PTSD_mask

Military Effects

 

 

“You talk to my girlfriend again and I’ll take out your teeth out with a fucking pair of plyers!”

 

Not exactly the best wording, but still, Bryson got his point across.  I was there with him and his girlfriend, Sarah, walking through a Sonic drive through.  It was late and our group consisted of several others accompanying the three of us.  The fellow having his behavior corrected was familiar only from that night.  He was tall with blond hair looking like an Abercrombie model.  He was flirting with Sarah and Bryson wasn’t taking too kindly to it.  Strike that, I’m not sure Abercrombie was even flirting.  He was just talking, drunk and making conversation.

I watched Bryson as he spoke to this student, appearing to be in full-fledged PTSD mode.  Indicators included eyes opened wider than usual, voice constricted to a scratch, sideways stepping, and of course the language and tone.  I stepped in front of him and he calmed himself almost instantly.  Looking back, it is difficult to determine if he was being crazy for the sake of looking intimidatingly cool or if he was about to gnaw your face off.  Bryson had several conflicts in his personality that didn’t quite match up.  In modern times, maybe there is something scary about a man who has a deserved confidence in publicly illustrating that there is nothing to be thrown at him that will scare him anymore.

When I first met him, Bryson was a well built, good looking, college freshman, 24 years of age.  He had served one tour for our country and was now ready to get an education.  He was smart and had a natural charisma to him.  Because of this, our small group of friends found him to be our unstated leader for the first year I resided at OU.  Our small group consisted of most of the occupants living on the third floor of our upperclassman dorm.

When we met, Bryson invited me into his room for drinks.  College campuses and military barracks share similar living conditions, smaller that possible rooms and an indefinite supply of alcohol.  His room was just down the hall from mine and when I say invited me in, I mean opened the door as I walked five steps down the hall.  From this living situation, I met several friends, most of which I am still in some form of contact with on a regular basis.  Bryson, though, mostly left our group.  Possibly it was the intensity of his missions for his country that screwed with his head.  Maybe his values were challenged by civilized life, those same values that he could have died for in battle.  The different aspects of thinking patterns, changed only slightly, made him see himself as the outcast, though it was a dead wrong assumption.

Being the close quarters and not knowing too many people, our group became close rather quickly.  We drank together almost every night and went to bars and parties, and even more intimate daytime activities including lunch at the dining hall and sometimes even class.  Bryson was every bit a part of our group and usually even constructed the plan for our evening activities.  This was because his girlfriend had been at OU two years prior to us and helped Bryson find his and then our social circles.

I believed that Bryson truly loved Sarah.  He conducted his behavior in such a manner that he seemed to push away other girls.  He seemed to be protective of the girls in our dorm and even more, he constructed a presentation of ungendered specific relations.  “What up dude?” he would ask everyone in greeting girl or guy.  Eventually I learned this presentation to be a hoax in an attempt to secretly sleep with the girls in our dorm without anyone noticing.  What bothers me about this isn’t his tactics, but rather the dissected character that it would have taken to set this up.  I learned this as I was cuddling next to one of our dorm mates.  She was a red headed, slightly plump, unattractive female.  We had become close and this night we were sharing a bed, though no sexual exploits were accomplished or attempted.  College was a time a bending perspectives and without some of the more practical rules, I quite often shared a bed with members of the opposite sex without dubious intentions in mind.  Here though, she informed me that she had slept, meaning had sex, with Bryson recently.  From this I was able to follow clues to find out that he had slept with nearly every other female member of our floor without any of us knowing.

There were further mysteries to Bryson’s behavior.  After that first year, he moved out of our dorm and into an apartment with Sarah’s girlfriend, though only on a platonic basis of course.  I wondered what came of that.  Anyway, we met a few times after that, but for as close as our group was, it felt like he must have faked his sincerities towards us as our visits faded.  Worried I had been fooled, I waged an investigation of Bryson’s personalities and found that he prided himself on being the soldier type.  He had no problem with more intimidating actions or being heroic when the time called for it, but found less use for himself with the lack of such circumstances.  His mind must have searched for the qualities that made him unique even as he struggled to learn why he was allowed to leave the battlefield.  Those small unique qualities that kept him alive may have simply come down to chance and now as a civilian, the style of the clothing he wore may have a greater effect on the way he is perseeved.  I believe he just wanted to be able to fit in, but couldn’t bring himself to do so.

 

At the time I lived with him I accepted most of what Bryson said as truth, but perspective shapes a different picture.  He had many conflicting human qualities and some were flawed.  Was he inventing stories to gain greater acceptance within our group of peers or was there something to the affects of PTSD that had him supplementing memories?  Maybe it wasn’t a military thing and more of individual issues with the development of his character.

What I can now determine is that he had needs that he desperately wanted to satisfy.  It is depressing to think that possibly what draws most individuals to a military career is that it offers some stability, financial or in intent, but idealistic notions of honor and country are not fully understood by the self-awareness of often a teenager.  The truth is that such notions give us troops, but at what expense to the individual.  What can be seen, aside from actual physical injuries, is a plethora of mental disorders stemming from trauma, but also from the unrealized potential and character growth of the individual.

Bryson and I lost touch, but I believe he did graduate, probably with a degree in political science.  I choose to believe that he decided to distance himself from our group because he had shown us a heroic personality and feared that we may eventually see him for what he was, human.  He was veteran struggling to find his way back to society.

 

 

It was cold one night and for one reason or another I didn’t have a jacket handy as Bryson and I were to go out to smoke a cigarette.  It was college, so the mental state of the two of us was probably influence by alcohol.  Bryson handed me his military jacket, before we went outside.  There on me was that familiar pattern etched into my mind of the different shades of green, forming the camouflage.

