The spoils of war

When former Sacramento Bee reporter Dale Maharidge tracked down the men who served with his father in World War II, he learned of his dad's lingering mental and physical trauma, as well as the ghosts of battles past

Herman Walter Mulligan (left) and Steve Maharidge in Guadalcanal, 1944.

Herman Walter Mulligan (left) and Steve Maharidge in Guadalcanal, 1944.

Photo courtesy of Dale Maharidge

Dale Maharidge and photographer Michael S. Williamson won the 1990 Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction for And Their Children After Them. His latest book, Bringing Mulligan Home: The Other Side of the Good War, is available on March 12 (PublicAffairs Books, $26.99). He currently teaches journalism at Columbia University in New York.

In the fall of 1985, I went to the Philippines to report on the revolution against the dictator Ferdinand Marcos for The Sacramento Bee. Back then, the paper sometimes covered those kinds of stories. As the jetliner headed south from Tokyo, the pilot announced that Okinawa, Japan, was below. I pressed my face to the window and stared raptly at the narrow 67-mile-long island.

Forty years earlier, my father Steve Maharidge had landed on its shores as a United States Marine for the last big battle of World War II. He’d told me fragments about it. Something very bad happened there. What was it? My father had serious issues from that war that he never truly discussed. Much remained a mystery.

Okinawa, Carmichael and life after war

I’d find answers after my father died in 2000, when I spent 12 years tracking down 29 guys who served with him in the Marines—a quest that I document in Bringing Mulligan Home: The Other Side of the Good War, my latest book, which is being published this month.

But back then, I didn’t know what happened to Dad more than 20,000 feet beneath me. As Okinawa receded in the Pacific Ocean mist that day in 1985, I thought about my parents freshly retired in suburban Carmichael. They’d come from Cleveland to visit a few times after I began writing for the Bee in 1980. They fell in love with Sacramento—it was Midwestern enough for their tastes, yet it had palm trees and lacked snow. So they’d sold their house in Ohio and came west.

Retirement in the Sunbelt was their last chapter in a story of ours being a prototypical postwar American family. For my father, the story went like this: A son of Russian immigrants grows up in poverty during the Great Depression on Cleveland’s rough south side. He goes off to fight in World War II. Upon his return, an old Russian peasant woman spits at his feet and bitterly tells him the good local boys died over there. He stays drunk for four years, then buckles down and marries Joan. They build a house in the suburbs. He takes a factory job grinding steel. He hates that work, but it propels him into the middle class; his three kids are guaranteed to do better.

And along with hundreds of thousands of other veterans-turned-fathers, Dad was supposed to forget the war, embracing, like Mad Men’s Don Draper, a mantra of denial: It. Never. Happened. But the illusion of “normal” was interrupted by Dad’s sporadic screaming fits of rage. Anything and nothing could trigger them.

Most of the time, he was a great father. And then, he could, for a time, become the worst. Early on, I wondered if this was related to the war.

As a child, I lived in fear of his outbursts. That’s why it was surprising, decades later, to watch him grow increasingly mellow as he settled into life on a cul-de-sac off Winding Way. At the time, I attributed it to his retirement and the end-of-work stress. Dad focused inward. He tended to six citrus trees, kept an exact tally of how many grapefruit, tangelos and oranges came off each; he spent days observing the behavior of ants; he hand-watered the lawn for hours.

After I left the Bee in 1991, I taught at Stanford University. I often came back to town to visit my parents. We’d make predinner highballs and chat. As the years wore on, I began to notice Dad repeating things, and he lost track of conversations. I figured this growing feebleness came from his having such a sheltered Zenlike life. He had no friends. But I was happy that Dad no longer had those angry fits.

In 2000, Dad drove me to Sacramento International Airport. I was going to work on an election-related story for a national magazine with former Bee photographer Michael S. Williamson, my collaborator on many books. Dad and I had a short goodbye—he was from a generation that didn’t hug or show emotion.

Author Dale Maharidge’s father, Steve Maharidge, in the jungle of Guadalcanal near the U.S. Marine encampment in 1944.

Photo courtesy of dale maharidge

In the middle of that assignment, Dad was diagnosed with advanced cancer. He went down fast. I arrived three days before he died on June 30, 2000.

The power of the blast

Two days later, I began the quest to learn about what happened to Dad in the war. I learned from the several dozen Marines who were there with him that my father had endured at least two incidents of blast concussion—in those days, it was termed “shell shock” or sometimes “cracking up.” Today, we call it traumatic brain injury, or TBI.

Dad’s first TBI occurred at Sugar Loaf Hill. The unit was hit with heavy Japanese artillery there on May 16, 1945.

“There was a lot of guys who cracked up on that damn hill,” Jim Laughridge, from my father’s Marine unit, told me.

Two weeks after Sugar Loaf, my father’s buddy Herman Mulligan threw a grenade into a tomb that concealed 1 ton of Japanese munitions. It went up like a “volcano,” I was told. The power of the blast was stunning.

What did this mean? To find out, I talked with Dr. Douglas Smith, director of the Center for Brain Injury and Repair at the University of Pennsylvania. He told me that axons, which extend from brain cells and transmit electrical current, break during a concussion.

“Once an axon disconnects, it cannot grow back together. The brain is diminished,” Smith said. “It’s the kind of injury that keeps on taking. It initiates long-term nerve degeneration.”

Damaged nerve fibers also appear to secrete molecules of “gooey stuff,” which form plaques that may in later life cause Alzheimer’s disease. I explained about my father’s sometimes raging outbursts.

“For absolute certain, like with your father, TBI can do that,” he said.

For some people who sustain a severe brain injury, he added, “It can make them very combative. It can almost manifest as emotional instability, an inappropriate emotional response. … As Alzheimer’s develops, some become more aggressive, others more passive.”

I’ll never know for absolute certain about my father’s brain. There was no autopsy. But I felt I had an answer that explained a lot of things—how his life after the war had been defined by those blast concussions, not to mention the post-traumatic stress disorder from the horror he’d witnessed.

For Steve Maharidge and many other guys, World War II continued and didn’t end until they died.