Rated: 18+ · Short Story · Military · #1885576
A debt repaid; a serviceman's tale
|Earl – 7,018|
It was the summer of ’61, and I’d just completed basic training at the U. S Naval Training Center Boot Camp in Great Lakes, Illinois. I was seventeen years old, and on my way back to my rural home town in Wisconsin to reconnect with my mother for a brief period before reassignment to some other, unknown duty station.
She had finalized her latest divorce, and had married the man who would turn out to be the last of her four husbands. Much to everyone’s surprise, she had managed to complete her requirements for a Licensed Practical Nurse certificate, and had been employed by the Restful Hills Nursing Home, just outside the city limits.
Not much had changed since I’d left, but then my town changed very slowly, so I wasn’t surprised to find almost everything as I’d left it. The only change now was the address where my mother now lived, and I caught the only taxi in town to find it. In a cul-de-sac, I found myself in front of a two story, rustic clapboard house, showing signs of having been a part of the city for many years.
Stepping up to the porch, I knocked, not knowing what to expect. A police squad car sat in the driveway, but I understood that her current husband was a member of the city police department. I’d met him when I was younger, but not under the best of circumstances. A little wilder in my younger years (from which I had only recently distanced myself), he’d occasionally rescued me from curfew violations, and other indiscretions he’d kept silent about over the years.
It was him that answered the door that morning, and as he took stock of me, in my naval uniform, he simply smiled and said, “Good to see you again, Bub.” Stepping aside, he gestured me into the house, and invited me to have a seat. At no time did he make me feel uncomfortable in this house.
”Your mom is at the ‘home,’ and won’t be off until midnight,” he explained. “She did want you to come out to see her whenever you got here, and I can drive you there if you like.” Thinking that it’d be too much of an imposition for a first meeting, I declined, telling him that it might be better if I just changed clothes, and took a taxi out there.
My nickname growing up was “Kipp,” but from that day forward, he insisted on calling me “Bub.” I could never tell whether he was taunting me or not, but the smile on his face always seemed genuine, and quite frankly, I couldn’t think of any way I should have been offended.
”Bub,” he began, “it might make the folks out there feel good if you kept your uniform on; you know, show the colors?” I looked at his face carefully. I really didn’t know him very well, and I was trying to read something; anything into his expressions. But he gave me little to grasp; just a simple, benign look of interest.
The only concession I made to his advice was to keep my uniform on when I took the taxi to the nursing home. As I walked into the lobby, I noticed that the chatter of the residents quickly subsided, becoming nothing more than a murmur as I approached the front desk. I recognized the lady behind the desk as one of my mother’s close relatives, and mine by default I suppose, and she smiled at me broadly, then asked if she could be of any assistance.
When I asked for my mother, she became somewhat perplexed, but paged her from her desk. In a couple of minutes, my mother showed up, and beamed at me, pleased I found out later, that I’d shown up in uniform. Leading me through the facilities, she introduced me to more folks than I’d ever have a chance of remembering, just like a proud mother hen.
As she led me into the physical therapy wing, where all the craft activities were contained, I noticed that it was empty except for one old man. He was dressed in bib overalls, like many of the old-timers in this area, bent over a band saw, skillfully guiding a piece of fine hardwood through the blade. My mother pulled on my arm to pass through the area into another, but as I walked across the floor, the old man turned, and yelled out, “Hi’ya Doc!”
I wasn’t going to stop, but my mother grabbed my arm, and said, “That’s the first thing he’s said since he’s been here.” “It’s really good to see you again.” He continued. Turning off the machine, he placed the bit of wood he’d been working off to the side, and shuffled over to us.
My mother was surprised, but she was quick to recover. “Well, hi Earl,” she said. “How’s your project going?” “Jes’ fine, Marion, jes’ fine. This yer boy?” I glanced over at my mom, who seemed to be in awe about the whole situation, and all she did was nod. “Strappin’ boy,” he commented.
