My father still recalls the early days when liberation finally reached Rangoon, Burma. He was five years old
during the Burma Campaign led by Allied troops from Britain, India, various African nations, America and even China. During Japanese occupation my dad and my grandmother hid under the floorboards when the air-sirens went off. He can barely remember my and my sisters’ birthdays, but my father can still hear those sirens and taste those K-Rations.
When liberation did arrive, it meant being handed K-rations by the heroes themselves. Liberation meant getting his dibs on this alien invention: instant food.
Packed in condensed consumable fashion, these were foods my father had never eaten before. Food like this could be eaten with just some added water. He recalls eating something like an expandable cookie. Once there was water added, he said the cookie expanded from something the size of a Reese’s peanut butter cup to the size of a huge black and white cookie. Was this truly possible? (It’s likely that these were high-calorie biscuits.) This must have been amazing for this five year old. It must have been like magic, and it tasted like heaven.
Memory is more loyal to dessert.
Little did my father know that it would only take another 35 years to find these instant foods repackaged in the frozen dinner aisle at the discount grocery store we haunted, looking for those killer deals. One of my dad’s all-time favorite tea-time snacks is the frozen burrito, but I digress.
He also remembers mounds of rotting peas in the gutters of the gutted city, surplus supplies left behind by the troops. His primordial olfactory senses again hasn’t failed him: the stench still fresh in his memory.
It seemed to him that as soon as these soldiers had appeared, they were gone. What would happen after the military junta took over would not be settled until close to two decades, six thousand miles and four kids later.
Like most American high school students, I hadn’t learned in depth the extent of America’s and Japan’s roles in the Pacific Theater. I had thought that the my initial academic exposure to Japanese Imperial Army came in my early years in college at an exhibit inspired by the bestseller, The Rape of Nanjing, by the late Iris Chang.
My own studies brought me back to a source no academic had directed me to; my own maternal grandmother, years after she had told me her stories. It was a favorite summer pastime of ours to watch Young and Restless together during lunch, the trials of Genoa City helped break the monotony of foggy days and long rides on the 38 Geary. With a bowl of rice topped with vegetables and chicken, perched on my lap, these were our TV dinners.
One day one of the scenes must have triggered a memory of the war which she then unleashed to my second-grade self. She shared with me, almost offhandedly, the story of how she lost her sisters during the initial Japanese occupation of Rangoon. Up until that point, I had no idea she had had sisters. Up until that point, I was just a bored child under the watch of her sometimes crotchety grandmother. I had sisters! Three of them! I could not imagine living without any of them. She described bodies and their parts splattered onto palm fronds, high up in the trees and her sisters desperately fleeing from the fighting, only to succumb to starvation and dysentery in the mountains. They had reached safe ground only to die.
These are the spoils of memory.
On this and many a Memorial Day, we the spoils of war, honor those who have paid the ultimate sacrifice for the freedoms (or the semblance thereof) that America espouses. While many of our family aspired to be part of the Greatest Generation, many of our war-torn families caught in the Pacific theater were barred from ever entering the US in the first place, as legalized discrimination had deferred them from participating in the American Dream.
Many of us today take part in Memorial Day festivities on the sidelines, with no direct lineage to those that fought in wars and died for this country. We are not the heroes. We are not in the parades. We stand at the sidelines, waving our flags, hesitantly, as if we’ve crashed someone’s wedding.
On the sidelines, we are the spoils of the war coming home to roost. Although many of us are not from military families, we too have paid a price of war: the Oriental, the Communist conspirator, the lost colonial holding, the napalm girl, the gook, the scorched earth so poisoned that returning home would have been another death sentence, the innocent, the guilty and the foreigner. And yes, the collateral damage.
Many of us now look like the bygone enemies that killed American military men. Calling ourselves American is a defense and a necessity.
There’s one thing that we cannot be called; however, and that is: ungrateful. People like me, at the generational seams of history, need room away from the paternalism of dominant patriotic fervor.
We do not need to be told how to memorialize the dead, the brave, the sacrificed.
While I’ve known no servicemen who perished while in service in my short life, both my father and grandmothers survived the frontlines of war and its finale because an honest fight was won. They, the spoils of war, would make their last stop in America, while many of those in uniform who had made it possible, would perish in the Pacific and be memorialized with each subsequent step we take on these shores.
To the spoils of war of the honest fight.
To the honest fight on and off our shores.
And the the servicemen of the Rangoon Campaign who never made it out of the Bay of Bengal and who fed my father with your K-rations.
You fed the dreams and ambitions of a young boy growing up on the streets without shoes and a foreseeable future.
I promise you, your sacrifice will never be forsaken.