‘His sense of duty was so strong’
Editor’s Note: Catherine Ott, 60, wrote to Stars and Stripes just before Veterans Day and told us a story that is both unique to children in military families and common to all adults who are children of parents they wanted to know better. By discovering a photo of her father as a 19-year-old Marine on Guadalcanal during World War II, her life came full circle; she was able to see him as he was before her birth and gain a better understanding of the man he came to be.
Ott’s purpose for sending us the story was to pay tribute to her father. Here’s an excerpt from her note: “I’ve always felt a little sad that my father, like most men of his era, never considered himself a hero, and was never really publicly honored for his extensive combat experience. This Marine Corps birthday and Veterans Day, some seventy years after this photo appeared, it seems appropriate and long overdue to do so now. Gunnery Sgt. E. Gordon Bruce, USMC, I am extremely proud of the sacrifices you made for our country and so proud to be your daughter.”
Catherine Ott was in high school in 1968 when her father, Gunnery Sgt. E. Gordon Bruce, told her that he was leaving once again to serve his country, this time in Vietnam. In fact, that he had volunteered to go.
“The Marine Corps has been my career and profession. If my country is at war, it’s my moral obligation to go,” she recalled her father telling her.
“I was angry he put the Marine Corps ahead of us, though I was also impressed. His sense of duty was so strong. I admired it,” Ott said. “But it was really difficult when he was overseas.”
This was not the first time his career as a U.S. Marine had meant separation. Ott lived with her grandparents until the age of three when her father was sent to fight in the Korean War and her mother had to return to work. She went to a new school almost every year because the family couldn’t stay on base when he was stationed overseas. And she lived quite often in a single-parent household because some of his assignments – including tours in mainland Japan and Okinawa – did not allow dependents to travel with him.
When he was home her father was an active and loving participant in her life, but the separations, as well as the strict military code he lived by, meant that she sometimes had to learn about him in bits and pieces, and sometimes from other people.
“My mom used to say that when Dad came home from the war, she learned not to nudge him to wake him up when sleeping because he almost decked her once,” Ott said. “Now we are aware of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), but then it wasn’t known. You just soldiered on.”
Her father had been more mellow and easygoing before heading off to fight in WWII, Ott’s mother told her.
She also learned about her father from her brother, John, who joined the Marines and served in Vietnam. John’s time in the warzone overlapped with that of his father’s.
“I think he told my older brother (about his wartime experiences) more than me. It was just part of the ethic of the time (to speak to sons about such things, not daughters),” she said.
“My brother idolized Dad, and wanted to prove he could join the Marines and do it, too,” said Ott. “He’s said he always wanted to be him.”
Her father joined the Marines when he was 19, shortly after the start of World War II. He had to gain weight to meet USMC requirements because he was not heavy enough.
“(My father) joined up partly because he was very poor. He never had three square meals a day before (enlisting in) the Marine Corps,” she said.
Several months later he was on Guadalcanal. “Not only was the battle so fierce, but the physical conditions were so terrible. One-third (of the troops) got malaria,” Ott said. Her father was one of them, and was sent after the battle to New Zealand to recuperate.
He recovered just in time to be sent to Tarawa, in the Gilbert Islands, where he took part in a bloody 76-hour battle in which 6,000 U.S. and Japanese were killed, including 1,009 Marines.
“I was in a writing class once and had an assignment to speak to someone involved in an historical event. I chose Tarawa. I asked my Dad about it, and it was like pulling teeth. ‘There wasn’t enough water or food,’ he said. He got teary a couple of times. It brought up such emotion, and he thought it was not manly to cry,” his daughter recalled.
“(One time) he was sent out with a group of 30-40 Marines to secure an airfield. Only two came back. He had classic survivor’s guilt,” said Ott.
Her father left the Marines around 1950, but was called back to duty for the Korea War. After serving on hot and steamy tropical islands during the WW II, he saw action in the freezing sub-zero cold of the Chosin Reservoir as part of a Marine force that called itself “the Chosin Few.”
“After being at the Chosin Reservoir, he never liked being cold again. And he never ate lamb again because the mutton he had to eat there was so cold and greasy,” she said. “How cold it was and how bad the food was even superceded the fighting.”
“He used to laugh at the idea (Korea) was not a war, but a police action. But he was a true patriot. Whatever the commander-in-chief said to do, he did,” Ott recalled.
Vietnam apparently left him angry at the Marines of that time. Certain things that never would have occurred during World War II, such as fragging, the intentional killing of an officer by his men because they felt he endangered their lives unnecessarily, happened in Vietnam.
“(He thought) the Marines were not the same anymore when he saw men turning on their own. It affected him very negatively,” Ott said.
Bruce left the Corps after his tour ended. He worked for the Secret Service for a while and ran a Shell Station in California, before dying at 69.
Even though her father’s Marine duties often kept them apart, Ott learned to appreciate him.
“He grew up poor and had a hard time growing up. Still, he could be a functioning, loving father whose three kids grew up loving him,” she said.
“To some degree his experiences affected his personality. But he was a lot of fun, and very loving, even though strict,” she said. “His strictness was because he really cared about us, and it sometimes kept me out of trouble, too.”
People don’t have the option of telling a parent something or asking them something after they die. But if she could, Ott said she would tell him, “I understand the sacrifice you made, and I honor it.”
And she would ask him if he had the chance to relive his life, whether he would do things the same way.
“I think I know the answer to that,” she said.