He frowned a bit, reached out and ran his finger over the caduceus insignia on my left arm, and whispered, “Things have sure changed over the years, haven’t they Doc? Time was…”
Then, as though my mother no longer existed, he looked at me and said, “It’s been a really long time, Doc, and we have a lot to talk about.” As he said that, he walked me back into the work room. Stopping for a brief moment, he turned and looked me directly in the eyes as though seeing something I couldn’t. I thought that this would be a moment of truth but I was wrong, as he gently took hold of my elbow and led me to his work station.
Glancing back at my mother, I saw that she had a worried look on her face, but she nodded to me, encouraging me I thought, to keep talking with Earl. She didn’t have to worry, however, since Earl apparently had a great deal of talking backed up in his weary soul.
I was good at history, really good. My father had died just after the war while he was in the Army, and I’d been fascinated with anything that brought the vision of my father back into my life. WWII was the ‘event de’jure’ for the kids in my school, and many of us had soaked up as much information about it as we could.
Even as well-versed in history as I thought I was, Earl offered me a view of WWII that I’d never encounter until many years later, when television documentaries became common video fodder. He presented his recollection of events as if he was still there, and I his buddy by his side. One thing was certain however, his memory of the events were not impaired in the least, and as he related his stories, one could almost hear the din of battle, and smell the aftermath of fighting.
Well after curfew, my mother finally returned to remind Earl that it was bedtime, and in a moment of quick inspiration, informed him she meant my bedtime, not his. Flashing both of us a wry grin, he quietly apologized, slapped me on the shoulder, and thanked me for a wonderful chat.
My mind was swirling with images of his stories as I returned to my mom’s house, and I’d made up my mind to ask her for some background on Earl the next morning. In the meantime, I used the rest of the evening to get acquainted with her new husband, Vern.
Over breakfast the next morning, both mom and Vern gave me some history about Earl that seemed both inspiring and tragic. He’d apparently been a very successful carpenter when the War became inevitable, in his late-thirties and a widower. His two children had grown up and begun families of their own, although neither was living in our small town. In a normal world, this would seem to be a formula for stability and security.
When war was declared, many men like him, in a burst of patriotism, joined the Army. In his particular case, there was really no family of note to miss him if he wasn’t present, so it’d become a natural decision for him. Renting out his home for the duration was the last bit of personal business conducted in our town before leaving for the front.
After a very brief period of training, he was assigned to the 38th Infantry, and shipped off to the Pacific Theater. Little was heard of him during the war, and aside from infrequent notes to the realtor who was letting his home, he was pretty much out of mind.
He’d apparently participated in most of the action that the 38th had encountered, and was present when MacArthur returned to the Philippines, triumphant near the end of WWII.
My mother had shown me a beautiful case standing in the lobby of the nursing home; just chock full of medals and ribbons of all sorts on my tour of the place.
I could just make out some of the ones with which I’d become acquainted during my short military career to that time. Others were less familiar, although I’d made up my mind to do a bit of research about them later.
Awed, I asked her if this was where the staff displayed the awards and medals of all the residents who’d passed through the home over the years. It was certainly an impressive exhibition, and I was beginning to gain a true appreciation for the strength and will—read that backbone—of the inhabitants of these small cities in the Midwest.
My mother glanced at me, shook her head and said, “Son, those ALL belong to Earl; this is his awards case from his wartime years.”
I was stunned. One man, so many awards, and now sequestered in a nursing home, calmly turning out works of art in a small carpentry shop. Just what the hell was the story behind this quiet hero?
My visits home never lasted more than two weeks, more often than not, just one. As long as I was stationed at Great Lakes Naval Center, I took the train home whenever I was on leave, but when I transferred to the West Coast my visits became less frequent. However, whenever I managed to get back home, I made it a point to visit the home and the residents, each visit resplendent with new ribbons and medals from a continuing Naval career.
In between my Conus (stateside) assignments, I was stationed aboard ships supporting the troops serving the conflict in Vietnam, or assigned to the Fleet Marine Force as a medic, supporting troops in-country. I’d managed to rack up awards and commendations, though never enough to rival those of Earl’s, but I always wondered why he’d become attached to me, a service member from a different time, a different conflict.