Somewhere either in the process of receiving the jacket or our walk outside Bryson told me a story.  He explained of an extremely traumatic experience that he once had.  At this point I was quite familiar with stories of burning shit and carrying tampons on missions in case of bullet wounds, but this was something much more serious.  This was the epitome of what he would reveal to me about his military exploits.  He told me of how his close friend, one of the members of his platoon, was blown up in front of him.  He told me of his initial reaction.  In this description his friend was in pieces, with nothing really to salvage.  In a state of shock, Bryson walked over to his friend’s remains and picked them up putting them into the pockets of his jacket, the very one that I was now wearing.

As I stood accidently picturing this horrific image my hands crept into these pockets searching for such remains.  What would dried blood and flesh feel like now?  I found nothing out of the ordinary, maybe a few pieces of what seemed like crumbled leaves.  I still have that jacket, Bryson later gave it to me for keeps.  Every time I see it I check the pockets.

 

Athor Pic  Scott W. Trainer has multiple articles published at watchfit.com on personal fitness topics.  He works with children at Avondale Youth Center, taking them on kayaking and other adventure oriented trips to build efficacy and esteem. Currently he is finishing his MFA in creative writing at Ashland University.

battling_bastards_2

Can I Borrow Your Arm?

HERALD TELLER had traveled from Jacksonville, Florida, to south of Tarlac City in the Philippines, to a place he’d rather forget, but had been etched on his heart the same as the names on the three-sided, whitewashed stone memorial. Above an embedded white cross was the name he and his friends had called themselves.

The Battling Bastards of Bataan.

Here he stood, stuck on the sidewalk, unable to climb two small steps. Unable to read the names of friends who hadn’t come home even after they’d endured as much as him.

Then he remembered Margaret in the kitchen. The smell of biscuits baking. Her leaning on the walker. Grinning, as though she stole a secret, her blue eyes as alive and lovely as when they’d first met.

“I got two tickets to paradise.”

“We’re a little old for rock ‘n roll,” he said.

“We’re never too old to remember our friends.”

Or to remember the love of his life.

The squeal of a little boy dashed his memory. Couldn’t they leave him in peace? Just a few minutes?

A parent shushed the child. They stood behind him.

He turned as much as his arthritis would let him. Surprised to see the Marine in his Class A uniform. Medals on his chest, ones he recognized; gold stripes on black sleeves, blue pants with bright red piping. This man had served his country far longer than he had.

“First Sergeant?” he asked.

“Sergeant Major.” the Marine replied.

“Purple Heart, too?”

“Three of them, sir.”

“Dear God.”

“Yes, sir. He was on my mind. IED and a mortar in Iraq. Firefight in Afghanistan.”

“Your men?”

The Marine’s silence said he knew what it was like to see men die.

“Where’s my manners,” the Marine said. “This is my wife Susie and our son Robert. He’s named after my father. Also a Marine. I’m Philip Baker.”

“Staff Sergeant Herald Teller. Army.”

“You here by yourself?”

“I buried my wife a week ago.”

Baker looked to his wife, a Filipina about shoulder tall. The fidgety mestizo boy tugged at her clingy yellow dress. She picked him up, brushed black hair from his eyes. Her eyes were watering.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “Margaret always said I needed tact. Never found any.”

“We’re sorry for your loss,” Baker said.

“She’d been pestering me to come. Said a memory is like a good arm to hold on to.”

“Your friends?” The Sergeant Major nodded at the wall.

“You know why they have those walls?” the old soldier asked.

“To remember.”

“That’s right,” he said, “remember that we made it and they didn’t.”

“There’s a question in there somewhere.”

“I can see why your men looked up to you.”

“Why me?” Baker pondered, familiar with the questions, “How come you lived and your buddies didn’t?”

He nodded.

“We all want the answer to that question.”

“So you don’t know?”

The Sergeant Major whispered in his wife’s ear and she carried the small boy away. Baker faced him. “Have you ever told anyone what happened?”

He smelled wood burning. Then the powerful scent of toyo in frying grease. Filipino fried fish was an acquired taste, one he picked up a lifetime ago. His stomach grumbled. Could he stand long enough to tell the whole story, especially in this sticky heat?

“Since you’re not answering,” Baker said, “I’m assuming you haven’t.”

“You really want to hear this?”

“We’re comrades in arms, Staff Sergeant. We’ve fought and bled for our country. And I try real hard to never to use these medals, but I think these three Purple Hearts earns me the right to hear your story.”

He couldn’t argue since he owned a Purple Heart, too. “But at the end, can you answer my question?”

“Let’s hear what you have to say, then we’ll see.”

His mind drifted to long ago. To when there’d been no sidewalk leading to a monument for the fallen. When diesel fumes choked him as a line of personnel carriers passed. Pairs of worn boots dragged along a gravel road.  He smelled the stink of sweaty men who were dead but just didn’t know it yet.

He saw small boats fighting through the surf. Salt soured on his tongue. If not for the men scrambling onto the beach carrying rifles, today might have been good one for an ocean swim. Instead he stared at his three-inch gun. If he had ammunition, he could fight. Now the Army wanted him to pick up a rifle. He’d do it, but only because he had to.

His stomach grumbled. He’d learned to ignore it because MacArthur had cut rations. So much for the promised resupply. Then the General cut them again.

A gnarled and filthy rag smeared the sweat on his face. He sipped warm water from his canteen; could’ve drank the whole thing but knew better. His uniform sagged as though he were a scarecrow without the stuffing. He waited at the edge of the jungle, while his friends peeled off for the latrine. They left a lot of holes. He’d follow them soon.

