- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 3, 2003

NEW ORLEANS.

Ah, youth. I returned the other day to the scene of the landings I made with the Marines at Guadalcanal, Guam and Okinawa. Alas, the cypress stump that was my Higgins boat was gone, and Scott Bayou, my Red Beach, was overgrown with moss, pond scum and kudzu.

But a 9-year-old boy’s memories of bounding through enemy surf at the side of Cousin Chris are as vivid as ever.

That was my war. Cousin Chris, now bearing down on his 79th birthday, finally sat down with me on the eve of the Fourth of July to talk about his war. There was nothing fantastical about war for Cpl. Charles Christopher Sarris of First Squad, E Company, 2d Battalion, 4th Marines. He actually was at the ‘Canal, Guam and Okinawa.



Five years as a war correspondent in Vietnam relieved me long ago of any notion that war is romantic and noble. That old firebug Sherman, wrong about most things, was right about that. Landings are better on the bayou, aboard a cypress stump.

My earliest recollection of Chris was as the New Orleans candy man. He serviced vending machines. The back seat of his car, a Plymouth coupe, was covered with candy bars of every description, and I couldn’t imagine why anyone would voluntarily give up those candy bars even to enlist in the Marine Corps, but in the summer of ‘42, when he was 17 and by then working as an electrician’s apprentice at the Andrew Higgins factory on City Park Avenue in New Orleans, Chris signed up “for the duration.” The Marines sent him to Utah State to study electrical engineering, but once there he and his buddy asked for duty in the Pacific. The Corps complied and in early ‘43 he was on Guadalcanal. “It had been secured by then, but there were occasional stragglers.”

The Corps reconstituted the 4th Marine Regiment there, with remnants of the old China Marines and the Raider battalions, and Chris was assigned to the 1st Marine Provisional Brigade, and in the summer of ‘44 sailed to Saipan, where the regiment was held in reserve, and then dispatched to invade Guam on July 21. With loudspeakers blaring the Marine’s Hymn, just as a little boy on an Arkansas bayou imagined it, the landing force climbed into the Higgins boats for the assault on the island. Seven days later, Chris’ E Company, together with I Company, led the way through a minefield studded with enemy pillboxes to take the ruins of the old U.S. Marine barracks in the cliffside town of Sumay. The island, an American possession since 1898, was secured on Aug. 10, and Guam, like Saipan, was only a prelude to Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

The passage of the years has erased the caricatures that motivated Americans, civilians no less than the soldiers and Marines. “We sometimes joked that the Japanese must be looped on sake, their rice wine,” Chris recalls. “But the truth was that they were some of the most tenacious fighters you could imagine.”

Chris and the 4th missed Iwo Jima, which along with Guadalcanal and Okinawa have assumed a mythic place in history like that of Gettysburg, Antietam and Chancellorsville. But Okinawa, “the last battle,” lay ahead.

The invasion force was enormous, dwarfing that at Normandy: 183,000 men (150,000 at the Normandy beaches) in 327 ships (284 at Normandy), and when the battle was over, 15,000 Americans were dead at the hand of the enemy. Curiously, the Navy suffered more dead, mostly by kamikaze attacks, than the Marines. The Marine force was the 1st Division, the oldest, and Chris’ 6th Division, the newest. The amphibious assault was his third of the war.

What he recalls most vividly now are the lonely nights, dug into holes and ditches, and how imagination could trick a man into thinking he was just the man the Japanese were coming after. “We had dug in to defend a line, and an Italian boy from Youngstown, Ohio, jumped into my hole. He was sitting on the edge, with his hands behind his back. I grabbed his feet to pull him all the way in, and he got it in the back. He had a wife and children, but we didn’t even know his name. That’s how impersonal it all was.”

The colors of that war are fading now, tone and tint turning to sepia, and soon the boys of North Africa, Omaha Beach and the Pacific will be gone. Cousin Chris insists he’s not a hero — “the only mark I got was when a tiny piece of shrapnel hit my hand and I got a small burn.”

Well, maybe so. But on the Fourth of July, he’s hero enough for me. They were giants all.

Wesley Pruden is editor in chief of The Times.

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