[The following is a draft-preview from my upcoming book, The End of Fear Itself. I offer it today, on Memorial Day, 2016, as my salute and tribute to all who serve their countries, especially to those who sacrificed so much in times of war. This short story is a salute to one in particular, Raymond Felt, my girlfriend’s grandfather, who passed away last week at the age of 92, from cancer, not old age. He was a tough old bird to the end. You can listen to me read this story, below.]
“Battle Stations! Battle Stations!” boomed the voice of Commander Kyes over the intercom.
Fireman Second Class, Ray Felt, leaped from his bunk where he had been sleeping for only an hour or so, and sprang into action.
At 0210 hours, 2:10am, minutes after Ray had been so abruptly awakened, an explosion rocked the ship. This was followed, five seconds later, with another. Twenty seven minutes later, a third explosion completed the job. The ship was doomed.
Raymond Felt passed away the week I was writing this chapter, at the age of 92. He grew up a farm boy in rural Minnesota in the 20s and 30s, during the Great Depression—no shortage of Fear during that period—and when WWII came, he signed up for the Navy, and was assigned to the destroyer, the U.S.S. Leary.
Fear, or at least fearing, was just part of the job, and the threat of German U-boats in the Atlantic was palpable, and real. Hundreds of ships had already been sent to Davy Joneses Locker before Ray’s ship was assigned Task Group 21.41 to escort the aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Card in a wolf hunt for the dreaded U-boats, hundreds of miles off the coast of Spain and Portugal.
On December 24th, Christmas Eve, 1943, they found the wolves, or the wolves found them. Commander Kyes sounded battle stations, but before the Leary could locate the U-boats, at 0210 hours, two torpedoes rocked the ships engine room, instantly killed everyone in that section of the ship, and left the Leary dead in the water: no engines, no navigation—a sitting target.
And the inevitable followed; another German torpedo slammed into the side of the listing Leary, splitting her up, as the captain yelled for all hands to “abandon ship!” Ray and his friends—those not killed in the blast, or trapped below deck—did just that; they jumped overboard, into the icy cold Atlantic. Luckily for Ray, he was wearing a life-jacket.
Ray and his mates, only 200 yards from the doomed vessel, watched as the burning, smoking Leery disappeared below the waves “in a mighty roar,” along with 98 of their friends and fellow sailors, including their brave Commander Kyes, whose last act was to give his life-jacket to one of his crew before going down with his ship, never to be seen again.
The survivors, Ray among them, floated in the frigid waters for hours upon hours before another ship from the task force could reach them to pull them out. By that time, Ray had passed out from hyperthermia, and according to him, would never have survived without the two friends floating next to him who kept his head above water until he was snatched from the jaws of the Atlantic.
All of those men, the ones who perished at their post, those who survived to fight to perish another day, and those who eventually made it home to their families to die years or decades later—as was the case for Ray—mustered at least a tiny seed of Courage, somewhere down deep, that allowed them to walk up the gangplank of the Leery, the Card, and a thousand other ships in that war, on both sides of the conflict—some of them with names like Felt, Smith, or Jones, or Schiller, Schultz, and Miller, some of them wearing American uniforms, some British, and some German or Japanese—where they faced the reality of Death, every day.
At some point, they had to put that Fear aside, and decide to just be fearing, or afraid. But they did their job, nonetheless. They kept their commitments. And for that, I salute them all, and all the women and men who now serve their countries around the world. May their dream of a peaceful world come to fruition, and may it come sooner than later.