PROF. GORDON GREB
MY BROTHER, WALLY
At left, Wally and Gordon as youngsters in 1937;
at right, Wally and Gordon as young men in 1943.
Thoughts in the Night
About a Great Brother
By PROF. GORDON GREB
I must have been dreaming because the other morning I woke up thinking about Wally.
Maybe it was due to watching the last episode of Ken Burns recent 15-hour long documentary, The War. It may have brought back memories of my brother Wally and other kids from our high school who fought and died in the Pacific.
Wally rarely talked about what happened over there and resembled a lot of other war veterans who were only too glad that particular adventure was finally over. In the life that followed, Wallys was a happy one. But he would need to be a brave soldier one last time.
When those final moments came they didnt come unexpectedly, suddenly and explosively the way they had for his classmates and friends on Okinawa, in Korea, and Japan. Wallys were extended, long and agonizing.
When we were small boys growing up in Oakland, California, my four-year old brother never understood why he wasnt older than I. After all, his birthday came three days before mine in August and yet Mom put more candles on my birthday cake. While my mother and father laughed about it, since he didnt yet grasp the fact we were four years apart in age, Wallys interest in numbers and asking why about them was to turn out to be his strength. He began getting As in all his math courses in school and in later life would become a professionally educated engineer.
In those halcyon days Wally was a happy, lively and friendly little blue-eyed boy. He never got into fights with other kids the way I did, not with that big smile of his which always earned him lots of friends. As a couple of close siblings my brother and I never fought physically one with the other, but our interests at home and at school were entirely different.
Wally would spend hours at the kitchen table constructing model airplanes, assembling erector sets, or repairing self-propelled cars. I liked cartooning, writing stories of adventure, and circulating small hand-printed newspapers around the neighborhood. This explains why Wally became adept at using a slide rule and I sat under a tree watching the clouds roll by.
Wally reported for duty in U.S. Army six months after I entered the service. He got his draft notice right after graduating from San Leandro High School at the tender age of 18 and couldnt go to college till after the war. When Uncle Sam sent Wally to Fort Lewis, Washington for basic training and combat engineering at Aberdeen Proving Grounds near Baltimore, Maryland, it was his first full-time job.
When he finished training and was finally shipped to the Pacific, Wally and his engineering outfit landed during the time the greatest air-sea-and-land battle of World War II was coming to an end. However, their victory over the Japanese was hardly complete when everyone on the island had to confront another life-threatening surprise. An angry Mother Nature suddenly began blowing up a storm and trying to level everything in sight, including everything that an American armada had landed ashore against great odds.
Gale-force winds began pounding land and sea with such power that it blew ships ashore and capsized naval vessels, drowning hundreds and injuring thousands of men. On the windswept site of Wallys outfit, they had to work feverishly to batten down everything as the gale was threatening to completely destroy their tents, equipment and supplies. Somehow they managed to secure their sector and escape major damage. But the threat to their lives wasnt over.
Wallys outfit and all the others now had to begin preparing for the last major battle of the Pacific warthe invasion of Japan. Their costly victory at Okinawa proved the next one would be met with a suicidal resistance and yet the war could not be won without it. The life of my brother and an estimated million of his comrades were at risk if they had to fight their way onto Japanese soil.
Although it was a devastating blow to Japan, the decision by President Truman to use nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, horrible as it was, saved not only American lives, but millions of Japanese as well, because it immediately halted the certainty of tremendous future bloodshed. Japans surrender not only brought a long hoped-for peace but also enabled it to rebuild its civilian economy and become a prosperous democratic nation and an incredible industrial power.
While he had had one or two moneymaking odd jobs as a boy, Wally chose to use the GI Bill to major in mechanical engineering at San Jose State College after the war. With his B.S. degree Wally accepted a position in the main office of the Southern Pacific Company, commuting weekdays from San Leandro to San Francisco from the early l950s until he retired in the l980s. He and his wife Audrey had one son, Matthew, and he in turn made them grandparents by having two daughters with his wife, Michelle.
While in harms way several times in World War II, Wallys courage in the end was tested by a doctors diagnosisthat he was suffering from complete kidney failure. When this turned out to be his last battle, he faced it like a real man. Due to a weak heart, Wally was an inappropriate candidate for a transplant operation. So his only alternative was to use an artificial kidney machine. Choosing to run the machine himself, rather than be taken every other day to a clinic, Wally learned to hook himself up six times each 24 hours to self-administer home dialysis to stay alive.
For five years, day after night, even while he slept, this pumping equipment kept his system going. But after a number of years his heart weakened and other vital organs began failing. In the last few months he couldnt stand up without fainting. But if you had visited him during most of the earlier time, he gave no hint of being an invalid. Always cheerful and willing to help around the house as best he could, Wally simply would not give up.
As my brother was someone who never sought the limelight or public attention, I found it difficult to get him to consent to an interview about his life using my home tape recorder. Despite my frequent entreaties, Wally would wave me off, laughing, and saying, Those days are gone. Why think about them today? I wouldnt remember enough of the past anyway.
Well, I finally tricked my brother and recorded him unawares over the telephone on June 6, l999; it was the 55th anniversary of D-Day. Over the years Id made it a habit to phone old Army buddies on veterans holidays. So this time it gave me a good excuse to talk to Wally. In the course of our conversation I pumped him for those happy days we knew as children when we were growing up in Oakland as well as fun times he had playing golf. Nobody knew how long Wally would live and I wanted something to pass along to his grandchildren. Yes, I know it was technically illegal to record his conversation over the telephone but now that I have it, Sue me!
We lost Wally on October 2, 2002. The local newspaper noted his passing with a simple five-sentence obituary. But I felt that someday his family would like to hear his voice on that recording and much later I sent it to his widow, and son and daughter-in-law for their family.
Frankly, there were memories on the tape I had completely forgotten about myself. But most of the joy of replaying it came from hearing Wallys voice again. He awakened my own happy thoughts of our lives as just kids and he seemed to genuinely take pleasure in talking about those long lost days himself. Wally was, as usual, upbeat and cheerful. What a guy! He fought the good fight right to the end. How lucky I was to have had Wally as my brother.
©2007 by Gordon Greb. The caricature of the author is by the author. The photos are the property of the author. All rights reserved. This column first posted Oct. 22, 2007.
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