October 24, 2017

Seeking the Great Forgotten

USS Edson

The destroyer USS Edson 946 is named for Merritt Austin Edson, known as “Red Mike” to his Marines. “Red Mike” Edson earned the Medal of Honor for defending Guadalcanal’s Bloody Ridge, and showing Washington that Guadalcanal could be saved. General MacArthur had been informed that the United States Navy could “no longer support the Marines on Guadalcanal.” Historian William Manchester, one of Red Mike’s Raiders, writes of Colonel Edson in Goodbye Darkness, his World War Two memoir of fighting in the Pacific. Red Mike told the Raiders, in his typical understated manner, that they had come to a “quiet spot.” When the battle begins, a corporal shouts, “Some goddamn rest area! Some goddamn rest area!” Red Mike would become Major General, leading his Marines through some the most brutal fighting of World War Two. In 1955, General Edson committed suicide in the garage of his D.C. home.

Edson’s sergeants screamed, “Raiders, rally to me! Raiders, Raiders, rally to me!” The barrels of their machine guns became warped as the Japanese attacked in waves, jumping in the Marine foxholes with bayonets, forcing the Raiders to defend the last point on the Ridge. Edson pushed stunned Marines back at the enemy, shouting, “The only thing they’ve got that you haven’t is guts.”

Edson’s widow launched the Top Gun ship in 1958 with a bottle of champagne. Six years later, the Edson was at the Gulf of Tonkin, the infamous start to the Vietnam War. In 1967, enemy fire shot off the ship’s flag and wounded the Commodore’s pillow with some shrapnel. Radio Hanoi declared the Edson had been sunk with no survivors. In 1975 and still above water, the Edson helped evacuate Saigon.

The Edson’s found a quiet spot to rest its memories. Bay City, “some goddamn rest area,” is home for the Edson. I knew the Edson was nearby and saw it as I came over the bridge. This old destroyer was parked near downtown. The gates were unlocked and open.

When William Manchester returned to Guadalcanal in 1978, he found a marker buried in the weeds for Edson’s heroics. Some weeds, mud, and brown water are the setting for the destroyer Edson in Bay City. Romance and glamour of war are not here. But they’re working on restoring the Edson as a floating museum. Volunteers from Dow Chemical, the company with flags of the world ringing its headquarter perimeter, have committed several thousand dollars and their time to fixing up the area around the Edson. The highways were jammed for the holiday time up north. Most people probably drive past the Edson without giving much thought for the name on it. There’s an Edson Association reunion in the summer and a wedding scheduled on the Edson in September. In Manchester’sĀ Goodbye, DarknessĀ he quotes Thomas Wolfe and the consuming desire to “seek the great forgotten…Where? When? O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost,come back again.”

The Great Forgotten leaves its trail in the weeds and rust. It must be a grieving wind that swings the gates open to strangers passing by. They’re always looking for someone on these forums, asking about a buddy, a ghost to come back again. A few years ago I was with a friend from Vietnam at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere. It was barns and cows and about one block of commercial activity, including a small restaurant. Even Walmart hadn’t discovered this place yet. The waitress, Vietnamese or Cambodian, stared in amazement and came over and traced her finger around my friend’s face as if she was seeing a ghost from the past. Neither one spoke, just thinking Where? When? O lost…

William Manchester’s nightmares from World War Two finally sent him back to the Pacific in 1978. His first kill made him sob and shit his pants. His Marine buddy burst through the door, looked at the dead Japanese soldier, then at Manchester, and said, “Slim, you stink.” Manchester writes, “I remember wondering dumbly: Is this what they mean by ‘conspicuous gallantry?'” His war dreams end with tears.

The Great Forgotten is a ghost with guts.

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