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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

General MacArthur

OK, time for my first non-Civil War post...

As most of you know, my "day job" is Curator at the MacArthur Memorial - museum, archives & final resting place of General Douglas MacArthur, commander of Allied forces in the Pacific during WWII. Although the Civil War does fall within our "scope" because of the General's father - Lt. Gen. Arthur MacArthur, who served in and eventually commanded the 24th Wisconsin - our primary focus is World War I, World War II, Occupation of Japan, and Korean War. One of the major differences between my earlier days at a Civil War museum and one focusing on 20th century conflicts, is the opportunity to actually talk to the veterans themselves, as well as the amount of papers, uniforms, equipment, etc still looking for a home.

Perhaps one of the most enjoyable parts of my job is getting to meet and talk to these veterans. Several years ago, MacArthur's Honor Guard held their reunion here in Norfolk. In conjunction with this, we put together a special exhibit about the Honor Guard. It was a great thrill to see these fellows going through the exhibit, many of them finding themselves in the photographs; others telling the story behind some of the photographs, and identifying their comrades in them; and discussing some of their former platoon leaders.

These were the men who guarded not just the General's headquarters, but his residence and his family as well, during the latter months of WWII and all throughout the Occupation of Japan. If you look at pretty much any photo of MacArthur during the Occupation, odds are there's one of the Honor Guard in it. There were only about 2,000 men total who served in the Honor Guard from May 1945 through April 1951. Of that number only several hundred are left. These men were hand-selected for the job, and were the epitome of "spit and polish." And they were witness to some of the most historic events and within an arm's length of some of the most important people of the 20th century. And while the world saw the version and image of Douglas MacArthur he wanted seen, these fellows saw a more human side of MacArthur and his family. To a man, they will tell you that serving on his Honor Guard, no matter the duration (some served literally for only a few days, others spent years on the assignment), was the highlight of their time in uniform.

I first became associated with these fellows in 2007, prior to their Norfolk reunion. Last year at the Las Vegas reunion, I was lucky enough to be tapped to serve on the Board of Directors of their association - one of only a handful of non-Guards to do so.

The 2010 reunion was held earlier this month in St. Louis. Sadly the numbers have continued to dwindle - only about 25 Guards were in attendance, but the number of children of former Guards becoming active in the organization is on the rise. Getting to know these gentlemen and listening to their stories from the Philippines, Japan and Korea is quite an honor.

Many of them would continue to serve at GHQ in Tokyo following MacArthur's dismissal by President Truman, serving under Matt Ridgway. The more candid of them will tell you the difference was night & day. Whereas MacArthur showed concern and took care of them, Ridgway...well, did not.

I also got a special almost last-minute "mission" during the St. Louis reunion - it turns out one of MacArthur's former military secretaries - now 96 years old - lives about 2 hours northeast of St. Louis in rural Illinois. So trusty digital recorder in hand, I made the trek up to Pittsfield to interview him. Sadly, he didn't remember much about his time at MacArthur's HQ, 1943-1945. But about 15 years ago, when things were much clearer in his mind, he had typed up a memoir. One of the few things he did remember clearly was MacArthur's young son, Arthur. A memory he has in common with nearly all of the Honor Guard.

No decision has been made yet where next year's reunion will be. But where ever it is, I'm already looking forward to it.

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