Roy Exum: Lest We Ever Forget

Wednesday, June 21, 2017 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

I got a wonderful letter from a reader named Paul Kirst the other day. It arrived soon after I wrote about the way our forefathers spent 84 days in a miraculous victory on the hellish island of Okinawa. The life blood of 12,520 American soldiers and the intrepidity and courage of men like19-year-old Jack Magnuson assured that we will soon celebrate another glorious Fourth of July in this, the Land of the Free. You must take time to read what Mr. Kirst sent to me in memory of a very genuine and very real hero.

His letter meant a great deal to me because another 19-year-old once went into the jungle in Viet Nam in a platoon of 42 Marines and only two walked back out.

One was my brother, Kinch. In the late 1960s there wasn’t much known about PTSD, post-traumatic syndrome disorder, but after Kinch came back after two tours, he never was the same.

In 2004 Kinch had a nice little spread down in the rural part of north Florida when he claimed his lungs hurt. Doctors at Emory scoped his lungs and they appeared fine. Trouble was, the rest of his insides were eaten up with cancer. We will always believe the cancer was caused by repeated dousing of Agent Orange when he was on patrols. He died very peacefully in May of 2004, not 36 hours after he learned the diagnosis.

As I read this note from Mr. Kirst, I thought of my brother and the thousands of other teenagers who ent to war for us:

* * *

I just read your article “The Horror At Okinawa” in The Chattanoogan.com that was re-posted in Google News. I want to thank you for writing the article, and say that I am glad that it was re-posted to Google News so that it will get a wider readership.

I especially appreciated what you wrote about the horror of the thousands of “combat fatigue” casualties that came out of the battle. My deceased father-in-law Jack Magnuson was a Pfc in the 22nd Marine Regiment, 6th Marine Division during World War II. He fought on Guam and Okinawa, and was knocked out of the war on May 17th toward the end of the Battle for Sugar Loaf Hill.

I have recently been doing some extensive research to try and re-construct some kind of history of his time in the Marines. Like many combat infantrymen in the war he never talked much about his war experience. That period in his life has very much been a blank in my wife’s family history, and I wanted to research and write some kind of account of what his experience might have been.

In my research I obtained a copy of his Marine Corps Casualty Report and found that his casualty was listed as SS/(CF) Shell Shock/Combat Fatigue. Jack quit high school to join the Marines at age 17. He was 19 while he fought in the Battle of Okinawa. I am personally finding it hard to truly imagine what personally went through during those 5 days he participated in the fight for Sugar Loaf Hill. He was just a kid when he fought there.

The images we are presented with of those Marines and Soldiers are usually of older more mature men, not young teenagers. I watched the movie “Hacksaw Ridge” closely to study its images intensity. I watched several times the mini-series “The Pacific” to try and get the sense of what its protagonist were experiencing. Both the movie and the mini-series did an excellent job of depicting the horror and intensity of the Battle of Okinawa, but the actors cast were not teens, and the fact that a lot of the Marines and Soldiers in the battle were, does not truly come through in those movies.

I don’t say this as a criticism of those movies, but just that an important reality of the battle was not fully captured in the films. Many of the combatants in the battle were not older mature adult men, they were kids. Kids doing their duty and fighting for their country just like their older fellow Marines and Soldiers, but kids none the less.

Jack was one of those roughly 50% who were lucky enough to recover from combat fatigue. After the war he got his GED high school equivalency, went to college (where he met my mother-in-law), became a high school principal, eventually got his PhD, and became a nationally award winning school superintendent. He was not awarded any metals for the horrors he experienced as a teen in combat, but he went on to lead a heroic life after the war.

While he was the Superintendent of the Menomonee Falls, WI, school district he led effort to bring educational equality to the Milwaukee area schools. Because of his efforts in that work he received numerous death threats, which did not deter him even slightly. Knowing what I now know of his Marine Corps experience, I am not the least bit surprised that those death threats did not stop him from his work for educational equality. He had lived through hell on Okinawa and come out of it whole; what could have an anonymous death threat been in comparison to that?

Thank you again for paying homage to the thousands who fought there, and especially to those who were psychologically shattered by the horror of the battle.

-- Paul Kirst

St. Paul, Minnesota

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Paul Kirst is the Chief Financial Officer of the Minnesota Literacy Council, a non-profit organization in Saint Paul, Minn., that reaches nearly 70,000 children and adults each year thanks in great part to the more than 2,000 volunteers and 100 national service members the council trains annually. He can be contacted at plkirst@gmail.com

* * *

“What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him? And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today? Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them.” Deuteronomy 4: 7-9 (NIV)

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