82: A Quiet Hero

82: A Quiet Hero

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Thanks Dad

A Quiet Hero

There are times when silence has the loudest voice.

~Leroy Brownlow

One of the most important lessons I learned from my stepfather is that true heroism is silent and sober. Heroes take journeys, fight wars, and battle incredible odds, but they never seek praise.

My stepfather used to keep a large wooden locker in the tool shed behind our garage. The locker, a big, heavy chest with an iron handle on each end, was painted battleship gray. His name, Ernest McKenzie, was stenciled on the lid. The locker was old and splintered in places, and padlocked with a tarnished brass lock, the key to which was kept on a ring in the house. I saw him open the box only once when a friend came to visit. He lifted the lid of the chest and pulled out a dusty photo album filled with pictures from the war.

Ernie had fought in World War II. His visitor was an old Navy buddy. They had served on the same ship together. They laughed over photographs and drank beer as I stood outside and listened. I don’t recall much of what was said, but I do remember the man calling my stepfather “Duck” and commenting on what a strong swimmer he was.

“You’re the one who saved us, Duck,” the man kept saying over and over. “You kept us alive out there.” And I think they cried together, or maybe it was just drunken giggles. I’m not sure. That was the only time I ever saw my stepfather open the footlocker. That was 1961 and I was twelve years old.

Ernie had served four years in the United States Navy during the war. Despite his years of service, our house was entirely devoid of memorabilia. A visitor would have no idea about my stepfather’s military career were it not evident in his walk and demeanor. Civilians might miss even these clues. I knew that my stepfather had served in the Navy, but I did not find out what a highly decorated sailor he was until several months after his death.

I was cleaning up the yard and stepped into the tool shed for a rake. That’s when I spotted the footlocker. I went back into the house, found the key, and took it out to the shed. Quietly, and with an archaeologist’s caution, I unlatched the lock and lifted the lid of the locker. An amazing smell rushed out, deeply sweet, of mothballs and cedar. The smell also belonged to the contents of the chest, to the history inside.

The first thing I saw was a tray full of medals and wooden plaques commemorating different things my stepfather had done during the war. There was a Purple Heart, a Bronze Star and a Silver Star. There was a plaque for being on the commissioning crew of a ship, and another one for serving on a ship that was sunk by a Japanese submarine.

Underneath the top tray I found uniforms — dress blues neatly pressed and folded. I found a shoeshine kit and a white sailor hat with my stepfather’s name stenciled on the inside brim. There were newspaper clippings and a book in the trunk as well. The book was a thin U.S.S. Indianapolis cruise book, dated 1943. I flipped through the black-and-white photos, looking for pictures of Ernie. The photos were mostly headshots of similar-looking young men in dress blues and white hats. I found pictures of my stepfather standing in front of an anti-aircraft gun, on the mess deck with his buddies, and sitting on his bunk. He was still youthful and very masculine, stern-looking but not weary.

Underneath his uniforms, wrapped in a white handkerchief, were his dog tags. His name was pressed into the thin aluminum. Under the dog tags I found more uniforms. Dungarees this time, work clothes with “McKenzie” stenciled on the pockets. There was also a pair of black work shoes, a blue web belt, and several more sailor hats.

That afternoon I discovered that my stepfather had been a Gunnery Petty Officer in World War II, and had two ships sunk out from under him: A light cruiser, the U.S.S. Bismarck Sea, and a heavy cruiser, the U.S.S. Indianapolis.

Two Japanese torpedoes sunk the Indianapolis shortly after transporting components of the atomic bomb to the island of Tinian. The ship sunk within minutes, along with 300 of its crew. My stepfather was one of the lucky ones who made it into the water. The Indianapolis had been observing radio silence during that time. No one other than the crew of the Japanese submarine knew of its location. When they were rescued four days later, only 317 men were still alive. The rest died of exhaustion, exposure, and wounds inflicted when the ship was hit. Many others were victims of shark attacks. The sharks fed nonstop, day and night, darting into the men with speed and fury. The water around the dwindling crew remained a constant crimson.

All during my childhood, my stepfather never talked about that harrowing ordeal. Occasionally, if we were alone, he would speak of some aspect of his years in the Navy, such as how it was to live on board a ship or how a five-inch gun battery was operated, but that was it. Ernie never once bragged about surviving the sinking of the Indianapolis, or how he had saved the lives of other sailors. Had it not been for that footlocker, I would have never known.

Through my stepfather I learned that the greatest heroes are those who find the courage to serve others and face overwhelming obstacles, yet expect nothing in return, not even praise.

~Timothy Martin

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