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The Old Marine

by Willie Lagarde

Reading about the atrocities and cruelty endured by some of our people during the war brought to mind an experience I had in San Francisco.
It was October 1945 and we were at Hunter’s Point NSY where Yorktown was being prepared to carry troops.
Three of us had rented a hotel room in San Francisco and I had gone there about 5 PM to stow some of my gear then went out to walk around the city killing time until my two shipmates were due to show up for a night on the town with three girls we had met two days before.
Waiting on the curb for a light to change I saw what I thought what must have been the oldest Marine in the Corps in his dress blues.
He was a first sergeant with stripes and hash marks almost completely covering his sleeve.
He asked if I was on a ship and when I told him yes he wanted to know which one. I wondered if he had a son or kid brother in the Navy. He then asked if I knew of a place nearby where he could get a drink and would I care to join him, "I'm buying".
Yes I did, it was one of the places we intended to go with the girls. They had a small dance floor and live entertainment, usually a three or four piece band and a singer. Even though it was very early in the evening the place was already crowded, mostly with soldiers. San Francisco during these times always had a large number of service men passing through, some coming back to the world after years overseas. Yorktown would soon join that armada of ships bringing these people home.
After two soldiers offered to share their booth with us he ordered a round of drinks. The soldiers were in awe of the Marine as was I. He looked like he had fought in every battle in the war but we would learn what he faced may have been even worse. He wanted beer and the rest of us ordered mixed drinks. He wouldn’t let anybody spend any money.
He told us he had plenty of it because he had been a POW since Dec 7 1941 and had back pay coming for all those years.
He had been in the Legation Guard at Peiping China , was in his early thirties when the war broke out and was taken prisoner by the Japs. We all knew the ordeal our men suffered in the hands of the Japs and didn't ask any questions when all he said was; it was a "tough time". He had just been released from the hospital and was on his first stateside liberty alone. It was obvious from his appearance the years as a prisoner had taken it's toll and I judged him to be ten or fifteen years older than he actually was.
He had loved a girl in China and had hoped to marry her someday but now had little hope of ever finding her again. His adoptive parents had died years ago and he knew of no living relatives
He told us of all the songs he heard on the radio while in the hospital, "It's been a long, long time" was his favorite.
Since I was sitting to the outside of the booth he gave me a dollar and wanted me to ask the singer if she would sing it. A dollar then was like fifteen dollars today and was probably a days pay for some people in the forties.
When I asked if she would sing the song for an "old Marine who had spent the entire war in a prison camp", I couldn't believe what she said to me; "you tell him POW or AWOL it doesn’t make any difference, it will cost him five dollars".
As I was telling her what I thought of her the band members became hostile and drummer pushed his drums aside and came at me. I caught his full weight as he jumped off the approximately 18" high stage or platform and swung at me. He missed as I pulled back and he fell to the floor. My main concern at that moment was my tailor made uniform I had bought in Seattle and had only worn a few times.
One of the soldiers occupied the drummer and before I could react to another man the second soldier grabbed him and threw him to the floor. The other two band members stayed put and the singer was yelling.
I noticed the Marine was drinking his beer seemingly above it all. I expected some form of law enforcement to arrive shortly and decided since the Army had the situation well in hand it was time to leave. I picked up my hat, bid him farewell and left.
When I got about a half block away I checked my condition. Uniform showed no sign of battle damage, wallet was in place as were the cigarettes and loose change in top pocket.
Making my way to the hotel I saw a jeep carrying an MP and SP heading to the scene of battle.
As I turned the corner on Powell street I saw my two shipmates who wanted to know; "where the hell have you been".
"I’ll tell you later, right now we got time, we got money and we got liberty. Let’s go get the broads".

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