In the spirit of Auld Lang Syne, the first line of which is “Should old acquaintance be forgot…,” forgive me a story. It is about friends, true friends, what that meant when chips were down.
History zooms, and what you thought was just yesterday turns out to be quite a while ago. If you ever saw Tom Hanks HBO series “The Pacific,” you know one or two of these old friends.
Exactly 100 years ago this month, a future US Marine was born. On Okinawa in World War II, he would be known as “Snafu,” nickname for Merriell Shelton, hard-bitten, Cajun, fiercely loyal.
Snafu served with another US Marine, E. B. Sledge, prolific in later years, destined to become a biology professor, but only 19 in 1942. Sledge – who Snafu dubbed “Sledgehammer” – was slight of build, served with distinction on Peleliu and Okinawa, front lines, witness to the worst.
Sometimes, in the absolute worst, you find the absolute best. A third friend, who would not make Hanks’ movie script 70 years later, was US Marine Leonard E. Vargo.
The idea here is that, in times like ours, we must remember “Auld Lang Syne” – that is, “times long past.” The courage, unbreakable bonds of “go to the death” friendship – what few called love, but it was, characterized these Americans – and they educate us, from “times long past.”
Coincidentally, I just finished E.B. Sledge’s incomparable memoir, humbly written, yet filled with acts of arresting heroism, selflessness, courage in combat, and friendship. The book is “With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa.” How many Americans recall those places?
As the New Year’s song says, “We’ll take a cup of kindness yet” for old times’ sake. So here you are – a cup of it. Late on Okinawa, 82 days of hell, Vargo was wounded on Kunishi Ridge.
They could see it. A stretcher team of four bolted to get him. The enemy cut them down, shot three of the four, who miraculously all got back. Vargo did not. He lay exposed on a coral ledge, enemy sniper first shooting one foot, then the other with precision.
Sledgehammer could not take it anymore, so crept to the edge of the ledge, out of sniper vision. He and three others knew, the sniper was waiting for anyone who helped Vargo. They could even speak with Vargo, who warned that the sniper was “hiding right over there in those rocks.”
Sledgehammer and friends were pinned down. They all knew the score. Sledgehammer said they told each other, “Somebody’s got to get up there and hand him down.” They all knew “anyone who climbed up to help Vargo down …would get shot instantly.”
Ault Lang Syne drifts back. “And there’s a hand, my trusty friend, give me a hand of thine!” Sledgehammer lost his mind for his friend. “Seized with a grim fatalism,” he jumped up on top of the ridge. “I placed hands under his shoulders … and glanced over to the sniper’s cave,” expecting “muzzle flash.” None came. Together, these Marines got Vargo down.
In an act of quieter but comparable kindness, the sort that evades recall except by those for whom – years later – it has meaning, Snafu saved Sledge his self-respect. Dead enemy soldiers were often ingloriously stripped of all, down to gold teeth, crippling the victors’ self-respect.
When Sledge – whose integrity was first order – slipped in that direction, Snafu warned him off. When that did not work in the fog of war, Snafu warned Sledge of enemy disease, which stopped him. Only years later did Sledge realize, Snafu saved him from acts he would regret forever.
Words of the song, again. “We two have run about the hills and picked the daisies fine … paddled in the stream from morning sun ‘til dine.” No friends saw more than those two. All three Marines survived the war, stayed close forevermore.
Maybe it is just the season, haunting tune and ancient lyrics, timeless importance of recalling old friends at a new year, but there is something vital in friendships forged over time, often under stress, sadly lost and then rekindled, raising a cup of kindness to what they mean, and should.
To me, those three Marines – and all friends bound by steps into the breach each for each – remind us not to forget. Moving from old to new, we should “take a right goodwill draught for the auld lang syne.” So, Happy New Year to friends everywhere. To you, I lift a cup and smile!