Monday, May 31, 2010

Finished: "Islands of the Damned" by R.V. Burgin

Finished: Islands of the Damned: a Marine at war in the pacific by R.V. Burgin with Bill Marvel, 2010, 9780451229908.

Burgin is portrayed in The Pacific on HBO. I have not seen that show. I presume he was approached about doing a book because of that mini-series. Burgin served with E.B. Sledge whose With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa is a famous read from 30 years ago. I have not read Sledge's book. Burgin has some interesting disagreements with what Sledge says. The disagreements are nothing major; just different memories from a fellow eyewitness.

Burgin was one of many kids in a Texas farming family. Burgin's family sounded very solid and certainly worked hard. Burgin joined the Marines after getting a draft notice. Went to San Diego for training and then to the South Pacific. He learned from the veterans of Guadalcanal, fought on several islands, was with the Marines outside Melbourne for a time and got engaged, and married after the war. Burgin never spoke about the war until '79 when he got a call from a fellow Marine who was organizing a reunion. Even then some of Burgin's memories were not sparked until meeting other guys again.

The book is told very straightforwardly. I imagine Burgin had long talks with Marvel and Marvel did a good job of chronologically ordering the tales. Marvel seems to have captured Burgin's own voice. Not that I have ever met Burgin.

Comments and thoughts:
1. No lingering on battle details like in some books. Burgin is equally straightforward in killing Japanese as in two instances Burgin witnesses Marines were killed by fellow Marines. One instance was in pitch black with mistaken identity. The second instance was trying to quiet a Marine who was having a loud freak-out and alerting Japanese to the Marines' location. That death too does not seem to have been intentional, but Burgin is not entirely clear on whether my assumption is so. Someone whacked him on the head with a shovel to quiet him and the blow killed him.
2. Burgin would tend to always hit it off with fellow Texans.
3. a. Under performing units. Burgin singled out an Army unit his Marine unit relieved. He writes about their piss poor discipline and demeanor. I don't hear much about poor units. When I do read that I'll also read about how a unit was treated unfairly and excused for multiple reasons. I think hagiography covers up a lot of screw-ups and fuck-ups and failures.
3.b. Burgin does mention several times of his clashes with Lt. Legs and Legs poor decision. Legs is later replaced by another Lt. That Lt. is a better officer but has several boneheaded decisions that a young guy will make.
3.c. Burgin mentions how Sledge writes disparagingly about their officers but Burgin thought they were better than what Sledge thought.
4. Plenty of guys will downplay their service, I spoke to a guy yesterday who did that.
5. Burgin says several times about how no one he speaks to has heard of Peleliu and he'll tell the story. I heard of it. I've heard of many of the big and small islands the Army and Marines landed on. I don't know the specifics but you can pretty much always assume the Japanese had deep defensive positions.
6. Burgin writes that his family - wife and four kids - went to Australia for ten months in 1956. It must have been tough on his wife to rarely return to Australia and see her family. She was only 21 when they married in Dallas.
7. What was the psychological aftermath on Burgin? He does not say much about that. In '56 when they drove to SF to catch the ship to Australia there was a carload of Asians next to their car. He saw those people and broke into a sweat. They were the first Asians he had seen since Okinawa.
8. Burgin actually used his .45.
9. He survived a night of Banzai attacks.
10. Burgin was a mortarman and those guys got real good at the job. Burgin still takes pride in being the best.
11. I didn't realize how deadly the 60mm mortar can be. Burgin says their shells had a 45 foot radius kill zone. That reminds me of Sully in my junior year of high school. I think he served on tank destroyer in Europe and once said if a shell hit the said of our classroom half of us would be dead. I couldn't quite believe that amount of destruction but it's not something you easily forget.

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