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Asia Japan New Guinea The Admiralty Islands The Philippines

The Sometimes Perilous, Sometimes Hilarious WWII Adventures of my Grandfather

It’s with a heavy heart that I write this, as my grandfather died yesterday and this weekend my family will say goodbye at a memorial service and burial. He died of pneumonia at UNC Hospital today at the age of 90. Despite our sadness, I can’t think of a better example of a person who deserves to have their life celebrated. He accomplished so much, and yet I never think of him in terms of his accomplishments, only in terms of his flawless sense of humor, cheerful attitude, and killer charisma. Well into his late 80s, he still spoke and joked with such a childish charm. Even when talking about the war, he found a way to focus on the positive and the funny instead of the violence and sadness.

My grandfather joined the war when he was 17. All I did at 17 was apply for college and drive my little blue Mazda around Hillsborough while gossiping with Rachel and Kelly about boys. But there he went, off to join the American troops as a radio operator in the First Cavalry Division, island hopping in the Pacific, always at a close proximity to the legendary General MacArthur.

I grew up hearing these stories from time to time. He’d share a short one over lunch one day, another while driving in the car the next. After he was hospitalized in 2014, I decided to sit down with him for a few hours and record his tales so my family could remember not only his stories, but the charismatic way in which he told them.

I’ve added them below, edited into chapters ranging from 3 minutes to 16 minutes in length. It’s neither my best video footage, audio, or editing, but I believe he makes up in content what I lack in technical and artistic skills:

Chapter One: My grandfather convinces his father to let him join the US in their WWII involvement. He is selected as a radio operator for the First Cavalry Division and trains at Fort Riley, Kansas. Some highlights include him learning how to clean his horse, and shipping out from California on a ship reported sunk.

Chapter Two: My grandfather starts in New Guinea, before moving to the Admiralty Islands, and then invading the Island of Leyte. Some of my favorite highlights include him stealing a gun and riding a sea turtle.

Chapter Three: My grandfather faints on Leyte and wakes up in Manila

Chapter Four: My grandfather takes part in the occupation in Japan. He talks about practicing English with the locals and his uncomfortable patrols of the island.

Other: Additionally, throughout our conversations, my grandfather spoke some about horses in various battles. As these thoughts came to him randomly and out of chronologically order, I added them together as a bit of an afterthought.

I also took the liberty of asking him about his father, a WWI veteran. While I never met my great-grandfather, and though the video is quite short, I thought I could gather some new information on my family history.

Asia India

Indian Healthcare

Dealing with a broken bone anywhere, I’m guessing, isn’t very fun for anyone who isn’t a masochist. Mostly, I’m considering the broken bone in India a general blessing as opposed to the Untied States. To date, I’ve only spent about $130 total on: 3 doctors visits, 6 X-rays, pain killers/other medication, a sling, a cast, and the removal of said cast. Not bad at all in my opinion.

Arm Update:

Today I was less than thrilled with my hospital experience. I don’t have any complaints about the actual doctor. He’s been fine (though very persistent that just putting a cast on me and not performing surgery was a medically sound practice and insisting all American doctors would have performed surgery). I like the doctor. I was really excited to get my cast off today.

UNTIL I saw the cast removal device. It was literally just a saw. And the person in charge of sawing it was not my doctor. I had no idea what his credentials were. He definitely couldn’t speak English. So, first he picks up the scary saw, plugs it in the wall, revs up the drill, and immediately walks too far from the wall and the plug rips out. This does not inspire much confidence.

It’s then I realize the device is literally held together with duct tape.

Indian Hospital
Not pictured: the duct tape between the butt of the saw and the cord

Indian Hospital

He tries plugging it back in with no luck. The other two sockets don’t work either. It takes three men to find another saw and plug it in. They start sawing and I’m terrified my arm is going to get chopped off. He is pushing down really hard on the cast until the saw goes through and starts cutting into my skin and I jerk away. Not speaking English, the guy very lightly touches his finger to the blade to show me it won’t cut me. He then proceeds to jab the blade through the cast and deep into my skin some more. At this point I’m physically pushing the second man (whose job was to keep my arm still) away.

A woman comes over and tells me it won’t cut me, its just vibrating. I tell her its hurting a lot and they all just proceed to let the man saw some more. Eventually he just cuts it off with scissors and I can see the mark on my skin and a bit of blood.

