Friday, May 29, 2009
An “American by choice” recalls his service
by Maris Platais
[Maris Platais was the featured speaker at Carlisle’s Memorial Day observances at the Corey Auditorium on May 25. His speech appears below.]
It is an honor and a privilege to share a few thoughts about Memorial Day from a slightly different perspective, representing the many nations and cultures that make up this wonderful community, Carlisle. There are a hundred thousand stories like mine, found all over this great country.
A few weeks ago in my cardiac rehab session I was talking to a friend who had served in the Pacific in WWII. It wasn’t until I saw him get out of his car that I noticed he had a Bronze Star veterans plate. I asked him what he did to earn that award, and he simply replied, “I showed up every day.” It was on Guadalcanal, where some of the fiercest fighting was going on. This kind of modesty describes the American G.I. Unassuming, faithful to his comrades, just doing his job. Our reminisces brought me back 60 years to Commonwealth Pier in Boston, where my parents, my brother Andy and I had just disembarked from the General Blatchford, a U.S. Troop ship that had brought us to America as new immigrants. The same ship, a few years before, had brought American soldiers to the battlefields of Europe, many of whom never returned.
Our journey began some ten years before, in my native country of Latvia on the shores of the Baltic Sea. Before the outbreak of WWII, our father said to us, “Someday I’d like to take you boys to Germany, and maybe when you’re a little older, even to see America.” How prophetic!
Our father was an engineer on a Moscow to Berlin passenger express train, linking the capitals of the two super powers that would ultimately destroy our homeland. How tragically ironic!
When the Red Army invaded Latvia in 1940, their reign of terror under Stalin was indescribable. Sixteen thousand Latvian citizens were sent to slave labor camps or murdered outright. Many more were imprisoned and tortured. We survived only because our father was needed on the railroad.
Then Hitler invaded Russia, spreading his kind of terror across the land. Friends disappeared overnight without a trace and we watched in horror as a synagogue across the street was burned to the ground while the congregation and the rabbis were forced to watch before being shipped off to the death camps.
With the Soviet counter-attack, as the eastern front approached, our hometown Jelgava was almost completely destroyed. It was time to leave.
Our father, the brilliant chess player that he was, knew that in the second occupation by the Soviets we wouldn’t be so lucky. We were evacuated by a German warship to the port of Danzig, Prussia, now Gdansk, Poland. I remember tearful Latvians standing by the rail saying goodbye to their homeland, never to return again. From there we went by train to Berlin where our father was pressed into service to switch supply trains in and around the city. We got our first glimpse of the determination and valor of the U.S. servicemen flying daytime missions of B-17s into hellish German anti-aircraft fire.
On bright, sunny autumn days as we were scrambling to our bomb shelters, we would see the sky turn black from all the anti-aircraft flak, like the dark sky of a thunderstorm. As terrifying as it was, we marveled at the courage of these flyers and hoped that they would end the war soon. Many never had a chance to complete their mission.
When the war ended we moved to the American zone where we met American soldiers face to face for the first time. The contrast between them and the goose-stepping Nazis and Red Army soldiers was amazing. The Americans seemed so human, friendly, laid back. They too were glad that the war was over.
We got to learn more about them in a displaced persons camp in Esslingen, near Stuttgart. We marveled at the venerable Jeep, we were introduced to swing music, jazz, Coca-Cola, chewing gum and comic books. In following years, we learned some English, saw American movies and were introduced to American football while attending school in an all-Latvian community. The U.S. Army provided some employment for adults (my father worked as a bookkeeper for the Army) and set up summer camp for children in Army field tents away from town.
However, with the uncertainty of post-war Europe, especially when Soviet Army officers strutted into camp urging Latvians to return home, it was time to look farther west. To return to a demolished home (the Soviets owned the land), and face possible imprisonment or worse was too much to contemplate.
