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Semper Fi, Harry Jackson

A Memorial Day Reflection on the Father of my Children

Harry Jackson sits at an improvised easel, in a smashed Japanese hovel on the island of Saipan, July 1944
PFC Harry Jackson, USMC artist, 1944 (photographer unknown)

“In 1942, Private First Class Harry Jackson USMC joined the Fifth Marine Amphibious Corps as General Intelligence’s first combat-sketch artist. He fought in three amphibious assault victories across the Central Pacific; wounded twice, he suffered from the effects of his injuries for the rest of his life.”

That quote comes from his bio on the website for the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, where some of his greatest works reside.

Harry Jackson was not only to become the youngest-ever official Marine Corps Combat Artist (in 1944), and a celebrated abstract expressionist and cowboy artist (1946–2011), he was also to become, decades later, my husband and the father of my children. We were together for eighteen years. And when they say he suffered from his injuries “for the rest of his life,” it’s the truth.

The war had ground him up and spit him out with a lethal combo of grand mal, petit mal, and psychomotor epilepsy, along with mood disorders and PTSD. It was rarely visible in a way that made you think poor guy, look at what the war did to him.

His behavior could be outrageous and infuriating. He was often verbally brutal. If he wanted something, he was relentless — would call at any time of the day and night, keep you on the phone for hours, burst in unannounced, demand satisfaction. He burned a lot of bridges.

No one who had a relationship with him came out unscathed.

He was also a warm, funny man who lived large, kicking ass and taking names. He broke all the rules, and had a blast doing it. A lot of the time, it was exhilarating and inspiring to be in his presence.

But for most of his life after the war, in his heart he was still, always, fighting for survival.

On Memorial Day, I am filled with the tragedy and tenderness of his memory. I have my own mental snapshots of him as a loving father, as an encouraging husband, as a good man. But every Memorial Day, I think of him the boy that he was, enlisting for the Marine Corps, lying about his age — he was only seventeen.

I think of him being sent out into the hellscape of the Fifth Amphibious Corps, where he fought and was wounded at Tarawa and Saipan. He used to joke, “I got shot in the head and the ass. They wanted to make sure they got my brains.”

Here are the bare facts of only one of the battles he fought:

Betio (the largest of the Tarawa Atoll) was a tiny island, shaped roughly like a long, skinny triangle. About two miles long and only 800 yards wide at its widest point. Hold that in your mind, now, as you imagine nearly 6,400 Japanese, Koreans, and Americans perishing there. In 72 hours.

No, really. Do the math. Do just the geometry of it. Sixty-four hundred dead bodies, in a little under three days, on a piece of land the size of a postage stamp.

I can barely imagine it.

But I try to. I try to imagine Harry’s young heart, his open senses, his keen eye, gifted artist that he was…living through that horror. Wading through red water, water that had become a sea of blood from the fallen, all around him. He’d watched as his buddy’s head was blown off. I remember him telling me…

This is who I remember when Memorial Day comes around.

Not only those who died fighting for our country. But those who lived. too. Those who carried the trauma of it all into the rest of their lives, and the lives of all who loved them.

This is not anything to do with ideology or patriotism.

It’s not about who won or lost, or why.

It’s a quiet bow of my head to the millions and millions

of those who have to suffer and die in this way.

Or suffer and live.

It’s an acknowledgement of this horrible part of being human.

And a prayer for peace.  Peace for those who died, and their loved ones. Peace for those who lived, and their loved ones.

And eventually,

just peace.



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