Indian Hospital
Doesn’t look so bad here since I put on the gauze to prevent it from infection

The cut wasn’t that deep, a bit like a cat scratch, but I expect more from a hospital. After my X-Rays I went back to the doctor who was absolutely horrified to see the cuts. I didn’t bring it up at all. He just took one look  and told me “that’s not supposed to happen,” and said he should have cut it off himself. He apologized a number of times. They aren’t so deep but it means I can’t wear the temporary cast for support until the cuts heal.

I didn’t realize how much more my wrist would hurt now that the cast is gone. I still can’t work out so I’ve gained like 5-10 pounds this month and feel absolutely giant. Luckily I have a maid do my dishes 3x a week for 100 rupees ($1.50) but I still feel bad making her do them. Then Rohit cooks for me. So really, besides the being fat thing, its not the worst existence. I’m going to try to do an hour to two hours of simple walking everyday until I can go back to the gym.

Other Interesting Differences in the Hospital:

  1. In India, the problem with sex selective abortion led to a disproportionate number of males to females, especially in the northern regions. In Haryana, where I worked last year, those numbers were visible in the data we had (though this data was less than ideal). Something like 92 girls to every 100 boys. In 1994, India banned sex-determination during pregnancy. Parents find out the “old-fashioned way” whether or not their baby is male or female. Multiple signs have been hung around the hospital explaining this. Indian Hospital
  2. During one of my hospital visits, two Buddhist monks were waiting with me for the doctor.
  3. When I went into the little room to get my X-Rays some guy was sitting in the chair eating his lunch by the machine. Also, out of 3 incidents of X-Rays, they only had me wear protective gear on one batch.
  4. It’s just too cheap. I paid 500 rupees ($7.60) per visit and 300 rupees for 2 X-rays ($4.55) and that’s at a private hospital. While I didn’t appreciate the arm slicing, it was worth saving hundreds of dollars.

This, of course, is my private hospital experience. Government hospitals are even cheaper and, according to the people I’ve talked to here, quite good. The problem is overcrowding. People will wait in line for hours to be seen. According to the few people in India I’ve discussed this with, the ideal is to know someone at a government hospital who can get you in and get you a bed. Otherwise you have to pay more or wait. I can’t even imagine how healthcare is being affected by demonetization and what that means for people without bank accounts.





“Pre-conception and Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act”

North America

When You Don’t Drive in the US for 14 Months

I think I’m bad luck.

On Monday evening, 24 hours after landing in NC from my short stint in Chicago, my friend, Kelly, asked if I wanted to meet for dinner in Durham. Kelly is my friend from high school and one of the only friends I had come visit me in India. We’ve been skyping and messaging about how excited we are to see each other.

Long distance
Kelly and I at the Taj Mahal in March

Kelly is a fantastic human being. One of those people that just seem to be in amazing mental health and one of those people you just know is always going to be there for you. Great person. Great Friend. Everyone should be friends with Kelly.

Durham, however, I feel less passionately about. It’s 30 minutes away from my parent’s house and I can’t say I was thrilled at the prospect of driving there. Here’s why:

  • My jet lag begins around 4pm. I’m awake enough to have a conversation with someone but driving takes much better reaction time than speaking.
  • I haven’t driven in 14 months and I was worried I forgot how
  • More importantly, when I’m in the car with my mom I tense up every 5 minutes because I think she is driving on the wrong side of the road or turning into traffic. India was a British colony and, unlike the US, didn’t protest British rule and celebrate their freedom by driving on the other side of the road.
  • It would be rush hour, meaning the traffic would be “crazy” by American standards (and totally fine for Indian standards).
  • I’m already not that familiar with Durham

I felt a bit like a drama queen not wanting to drive but I called Kelly and explained and she was very understanding and we decided to just go out in downtown Hillsborough (which is surprisingly “happening” now compared to when I grew up here).

Downtown Hillsborough
Downtown Hillsborough on a Wednesday night. Not bad!

But I need to start driving again. This isn’t India. I can’t afford to take 30-minute Uber rides just to go out to lunch anymore. Or to the gym. So yesterday Kelly called to see if I wanted to go to lunch with her at Bojangles.


