Fog of War – by Joel T. Whoopy-Cat Illian – 1-25-05
“Didja at least remember to close the door to the powder room? One simple task is all...”
“You’ve been a screw-up all your life, Sammy! Now kiss the deck you worthless piece of...”
“NO! Maine was NOT one of the thirteen colonies, Samuel! There’s TRAMPS livin’ under the bridges that know at least THAT, boy! You...”
“Don’t you talk back to me, boy! I know what I said, and I specifically said, SEEDLESS grapes! I swear to God, if I...”
“What’re YOU lookin’ at, boy? You wanna piece o’ me?”
“Sam? Sammy! No balls in the house! Now you take that outside and play... Samuel, how many times have I told you, remember to close the pantry door!”
With an enormous crash I made an incredible journey!
There’s nothing quite like that strange moment immediately after you awake with a start. Confusion and clarity seem to struggle for possession of your mind. All that had seemed perfectly reasonable and clear only a moment ago suddenly shows itself to be utterly absurd. All that had seemed outlandish and silly now seems completely sensible. How long does that moment last? It seems to last an eternity and a microsecond simultaneously. Those thoughts that had seemed tantalizingly profound a half-second ago now wouldn’t make sense in any language. You fight to remember what you had been dreaming about while, at the same time, a part of you fights to push your dreams back where they belong – in slumber. A part of you wants to rebel against these instincts while another part of you seems to understand that you are probably happier to have forgotten whatever it was you had been dreaming about just a few seconds earlier. ...Was it really only a few seconds ago? Or, perhaps I’m simply thinking in accelerated time?
The fog of half-sleep was blown away even more suddenly than it had arrived. No longer the Philosopher Great, no more the superhuman glimpsing the momentary Eye of God that comes just after a person wakes and just before he’s fully alert, I suddenly learned exactly how long that period of time actually lasts. It apparently lasts almost precisely as long as it takes for a man to fall from his bunk and land on the floor six feet below.
For a moment, all I could think about was my aching left elbow upon which I had just landed. Then I had the terrifying notion that I might have wet myself in the fall. A quick check with my able right hand found only dry underpants. Thank God! In an instant a new worry came to mind: did anyone see me fall? How humiliating it would be to have just performed my mid-night swan-dive before a jeering audience of my shipmates!
I performed a quick check at the bunks around me and saw no one. *Phew!* Now I could get back to those irritating pangs that were coming from my arm. I rubbed my sore elbow with my right hand, pressing hard because it REALLY hurt!
My mind took the opportunity to wander. Why do we instantly grasp at a body part when it hurts? And why is it that the worse it hurts, the harder we grasp it? With free license to roam, my mind did so...
Wouldn’t it be frustrating to lose both hands! Your first instinct would be to grab your hands, but since you don’t have any hands, you wouldn’t be able to do so! Would it hurt more if you couldn’t grasp the part of your body that is screaming for attention? Is it possible that it would hurt LESS if we didn’t always insist upon exacerbating the situation by grabbing at the injured body part? If so, then losing both hands would be the least painfully injury a person could sustain, right?
What was I dreaming about just before I woke? As I laid there rubbing my left arm that same question kept coming back to my mind, nagging me. Why is it so hard to remember something that happened only moments ago? Isn’t that odd?
I wonder if I remembered to close the pantry door. Mom’ll KILL me if I...
OOPS! Mom is a thousand miles away! Ha Ha Ha! I’m such a dope sometimes...
But I’m not normally THIS dopey, am I? I had to think.
Why am I acting so strange? Well, it’s probably because it’s the middle of the night! I haven’t gotten enough sleep!
If that was true, then why were none of my bunkmates sleeping in the cots that surrounded me? Maybe some of the guys in the upper bunks are sleeping. I’ll check.
Wow! My arm hurts a lot worse than I knew. Thank goodness I’m holding it with my other arm; otherwise it would REALLY hurt! I had to laugh at my own odd behavior.
