War Stories: My Dad’s Private Struggle After Combat

Dale Maharidge's angry father left few clues as to what happened to him during World War II. So Dale embarked on a 12-year quest for knowledge, understanding—and healing.

from the book "Bringing Mulligan Home"

SearchThe mystery of Mulligan remained. His body was never identified for burial. Why? And why was my father tormented by his death?

Despite sending out 250 letters, I’d failed to find any of Mulligan’s relatives. Finally, I tracked down Frank Haigler, the captain of L Company, in Southern California. Haigler had corresponded for decades with the families of men who’d been killed. In his trove of letters were those from Robert Owens, Mulligan’s grandfather. “Please let me know as soon as possible so I will know what to do,” Owens wrote on March 16, 1949. The government had declared Mulligan’s remains “non-recoverable.” Haigler didn’t have any answers then or now. But he had his original battle map.

Armed with a photocopy of the map and descriptions of the tomb’s location, I traveled to Okinawa. I brought a copy of the photo Dad kept in the basement.

Finding the tomb on Hill 27 was easy. Half the site had been rebuilt as a new crypt; the rest remained a crater overgrown with jungle vegetation. I visited nearly every evening for two weeks, wondering about the lost man.

None of the guys I talked with blamed my dad. So why was he haunted? I’ll never know for certain, but I suspect that as squad leader, Dad had ordered Mulligan to throw the grenade. Or that in my father’s frantic effort to stop the bleeding, Mulligan’s dog tags had fallen off. Or both. Without identifying tags, Mulligan was likely buried as an “unknown” at the Punchbowl national cemetery in Hawaii.

I would never be able to put a name on Mulligan’s grave. But while I was on Okinawa, I had another idea. During my visit, I’d spent time with a Japanese veteran, Yoshikuni Yamada, whom I had witnessed burning incense, giving offerings, and praying for a friend who had died in the battle. I could at least replicate Okinawan custom. I brought incense, a can of tea, a cup, flowers, and a mandarin orange with me on the last evening I went to the tomb.

When I showed up, a man was there, placing flowers.

“Konichiwa,” I said. Hello.

“Konichiwa,” said the man, who told me in broken English that his name was Junichi Yamaguchi.

His family had rebuilt the tomb immediately after the war, he said. He was tending the home of his ancestors. I told him why I had come.

“War long time ago,” he said.

“Yes,” I said.

“Japan—America—now OK.”

“Yes, now OK,” I said.

“No more war,” he said.

“No more war,” I said.

High in a tree towering over the adjacent blown-out tomb site, a frog or bird was crying an eerie wail.

“You, me,” I said. “We get along OK.”

His head bobbed enthusiastically.

I showed him my incense.

Yamaguchi nodded solemnly. “I pray with you.”

I set out the photo of my father and Mulligan, placing the tea and flowers as I’d watched Yamada do. Yamaguchi gently took the incense sticks and lit them. We kneeled.

“Herman Walter Mulligan, you died here May 30, 1945,” I said. “My father, Steve, was very troubled by what happened. I want you to know that you were not forgotten.”

The frog or bird gave a spooky cry. I went to shake Yamaguchi’s hand. Instead, he threw his arms around me in a strong embrace.

“Thank you,” I said.

“Thank you,” he replied.

Dale Maharidge is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist. His book Bringing Mulligan Home (PublicAffairs) has just been published.

Levi Brown

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