May 28, 2012
On November 20 (1942) our regiment took up defensive positions at Point Cruz west of the Matanikau (river)…A slow advance toward objective further west is begun. The enemy is laying down heavy mortar and machine gun fire. They are well dug in and concealed. Due to the terrain of jungle and ridges and the terrific heat, it is very difficult to get supplies, ammunition and water to our troops. They are taxed to exhaustion. Coordinated artillery, air and mortar fire does not dislodge the enemy. They have dug-in in the coral and in draws and are quite secure. Any exposure of our troops draws accurate enemy fire. Casualties are fairly heavy.
-From the diary of Lt. Col. Samuel Baglien, Executive Officer, North Dakota’s 164th National Guard Unit
Alice’s only brother died in this battle the next day. He was twenty-one years old.
The 164th Infantry North Dakota National Guard had gone ashore at Guadalcanal the previous month, reinforcing U.S. Marines at Henderson Airfield.
Lew’s unit was the first U.S. Army unit to take offensive action in the Pacific. They were all North Dakota farm boys and small town boys. One of them later explained their much-lauded courage under more or less constant bombardment, combat, and sniper fire: “Because if you let down a friend and neighbor, well this is someone you have known all your life.”
Last night Alice talked about Lew to help me conjure an uncle I never knew.
She and her five sisters called him “Brother” for most of his childhood, she said. “We were so glad to finally have a brother.”
“He loved to dance when he got older, like all of us. And oh, he fell in love with a Catholic girl, to Mama’s dismay, but she didn’t say anything to him about it.” (Martha, never much of a churchgoer, nevertheless stayed faithful to Luther.)
“Our big black telephone was in the dining room,” Alice said, “and I remember Lew walking into the kitchen holding it and then walking back to the dining room, over and over, when he was talking to a girl. Back and forth. Back and forth. So cute. He dressed in pullover sweaters, nice slacks. He liked clothes.”
He was playful. He was fun. He was that odd man out, the happy Norwegian.
The hardest thing for Alice, she said, was to explain Lew’s death to her firstborn, Bruce, who was four years old at the time. Bruce and his uncle had been close. “Lew played with him all the time. Anything Bruce wanted he could have, as far as Lew was concerned.”
“I remember,” Alice said, “that Bruce asked me, Was it a bad man who killed him? And I said No, not a bad man. It was a man who was fighting for his country.”
After a moment she added, “There was no way to explain it, really. Never a way.”
Later, Bruce would die at around the same age, just shy of twenty. (See In the Gloaming.)
What was Lew expecting from life? What did he want more than anything else? Would he have loved to travel, to cook, to read science fiction and poetry or listen to chamber music or Frank Sinatra or rock and roll? Would he have married the Catholic girl as his namesake, my cousin, married a Catholic girl twenty years after Lew’s death, forcing the family to expand its understanding of religion and Rome?
I have a fantasy that Lew’s safe return from Guadalcanal would have meant that Bruce would have chosen life over an early death, that our uncle’s good looks and happy spirit would always have cheered us whenever we came within range, that he could have brought the other warriors in the family, my father and my uncles, back from battle in a way that extended their feelings of brotherhood and disallowed the sour solace of bars and alcohol and cigarettes. Despite the rise of feminism, his sisters would have made a fuss over him right up until the day their only brother died a natural death in his Bismarck back yard or on horseback out in a far corner of his Wyoming ranch or on the deck of his rambling house in Big Sur.
“I’ll never forget, it was early evening when we buried Lew,” Alice said. “They played Taps, of course.”
After the burial, a woman walked up to Martha as she stood next to the grave and reminded her of what a mess it was over there after those battles, how the men did their best, but how could they be careful about details like names in the midst of everything else?
“So many boys got dug graves over there,” the woman said to this grieving mother, “and nobody really knows whose body got the right name or whose got sent back home and whose got left over there. It might not even be your son you buried today.”
“Well,” Martha said, turning away, “it doesn’t matter. It was somebody’s son I buried today.”
Later, as everyone knows, Guadalcanal was won. The enemy was vanquished.