By the time of the Berlin Airlift we were ready to apply for emigrant status, but only if we had a personal sponsor in the U.S. By sheer luck, our father had a high school classmate who had sailed on a Latvian freighter in the 20s and settled in Boston. She agreed to start the proceedings.
After a year of mental, physical and dental exams, background checks and interrogations and taking numerous oaths in front of a myriad of agents and bureaucrats, we were granted visas.
It was said that it is easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than it is for a displaced person to enter the U.S.
Now I think back to that hot July day in Boston Harbor. Even in the heat, right next to the Fish Pier on a Friday morning, it was a breath of fresh air, the air of freedom and hope and opportunity. Adapting was hard. People had to learn a new language. Take menial jobs, go to night school, retrain and press on.
But life was good! We were free! After one year residency we could apply for intent to become citizens, and five years from our arrival, we took the most important oath of all – to become U.S. Citizens.
By then brother Andy had already finished a hitch in the Marine Corps during the Korean War, and after two years of college, exactly nine years after landing in Boston, I enlisted also.
When I arrived at Camp Pendleton in California for my first assignment after boot camp at Parris Island, I was met by a sergeant taking roll call who had enlisted the same time as my brother. He was also a school friend in Esslingen, Germany, and a shipmate on the Blatchford. Small world. Years later I learned he was killed in action.
Throughout my four years in the Corps I met dozens of Latvians and other former immigrants serving in all the branches of the service.
My next assignment was in the far east. On the way to join the 3rd Marine Division, our ship stopped at Pearl Harbor to pay respects to the crew of the battleship Arizona, the beaches and jungles of Guam, where many of our predecessors fought and died, Tokyo Bay, where the Japanese surrendered on the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri, and finally to Okinawa, home of the 3rd Marine Division, the last hard fought for island in the Pacific war.
While stationed on Okinawa I met a number of immigrants turned citizen from many different countries, all serving with the 3rd. Often we would meet at the NCO club and have a toast in six or seven different languages. All different backgrounds, all bound by the desire to serve our new country. Americans by choice!
After discharge from the Corps and completing my education, I worked as an advertising artist in a department with four WWII veterans. After seeing some of the battlegrounds in the Pacific, I could empathize with what these island warriors went though, and we shared memories with the veterans who fought in Europe. “Uncommon valor was a common virtue” for these vets.
When I married Elizabeth Elliott of River Road Farm, I knew Carlisle would be my home where through our daughters and their American grandparents I would find my new roots. Doc Elliott served in the Army Air Corps in WWII, and Betty’s brother Dave is a retired Air Force Lieutenant Colonel, and Rachel “Pagey” Elliott, who passed away this spring, needs no introduction. We all love her and miss her.
After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Latvia regained her independence. I had made several pilgrimages with my brother to Latvia before, but a few years ago I took Betty to see my birthplace. It was an emotional experience for both of us, and I got all choked up seeing the spires and domes of the old city glistening in the late afternoon sun as we landed in Riga. But I got even more choked up when I saw the Stars and Stripes in front of the U.S. Embassy.
We visited the Occupation Museum which showed the atrocities committed by both the Communists and the Nazis.
In my hometown of Jelgava, we stood on an athletic field on the edge of the river where our home used to stand, and somehow all the horrors of the past were washed away by the gently flowing river. We paid our respects at the graves of my grandparents and other relatives. When we went to the port city from which we departed Latvia almost 65 years ago thinking that we would never see our birthplace again, I had come full circle, and nostalgia gave way to a feeling of gratitude to all the men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces who gave their all to make it possible, and I was looking forward to coming home to Carlisle.
On this Memorial Day I would like to express my thanks to all the people who made us feel welcome as New Americans, and to all the New Americans young and old, past and present who have come here from many lands to escape persecution and tyranny who are committed to serve their new country, in many capacities, and even to make the supreme sacrifice.
Thank you, and God Bless America! ∆
© 2009 The Carlisle Mosquito