Harold (Hod) Chrisinger during tank-driver training at Fort Knox in Kentucky in 1944.Credit...Courtesy photo

I Grew Up Believing My Grandfather Was a War Hero. Army Records Said Otherwise.

The New York Times
By David Chrisinger
09 Jan 19

The only truth I can feel certain of now is that Hod had once been a young man who went to war, and that he died an old man who never found a way to make peace with what he had experienced.

We ran in silence as the rain began to fall. It was the last day of our four-day trip to Okinawa, and my wife and I were thankful that the humidity had finally broken. The rain was warm; it felt like we were getting a jog and a shower at the same time. But despite the endorphins coursing through my body, I began to feel the thumping of a panic attack. My chest cinched like a belt around my lungs as I thought about all I had done to get to Okinawa, all the years I had spent chasing down answers to questions about my grandfather — and how far away from him I still felt.

I had spent a few thousand dollars to fly 7,000 miles — all so that I could retrace the route my grandfather’s tank company took during America’s longest and bloodiest battle in the Pacific Theater. When I bought the tickets, I told myself it would help me help my father better understand his father. But what I was really in search of was a story I could tell about my grandfather that didn’t make me feel ashamed of him.

My grandfather, Harold (Hod) Chrisinger, was a rough-hewn man — undereducated and overburdened — who joined the Army in the summer of 1944 at age 18. When I was young, I couldn’t shake an intense need to know everything there was to know about him. He was a war hero, like the men I learned about watching the History Channel, but for some reason, my father and I didn’t have much of a relationship with him. When I was older I learned that after he returned home, my grandfather had done terrible things that no husband or father should ever do to his family. The one story that has stayed with me is the one about the night he, in a fit of rage and in full view of my father, who was only 4 or 5, grabbed my grandmother by the hair at the dinner table, dragged her into the bathroom and stuck her head face first into the toilet.

Hod Chrisinger changing a tire on a county road outside Taylor, Wis., in 1944.

Hod Chrisinger changing a tire on a county road outside Taylor, Wis., in 1944. Credit…Courtesy photo

In a photo I have of him that was taken the summer before he went off to war, Hod looks much as I did when I was his age. His hair, like mine, waved from the part he combed on the right side of his head. He is crouching by the back left tire of a two-door Ford hardtop pulled to the side of a tree-lined dirt road. With his left hand, he holds a wrench steady against the lug nut, and with his right, he is about to push the wrench down counterclockwise. The photo is black and white, though I can tell his arms are as tan as they are trim, and he is looking up with a smile that belies his predicament. I wish I had known that version of him. When he returned from Okinawa in the fall of 1946, he went to work as a tractor mechanic in his father’s shop, where he had easy access to the brown liquor being served at the bar next door. It didn’t take long, I’ve been told, for the folks around him to notice Hod wasn’t bolted together the same way he once had been.

My grandfather died from complications from alcoholism on the 55th anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. My father was with him in the hospital the day before he died. Years later, my father told me that he would have liked to have found a way to forgive his father. But he couldn’t. The shame and anger were still too raw.

I heard about a story my grandfather told at least once, not long after he returned from the war. He said his tank company had been nearly wiped out in a fierce battle — though it wasn’t a battle that anyone had ever heard anything about. They had set out in the morning with 30 tanks; by sunset only eight had survived. That’s all my grandfather ever said about it. It wasn’t until years after his death that I started doing research and piecing the story together. His tank battle happened early in the hellish three-month-long fight for Okinawa. Just after sunrise on April 19, 1945, the tanks in Company A of the 193rd Tank Battalion, along with the 1st Platoon from Company B of the 713th Armored Flamethrower Battalion attacked a village called Kakazu, perched on a fortified ridge. Their infantry support didn’t make it all the way up the ridge. By late afternoon, 22 tanks had been destroyed.

After nearly five years of archival research and reading everything I could get my hands on, I felt as if I knew all the facts but I still knew nothing. A friend of mine, an author and a veteran, told me if I was ever going to write anything worth reading about my grandfather, I had to go to Okinawa to see the place for myself. I had to retrace his steps and see with my own eyes the same ground he and his friends had suffered and killed for.

Hod and Gladys Chrisinger in Taylor, Wis., before he shipped off to the Pacific in 1944.

Hod and Gladys Chrisinger in Taylor, Wis., before he shipped off to the Pacific in 1944.Credit…Courtesy photo

After two days of sightseeing with a friend, my wife and I met with an experienced amateur battlefield historian named Jack Letscher, in the lobby of a Hilton resort that overlooks the East China Sea. Together we headed south across the island. Already hot and sweaty, my wife and I followed Letscher across a parking lot and down a narrow sidewalk to an elevated crosswalk that arched over a busy four-lane highway. The sun broiled the already red and tender skin on my neck and arms, where my T-shirt gave no protection. Letscher was taking us to the base of Kakazu Ridge. I felt as if I was finally approaching a mountain I had only dreamed of ascending.

When we reached the apex of the crosswalk, Letscher pulled out a ragged copy of an official military history and flipped through it until he found a map marked with a red sticky note. “Right here,” he said pointing to a topographic view of the land we were now standing over. “This road we’re overlooking is the same one your grandfather’s company traveled to get to Kakazu. Right under our feet. This is where they were.” I felt a weight in my stomach. My grandfather likely wouldn’t have recognized Kakazu Ridge today. What was once a verdant, rolling landscape was now a bustling, crowded city. “Up there on the hill — see that blue tower with the roof?” Letscher asked. “That’s the top of the ridge. That’s where the heaviest fighting took place.”

