Honolulu is 2,558 miles from Los Angeles and 4,825 from Shamokin, PA. It is 8,073 miles from Shamokin to the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma. And 1944 is quite a distance, too.
On January 26, 2014, I fulfilled a promise to my mother. I told her that if I ever found myself in Hawaii, I would pay my respects at the grave of her favorite uncle who died in Burma during World War II.
After years of planning and dreaming, my wife and I were finally on vacation in Hawaii. It was overcast that morning as we went to visit the memorial of the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor. A navy launch takes you there, and you have about 20 minutes until the next group arrives and you must depart. It is a grave, you know. On another Sunday morning in December 1941, its ammunition magazines exploded from a Japanese bomber’s direct hit. One massive explosion. The blast destroyed the ship’s interior and 1,177 men lost their lives in an instant. The ship sank. It lies in that exact spot today. It is eerie to look into the water and see the remains of a battleship, a ladder that descends into the tomb, and to see small pools of oil on the water’s surface. Arizona went down fully loaded with fuel and it is still seeping to the surface.
Our next stop was not far from the Arizona: the USS Missouri. It is anchored at Pearl Harbor facing the USS Arizona. Since the Japanese signed the surrender treaty on it decks on September 2, 1945, it represents the end of the war. The Arizona, of course, represents the beginning. It was raining by the time we left the Might Mo. We still had one more stop.
Clutching a slip of paper and a clear Ziploc baggie, I hailed a taxicab and we went to the National Cemetery of the Pacific. It rests high a hill overlooking Honolulu. Diamondhead is easily visible as well. We arrived at the main entrance, got out and went into the Visitor’s Center. No one was there as it was Sunday, but there was memorabilia on display and maps of the cemetery. Ernie Pile was buried here. The famed journalist was killed in 1945 by a Japanese sniper during the Battle of Okinawa. A faint connection to my life; I had served 18 months on Okinawa while on active duty on the United States Army.
I unfolded the slip of paper. It read simply, “Section B, Grave 1200.” The cemetery was empty. It was misty and humid. The flag clung to the pole, as no air was moving. It was quiet except for the sound of birds. Sweet, beautiful sounds filling this vast open space.
One of 12 children born to John and Mary Clifford, Vincent G. Clifford was born on February 22, 1911 in the coal-mining city of Shamokin, Pennsylvania. Of all her aunts and uncles, my mother always remembered her Uncle Vincie as her favorite. He was of average build, about five-foot, nine inches tall, with a broad face, small mouth, strong jaw, and thick dark hair.
He was in uniform even before Pearl Harbor. As a U.S. Army Tech Sergeant (TEC5), he served in the all-volunteer 5307th Composite Unit, the unit known as Merrill’s Marauders. He received the Purple Heart and the Bronze Star. Their mission, starting in India, was to trek through 62 miles of jungle, across the 6,600-foot Kumon Mountain range, through monsoons and hellish conditions, to engage the Japanese and seize the airfield of Myitkyina inside Burma. By the time the Battle of Myitkyina was over, only 200 of the original 2,997 Marauders were still present. Vincent Clifford was not among them.
My mother’s last memory of her Uncle Vince was sitting on his lap in the kitchen of the house she still lives in, watching her grandmother bring him strawberry Jello with bananas. The next memory was the dreaded knock on the door and a telegram from Western Union listing him as Missing in Action. It was October 12, 1944. Vince had been actually been missing since June 11th (the actual date of his death).
He was finally discovered and identified by his dog tags and buried in Burma on May 3, 1945 in a grave marked by a wooden cross. He was moved from Burma to India and reinterred on January 20, 1946, 77 miles from Calcutta.
They didn’t bring his body back to Shamokin, but the family held a memorial service for him. My mother, then 7 years old, remembers the eerie sensation when Taps was played from the back of the church. On October 21, 1947 Vince was disinterred from India and sent to the Territory of Hawaii. On March 23, 1948 he was placed in a casket there and finally buried on February 7, 1949 at the newly established National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, Section B, Grave 1200.
This is where I now stood on the rainy afternoon of January 26, 2014. I removed my hat, folded the scrap of paper with the grave location scratched on it, and placed it inside my pocket. Next, I opened the Ziploc baggie. It contained two surviving letters from Vincent Clifford to his mother Mary. Both are from 1942. I can’t exactly explain why I brought these letters with me except to say that I wanted to bring them for him, as if to let him know that he was never forgotten. One letter from Camp Maxey in Paris, Texas, contained the sentence “Right now it is raining so hard that one can see mud running down the ditch like it [does] down Arch Street from a good rain at home…” I knew exactly what he meant. It was the same house and street where I grew up. I, too, saw rain rushing along the curb. That single line connected with me. It was a shared experience. The letter also contained: “Some day I hope to meet them Japanese somewhere, but don’t you all worry, as I will be home when I can.” Both letters closed with “Lots of Love, Son Vincent.”
I laid the letters on top of his grave. Reading his handwriting as I stood there was strange, yet peaceful. I thought about how difficult it must have been for him to leave home to fight 8,000 miles away. I thought of my own five-year stint in the Army and became very thankful that I was never called to war, never asked to make the ultimate sacrifice. Any yet I knew even then, as I know now, that was part of the job. That was part of the deal.
I adjusted my body into a position of attention. Arms at sides, shoulders back, eyes straight ahead. I raised my right arm, extended my hand with fingers firmly pressed together and touched them to my right eyebrow. I lowered my eyes on
the grave marker, and I thought to myself and to my great uncle, “I offer this salute. You were never forgotten.”
I completed the salute—the first one I had performed since October 15, 1986, when I left Central Command headquarters on the way to my car and into civilian life.
This salute held more meaning than any other.
It was my final salute.
I’m just saying…