This is a short story I wrote about a fictional father who served in the military during WWII. My own father didn't. He had been reprieved with a medical exemption. This is a conversation between two people who seemingly lived on different planets.
I put this out here in remembrance to all those who gave their lives so people like me can make up stories like this one. To the Veterans to whom we all owe a great deal.
It's Called "430"
My father was a very simple man. He served in the navy during WWII. I popped into the world around the same time. The day he left for duty he planted me in my mothers little garden. I was two years old when he finally made it home for good.
Dad had to clean up after battles by gathering the dead from the beaches and the water. Wherever there were dead soldiers, he’d be there afterwards. The war kept him busy. By the time his outfit reached Iwo Jima, he felt like retiring.
Dad smoked like a nervous hooker, “we all did,” he would tell me. Whenever I asked why he smoked so much, “We all did.” He smoked for forty-seven years and finally the people who make Camel cigarettes made good on their promise.
Two days before he died my father had me sit down with him and he told me something he said he’d carried inside him for all those forty some years. He didn’t breathe very well at this point but he managed to get out this confession.
He called the vessel he served on a mortuary ship. It would follow the fleet around, he told me, and clean up the marines and sailors who wouldn’t be making the trip home.
“We had just taken the beaches of Iwo Jima, "he said, "The marines were all over the place, on the beaches, inland, and on ships. And bodies were just mangled to pieces. The soldiers kept busy organizing their operations and trying to stay alive. The Japs had mines planted everywhere, including the water, and every so often you’d hear an explosion and you’d know there’d be another guy not goin` home.
"You expect people to get shot or blown up in war, and these guys had been through Hell. But I seen somethin` that day in the lagoon that made me sick to my stomach, and it’s still here,” he said pointing to his stomach, “in my head.”
“This new troop carrier had just anchored in the bay waiting to unload its cargo of fresh marines. These guys hadn’t even seen action yet.” He paused. His face turned red, he looked like he was holding his breath. I asked him if he was all right. He nodded and put his fist to his chest like he had heartburn or something. I figured it had to be his heart, but said nothing. I just waited and looked at him. We both knew he wouldn’t last long. Besides, what could I do for him? He looked at me hoping I wouldn’t notice, like I had no idea he was sick.
“Finally,” he said, “the carrier was floating near the entrance to the lagoon, when suddenly a mine hit it. When I got there, bodies were all over the place, just floating face down. There were no signs of these guys being shot, burned, or blown to smithereens. We got busy pulling them up outta the water. Some guys were down there in troop carriers scooping them up. We were droppin` nets,” he stopped to catch his breath. For a couple of minutes he lay there panting. Then he continued, “…and grappling hooks, anything to get them the hell outta the water as fast as we could.
“The medics checked them. They moved from body to body quickly. One doc finally stood up and took off his helmet and scratched his head. He walked over to the Ensign in charge and said, ‘But they all have broken necks.’ ”
Slowly my father continued, “When they were told to abandon ship, many of them were still wearing their helmets, and jumped overboard.
“Shit, son. That’s at least a 40-foot drop. Do you know what their heads did when their helmets hit the water from that height?”
I didn’t know if this question was hypothetical or not, but I said, “Uh, no.”
“Their heads snapped back the second they hit the water, and broke their necks.” He stopped talking and coughed, his eyes were moist from the coughing, I thought, maybe it’s the memory of those Marines “Those dumb-ass mother-fuckers never even got shot at and they died before any of ‘em could shit their pants.” My dad chuckled a bit, “I took off my helmet right then and there and never wore it again.”
Then he coughed. He coughed good and hard. He coughed until he spat blood, and turned a couple shades of purple. Finally he settled down. My mother came in then and gave him a shot of morphine the doctor had given her. We waited until he fell asleep, and left the room. That was the last thing he said. He died a couple of days later in the early morning before anybody got up. My mother later told me that she thought she had heard a noise. Thinking she heard somebody downstairs she got up and went to look. She found my father at the window slouched over in the chair, his cane had knocked over the lamp.
He had been upstairs for weeks unable to even go to the bathroom. How he got downstairs beats the hell out of me. My mother still laments over that. When she saw him, she screamed bloody murder. It was 4:30 AM. I have to say he looked a lot better lying there than he had the last few weeks. It’s as if all the worries left him the minute he stopped living. I don’t think this could be said of the bodies he recovered in the war.
For weeks afterwards, my mother would get up at 4:30 every day like an alarm went off, go downstairs and clean the living room, except she never touched that chair again.