Hillsborough Traditions
For my friends based outside the South, Bojangles is a southern food/cajun fast food restaurant. A slight obsession in Hillsborough. A favorite for any high school or church event.

Oh, Bojangles! I can manage that! That’s only 5 minutes down the road, it’s a Wednesday at noon so I won’t be tired and the traffic won’t be bad, and I know the area so well.

And so I set off on my next great adventure: driving through Hillsborough! The itty bitty Southern town with a maximum speed of 35 miles/hour and lots of traffic lights. This is a town that the elderly or poor of sight could easily navigate. It’s the best town to get your learner’s permit in. Naturally I imagined my own funeral.

But then getting behind the wheel felt totally natural. And I didn’t drive on the wrong side of the road at all! I did keep talking to myself and reminding myself which way to turn the car (there are literally two turns between my house and Bojangles). And I did keep eyeing pedestrians suspiciously. But then I pulled into the parking lot, underneath the glow of the bright yellow Bojangles sign to my destination. Hurrah! I’ve made it! A feat of unimaginable magnitude! A feat the size of moving to India by myself! A feat larger than climbing to Everest Base Camp! Wow! Everyone on my blog will be so impressed that I drove a motor vehicle 3 miles. Release the balloons! We are the Champions!

Kelly pretended to be proud of me for driving down the road. (See, I told you she’s a great friend). And then we had lunch, caught up, had some good conversations, plotted Rachel’s bachelorette weekend at the beach, etc…

And then Kelly had to return to work since she’s a real adult with a job. And I began my drive home. I took the back roads to avoid some of the “traffic” in town but when I got to my little street I remembered that a construction crew had captured it for the afternoon and was pillaging the pavement, meaning I couldn’t drive through to the other side. No issue. I’m cool. I know how to drive. So I drove around the block, back onto the main road, and made a left hand turn onto my street.

And then, 30 seconds from the house, as I was turning onto the street, a big white SUV turned and I heard a really loud THUD.

I just stopped for a second and prayed I had simply scraped the car’s 18-year-old under carriage on the bump at the beginning of the street. But then I looked back and the big white SUV that I had seen turning had stopped. So I pulled off.  Actually, after that, the SUV disappeared and at first I thought the woman ran away. But another car pulled up and a nice lady stopped to see if I was okay and told me the woman was just going around the block and coming back. She asked if I wanted her to wait with me. I told her my mom lived around the corner so not to worry. And then I called my mother, my poor, poor mother, who was so excited for me to come home, back to the safety of Hillsborough, off the dangerous mountains, out of my apartment that catches fire occasionally, away from scary Indian men….Yes, I had to call my poor mother on her BIRTHDAY and tell her, “Yeah….I got in a car accident….”

The accident wasn’t my fault actually. So that’s a plus! But the bumper (as you can see) was lying on the street. I also panicked for a second that I wasn’t on my parent’s car insurance plan (I’m covered, the car’s covered, everything is fine). When the white SUV pulled up I realized that the woman was actually my mom’s neighbor. Once she realized who I was she rushed over and gave me a hug and kept apologizing. She hit me going at about 1 mile/hr so we were all far from hurt. Actually, her car is so big, only her tire hit my car. And our car is so old the bumper just popped right off.

When my mom came out the neighbor was apologizing so much my mom went to hug and console her first. We did the whole “lets exchange insurance information thing” and then my mom walked behind the car holding the bumper on while I rolled it into our driveway. We are pretty sure, considering the car is 18, that this will total it. My mom is thrilled. She says we have too many old cars clogging the driveway and need to get rid of them. My Dad is threatening to buy it back, as he does. My dad and I suspect my mom actually paid my neighbor to wreck the car so she didn’t have to see it anymore.


Happy Birthday Mom! What a nice welcome back to the United States!


Today I am driving to Winston-Salem to see Sarah, my college roommate, another wonderful human being. Let’s all say a little prayer I make it without another incident!

Orange High School Shooting
North America USA

When The Man With the Gun Started Shooting at Me (Or “Happy To Be Alive Day”)

Happy to be Alive Day

My eldest cousin is 19 years my senior. I have a feeling I’m “walking in his footsteps” so-to-speak. He spent two decades living in New York City in the film industry, now he owns a Drive-in theatre in the Catskills, dabbles in mixology, and even hosts his very own podcast, “Cinema with a Twist.” Considering the atypical career goals I’ve been harboring for awhile now, leading me to experiment with a year of self-employment, I’m happy there is someone else in my family going about life the way they feel works best for them, even if that doesn’t mean a steady 9-to-5, a pension, and a suburban home.

