|Helen and Bob Fisher, 1942|
Politically my father-in-law and I did not see eye to eye. He was a Goldwater Conservative and, at the time I married his daughter in 1965, I was a Rockefeller Republican, yet we never argued in a heated way about our political differences. At times the conversation would become somewhat strained with regard to solving the political issues of the day, but we always kept it civil and in the end agreed to disagree. Instead when we were together we focused our attention on what mattered most to both of us, family harmony and sharing stories about the past or of the moment that we all enjoyed. By the time he died at the age of 96, for the most part we found ourselves agreeing about public policy and what should be the future course of the American economy and government. As we both grew older, he became more 'liberal' in his politics and attitudes towards the community at large, and I learned that there was considerable merit in fiscal accountability.
From my perspective, he and his wife, Helen, were the perfect in-laws, helping us along the way both materially and with good advice when asked, but not attempting to direct our lives. We were left to swim on our own, but always in a concerned and loving way that was above all thoughtful and in good humor. He never could teach me to play bridge well ('lunkhead' was the most personal criticism I ever heard from him, and that he confined to the bridge table). What most impressed me about him, was the way he judged people on their merits and his ability to thoughtfully change his mind based upon his review of the facts as he read them daily in the New York Times. In war time he was very clear in his prejudices against the enemy, but in peace time he could welcome into his home a Japanese exchange student who he came to think of as his fourth daughter, and greet her father warmly even though they fought each other in the South Pacific.
In some respects, I wish we had spent more time with both Bob and Helen, learning about their efforts to make a world for themselves, particularly during that first year when war kept them apart. It was only when they moved to Florida and had to distribute the contents of their Plainfield, N. J. house that I came to have any real idea of what they went through in those first years of marriage. In a trunk they entrusted to the family archivist, I found a copy of his war-time memoirs. So tormented was he by the deaths he witnessed and the horrors of a war he knew was necessary, that Helen insisted that he type out his memories and circulate them to his surviving colleagues as a means of purging his soul and getting on with life. He did so and moved on, but he never shared that aspect of their first months of marriage with his daughters or the men they married (he called us the 'outlaws'). Yet it is those memories that deserve to be sustained and the story told. The lesson of Lt. Robert Fisher's war-time memoir is a lesson in human dignity, providing leadership in a time of desperate crisis, and advocating compassion and sympathy for those who sacrificed life and limb so that his child and the children of his men could have the prospect of a free and unfettered life, not alone and in isolation, but together.
It is the essential role of a public archives to preserve permanently the collective and individual memories of the past. It is essential to the future of our democracy that we hold on to the individual memories and family papers that infuse the public record with the poignant details of the daily struggle for survival, details essential to our better understanding of ourselves and our world. There isn't a day that goes by on which someone does not call, write, or send an email to the Maryland State Archives in search of a family member, friend, or comrade. Take for example the inquiry from someone researching a WWII B-26 aircrew shot down over France in August of 1944. The lead navigator, a 1st Lt. William J. Smith parachuted out of the aircraft and was captured by the Germans. All the writer knew was that a William J. Smith had died in Charles County Maryland on Valentines Day, 1991, and wondered if it was the same person. Could we search for an obituary? The local library referred him to the Southern Maryland Studies Center which in turn referred him to us. It proved not to be an easy request to answer. Little information from that period is on line and we do not have all the newspapers on file. After nearly ten days of negotiating with a library that did have the paper, and convincing them to look for the obituary, it was found and proved to be the right Smith:
In a remote corner of the Pacific, between New Guinea and the Philippines there is the island nation of Palau, independent since October 1, 1994.The March 2003 issue of National Geographic featured Palau.
Nowhere in the article is mentioned that Palau was the theater of one of the most bloody assaults in the history of American warfare.Let’s return to the map.
Consisting of sixteen states (islands) with a total population of 19,409 (2002 est.), Palau, with a labor force of 8,300 people, runs an annual budget deficit of $23 million dollars, apparently all of which is made up by foreign aid from the United States. It's trade deficit is even more dramatic. In 1999 the islands exported $11 million in shellfish, tuna, copra, and garments, and imported $126 million in goods.
The best known of the island states is Peleliu, where between September 12 and September 21, 1944, the first marine regiment under General Chesty Puller suffered casualties of 3,946 marines killed or wounded- one man every two and a half minutes day and night during the first 170 hours of fighting the Japanese on the island. "In the process they had killed an estimated 3,942 Japanese, nearly a thirdof the island's garrison and reduced the following major enemy positions and installations: The Point, ten defended coral ridges, three large blockhouses, twenty two pillboxes, thirteen antitank guns, and 144 defended caves."
Several years ago, when my father and mother-in-law moved to Florida, as the Archivist in the family, I was assigned the task of taking on the family archives. My wife's sisters took some mementos including a silk Japanese flag found in one of the caves on Peleliu, and our sons got my father-in-laws uniform and caps. We placed the archives in a trunk and couple of cardboard boxes and transported them to our attic in Baltimore. There they remained undisturbed until fairly recently, when on a visit to Florida my father-in-law mentioned that he had written a memoir of his experiences on the island and produced a copy he had kept when they had moved from the family home in New Jersey. He had written it at the end of 1945 on his return. In a narrative style that is clear, concise, and absorbing, he chronicled that first week of horror as a Lieutenant in command of a communications platoon at headquarters of the First Marine Regiment, Ist Battalion, Headquarters Company.
Let’s pause for a moment and turn to the contents of the shoebox.
And let’s focus for a moment on the men of Lt. Fisher’s company on their Christmas card taken in camp before the assault on Peleliu:
Notice the man kneeling in the center of the front row.Who might he have been?
As we have seen, among the photographs and papers in the attic was an unpublished memoir of the battle written by Lt. Fisher soon after his return home in 1945.
Lt. Robert W. Fisher, USMCR
Of the thirty-five men in his platoon, none was killed and two were wounded. PFC Thorval Pattee, was the brave lineman who lost his arm. After the war Lt. Fisher lost touch with most of the men who served with him that week, with exception of Major Nikolai S. Stevenson, who he met again while working on Wall Street. When I talked with my father-in-law during the snow storm in February, he remembered Nikolai Stevenson fondly, recalling that when Sallie and her two sisters had outgrown the family crib, it was given to the Stevenson's for their children.
Matthew Stevenson puts the National Geographic article on Palau into perspective by interweaving the journal of his visit with the memories of the American fighting men who fought there, something that ought to be done for the Japanese as well.With his permission, permit me to close with excerpts from his chapter.
The value of archives lies in how well we preserve and access the collective and individual memories of the past. There is nothing to names of places or people unless we do our best to remember and to document their meaning. It is our obligation as a society not to forget. We must do our utmost to see that it does not happen, or we shall be forever repeating our mistakes without the benefit of the passion and the wisdom of former times.
After I published this personal memoir on the web a number of years ago, Robert Fisher received a letter from Private Pattee's daughter wanting to thank him for his memories and to tell him that in the end, shortly before he died, Private Pattee got his long deserved medal. It was purely by accident. An aide to the commandant of the Marine corps happened into her parents coffee shop and inquired about the missing arm as he was being served coffee. When he learned that it had been lost in combat and that, no, there had been no purple heart, the aide did something about it. The recommendations were retrieved from his file at the National Archives and the medal was awarded.