First published July 29, 2016
I was just out of school, still mostly a boy, when I joined the Navy. There was a big war going on, and I was eager to serve my country and see the world. In the early days, I had the exuberance of youth; the certainty of my invulnerability. I believed I would return home a hero, with interesting tales to tell for the rest of my life.
It wasn’t long before my fantasies collapsed and my mood (and most of the others’ around me) swung between a self-protective detachment and abject terror. These emotions often manifested at inappropriate moments. One afternoon, our ship was strafed by enemy planes. I and my fellow gunners manned the positions, immediately becoming primary targets for fire. Two of my companions died right on the deck beside me, but I had no time to mourn, no time for fear. I focused on my job. My aim was true. I brought down two aircraft, watching with indifference as their pilots and their crews were swallowed by the vast, unbroken ocean.
During that battle and in the hours that followed, I felt nothing. It was only much later that a thick fog of terror and panic rolled in, enveloping and smothering me.
Weeks later, a bird fell from the sky, dead, onto the deck and suddenly, I felt awash in guilt for having taken the lives of those foreign flyers. They were not so different from me and my mates, all of us just doing our jobs.
Some nights after many days of relative calm, I’d wake up in a cold sweat. The quiet felt like a bad omen.
Apropos of nothing, the hair would stand up on my neck. My breath would grow short and my heart would beat, rat-tat-tat, like an artillery tattoo, in my chest.
But in action, I was distracted, attentive, too focused on what was happening in that very moment to worry about what might happen in the future, even the immediate future.
And so the months went, a pendulum between action and tedium, fear and fatalism.
Eventually, it was my turn for leave. We were heading for a friendly port, and once there, I would be flying home for a week or so to see my family and my girl.
I hung in my hammock, wrapped like a cocoon so I wouldn’t fall out, swinging to and fro in the rough seas. When I first came to the ship, I found this movement rather sickening, but eventually I grew used to it and felt it comforting, like being rocked to sleep in a cradle. The sound of the other guys snoring and grunting gave me comfort, for we were brothers and took care of each other. I was sleeping peacefully, dreaming of home.
And then, suddenly I was wide awake, up to my face in quickly-rising salt water, the smell of fuel thick in the air. The ship had been hit by a torpedo and we were sinking fast. I could see others floating around me, already dead. I had only a few moments of consciousness left before it was my turn to drown. I said a quick prayer and then gave myself over to remembering the last time my girl and I kissed. And then I was gone.