Near Death Experience
Sometimes you will see me wearing this green shirt to support the Drive-In

If you are thinking my cousin tried to shoot me at some point, he didn’t. This is not where the story is going. Thank God. Actually, years ago, the studio in which he was working in NYC was robbed at gunpoint. Since then, he celebrates a holiday on the anniversary of this incident, aptly dubbed, “Happy to be Alive Day.”

Today, I’d like to borrow this tradition for myself.

The Shooting

Exactly ten years ago today, on August 30th, 2006, I was sitting outside Orange High School’s cafeteria on the lower patio for lunch. My friends and I always sat at the same picnic table everyday near the railing, about 30-40 feet from the student parking lot (or something like that, I’m not exactly spatially inclined). On this particular day, I remember hearing a popping noise and looked in the direction of the sound. On the edge of the parking lot I saw a cloud of smoke. Senior prank, I thought. But then, from the smoke, a figure emerged with a long coat and a gun.

I didn’t see anything else. I didn’t hear any gun shots. I didn’t even think. All I know is that I clamored out of that picnic table bench and took off running up the stairs. I don’t remember any of the other people running, just that they were definitely also running. I didn’t check to see if my friends were following me, just that they weren’t ahead of me. I ran from the upper patio to the doors where two things happened:

  • Some of the people who had run from outside to the inside of the school stopped as soon as they entered the hall. How they simply stopped in the hall I have no idea. I believe teachers told them to “sit down” (from stories I heard later). If the gunman had entered the school, those kids would have been gunned down immediately.
  • A girl, who I imagine was inside this entire time and trying to discern why the hell dozens of students were running hysterically into the building, decided to peak out the door as I ran inside. As in, she was blocking the door frame while I was literally running for my life. If I ever try to tell someone that in times of panic we humans are compassionate, I am lying. I pushed the girl out of my way. I have no idea if she fell down (but I don’t think she did) and I never looked back. Ten years later, I am finally extended a half-hearted apology: “Sorry, unnamed girl.” (But I’d do it again in a heartbeat).
Orange High School
This is the patio area where we ate lunch

So I ran in the hall connecting the patio to the cafeteria but I didn’t stop there (like many others). I kept running. I turned the corner of the hall and took off to the end and ran in a random classroom. As in, there was no one in the hallway. Just me. And I ran in an active science classroom without saying anything, ran directly past the teacher and the shocked students, and into the large storage closet. I ran to the very back, and sat down.

People must have been following me because within a fraction of a second, a whole heard of people were also sitting in the closet with me. I remember deciding in my head that if the shooter came into the closet and began shooting that it would be very chaotic and since I was small and in the very back maybe I could pull their dead bodies over mine and the shooter would think I was dead too. (Yes. I actually had this thought. Call it dark; I call it thrifty.)

I also prayed for the first time in maybe a year or two. It was also the last time I prayed. I prayed that, if there is a God, and he let’s me survive, I would go to church that Sunday and I would consider believing in God again. I know they tell Christians in church that “you can’t bargain with God,” but I didn’t have much to lose. So I did. And I did survive. Obviously. And I did go to church that Sunday. And, no, I don’t believe in God again. Not the one you learn in church anyway. Maybe I should, but it’s hard to forced yourself into these things. But I’m eternally thankful to…..well, I’m not sure. The universe? Chance? The deputy that stopped him? My survival instincts?

We waited inside the storage closet for a very long time. Some of the girls cried. I only cry for useless things like when there is mold in my refrigerator or when my boyfriend leaves for the weekend without telling me. For some reason I don’t cry over serious things like when someone I know dies or when a man with a gun starts shooting at me. Maybe I was in too much shock. But at some point, after some period of time that is now lost to my murky memory, we realized that no one was coming to shoot us. And then we started chatting and calling our parents. We took turns borrowing the cell phones of people who had theirs. Mine was somewhere with the gunmen outside on the picnic table. Or confiscated by the police as evidence. Who knows.

