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Grandpa, The Marine

The Huffington Post The Huffington Post 10/11/2015 Emily Lowell

2015-11-10-1447129274-9730705-VinceMottola.jpg © Provided by The Huffington Post 2015-11-10-1447129274-9730705-VinceMottola.jpg
My very first job out of college was as a staff writer at a decent-sized daily newspaper in Southern California. I had worked hard for this job and I was proud of my new position as a features writer for a weekly community insert.
Not long after I was hired, I remember my grandfather calling me up at the newsroom. He skipped pleasantries and asked if my editor would be interested in writing about a World War II vet who could still do 50 push-ups every morning. Annoyed with his bravado, and stressed about pressing deadlines, I barked into the receiver that I couldn't ask my editor to write a story about my own grandfather. That's not how this works, I hissed.
Several years later, I sent him a card on Memorial Day. I had never made up for slighting him. And, our phone conversation was on replay in my mind. Although, I doubt he was affected much by that newsroom exchange, it is one of those memories that I relive in the privacy of my mind.
Each time I do, I am hopeful for a different ending. On that particular Memorial Day, I had attended a Rotary Club meeting and an elderly gentleman described to the group what it was like to watch torpedoes race underwater towards his ship. I went home to thank Grandpa for his service with ink and paper. It was my way of making amends for the day I dismissed his story. In response, he sent me a copy of following letter he had written:

"The Excellence of our SOCS Training"
By Vincent V. Mottola

When I think back about how fortunate I was to survive my deployment in the Iwo Jima campaign, I have to give credit to the excellent training we received at Camp Lejeune, Parris Island.
My deployment began with my arrival on Guam and was assigned to the 3rd Marine Division. Then on the Iwo Jima invasion, I was assigned to Platoon Leader of a 75 man loading party on a hospital ship. The 3rd Division was in reserve for the landing and called to action on D+2. On D+4, I received orders to leave my command and report to the B co. 9th Marine Regiment on the beach.
Upon landing on the beach I was ordered to replace the lieutenant of the 1st Platoon which, by now, consisted of two squads and a corpsman. After two weeks of advancing over rough terrain and neutralizing several bunkers, I faced my first "do-or-die" engagement.
It was midnight and I was keeping watch for my two squads. By the light in the sky, which came from a flare on a Navy vessel, I found myself face-to-face with a young Jap invader. He approached my post from below a precipice and was about five yards from me when we became engaged. His rifle was slung over his shoulder so he was not ready to fire. I was ready to fire my carbine, but when I squeezed the trigger it failed to fire. Now, that is when the good training we had received came to my aid. After quickly going over my options, I decided to use a grenade, which I carried on my cartridge belt. Before lobbing it over the precipice towards the enemy, who ducked down, I pulled the safety pin and took a one-to-two second count. This action was to prevent the adversary from throwing the grenade back at me. The grenade wounded him enough to give me time to grab my corpsman's rifle and maneuver around the precipice to finish him off.
A few weeks later, we were approaching the 3rd airfield when one of our corporals got pinned down while attacking a fortified bunker. I phoned for a tank to support me on my plan to rescue him. As the tank approached our position, I took cover behind it. Using the tank phone, I guided the driver safely over our pinned down Marine where he was pulled up to safety through the hatch below the tank.
The rest of the campaign consisted of "mopping-up" from our fortified bivouac and enjoying salt water showers on the beach.

Grandpa Vince was my last surviving grandparent. In January of this year he died, at the age of 93. It is no surprise he outlived everyone else. He was, possibly, one of the most resilient people I'll ever know.
I recently picked this letter up, and as I read his detailed account, I came up with so many more questions. Did the lieutenant of the 1st Platoon perished upon landing on the island? Was my grandfather, at age 25, fearful to step into that role? Did my grandfather keep in touch with the corporal that he had saved? Through my own research I have learned even more about Grandpa and the events that shaped his identity. The 3rd Marines were not expected to be needed in Operation Detachment. In fact, this campaign was expected to last one short day, but for several reasons American intelligence was wrong. As my grandfather wrote, four grueling days after the campaign began, his unit was sent into battle. With his comrades, he fought tirelessly for five more weeks.
Growing up I had heard about this "do-or-die" incident. In fact, I knew where the rifle of the young Japanese soldier was in my grandfather's home. Somehow, he had managed to keep it, which I think may not have been allowed. As a youngster, that gun represented some unnamed enemy. As I grew older, I'd catch a glimpse of the same rifle and think about how unfair life could be. One question I keep asking myself is: if I had taken the time to write his story while he was still living, would I have better understood Grandpa?
Ours was not the closest of relationships. But I have these flashes of memories of Vince. Sometimes they make me nostalgic as I meander through my adult life, far from home. Sometimes they hit my funny bone as a strong wave can catch wader off-guard.
I fondly recall that traumatic event when my brothers and I took a hike with Grandpa. In the center of our path was a rattle snake. Calmly, he picked up a large rock and bashed his head in. Then he carried it home, cooked and ate it. He insisted that we also each take a bite of the snake. That was my grandfather. He was a survivor and sometimes he reveled in being a survivor.
He was born to Italian immigrants. As an Italian American, his personality was much larger than his small frame. He was muscular and he was scrappy. This time of year I think of him and the others who were asked by their nation to go to hell and back in a time of global disarray. I think of all the others like him who seemingly have no hesitation when they answer the call. What must it be like to actually be courageous? Some make it there and don't ever come back to us. Some return to us damaged. Now I understand that the cost of war is paid for by families, because none of these soldiers will be able to fully relate to the rest like they did before. They are expected to return to us as if nothing at all happened -- as if they did not fight tooth and nail for five long weeks to make it off an island, littered with rotting corpses. At least, that is how we would like them to return to us. It would be much easier that way.
Grandpa is proof that life is not easy, and his family paid a price for his service as well. But maybe his gift was to shoulder the majority of the burden so that ours would be less hard. After he passed, I promised myself that I would publish his letter. Regardless of our personal history, he deserves to be remembered this way. And so for Grandpa, I write to preserve a noble memory. For myself, I write to correct a mistake. For my children, I write so that they may find the strength of their ancestors in moments of darkness.

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