Philpot: Man of war

Guest ColumnistAugust 3, 2012 

Lying crumpled in a second-hand recliner, he salutes the national anthem, televised. From a front-yard flagpole, he flies Old Glory, year-round. Aside from his family, his beagle and Jesus, Tom Speck holds nothing more sacred than the U.S. Marine Corps. Mention Guam, and you’ll see tired eyes suddenly dance, stilled hands gesture wildly, and hear a voice that’s been silent for hours explode into talk about honor, camaraderie, loneliness and tragedy, until eventually, all that’s left is the quiet contemplation of an 88-year-old man in camouflage pajamas and bifocals.

One of the few, the proud, the chosen, Cpl. Thomas M. Speck, my grandfather, was a member of the 1st Armored Amphibian Battalion, the first unit of its kind (comprised of a brazen bunch of guys, who, essentially, reclaimed our nation’s Pacific territory via “floating tanks”). Which explains why during this 68th anniversary of America’s attack on Guam (July 21-Aug. 10), I find myself pondering not the wobbly, geriatric Speck but the young daredevil Speck, who signed up “to be like my father” (a disabled WWI vet) and whose commercial truck-driving experience landed him in the hot seat of the first LVTA-1 ever to hit the pristine beaches of Guam. Drafting 15 other amphibious vehicles to shore like a flock of geese, my adrenaline-junkie Pawpaw led from dead center.

Unlike most, he lived to tell about it. That day. A day that changed not only the course of Tom’s life, but the course of history itself. And to hear my grandfather detail the saga from the seat of a duct-taped La-Z-Boy is to be transported back to 1944, inside that imagined tank of his.

With his eyes shut tight, my arthritic grandfather morphs into a military tour guide, pointing this way and that:

“Over here, to my right, sat George T. Bell, the radio operator … then behind us, you had Lt. Wiley W. Loughmiller, our platoon leader … next to him was gunner John H. Wilson … and on back, you had the other two gunners, Eugene P. Brady, at starboard, and Robert G. Matheny, at portside … and yonder, sat Cecil B. Crimm, our ammo passer.”

Riding shotgun in the turret of a wood-paneled living room, I always find his inclusion of middle initials endearing. To him, they’re crucial. Behind his eyes, he still watches the events unfold, scenes as vivid as the day it all happened. And inevitably, I find myself right there with him — both of us up to our necks in blood-tinged water, explosions and bodies splashing and scattering, until finally, with a shrapnel-shredded arm, Cpl. “Speckaroo” waves down an amtrac, and with the other, cradles Loughmiller (whose leg “had been blowed off”). Meanwhile, a hauntingly sunny backdrop mocks the devastation at Agat Beach.

“You could’ve died!” I say.

“Could’ve … and would’ve,” he replies.

To most kids, that kind of rationale is as antiquated as the Purple Heart and Bronze Star recipient who uttered it. Reared in a culture obsessed with self, our kids grow up believing in entitlement — not enlistment. Yet less than a century ago, 25,240 South Carolinians were willing to risk their lives in World War II to be a part of something bigger (rather than chasing — like most kids today — that elusive dream of being “bigger” than the parts).

Which begs the question: How did we get to be so self-absorbed? How did Americans go from producing The Greatest Generation to The Gimme Generation?

Not that I’ve ever felt compelled to be a soldier. But still, I find it mystifying and admirable — that innate drive to “get involved” and “to serve” the common good. Judging by my grandfather, once you’re in it, it’s in you forever, harboring deeper than leftover shrapnel.

“See them little bumpy places up under the skin there,” he’ll nod, first toward his shoulder, then his back, and finally, he’ll pat his head, never once removing his eyes from a pre-recorded NASCAR race — one so old that the singer of “The Star-Spangled Banner” has been dead for two years.

Even so, Thomas M. Speck salutes. So do I, realizing that somewhere, that song is being performed live, as crowds of teenagers fill grandstands with mindless chatter, texting, snickering, disgracing their mamas and bankrupting their daddies — when all Tom ever wanted was to be like his.

Ms. Philpot is a freelance journalist who lives in Travelers Rest; contact her at philpotjh@charter.net.

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