In the early morning of Aug. 15, 1943, Merrel Clubb read poetry as his fellow soldiers—an estimated 35,000 troops in a convoy of ships—arranged their packs, collected ammunition and loaded rifle magazines in preparation for a landing on Kiska, an Aleutian island in the Pacific Ocean believed to hold 10,000 Japanese troops. Before disembarking, Clubb gave away his grenades and carried an unloaded tommy gun into the fray, just for looks. Reflecting on what he believed at the time would be his first encounter with the enemy, Clubb wrote in a letter to his parents, “It seemed rather silly my going into battle knowing nothing of battle tactics and having never shot anything but a .22 rifle and a beebee gun.”
Though disarming oneself before an invasion seems inconceivably foolish, Clubb reminds us throughout his cogent memoir, A Life Disturbed: My Pacific War Revisited, that fear, not logic or common sense, governs warfare. For Clubb, the standard result of armed conflict is not glory or heroism, but tragedy and absurdity. As it turned out, unbeknownst to Clubb and the invading soldiers, the 6,000 Japanese troops actually stationed on Kiska had vacated the island three weeks prior to the American landing. Prepared for a fanatical enemy and overcome by constant fog and rain, two American platoons later encountered each other on a ridge of the island and opened fire, leaving 256 dead.
Clubb recorded these and other wartime experiences in over 150 letters to his parents in Stillwater, Okla., and never reread them until well into his retirement. His new book took shape when, as he once had on the eve of battle, Clubb was again forced to acknowledge his impending death, this time as an old-age certainty rather than just a possible outcome of battle. A Life Disturbed consists of a representative sample of these engaging, mostly conversational letters home, organized into chapters according to where Clubb was stationed at the time. The letters are interspersed with shrewd commentary offering adult perspective on the war and more precise details on the young ensign’s battle experiences and romantic entanglements—material left understandably half-told in the notes to mom and dad.
A professor of English at the University of Montana from 1954 to 1986, Clubb enlisted in the U.S. Navy on April 23, 1942, at age 20, and served as a Naval Gunfire Liaison Officer (NGLO). Following a tactic established in the Pacific theater, NGLO teams arrived with the first waves of Army and Marine infantry, and after storming an island, established radio contact with an outlying naval destroyer and called for gunfire on enemy holdings to provide cover for invading troops. In addition to Kiska, Clubb partook in landings on Makin, Guam and Iwo Jima, encountering heavy gunfire in each case and getting his helmet dented by shrapnel in his final engagement on Iwo Jima.
Never romantic or scandalous, this epistolary memoir claims that most of us, whether acting as individuals or as a nation, are loathe to shed the parts of our pasts that may contaminate us. In his final extended reflection, Clubb observes, “On the one hand, I see the war as a horror of unmitigated evil. Yet, since I survived physically unmutilated, I know that I am glad I participated in the war, that I saw it with many of its horrors at first hand and at close quarters. In retrospect, I see that I took pleasure in many, if not most, of my war experiences.”
To emphasize this point, Clubb writes of a prostitute he calls Shirley, with whom he lived in San Diego after combat and prior to returning to civilian life. Upon retiring from teaching, he reestablishes contact with her and as they discuss old times, looking through a rosy haze, she admits that though her racket was “a pit of horrors,” if given the chance she would choose the same life. Troubled by lives that were sent off course by the war, they both, Clubb asserts, maintain a vested interest in putting the best possible spin on their pasts.
A Life Disturbed goes a step further, applying his theory of self-interest to our national persona and arguing that we have wrongfully mythologized World War II and rewritten our communal past to gloss over our failings. In the book’s penultimate chapter, an essay that reevaluates the events leading up to Pearl Harbor and questions President Truman’s use of two atomic bombs, Clubb argues against America’s essential goodness. He contends that racism and revenge, as much as anything else, motivated our action against Japan, and although we joined forces against Hitler, we made no commitment to eliminating anti-Semitism.
Nowhere does Clubb argue that Americans are beneath contempt, claiming instead that we are no better than anyone else, and that our history contains no golden age when we saved the world. Days after Makin had been secured, Clubb writes of a gunshot that put the company on their bellies, thinking a sniper was loose. As it turned out, the captain had squatted over a latrine with a cocked .45 and shot himself in the leg. The point is that the men of the Greatest Generation were just as clumsy and afraid as the rest of us. By noting such gaffes, Clubb does nothing to diminish their courage, but wisely recasts the soldiers’ bravery in a human rather than mythological context.
Merrel Clubb appears at Fact & Fiction to read and sign copies of A Life Disturbed: My Pacific War Revisited Thursday, Dec. 1, at 7 PM.