Walter Marcum

Walter Marcum, a crack shot when he was 90.

Ken Burns’ The War documentary series about World War II on public broadcasting stations is igniting emotions in the sons and daughters of veterans of that war that perhaps have never before been touched.

I speak from personal experience. My father, Walter Marcum, who died two years ago in his 90th year, is very much on my mind as I watch Burns’ work. We should all know by now that war is a terrible thing. That it is more than a politician’s legacy or a general’s career. It is families changed forever and memories buried so deep that they are rarely, if ever, uttered because to recall them is to inflict unbearable emotional hurt.

Walter Marcum, so far as he was concerned, was no war hero. He never claimed to be. In fact, I don’t ever recall hearing him tell anyone that he was a Marine in World War II.

He was a modest man, a miner in West Virginia who spent 33 years laboring under mountains digging out coal from “seams” as low as 33 inches, his workplace from floor to ceiling. Working on his knees, he was the “shooter,” the miner who handled the dynamite, placed it in holes drilled in the coal, wired it and then yelled, “Fire in the hole!” before blasting the coal from mountain. The job required nerves of steel.

The war

Completely exposed to enemy fire, a Marine dashes across a field on Okinawa. May 1945. From Ken Burns’ documentary, The War.
Photo: National Archives

Quiet, unassuming and stout as a bear, he never complained. But in his very last years, as I would visit with him and we would while away our Saturday nights alone, just father and son, I began to pry. I wanted to know about his service during The War.
I had spent my lifetime interviewing people for stories, and the person I knew least about was my father. He was a tough interview. He recognized my efforts, and at times he would just shrug them off, saying that he didn’t want to talk about that.

But sometimes I caught him in a talkative mood ““ by that I mean in a mood to say anything at all about his wartime experiences ““ and he would provide another tidbit that to him wasn’t much. But it was another piece of the puzzle that to me was the unraveling of an enigma.

Once, as we watched a documentary on the history of the atomic bomb, I asked him where he was when the A bombs were dropped on Japan. He got real quiet and his face stiffened, and he said, “I was on a ship, waiting on orders to invade Japan. That bomb saved my life.”

He got quiet again, and then changed the subject, recalling that the best shotgun he had ever owned was a single-shot Winchester Model 37. “A real squirrel gun. I’m sorry I traded it off,” he said.

Between that visit and my next, I scoured gun shops in East Tennessee looking for a Model 37 Winchester that I could present to dad for a Christmas present. He had given me my first shotgun and I wanted to repay him. Finally, a pawnshop owner said that he did, in fact have one, that a widow brought in her late-husband’s guns to sale, saying that she didn’t need them anymore, now that her husband was gone. The Model 37 was in mint condition.

At Christmas, he managed a smile as he unsheathed the shotgun, and said that it looked just like the one he used to own. “You’ll get it someday, son,” he said, as a way of saying thanks.

He had always been a good shot, and relished attending shotgun matches where participants anted up $1 and the winner took home a few dollars or a ham or turkey. He won more than his share, and enjoyed seeing who could win bragging rights when the family got together for winter holidays. He never relinquished his title.

His heart had been failing for years, and he had recently suffered a “minor” heart attack. I sensed that this would be his last Christmas. “We’ll take your new gun out when the weather gets warm and we’ll see who’s the better shot. I want to see if you still have your shootin’ eye,” I kidded.

“I’ll be ready,” he answered.

The Target

Even at 90, Dad could riddle a 3X5 card at 40 paces.

On April 17, 2005, we had our “match.” His breathing was shallow and his breaths short, and I helped him down the stairs from his porch and into a lawn chair. I had tacked a 3″ by 5″ index card to a log 40 paces ahead.

I shoved a 7 ½-shot shell into the chamber and handed Dad the gun. “Can you see that little target down there?” I kidded.
“It’s too close,” he quipped, his dry sense of humor still intact.

On the first shot, he put 27 pellets in the card, and his numbers got better with each shot. He still had his eye.

Three weeks later, I attended his full-military-honors funeral. My high-school classmates were among the members of the Honor Guard.

Afterward, the funeral home owner, a family friend, gave me a copy of his military discharge that she had retrieved from records in Charleston, W.Va., and I read details of Walter Marcum’s life that he had never told me.

He had enlisted in the Marine Corps on Jan. 14, 1942. This is what he had always told me. “As soon as the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor, me and my buddy enlisted,” he said, as had all four of his brothers: Roy, Wade, Freeland and Jack. And they all made it back.

His discharge read, “European Area 31 May 42 ““ 20 Aug. 44; Pacific Area 6 Jul 45 ““ 20 Nov. 45.” He had told me that he served as a guard for ammunition dumps and he spent a lot of time on Guam, but had been sent to various other places, including Lockerby, Scotland, to serve as a guard.

And his occupation?

“Rifle Instructor.”

Recently, I was in San Francisco, and, again, I recalled another tidbit as I stared at the Golden Gate Bridge. Once, I asked him what it was like when he heard that The War had ended. “Boy, what a party,” he told me. “We were on the ship and everybody fired their weapons up in the air. When we got back to the States, we landed at San Francisco. And our Sergeant made us all jump off the ship and swim the last mile home.” He laughed as hard as I had ever heard him.

The Marines had landed.

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