…Of all my memories from 1945, one of the most gut-wrenching is that of witnessing my first burial at sea. A Marine from Detroit had died of his wounds on our hospital ship en route from Iwo Jima to Guam. When we learned of his death, a few of us went topside to witness the brief ceremony. It was 10 p.m., and all of the ship’s running lights were off because of the threat of submarines. So it was pitch dark on deck, except for an occasional break in the clouds that let through an eerie ray of moonlight.
As we gathered at the railing with the Chaplain, two of the ship’s crew brought out the Marine’s body, placed it on the burial plank, and covered it with an American flag. As we stood in silent tribute, the Chaplain gave a brief eulogy and the sailors raised the plank. Out slid that gray canvas bag from under its star-spangled shroud, plunging toward the sea and vanishing forever. Each of us standing there battled with our private thoughts, trying to keep the flood of emotions from bursting through our exterior armor. For some reason, witnessing that event had a more profound effect on me than many of the other tragedies I witnessed. I can’t really explain why. Maybe it was the overwhelming finality of it. Even after the others left, I stood at the ship’s railing, thinking about how only a few of this Marine’s buddies had been there to see him off, and about his mother and father, who wouldn’t even receive news of his death for another week or two. How many more times, I wondered, would this lonely scene be repeated before the last hospital ship left Iwo?
I can never think of that experience without recalling the German U-boat sailors’ song:
There are no roses on a sailor’s grave,
No lilies on an ocean wave.
The only tributes are the seagull sweeps,
And the teardrops that a sweetheart weeps…