By Doug Magill
On a moonless Pacific night during World War II, the pilot of a Hellcat fighter returning from a routine patrol desperately searched for the comfort of an aircraft carrier he would never find. My father, directing fighter operations on the ship that was the home of the lost plane, listened in horror to the static-roughened panic in the young man’s voice. His radio direction-finding equipment had failed and fleet orders prevented the carrier crew from illuminating the ship due to nearby Japanese submarines.
Disappearing into the blackness of the sea, terrified and alone, the pilot was not considered a coward by his shipmates. My father first told me this story when I was young, and I asked him how a brave military pilot could panic. With a soft and faraway look in his eyes, he replied, “It’s just that his well of fortitude ran dry. We all never knew how deep it really was for any of us.”
Eddie Rickenbacker, the World War I combat pilot once said, “There can be no courage unless you’re scared.” He understood that there is a well of fortitude within that can be drawn upon time and again, under even the most terrifying circumstances. And yet, military men know that there are occasions when even that is not enough, when fear can overcome even the hardiest soul, when there is no more bravery, no more strength, no more belief. Still they are drawn beyond what can be humanly expected by their sense of duty – to themselves, to their comrades, to their country.
During the war my father was aboard a ship that was struck by a Japanese torpedo that failed to explode. His carrier, the USS Cowpens, was attacked by kamikaze aircraft, and barely survived the monstrous waves of Halsey’s typhoon (Typhoon Cobra), a ferocious cyclone in the Pacific Ocean that struck the Pacific Fleet with one-hundred twenty mph winds and sank three ships.
The Cowpens was also sent as a decoy into the Sea of Japan without escorts. When I asked Dad if he was scared, he would only say that he was able to draw from his well of fortitude during those times, and hang on. At times he was so frightened that he couldn’t move, but when he saw his shipmates doing their duty he felt he had to do his job and not let them down. He never boasted or showed pride, only relief that he had performed his duty and not failed his shipmates.
Landing on the beaches of Okinawa with the 1st Marine Division, my uncle Tom suffered from migraine headaches which prevented him from seeing. All he could do was hang onto the web belt of the man in front of him. His comrades would tell him where to aim so that he could shoot. Though he didn’t share many details of that bloody island, he told me of times when he was so afraid he couldn’t move, or shoot, and that the chaos of war gave countless opportunities for heroism and panic, often to the same person in the space of moments. He described the jungle and the insects, the heat, and the constant fear. He told me, “I was afraid all the time, and felt suffocated because there was nowhere to hide. It was a relief sometimes to dig leeches out of my legs with my combat knife. The pain was real, and distracted me from the fear.” He drew deeply from his well of fortitude, time and again shaking and panicked. Wanting to do his duty for the men around him he would take that next, halting step which kept him going for one more minute, one more agonizing hour, one more terrifying day.
Proud of their service, both my father and my uncle never described themselves as heroic or deserving of special consideration. They knew that brave men could panic, and cowards could become unexpected heroes. Incredible feats of courage were often not recognized and medals were awarded for trivial things, or for momentary political purposes.
To most veterans, medals and awards are not indicative of the value of one’s service, and do not imply a hierarchy of bravery. They do not judge the value of one’s duty, as they know that even clerks in Washington are important, as are the bases and supply ships manned by tired and overworked sailors and airmen – who will never be recognized. They, too, perform their duty and may have had to draw upon their wells of fortitude due to accidents, weather, or other events that required bravery unrelated to combat.
A childhood friend of mine declined a Bronze Star during his service in Vietnam because his sense of honor caused him to feel that others deserved it more. Dan felt it would have been false pride to accept a decoration that he didn’t feel he deserved, though he knew he had performed his duty and saw combat that tested him.
Most veterans understand that medals aren’t scorecards for manliness. Performing their duty was all that mattered. The rest was randomness and fate. A man performed his duty when required, regardless of acknowledgement or reward, and without complaint. The concept of duty is something that these warriors passed on to their children. I have many childhood memories of completing required tasks, hoping in vain for recognition from my father. Acting responsibly was not worthy of note.
Most military men would react with disdain to a leader who attempted to take credit for the actions of men at arms when all he did was to make a politically-calculated decision to send them in harm’s way. Particularly after requiring the overall commander of the operation to sign a document that would place blame on him should the operation fail.
A leader takes responsibility first, and credit last.
Military men know that courage is what is shown, not claimed. And, that duty is what takes them beyond courage.
To shiver for days on end while being underfed and improperly clothed, waiting as your comrades slink away, knowing that you will soon be asked again to fight a professional enemy vastly better equipped and trained than you are.
To walk in ramrod-straight pride up a hill in sweltering July heat knowing that those you are attacking are entrenched and will soon devastate your comrades in a hail of grapeshot and gunfire.
To endure endless days and nights of rain and snow while your ship becomes coated with ice and knowing that a relentless foe is marshaling submarines and aircraft to send the ships you are bound to protect to searing moments of hell followed by the iciness of the depths.
To be starving and shivering in the relentless snow, surrounded by arrogant troops believing they will crush your dwindling forces as you run out of ammunition, and finding those last moments of pride when your leader responded to a request for your surrender with a single word, “Nuts!”
To be asked that one last measure of energy and strength to defend a wind-blasted hilltop in cold so deep your weapons have frozen and your arms are so heavy it is a burden to place your bayonet on your rifle to repulse one more charge of a fanatical foe.
To find the heat of the jungle dissipate and the sweat on your body chill as you crawl into a tunnel pursuing a mind-numbed enemy who plants traps to maim you and hides behind children and executes women as an example and who will never stand and fight directly.
To step carefully through the blasted remains of buildings knowing that a relentless foe wishes to take your legs or arms without ever having to fight you as you search through the stench and the garbage in deadening heat for men for whom cowardice is a moral code.
And yes, to feel the vibrations of the helicopter engine in your back as you prepare to leap into the night of a foreign country where you don’t know the strength of your enemy and the deviousness of his waiting traps.
Because your country needs you to.
Because you have been ordered to.
Because your comrades depend on you.
Because in all, it needs to be done.
These are the men who have found the meaning of courage, and duty. Not those who issue commands and boast in comfort and security behind the protection that they and their comrades provide every day.
These are the men we remember today.
As the young Hellcat pilot found in his last moments before entering the silent embrace of the sea, duty doesn’t always involve the risks of combat. His service and death were nonetheless noble and honorable. Military men will forever salute him because of that. Today, it would be fitting for those who profess to lead us, and for those who evaluate them, to humbly remember all of those who have died nobly, regardless of circumstances. They owe the opportunity to do such things in a democracy to those who performed their duty for all of us, even if their well of fortitude ran dry in darkness and solitude, far from home.
Doug Magill is a freelance writer and voice-over talent. He can be reached at email@example.com