Levi BrownOne summer weekend when I was a boy, my father took my brother and me camping. I vividly remember the odor of cooking bass mixed with wood smoke, the splash of the Milky Way in the heavens, and the burning ember of Dad’s unfiltered Lucky Strike against the night. Even then, I knew how hard Dad was trying at this enormous thing, to be a father. But I also recall the innumerable times he’d erupt in screaming fits after one of us kids did something as innocuous as spilling water at dinner; sudden noises also triggered outbursts. It was as if there were two guys at war inside him. Why was he like this?
Sgt. Steve Maharidge, my father, served as a U.S. Marine in the Pacific Island battles of World War II. When he came home in 1946, our family settled into what looked like the ideal postwar life: two parents, three children, a split-level house in suburban Cleveland. But we had a family secret: Dad’s rage.
Like most men of his generation, my father didn’t discuss the war. Yet it was ever present in a photograph, which hung in our basement, of Dad and a buddy on a jungle island. Only once, when Dad was on painkillers following a car accident, did he talk to me about the man with him in the photo. “They said I killed him! But it wasn’t my fault!” Instinct told me not to ask questions, and the only other thing my dad revealed was that whatever happened had occurred on Okinawa.
My father died on June 30, 2000. Two days later—maybe it was my midlife crisis—I set out to learn about his war. I was in my mid-40s and needed answers: Who was that guy in the photo? What had happened to Dad on Okinawa? I had absorbed a lot of Dad’s anger, and now I needed to let it go. By facing his demons, I thought, I would also face my own.
The quest would prove the most difficult in my three decades as a journalist. For the next 12 years, I looked for the men who’d served with my father in L Company, 3rd Battalion, 22nd Marines. I started with the names of the 22 guys who had signed my dad’s silk rising-sun flag, and then got the company’s muster roll, which listed more than 400 men. One by one, I sought them all, abandoning my project only during my mother’s terminal illness so I could take care of her. After she passed away, I continued making hundreds of phone calls, eventually talking to 29 survivors. A World War II story emerged that I’d never heard before.
The silent generation was finally speaking.