Docs had run out of quinine. Yellow fever, amebic dysentery, and beriberi ate them up, along with too many other jungle diseases he’d never heard of.

“We have to go Marivales,” Tommy Dean said, his best friend since basic training. They’d decided to take orders to the Philippines knowing they might be in this fight. Now they wondered if they’d made the right choice.

In Marivales, a line of Japanese tanks and armor rumbled toward him. Dozens of personnel carriers coughed black diesel smoke. Wide-eyed Japs jumped from the trucks and surrounded them. He wasn’t sure if their scraggly looking uniforms or stick thin bodies scared the soldiers or if it were the thousands of Americans and Filipinos that had surrendered.

A Japanese enlisted man positioned a wooden crate; the squat officer looked hot in long sleeves. Red squares with gold stars were embroidered into his olive drab collars and a red sash circled his combination hat. He stood on the crate and squeezed a sheathed sword, then raised and lowered the weapon. Japs rushed into the crowd.

He saw scared faces. He saw angry faces. He saw men doing what they were ordered to do.

They were as confused as him.

He had wanted to kill them. But not now. Not with faces younger than his.

The point of a sheathed sword prodded him. Lots of units had surrendered. No telling how many men. The guy ahead of him dropped his rifle in front of the officer on the crate. The Japs kept pushing. Dean foolishly yelled at one of them. The steel blade grinded as it slid out, its shiny point deftly tucked under Tommy’s chin.

He’d never forget the Jap’s angry eyes. Ready to run that blade through Tommy’s throat.

The officer in front grunted. Tommy’s guard slammed the steel handle on his cheek; a wide gash dripped red.

That tinny smell of blood. It never left him.

The military called it milling about smartly and thats how it felt, as the Japs huddled him into one of the many disorganized groups.

“What do they want?” John Sturgeon, a lanky boy from Texas, from his sister artillery unit, asked. The Japs kept poking at him with their rifle barrels.

“I think they want you to bow?”

“What for?” John asked.

“Do I look Japanese?” he said.

Sturgeon stood a head taller, although a lot thinner. When he didn’t bow, the thicker of the two guards slammed his rifle butt into his stomach and bent Sturgeon in two.

The officer standing on the crate smiled.

The officers minions didn’t look like they wanted to hit them, but they had no choice.

When John still didn’t bow, the soldiers punched his face and kicked his backside as though he were a misbehaving child. A sheathed sword slashed behind his legs dropped him to his knees as the gravel stabbed him. They let him be after that.

From his wandering group he watched the Japanese gather hundreds of Filipino Scouts and back them against the jungle. The officer on the crate screamed to his men. They didn’t look happy with the order, but they followed it.

Shots echoed. He didn’t watch them die, instead, looked at the soldiers with their guns.  Scared and pissed off, not one had the courage to face their officer.  He almost pitied them.  By the time each of them dropped their rifles, they’d left three piles the size of small hills.

He could have mooed, the way the Japs herded them like cattle.

Except that’s when the yelling and screaming started.

And the killing.

A gun barrel poked his rib, without even enough meat to ease the stab. He plodded along, with thousands of prisoners and didn’t think about where they were headed.

Lucky for him he found Dean and Sturgeon in his weary group. Those who couldn’t walk were left. He tried to help one man but the butt of a sword changed his mind.

Screams followed him. Gooseflesh chilled his sweaty arms in hundred degree heat.

He didn’t know what the Japs wanted but even the Japs didn’t seem to know what they wanted. He guessed they hadn’t expected this many men would surrender.

When enough men dropped in the dirt the Japanese decided to stop.

Without a leaf of shade, he was lucky he’d kept his hat. The more follicle-challenged heads looked like red pool balls.

Japs watched from the shade. Sipping water from canteens, grinning and laughing. One pointed at him, walked over and tipped his canteen so the water missed his mouth. He dropped to the ground and tried to drink it but the dirt was quicker. The soldier laughed at him, then drew his sword. Dean and Sturgeon dragged him away. The Jap returned to the shade to replay the joke with his friends.

During those first hours, they took anything of value, including watches. He marched for four hours or ten; hard to tell the difference. Bivouacked near a small village, two older women carried water, pretty with high cheeks and a touch of gray in their black hair. The Japs stole the buckets and the women left when the soldiers looked at them as though they wanted more than water. He was glad they’d ran and hoped they’d be okay.

Then the Japs ate. Not them, not that he had the strength to chew.

Cramps woke him during the night. His guts knotting like a tightening rope. Groans drifted through the ranks. A tall guy from an infantry outfit grunted himself to his feet and he followed him to a plank. He cleared the sleep from his eyes and pinched his nose, not that it mattered. He had to go . . . now.

He stepped on the plank and slipped. Maggots squiggled except where footprints squished them. At least he had boots, rotten as they were. He thanked God for reaching the other end. He took his turn and squeezed water that smelled as though it came from a dead man. With dysentery and rations that wouldn’t feed a mouse, it was the best he could do.

The morning of the third day the Japs forced them into formation; four abreast, an unending line of tortured souls. He learned quickly to stay to the inside. Those on the outside were prime targets. Bored men were terribly cruel.

The Japs let them stop by a river. He snuck away with Dean and Sturgeon. The jungle canopied them, a few minutes of shade almost as cool and sweet as the water looked. He went to dip his canteen but Sturgeon grabbed his arm. A dead caribou floated in the current. Right behind was the grayish body of a headless Filipino soldier.

“We need water,” he said.

“Use this.” Sturgeon produced a paper pouch of chlorine powder he’d somehow hid from the Japs.

He felt guilty they had powder but the best he could do was survive.

Which he did. For six agonizing days and sixty-five miles.

