Veterans consider the lasting effects of war
Patriotism, pride mark Memorial Day remembrances
This Memorial Day, veterans throughout the Peninsula will pause to reflect on their experiences serving the United States. Among them will be Edward Patton, who fought in Vietnam, and Herbert Hamerslough, a World War II veteran.
Patton, a cook at Avenidas senior center in Palo Alto, will be helping out with a barbecue at the Menlo Park rehabilitation center that helped him overcome his drug problems and gave him vocational training. Hamerslough, a retiree at Palo Alto's Channing House, will head up the Memorial Day activities at his retirement community and will say — as he always does — "a few prayers for my buddies that didn't make it back."
Patton is a tall, solidly built man with a graying, wispy mustache and several missing teeth. He speaks softly, his deep voice becoming almost gravelly when he talks of the war.
He is only comfortable mentioning his combat experiences in vague, overarching phrases that paint a dark picture of what happened.
"When the situation came, I did what I had to do. I found ways to deal with it," he said.
He was born in Baltimore, Md., and at the age of 16, enlisted in the military.
"I got my mom to sign," he said.
His reasoning for enlistment was straightforward: He was a handful at home, and his uncle, a man of whom everyone was proud, was already enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He signed on as a private on July 7, 1967.
"It was kid stuff and being patriotic," Patton said. "I (also) had a lot of buddies going."
Patton went on to basic training and eventually made his way to jump school, graduating as an Army Ranger in the 173rd Airborne.
He made it out to Vietnam in 1968 just as General Westmoreland, the commanding general in Vietnam, was requesting more troops to fight an expanded ground war. There were 409,111 servicemen in Vietnam by 1969.
When asked about his combat experiences, he said, "I don't talk about the war because I still have nightmares and trouble sleeping."
Patton found that best way to adapt to the horrors of Vietnam was "to play a macho solider."
"I wasn't so much afraid as curious," he added.
Patton served in active combat for most of his two years of service. His memory is scarred by the loss of his friends in combat, although he tries mostly to remember "the unity and the fun things we had there."
Still, he said: "Losing close friends was hard."
He returned home as a sergeant, five ranks above what he had entered the service as.
"I was lucky," he said.
After returning home, Patton said he was involved with the Black Panthers for a couple of years.
During this time he also began to suffer the consequences of serving in Vietnam, suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). He spent many years homeless, in a home for disabled veterans and as a drug addict.
But with the help of a veteran's rehabilitation center, he said, he has been sober for 14 years.
With the aid of the center's vocational training, he was able to find work as a cook.
Despite all that has happened to him, he said, "I'm more patriotic now than I was."
"I am proud of my service," Patton said.
Hamerslough, born in Washington, enlisted in the Officer Training Corps in the Marines in July 1942. At 22, near the close of the war, he graduated as a 2nd Lieutenant in the 1st Regiment, 1st Marine Division.
He was quickly deployed to the Pacific Theater, where the United States was wrapping up a brutal island-hopping campaign to get close enough to the Japanese mainland to launch an invasion. During the campaign, each island captured was held by heavily entrenched Japanese forces that made U.S forces pay with a massive number of casualties.
Hamerslough arrived in time for the campaign to take Okinawa, one of the last islands before the Japanese mainland.
"It was a series of ridges, and all you could do was keep your head down and hope for the best," he said.
"They could see everything you could do, and it wasn't fun to know that you had to climb up," he added.
In his first week of combat, on May 21, 1945, Hamerslough suffered a devastating injury to his legs from a Japanese mortar shell. It rendered him unable to walk.
"They were targeting officers," he said.
"Mortar shells were attacking the line. I got blown 10 feet back. Any bigger shell and I wouldn't be here," Hamerslough said, adding, "I was lucky that I am still here."
His injury was one of a number of casualties. Of the 60 officers in his unit, 40 were casualties. During the month of May, the casualties on Okinawa totaled 4,000 men per week.
It took him two months and nine days to get back to Seattle for a series of three operations. It was almost a year before he could walk again.
"Not being able to walk for seven or eight months (after the operation), I wondered what the hell my life was going to be," he said.
He was retired out the military due to disability and moved to San Francisco, where he worked as a notary.
Today, Hamerslough makes time to stop by the VA hospital to visit wounded soldiers.
And as for the effect of the war on him, he has an optimistic outlook.
"Live and let live. I look at it as part of the bigger picture of life," he said.
Editorial Intern Aaron Guggenheim can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.