99: American Courage

99: American Courage

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Kind (of) America

American Courage

When you look at a person, any person, everyone has a story. Everyone has gone through something that has changed their life.

~Deepika Padukone

I was a reporter with the Harmony Journal newspaper and we were getting out the Labor Day edition. I was trying to come up with a story about the average, everyday worker, but I was blocked. Finally, I grabbed a cup of coffee, walked down to the pocket park in the town square and sat on the bench watching life go by.

A few minutes after I sat down, an elderly gentleman shuffled up with the help of a cane and sat next to me. We said our hellos, and I went back to scribbling thoughts on my notepad. After a bit, he asked what I was writing about. I told him I was working on an article about working men and women on Labor Day. He nodded his head and sat quietly for a while. Stumped about what to write, I turned to him and asked if he had worked any out-of-the-ordinary jobs. He smiled and said, “No more than millions of other men and women in my day.”

I asked, “And what was that?”

He smiled and said, “World War II.”

I inspected him closer, thinking, What harder labor can there be than war? Finally, I asked the age-old question, “What did you do during the war?”

Looking down at his shoes, he seemed to be dredging up old memories. I sat waiting, giving him time, not wishing to intrude on his thoughts. A minute or two went by, and he seemed to be struggling to make a decision.

“I didn’t do any more than anyone else in that war.”

“Don’t you realize that you are a part of the Greatest Generation?” I asked.

He chuckled. “No more than any generation would have done facing what we did. Remember, we didn’t ask for the title; it was forced on us.”

“Yes, but coming off the Great Depression right into a world war was a double whammy for your generation.”

He went back to looking at his shoes. “We might have been a little more self-reliant than the young ones today, but when you’re thrown into a situation like that, you just have to adapt.”

I grabbed my pen and notepad. I had my Labor Day article sitting right next to me. I introduced myself and asked his name.

“John Leonard,” he answered.

“Would you mind if I interviewed you for my Labor Day article for the paper?”

“I suppose that would be alright, but I don’t know if it would be that interesting for your newspaper.”

“Oh, I think it would be perfect. Why don’t you tell me something about your wartime experience?”

John Leonard leaned over his cane and gazed out at the town square. “I was nineteen years old when I joined the Merchant Marine. I had lived around boats all my life on the Sound and Outer Banks of North Carolina, so it was an easy choice.”

“When did you join the Merchant Marine?”

“I enlisted in the summer of 1941. I trained as a radio operator, and that fall I was aboard the Mary Buchanan loaded with lend/lease war materials. We dropped the cargo off in Great Britain, and we were about a hundred miles out of Norfolk when I received a radio transmission that Pearl Harbor was bombed.”

“What changed for you after that?”

“Well, we knew the Atlantic was full of German subs, and the trip back was going to be a lot more dangerous. The Navy came in and placed cannons fore and aft, and machine guns starboard and port on the bridge. They also armed us with rifles, Tommy guns and side arms. We had to make room for a small contingent of sailors to man the cannons.”

“How did you feel about going back again?”

“I knew we would be going back in convoy with Navy destroyers escorting us, so we felt a little more secure than going it alone. I was worried about the subs, but I was more concerned at that time with going across the Atlantic in the middle of winter. As far as I knew, at that time, a winter storm was just as dangerous. Little did I know that was not to be the case.”

“Why do you say that?”

John Leonard thought for a moment. “On my second trip, we were only a couple hundred miles west of Ireland when we started to have engine trouble. We had to slow down to work on it. We started to lag behind the convoy, but a destroyer stayed with us for a while. During the night, a bad storm came upon us, and we were separated and alone. By midnight, we were dead in the water. We broke radio silence and tried to call for help, but communications were sporadic due to the storm. A few of us were in the galley having coffee. I glanced at the clock, and it was 01:30. In an instant, there was a blinding flash. After the blast, it was all a blur; I don’t even remember how I got into the water.” John Leonard quieted for a moment. Reliving the scene was affecting him.

“Were you injured?”

“At that time, I was too dazed to feel anything. I was pulled onto a raft with five others. We clung for dear life with waves two stories high rolling above us. It was pitch black except for the burning ship listing badly. We paddled frantically to get away from the burning oil. We were shrouded in darkness when we spotted a searchlight. We were set to holler out for help when we saw a German sub lit up by the burning ship. They were machine-gunning people in the water. The searchlight swept the area, and we heard sporadic gunfire when they would spot someone. Finally, they got tired of slaughtering my mates, and they fired their cannon and sunk the Mary B.

John Leonard was in a zone, focused on another life. I didn’t want to intrude.

“On our third day, the sun came out, and the sea calmed. Sometime before noon, a fishing boat spotted us. We stood up waving and screaming and almost swamped the raft. Three Irish fishermen hauled us up onto their boat. We hugged and kissed them. I’m ashamed to say that over the years I’ve forgotten their names, but their faces are etched in my mind.

“They brought us into their village of Kilbaha at the mouth of the River Shannon. We were all taken to a nearby hospital. I didn’t know before, but I had burns on my hands and arms and a broken leg. I was in the hospital for two months because my leg wasn’t healing well.”

“How long did you stay in Kilbaha?” I asked. “Well, after the hospital stay, they released me to a sailors’ rest home that had been converted into a physical-therapy clinic. I spent another six months there building up strength in my shattered leg. I still have to walk with this cane today.”

I looked closer at his cane. It was gnarled wood with a rounded top for his hand. “That’s a distinctive-looking cane. Where did you get it?”

“My physical-therapy nurse gave it to me after they got as far as they could go trying to rehabilitate my bum leg. She told me it had two purposes: I could use it to help me walk, and it could be used as a shillelagh to protect me from any uncouth ne’er-do-wells about.”

“Was she your nurse for the whole time you were in therapy?” I asked.

John Leonard’s eyes lit up. “Ah, yes, and I was lucky to have her.”

“What was she like?”

John Leonard smiled, turned and looked at me. “She was the most beautiful woman I had ever met. She had flaming red hair. It was ragamuffin curly and cut short. Her milk-white skin had a spray of freckles across her nose and cheeks. The first time we met, I could feel myself being pulled into her intense green eyes. Her Irish lilt sounded like poetry to my ears. We were inseparable for my whole stay in Kilbaha.”

“Did you love her?”

John Leonard chuckled. “How could I not?”

“What did you do after you got out of rehab?”

“Oh, I had a few more crossings and ended up teaching radiomen in the U.S.”

I was scribbling furiously in my notebook when I felt that someone was standing in front of our bench.

“So, here is where you got off to, Johnny, bending this poor lad’s ear.” She smiled at me. “He escaped from the beauty parlor — couldn’t stand all us old ladies cackling away. Did you, m’dear? Shall we go to lunch now, Johnny darlin’?”

John Leonard’s eyes twinkled as he looked up into her intense green eyes. The flaming red hair had given way to gray, but the spray of freckles across her nose and cheeks still lingered. Her beauty may have faded a bit over the years, but it was still there. He leaned over to me and whispered, “I told you she was beautiful.”

With some effort, he put his weight on the cane and stood. John Leonard then took his Irish beauty’s hand, and they slowly walked down the street arm in arm. I watched as young people hurried past them, oblivious to the invisible old couple that was in their way.

~Thomas R. Hurd

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