Of course, I made it a special point to visit Earl whenever I arrived, who seemed only to come out of his shell whenever I visited. Although he occasionally slipped into ‘re-run’ mode from time to time, repeating scenarios from previous visits, most of the reminiscing was new to me, and formed a rather comprehensive picture of his time in the service, especially his relationship with a troopship medic by the name of William Henderson, Petty Officer Second Class, originally from New York state.
The voyage of personnel to the Pacific theater of war was long and tedious, and the troops and the crew of the ships entertained themselves as best they could. Movies shown on the mess decks and exchanged between the convoy member ships took up a lot of the slack, but even then, there were only so many movies to go around in the fleet, and soon the novelty wore off as re-runs became the new ‘norm’ amongst the crews.
Soon, the influence of scores of cultures and backgrounds amongst the crewmembers, both Navy and Army began to display a certain creativeness to fend off the tedium of a long, risky voyage into the heart of battle. Poker and Crap games sprung up all over the ships of the fleet, usually in wee hours between all hands, both ship’s crew and troops.
Most of the time, the games played out good naturedly, but occasionally, there were altercations that required the intervention of senior enlisted staff, but overall, it provided ample entertainment to the passengers and crew, enough to help dispel images of the horrors to come.
As Earl described the long voyage into the theater of battle, I could visualize the scenes portrayed, simply because they mimicked the same activities that were taking place aboard the troopships that I was assigned, moving inexorably towards the fields of battle in Vietnam. It seemed that as much as things changed, they remained the same.
Poker, Craps, and a newcomer to the troop repertoire, Pinochle; double-deck of course, and a legacy that had remained with the Navy for nearly a hundred years; Acey-Deucy, a variant of Backgammon. Leave it to the armed services to devise a vast number of ways for servicemen to lose their money. After all, for all these mostly single soldiers/sailors, what else could they do with it?
Earl might have been a lot of things, hero included, but he apparently was NOT a good poker player, and he managed to lose a lot to the various groups that he played with during the voyage. He’d managed to pay off nearly all of his gambling debts by the time the ship reached its destination, but he still owed his good friend Doc Henderson several thousand dollars by the time they reached the front.
Anchored offshore at nighttime, the entire crew of the troopship maintained ‘light’s out’ throughout the squadron, in preparation for an early morning landing on the beach of one of the Philippine’s remote islands. This was to prepare a beachhead for the full-blown invasion force now assembling many miles offshore.
No one slept that night, the morning landing looming large in everyone’s mind. Did the enemy know what was about to take place? Probably, they were informed. ‘Just be prepared for anything,’ they were told. Anything? A lot of prayers were said that night, as they knew there’d be many who wouldn’t return the next day. “Atheists couldn’t be distinguished from believers that night.’ Earl said, chuckling.
“The atheists figured that if they prayed, and there was a God to hear their prayers, there was at least a chance. If they prayed, and there was no God, it wouldn’t matter.” And he laughed, dryly.
Then his eyes got a little misty, and he shook his head wearily. “I’m a little tired tonight Doc,” he said, and begged off for the rest of the evening.
It was apparent to me that the memories that he’d resurrected this evening were taking a toll on him, and he exhaustedly retreated into his mental ‘security blanket’ for the night.
There was much more to this story than appeared to the casual observer, I thought. Everyone was looking at Earl as though he was ‘basket case’, but he was absolutely lucid when we were conversing about his exploits in the war.
That evening, I asked my mother about Earl; what was his known background—why was he in the home—where was his family these days? Shaking her head, she related some of the fragments of his life overseas that she’d overheard and read about in his charts to me.
My interest in this usually quiet man increased tremendously.
His own recollections provided more information over the next couple of years.
”It was close to the end of the war,” he began. “I had landed with my platoon on the island that morning, just before dawn.”
Sure enough, he continued, the enemy had anticipated their arrival, and the whole beachhead was ablaze with mortars, machine guns and small arms fire.