I could feel something wet. Maybe my initial underwear analysis was less than reliable? No... It was my right hand that was wet. If I had peed myself when I fell, I’d have to be lying in a FOOT of the stuff for my right hand to be wet.
It suddenly occurred to me that I had never even looked at my aching left elbow. When I looked down at it I immediately wished I hadn’t. I nearly fainted. The deck came rushing up to meet the back of my head with a bone crunching thud.
Great. Now I have a concussion to go with the compound fracture I apparently sustained in the fall from my bunk. I tried to laugh. I wasn’t having much luck with that.
I tried to wash away the sight of the bone protruding through the skin near my elbow. But I couldn’t. I closed my eyes to try and think of something else. All I could see was my broken arm. But now my eyes revolted, joining my senses and God-only-knew-what-else in abandoning me. Well, I didn’t get enough sleep last night anyway...
I opened my eyes only two or three seconds after I had closed them. But clearly, the situation had changed in that short time. My head was throbbing. The air was much thicker than it had been just a couple seconds ago when I closed my eyes.
What about my arm? My right hand was still clamped to the open wound, which I tried to avoid looking at, but there was a sizeable pool of blood on the deck where I had been lying.
Oh, man! The Chief will have my neck for this mess! Suddenly all else was rendered unimportant compared to the butt-chewing I was sure to get for making such a mess! I grabbed for pillows and sheets – anything within my reach with which I could try to clean up this gawd-awful mess. I scrambled all around, gathering anything that might soak up the blood.
In the midst of this insane act, I began to feel very woozy. The room was spinning! I tried to steady myself, grasping hold of a nearby deck-level bunk, but apparently I lost my balance because I was knocked to the floor despite my firm grip.
When I’d steadied myself again, I remembered the mess on the deck. I was just about to resume my cleanup duty when I was struck by another memory of my mother chastising me for leaving the pantry door open again.
“Clean it up RIGHT, mister, or there’ll be NO SUPPER for YOU!”
“You think fifty pushups is too many, Swimmy? ...Try a HUNDRED!!”
WHOA! I didn’t even know I had dozed off! When I opened my eyes, it felt like I couldn’t get the sleep out of them. Everything was fuzzy. I was having trouble focusing – both my eyes AND my brain.
When I saw the blood on the floor, I was again struck with a feeling of panic. I tried to resume the clean-up, but the pillows and sheets just weren’t doing the trick. I soon realized it was simply impossible to clean up this mess properly without a mop. Yes! That’s a great idea! A mop and a bucket!
Still clutching several pillow cases in my left hand and someone’s bed sheet in my right, I staggered down the gangway in search of some cleaning supplies.
“And you’d better make it snappy! Your father will be home soon!”
“...And when he gets here, there will be a full inspection! Everything had better be shipshape by then or you’ll have K.P. for so long you'll MARRY a potato!”
I tried to shake my head free of the fog. A mop. Right. I decided I should hurry. It wouldn’t be good if The Chief discovered the mess by my bunk before I got it cleaned up.
It certainly was foggy in the corridors. That’s odd. I was a bit confused at the lack of men in the hallways. Normally a person would have to squeeze sideways every few feet to let a shipmate pass through the same narrow passageway. But now I seemed to be totally alone – for the first time since joining up, I realized! Weird. But then, “weird” seemed to be the order of the day.
I felt constantly dizzy and light-headed. And every couple minutes I had to stop and try to regain what little balance I had. Several times I found myself on the floor not knowing how I’d gotten there. After one such incident, I remember feeling as though I was being thrown to the floor by some unseen assailant.
As I picked myself up off the floor I noticed that my left arm was bleeding again. But at least it didn’t hurt as badly as before.
Where the heck do we stow the doggone mops around here?!?
The fog was getting thicker by the minute and still no sign of any cleaning supplies that would be of help to me.
