Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A wonderful story about post traumatic stress

Joe DiMaggio


   Lately I've been researching the Korean War, in particular the Breakout from the Chosin Reservoir, for a book John Caruso and I are writing about John's brother, Marine Sergeant Mathew Caruso.
   In an online version of "Combat!" magazine, I found an article by Korean War veteran Stanley Modrak in which he described receiving the last rites from Father Griffin, the chaplain whose Life Mathew saved at the cost of his own.
   I found a listing for Modrak in California, and reached his wife, who said he was in the hospital but that he would be happy to speak with me. A few hours later, while his wife was visiting, he called me back.
During our conversation, he mentioned that he wrote a book about his experiences in Korea. The book is called "Hostage of the Mind: A Korean War Marine's Saga of War's Trauma and the Battle That Followed Him Home."

   "As each November nears and northern California's blue skies and wind-blown clouds flee, surrendering to a glowering, gray overcast," Modrak's description of the battle at Sudong-ni begins, "I recall a bleak fall of 1950 in North Korea. Disquiet memories intrude; discordant bugles blaring, echoing from hill to hill high above; sudden shock and fear as fingers of death clutch; a shadowy figure hovering."
   Sudong-ni means "town by the river," Modrak said from his hospital bed when we spoke on the phone. He is recovering from heart problems at the age of 85.
   His battalion's commander, Colonel Homer Litzenberg, he wrote in his memoir,once said "The only Marines I want in my outfit are Purple Heart Marines."
   "As the crisp, darkening night air found the 7th Marines breaking out sleeping bags and preparing to sleep," his book continued, strains of 'Goodnight Irene' filtered through our bivouac area" via Armed Forces Radio Tokyo. "Meanwhile, unknown to the slumbering Marines, the Red Chinese 124th Infantry Division of General Sung's 42nd Field Army poised its 186th and 187th Regiments to hit Marine hill positions in a classic military double envelopment."
   "A double envelopment is usually pretty damn deadly," Modrak said on the phone. To make matters worse, he added, General Sung told his Red Chinese troops, "Kill these Marines as you would kill snakes in your homes." Despite decades of post traumatic stress, Modrak noted in his book with a sense of Marine pride that those snakes delivered a powerful bite.
   At 11:30 p.m., Modrak wrote, he was awakened by cries of "Here they come!"
   "We scrambled from our sleeping bags arming ourselves with M1 carbines and .45s. ... A blare of discordant bugles echoed eerily from hill to hill above. Soon shadowy forms rose from the murky darkness in the river bed to our left. As we let go with a fusillade of weaponry the forms faded into the deepening gloom. ... I marveled at the guts of our battalion officers as they stood tall in the valley's center, directing their Marines' defenses even though parachute flares exploding overhead bathed the tiny valley in a ghostly yellowish aura.
   "As mountain rivulets unleashed by a spring thaw form, multiply and then rush downhill following paths of least resistance, so too came the Red Chinese. Breaking past and veering around strong points, relentless bands of quilt-garbed Chinese infantry cascaded into, through and around Leatherneck hill positions intent on swarming into the valley floor battalion command posts."
   As the battle raged, a noncommissioned officer shouted "One of you, come with me!"
   "Marine discipline kicked in," he wrote, and he ran with the officer for 50 or 60 yards "that seemed like a hundred." as tracers lit up the night and the sound of gunfire was all around. "Miraculously" making it through the gauntlet of fire, Modrak "dove into the shadows behind a low stone wall."
   When the burst of three machine gun bullets struck, "slamming into my side and forearm," he wrote, "sound, feeling, disbelief all jumbled together in a disjointed sensation as I realized I was hit."
He tried to shout "Corpsman" but "only a murmur emerged. Marines nearby took up the call as I slumped  to the rocky earth. With consciousness rapidly fading, Colonel Litzenberg's words, 'Only Marines ... my outfit ... Purple Heart,' were my last thoughts.