The landing boats were riddled with bullets and men began dying even before the boats touched the beach. Screams of agony joined the whistle of rounds and the whine of mortars pounding the beach during the landing. Doc Henderson huddled alongside the inside of the boat along with Earl, counting the seconds before their vessel hit the beach.
Doc Henderson was aboard to take the wounded back to the ships still disembarking troops, Earl’s mission was to hit the beach. Despite the difference in their missions, the bullets rained about them both like hail from hell, without discrimination.
Men were being wounded and killed all around them, and Doc Henderson immediately began the morbid task of trying to sort out the living from the dead, applying triage to save as many of the injured as he could.
Earl had managed to come out of the initial barrage unscathed, but once the forward ramp dropped onto the beach, it exposed everyone within to a wall of gunfire, interrupted only by explosions buffeting the landing craft from the woods beyond. There seemed to be no hope for survival for the landing personnel.
Bullets continued to slap against the steel hull in a relentless patter, and as the soldiers rushed towards the beach, the occasional ‘thump’ sounded as they found their targets in the mass of humanity exiting from the boats. Earl shouldered his pack, and was about to make his rush to the beach when he heard behind him. “Do it, Earl. This boat has had it, so you’re stuck with me for the duration.”
Looking back, Earl noticed that the boat was awash, and Doc had done all that he could do to provide succor to the few remaining survivors, had grabbed his Unit-One Medical Pack and guided him out onto the beach. Bullets still smacked into the ground around him, and Earl heard Doc laugh and shout, “Fuckers can’t hit a goddam thing!”
Grabbing his arm and hauling him off to the left side of the beach, Doc pulled him out of harm’s way as a mortar round destroyed the spot where they had paused. Whooping, Doc continued to pull him into the forest before them, keeping just out of reach of the gunfire ripping around them.
The acrid stench of cordite and gunpowder surrounded them, and Earl had some difficulty breathing from the thickness of it. Noting that he was relatively alone on that particular part of the beachhead, he turned instinctively towards an area where a group of survivors were assembling for protection.
As he did so, he told me that Doc Henderson had grabbed him by the elbow, pointed instead to a quiet patch of forest, and urgently pulled him towards it. Briefly resisting the pull, Earl finally allowed himself to be pulled into the woods, away from the more populous part of the beachhead.
Once they’d gotten into the cover of the forest, he turned to Doc and demanded to know why they’d gone there instead of joining up with the rest of the troops.
Doc simply smiled, and told him that Earl owed him too much money to be allowed to get himself killed, and that it was his duty to protect his financial interests. Besides, he continued, he needed to do a bit of patching on his friend before he rejoined the fighting.
Indeed, looking down at himself, Earl saw a spreading stain of blood on his left side, although he couldn’t feel anything yet. It seemed however, that once noticed the wound in his side screamed for attention.
Using a pair of bandage scissors from his medical kit, Doc quickly cut away part of the uniform, exposing the wound which didn’t seem too serious. Briefly dabbing away the blood, he then dusted the wound with an antiseptic powder, which both aided coagulation and prevented infection. A quick battle dressing finished the job quickly, and an astonished Earl gained a whole new appreciation for the skill of his young Medic friend.
Then, as if reading his mind, Doc told him that he’d give him nothing for pain yet, for he needed his wits about him for the fighting that was yet to come. Earl nodded in agreement, then followed the now moving Doc further into the woods.
They progressed unmolested deeper into the foliage, Doc leading the way. As quietly as they could, given the deafening thunder of gunfire and artillery coming from the beach, they travelled for several minutes into the forest before turning back towards the beach. No explanation was given by Doc for this movement, but Earl was in no position to question it.
Soon, Earl found himself facing the beachhead once more, but this time from the vantage point of the forest. Before him appeared two surprising sights; the huddled mass of U.S. troops lying nearly flat along the beach, trying to find some shelter from the bombardment and machine gun fire, and between him and them, a dug in group of enemy machine gunners, strafing the entire area.