Six hundred Americans died on the Bataan Death March, ten thousand Filipinos.

His legs felt like soaked logs, his feet skidded more than walked. He saw a small barrio ahead and a train. Finally, he and his friends didn’t have to march. Maybe they could rest.

If only it had been that easy.

He hesitated behind Sturgeon and Dean when the Japs slid the rusty railcar door open. Lots of men in front of them. Three-quarters full when he climbed inside and more men followed. When the door slammed, it reminded him of what his drill sergeant yelled during basic training.

Nut to butt.

He could stand, not kneel, not sit and certainly not lay down.

Vents were closed, only stifling still air. Men did their business where they stood. He’d lived in filth so long he thought he could handle it. Until he began to cook inside the box.

The train jerked.

Please let the air move.

It didn’t.

An hour into the train ride, the guy in between him and Dean stopped squirming.

“Herald, that guy against my back is cold.”

“I know,” he said.

“It’s too hot for that.”

“Tommy, don’t.”

Dean shook his head and mumbled, “No, no, no.” Then he grew louder. “I wanna go home. I wanna go home.”

Heads turned their way. He slapped Dean up side his head and caught enough sweat that he licked it. Too salty. What he’d give for a few drops of real water.

Dean settled enough to ask, “What are we going to do?”

“Just keep breathing until this train stops.”

“Stinks.”

“Yeah, but it won’t kill you.”

Dean shook his head side to side and continued to mutter.

Nut to butt.

Thanks a lot, Drill Sergeant.

He leaned against the cold dead man when the brakes squealed. The doors opened. Japs screamed and waved. He stumbled, jumped, and then tumbled in the dirt but at least it was cooler and fresher than the stinky oven.

Guilt chided him when he saw the ashen bodies on the railcar floor. The Japs forced him to climb back in to remove his comrades. He hauled bodies to the jungle. No time for last words; war stole everything.

He was shoved back into formation, four abreast. Now he knew; marching was better than the alternative.

He read the sign that said he’d arrived at Camp O’Donnell. Razor wire encircled the Philippine fort, guard towers at one-hundred-foot intervals, rotting buildings with the appeal of a graveyard.

His company commander, Major Charlie Donovan, called cadence with a Brooklyn accent, not that he had the strength to march in step.

As they entered the camp a Japanese captain pointed to the ground. He sat with his company in formation. An enlisted man brought the captain a box. He’d never forget what the captain said, as he stood, fist to hips.

“We hate you! You are our enemies. If you try to escape we will kill you. Because you have surrendered you must do everything we tell you. You are not prisoners of war but our captives.”

The Japs marched them to their new home; a roach-infested barracks with wood beds. Without a blanket, he shivered to keep warm as rats chewed the calluses off the bottom of his feet. Shuttered windows impeded breezes, else he might have slept. Didn’t matter. Japs rushed the aisles and beat him and others with bamboo sticks, chased them out the door, leaving welts on his legs, as they yelled the same word. “Tinko. Tinko.” A prisoner count.

Major Donovan stood in front of the formation. One of a dozen in the camp. A cold rain soaked him. The Japanese didn’t care.

The Japanese captain stood on his box. “Corregidor has fallen. The Philippines are part of the Empire. Bow to the Emperor.”

He and his friends didn’t move. The Japs wailed on them.

“Enough,” Major Donavan yelled.

For the first time he’d stood on the outside and dizziness swooned him. “Tommy, mind if I use your arm.”

Tommy stuck out his elbow and he hooked it.

Sturgeon saw what Tommy did and offered his arm. Tommy hooked it the same way. The next man followed. And the next. Before long every man in all twelve companies had hooked arms.

The major winked, turned back, and stood at silent attention facing the Jap officer.

Rain puddled around boots and bare feat.

The little prick grinned.

Chow after formation. He carried a tin with a ration of burnt rice and soupy vegetables that would fit in the palm of his hand. He sat with Dean and Sturgeon, as the rain matted his hair. A few quick bites of the tasteless meal left an empty tin.

After chow, he and Dean reported for work detail. The Jap sergeant led them to the back of the infirmary; a place his friends named St. Peter’s Ward. The sergeant snapped a tarp off of naked lifeless men and grunted.

He grabbed the ankles. Dean snagged the wrists. Slippery  heavy, it was easy to count ribs in the body that was ashen and stiff. Some bloat in the legs and arms made it clear this soldier hadn’t been dead as long as the others. The dead man had brown hair, maybe twenty. Shouldn’t he smell bad? Or maybe he was the one who smelled like death. He shivered.

He and Dean lugged the corpse across the camp and through a small gate and hiked a path into the jungle. The smell of death soured in his mouth like rancid meat. They stopped at the muddy edge, swung the body back and forth and then tossed it; adding to the growing mountain of gray corpses that matched the rainy gloom. The Jap sergeant growled. He and Dean headed to the camp to pick up another dead comrade.

Major Donovan had called it the “line of twos.”

Strange how he remembered things he wished he could forget.

Six weeks later on a sunny sweltering morning the Japs shoved Dean, Sturgeon, and him onto a crammed personnel carrier. He tore his pants on a jagged piece of metal; not that his pants or shirt were any great shakes.

But they’d left Camp O’Donnell and the line of twos. Maybe his fortune would change.

He was such an idiot.

Camp O’Donnell began his prison camp tour. The first of four that Dean, Sturgeon, and him survived at, for more than two and a half years. Too many memories, most he’d rather not relieve, but some things a man can’t forget.

Dean kicked his Cabanatuan prison bunk. Roaches clamored through the cracks.

He yawned and frowned. “Thanks a lot.”

“Why,” Dean said. “A little shaving cream and you can fry those bad boys. Better than what they feed us.”