I was having difficulty keeping my mind on track. It would just wander away to another place and another time without any prior notice whatsoever. It was very frustrating.
The fog was equally irritating – both the fog in the corridor and the fog in my mind! I was quite accustomed to having all my faculties about me, and I did not like this one bit! “See?” I reminded myself, “This is why we don’t get drunk!”
Wait! Did I develop schizophrenia or a multiple personality disorder while I slept? I don’t think so. Then why am I talking to myself?!?
“Well, maybe because there’s nobody else on this stinking crate!” I screamed – or I thought I did. I couldn’t remember hearing myself yelling. Was that normal?
As I pondered that I staggered forward a few more steps when the floor shuddered once again and quickly came up to meet my face. I blinked hard as I tried to raise myself up and saw yet another puddle of blood. I felt my nose. Great! Now I had a nosebleed! Just another mess to clean up before The Chief sees it!
As I struggled to get myself onto my feet, my one good hand took turns between holding my broken arm and trying in vain to cover my bloody nose. Just then, I saw something up ahead. I had to work hard to see through the fog, but I was pretty sure I saw someone just ahead.
Once again I tried moving forward. As I crossed under a bulkhead, I stumbled. I almost fell, but caught myself just before I fell. When I looked up I saw a man on the floor with blood pouring out of his ears and nose. His unblinking eyes stared at me, even when I kicked him and yelled at him.
“You’d better set yourself right, mister!” I yelled to him. “When The Chief sees the mess you’ve made, there’ll be hell to pay!”
Clearly, this man had too much to drink last night, had probably gotten into a fight, and was undoubtedly severely hung-over. I decided to let the poor sap just lie there. Once The Chief found him there, he’d be sorry he hadn’t listened to me. I shrugged and stepped around him.
Despite the fog, I could see the gangway just ahead that led to the stairs and up to B-deck. Surely I could find a mop and bucket up there.
I ducked as I passed through the doorway and headed for the stairs when, all at once, I came upon the strangest thing I had ever seen. A pair of officer’s legs was lying near the bottom of the stairway. They had officer’s shoes, officer’s pants, and even an officer’s belt, although, I immediately concluded, this officer no longer needed a belt.
Where his waist should have been, there was a pile of... hmmm... My mind struggled to make sense of what I was seeing. The closest thing I could relate it to was the afterbirth that a momma cow passed after the calf had been born. But why was this officer wearing afterbirth instead of a waist? Come to think of it, he seemed to be missing a torso of any kind! How very odd.
Once again I was apparently overtaken by dizziness because I found myself on the deck once again. I tried to get to my feet, but I kept slipping as I sloshed around in the puddle of mess that was trailing from this half-officer’s trousers. “See?” I reminded myself once again, “That’s why I don’t drink.” The Chief would have a COW when he saw the mess this officer had made! The pun caused me to laugh hysterically.
I eventually gave up trying to use the stairs that officer had so rudely messed up. I just kept slipping and sliding around. I decided I should probably try to get TWO mops, if I could find them.
I resumed my journey astern, in search of the elusive mops and buckets. How’s a sailor to keep a battlewagon looking sharp when there isn’t a mop to be found?!?
Presently I saw a pair of sailors walking toward me. “Look at these two.” I thought to myself. “They’ve probably been out drinking because they have clearly been in a fight. And by the looks of it, they lost! Probably some of those Army jerks!” I just stood there shaking my head. “See? This is why I don’t...”
One of them slapped me!! Why would he do that? He looked angry, although I didn’t know why. I guessed that his momma had taught him not to swear and that, at that moment, all he wanted to do was to let out a long string of curses toward the Army jerks who had beaten up him and his friend, because, although his mouth was moving and his eyes were wild, he didn’t make even the slightest sound.
Now, me? My momma had taught me not to swear, just like this guy’s momma had, but occasionally I just HAD to let out a well-earned curse or...
...OW! He slapped me AGAIN!! Hey, buster! That’s starting to hurt!