The defenders had planned well he saw, as they had dug in deeply, and had constructed a fairly robust bulwark facing the beach, behind which they enjoyed nearly complete protection from any fire coming from the beach.
Behind them however, they’d not even considered that invading troops would ever be coming up behind them, and they’d done nothing to protect their back from attack. As he was considering this, he felt Doc’s hand on his shoulder and his voice whisper into his ear.
“Help me, Earl; help me save some lives.” He pleaded.
Nodding in agreement, Earl quickly surveyed his resources. Two grenades, several clips of M-1 rifle ammunition, and little else. They weren’t even under decent cover, as the brush that concealed them from the enemy wouldn’t provide much protection from fire—this against nearly twenty heavily armed enemies now pouring a deadly hail of bullets into the vulnerable troops on the beach.
Finally, Earl set out the clips of ammunition in a readily accessible line, and placed the grenades in front of him. He didn’t expect to survive this adventure, but he hoped that his sacrifice would allow the men on the beach to make their way to some kind of safety
Suddenly, he felt Doc’s hands on either side of his head, pulling Earl’s face into his. “Earl, don’t worry. I’ll always be with you, by your side, from this time on. You’re my ‘piggy-bank’ buddy; I need to take care of you.” Earl looked at his friend, saw a wide smile on his face, and began to take some action.
His M-1 rifle fully loaded, he carefully removed the pin from one of the grenades and cautiously estimated the distance for his throw. Taking in a deep breath, he tossed the weapon towards the assembled enemies, and felt a bit of relief when he heard the fierce explosion.
Waiting a few moments, he finally looked up to survey the damage, but was met with a barrage of gunfire. He’d over-thrown his toss, and the enemy soldiers were now aware of his presence, with a vengeance.
The hail of redirected gunfire ripped through the frail shelter behind which he’d hidden, and he felt several of the bullets find their mark, passing through his body with subtle ‘tugs’, although the pain had yet to materialize.
Doc suddenly fell upon his body, bringing him back to the ground. “Earl, that’s only strike one!” he yelled into his ear.
Taking this opportunity to regroup his senses, Earl picked up his last grenade, pulled the pin, and crossing himself, tossed it towards the bulwark. Again, a satisfying explosion greeted this action. Again, he waited a few moments before rising up to survey the damage. Again, he was greeted by gunfire, but only about five of the enemy soldiers had survived the blast.
Two more bullets found their mark, and Earl was getting a bit faint from loss of blood. Raising his M-1 to his shoulder, he began shooting into the enclosure, aiming for anything that moved. Soon, there was nothing but silence; even the bombardment onto the beach had paused, briefly.
That was the last thing that Earl remembered, until the Army Medics had come upon his shattered body, and conveyed him back to the awaiting troopship. There, he found that his friend Doc Henderson, had not survived the landing. Drifting off once again into a coma, it was weeks later that he’d come back to consciousness, and sent back into battle for a couple more years.
It wasn’t until the end of the war that certain strange facts began to intrude on Earl’s perception of how he’d earned those many medals and honors. And that was where the separation between reality and something else began to take place.
Now Staff Sergeant Earl Hobson, he'd begun to assemble the bits and pieces of his military history to pass on to his remaining family. While collecting memorabilia, he came across several ‘buddies’ who had been on that beachhead so many years ago, and as they began to swap stories, some disturbing information began to challenge his own recollection of those long ago events.
Doc Henderson had never left the landing craft, they told him. He was killed the moment the ramp dropped into the surf. A hail of gunfire blew through the boat at that time, and apparently Earl had been nearly the only survivor of that craft.
His head buzzing, he definitely recalled Doc accompanying him into the concealing forest, and patching him up whenever he suffered wounds in the upcoming fight. There had to be an explanation, something that someone wasn’t sharing with him.
Further questions began to put together a very strange picture of the actual event however, one that even the witnesses couldn’t explain very well.
Their recollection was of being pinned down on the beach, anticipating annihilation from the bunkers along the tree line, and no help in sight. They’d seen his boat being ripped apart as they hit the beach, but soon their attention had been focused on their own survival.
