My Father’s Canteen

The canteen hung from a nail on a roof support in my parent’s attic for decades. My father brought it home from Hiroshima. Somewhere through the years the canvas cover got lost. He brought back, too, Earth Superior binoculars and a Japanese rifle and bayonet. The rifle is missing. Only its bayonet remains. War relics.

This World War II canteen has the designation U.S. A.G. M. Co. 1942 on it. A.G. M. stood for the Aluminum Goods Manufacturing Company. Check eBay and you’ll see that a good many are for sale. Folks are selling history. Selling war relics.

Dad never mentioned this canteen and I don’t recall ever seeing it growing up. It must have been in the attic, in a dark spot, patiently hanging on that nail … waiting for someone to discover it. I brought it home thinking that it was my old Scout canteen. Then I learned that it was a World War II canteen. It’s been dry a long time. Seventy-two years or more.

The bayonet is a Type 30 bayonet designed for the Imperial Japanese Army. I see they are on sale on eBay too. As for the Earth Superior binoculars, I assume they are just an old pair Dad came by in the 1940s. They don’t appear to be Government Issue. A little research reveals they look more like Jumelle Duchess binoculars, with the French word, “Jumelle,” meaning opera glasses. Most were made in Paris. I doubt you’d find those in a foxhole. How Dad came by them is a mystery.

A lot of people metal detect old battlegrounds hoping to find war relics. Maybe they should check the attics and basements of their fathers’ home. Men must carry things in wartime. Soldiers must carry canteens, guns, bayonets, and helmets. And they bring these things and more home. Dad brought back silk flags, relics of his time in Japan. As a boy I’d unfold them, a rising sun with spectacular rays burst off the alabaster silk as if afire. Japan—Land of the Rising Sun. My father brought memories of Hiroshima home but he never discussed them. And the flags? Gone. Lost by me.

About seven years ago, the sister of a student of mine, gave me a book, The Things They Carried, written by Tim O’Brien. After graduating from college in 1968, O’Brien received a draft notice. He reported for service and went to Vietnam. O’Brien would go on to be a reporter and then an author.

In The Things They Carried, he takes us into the soldiers’ combat lives in unforgettable ways. In a dry, matter-of-fact style he creates powerful images. “The things they carried were largely determined by necessity. Among the necessities or near-necessities were P-38 can openers, pocket knives, heat tabs, wristwatches, dog tags, mosquito repellent, chewing gum, candy, cigarettes, salt tablets, packets of Kool-Aid, lighters, matches, sewing kits, Military Payment Certificates, C rations, and two or three canteens of water.”

O’Brien wrote of the personal things men carried, too. “Ted Lavender, who was scared, carried tranquilizers until he was shot in the head outside the village of Than Khe in mid-April. By necessity, and because it was SOP, they all carried steel helmets that weighed 5 pounds including the liner and camouflage cover. They carried the standard fatigue jackets and trousers. Very few carried underwear. Until he was shot, Ted Lavender carried 6 or 7 ounces of premium dope, which for him was a necessity.”

O’Brien wrote, too, that, “They carried the sky. The whole atmosphere, they carried it, the humidity, the monsoons, the stink of fungus and decay, all of it, they carried gravity.”

I can only guess what Dad carried in his head in Japan. He served in U.S. Army Ordnance and spent time in Yokohama but he also went to Hiroshima just after the Enola Gay dropped “Little Boy.” And he went to Nagasaki. There in the land of geishas and samurai, he might as well have been walking on the surface of the sun. He was at most, 19 or 20. The things he must have seen as he tread Hiroshima and Nagasaki’s toxic soil. There was no way he could avoid horrors. Skinless people. Men with stripes burnt onto their skin. They were wearing striped shirts when the brilliant flash hit them, the nuclear burst that stenciled dress patterns onto women’s bodies. Dad never talked about things like that, but he carried them.

He returned to Georgia with evidence of his Hiroshima days: a canteen, a rifle and bayonet, flags, and photos. The photos, taken from a low but wide perspective, reveal block after block of charred rubble with I-beams drooping like melted candles. Somewhere amid the nuclear detritus lay human remnants. Total destruction. The next time you drive past a field of corn chopped close to the ground, imagine it burnt to a cinder. That’s what Hiroshima looked like, a charred, leveled cornfield, where nothing, not even one ant, survived. At ground zero the heat reached millions of degrees. Some victims left shadows etched into rock … vaporized. Dad carried those images.

Dad’s canteen is dented. Dented and dry. And the bayonet is rusty. Did it kill a U.S. solider? I have no way of knowing, but unlike all the people selling these things on eBay, I choose to keep them. They’re war relics and family possessions, reminders that Dad carried wartime things in his head, but what I’ll never know. He just didn’t talk about Hiroshima and Nagasaki and I suspect you and I wouldn’t have either.

Here at Thanksgiving, I’m thankful that my father returned from war intact: no missing limbs, no mental duress, and no recurring nightmares. He succumbed to cancer late in life and a doctor told me his days in Hiroshima contributed to it, a wartime casualty of sorts. You could say he carried a seed of sorts all those years … one watered by the canteen you see here.

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