Today’s anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor has me thinking about our WWII veterans.  Ninety-six percent of those who served our country during World War Two are now gone.  Many who are still with us are past sharing about their experiences, and many never wished to.

In writing this I am reminded of one my favorite books by one of my favorite authors: Hannah Coulter, by Wendell Berry, the prolific Kentucky novelist, poet, and essayist.  Like many of Berry’s novels, Hannah Coulter is set in the tiny fictional hamlet of Port William, Kentucky.  Narrated through the reminiscences of an aged farm wife, the novel spans the period from the Great Depression through the close of the twentieth century, but the emotional heart of the novel grapples with the personal effects of the Second World War.


Toward the end of her recollections, Hannah relates that she “married the war twice, you might say, once in ignorance, once in knowledge.” She married her first true love, Virgil Feltner, just weeks before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Virgil entered the army in 1942 but didn’t come home, falling at the Battle of the Bulge. In 1948 she married another local GI, Nathan Coulter.  Nathan came home physically unscathed, but forever marked by what he had experienced.

Hannah’s reflections about her second husband remind me of my own father’s unwillingness—or inability—to share about his wartime experiences. As I have noted before, my dad served in the navy during WWII and saw extensive action in the South Pacific. On the third anniversary of Pearl Harbor, his destroyer, the U.S.S. Mahan, was hit by three Japanese Kamikaze suicide bombers off the coast of the Philippines and sunk. Dad has always been willing to share this much, but no more. What he felt when he heard the crash of the Kamikazes, what he thought when the forward magazine on the Mahan exploded, what he saw as he headed toward the side, what went through his mind when he jumped into the oil-coated bay, what, perhaps, he prayed as he bobbed in the water while the battle continued to rage—these are things that Dad never once offered to share.

And so I was deeply moved to read Hannah’s reflections on Nathan’s half-century-long silence:

He did not talk about it, I understood, because it was painful to remember; and for the same reason I did not ask him about it. . . . Nathan was not the only one who was in it, who survived it and came home from it and did not talk about it. There were several from Port William who went and fought and came home and lived to be old men here, whose memories contained in silence the farthest distances of the world, terrible sights, terrible sufferings. Some of them were heroes. And they said not a word. They stood among us like monuments without inscriptions. They said nothing or said little because we have barely a language for what they knew, and they could not bear the pain of talking of their knowledge in even so poor a language as we have.

Are there “monuments without inscriptions” in your life today?  Reach out to them while you can.


  1. Linda Stringham

    Thank you for this! Wendell Berry–love his poetry–now I must read Hannah Coulter. My late father also served in the South Pacific and also did not talk about it–except a bit to his sons-in-law. I don’t think he saw quite the carnage that your father did. I have also been humbled to have a present day Japanese pastor as a guest in our home who prayed aloud for forgiveness for his country’s actions in WWII.

  2. One of the most memorable scenes to me in the movie “Saving Private Ryan” is one from the opening scenes of the movie and fits right in here with this pot. The old man at the beginning is visiting the Normandy American Cemetery and as he walks toward a grave stone, his family stops at one point, he and his wife walk ahead a bit more and then at one point his wife stops and he walks ahead a few more yards before falling to his knees overcome by emotion.

    It seemed to me that his family knew a bit about his service, his wife knew a little bit more, but only he and his memory knew and could tell the whole story. Only a few bits of his experience were shared with those closest to him – even his wife was unaware of the significance of what he experienced.

    As a kid growing up and always fascinated with the wide historical epic of WWII history and how nothing else will probably reshape the world as it did – until Jesus comes – I was always puzzled about why I’d hear of so many “old guys” who didn’t want to talk about those “exciting” times. I do not wonder that anymore.

    I remember reading an article or blog post somewhere in the last number of years that speculated that those harsh, emotionally distant fathers that seemed so common in the 50’s and 60s – either in reality or pictured in entertainment – were suffering from the inability of the American civilian population to let deal with the trauma of what they experienced. America was ready to forget those times and celebrate and move on. The soldiers were left to handle the aftermath on their own.

    I remember watching the movie “The Best Years of Our Lives” within the last 10 years. I think it won a Best Picture Oscar, but I don’t recall ever seeing it in my growing-up years. Maybe it was on, but I overlooked it. However, I can’t help but think it may have not been on because it just wasn’t pleasant in the aftermath of WWII to deal with the sad consequences of even a “good” war, somewhat like the generations after the War Between the States took to calling it “The Late Unpleasantness” instead of acknowledging the “brother vs brother”, bloody conflict that it was.

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