When Anderson Giles decided to see what he could learn about the island in the Pacific where his father served during World War II, he had no idea his search would evolve into a second career.
Professor of art at the University of Maine at Presque Isle, Giles was 4 years old when his father died in the Korean War, having survived World War II. His brother was born on the same day their father was killed in conflict in 1953.
Giles’s quest to get to know H. A. Giles Jr. began in the 1980s with a trip to the island of Tinian in the Northern Mariana Islands, about three-quarters of the way from Hawaii to the Philippines. Giles Jr. was a member of the 4th Marine Division that stormed Saipan, Tinian and Iwo Jima in 1944 and 1945. Tinian became the launching point for the B-29 bombers Enola Gay and Bockscar that dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, ending World War II.
Giles grew up hearing his uncle, Arthur Nunn, tell about his work as one of the Seabees assigned to construct the runways and bomb loading pits that would make Tinian the largest and busiest airport in the world at the time.
“I went back to see the island where my father fought,” Giles said recently. “I went to fill this big black hole in my life — to know my dad.”
What began as a personal mission has become a passion resulting in hundreds of interviews, thousands of photographs, two documentary films, commissioned artwork and dozens of trips to the Pacific Islands, many with World War II veterans who served there. What began as a search for stories about his father’s life became an enormous collection of firsthand accounts from his father’s peers describing the last days of World War II.
“In a way they are all my fathers — I have 300 fathers,” Giles said. “It is very gratifying to be involved in something that burned in your belly — that you just had to do.” Giles has participated in WWII anniversary events, and his two-hour documentary “Thunder from Tinian” won a Telly Award in 1997. In 2008 he completed a second film, “Echoes from the Apocalypse, Tinian: 60 Years Later.”
He has photographed veterans standing on the battlefields where they fought as young men. He has given historical lectures on cruises carrying veterans to the islands on which they served, some for the first time since the war. He has located and marked historic sites — most recently, in June 2011, the “hardstand,” or large crushed coral pad, where the Enola Gay was parked after the Hiroshima mission to be checked for radiation contamination. Historic footage and photos were taken at this spot in 1945.
Finding such sites means chopping through 60 years worth of insect-ridden jungle growth in scorching heat and humidity.
“On my first visit to Tinian, I couldn’t believe how these sites were overgrown,” Giles said. Since then, the Marianas has become “like a second home.” People who were children when he began his research still recognize and greet him when he returns.
“They didn’t know what was happening. Now they take their kids out to show them. Knowledge is regenerative.”
Some colleagues questioned the wisdom of sacrificing time that might be devoted to painting, but Giles said the university has been supportive in awarding faculty development grants for his research. “I would have regretted not doing what I have done. What I’ve done is the greatest painting I’ve ever made.”
A letter Giles received in 2005 illustrates why he feels as he does. In 2003, he served as a consultant for the American Memorial Park Visitor Center that opened in Saipan June 15, 2004, the 60th anniversary of the Battle of Saipan. He provided World War II photographs, images and audio recordings for use in the exhibit depicting the Battle for the Marianas and the Battle of the Philippine Sea.
One of the recordings he provided was an eye-witness testimonial by Ronald Fournier of Ashland, Maine, describing events at suicide cliffs. As a private first class in the 4th Marine Division, Fournier witnessed the suicides of 3,000 Saipan civilians who had been told the invading Americans were savages. Today, a visitor to the museum can hear Fournier telling what he saw.
Giles treasures a letter he received from Fournier’s youngest grandchild in November 2005. Michelle Fournier was 9 years old when her grandfather died. She never knew what he saw in Saipan and how much being a Marine meant to him. Seeing her grandfather in “Thunder from Tinian” was “an amazing gift” that she says she will share with future generations.
“If it wasn’t for you and all your work, I would never have heard the stories,” she wrote to Giles. “I would never have known what he went through. It comforts me to know that in a museum people could be listening to my Pepere right now. Somewhere out there his voice is being heard. It brings tears to my eyes every time I think about it.
“A part of him will always live in me, in my sister, my father, and the rest of our family, but another part of him will always live on because of you and your documentary. His story is being told. My children will someday be able to watch their great-grandfather and hear about his experience in World War II.”
Michelle Fournier’s expression of gratitude is just one example of the impact of Giles’ work. Her appreciation represents fulfillment of his goal of honoring veterans and ensuring they are remembered.
“I feel sad that veterans feel forgotten,” he said. “Many Americans don’t understand their sacrifices.”
Ed Griffin of Presque Isle knows he is not forgotten. The 1938 Caribou High School graduate turned 25 during the year he served on Tinian, dropping supplies from B-29 bombers for U.S. prisoners of war behind enemy lines. Griffin remembers watching the Enola Gay take off. He was there when she returned.
“They told us all what had happened. We could hardly believe it.”
Giles listened to Griffin’s stories. They became part of a documentary.
“He made me feel like a hero,” Griffin said.
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou 04736.