   "Reviving sometime later in the still smothering darkness, I sensed a shadowy form hovering over me. Was it an enemy, a fellow Marine, or ...? Quiet, firmly enunciated words broke the chill night air: 'In nomine, Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus, Sancti, amen.' I then realized that the form must be our regimental chaplain, Father 'Connie' Griffin, pronouncing the Last Rites of the Catholic Church. Growing up through twelve years of Catholic schooling I knew full well their dire implications. 'Am I dying, Father?' I murmured. Passing out once again, I never heard any response. Awakening the next morning to daylight in a medical tent with other litter-bound wounded, it sure felt reassuring to be still among the living."
   "Waking to daylight," Modrak wrote, "I found myself ... in the 1st Marine Division Hospital in Hungnam, North Korea. ... For some days I was only conscious and alert intermittently.
   "Sometime in December, our hospital room had an unexpected and unusual pair of visitors. One afternoon two tall figures clad in heavy parkas and fur caps appeared. The famous baseball icon and New York Yankee superstar, Joe DiMaggio, known as the 'Yankee Clipper,' was at my bedside. Wow! Right in the middle of a “Hot War”; I couldn't believe my eyes. As a rabid baseball fan and admirer of DiMaggio, his appearance was a Korean War memory I'd never forget.
   "Joe was accompanied by 'Lefty' O'Doul, a baseball star in his own right and DiMaggio's friend and mentor going back to their San Francisco ball-playing days. Right here in North Korea and not too far from action, Joe and 'Lefty' were braving the bone-chilling North Korea winter to visit and cheer up American hospitalized military. This unselfish act greatly enhanced my admiration for Joe. I also knew that in the pantheon of Yankee greats only the 'Babe' ranked higher.
   "Asking how I felt, Joe handed me an authentic American League baseball autographed with his distinctive signature. Turning the ball over it read: 'To Stanley, best wishes – Joe DiMaggio.'
   "Overwhelmed, all I could do was murmur 'Gee. Thanks Joe.' After DiMaggio and O'Doul left, still not ambulatory, I gave the ball to our room corpsman to mail home for me to Pittsburgh. Big mistake! When I returned home some months later I learned that my wonderful trophy never arrived: What a disappointment! It probably was either stolen or lost in the wartime mail. As rabid baseball fans would understand, the loss bothered me for years after Korea. Having this uplifting experience in the midst of war and then the loss, I'm sure you can understand my feelings.
* * *
   "Forward to a sultry L.A. summer in 1991, now a 39-year civilian after Korea and Honorable Discharge. The loss of the DiMaggio baseball still caused regrets over the years as the “Clipper” would be in the news from time to time. His marriage to Marilyn Monroe was prominent, then his devotion to her memory as he placed flowers on her gravesite every year on their anniversary. The much-valued baseball and its loss seemed to be another layer of depression added to the other somber and regretful Korean War memories.
   "My wife , Roulti, knew the story of the “lost trophy.” I had referred to it over the years and she realized how much it troubled me. Near my birthday in July of 1991 I checked the mail, finding a few letters, a bill and a small, square box. Curious, I turned it over to find that it bore the return address of the Oakland Athletics Baseball Club. Wondering what it could be, I eagerly opened the intriguing package. It held an authentic American League baseball. Turning the ball over, autographed words read: 'To Stanley, a replacement – Best Wishes, Joe DiMaggio.” Wow! After 41 years – what a birthday present! Happily showing the prized ball to my wife, she smiled with a “knowing” grin, admitting that it was her doing.
  "A week earlier I had mentioned to her that DiMaggio was to be honored at an A's game celebrating his 56-game hitting streak in 1941 -- a record still intact. Remembering the “lost ball” story and unknown to me , she had phoned the Oakland A's offices and spoke to General Manager Sandy Alderson. As it turned out Alderson was also a former Marine so that coincidence along with my wife's feminine persuasion struck a responsive chord with Alderson – and DiMaggio.
   "The treasured memento represents a happy closure to a long-ago disappointment and now bears an honored niche in our home. We have a time-honored saying in the Corps: Once a Marine, always a Marine. It certainly rang true with Sandy Alderson – Semper Fi Sandy!"
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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Matt's Last Letter Home

