Like every other American born around the time Hitler was invading Poland, I have some very concrete memories of World War II. Rationing. Victory Gardens. Kneading a button of yellow dye into a bagful of grease to create “butter.” Rebecca Tansil, my parents’ good friend, looking perky in the uniform of a high-ranking WAVE officer. My uncle John Hammond, Army Air Force, flying 18 missions over Europe. But my only specific memory of the Marines was howling “From halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli” while my elementary school’s vice principal thumped a tiny upright piano during weekly assemblies. (He made every student of Margaret Brent School #53 learn all the words to all the armed forces’ songs–“shell-shocked,” some whispered.) I even remember how we stumbled, singing the Marine song, when suddenly “in the land and on the sea” morphed into “in air, on land, on sea.”
What a person remembers first and finally about huge global events is probably always made up of details like that, come to think about it. That’s what makes Path of Valor so rich an account. Every page bears the stamp, the fingerprint, of one individual, H. C. Ayres, and how “Ayresie” experienced the war.
Lieutenant General Lawrence F. Snowden, USMC (retired), survivor of the battles of Roi-Namur, Saipan, Tinian, and Iwo Jima, writes in his introduction to Paths of Valor: “[it is] well-deserving of its place among the growing collection of books about United States Marines who served in World War II.” What makes its place unique is its individual perspective, with perhaps the most memorable of all the humanizing details being the story of how author George Derryberry (now a practicing attorney now, and an artillery officer with the Tenth Marines, Second marine Division, from 1963 through 1966), came to write the book in the first place.
In September 1962, the author’s good friend, Marine Lance Corporal Delmar Lee Reynolds, was assigned the “tedious work detail” of destroying unserviceable packs, canteens, and other minor detritus. Lee noticed an odd scarring on one of the canteens he was carrying to a truck on its way to a crusher. Etched on the canteen was the following:
SURIBACHI TAKEN I’M
ON IT. KILLED 3 JAPS
TWO JIMA ROUF GO
MOVING ON TO CAVES
IF I DON’T MAKE IT
BACK TELL BETTY
H. C. Ayres
Lee proved unsuccessful in his effort to get various veterans interested in the canteen with its inscription, and he did not follow up on his intention to research the canteen and its owner’s story because of a disabling injury. George Derryberry, however, vowed to get to know H. C. Ayres and the war as he experienced it. Like Lee, the author speculated: “Perhaps H. C. Ayres and returned alive and well… Perhaps he had returned to Betty’s welcoming arms. Perhaps the aging veteran, or Betty, or both of them survived and would be excited… to see this memento from their dramatic past.”
Derryberry’s efforts took him to Montrose, Pennsylvania, where Harris Carpenter Ayres, Jr., was born in September, 1923; there, through extensive interviews of relatives and acquaintances, including young Harris’ girlfriend Harriette, he got to know the young man well enough to call him “Ayresie,” as they had. Readers soon come to share this same sense of friendly intimacy. Derryberry takes us from Ayresie’s volunteering for the Marine Corps though his daunting training period, which, as the author says with characteristic understatement, was “not developed as a product of humanistic philosophy or academic debate.”
The reader, like Ayresie and his mates, is introduced to such then-new items as dungarees and taught some military-camp lingo. (As a longtime English prof fascinated by language history, I was delighted to know that “scuttlebutt” meant “drinking fountain.’) We also get to meet Ayresie’s lifetime best-buddies, Bob Avery, Tom Savery, and “Ski” Rutkowski.
Fast forward: The personal lives of Ayresie and his mates play out against some of the most dramatic backgrounds of all time including the assault on Saipan and Tinian, with the longest and most detailed section of the book devoted, as one would expect, to Iwo Jima. “Backround,” of course, is the wrong word. Writing from his viewpoint as a Marine who steeped himself in the day-to-day history of World War II, Derryberry gives a breathtaking, backbreaking immediacy to the events he has so meticulously researched. Formerly a complete ignoramus regarding all but the surface information concerning the military operations of World War II, I now feel about the Marine battles of that period the way I learned to feel about the Civil War from a high school teacher who was also the school’s lacrosse coach: I seemed I knew the Civil War as if I had learned the battles via a coach’s “chalk talk,” with Xs marking the spots where my “teammates” and I would be standing. Thus when we are told one of several radically different accounts of how Ayresie died—the version in which the death occurred at close hand, by friendly fire—our hearts ache not only for Ayresie but also for the hapless shooter who suffered a mental breakdown as a result. We were right there.
If you are thinking that I should’ve have issued a “spoiler alert” to readers of this review, you’re wrong—Ayresie’s death is listed in the Table of Contents as appearing in a section starting on p. 209. I will not, however, let you know what Derryberry tells us about the mysterious Betty—except to say that she was not his girlfriend.
I reiterate what Lt. General Snowden said in his introduction: This book is an exceptional addition to the body of World War II literature. If you are or have been a Marine—in any branch of the service, in fact, and at any point in US history—you will relish Path of Valor: A Marine’s Story. But you don’t have to be a Marine to learn from this book and enjoy doing so; you’ll learn to feel enormous respect for the passion and the meticulousness of author George Derryberry, and you’ll learn to love the young man who scratched the message on that canteen.
Similar Reads: I am not the intended audience for this book–WWII literature fans are, particular those who have had actual military experience–so really the only books that spring to my mind are novels, such as From Here to Eternity (you can easily see Ayresie as one of the characters, and you learn a lot of those characters’ military backstory from Derryberry’s book).
[Ed. disclosure - Harriss's novel, The White Rail, was recently reviewed on Chamber Four (in fact it's how she found us).]