“Hey!” I yelled at him, rubbing my cheek with my right hand. “It’s not MY fault that you two had to go out and get drunk! I was here all night, closing the pantry door. And, by God! I remembered to close it too!!”
I felt badly for swearing and even worse for yelling at this poor kid. He’d obviously had a long, rough night because he was as black as a Negro. In fact, he was black almost from head-to-toe! My goodness. What had happened to these two?
Personally I had nothing against the Negroes. Every black man I had ever met was just as polite as you could ever ask – not that I’d met all that many Negro-folk. Actually, I wondered... Had I ever actually met a Negro before joining up?
That poor drunken sailor was obviously upset about something because now he had taken my chin in his hand and was looking into my eyes as he mouthed his silent curses once more. What a very strange man, I thought to myself.
The man he was holding up with his left hand had apparently passed out. He was grasping this unconscious man by the blackened shirt; the passed-out man’s right arm was limply draped around this man’s shoulder.
“I need to find a mop and bucket,” I offered. But every time I tried to speak he just grabbed me harder and made even wider movements with his mouth.
I was getting a bit tired of this poor drunken fool, so I decided to get a bit more assertive with him. The next time he grabbed my face, I instinctively grabbed for his arm with my left hand. The pain shot through me like lightning and everything went white for a moment. How had I forgotten about my broken left arm? Ouch!
When I opened my eyes, I found myself on my knees. From this angle I could now see why this man was so upset. His friend was missing his right leg. That must have been SOME fight! I was getting angry. Although not normally one to get into a tussle or a scrape, the sight of this poor one-legged boy was enough to make me want to go kick some Army boys’ butts! And they must’ve thrown him into the MUD TOO, for he was every bit as black as the man who had been holding my chin! ...After absconding with his leg, they must've thrown him in the mud?!? That’s low – even for an Army jerk! I wondered if he had passed out before or after they had taken his leg. “Hopefully before,” I told the drunken sailor sincerely.
I decided to help this poor drunken fool. Surely The Chief would understand why I had decided to help him instead of cleaning up the mess I had made. “Okay,” I said as I struggled to my feet, maneuvering myself so that I was under the sleeping man’s left shoulder, his left arm was around my neck and my right hand was firmly grasping his blackened shirt. When I was all set, the drunken sailor nodded to me and together we carried his friend several feet to the bottom of the stairs.
“Look out!” I tried to warn him. “Somebody’s made a terrible mess on the stairs. The Chief’s gonna be mad as a wet hen when he sees it!”
The other man just gave me a strange look and nodded slowly. He was clearly still impaired from the fight and the beer.
We found it quite difficult to get the sleeping sailor up the slippery, narrow stairway. To make matters worse, despite the makeshift tourniquet someone had applied to his right leg, he was still bleeding rather profusely from it, making even more of a mess.
“Don’t worry ‘bout it,” I reassured them both. “I was headin’ to fetch a mop anyway. I’ll get another’ne for you-all.”
I thought the drunken sailor was looking strangely at me again, but then I noticed something I hadn’t seen when I had first passed this stairway. Usually you couldn’t see the sky from B-deck. But for some reason, a beautiful blue sky could now be seen above us.
“Well,” I laughed, “I’ll be a monkey’s uncle... It’s morning!”
The drunken sailor gave me another weird look and shook his head as we struggled to carry his friend up the last few steps.
We were almost at the top of the stairs when I must’ve lost my footing again – either that or it was yet another bout of the dizziness. It was odd though, because the drunken sailor seemed to trip or something at the very same moment. I’ve heard that drunkenness can cause you to fall down a lot. In any case, we both lost our grip on the sleeping one-legged man who fell several steps.
Upon being dropped I saw his eyes open at last! His mouth appeared to cry out, but I was quite impressed to notice that he made not a sound! I was surprised by his incredible courage. If I had lost my leg, I’m pretty sure I would have been a-yellin’ and a-screamin’ like a cat with its tail on fire. But not this feller. He was just as quiet as a mouse!
