The South Pacific: Missing Reels
Home movies show my grandfather trim, grinning and smart in his Navy uniform. This is shortly after Pearl Harbor, and he is shipping out from California to the South Pacific. A Montrealer newly deemed American. His red hair and blue eyes are faded, as are all the colors. He is waving at the camera.
A general surgeon, he was assigned to a triage ship, which would pull up close to shore so that medics could disembark, run to the still-warm battle ground, and hurry through an initial sort of the bodies, living from dead. The wounded, brought aboard, were again triaged by my grandfather. Most of the broken men were then ferried to leviathan hospital ships. Vovo Trim tended those who needed immediate aid. He also watched over the dying.
I never heard him talk about any of this, but once.
When winnowing through a lifetime of stuff, in preparation for a move from his lakeshore home, where he had planted fruit trees and sailed a wooden boat and raised a family, to a controlled community close to a cluster of shopping malls, my grandfather came across a box filled with home movies. 8mm.
Some of the reels, though, were missing.
It seems there’s a lot of hurry-up-and-wait in war. Doldrums punctuated by terrible storms. When he wasn’t knee-deep in carnage, he and his fellow soldiers were stuck on a boat, waiting. Waiting not for battle to begin, but for it to end. That’s when their work started.
During these waiting times, my grandfather painted a map of the South Pacific on the inside of a trunk he made from scrap wood hinged with flattened bomb shells. Through binoculars, he watched the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima. And he trained his movie camera on the spectacle of war.
My grandfather was an amateur filmmaker of steady hand, repeated takes, composed shots and in-camera editing. He talks of shooting battle preparations, of hundreds of dark war ships powering in from all directions, forming great, precise lines in the water, a harrowing ballet. Then the assault. The pageantry, the immense scale, the fireworks of war. All this he captured on color film.
Many years later, there was some large gathering of WWII veterans. Vovo Trim received an invitation to the event, along with a request to share relevant mementos. Though he was unable to attend, he sent in his war films. He never saw them again, though the loss seemed not to faze him. I suspect those films played anyway on a screen in the back of his mind.
Telling me about these missing reels, and then about the war, in a videotaped interview I did with him when he was almost ninety, my granddad often falls silent. You can see him sifting through images of horror and boredom, logistics and longing. He brings forth only those memories he deems necessary artifacts. Penicillin. Camaraderie. Sympathy for the devil. These are the things that might save us. At the end, he waves his hand in the front of the camera and says, Enough about the war.