“Japs aren’t eating too well, either,” he said.

“Never mind.” Dean waved. “Hurry up before they come in here with those bamboo beaters.”

“Counting us again?”

“I don’t think so.”

He joined Dean and Sturgeon in formation. All the men stood at attention. In front of the formation were ten men, three bare-chested, ribs showing. A line of ten Japs with rifles stood a few yards away.

The Jap captain had followed them from Camp O’Donnell and once again, he stood on his crate. “This is what happens when men escape.” the captain grunted.

The soldiers raised their rifles and fired. Blood misted the morning air, as the line of dead piled on wavy tall grass.

The warm breeze chilled him.

The escapes continued; so did the executions.

At least life improved, as much as it could, at Davao Penal Colony. He’d been very happy to leave Cabanatuan. He even had a chance to enjoy a Christmas.

Japanese Lieutenant Yuki was a Christian. The officer authorized a Christmas party.

Skits, carols, and better rations for the first time then he could remember. He even recited the entire Twas The Night Before Christmas poem from memory.

He traded some quan with Dean and Sturgeon. He and his friends had taken advantage of Yuki’s good nature, stealing vegetables and fruits from the gardens they maintained, they went well with his Red Cross care package the Japanese passed out after the Christmas meal. Cookies, toothpaste, shaving cream—to fry those roaches—and even boots. The Japs kept the boots as an incentive to work.

A few weeks later Major Donovan popped into his barracks. He jumped to attention hoping he wouldn’t be there long, as the roaches squirmed over his toes.

“Men,” Donovan said, “Japs are offering better food and clothes if we work at a new camp.”

“What kind of work, sir?” he said.

“They haven’t said. But it has to be better than here, right?”

He looked to Dean and Sturgeon and they shrugged. He followed the major and his friends and jumped on the truck with the rest of the seven hundred and fifty volunteers heading to Lasang.

Too bad the Japs wanted to build an airstrip. His major turned a shade of red he hadn’t seen since boot camp when he’d showed up late for guard duty. Digging latrines or farming was one thing. Helping the Japs attack their comrades? Not a chance.

Major told him and the others to stall. He and his buddies spent more time leaning on shovels than slinging dirt.

Their plan worked well until the Japanese brought in Lieutenant Hashimoto. He didn’t call him than, nor did the others, instead we nicknamed him Little Caesar. Little Caesar was an asshole, built like a miniature sumo wrestler, that liked to practice judo on them.

Little Caesar’s favorite game was forcing a man to kneel on a railroad tie, then sit on his shoulders while the other man dug. When the guy slung enough dirt to suit him, Little Caesar would move on. Up and down the line of men, Little Caesar repeated the game over and over. He and every other man wanted to kill the Jap bastard. Couldn’t with all those machine guns pointed.

He’d never forget when that strong hand grabbed his shirt collar and forced him to kneel. The heavy bastard squeezed his legs and it was like trying to breath through a straw while fire-heated rail spikes stabbed into his knees. His eyes blurred but he couldn’t reach to wipe them and he thought he might pass out. That’s when the air raid siren whirred.

He blinked enough to watch the bombers zoom overhead. A beautiful white star on the rear of each fuselage. American birds dropped their eggs, the ground trembled and the twilight lit in a red-orange glow, leaving pond-sized craters over the airstrip. His buddies cheered. He kept crying, even after Little Caesar climbed off and screamed at them.

Before the sun rose, the Japs shoved Dean, Sturgeon, and him, along with the rest of the seven hundred and fifty men, onto personnel carriers and headed south. He didn’t know where and he didn’t care; any place had to be better than this.

He should have learned after the first time he thought that way.

He’d read the name of the ship, SHINYO MARU, before the Japs stuffed him in the after storage compartment, with two hundred fifty men. There he stayed for two days, till the Japs opened the hatch, hollered and waved, and he and the others climbed onto the freighter’s deck.

They marched toward the pointy end. Jap Sailors pinched their noses as he passed. The full moon in the starry night probably didn’t bode well. He confirmed it when the Japs shoved him toward the ladder at the forward hold and he climbed down and joined the remaining five hundred prisoners. He squeezed around men, and mountains of luggage, to find Dean and Sturgeon leaning against the sides of a steel support beam.

“Only place to rest, unless we take turns sitting,” Dean said. Sores covered his arms and calves; nothing soap and water couldn’t cure, if they had any.

“I have to go,” he said.

Sturgeon, with puckered lips, pointed toward the center of the hold. His friend had learned the trick from the Filipinos.

He followed the pucker to two five gallon stainless buckets. The one overflowing wasn’t water.

“Maybe I can wait,” he said. “Anyone know where we’re going?”

“Doubt it matters.” Dean adjusted his back against the support beam. “Major Donovan was screaming through the hatch for twelve hours. Thought we’d suffocate.”

“I heard the alarm,” he said.

“Our guys laying some eggs.” Sturgeon wiped his brow.

“But we’re here.”

“You see any markings to say POWs are on board?”

“Like a red cross?”

“A white one,” Sturgeon said. “And there isn’t one. I looked.”

A fearful quiet took over the hold, men glued to every word. The ship lurched.  He grabbed Dean and Sturgeon for support. Others fell. A few screamed thinking the bombs were dropping.

The ship rolled left and then right. His stomach knotted but he controlled it. Those not used to the motion puked. Others shivered in corners. Some lost their bowels. With nothing to clean them they just laid in it. After so long, he’d been inured to fecal stench.

A siren blared. The hatch closed, thrusting them into the dark. He waited, like every other man. Thirty minutes later the hatch opened. He looked up. Little Caesar towered over the hole, still haunting him. Little Caesar held a machine gun in one hand and two grenades in the other.