I’ll never, ever forget the conversation with my mom that followed. My mom picked up and I explained the situation. Ten years later I don’t remember the exact words but I believe it went something like this:

“Hi, Mom, this is Gwen.”
“Oh whose number are you calling on?”
“____Insert name of person I forgot about____. There is a guy shooting at the school. I’m okay, I’m hiding in a storage closet.”

After about 5 minutes we all started getting phone calls from our parents again. They, being the little researchers all parents seem to become, gathered as much information as possible on the subject and reached out to us to quell our little worried minds. The first phone call was to a girl. Maybe I knew her at the time. Maybe not. I definitely don’t know her now.

“It’s okay!” She announced. “My mom just called. She said that she called the police to tell them what happened.” A minute later a boy who I actually was friends with also announced that his mother had called the police. In quick succession, something like 5-6 people proudly publicized to the group, still sitting cross-legged in the closet, that their mothers had called the police. The police were not giving any information at this time but officers had been dispatched.

Finally my turn came. The boy who had lent me his cellphone got a call from my mom and he handed me the phone.

“Hi? Gwen?”
“Yes, hi.”
“Ok….I called the news….”

Hundreds of parents calling the police and mine calls the news?! My mom defends this decision to this day, and she should, she was the only parent who called who was able to provide any new information. But I still can’t stress enough how hilarious this was to me. I narrowly escaped death and moments later I was back to laughing. I love my mom.

Seriously though, she did get better information. The news confirmed that the police had been dispatched, the shooter had been taken into custody, no one at the school died (though a few suffered minor injuries), and the police were still investigating a second shooter (there wasn’t one). And that was that. They took him into custody. We spent the majority of the day in lock-down and writing witness reports to the police. And then they let us go. We weren’t allowed to take any of our things that we left outside.

Orange High School Shooting
The shooter at his trial

My friend, Cory, drove me home. On the way he made a sharp turn around the bend of a road and I joked, “We survived a school shooting and Cory kills me on my way home!” He didn’t find it funny. Too soon? I have a habit of finding my own jokes particularly more entertaining than anyone else does.

Orange High School
Orange High School

Residual Effects

Some people said that since no one died, it wasn’t a big deal. But in reality, the shooting actually did mess me up more than I realized at 16. Some of it seems pretty typical. For a few weeks I kept seeing people with guns everywhere. I still wake up sweating thinking that I am running away from shooters (though in the last ten years they have become more and more infrequent). Recently I considered running the Bombay half marathon and hesitated thinking maybe there would be some attack. Large, crowded spaces still make me a bit nervous. And when I eat at a restaurant, my anxiety goes through the roof if I have to sit with my back to the door.

That being said, I don’t think the shooting has made me more afraid of life or people besides these random quirks. I’ve actually gone off in the opposite direction. I’ve become very accepting of the fact that I am going to die, which has been good and bad. Bad because, well, becoming obsessed with your own mortality can make it a bit difficult to get out of bed some mornings. When you don’t believe in an afterlife (I so wish that I believed in an afterlife), it’s hard to deal with the fact that I simply live and die and in the end, I don’t think it matters that much when or how. And even when I don’t feel emotional about it, turning a fun night of drinking into a discussion of how strange it is that only humans are self-aware of their own death doesn’t generally lighten the mood. I’ve noticed I’m very good at bringing people down at parties….

But I actually owe a lot to that day. I’ve done a lot of really amazing (perhaps risky) things in the last ten years that I don’t know if I would have done otherwise. Feeling like life is all you have really inspires me to live it well: to travel, to meet people, to understand, to do exactly what I want and feel passionate about. I have housed strangers and they have turned into friends. I’ve been to over 50 countries because I’m not sure I will live until 70 or 80 or 90. So why not now? Ultimately what one person defines as success is how they define success, I can agree or disagree. It doesn’t matter if they think I am living my life “successfully” or “stupidly.” That doesn’t mean I’m afraid to work hard or to create difficult goals for myself. It just means I’m not going to pursue something I don’t love because I may never have the time later to do something I care about.

My sister once told me, after a solo trip through the Middle East (including Southern Lebanon and the West Bank during the last war), that my mom once mentioned that maybe my “risky” behavior is partially due to the shooting. I’m not totally sure, but I agree to an extent. Compared to the majority of people I have met, I do seem to be less cautious than them. How much of this is related to the shooting? I have no idea. How much is this related to traveling solo my year out of college? Potentially a lot. It’s hard to judge.