When the tanks arrived on the eastern edge of the village, they found the remnants of wooden huts surrounded by once-sturdy stone walls and hedges that had been reduced to rubble by an American bombardment. Sighting through their periscopes, the gunners inside the tanks shot their .30-caliber machine guns at anything that moved; Japanese soldiers fell like tenpins as they emerged from their emplacements. The tanks armed with flamethrowers shot long, sticky streams of rage into cave openings and whatever buildings remained. Slowed down by steep, broken terrain and caught without infantry support, the tanks were vulnerable to various forms of attack that the Japanese exploited to near perfection. In addition to antitank guns and mines, one of the most effective methods for destroying tanks was to immobilize them with a small explosive and then run up and hit them with magnetic demolition charges or Molotov cocktails. If the crew decided to stay buttoned up in a disabled tank, attackers would pry open the hatch and throw in grenades. According to Gene Eric Salecker’s authoritative history of tank warfare in the Pacific, “Rolling Thunder Against the Rising Sun,” the loss of 22 tanks in the assault on Kakazu Ridge on April 19 “was the greatest loss of American armor” in a single engagement “during the entire Pacific war.”

Two days before Christmas, seven months after I returned from Okinawa, I wrote a long essay recording everything I had seen and learned while I was there. As my father read it, I could see his shoulders relax and a great sense of relief bubble to the surface. Less than a week later, I received a small manila package of documents I had requested back in June from the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, where all the remaining military personnel records from the Second World War are stored. In 1973, a fire erupted that destroyed about 80 percent of all Army personnel records from before 1960, including my grandfather’s discharge paperwork. Fortunately for me, more than 100,000 reels of Army and Air Force morning reports — which contained information about the individual soldiers in a given company, including their assignments and injuries — survived the blaze.

Hod Chrisinger (far right) with friends during the occupation of Okinawa, Japan, in 1946.

Hod Chrisinger (far right) with friends during the occupation of Okinawa, Japan, in 1946. Credit…Courtesy photo

Company A of the 193rd Tank Battalion landed on Okinawa on April 9 and was on the receiving end of an artillery barrage for the first time on April 14. When I got to the reports for April 19 and 20, I found a list of names: the wounded, the dead and the missing. I saw no mention of my grandfather. A week later, on April 26, updates were made: five men who had initially been listed as missing were now listed as killed in action. On April 29, another soldier’s status was changed from M.I.A. to K.I.A. I kept flipping. On May 2, the day the order came for the exhausted and battle-depleted battalion to give up their tanks, 10 privates in Company A were promoted to the rank of private first class. There was still no mention of Hod anywhere.

Eighteen pages later, on May 20, I located him: Chrisinger, Harold B. Serial Number 36846058. Private. His name was second in an alphabetical list of 11 other soldiers. At the bottom of the list was a typed notation: “Above eleven (11) EM atchd unasgd fr 74th Replacement Bn APO 331 per VOCO 20th Armd Gp.” What did that mean? I scanned the remaining pages, searching for corrections. I found none. Unsure of where to turn, I texted a picture of the report to a couple veterans I know, and both told me it made sense: Private Chrisinger was transferred in from a replacement battalion, where he had been waiting to be assigned to an active unit in need of reinforcements. That meant my grandfather hadn’t joined the company until a full month after it had been mauled in the battle for Kakazu Ridge. He hadn’t been part of the furious fighting that knocked out 22 tanks. He hadn’t been there that day at all. And that meant that perhaps he wasn’t the battled-hardened war hero I wanted him to be.

At first, I fought it. After such an arduous journey, I couldn’t accept that my grandfather had lied, that he wasn’t a hero. I went back to the battalion and company records. I gathered up military maps, the pictures my grandfather brought home with him, and every other bit of evidence I had collected over the years. I had stacks of sources printed from glitchy websites, and pages and pages of handwritten notes on white and yellow legal pads. I thought that if I looked hard enough, it would all somehow resolve and rearrange itself into the picture I wanted to see. It didn’t. The last time my father and I talked about Hod’s war record, he still wanted to believe there might have been a mistake in the paperwork. I think Hod just lied.

I’ll never know if he lied because he felt ashamed by what he had done, or hadn’t done, on Okinawa. The records make it clear that he hadn’t fought in the pitched battles, and maybe he felt that he hadn’t faced war’s ultimate test of courage and agony. That doesn’t mean that he hadn’t seen horrors or committed them, that he hadn’t struggled and suffered. I can only imagine the terrible toll, for example, on the troops sent out to clear enemy soldiers and unfortunate civilians from caves and hidden bunkers. Maybe Hod was afraid his story didn’t sound like what was portrayed in the newsreels and war movies. Maybe he didn’t think what he had experienced lived up to expectations of what war and heroism should look like. If that’s the case, his laconic version of the ferocious tank battle may have been a sort of cover story: a version of events that was more heroic — and relatable — than an actual truth he was afraid to tell. I think my grandfather wanted his damage to be known but couldn’t find the words to share the full truth, or couldn’t trust that friends and loved ones back home would understand.

The only truth I can feel certain of now is that Hod had once been a young man who went to war, and that he died an old man who never found a way to make peace with what he had experienced. I wish he had been able to tell the truth, because that’s how real healing and connection take root. Instead he remained trapped alone in his cover story. In discovering this about my grandfather, I encountered the man on a more human level: a man who was damaged and hurting — and ultimately, I now feel more closeness and connection with that man than I could possibly have felt for an untarnished hero of the battle for Kakazu Ridge.

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