Like many soldiers who fought in the Pacific Ocean Theater in World War II, Dale Maharidge’s father Steve Maharidge, who was a US Marine, collected artifacts of his time in battle. In a trunk in the attic, he kept a flag with the names of the men who served in his company, a Japanese passport, a business card of a Chinese brothel, and a picture of a chubby Japanese baby, among other items.
Another souvenir, a photograph of Steve and a tall friend with a goofy smile, posing in a half embrace in a camp on Guadalcanal, was a particular source of fascination for Maharidge growing up. It represented everything he didn’t know about his father’s war experiences. Maharidge’s father only spoke about the other soldier in the photo once: frenzied, wailing, Steve claimed he was accused of killing the man in battle. After Steve died in 2000, Maharidge decided to use his formidable reporting skills—he won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 1990 for And Their Children After Them, a follow-up to James Agee and Walker Evans’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men—to find out what happened to the two men featured in the photo, and their fellow soldiers, during the war. The outcome of his quest is the quiet, masterful book Bringing Mulligan Home: The Other Side of the Good War.
Maharidge used some of the items in his father’s trunk and the Guadalcanal photo as a starting point to track down the Marines who fought in the same company as his dad, the Love Company. Between teaching classes at the Columbia Journalism School, Mahardige traveled countrywide to ultimately interview 29 veterans. Because his father was so reticent about the war, Maharidge assumed that few of them would agree to speak to him. But to his surprise, in what Maharidge calls “deathbed confessions,” many of his father’s fellow soldiers confided to him their war experiences— including what they considered the shameful aspects. Maharidge says that one of his subjects, James Laughridge, who used to rob dead Japanese soldiers of their gold teeth, told him he was glad someone wanted to tell how the war really was. “[The veterans] didn’t want me to write about the Good War—rah-rah—war’s never that way,” Maharidge affirms. “None of the guys called it the Good War. None of the guys used the word hero.”
Even though these veterans didn’t consider themselves heroes, Maharidge does, in a certain respect. He says he felt “beholden” to tell their story the way they wanted it to be told. To this end, he presents the individual stories of 12 Marines as discreet chapters. In each, Maharidge foregrounds the subject’s voice—often relayed in long blocks of quotes. Because he contextualizes and editorializes with such light touch in these chapters, the common threads that emerge among the stories land with a subtle yet decisive sense of authority. One view that many of the veterans shared was an anti-war stance. “You see that a lot of them ask why we are in Iraq and Afghanistan. I never asked that question,” Maharidge recounts. “They brought it up, each one, individually; that was their voices.”
Another, more obscure thread among the stories was the soldiers’ proclivity for collecting trophies during battle, and holding onto them even in old age. I asked Maharidge to speculate about why soldiers like his dad needed to collect physical reminders of the war. “Anecdotal theory: these were kids from the South, and from industrial cities, and they’re suddenly thrust into this quote-unquote exotic environment, and they’re getting shot at,” he explains. “It was like a tangible something for what they’re going through. A weird sword, or an unknown book—it became almost like a currency.” He admits, though, that he doesn’t have an easy answer to my question, and when he asked his subjects the same one, neither did they. My theory: perhaps the souvenirs, which never change, might be useful in dealing with the slipperiness of memories affected by war trauma. “Maybe,” Maharidge says thoughtfully, “the trophies became almost like icons of that trauma.”
Bringing Mulligan Home itself could be viewed as the compendium of a dedicated collector. Embedded in the text are portraits of the book’s characters as young men alongside current ones, and documents like maps, training guides, and sketches of landmarks of battlegrounds. Maharidge says that the aesthetic decision to weave in visuals was spontaneous: “I wasn’t going to include the documents, but then I thought, ‘Why not see the passport I saw when I was 10 years old?’ It’s tactile, documentary.” These images are crucial to Maharidge’s democratic history of the war— a museum in a book jacket of sorts, in which each document stands on its own, witness to an individual experience, and as part of a collective narrative. Maharidge isn’t holding onto the original artifacts, though. He has repatriated the items of Japanese origin, and wants to find an American museum that will accept the other war trophies he discovered in his reporting.
The story that Maharidge was looking to tell originally, about the man standing with his father in Guadalcanal, never quite came to fruition. While the author discovered the soldier’s name, Herman Walter Mulligan, and when and where he was killed in battle, Maharidge never found his remains or any of his surviving family. Maharidge says that he hopes the book will “smoke out” Mulligan’s kin. He still wants to find Mulligan’s remains and put a name on his grave. But the power of the original photograph of Steve and Mulligan has diminished for Maharidge. “I know what’s behind it now. You can never have closure, but you can have resolution. I think I have that; I think I’ve slain some of my dad’s demons.”
Alexia Nader is a freelance writer and book reviewer who lives in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared on the websites of The New Yorker, The Nation, and Smithsonian.