Jan. 13, 2014 --
   "Obbly-obbly-gattigo, why, you probly got a wobbly-obligo!" Like listening to the "B" side of an old 45 rpm record, I often glance at the flip side of old newspaper clippings. Last week John Caruso, my co-author on the forthcoming book "Semper Fi, Padre," or really it's more like I'm his co-author, showed me a faded clipping from a Hartford, Connecticut, newspaper that contained the text of his brother Mathew's last letter from Korea to his father, Michael Caruso. The flip side of the article contained the latter half of three comics of the day, one of which was one of my favorites, Pogo, by Walt Kelly. I have no idea what this particular strip was about, and not because the first two panels were missing either. In the first frame, which would have been the third of that day's strip, Howland Owl, with his wizard's cap, and Cherchy la Femme the turtle, with his pirate cap, seem to be reciting something musical in nature, as evidenced by the presence of a couple of musical notes. "So when Miami plays pianda on the very same veranda, why, you get a git what gotta-git-an-go!" In the next and final panel, the character Porky-pine the pig, leans in and says "What'd you say?" while Howland wipes sweat from his brow and Cherchy leans on what appears to be a musical instrument.
   The comic above Pogo contains the date 1-16 but not the year. It's likely 1950, which means it would have been barely a month after Matt Caruso was killed in Korea.
   The article is titled "Good afternoon/ A personal chat with Art McGinley," who was the sports editor of the Hartford Courant.
   "Dear Pop," Matt's letter begins, "Please don't worry about me for I am taking good care of myself. I am confident that some day I will come back to all of you.
   "I have an awful lot to live for -- there will be my wife and baby waiting for me when I get back to the States.
   "Of course I can't tell how long it will be before we are home again, but I do know that I will be one of the many guys aboard the ship heading back home when it is all over.
   "I have enclosed a couple of pictures taken by a photographer at Inchon just before we left for here. I wish you would send me one of yourself, for the only ones I have of you and the family are in my album back home.
   "I still am working for a chaplain, only this time it is a Catholic priest I am with. He really is a wonderful man and we get along fine. Every day when it is possible he says Mass for his boys and I have seen him give Holy Communion and administer the last rites under heavy machine gun fire by the enemy.
   "My job is to do the administrative and clerical work for him, write letters of condolence to the families of boys who have died out here, aid the wounded and assist him at Mass.
   "There have been plenty of times we have said the Rosary together in our foxhole. No sir, Pop, no guy could be his equal.
   "My wife is a wonderful person -- she has made me the happiest guy in the world."
   "Love, Mathew."

   Actually, the newspaper misspelled Mathew's name, printing the more common version with two t's. Matt Caruso died saving the life of the Father Cornelius "Connie" Griffin. As machine gun fire penetrated the side of the ambulance in which Father Griffin was administering the last rites to a dying Marine during the breakout from the Chosin Reservoir, Matt, according to most accounts, threw the chaplain onto the floor of the ambulance and shielded him with his body. Matt was killed and Father Griffin was wounded but survived.

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The Mathew Caruso Memorial Chapel at Camp Pendleton

August 26, 2013 --

  After growing up in New York and working for 20 years in New Jersey,
who knew I would one day be living in New Britain, Connecticut, just outside of Hartford?
   I certainly didn't know that when the Rev. Connell J. Maguire called and said he was a friend of Kay Brainard Hutchins, who told him I might advise him on how to get a book he wrote published.
   Kay was a member of what was then the Kassel Mission Memorial Association, and is now the Kassel Mission Historical Society. Her brother, Newell Brainard, a co-pilot on the ill-fated Kassel Mission of Sept. 27, 1944, survived the initial battle but was murdered on the ground. Kay herself was a Red Cross girl during the war. I interviewed her in 1999.
   Kay and Father Joe, who was retired from the Navy after 32 years as a chaplain, were in a writing workshop together. Before he became a priest, Joe had aspirations of becoming a playwright -- the playwright Brian Friel, who wrote "Dancing at Lughnasa," hailed from the same small town of Glenties in Ireland that Joe was from -- but the members of the group were so enchanted by the vignettes he would read that they encouraged him to write more so-called "shorts."
   Before Father Joe passed away last year at the age of 94, I published three of his books. In the second, he related a story from his time in chaplain school.

