to get back to the Pacific until 1944, when he was sent to Peleliu. But by then he was a major, so he wasn’t on the front lines.
MT: Peleliu was a nasty battle. And I’ve read that it didn’t even have to happen–the island played no role in the island-hopping fight to get to the Philippines and, eventually, the Japanese home islands.
JA: Yeah, it was a coral atoll, with extensive caves. The marines would take a hundred yards, and then the Japanese would appear behind them and shoot them in the backs.
MT: After you had joined the marines, did your grandfather ever open up about his experiences in the war?
JA: I used to visit him, when he was an old man, and we’d sit and drink. He had issues with drinking his whole life but these times I’d get to hear war stories. He had seen horrible things–during the war in the Pacific, both sides basically agreed not to take prisoners. There were horrible atrocities committed by both sides.
Even then he hated the Japanese, and he hated people who drove Japanese cars. But he had a lot of respect for the Japanese as warriors. He said they were the toughest soldiers he knew.
MT: When did he die?
JA: 2000. He committed suicide.
JA: His wife had died, and he was getting to a point where others would have to take care of him. He’d have to go live in a home. He wasn’t going to do that. So he got his affairs in order and then shot himself. A lot of people saw it as a tragedy. But I knew him as someone who always took charge of his life. And I feel he took charge of his death.
MT: The subject of veterans who take their own lives is something I know only too well. Most vets who kill themselves these days are Vietnam war vets, and the more time has passed since the vet’s service, the more difficult it is to pin down military service as a potential cause. But a surprising number of young vets are killing themselves–now, I know you read Sebastian Junger’s essay in the June 2015 issue of Vanity Fair [“How PTSD Became a Problem Far Beyond the Battlefield”] which deals with this. His take was that that it’s not the military culture that’s broken, but the civilian one. We have vets coming from a military built on strong group identity to a civilian society that basically alienates everyone. What was your experience when you got out?
JA: I can remember my first year back, and I was disgusted. Your average civilian is just not someone that you can trust in the same way you can trust your buddies back in the barracks. I’m not saying they’re less trustworthy, just that the military is based on that trust. Now I made the adjustment, but it was disappointing.
MT: Did you think leaving the marines was a mistake?
JA: No. I was proud serving as a marine, but there were a lot of things I wanted to do that I couldn’t do as a marine. One of the things I didn’t like was the conformity–someone telling me what to do in almost every facet of life. But I have plenty of respect for guys who stayed in.
MT: I imagine when you got out of the service, civilians treated you pretty well.
JA: Oh yeah. Random strangers would walk up and pay my tab. It was the 1980s–American society had realized its error in attacking soldiers who’d come back from Vietnam, an unwinnable quagmire. By the late ‘80s, I think people had realized that it was the politicians who’d brought the war about, not the soldiers. Unfortunately, I’m a little disappointed these days.
JA: I think the pendulum has swung too far over to the other side–I think many civilians now support the troops too much. They think people in uniform can do no wrong. They can commit crimes, too. Maybe a smaller percentage than in civilian life, but I’ve still had arguments with civilians over this.
Take Chris Kyle [the late Navy SEAL sniper whose posthumous memoir American Sniper was recently made into a movie]. He was a liar and a racist. Now you can appreciate what he did for the country, but you should also understand that he had severe issues.
MT: There does seem to be a great deal of glorification, especially of people like Kyle. There also seems to be pressure for us to go back to Iraq and fight ISIS.
JA: Are people buying the propaganda about ISIS? They forget about the bloodletting that happened the first time we were in Iraq. These are imperial wars that we’re not going to “win.” Going back to Iraq may help corporations, but not you or me.
MT: In the mean time, what do you typically do on Memorial Day?
JA: A lot of times I’ll sit at home and watch war movies. I think living vets are very uncomfortable with Memorial Day. Living vets get uncomfortable on a day when we’re supposed to remember the dead. I don’t really want to be acknowledged on Memorial Day because I never got a scratch.
*This story originally mischaracterized the history of Memorial Day taking place on the last Monday of May.
Photo of Geoffrey Anderson (left) and John Absalom (right) on Okinawa in 1986 courtesy John Absalom