Charleston, 8 November, 2005
Having only just come back from Italy, I’m off again, this time to the US. Work is building up. I need to keep going with the interviews for Italy and really start to get going on the archives. Sometimes it feels a bit like a chicken and egg scenario: what I unearth in the archives often leads me down new routes and towards different themes I feel I want to explore; this usually means more interviews, and yet because of the age of these people, the interviews, for the most part, have to come first. As it happens, though, I’m going to do a bit of both in the US: two of the people I am going to see live in Washington and that also happens to be where the National Archives are.
But I’m also here for my new book, Twenty-One, a series of independent chapters focussing on one, or at most two, people who took part in the war. The idea is to cover a broad cross section of services and theatres, and that includes having a look at the war in the Far East. I’ve covered Burma as my village doctor when I was a boy took part in the Second Chindit expedition, but I wanted to include a US Marine as well. Iwo Jima is the obvious battle to cover, because of its iconic status in American history (largely because of that famous flag-raising photograph). But in fact, I’m going to write about Okinawa instead, the last great battle of the war and the most violent and brutal that US troops were involved in during the entire war. I’ve spoken to Bill Pierce, an Okinawa veteran, several times on the phone and it’s clear he’s a no-holds barred type of person, willing to tell his story with complete frankness. I’m looking forward to meeting him.
Reached Washington and immediately got on a connecting flight to Charleston, South Carolina. I’ve never been here before but have always wanted to because of its romantic Southern reputation and because of the fascinating role it played in the American Civil War. It was around 8 o’clock in the evening when I got into a cab and immediately I headed out to Bill Pierce’s house. Bill and his wife Marie are very kindly putting me up. I feel a bit strange turning up on doorstep of people I’ve never met before, but they soon put me at ease, getting me a drink and showing me my room and then insisting we go out for dinner. After two hours I feel I’ve known them for ever. They really are the nicest people. Maybe I’ve been lucky, but nearly every American I’ve known has always been unbelievably hospitable and generous to a fault. It was the same when I was travelling across the States as a twenty-three year-old. Nor did we talk too much about the war, which I was worried about: I’d much rather have a one-on-one with Bill the following day with the voice recorder switched on.