Monday, March 17, 2008

The Ultimate Sacrifice

I have not been asked for the ultimate sacrifice. I take this occasion to tell the story of someone close to me who was asked for it.

In his late forties my father developed a life-threatening heart condition that left him hospitalized for several weeks. He was prescribed extended walks during the following months. I was in my last years of high school and, time permitting, joined him on his walks in the forests nearby. We got to talk about his upbringing, his school years and the surroundings of his youth. I never visited his home, but the countryside must have been picturesque with small rivers and lakes and plenty pike that my grandfather loved to ferret out and catch. My father had to venture out at the crack of dawn before school and catch the bait fish. He described his youth in vivid colors. Then, we touched on his military service. My father never talked about this time freely. You had to literally pry information out of him. What follows is the brief account of someone who was asked for the ultimate sacrifice.

My father received his call-up notice in the same month he graduated from high school at the age of 18. This did not come as a surprise. The country was at war, and he and his classmates knew that they would be asked to do their duty. My father enlisted with the Navy, because this service offered him a career as a ship engineer and it seemed a lesser threat to life than the Army.

The first months of his basic training were spent on a tall ship. My father blossomed describing the service on the three master. He explained in great detail every duty on deck. How many sailors it took to set the sails, what it was like to climb the rope ladders and hoist the sails, to work the winches, what different kinds of knots were used and their names. The cadets had to scrub the wooden decks and the brass to oblivion. The quarters were cramped under deck. The men slept in hammocks that they shared with the other shifts. Discipline was harsh for the newcomers. But he learned about the constellations of heavenly bodies, how to navigate with a sextant, and eventually how to play the harmonica. Skills he never forgot. I remember him explaining the constellations to us children on clear winter nights. I learned the knots from him, and he played the harmonica for us at bedtime, mostly sad songs about separation. Though training was rough, he appeared to have had the time of his life. He would have been overjoyed to learn that the windjammer is still under sail with the U.S. Coast Guard today.

The months of happiness came to an end and he was assigned a tour on coal-fired vessel dating back from earlier wars. She was antiquated and not very heavily armed. Her duty was to protect convoys. The more time passed, the less she left port. The waters had become too perilous for the ship to venture out. The young sailors spent most of their hours walking the decks on guard duty. My father learned how to sleep walk on night shifts even over obstacles like thick electric cables and steam hoses connecting the ship with the dock. Always after so and so many steps you had to lift your foot. When you got out of step, you tripped and fell. Your gas mask container and other gear would clang with great noise on the ships steel hull, resulting in cat calls from your mates, reprimands from your superiors and extra duty.

The grind came to a sudden end, when one day a high ranking officer paid the ship a visit. The sailors were rallied for his address. He called out: "Gentlemen, the war is entering a new phase. The enemy is closing in on all sides and the fatherland is in great jeopardy. If we do not act now, everything will be lost. I am asking for volunteers to join our small combat teams in the fight to save the fatherland." It had become obvious for some time that affairs did not progress well. My father and others volunteered.

He was transferred to a small base on the coast to undergo training for his new duties. There were essentially three categories: divers, submariners navigating tiny two-man submarines and dynamite boat runners. My father was assigned to the dynamite boats. He tried to explain this idea to me in several attempts and showed me photographs of the cigar-shaped, mid-sized boats that he had saved. Still, my picture of this act remains fuzzy in the details. But it must have been an experience terrifying beyond imagination. The boats were sleek racers made in Italy with souped up Maybach inboard engines. The driver was seated at the very stern as in the power boats used for off-shore racing today. The difference was that the boat's bow was laden with high explosives. On a mission, a flotilla of these boats was towed out to Sea by a mother ship under cover of darkness, until they could be deployed near the shipping lanes of enemy convoys. When enemy ships came in sight the drivers were supposed to take aim with the race boats. When the boats were brought on target, the drivers were to eject from the stern with a floating device, wait until the action was over and it was safe for the mother ship to fish them out of the water. Needless to say that the race boats were not armored and the convoys were accompanied by destroyers with rapid firing guns and large search lights for protection. If the crew heard the boats coming too early, you were lost. I did not dare to ask for details, having a hard time to imagine that anyone could survive even one mission like this. My father obviously did. He got away with a back injury from an explosion so close that the shock wave through him high in the air and hard on the floating device. It took eight hours for the mother ship to find him.

He actually survived several missions before the war was over. He was awarded a medal for the completion of a certain number that he managed to save and could show me. It was a small lapel pin and came with a round black shoulder patch with a curled saw fish embroidered in gold. When my father showed them to me, it was to prove the veracity of his account. He did not seem particularly proud. He recalled this part of his life like an out-of-body experience with solemnity and sadness. My father was not a man given to vengeance. But he became agitated with fury when he remembered those who deceived him and his comrades to volunteer for this duty under the pretense of saving the fatherland.

I found out about the emotional toll the missions had taken on him only toward the end of his life. A tumor developed in his brain, leading to a stroke-like event. After that, he was bedridden and delirious at times. During one of my visits, he sat sullenly and then turned to me: "This must feel like the oil tankers. First a big explosion and then you burn out slowly." His face was grief-stricken. He fell silent in melancholy. So the deepest memories my father carried around over fifty years until his end were not of elation and happiness. They were the harrowing recollections of the horrid consequences of his actions in the line of duty. Those who ask for the ultimate sacrifice have a lot to answer for.