Just about when they’d all but given up hope, comrades being picked off one by one, they heard an explosion just in front of the enemy bunker. Peeking up from the sand they saw the enemy soldiers turned away from them, frantically firing into the forest.
Not about to wait until their attention was focused on them once more, the troops began to scurry off to their right and towards the cover of the forest. Fortunately, the bunker in that direction had been taken out by ship’s bombardment earlier in the landing, and their progress was unhindered.
Then, another loud explosion, this time next to the unprotected side of the enemy bunker caused screams to break out in that direction. More firing from the few remaining enemy soldiers, still into the woods behind them, then the familiar sound of an army standard issue M-1 rifle followed, until it was the last sound they heard from that direction.
Later, after that beachhead had been secured, Army Medics cautiously searched the woods behind the decimated bunker, and discovered Earl, fairly well shot up, but alive. They were able to piece together what had happened, except for a couple of odd facts.
“Earl,” one of his buddies said. “You missed your calling; you should have been a medic.” When he saw the look of confusion on Earl’s face, he continued. “You had been pretty well shot up, but you used that first aid bag you took from the landing craft like a pro. The medics said that they’d not seen that kind of patchwork done since their schooling. That was what kept you alive.”
‘And won him the first of many awards and medals during the remainder of this war,’ I thought.
Earl said that a chill went up his spine when he heard this. He hadn’t brought anything with him to the beach but his rifle, ammo, a couple of grenades and some K-rations. It was the Doc that had brought it and administered to his wounds. But the Doc never made it out of the boat, they said.
Could he have seen a ghost? One who could actually patch him up and lead him to where he could do the most good for the unit? He remembered Doc’s last request to him, ‘Help me, Earl. Help me save some lives.’
He decided not to share those thoughts with his comrades, lest they think he was crazy. This was a secret that he’d kept until he retired years later.
Once he’d returned to civilian life, he began a search to find surviving relatives of Doc Henderson, an obsession that lasted nearly four years. Finally, he found a sister in upper state New York, with whom he’d begun a short correspondence.
It’s difficult to discern the difference between genuine concern and blatant greed sometimes. His remaining relatives soon learned of his plans regarding the repayment of his wartime debt to Doc Henderson’s heirs, and fearing a depletion of what they considered their rightful inheritance, began plans to get him declared ‘incompetent’ in the handling of his financial affairs.
Curiously, it was his honesty that finally convinced the courts that he be protected from himself, and sequestered in this nursing home. When asked about why he felt it necessary to pass on a large sum of money to complete strangers, he related the story concerning his relationship with Doc Henderson, including the seemingly impossible circumstances surrounding his act of heroism on that lonely Philippine island so long ago.
‘Shell Shock’ they called it, and remanded him to the care of a resident psychiatrist who had no experience whatsoever in handling cases such as this. Today we'd categorize his condition as PTSD. Resigned, Earl made the best of his sad situation and immersed himself in his pre-war vocation, carpentry.
His upkeep was supplemented by a modest allowance from his estate thoughtfully allowed by the judge in his case.
Then, came that fateful day when I’d come to the home, so long ago.
Recognizing what we thought were kindred spirits, we established a friendship that withstood the test of time. Indeed, I came to admire the quiet strength with which he bore his burden, and the genuine friendliness that characterized our many visits over the years.
There were moments however, when I observed him slip into what I called ‘slices of time’ from his past. Every now and then it became difficult for me to tell whether he thought he was talking to me, or to his friend, Doc Henderson. By the time I thought something had shifted however, we were back on track.
That never bothered me, as I’d come to relate to his friend from my own personal experiences in the Vietnam conflict.
Inevitably, time was the spoiler in our relationship, as it was apparent to me that Earl was becoming more frail on each visit, and the gleam in his eyes that greeted me these days was dimming.
I recalled my last visit with Earl quite clearly, as it was unlike any before. This time it seemed as though there were three of us in the room, and our conversation oddly included the specter of Doc Henderson, although it was Earl that created that sense.
