Tuesday, March 11, 2008

"Surrender on Iwo Jima" - Grandpa's Memorial

Eleven days ago, my grandpa died peacefully in Fresno, CA. For several years, I've known that it would be my responsibility to present something about him whenever his inevitable end came, and I fulfilled that unspoken obligation last Saturday. This is what I read to the approximately 200 people who gathered that day for his memorial service. It's a mere summary, and (as usual) I feel like I didn't say exactly what I wanted, but such perfection will likely never come. I suppose that's something we all have to live with. Anyways, Grandpa Bradford was a good man and well loved, more than I could ever encapsulate in a few short words.

I’d like to tell you a little bit about my Grandpa, and how I understand him and the life he led and now leaves to me, and us, as a gift:

Grandpa was one of the kindest, most friendly men I have ever known. He never withheld his love, friendship and encouragement from anyone. I have a bag full of letters that attest to the fact (which I demonstrated)—and this is just four years worth— I’m sure many others here today could share a similar stack of mail. In many of these letters, he voiced his desire simply to spend more time with me, to talk about school and life and Godly stuff, and usually over a bite of lunch. Looking back, I realize that I refused these requests far too often. It occasionally seems like we spend too much time preparing for life, rather than living it. Remember to embrace the loving Presence of others while the opportunity persists.

Several years ago, Grandpa asked me to be his “aide de camp”—that’s a military term for a personal assistant to a high ranking officer. Of course, I accepted, and over time, it became clear that Grandpa wanted to share a particular story with me, the story he wanted to call, “I surrendered on Iwo Jima”. So here’s that story in brief form.

In 1942, at the age of 22, Grandpa left his home in Oklahoma and joined the Marine Corps. He trained at the newly established Camp Pendleton in San Diego, then got assigned to an engineering regiment of the 4th Marine division, which made its home on Maui, one of the Hawaiian islands. There he met Merle, a friend who left an indellible impression on my Grandpa, so much so that he gave the name to his first son, my uncle. In 1944, during the division’s first combat operation on a remote coral atoll called Kwajalein, Grandpa’s good friend Merle was killed.

As the war continued and the Marines drew closer to the Japanese home islands, the ferocity of the fighting only intensified, first on the island of Tinian, then Saipan, and finally, Iwo Jima. Though I have seen commendations and awards for his part in these battles, Grandpa remembers very few details from any of these traumatic experiences, perhaps by the grace of God. Suffice to say, it was a hellish time. On Iwo Jima, the ash-ridden rock where the famous flag-raising occurred, Grandpa reached the end of his physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual rope. On March 3, 1945, some two weeks into the fighing, in the middle of the brutality and despair of war, Grandpa made this simple promise to God: “If you see me through this, I’ll serve you.”

Apparently, God took up the offer, and Grandpa was not counted among the 7,000 American and 20,000 Japanese soldiers who died on that remote island in a five week span. However, it would take some time before Grandpa would fulfill his part in this “foxhole covenant”.

After the war, in 1947, during the same week in March that he had promised surrender two years earlier, he was involved in a major car accident that caused a concussion and the loss of the deltoid muscle in his right arm. He was in a coma for four days. When he awoke, Grandpa took his accident as a not-too-subtle hint from God and was baptized on March 3, 1947 in Texas. As Grandpa put it, “Our gracious Lord allowed me to surrender in 1945, and die to the flesh in 1947.” Two years to the day.

After his baptism, Grandpa was pointed to San Jose Bible College where he could “train for the new service.” But this his trials had not yet ended, because somewhere along the way, he suffered a major nervous breakdown and landed in the Sonoma State Hospital, where he experienced first-hand “the rudimentary days of California mental health” at the hands of “an ogre-type psychiatrist” who administered shock treatments. Grandpa had lost sense of time, and could not remember his own name. Eventually, his identity was obtained and, one day, Grandpa’s brother Don arrived to get him out of there. Grandpa says, the story of the Prodigal Son has become especially meaningful in view of these dark days of his life.

After recovering from this breakdown, Grandpa re-enlisted at the Bible College, met and married Grandma, and gave the remaining six decades of his life to his Lord, his family and every other person he randomly encountered. A man full of vitality till his legs could carry him no more, Grandpa approached every day with what he called a “gung-ho” attitude in service of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

So Grandpa surrendered on Iwo Jima, and I hope you catch the irony. In one of the most memorable military victories in American history, Grandpa was defeated. However, God’s victory did not come easily, and not without a cost. Grandpa loved the song “Amazing Grace,” and I think it’s because he identified himself so resolutely with the “wretch” described it, just as he identified with the prodigal who wanders from home, and later returns filthy, destitute and ashamed, but is met by a father who calls him “beloved” for no other reason than that he is a son.

Grandpa told me his story—and I tell it to you now—not simply because it’s a good story, or a sentimental one, but because it points to God, and to faith. Not the kind of insubstantial “believing-in-something” we often talk about, but a faith forged in fire; the faith of a wretch and a sinner; the faith of a person who will not cheapen grace, but embrace it as something costly; a faith that says, “I am useless, a wanderer and a wretch, and still God calls me ‘beloved’.” Thanks be to this God—Grandpa’s God and ours—who invites, rebukes, corrects, nudges, directs, orchestrates, embraces and loves.

I have one last thought Grandpa’s recent departure: I read somewhere this allusion to death as a “coming home.” Imagine yourself as a child, playing outside in the sandbox, or in my case, I imagine those long car trips home during which I’d fall asleep to the drone of the tires. And while sleeping, wherever you are, your parents gently pick you up and carry you into your home, and put you in bed. After an unknown time, you wake up in your bedroom, tucked away under the covers, maybe even in your pajamas. You don’t know how it happened, but you know you’re home. The thought came to mind while I watched Grandpa drift away last Saturday. It came as a sort of epiphany to me—perhaps the final gift Grandpa gave to me—that dying itself is not so hard. We fall asleep, and someday, we will wake up in God’s house. Always the bold one, Grandpa has led the way home.

Glen Bradford
December 24, 1919-March 1, 2008