“If we attacked,” Little Caesar said, “these are for you.” The Jap grinned.

Same as the death march, time meant nothing. Hours or days, he couldn’t tell. Bored and scared. Praying for redemption or for his hell to be over. Just make a choice, God.

The hum reverberated through Shinyo Maru’s hull. He looked up, along with Dean and Sturgeon. He didn’t have to be a sailor to know that sound didn’t come from the ship.

The explosion peeled metal as though it were a boiled onion. The concussion knocked him from his friends. His ears rang until warm saltwater cleared his head.

The hatch opened above and as promised Little Caesar unloaded with the machine gun.

He dove under the water. Bullets thumped into the men above. Blood inked the filling compartment.

Two grenades blew. Boom-boom. His head bounced on the steel deck. The ringing returned. His hands stung.

He didn’t have time to check them or complain, as the second torpedo struck aft, lifting the ship momentarily before it crashed back into the sea. Surging water sucked him down. He kicked hard and held his breath, swam through the torpedo hole and fought his way to the surface. He coughed and spit water. It hurt to breathe, but the air never tasted so clean. He raised his hands. Blood oozed from them. He removed thumb-sized pieces of shrapnel without screaming. The saltwater stung. Hopefully it would help his wounds.

Where were Dean and Sturgeon? He looked

to the ship and spotted Sturgeon on deck tossing a petrified Dean into the water. Sturgeon jumped after him and dragged Dean, kicking and splashing.

He waved and they met up.

“We need to follow them.” Sturgeon pointed at others swimming toward shore.

It looked a long way off.

He saw three Jap sailors treading water. “Follow me.”

They swam over and held the terrified sailors underwater until they gave up their life vests.

“Can we swim that far?” he said.

Dean looked toward the burning ship. “Better than going back there.”

The ocean tasted like blood. He and his friends swam past a guy holding his belly.

“Help me.” The guy’s eyes rolled in his head and he bobbed to the surface, as his guts leaked from the gash that had nearly cut him in two.

He didn’t care how far, one mile or ten, he just swam, Dean and Sturgeon behind him. The coral marked the shoreline, but it also sliced his hands and feet but he’d come too far to stop now.

“Keep climbing,” he said as he navigated the coral cliff. With his remaining strength he hauled himself over the last rock and tumbled into tall grass.

Dean and Sturgeon collapsed next to him. Their breathing grew slower. He hoped it wasn’t for the wrong reason.

An explosion woke him. How long had he drifted off?  He crawled to his hands and knees.

“Take my arm,” Sturgeon said.

He extended an elbow for Dean and the three of them stood.

He tasted free air for the first time in two and a half years. Shouldn’t he feel happy?

Shinyo Maru smoldered and then disappeared under hissing foam. A final rest for so many who almost made it.

“How many?” Baker said.

He was sitting on a warm concrete bench. He couldn’t remember getting here. The Sergeant Major had helped him. He smelled flowers. Didn’t matter what kind. A sweet blessing compared to his memories. Thousands of showers hadn’t washed away the stench of death. It finally faded with time. Lots of time.

“Eight-two out of seven hundred and fifty men.”

Baker stared at him. Eyes watery. Fighting for control.

“So how about my question.”

“You won’t like the answer,” Baker said.

“Just tell me.”

“It wasn’t your time.”

“That’s it?”

“There’s more,” Baker said. “You lived to help your friends. Same as that day you hooked arms. Same as you’re helping me.”

“How am I doing that?”

“By reminding this Marine that why you fought is the same reason I fought. It’s the reason I came here today.”

He noticed the titanium rod that replaced Baker’s leg.

“Firefight in Afghanistan.” Baker grinned. “I stole it from Lieutenant Dan.”

“I saw Forest Gump. Wouldn’t surprise me, Marine. You guys are dangerous.”

“Want to go see our grandson.”

“But I’m not–”

Baker stood and extended an arm. “You are now.”

He saluted Sergeant Major Philip Baker, Unites States Marine Corps. Baker returned the salute.

“Mind if I use your arm again, Marine?”

“Anytime you want, Staff Sergeant. Anytime you want.”

 

Bill Dougherty is an aspiring novelist and screenwriter. He has been recognized in writing contests such as the Vision Fest Film Festival Screenwriting Contest (2005), the Florida Writer’s Association Lighthouse Book Awards (2007), and the Jesse Stuart Prize for Young Adult Fiction (2012). He lives with his wife, Leila, in Jacksonville, Florida, with their two dogs, Sasha and Ladybug.

101227-N-7981E-260

Commit to the Deep

Tip of tongue played along tops of teeth, ran smooth along gum line, felt bumps that could not be seen.

The young man stared into the mirror, slowly turning his head from left to right, trying to determine if the pain in his mouth displayed signs of pain on his face. He thought his face looked normal but was not convinced.

“Remo, quit admiring the view.” He spun from the mirror and saw Chief Gilchrest leaning against the doorway to the head, arms crossed and a smirk on his face. The older man wore his Service Dress Blues – black jacket, black tie, white shirt, black trousers, black shoes. A chest full of medals. He carried his combination cover under his arm, a white disc a contrast against the dark formal uniform. “You’re gonna be late.”

Seaman DeRemosan blinked hard. “Sorry, Chief.”

Gilchrest sneered. “You calling me a sorry Chief?” he teased.

Remo shook his head. “No, Chief. I was just–”

Gilchrest nodded. “I know. This is your first one. I remember my first, I was nervous as hell. Just remember,” he said, standing up and away from the doorframe, “you’re carrying the cremains – that’s what they call the ashes when you cremate someone. You just wait for Chaps to say ‘we commit his body to the deep’ and when you hear ‘deep’ that’s when you dump the urn.” He grinned, his thin face reminding Remo of a decorative skull. “Too easy.”

