"In January 1944 when my father crossed the Pacific for the first time, he did not know where he was going. He did not know that he was headed for New Zealand. He did not know that after a year of training and waiting....he and his buddies in the Twenty-first Infantry Division would be transported to northern Luzon, the Philippines, where they would sweat out five and a half months of combat." Louise Steinman's prologue captured my soul and my gut. I could have finished the book in a day and called it a fast read, but I realized that each letter her father wrote home could have been my father writing, so I stopped after each letter and reflected on what I knew about my father's war in the Pacific.
The author basis her true story on hundreds of letters, her father wrote to her mother during World War II, and a flag. After the death of her father in 1990 she and her brother began the process of cleaning out his home. A rusted box was found in the underground storage filled with manila envelopes. Carrying it upstairs to the light she writes, "I opened it (the manila envelope) and found a slippery piece of white silk, folded in eighths. I held it up to the light. Pin pricks of daylight showed through the fragile fabric--tiny holes where the fine strands had given way. The orange-red disc in the center was faded. Brushed over the surface were Japanese characters, and speckled among them, faint drops of red-brown. Could they be blood? Spooked, I quickly refolded it and put it back in the envelope, back in the box."
This is where I stopped reading for the first time. I knew my father, too, had returned from the War with the same flag. For days, I searched my memory for what few facts I might have remembered about my father's experience, but like so many of us born to those amazing men and women, their stories remained hidden from their families.
What I know about my father's war can be seen on the flag he returned with and the story in pictures of his years in the Army-1940--45.
The entries include his departure from Wichita in December 1940, followed by his tour through the Philippines, New Guinea, Japan, New Guinea, and the Aleutian Islands. I have no idea of the order of events nor of the battles.
Reading The Souvenir helped me to understand not only my father, Johnie Stapp, but the men at Miami Golf and Country Club; the men with missing limbs, who leaned next to the Security Bank and begged for food or money; the men who smoked a couple of packs of cigarettes daily; the men who worked hard all day then spent their evenings in the local bars and taverns; the men who had nothing to say about the war they survived.
10 September 1945 (Norman Steinman writes)
When I get home, I never want to be reminded of the Philippines. Everything on this island will always bring back sad memories and remind me of six long months of hell--living in fear--seeing such horrible sights day in and especially the nights of being awake and always on guard wondering and waiting.
Louise Steinman takes the journey into her father's past: to Japan to return the flag to the family of the young Japanese soldier who died; to the American Cemetery in Manila; to Luzon and the battle fields of Balete Pass; and finally to the beauty of the swans in Suibara. The book is worth the time spent in reading, absorbing, and reflecting on life, death, and the grace of unconditional love.
There are no accidents. Louise found her father's flag and told his story which eventually led to helping me understand my father.
Letty Stapp Watt
Johnie Stapp's daughter and historian