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The Ensign

By Gregory James Shuck.

The old man sat at leisure on his front porch, in his favorite rocker, facing south. He was relegated to whittling now, having farm hands doing the milking. The air was cool for that time of year. He spied a figure coming in the morning sun. The figure had a familiar walk, not unlike his own. When the figure was recognized, it turned toward the rising sun in the east and pointed to three gates which the dairy farmer hadn’t seen before, but he was drawn by the light behind each, and he asked the figure which one was preferable to walk through, for the old man knew this is what he must do. The figure hesitated, and said each gate was to his liking, but he preferred the third, the one on the right.

The ensign watched as the boat lashes were being torn apart by the jolting collisions of the two landing craft, and knew that re-rigging the lashes to the T-Bitts would risk life and limb of the two decks hands from each boat, safe now in the engine rooms. He called them up to prepare the lashes, and only sent them forward when the hemp lines snapped. The boats had been lashed together to provide a steadier platform as the boats searched in vain for a larger carrier, and be safely tied on the large ship’s lee. Not normally the preferred manner, but this was a tenuous day, and these two boats were the only boats out in the tempest.

His landing boat, the damage control boat, would be the last out of the raging waters. The other boats had already that day been machine-gunned, bombed, targeted by the enemy, and had made at least twelve runs to the beach that day, ferrying brave soldiers with rifles and bayonets.

He had survived two such landings in both hemispheres, each one more bloody as the flying enemy conjured defeat, dive bombing ships and boat crews in suicide-style attacks. Oh, the forceful pride of that enemy, implanted by a culture which believed it must be saved without a second thought to the individual act. Lesser by degree like the dairy farm from which he had come three long years before, for the individual needed to give up himself to the needs of the farm and family.

Still, the ensign’s boat would be the last out of the water, for he and his familial crew of a coxswain, two deck hands, and an engineer, had been trained to repair any boat or rescue crews from a broached landing. They hadn’t been needed that day as in the days previously in the war, as coxswains gained experience and confidence in their beaching maneuvers. Full speed to the beach, brace for shock, keep the twin engines and screws turning, more power to the port if the stern swung to starboard. Maintain a perpendicular position to the bloody sands ahead and gory, limb-filled tidal waves astern.

The ensign’s third landing attack was at 0500 that day and he thought it might be his last.  Had the Father, then the Son, he thought, protected him in those two previous previous battles? Perhaps the Holy Ghost would protect him now. Or was it duty, honor, country? Maybe Neptune would intervene on the next attack. He had never prayed to Neptune, he wryly said to himself. Perhaps this day or the next he would pass through the gate of the Holy Ghost.

This time, it wasn’t the suicide fighters that he feared. It was inexhaustible nature, the power of the seas, ten-foot now twenty-five foot slate-gray waves, now turning brown and foamy white-gray with the onset of dusk. He and his crew would be in darkness in twenty, thirty minutes. They would struggle with keeping the bow toward the waves, sensing them without seeing them.

All but three other landing boats had been pulled, no, angrily plucked from the sea, the ship’s booms acting like spider limbs removing their prey. The crew of five was made to stand on the empty outer edge of their craft as the ship plucked them to the gunwale, hands clutching the handrail against the powerful motion of machine and wave. Outboard, because falling in the water would mean certain death by crushing bone and flesh between boat and starboard ship side. The ensign’s boat would lay close enough to rescue the crew had the boat broached against the ship, spilling the five into the waves.

Attaching the boom hook to the boat’s horse collar was the unhappy task of the deck hands, who braved a swinging boom and waves from the port side. Why are the men with the most dangerous tasks always the least paid, if not respected? The coxswain could only yell to brace for shock as he tried to maintain a steadying rudder and engines. After the two hands had placed the trip wire to slide the heavy boom hook to the horse collar, they made a scramble to the stern quickly, as the danger to the boat was greatest when the horse collar was hooked and the waves threw the boat and crew against the ship. The coxswain, the last from his control position, was thrown forward with a port wave, forcing his chest and hands forward to the controls, the engines racing forward with the unwanted action. The boat lurched ahead at alarming speed, the boom hook stopped it as the boat’s bow raised, the crew now in the slate-gray sea.