“But Chief, it ain’t really a body, is it?”

The man shrugged. “It’s what’s left of him, I guess.” He turned to leave, then paused. He spoke without looking at Remo. “Hurry up, though, you got five minutes.”

Remo turned back to the mirror. He’d only been in the Navy a few months, onboard ship just a few weeks, not long enough to qualify for any ribbons or learn his way around the ship or understand what people meant when they talked about wildcats and pad-eyes and monkey’s fists.

He’d been assigned to Deck Division, working for the First Louie, who was named Ensign Billings, but really he worked for Chief Boatswain’s Mate Gilchrest. Not that he’d had any idea of what to expect when he’d signed the paperwork – his recruiter having been an aviation logkeeper, or something, and never setting foot on a Navy ship – Remo was surprised when he’d been handed a needlegun and goggles and set to work attacking a section of the ship’s bulkhead, stripping it of paint. When that section was finished he went to the next section, and for his entire naval career, short as it was, he’d only ever wielded a needlegun.

He smiled weakly into the mirror. The few minutes he’d had before Chief had walked in to the bathroom – head, Remo reminded himself – and the four minutes remaining before he had to report topside was the longest stretch he’d had to himself in months. Sundays underway were generally quieter than the rest of the week, but with a burial at sea scheduled for the afternoon the entire ship took on an air of caution, like the crew was speaking and walking quieter in hopes of not disturbing their dead passengers.

Six caskets had been loaded pierside in San Diego, along with a dozen urns. Remo was just one of twelve young sailors picked to carry an urn; each casket required six sailors, and there would be a firing party to give a 21-gun salute, an honor platoon, the Skipper, the XO, the Chaplain, the Master-at-Arms…Remo smiled at his face, though when he smiled he felt the stabs of pain more than when his face rested.

Eighteen men, World War Two veterans all, about to be buried at sea, and he’d be a small part of it. If only his mouth wasn’t full of pain.

Remo checked his uniform – easy with no ribbons to align – also called Service Dress Blues but entirely different than Chief’s SDBs, except that his, too, were black. Leave it to the Navy, he thought, to call something blue when it was black. They called left port and right starboard, so why not just make up words for everything?

He ran a lint brush over his black jumper, a v-neck top that had a useless flap in the back that hung over his shoulders. In Boot Camp they’d said it was a holdover from the Revolutionary War days, when men were allowed to grow their hair out, and the flap kept the ponytails off their uniforms. Remo had pointed out that the flap was still part of the uniform, so didn’t the hair just get on that part, and he’d done push-ups while the rest of his division had learned about the square knot in the neckerchief that hung from their necks and sat on their chest. The petty officer leading the lecture, the one who’d made Remo do push-ups, deviated from the lesson plan long enough to reveal that, during World War Two, sailors kept a roll of coins in their neckerchiefs. Not only did that keep the black silk tight, when things got out of hand they could be used as weapons in a pinch.

The petty officer let Remo take his seat, then launched in to a discussion about the bell-bottom trousers, notorious with their thirteen buttons in front. He once again divulged what seemed like insider information to the wide-eyed recruits when he admitted that, when stationed in Japan years before, he’d paid a local seamstress to alter the buttoned flap, lining it with Velcro instead, which made for much easier access. The petty officer and most of the recruits had laughed. Remo laughed, too.

He’d spent the last few days polishing his shoes, laying a nice even shine on the black leather, much nicer than any pair he’d owned before. Chief had told him he’d be participating in the burial at sea, that he’d better look good, but that the Chief was confident in Remo’s ability to clean up.

The day he found out he’d be dumping the remains of a dead body into the ocean was when Remo noticed the pain in his mouth. That first night the pain was bad enough to wake him from his sleep. By the next morning it had faded into a dull ache. Doc Spigot had been unable to diagnose anything, giving Remo’s mouth a quick onceover and a hasty explanation that he “weren’t no fang fairy dental tech” and therefore couldn’t be sure. Maybe in a few days, when the ship was closer to land, he could schedule Remo for a trip to the dental clinic on base, but for now told Remo to suck it up and given him some Motrin.

The next day Remo had stuck his finger in his mouth. His suspicions were confirmed – some of his teeth were loose. He was surprised – he’d thought he’d lost all his baby teeth, that adults weren’t supposed to lose their teeth until they were older, and he was still very young. Maybe he’d misremembered losing all his baby teeth, or maybe a third set was growing in. He’d read about a man with a vestigial Siamese twin, a little lump of flesh attached to his side complete with its own set of teeth and a kind-of-head of hair…this wasn’t as strange, but maybe Remo had some sort of medical anomaly.

This morning he’d actually lost a tooth. He’d been careful, eating soup or soft food, brushing around the loosest teeth, and trying not to worry the teeth with his tongue. But a few hours ago, when Remo had rolled out of his rack and started to get his uniform ready, he’d spat a tooth into his hand. He hid it quickly, not wanting anyone else nearby – and onboard, everyone lived close to everyone else – to see his tooth and give him grief about the Tooth Fairy or anything like that. After the ceremony maybe he’d take it to see Doc Spigot again, though he wasn’t sure what he’d do about it. Best to let him know, Remo thought, but he had no expectations of what he could do.

The overhead speakers crackled to life, the voice of the Boatswain Mate of the Watch echoing through the ship. “All hands bury the dead.”

“Yo, Remo, c’mon, we gotta go.” Winston, another deck seaman and one of Remo’s needlegun buddies, poked his head into the head. “Don’t wanna be late, Chief’d kill us.”

