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My patient “Ed” was a big man, even at 85 years old. He was over 6’4”, his broad shoulders hunched over a bit, with huge hands and feet. He was probably 6’6” when he was younger. He said he was a strawberry blonde as a young man, and his fair skin had so many cancers that I would remove one and schedule another surgery for the day we’d remove the stitches from the first one. His years in the Navy didn’t help.
He thought America was worth defending, so he volunteered for WWII after his freshman year of high school. He was not quite 16 years old and lied about his age. He was a big kid, so they believed him when he said he was older. And they needed guys, so who’s counting if he’s going to volunteer? He ended up on a warship in the Pacific (Battleship? Destroyer? Something else? I can’t remember.). As I was doing one surgery after another on him, I asked him endless questions, and I loved listening to his stories.
He told of one day when his ship sunk a Japanese warship. When the smoke cleared, there were hundreds of Japanese sailors in the water. Maritime law dictated that his ship was to do the best it could to rescue those enemy sailors and take them as prisoners of war, rather than leaving them to eventually die of sharks and exposure. So his ship eased closer and closer to the Japanese sailors, tossing flotation devices. As they got closer, the Japanese sailors would swim up to his ship, pull a pin on a grenade, and hold it against the water line as it blew. One after another, the Japanese sailors blew themselves up trying to sink his ship.
His commanding officer responded quickly. He started handing out rifles to his sailors, and said simply, “Shoot them.”
Ed had grown up in the mountains of east Tennessee, shooting rabbits and squirrels with a .22, so he knew how to handle a rifle. But he also knew the difference between self-defense and murder. He responded, “They’re helpless, in the water. We can’t shoot them.”
His commanding officer said, “You’re being commanded to shoot them. One of those grenades will hit something fragile, and then we go down too. Whose side are you on? Are you going to follow orders or not?”
Ed was a 16-year-old kid. Who was he to disobey a commanding officer? So he started shooting. Again, he was a crack shot, and he didn’t miss much. He’d steady his rifle on the railing, look into a man’s eyes, and shoot him point blank. Then chamber another round, find another man, and do it again. And again and again and again. And again and again and again and again. A couple of the men held up pictures of their families as Ed shot them.
He said it took over half an hour. Maybe much longer. He has no idea how many men he shot. He can’t remember the numbers. But he can remember their faces. Every single one of them.
He’d never met these men before.
But he’d meet them over and over again for years afterward – they were frequent visitors in his dreams for decades.
He tried to return to high school, but soon dropped out. He started drinking a lot. He got married, but then his wife left him. He couldn’t hold a job. His kids stopped talking to him. He hated waking up because he was exhausted, and he hated going to sleep, because he dreaded the men coming back to see him. His life was long and difficult.
All because of men he’d never actually met, who he absolutely refused to talk about. Nobody had any idea.
He said that the first time he told anyone about them was at 78 years old, in the hospital after a heart attack. He told his pastor, because he thought he was going to die that day. He was relieved when he survived his hospitalization, but disappointed when he had to start trying to sleep again.
After that, he told a few people. He told his kids, he told a couple of close friends, and he told me. His ex-wife had died by this time, so she never knew why she lost her husband.
Ed was a good man. He volunteered for little league baseball, after-school programs, and anything involving kids. He wanted every kid to have a cleaner, simpler, and more wholesome childhood than he did. He said once that he was so happy to see a little boy crying after he lost a little league baseball game – “His bad throw cost us a win. If that’s what haunts his dreams for the rest of his life, then that’s wonderful. That’s as good as it gets.” And then Ed started to cry. I wanted to console him, but I wasn’t sure what to say.
He’s right, I suppose. That’s wonderful. However, the kid who missed the throw would probably disagree. But what does that kid know? Nothing.
Which, to Ed, is wonderful.
Ed died some years ago. There were only about 10 people at his funeral, counting me and the pastor. The others had no idea what the man had seen, in his youth, and then in his dreams.
I hope Ed has had the opportunity up in heaven to work things out with the men he killed. I hope they understand that 16-year-old Ed was in an impossible situation. Of course, so were they.
The world is a complicated place. I hope heaven is simpler.
Ed did the best he could.Published in