Mostly listening, I ‘felt’ the dialogue between Earl and his phantom as the conversation played out. Every now and then, he referred to me, and nodded to me for either approval or acknowledgement. This was the only time that I’d begun to wonder about Earl’s sanity, but I still didn’t feel like an outsider.
Glancing to his side he said, “You kept your promise, Doc. You never left me; you were always here. Now I have to keep my promise to you. Your ‘piggy-bank’ is ready for transfer.” Then, turning to me he said, “Doc, please take this and help me wrap things up.”
He had pressed a tightly folded wad of paper into my hands and embraced me tightly, slapping my back as any comrade might. Then, tearfully, he excused himself and slowly made his way back into the home.
It wasn’t until I returned to my mother’s house that I examined the note that he’d pressed into my hand that night. It was an address of someone in New York, somewhat worn from use, and it was wrapped around an account number in the local bank in our small town.
I showed it to my mother’s husband, who agreed to help me find out more about the bank account number. Myself, I looked up the address, found a telephone number and discovered that it belonged to the sister of Doc Henderson, whom Earl had contacted some time ago, before his incarceration.
Vern returned home that next afternoon, with the information that the account belonged to Earl, and had been set up years ago to collect the allowances that the court had allowed for his use, but that it hardly had been utilized all that time. It contained nearly seventy-five thousand dollars, and the bank had a note assigning me full power of attorney over its use.
I was somewhat overwhelmed over these revelations, but my leave was up, and I had to return to my ship for another tour to Vietnam. This would turn out to be the toughest tour in my career, as the conflict was winding down, and not in our favor.
As I frantically treated the many casualties from these final days, both military and civilian, I couldn’t help but recall a young medic from another war, another time. The enemy was swiftly approaching the last vestiges of our presence in this country, and they were not inclined to treat their long time adversary kindly if overcome.
Finally, the time had come to make our final farewell to this battlefield, and as the choppers began to file in to land, they began to take fire from the parameter of our aid station. While the enemy could pay lip service to the conventions of war by not targeting our first aid stations directly, there was no provision for the transportation of the injured, especially when there were no Red Cross markings on the choppers to identify them as such.
“All balls and bravado; but no brains!” That’s how the chopper pilots described themselves, but make no mistake; it took more skill to manipulate those ‘sky squirrels’ than to navigate a jet in a straight line, and it’d be a cold day in hell for a jet to land here and carry out the wounded.
Sure enough, they began to drop through the hail of gunfire to land near the hospital tents, and the medical personnel began the task of running out the wounded to attach to the chopper rails. Then, one after the other they began to rise and head homeward, again through a hail of bullets.
The enemy had gotten much closer to the camp by now, and had decided to dispense with conventions and direct their fire into the hospital tents. I was sure that this was going to be my last act of stupidity when I felt a presence that I couldn’t see.
“Fuckers can’t hit a goddam thing!” rasped into my ear, and I turned to find the source of the remark, but couldn’t find anything. The hair on the back of my neck began to rise.
Looking around, all I could see were what medics referred to as the ‘sick, the lame, and the lazy,’ all trying to make some sort of sense out of the mayhem. These were the more or less able-bodied soldiers who had reported to sick call with one complaint or another, but were otherwise able to perform their duties, given proper direction.
“Carlos, you ‘spic’ bastard; help me save some lives!” I shouted. Amazed that I’d shouted that out, I watched as a look of bewilderment crossed Carlos’ face, then a broad grin as he gathered several of the other Marines, shouldered his M16 and directed them to pour gunfire into the toughest part of the enemy line.
Slowly, they began pushing the Viet Cong back along the perimeter, forcing them to concentrate on their fire on the defending troops rather than on the relieving choppers, who hadn’t hesitated in their mission to rescue the inhabitants of the relief camp.
Noticing that several of the defenders were wounded by now, I began moving from one to the other, patching their wounds and offering encouragement. Even when I had finally been shot a few times, I kept on going, doing what I had to do until nearly all of the party had been lifted out of the camp.
