A quiet Memorial Day in West Tisbury
On Monday the West Tisbury veterans' memorial, the large boulder at the intersection of State and Edgartown roads, will be showered with pink and white petals from the flowering crabapple that spreads overhead. The brass plaque faces away from most of the traffic, but anyway its letters are dimmed by the patina of time and hard to read. The somber evergreens that flank the stone almost hide it from view, and only the small American flags on either side suggest to a stranger that it is anything more than a big rock left by the last glacier to visit West Tisbury.
Erected by the Grange in 1949, the memorial honors the men and women of West Tisbury who served in the two world wars. The World War I list contains 14 names; the World War II list, 21. It is not quite yet a true memorial, as four of the town's veterans of World War II are still alive.
John Mayhew left college in the middle of his third year and flew FYF Wildcat fighter planes for the Navy. His first assignment was flying to attack Bougainville from a landing strip on Guadalcanal, a narrow, short runway made of matting laid down on the coral. Next, after a period as a flight instructor, Mr. Mayhew was assigned to a carrier group flying air support for the invasion of Iwo Jima in somewhat lighter versions of the Wildcat called the FM2 (with a smaller engine and more lightly armed), made by the automaker Kaiser Motors and nicknamed "Kaiser's coffins" by the pilots.
In West Tisbury, a memorial for every day, not only Memorial Day. Photo by Ralph Stewart
During this period, in addition to surviving enemy action Mr. Mayhew survived a huge typhoon. The storm, with 90-foot waves and winds of 200 miles per hour, capsized and sank three destroyers in the carrier group. There were almost no survivors. Lacking enough power to make headway against the huge swells, Mr. Mayhew's captain shut down and let the small carrier wallow in the troughs. With characteristic Vineyard understatement, Mr. Mayhew recalled, "We were some lucky."
Returning to civilian life after another assignment training fighter pilots, Mr. Mayhew was eventually persuaded to join the Naval Reserve and completed 20 years of military service before retiring for good as a full Commander.
In 2004 on the anniversary of D-Day, Nelson Bryant wrote a memoir for The Times about his war experiences, which included parachuting into Normandy as a part of the Allied invasion. His recollection of the jump begins:
"When at about 2:30 am on D-Day I lunged out the door of a jouncing C-47 that was flying low over the Normandy countryside, I recall that - even before my chute snapped open and yanked me upright - lazy arcs of tracer bullets were curving up at me, then hurtling past. And before I reached the ground I heard for the first time the tearing snarl of sound made by fully-automatic German machine pistols...."
A few hours later, Mr. Bryant was shot through the lung and reported killed in action. But he was rescued and evacuated to a hospital in England. Before he was fully recovered, he hitchhiked back to his unit in time to make another jump, eventually joining in the Battle of the Bulge a few months later.
A different kind of story
Sitting in his living room only a hundred yards of so from the West Tisbury veterans' memorial, Clifton Athearn told a different kind of story. Perfectly willing to serve, he waited to be drafted, because, as he said, "I wanted whatever happened to me to be someone else's idea." He was drafted into the army in December of 1942 and was sent to be trained as a medical technician at a hospital on an Air Force base in Idaho. After nearly two years, he was transferred to Camp Maxey in Texas, where he was retrained to be an infantryman, and then sent to Germany. "I was willing to do whatever they wanted me to do," he said. Arriving in March of 1945, he saw duty for a year before being mustered out in 1946.
Mr. Athearn commented to The Times that he wishes the veterans' memorial could be moved and suggested that when the town hall is refurbished, the boulder might be moved up there "where somebody might see it."
Mr. Athearn still has his army dress uniform - and it still fits.
One other name on the memorial is that of a living person, Stephen Murphy, Army Air Force, who lives off-Island and was unavailable for an interview.
No Memorial Day ceremonies are planned in West Tisbury next Monday. Brian Athearn and his small sons will place new flags on veterans' graves in the town cemeteries, but no parade will pass by the little West Tisbury memorial. No wreath will be laid at it. However, if you would like to pay your respects to American men and women who served their country in the two world wars, you'd do well to stop between the two small flags at the West Tisbury veterans' memorial, read the names, and stand under the shower of apple blossoms.