The drunken sailor and I tried to hoist up his friend, who appeared to have fallen back asleep, when I suddenly noticed that the drunken sailor was bleeding. If I hadn’t known better, I would’ve sworn he had a bullet hole in his right shoulder – at least that’s what it looked like – but it was a BIG’N! Back home I’d seen a couple different fellas who’d been shot – one with a .22, the other with a .20-gauge shotgun. Both were hunting accidents. But this looked like no bullet hole I’d ever seen before. It was HUGE! But that wasn’t the strange part.
The thing that struck me as odd was that I was pretty certain he hadn’t had that bullet hole when we’d first met. I remember that I had tried to grab his hand when he had a hold of my chin, and I think I would’ve noticed at the time if he’d had a bullet wound that big.
But this guy apparently wasn’t much of a talker, so I didn’t ask him about it. We just worked, as best we could, to hoist his friend up again. Just as it appeared we had this ole boy in tow, things must’ve started spinning on me again, cuz I fell, and so did that other guy. We both ended up at the bottom of the stairs, a-shakin’ our heads.
I couldn’t understand why, but I must’ve nodded off for a minute or so because everything went all black on me. I remember a-lyin’ there thinkin’ to myself about the strange day I’d had so far. If I didn’t know better, I woulda wondered if it was ME who was drunk; maybe somebody slipped something into my coffee last night.
...Last night... I started replaying the evening in my mind as I lay there, trying to think if there was a point in time when someone might’ve spiked my coffee. I couldn’t think of any time when someone had been alone with my coffee cup. And even if someone had been alone with my coffee, why would they have tried to get me drunk? And another thing: wouldn’t I have noticed that the coffee tasted funny? I’d never tasted hard liquor, but I’d smelled it before and I had a hard time imagining that it would have no noticeable effect on my coffee’s taste...
My eyes opened slowly. The two drunken sailors had now apparently both passed out. I’d never be able to get that one-legged fella up the stairs by myself. I had to wake the other one. When I got to my feet, I saw the mess on the floor and the horrible sight of it flooded my mind with thoughts...
Once again the strange childhood memory came to me – had I remembered to shut the pantry door? When combined with my concern about what The Chief would say about the mess on the floor, a new and far more worrisome thought took root in my mind. In an instant my mind was entirely consumed with this new fear.
The powder door! Did I remember to shut it when I went off duty last night? My fear was quickly turning to panic inside me.
As I started to regain my senses, I realized that the air was now thick with black smoke. I couldn’t see but a few dozen feet in any direction. My God! Had I remembered to close that door? I was frantic. My mind raced frenetically. I tried desperately to fetch a specific memory of closing the door to the powder room.
Cordite! I smelled cordite! Oh, no! Had I caused an explosion in the magazine?!? And if so, is that why these sailors are wounded? Was it MY FAULT?!?
I began to hyperventilate. But I realized that, if I had indeed caused an explosion on the ship... if I had caused these men’s wounds... I didn’t know how I would ever be able to live with myself!
I frantically tried to awaken the sailor with the wounded arm. He wouldn’t wake up. I could feel the adrenaline coursing through my veins. When the sailors wouldn’t wake up, I decided I needed to get them top-side before I went for help. I grabbed the two-legged man with the wounded arm and carried him up the staircase with urgent haste. I then went back after the other, the one with only one leg. Tears streamed down my face as I imagined that he might actually be missing a leg, not because of a bar fight with some soldiers, but because of ME!
Only when I had gotten this second man up the stairs did I get a chance to look around. And what a scene did I behold!