The ensign’s boat proceeded to the men, but was called off by the ships bos’n bull horn because of the dangerous waves. Seven life preservers with lines attached were tossed by the ship’s crew, and each of four weary men was hoisted onboard. The coxswain, still at his controls, was jerked to the 60-foot gunwale, cutting his sea-cooled engines as the boat left the water.

Two to go, or so the ensign thought. Already dark, the attack had been planned for a cloudy morning, the new moon in no way shone its fractious light on the attackers. All was silent now, the radios under silence to disallow the enemy awareness of their positions, the suicide planes silent because each one had been thrown to the sea by ship fire or attacks by friendly fighter pilots. The ensign knew that now the soldiers were fighting for every inch on the island, the loss of human blood heavy on the attackers, later heavy for the enemy. Many of the enemy planes and soldiers were out of ammunition. The ensign had heard the survivor stories of his friends, now more of them coming back due to adjustment of attacks from debrief of other landings.

Now a booming voice from the boat group commander, the ensign’s lieutenant, instructing a third remaining boat to the ship’s green nine amidships on the starboard side, the crew making that empty spot ready for the boat. The ensign knew the lieutenant  was the first out of the water, but he conceded it was necessary, for only that man could understand where each of his boats were and get them as quickly as possible to a safe and empty station. He’d been chosen by the first lieutenant for his keen wit, bravery and voice. The ensign had heard the voice at times when he was conning officer under the lieutenant on watch on the bridge, his voice barking commands in dangerous maneuvers under fire. Then as now, the lieutenant was the only man for the job and did it well.

The ensign ordered the damage control boat near the green nine to take the fastest route possible, ahead of the ship’s bow.  A dangerous maneuver considering the amphibious ship was cruising at five knots to maintain bare steerageway. The skill with which the experienced coxswain slung his boat around the bow made the ensign smile.

The ensign knew that his earlier demeanor had been the chat of fun when he reported aboard, making the usually grim officers laugh at his expense. But those jokes had all but disappeared after the ensign had shown signs of maturity from previous missions. He had shown equal wit and bravery, and chosen as well for next in the boat command due to his hearty voice. The voice was derived from his farm experience, rounding up the cows for their daily milking. With those acumen the ensign had beaten others more senior for the job, and he was to receive the captain’s early promotion to lieutenant junior grade after this third landing.

But when would the long hours end today, the ensign wondered. He had written a few short notes to his father about the proposed promotion and some of his experiences, leaving out tactical details due the secrecy of their missions. Loose lips sink ships, the motto of the allies repeated.

His father would know those tactics through his own experience and acumen, and a weekly reading of the Sunday newspaper that wended its way to the dairy farm from the nearest small town. That experience came from his own navy career during the last war. He had commanded a submarine destroyer during that struggle and had survived, with he and his crew earning the highest navy honor for the sinking of eight enemy subs.

The father’s survival, he felt, had come from an unwavering belief that he could mold and change the natural elements set before him. Master the ship’s rudder and you can master its location. Know the ship’s engines and you now can feel their acceleration and power. Look carefully for a submarine’s periscope feather and you can see your enemy. Learn to catapult your sea mines to port or starboard to destroy that which intends to destroy you.

Staying in the here and now keeps you alive. He’d taught this to all his junior officers, as they in turn taught the enlisted men under their charge.

This was not something he could teach his only son, now east engaging an aggressive foe. Once, the son had allowed cows to wander too far from the farm, which invariably ended up in the river, drowned.  The son had been recalcitrant, but asserting that he lived life from one dream to the next, an examined life which he hoped would bring him a measure of happiness. The father had hoped the son could survive in a place where action, not dreams, would keep you alive, leaving that vice to the farm upon his return.