“Okay, I’m coming.”

 

We commit his body to the deep. We commit his body to the deep. We commit his body to the deep.

Remo held the urn. It was heavier than he’d thought it would be. A simple metal container, if he didn’t know it held a man’s ashes he would have called it a jug, or maybe a jar.

He stood with the other five urn bearers, closest to the railing. Normally, Chief said, they’d put the caskets and the urns on their own tables, then upend the table so the bodies would slide off into the sea, but since they had so many to commit the Skipper and Chaps had modified the ceremony. The urns would go first, and since Remo was closest to the railing – near enough that he could swivel his eyes down and stare at the greenish water without moving his head – he’d be dumping his urn first. Not spreading the damn ashes, Chief had insisted, but just holding the urn over the side, arms straight, and bingo, simply let ‘im go.

We commit his body to the deep. We commit his body to the deep. We–

Pain lanced through his jaw and Remo pinched his eyes shut. He opened them, tears at the corners, and hoped everyone else was keeping their eyes forward. He moved his tongue across his gums, trying to locate the source of the pain, and stopped. His tongue ran back over the protuberance, the odd sharp edge now growing from his gums. Teeth were supposed to grow straight up, he thought, not perpendicular, jutting out into his mouth.

His tongue moved again, slower, paying attention to every subtle ridge and dip in his mouth, and he found three other teeth that had, in the last few minutes, decided to start growing ninety degrees off the way they should. Actually, Remo thought, the teeth shouldn’t have been growing at all, and not nearly this fast. The direction was the least of his worries.

At this rate, he thought, his mouth would be full of teeth by sunset.

He felt sweat collect at the back of his head. Chief had made all the urn and casket bearers get fresh haircuts, and so the bare skin at the back of Remo’s head allowed the bead of sweat to drop without obstacle, tracing a straight line down his neck, past the collar of his white undershirt, past the useless black flap blowing in the slight breeze, and all the way down his spine. He could pinpoint the nerve endings briefly cooled by the sweat, all the way to his underwear, where the moisture was soaked up and disappeared.

It wasn’t even that hot out, Remo thought.

He still had the problem of his teeth, as well as paying attention to the ceremony. We commit his body to the deep.

The deep. Remo swiveled his eyes again, staring down at the green sea. He hadn’t been out very long at all – Chief liked to remind the junior sailors that he had flushed more saltwater than they had sailed over – but he’d learned a lot about the ocean already. It wasn’t blue, not like the pictures or school had taught him. The ocean was a lot of colors. Waves acted according to their own minds as much as they did wind or current. And the weather at sea could change in the course of a conversation.

The deep. Remo kept staring at the sea, though the angle of his eyes started to strain those muscles that controlled the motion of the eyeball. He couldn’t look away. The deep. He was about to drop a human into the deep. Growing up he’d always thought when you died you got buried; at least that way your family knew where to visit you. How would this man’s family visit him? How could they show him they cared? They couldn’t even be at the ceremony – off-limits to civilians, he remembered hearing.

The deep. Crazy things lived down there. They probably wouldn’t eat ashes – though Remo was no marine biologist, so couldn’t be sure – but the half dozen caskets contained enough meat and flesh to feed an army of crabs and worms and sharks and whatever other creatures wanted to eat dead men’s bodies. He’d read in a magazine that scientists knew more about the Moon’s surface than they did about the bottom of the oceans.

And here they were, about to dump eighteen war heroes, men who’d fought on oceans far stranger than this one, sending their bodies into the deep that was no home for man, to rest eternally not in peace but among monsters that did not want them. At least you bury a guy in the ground a worm’s gonna know what to do, Remo thought. How long would it even take for the caskets to sink all the way down? How deep was the ocean here? Did the number even matter?

He sensed the man next to him – Reeves, which made him think of grieves – stand up a little straighter. He heard Chaps droning on, something about days without end, and Remo panicked. Had he missed his cue? Was everyone else waiting on him? He had no clue how the whole prayer went, had only been to his grandma’s funeral, where they’d stuck her in the Georgia ground with what seemed to a little boy to be no surprises, no waiting for the right moment to ceremonially discard someone’s son or father or brother over the side of a warship and into the deep.

We commit his body to the deep.

Had Chaps said that or had he imagined it? Would it be better to toss the urn early, let it plunge through the depths before its time, or late, trying to catch up with the blessings and incantations being offered by the chaplain as it fell through the water?

His teeth flared again and he clenched his jaw, which just made the pain worse. His teeth felt loose and he felt the new teeth – fangs, really – stabbing through the soft tissues of his gums and he couldn’t stop his tongue as it tested each new peak inside his mouth. He imagined his mouth filling up with teeth, an entire gaping hole full of ivory bits and blades. He’d die, of course, either starving for want of room to swallow or bleeding out when his incisors pierced his brain or–

“We commit his body to the deep; in sure and certain hope…”

“Dump the urn, dummy,” Chief Gilchrest hissed from right behind Remo.

He turned and, as solemnly as he could, extended his arms and opened his hands. The urn dropped straight down, made only a small splash, and continued on its path. Remo stepped away, remembering to snap and click his heels and march as ceremonially as he could. He took his spot at the back of the formation and stood with the others as they, too, entrusted their urns to the deep. He ran his tongue over the edges of his teeth and gums – no loose teeth, no violated gums, no rebellious fangs poking through. His mouth was back to normal.

And tomorrow he’d go back to the needlegun.

 

Travis Klempan joined the Navy in 1999. He served as a Hospital Corpsman and Surface Warfare Officer. After leaving the Navy he was accepted to Naropa University’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, where he is pursuing his MFA in Writing & Poetics.