|The hell of the Battle of Peleliu|
As part of the celebrations around the 70th anniversary of U.S. forces arriving in New Zealand we arranged for a U.S. Marine Corps band to tour the country. They played gigs in some of the towns that had bases for the Americans during World War II.
I received a phone call from a Kiwi veteran named Alan Roberts from Christchurch. He asked me if it would be possible for him to meet some Marines. I went to visit him in Christchurch. He is a kind, soft-spoken and gentle man with a coy, endearing smile. His wife, Beatrice, too, is a gracious spirit. He told me he had a story he wanted to share. He knew that none of the people involved was still alive, but he felt he had a debt of gratitude he needed to repay somehow. At 92, he felt this might be his last chance.
He told me that after he joined the New Zealand Army he'd been seconded to work with the Americans in the Pacific. He'd been an outsider well treated by his American "hosts." He went ashore with them on what is now Palau during a monstrous battle. Eighty percent of the Americans didn't make it. Alan was lucky enough to survive the landing and had 10 hellish days of fighting. On the eleventh day a Japanese bullet hit him in the chest.
"Hit the deck, Kiwi, we'll come and get you," an American yelled out, seeing he was injured.
Two medical corpsmen braved mortar and gun fire to save him, Alan said, his eyes welling up. They got him out of there and onto an American hospital ship.
Alan recovered from his wounds. He was so impressed, so awed by the medical corpsmen that he decided to become a doctor himself. He was a rural family physician for 50 years south of Christchurch.
Sitting in his home in the earthquake-ravaged city, Alan told me that most of his buddies were gone now. He spoke to a historian two years back about his time during the war. Beatrice said this was the first time she'd heard his stories. I could sense that the telling of his history was doing him good. They were inside him and needed out.
|Alan and Beatrice Roberts meet the Marines|
I spent a good deal of time with the Roberts. But I lost them for a while and found them out in the foyer waiting for their taxi. They were sitting on the bench patiently. With big smiles on their faces.
"Thank you so much for tonight," Beatrice said. "You'll never guess what just happened."
|Alan and US Marine vet Harry Oliver|
"Well, that's my dad," David Penman said.
Turns out one of Alan's old wartime buddies was still alive up in Auckland. Alan's face was afire with emotion. "Oh, this has been such a good day, Adrian," he said. "Thank you."
I was fighting back tears myself. This gentle veteran would have a fellow traveler to talk to, a buddy to remind him that all the memories in his head were real. That these awful things that kept him up at night for all those years had actually happened.
All I could say was, "No, Alan, thank you. For everthing. It's been a privelege to get to meet you and Beatrice."
And I meant every word of it. I called Alan today to ask him how he was doing. The two families had already been in touch. Things were going to happen for these two 92-year-old Kiwi vets. It was a wonderful thing to have been a part of.