The father had learned the hard lessons of maintaining direct control over the farm, for it had been in a terrible state when he took it over from his father. Still, he persisted; it was the only thing the man knew, except for commanding men on a submarine destroyer. And he was too old for that now.

With long hours, getting rid of the help allowed the farmer to make a small profit and expand his herd.  His son had come of age to help with the milking, hay-gathering, and transporting the milk to market. By the time the son had left for the war, the farm was thriving; demand for milk powder required for his son and the rest of the sailors and soldiers had increased dramatically. Can’t fight a war without protein, the middle-aged man said to himself.

He had had to hire an older gentleman to assist him at the farm, to replace the son. The gentleman had not the strength of the boy, but he didn’t do a lot of daydreaming, either, and he worked for room and board only, having no family, and not likely to gain one, either. He was quiet and to himself most evenings, taking tea in his room when the farmer couldn’t cajole him into playing double-twelves dominoes.

Often of an evening, the father would sit on the porch, in his favorite chair facing south. He wondered in those instances where his son was, what he was thinking, did he stay in the moment to command his troops in survival-making tactics. For this he thought of his service in the throes of war.

In the throes with the foe and out of the darkness the ensign heard a voice, but he heard only his father.  Bravery in the face of danger and death, his father said. Your cause is right. We were only the aggressors against those who aggressed us. Loyalty to God; duty, honor, country. He heard that voice now and believed, even after all the blood the ensign had seen. But he heard another voice, the voice of his coxswain, in a sound which made the ensign rejoin the present. The boat commander is calling you from the ship, the coxswain said. The ensign stepped out of the boat’s conning station.

Too dangerous to bring you aboard, the voice called. Marry with the other landing boat and head south-southwest to the carrier. She won’t have navigation lights due to possible suicide bombers. The damned enemy, thought the ensign, but he called back, “Yes, Sir, Lieutenant.”

The ensign had left the other boat on the port side, for he knew that this boat’s plucking station would be there, amidships. He found that boat ready to marry with forward, amidships, and stern lines to provide a better platform and not allow one boat to get lost at sea. The lieutenant must have forewarned them as well.  Better ten heads and heated hearts and bodies together than two sets of five apart. The two boats married, and headed on a magnetic course of 200 degrees, as the lieutenant ordered, at what speed the boats could do in those seas.

Near midnight now, the ensign’s watch read, a watch he had been given by his father upon leaving the dairy farm for naval service. Duty, honor, country, it read, without an apparent need to tell who the giver of the watch was.

The two boat’s bow lashes had been torn apart by the waves three times, those taking the most stress, but also the most dangerous to remarry, the ensign thought negatively. He had been tempted to join the two deck hands to aid them, but he knew those two noble lads were experts at the many tasks he’d given them, and the ensign knew he was needed to order and control his small party.

They continued to drive the boats without aids of radio or navigation lights, as tactics called for. The magnetic compasses swung sixty degrees as the boats swung to and fro, but the direction the boats maintained was roughly south-southwest. How many nautical miles had the lieutenant said the carrier was from the ship, he and his crews having left six hours before? Had the lieutenant said? He probably didn’t know, since radars were also silent, not enabling the enemy to discovering ships’ locations. Now four-thirty with dim light. No safety in the lee of the carrier. Had she attempted to turn course north-northeast to find the two small boats, the ensign wondered. How many times had the four nearly exhausted deck hands risked their lives on the bow? Twelve? Fifteen? One deck hand had nearly pinched his entire wrist between boat and boat when he had done the most dangerous maneuver, slipping the hemp line through the forward gunwale eye. Honors for all four, he promised to himself.

The boats moved relentlessly on, making perhaps two knots in the somewhat calming weather. They had traveled nearly twenty miles. Where was the damned carrier? They had now been twenty, no, twenty-one hours in the search of it. The ensign thought now not of Neptune, but of a church service, his grandfather’s funeral twelve years prior, when the ensign himself was a boy of twelve, and of the Holy Ghost. Though I walk now in the shadow of death. Death, the ensign whispered, like the endless trough of the sea this night.