From "Foibles of Father Joe," by Connell J. Maguire
(copyright) 2010, Connell J. Maguire
Father McMillan taught us in Chaplain School in 1952. He was a buddy of Father Connie Griffin, and recounted for us this story about his friend.

Chaplain Griffin was with the Marines in the Korean War. His clerk was a young enlisted Marine, probably of Corporal rank, named Caruso. Father Griffin learned that his battalion was going up to the front. He also knew that Caruso’s wife was expecting back home. He had Caruso transferred from his staff so that Caruso would stay behind. Before the Battalion moved up, he ran into Caruso, who broke down and cried because, as he saw it, Father Griffin had fired him. So the chaplain relented and they moved up together.

Chinese “volunteers” had entered the fray and Marine casualties were heavy. They were pounded by artillery day and night. During a bombardment, Caruso touched the container of Holy Communion Griffin carried and said, “He is with us.”

They were not there long when one day Caruso saw an enemy set up a machine gun close by. “Father look out!” he shouted. He shielded Father Griffin with his body. Immediately, he was stitched with machine gun holes across his body, dead on the spot. Father Griffin’s jaw was shot off.

After Father Griffin returned to the U.S. he heard that the Caruso baby was born. I do not know whether he was physically or emotionally blocked from going to baptize the child, but Caruso’s wife brought the child to him because that was what her husband would have wanted

   I do not know whether the Caruso baby was a boy or a girl. He or she should be over 50 now, somewhere in New England if the grown child stayed near his parents' neighborhood. This I do know. People coddled and cuddled in luxurious living, selfishly indulging in sexual infidelity, claim the title of nobility. Their claim pales before the lineage of that Caruso child, offspring of a truly noble father.

- - -

   I put this story up on my web site. One day Father Joe received an email from Larry Caruso, a nephew of Mathew Caruso, the chaplain's assistant. Larry said his uncle John, who was another of Matt's brothers, lived in Hartford. Larry said he'd never met his cousin, Daniel Caruso, Matt's son, who lives in California.
   Later this week I'm having lunch with John Caruso, who was Mathew Caruso's brother, and still lives near Hartford.
   Recently President Obama awarded the Medal of Honor to a soldier who braved a "blizzard of bullets" to save wounded comrades in Afghanistan. Mathew Caruso, who was 20 years old, was awarded the Silver Star posthumously for throwing himself between Father Connie Griffin and a hail of machine gun bullets.
   Father Griffin lobbied to get the Medal of Honor for Matt Caruso, but somewhere along the line the cause was dropped. I hope it will be pursued again. At any rate, I hope to have more of this story soon. Caruso's Silver Star citation follows:

The President of the United States of America takes pride in presenting the Silver Star (Posthumously) to Sergeant Mathew Caruso (MCSN: 661958), United States Marine Corps, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity while serving as assistant to the Chaplain of the Seventh Marines, First Marine Division (Reinforced), in action against enemy aggressor forces in Korea on 6 December 1950. When the convoy in which he was traveling with the Chaplain was ambushed by a large hostile force employing intense and accurate automatic weapons and small arms fire, Sergeant Caruso quickly pushed his companion to the floor of the ambulance and shielded him from the enemy with his own body. Mortally wounded while protecting the Chaplain, Sergeant Caruso by his outstanding courage, self-sacrificing actions and daring initiative served to inspire all who observed him and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country. Born: Tarrytown, New York. Home Town: Hartford, Connecticut. Death: KIA: December 6, 1950.
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(This blog post is reprinted from Aaron Elson's Oral History blog