Memorial Day 2020: Remembering the ‘Men of the South Pacific’

By Daniel Lienert

From his Navy destroyer escort, the USS William C. Miller, my grandfather Chester Pyzik saw combat in nearly every major Pacific battle in World War II, from the Gilbert and Marshall Islands to Iwo Jima. Over the ensuing decades, he romanticized his war stories to focus on such details as the high-quality cornbread the ship served him. Only in the last few years of his life did his stories begin to show us glimpses of the horrors he had seen as he fought and survived, horrors which he must have kept to himself after transitioning from duty at sea to duty on the streets of Detroit as a policeman. My grandfather found himself on deck, in his dress uniform, adjacent to the battleship USS Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945 as MacArthur accepted Japan’s surrender. My grandfather was 21, a player just barely off to the side of history’s center stage.

I’ve been reflecting this week on the final words of James Michener’s book Tales of the South Pacific, on which Rodgers, Hammerstein and Logan based the Broadway musical South Pacific:

“They will live a long time, these men of the South Pacific. They had an American quality. They, like their victories, will be remembered as long as our generation lives. After that, like the men of the Confederacy, they will become strangers. Longer and longer shadows will obscure them, until their Guadalcanal sounds distant on the ear, like Shiloh and Valley Forge.”

I find this deeply moving, as opposed to sad, for two reasons. For one thing, as a lover of history, I know that Shiloh and Valley Forge, and Guadalcanal, were sacrificial altars on which our country was built and rebuilt, and the men who fought to save the union at any time in history have my respect and my awe.

On a more personal level: James Michener’s generation was mostly dead by the 1990’s. My grandfather is one of the last World War II vets to go. And yet his laugh, his voice and his love for his family are far from “strangers” to us or “distant on the ear,” but will be fresh in our minds forever. I have to believe that his deep imprint on our hearts and minds despite the ending of an era is a product of that same energy that led him to bootstrap from poverty to patriarchy. The sheer force of his love and personality, and more importantly his will to live and refusal to be denied life’s joys despite immense hardship, have spread far and deep across generations.

(Note: The above text is excerpted from Dan Lienert’s eulogy for Chester Pyzik, an early first responder, on July 3, 2019. Accompanying video and photos were taken during the funeral, where he was honored by the U.S. Navy and the Detroit Police Department for his 25-year service as a Detroit police lieutenant and as a Navy yeoman who fought in the Pacific in World War II.)

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