Then I assisted the few remaining soldiers into the final chopper, with them hanging out the sides, spraying the invaders with withering fire, and we took off into the remaining sunlight.
On the way back to safety, we couldn’t help but notice the waning sunlight sparkling through the many bullet holes in the chopper, and we wondered how in the world we’d ever made it to safety. It turned out that both the pilot and copilot had been wounded early on in the encounter, but had returned twice to pick our shit out of the hell of the Vietnam Inferno. ‘Brother’s in Arms,’ I thought.
Along with more commendations and medals than I warranted, I was shipped back to the states for ‘Rest and Repair.” While I was there, I contacted Vern, my mother’s husband about information on Earl, and what our direction with the instructions that Earl had left me might be.
Sadly, he informed me that Earl had passed away shortly after my last visit, but had left further instructions for me on my next visit. As to the documents that he’d already presented me, I was bound to several instructions.
All but $10,000 was to be presented to Doc Henderson’s sister. The remaining $10,000 was mine, to do with as I wished. No negotiation on this point, it stated.
But, that left me with a lot of leeway, and I decided to donate half of it to the Nursing Home, and the other half to the Navy Relief Society, offering relief to both Sailors and Marines in distress. I thought he’d have wanted it that way.
Since I was now officially a ‘War Hero,’ the home wanted to create a memorial of some sort in my honor with the money, but I overruled that thought immediately. But, they’d given me an idea. The real hero in this story had been Earl and Doc Henderson, so I allowed them to create a memorial to them, and to all the servicemen and women who’d follow in their footsteps.
Another surprise came when I visited the home after recovering from my wounds. I was walked into the foyer of the home by my mother and met with thunderous applause by the staff and patients. Many of the patients with whom I’d conversed with over the years came up to touch and congratulate me, undoubtedly for having made it out of the mess I’d been in when I left Vietnam.
Choked up, I thanked them all; most of all for ‘having my back’ all these years. They were a wonderful resource to me, a reminder of what I’d entered the service to defend, to protect, and to preserve.
Earl had been the ultimate example of a ‘service’ man; self sacrificing, silent suffering and an absolute patriot. A vital part of him had been passed on to me in our acquaintance, and a vital part of me had been passed on to my own comrades.
The final ‘gift’ in my visit to the home was a magnificent cabinet, built of hardwood and stained to a lovely mahogany hue, both burgundy and blond highlights shining in the lights of the hall. It had obviously been a work of love. This was a final gift to me from Earl.
It was divided into several shelves, each containing the history of an American conflict of one sort or another. Near the top, I could see the replicas of my own awards and honors, along with a few others. Beneath, I could see those of Earl’s, sparkling and proud.
But most importantly, I noticed a shelf above both of ours, empty. Waiting, I could feel; waiting for the next failure of civilized negotiation to produce the following generation of heroes; the next generation of warriors to shed blood for God, Country, and the American Way.
I’m seventy years old now, and the memories are beginning to crowd into my mind once again. We don’t have much else at that age, I think.
Still, sometimes I hear the voices of Earl and Doc Henderson whispering to me; ‘It’s only strike one, Doc; keep the faith.”
Major General Carlos Santiago stopped in to the home that day to visit. The Marine Corps must be bored to death these days, I thought.
Resplendent in medals and ribbons, he was escorted into my office with a bit of fanfare, but noticing my frown, asked that he be left alone with me.
“Doc,” he began. “I’ve waited years to connect up with you once again. You may not know it, but you saved my life and that of the rest of the camp when you knocked me out of my stupor that day in Vietnam.”
All I could do was shake my head, and inform him that our lives were saved by a long line of warriors from different times.
His puzzled look only made me smile, as he couldn’t understand what it was I was talking about.
Standing, I saluted him with the one thing I felt he could understand; “Semper Fi!”
Snapping up from his seat, he responded with his own salute; “Semper Fi!” and embraced me.
Nothing more had to be said. We understood. We were all brothers.