From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

The Final Battle

Italy, 1945. As the first and second platoons of E Company of the Japanese-American 442nd Regimental Combat Team closed on the perimeter of the German defenses, we could hear the crackle of rifle fire and an occasional machine gun off to the right.

Then it began, machine-gun fire and grenades going back and forth in fierce volleys. I took a slug in the gut, but kept on moving, leading my men and continuing to throw grenades.

As I drew my arm back, all in a flash of light and dark I saw him, that faceless German, like a strip of motion picture film running through a projector that’s gone berserk. One instant he was standing waist-high in the bunker, and the next he was aiming a rifle grenade at my face from a range of ten yards. And even as I cocked my arm to throw, he fired and his rifle grenade smashed into my right elbow and exploded. I looked at my dangling arm and saw my grenade still clenched in a fist that suddenly didn’t belong to me anymore.

Time passed and finally the medic came and gave me a shot of morphine. Then they carried me down off that hill.

It was April 21. The German resistance in our sector ended on April 23. Nine days later, the war in Italy was over, and a week after that, the enemy surrendered unconditionally.

I had another war to fight. When they became reasonably convinced that I wasn’t going to die, I was transferred to the general hospital at Leghorn. And it was there, on May 1, Lei Day in Hawaii, that they amputated my right arm. It wasn’t an emotionally big deal for me. I knew it was coming off and, in fact, had stopped thinking of the arm as belonging to me for some time. But acceptance and rehabilitation are entirely different things. I had adjusted to the shock before the operation. My rehabilitation began almost immediately afterward.

I was staring at the ceiling in the afternoon of my first day as an amputee when a nurse came by and asked if I needed anything. “A cigarette would go pretty good,” I said.

“Yes, surely.” She smiled and walked off, returning in a few minutes with a fresh pack of Camels. “Here you are, Lieutenant,” she said, still smiling, and neatly placed the whole pack on my chest and went on her merry way.

For a while I just stared at it. Then I fingered it with my left hand, trying to decide how I’d go about it if I did decide to have a fling at opening it with one hand. I sneaked a look around the ward to see if there was anyone in shape to help me, but everyone seemed to be at least as badly off as I was: this was obviously not the ward reserved for officers afflicted with athlete’s foot and charley horses. Then I began pawing at that cursed pack, holding it under my chin and trying to rip it open with my fingernails. It kept slipping away from me and I kept trying again, sweating in my fury and frustration as freely as if I’d been on a forced march. In fifteen minutes, I’d torn the pack and half the cigarettes in it to shreds, but I’d finally gotten one between my lips. Which is when I realized that the nurse hadn’t brought me any matches.

I rang the bell and she came sashaying in, still smiling, still trailing that aura of good cheer that made me want to clout her one. “I need a light,” I said.

“Oh,” she said prettily. “Of course you do.” She pulled a pack of matches out of her pocket—she had had them all the time—and carefully put them in my hand. And she strolled off again!

If I had obeyed my first instinct, I’d have bellowed after her with rage. If I’d obeyed my second instinct, I’d have burst out crying. But let’s face it, I was a big boy now, an officer, and I just couldn’t let some nurse get the best of me. I just couldn’t.

So I started fooling around with the matches. I clutched them and pulled them and twisted them and dropped them, and I never came remotely close to tearing one free, let alone getting it lit. But by this time I had decided that I’d sooner boil in oil before asking her for anything again. So I just lay there, fuming silently, and having extremely un-Christian thoughts about that angel of mercy.

I was on the verge of dozing off when she came around again, still smiling.

“What’s the matter, Lieutenant?” she purred. “Have you decided to quit smoking? It’s just as well . . . cigarettes make you cough and. . . .”

“I couldn’t get the damned thing lit.”

She tsk-tsked at her thoughtlessness and sat gracefully on the edge of my bed. “I should have realized,” she said, taking the mangled matches from me. “Some amputees like to figure it out for themselves. It gives them a feeling of—well, accomplishment. But it doesn’t matter. There’ll be lots of things you’ll be learning for yourself. We only give you the start.”

I just gaped at her. I didn’t even know what she was talking about. A start on what? Who needed her? “Look,” I growled, “just light the cigarette, will you? I’ve been three hours trying to get this thing smoked.”

“Yes, I know.” Nothing ruffled her. Absolutely nothing. “But you see, I won’t be around to light your cigarette all the time. You can’t depend on other people. Now you have only one hand with which to do all the things that you used to do with two hands. And you have to learn how. We’ll start with the matches, all right?”

She opened the cover, bent a match forward, closed the cover, flicked the match down and lit it—all with one hand, all in a split second.

“See?” she said.

“Yes,” I whispered.

“Now let’s see you do it.”

I did it. I lit the cigarette. And all at once her smile wasn’t objectionable at all. It was lovely. I wish I could remember her name—I’ll never forget her face—but all I remember is that she came from Eagle Pass, Texas, and as far as I was concerned she was the best damn nurse in the United States Army. In a single moment, she had made me see the job that lay ahead of me, and in all the weeks that followed she found a thousand subtle ways to help me master it. And in the year and a half that it took me to become a fully functioning citizen again, no one ever did anything more important for me than that nurse did on that afternoon when she showed me how to light a cigarette, the afternoon my rehabilitation began.

Senator Daniel Inouye

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