For the briefest of moments I thought, “This is astounding! When those flyboys put on a show, they REALLY put on the dog!” I decided that this was, without a doubt, the most realistic exercise I had ever seen! Planes flying all about, gunners manning their guns in every possible state of dress and undress, smoke, explosions – the whole bit! If I didn’t know better I might’ve said it was almost TOO realistic. Everything looked so real that it was almost impossible to tell that those weren’t real explosions killing real men.
Well... almost. Everything looked right. But the sound effects were the dead-giveaway. If I was runnin’ this show, I’d have made those explosions have some big booming sounds. And I’d have given the gunners some blanks that actually made some noise when they were fired.
...In fact... It was so quiet as to be more than a little disconcerting!
It hit me surprisingly slowly. Or maybe it just seemed that way. But when I put my hand to my ears and saw the blood, everything started to make sense.
I looked across the harbor in wonder. I stared in disbelief at the giant black tree that had grown over Hickam Field. It was growing right before my eyes! The trunk was blood red and orange; the black leaves seemed to reach all the way up to the few cirrus clouds that hung peacefully in the beautiful blue morning sky.
When I turned around I could see that Ford Island was also ablaze. I tried to look down Battleship Row, but a huge forest of those red-orange-black trees had grown over all the dreadnaughts so that I couldn’t see anything specific, just some twisted metal amid the pillars of fire and billowing plumes of smoke.
The “flyboys”, as it turned out, were almost universally flying planes with red insignias on the wings and fuselage, where there should have been a star. Nakajima bombers skimmed above the water and flew high above. Mitsubishi fighters streaked by, seemingly everywhere. Aichi dive-bombers materialized from the deep blue Hawaiian sky, nearly meeting the deeper blue of the harbor before releasing their loads and returning to the sky.
My head spun wildly as I tried to take in all this new information. I couldn’t process it all. Guns of every conceivable size and type seemed to be firing from all over the harbor, but I couldn’t hear a one of them. Unable to hear anything at all, it was truly surreal, and I felt a peculiar detachment from what was happening all around me.
I was paralyzed. I could do nothing but watch in amazement as men died all around me in countless different ways. I watched helplessly as a Nakajima appeared to be coming from CINCPAC in Southeast Loch. It reminded me of the rocks we used to skip on old-man Miller’s pond when I was a kid. For the longest time, I couldn’t tell if the plane was actually in the air, or riding the waves like a surfer. It came in perpendicular with Battleship Row and I watched as it released its ‘fish’ and quickly rose as it crossed the burning line of dreadnaughts.
I was able to watch the torpedo all the way in, from the point where it met the water until it disappeared behind another ship for a moment, followed shortly by a terrific explosion that knocked me to the deck. I struggled to my knees. I remained in that position for several minutes, wondering how many times I had fallen to the deck already that morning, knowing now, that each time I had been knocked to the floor, someone had died.
A part of me wishes I could say that I promptly took over a gun position and single-handedly shot down five Jap planes; or that I went back down below and rescued a couple dozen trapped shipmates. But, in fact, all I could do was sit there on my knees and watch as this silent horror was pantomimed before me. What did I do on the morning of December 7th? I knelt. I knelt before the horrific destruction being played out all around me; I knelt before the dead and dying whose souls were departing right before my eyes. I wasn’t afraid. I wasn’t confused. At that point, I wasn’t even angry. I guess I was in disbelief. And shock.
In fact the doctor later told me that I was lucky to have survived considering the severe state of shock I was in when they found me there by the B-deck stairs, next to a pair of dead sailors. For a number of weeks afterwards I could only communicate with the doctors and others using a small chalk-board, until I regained my hearing bit-by-bit. Lots of people had lots of questions, but I had very few answers for them. They asked me how I had survived the bombing, the strafing, the fires, and the smoke.
Today when I’m asked those questions, I answer the same way I did at the time, when the questions could only be asked of me through a written note instead of a spoken word. I answer with a shrug. And I silently ask God the same questions. But, mostly, instead of asking how I survived, I ask Him why.
Joel T. “Whoopy-Cat” Illian ~ 25 January 2005