Editor’s note: Ben Fenwick is a freelance writer whose work has been published in The Frontier and other publications. He is also an adjunct instructor at the University of Oklahoma’s Gaylord College of Journalism. He covered the war in Afghanistan in 2004, and Iraq in 2008.
In 2004 in the war in Afghanistan, the U.S. Marine unit I embedded with began distributing body bags for an upcoming fight, and I thought about my father.
When I was a boy growing up, he told me that he’d been on a body bag detail at one point during the Battle of Okinawa, one of the worst battles of World War II for American casualties.
“I remember stacking my friends up like wood on the beach. It wasn’t good for me,” he told me.
I think about that story now, and all his stories, because he passed away on August 9 at the VA hospital in Talihina, two months shy of 91 years old. He had often told me his whole life since leaving Okinawa was gravy, bonus time, because he’d expected to die there.
I still expect the earth to shake. What are we going to do without the Greatest Generation? And what will I do without my Dad?
That moment in Afghanistan brought home the stark landscape of war. A real fight meant those planning it had to contend with their men dying.
At 42, I covered the war for several news organizations, including the Tulsa World, where Ziva Branstetter edited my stories. Embedded with Oklahoma units, I lobbied for months to go “downrange,” where the shooting happened. Now, the shooting was about to turn real. How would Dad have handled it?
Well, he was 19. When you’re 19, life is one big acid trip. You take things in stride. You run faster when the bullets fly. You dive in the foxhole headfirst. Your eyes are sharp. Your senses are tripled.
Dad was a Golden Gloves boxer, a crack shot with medals to prove it, and he had actual organic night vision. He even had an extra lobe in his lungs that enabled him to hold his breath longer; they found it when he enlisted. He wasn’t bulletproof, but he clearly had an edge.
Second, the Navy, then the Marines, trained him in every contingency and tactic they had on the books. They schooled him as a U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsman, an advanced battlefield medical practitioner, roughly the equivalent of a modern physician’s assistant.
These professionals hit the beaches with the Marines and stitched them up when they got shot, to go back to the fight, because the Marines are only a few good men (and now women).
They’re smart, too. The Marines he landed with didn’t conduct bayonet charges like their Imperial Japanese adversaries. Guns had more range, right? These men were frightful, terrible, and still are.
On Okinawa, about 12,500 Marines died, but the Japanese toll was more than 100,000. On the Afghan mission I covered, the Taliban called the Marines the “Walkers of Death.”
I am a journalist. It should have been obvious to me then, but it certainly is now, that part of the reason I had embedded with the troops was for an inside look at understanding my father.
Other journalists prepared for the same movement we were on. The column gathered at an awful base called “Camp Ripley” in a dry desert valley. The sand puffed up in clouds like talcum powder as you walked and got in everything. Once on your skin, it would suck the moisture out until you bled.
One journalist there was the celebrated writer Jim Webb, himself a former Marine Platoon leader in Vietnam and more recently, Democratic candidate for president. There was a reporter/photographer team from the Houston Chronicle. Another was a young filmmaker, a woman, with whom I had lunch with at the ad-hoc mess hall, an open-roofed affair covered with camo netting. While we ate, a Catholic chaplain joined us.
“Are you going with the column?” he asked us.
We nodded. “Company C,” the filmmaker said.
The priest crossed himself. “That’s a good company,” he said.
We finished in silence. When we left the tent, the filmmaker turned to me, her face ashen.
“He CROSSED himself,” she said.
I loaded up with the Marines departing on their mission, a convoy of trucks and unarmored Humvees bouncing along a desert wash that served as a local highway, easily the worst road I’ve ever traveled on.
We went from village to village for ten days. The Marines searched the hamlets, walking in long lines, fingertip to fingertip, cordoning and searching every house, barn, cave, or gully. The settlements were medieval, mud huts with thatched roofs. All around grew fields of opium poppies like wheat. The roofs were made of opium stalks.
Several strange things unfolded. For one, the Taliban had fled, leaving behind only a few stragglers. The Walkers of Death made quick work of those who tried to fight. There were a couple of shootouts, but the whole body bag business never took place. No Marines died during the operation.
The second strange thing that happened: My father’s stories about the Marines suddenly came alive around me.
Those men talked like I remember he told me they would. They went about their operation with precision and gusto, like he said they did. There were funny incidents of the kind I remember him regaling us with. They were completely polite to us journalists, never disrespectful, amid absolutely the most obscene cussing I’ve ever heard. It was magical.
At one point, it occurred to me to ask Webb about them. “You were a platoon leader in Vietnam. Are these guys like the Marines you led there?”
He looked around at them, like he was making sure. “Yes,” he concluded. “Absolutely. The same.”
I told him about my Dad. “Do you think these guys are like the ones in World War II?”
He nodded again. “I bet they’re exactly the same.”
I was lucky. It was as if I got to see my father as a young man again. And I didn’t have to see any of them die.
Ralph Arnold Fenwick was born September 27, 1925, in a tent along the Kiamichi River near the town of Tuskahoma. He was the son of two first-generation Okies. Dad grew up in the town, attending school in a log cabin that still stands on the school grounds. He left home at the age of 15 because it was “time to go to work,” he said.
Times were hard.
Initially moving to Dallas, he worked briefly as a grease monkey, in a soda pop bottling plant and in a tent manufacturing facility, where he was smitten with love for Grace Green, who became his wife of 59 years. Soon, however, he was called to war.
Although he initially sought to be a tail gunner in a dive bomber, he instead was assigned to the Hospital Corps. On Okinawa, he saved the lives of fallen Marines and the enemy alike, and in quieter periods, was assigned to a birth detail where he undertook or assisted in delivering hundreds of newborns.
Although he contracted Malaria, Dad overcame the illness to continue a long career in the Navy. He was also called up to the Korean War, where he took part in the risky and decisive Battle of Inchon. Dad went to war a third and final time during the early stages of the Vietnam conflict.
He was stationed in Tulsa, briefly, where I was born. But he longed for home in Pushmataha County. Dad built his house there along the Kiamichi. He dug the foundation, built the walls, wired it, plumbed it and roofed it. He dug a well that never ran dry, caught fish and hunted for his family, and grew gardens that fed them many times over.
Dad and Mom had us in between those wars — four children. Every one of us later worked with the military in some substantial way.
My sister was an Air Force wife for 25 years, with many of those years spent at nuclear bases around the country during the Cold War. My oldest brother became a Hospital Corpsman and served in Vietnam, where he was wounded but returned safely. My next oldest brother served in the Navy on aircraft carriers and now is a military contractor, often traveling to Afghanistan and Iraq.
As for Dad, after retiring from military service, he used his medical training to become the chief administrator of a state medical research center, developing drugs used for treating Parkinson’s disease, as well as a strong anti-inflammatory used to treat the ravages of cancer.
The drug he helped develop was later used to aid his ailing wife during her fight against cancer. The drug comforted her and returned her ability to speak before the disease finally took her.
He never really recovered from the devastating passing of his Gracie in 2003. A stroke in 2006 left him weakened and partially paralyzed, but he hung on for 10 years. It gave me time to interview him about his life, to put things in perspective, to try to make sense of it all.
I am still trying to.