I received a letter last week from William A. Sutton, who at age 96 is almost without doubt the most diligent chronicler of the role of Dunedin in World War II. In light of the recent controversy over the four U.S. Marines who appeared in a video urinating on the corpses of dead Taliban, Sutton wanted to share a brief interview published on the front page of the Dunedin Times on Sept. 24, 1943.
"Most of the impact of the combat experience of Dunedin men on the cutting edge of the war, in immediate contact with the enemy, was vague and brief," Sutton explained by way of a preamble. "An interview with Cpl. Vernon L. Youngblood, whose sister and brother-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. H.R. Barrington lived (in Dunedin), provided a fuller, gruesome example of combat."
In the interview, Cpl. Youngblood (the paper didn't make clear whether he was in the Marines or the Army) told the story of "the grinning skull, a grim and ghastly souvenir" of the war in the Pacific.
"It was a hot, sticky night in the Guadalcanal jungle, said the corporal. We had been attending a motion picture show in a clearing surrounded by almost impenetrable thickets. The screen was a sheet hung between two trees . . .
"Stumbling along the rough trail back to camp, we heard a noise from the ditch beside us. We didn't wait to see if it was a wild boar or a Jap. We just fired.
"Sure enough it was a Jap. It was just about the time the Japrats had been shooting our airmen as they floated to earth in their parachutes after bailing out of their disabled planes, and we were furiously angry. We hauled the body out, and one of the boys whose buddy had been killed yelled, 'I'm going to take that rat's head back to the states as a souvenir.'
"He hacked the head off, boiled the flesh in a pail, stuck the skull on top of a pole, put the sniper's shoes at the foot of the pole, hung a Jap flag (in) back of it all, and then had his picture taken in front of it. See, here's a print of it."
If nothing else, the unabashed telling of the story proves that the nature of war may not have changed as much as the public's distaste for it.
Bill Duryea, Times staff writer