I guess it was last week’s rain that made me think about Charles. That and all the news from Iraq. He disappeared during the Korean War, when the heart of a storm had passed, leaving a drizzle in the air and water dripping from the trees. The last I saw of him, he was heading off into the mountains.
It was sort of like what happened to that Navy pilot, Michael Scott Speicher, who’s been missing in action since the Gulf War more than a decade ago. The circumstances were different, but the mystery is pretty much the same. I guess that was on my mind too.
Charles and I were in the same squad during the Korean War. He wasn’t Chuck or Charlie, but Charles, and never one of the guys. He was a small man who seemed almost always in a state of borderline depression, constantly staring at his feet or the ground ahead of him, rarely looking up. I never heard him laugh. I hardly ever heard him speak.
I was sitting at home last week recuperating from surgery, watching the rain dampen the Santa Monica Mountains, when his face popped into my head, like a dream figure huddled in the middle of a gray, wet day. He looked, as always, as though he were about to cry. At first I couldn’t remember his last name, but then that came to me, the way memory snaps things into focus. I’m not going to use it here. No sense causing anyone pain all these years later.
It’s bad enough having someone missing in action. Living with false hope is one of the great cruelties of war. One minute alive and the next a blurring image of the man that used to be, fading into the mountains. Or in Speicher’s case, into the desert. They’re still not sure if Speicher is alive or dead. He’s just gone. Like Charles.
Charles was about as unlikely a Marine as anyone I’d ever met. God only knows why he’d ever signed up. In boot camp, he was always complaining about the treatment he got at the hands of our drill instructors, but it wasn’t any worse than the rest of us suffered. That’s just the way boot camp was back then. They’d tear you down to build you up. But Charles felt singled out, and as the weeks went by, he seemed to slowly disappear into himself.
It was the same way in Korea. He was terrified of combat, the way we all were, but most of us realized that survival depended on doing our job. We complained about things like food and the weather, but we soldiered on. Charles humiliated himself by whining and by one day breaking into tears while pleading with the company commander, an iron-hard career Marine, to send him to the rear. Maybe that’s where he belonged, but the captain, a guy who’d survived Guadalcanal, just told him to get back to his squad and start acting like a man.
And then one afternoon, on a day as wet and gray as a bad dream, Charles just disappeared. I remember seeing him heading off into the mountains on a routine fire-team reconnaissance patrol, the last man in line, half-hidden under a camouflaged poncho. The patrol returned a few hours later and said they’d come under fire. In response, they’d backed off as they’d been told to do and had returned to the main line of resistance. All but Charles. He’d disappeared.
Members of the fire team were at a loss to explain it. They’d been pretty much together, but when they began approaching our lines, they noticed suddenly that Charles wasn’t with them. They turned back to look for him or for a body but found nothing. Later on, an entire squad went searching, but it too came up empty. Charles had become one of 4,245 men missing in action at the war’s end 50 years ago.
It’s an odd feeling not knowing. If we’d found a body, at least that would have put an end to it. We assumed he’d been taken prisoner, but there was that suspicion too that he might have just taken off and was somewhere hiding in the mountains, too frightened or confused to emerge. No one else in our company was reported missing during the 15 months I was there.
The last American soldier unaccounted for in the recent Iraqi war, Army Spc. Edward Anguiano, was found dead in the desert on the outskirts of Nasiriyah. His family suffered a month of anguish, of not knowing, before Anguiano’s remains were positively identified. At his funeral last week in Texas, his grandfather said, “It’s not how we wanted it to be, but he’s here. He’s here with us now.”
There’s at least closure in Anguiano’s case, but not so for Speicher or Charles or all those other thousands who move like restless ghosts amid our memories. Their faces come back when one least expects it. When the day darkens and rain falls and images appear in the melancholy storm.
Al Martinez’s column appears Mondays and Fridays. He’s at firstname.lastname@example.org.