I do sometimes think, “If I die right now, am I okay with the things I have done so far?” And I’d say, 95%, yes. Not 100% because now I really want to write a novel before I die. So that’s what I am doing. And when I finish that, I’ll have some other goal. But who knows? It’s India in the monsoon. Maybe I’ll get dengue and that will be that.

My mom wasn’t thrilled about me moving to India. She, like any sane parent, was worried about my safety. Fair enough. But I still rather have died in India than have lived longer while being bored in Chicago. And after the shooting, why am I guaranteed more life staying in America? I didn’t almost die in the Middle East. I didn’t almost die in India. I didn’t almost die couch surfing in Ukraine. I almost died in high school in a small, safe town in North Carolina.


Living and Dying

When I was 15 years old, 9 months before the shooting, my parents and I visited the Eiffel Tower in Paris. For whatever reason, I was afraid to go to the top. What if there is some sort of terrorist attack and I am stuck up there and die? My dad told me that, yes, it is a possibility. We can’t avoid these things. But, ultimately, we can’t stop living just because some crazy guy on a suicide mission, or an emotionally disturbed man with a gun, or the numerous other people who make bad decisions based on mental health problems, anger, and indoctrination, decide to cause a panic. We can’t stop living because we are afraid of dying. I know that sounds cliche, but it’s honestly the best advice he has given me.

And I’ve taken this advice very seriously. I definitely don’t want to die and some days it absolutely terrifies me that I will. I feel guilty for watching television or not waking up at 6am to go to the gym and I feel absolutely overwhelmed that I need to do everything because I don’t have very long. I need to learn the guitar, and speak 7 languages, and how have I not visited North Korea yet? And Brazil? And the moon? Shit, I need to join NASA and learn to fly a helicopter, and become a professional chef, and pet a kangaroo.

But then other days I feel completely fine with it. Some days I think about the last ten years smugly, like I crashed a party I wasn’t invited to, and so I might as well mingle with every single person, eat all the food, drink all the alcohol, and just enjoy this free ride I was given. I won the lottery, I got TEN extra years that maybe I shouldn’t have gotten. Statistically, I shouldn’t have even been born. So let’s go!

Memes of girls standing on mountains with inspirational quotes about traveling and living each day to the fullest don’t appeal to me. Yes, I am aware that my main photo for this site is me standing on a mountain. But its me. It’s something I actually did. And I was shit scared on top of that mountain. And the other day on the train the cops were investigating a mysterious package behind my chair and I got nervous about that too. And, yes, I felt scared that time in Palestine when I went to a protest and couldn’t see anything because of clouds of teargas and canisters and rubber bullets rocketing through the air. The first time I went scuba diving I was 99% sure that I would die. And don’t even get me started on trying to cross the street in Delhi….

The point is, despite being scared, I still do this stuff because I rather die climbing Everest than living an extra ten years and dying of cancer after spending my life behind a desk in a corporation that doesn’t even know I exist. Not everyone wants to climb a mountain, fine. Some people have “normal” jobs and are happy. Great! Go for it! But the point of “happy to be alive day” is just to appreciate that you’ve made it to wherever you are in life now, and to remind yourself of the things and people that are important to you, and to do whatever it is that you want, even if it is shit-scary and possibly stupid to someone else oven if it is dull and boring to one person but you are super happy. Just do you.

Other Happy Things

And now, two somewhat unrelated videos, and yet ones I still watch on repeat when I feel like I’m not making good life decisions. I don’t have very good advice to give, so maybe you should listen to these people instead:


More on the Shooting

*UPDATE 2017: Recently a friend in Buenos Aires asked me about my feelings for the shooter. I harbor no resentment. My friend seemed to think this wasn’t normal. I should hate him. But I don’t. I’m not angry in the least bit. I’m thankful. I’m thankful no one died and I’m thankful for the way this incident has made me appreciate life. Plus, I honestly believe his mental health was suffering drastically and he mad a series of very bad decisions based on this state. Having delved deeply into depression after the shooting, I don’t feel like I can judge anyone when they are in such a state.

You can read about his conviction and trial from CNN here.

(Feature Photo )