Fighting My Father’s Demons

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From the outside, the split-level house I grew up in at 14410 Ridge Road in North Royalton, Ohio, looked like it belonged to a normal, happy, post-war 1950s family. Mom baked pies. Dad played Wiffle ball with us kids on the front lawn. Our parents took us on camping vacations. The vast majority of time my father, Steve Maharidge, was a great guy. But something was wrong in our house. Anytime my siblings or I spilled something at the dinner table, a dark beast would emerge as Dad flew into a rage. In 1960, when I was 4, Dad hit my mother and there was blood on the carpet. That never happened again. But his bursts of anger remained.

Once, when I was 10 or 11 and acting up, Dad bellowed that I’d learn discipline in boot camp. I might have to chew the shit stains from my underwear, like a guy he knew who had been punished for improperly doing the laundry. Mom intervened, like she always did, and the house filled with screams as they fought.

For a small boy, this was puzzling. By age 12, I knew his anger was somehow connected to the war. Dad was a U.S. Marine in the brutal South Pacific island fighting of World War II. In infrequent revelations through my pubescent years and later, he told me of the horror. Some instinct told me to never ask questions — I’d just listen. The stories were like shadows on a cave wall, just fragments really, and left many mysteries. He was a man with secret demons.

When he died in 2000, I decided to hunt for those demons.  I had seen that part of his raging beast dwelled within me, too. I needed to face it.

My quest, utilizing all the skills I’d learned as a journalist, was to exhume my father’s war and uncover how it made him the way it was

I began the daunting task of finding as many men as possible from his unit, L “Love” Company, 3rd Battalion, 22nd Marines. By 2000, I had been a journalist for over 20 years. I’d covered everything — floods, fires, earthquakes, hurricanes, wars, and a host of other tragedies, including years immersed amid the homeless in America. I’d written hundreds of thousands of words for newspapers, magazines, and in my books. But all of that reporting experience was as if a learner’s permit for the real work on the biggest story in my life that began that July day 12 years ago. My quest, utilizing all the skills I’d learned as a journalist, was to exhume my father’s war and uncover how it made him the way he was.

As a starting point I had a captured Japanese flag signed by over 20 guys in Dad’s company, and I came across the military “muster rolls” with about 400 names. I made hundreds of phone calls and sent out hundreds of letters through the years. Most of the men were dead. But I found 29 guys and got to know half of them well. I discovered that, in their 80s, many had started talking about the war for the first time. The silent generation was finally speaking.

What I heard was a World War II story that you don’t read about very much, one that defies the “Good War” narrative. There were atrocities. Jim Laughridge told me how he yanked gold teeth from Japanese cadavers. (A small but significant number of soldiers did this.) Jim regretted his actions. “I thought it was a big brave thing to do. Looking back, it was chickenshit,” Jim said. He felt Americans needed to know about this aspect of the war. “I’m glad someone is putting it down like it was,” he told me before he died. Frank Palmasani told how he executed a Japanese lieutenant who’d graduated from Stanford University.  After the lieutenant had surrendered and had been interrogated by an American officer, Frank thrust a bayonet into the man’s neck.

I’d grown up hearing my dad talk about a guy named Kennedy, who’d raped a woman on Okinawa. My father was disgusted by that. Other guys told me about the rape. Eventually I met with Kennedy in his remote cabin on a gravel road, one of the most chilling interviews I’ve ever conducted in my three and a half decades as a journalist. He was armed. Sixty-five years after the rape, he remained a scary man.

This wasn’t easy material to write but most of the men I talked to didn’t want me to whitewash anything. So it’s all in the book.  Most guys, however, were like my dad. They didn’t kill prisoners, steal teeth, and certainly didn’t rape. They were just trying to get home alive. “There are no heroes. You just survive,” my father said a number of times about the war when I was growing up. A number of men were well adjusted given what they’d been through, including Karl Brothers.

“I hear those guys talk about, what is it, delayed stress?” Brothers told me. “If you made it out, why worry about it? It could have been worse. You could be walking around like some of these guys with no limbs. Concussion, now that can really cause some problems. Boy, some of those guys were way off. … the guys that really got severe concussions, there’s nothing you can do about it. Like a punch-drunk fighter, there’s no cure.”

I shuddered when Brothers spoke those words. One of the many discoveries about my father’s war was learning that he had suffered at least two major blast concussions. I found scientists and doctors who study traumatic brain injury — they told me that my father’s raging fits were likely caused by it. Brothers was right. The brain never heals.

The stories were like shadows on a cave wall, just fragments really, and left many mysteries. He was a man with secret demons.

Another discovery was that in the “Good War,” there were many not-so-good decisions. General Douglas MacArthur argued against the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. His strategy was “Hit ‘em where they ain’t.”  His tactic was, when possible, to bypass fortified Japanese outposts. His advice to President Franklin Roosevelt was to go around those islands, which would extract too heavy a price in American blood. But he was ignored, with tragic results for the 270,000 civilians and soldiers on both sides killed on Okinawa alone.

The Battle of Okinawa, where my father suffered the blast concussions that led to his demons, didn’t have to happen. Because of that battle, World War II continued in the house I grew up in.

This was the hardest reporting I’d ever done. To get through it, I had to try to divorce my emotions from the story. To cope, I became a subject to myself in researching Bringing Mulligan Home. But it didn’t always work. I gave up for a time in the middle years, when my mother had cancer. The specters were winning. I had many horrible nights of half sleep. It was too depressing to continue.

After Mom died in 2009, I resumed because I realized my father’s traumatic brain injury was the same as those suffered by today’s soldiers who have come home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Their children will have parents who acted like my father, and they will be confused. They can learn something from the guys in Love Company. For this reason, the 12 years of living with the demons was worth it.