He returned to task. The twin engines on his boat were whirring, high pitch, then low pitch as the screws came out of the water and sped the engines alarmingly until propeller reached for and found the sea again, the boats pitching and yawing, possible capsizing if one of the bow lines broke at an unfortunate time.

High pitch, low pitch, endlessly, thinking about how his father would assess his actions yesterday and today. Would he think of some new tactic in finding the carrier? Break radio silence? Tell each boat to go alone in slightly different directions? No, his father answered, still concentrating on the high pitch. The low pitch.

Then a continuous pitch, a higher frequency. The ensign came out of his meandering thoughts. Forward lookout reports an enemy plane, the coxswain reported. Coming this way, knowing we’re defenseless. Better ten than not reach an armed ship, the dirty pilot thought, or so the ensign did. No doubt now, coming onward lower from the port side. Probably just shoot at us, and return if there was anything left of our existence.

It was not shooting. No rat-tat-tat-tat-tat from the machine gun, timed to go through the whirring blades of the propeller. Blade, bullet, blade, bullet. Definitely a suicide attack. The ensign ordered all of his men, nine in all, to jump in the water, and swim like hell away from this mess. They pled with the ensign to accompany them, but this was his fight. And his father’s and father’s father in the ensign’s mind. He could see the pilot now, growing clearer in the morning light, now close enough to see a fifteen-year old boy with pockmarks and pimples. Did the boy think of his forefathers now, another world from himself and the ensign?

The ensign was ready. With his 45-caliber weapon he raised it to the cockpit and the pimply boy. With one clean steady shot he hoped to make the pilot lose consciousness and unwillingly steer the controls away from the boats. The shot made its mark, but the wounded pilot maintained his now short-lived course.

The ensign emptied his weapon on the plane and pilot to no avail. He saw the slight smile from the young pilot at perhaps twenty feet away. Dual Gods, countries fighting for their perplexing cultures, rigged with their inconsistent oddities. He raised his arms parallel to the sea, much as his father had before a hug as the ensign had left the dairy farm. Duty, God, country his father whispered, as if the father’s mist in the sea had touched and comforted the ensign.

When the coxswain returned to the boat after being ordered to swim away by the ensign, he didn’t find him in the wreckage, but he did find the ensign’s watch, safely hidden below the conning station. It would be returned to its giver, stopped now at the time of the suicide attack. The time was 3:33. Duty, honor, country.

The watch’s recipient fell into a daze, a transfixion, a feeling of never awakening from a falling dream.  He didn’t hear any of the kind words put to him by the lieutenant after he realized why they’d come, or the sound of the vehicle as it drove away east from the dairy farm, its two unhappy but relieved occupants now silent. The father’s thoughts fell west, farther west from his only son than he’d been three minutes before.

With the help of many farm hands, the now sixty-year-old farmer had increased his land through the use of milking machines, and had more than tripled his acreage and quadrupled his yield. With no money to spend on his family or heirs, he had only increased his wealth. His healthy heart had begun to wither from a steady diet of cream and bacon. He often found himself awake from a dreamless sleep in his favorite rocker on the south-facing porch, too stiff in the evening to get to his bedroom.

This morning, however, he felt different, free of the stiff joints and aching muscles. He felt light-hearted and free. He thought the third gate would be to his liking, too, as he walked with long strides toward the gate, on the heels of the figure he’d been familiar with.

Gregory James Shuck served in three ships as a Boat Group Commander, and as both a diesel and steam engineer.  Of the three relatives who served in major conflicts, he is the only one to survive.  His Great-Great Uncle Christopher Columbus Shuck died in Murfreesboro, Tennessee in 1863 and his Uncle Ardean DeLay died as a boilerman at Guadalcanal in 1942.  Shuck survived duty in the Persian Gulf in a minesweeper.  He also taught celestial navigation at the University of South Carolina NROTC.  Twelve careers since, he is now a grade school teacher in mid-Missouri.  His students love his naval stories, real or imagined.


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