12/8/09

They Were Just Kids

I'm watching "WWII in HD" on the History Channel. So far it's been the best that the History Channel can produce, in that its inherent pro-American retelling and bombastic music are offset by some truly remarkable footage and an excellent sense of the dramatic. This is more than a documentary; it's storytelling.

Anyway, I knew this was coming because of what Liz had described to me, but yesterday I watched the portion where a young sailor named Jack Yusen survives a shipwreck. He in the Philippines, and his ship, the USS Samuel B. Roberts, and a hodgepodge of other light vessels staved off Japanese destroyers and kept the secured beaches of Leyte safe. They basically knew, going in, that they were entirely outmatched.

(As an aside, I had to look up who Samuel B. Roberts was. Turns out he was killed in Guadalcanal, and three Navy ships were eventually named for him.)

The Samuel B. Roberts was sunk. Yusen and his fellow sailors clung to a raft for fifty hours, surrounded by sharks. At one point, a tiger shark pushed up against Yusen's thigh. He immediately made a bargain with God. He begged God to send the shark away, and in return, he'd be a good man for the rest of his life. The first on his list? "I won't fight with my brother."

I started to cry.

What grown-up would ever make that bargain? We might promise to be honest, or to be good citizens, or to stay faithful to our spouses, or to go to church, or to raise good kids, or to help our fellow man, or to keep from living greedy, materialistic lives. But to promise not to fight with a sibling? That's the promise a kid would make. It was first to his mind because, in his brief life, he'd probably never been accused of more serious transgressions.

What made it even more powerful was that Jack Yusen, now in his 80s and pictured here, was telling the story. That first mention of not fighting with his brother--those were his words, which means that even after all these years, the terms of his promise to God were emblazoned on his memory.

Turns out the tiger shark moved on. It swam down past two guys and bit the leg off of another sailor. They had to "turn him lose," as Yusen described it. They had no medical supplies, no morphine, and no way to keep the feeding frenzy at bay if they tried to save their friend.

This part about the soldiers being little more than kids is lost in cinema. For example, in The Longest Day, which I couldn't finish because it was so frustrating, Robert Ryan (age 53) and John Wayne (age 55) portrayed Gen. James "Be Still My Heart" Gavin (age 37) and Lt. Col. Benjamin Vandervoort (age 27). In what universe is that even close to the reality of an entire airborne division being led by a 37-year-old? Modern adaptations strive for accuracy, but even in "Band of Brothers," Damian Lewis was four years older than Dick Winters, and Ron Livingston was eight years older than Lewis Nixon. It's truly hard to fathom how young they were, for how much responsibility they carried.

What's also interesting about this whole ordeal was that the Samuel B. Roberts was initially bound for North Africa. It had been part of a convoy heading across the Atlantic when it ran into a whale. After heading back to the States for repairs, it then joined up with a convoy heading through the Panama Canal to join the Pacific fleet. Who knows what he would've endured in the Mediterranean, but if it hadn't been for a whale, of all thing, his whole experience in the war would've been considerably different.

I think part of the fascination--mine and everyone else's--with war stories is the "you can't make this up" factor. It sounds too improbable, too bizarre. But when literally millions of people were engaged in operations all over the world, it becomes more like monkeys typing Shakespeare: anything's possible.

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