Short stories not accepted by journals for publication will be my next series of posts. Most of them started much longer but were cut to meet flash fiction or other norms. The first in this series is based on events in the life and death of my uncle Arne Gerhardt Benson – the uncle I never knew.
The 35-year-old Gerhardt was neither in combat when he died nor was he in the Army when he was wounded by the enemy on an Aleutian Island in 1942.
America was full into the Great Depression by 1930 and jobs were scarce at best, but the newly married Gerhardt had cooking skills. His new wife hungered for city life and adventure that rich men could provide, so she left a saddened young husband for the streets of Chicago. The divorce judge gave her everything except his clothing and a week’s rent.
Pearl Harbor happened, Gerhardt tried to enlist, but one bad eye, even corrected with glasses, would only allow him to be classified for non-combat duty. He did get a civilian job cooking for a US Corps of Engineers unit at Cordoba, Alaska. He tried to convince the military that his having grown up with hunting rifles and being able to shoot a pistol quite well should be a waiver. He felt that combat would ease his gnawing anger towards the woman he thought had loved him.
His wish would come true but not in a way he expected.
In March of 1942, there was a call for volunteers to cook on fishing boats. Gerhardt was disgusted with partial pay and the long hours cooking for three shifts of difficult to please military officers. He volunteered and was accepted for cooking on the Random. But the Random only looked like a fishing trawler. The rigging masked antennae tuned to pick up Japanese navy and onshore communications.
All but the radio operators’ supervisor, the commanding lieutenant and the first mate were on shore when the Japanese bombing of Dutch Harbor started on June 3, 1942. The Random. and the three men still on board went down in the attack.
Early in the morning of the June 4th, the surviving crew of the Random was flown to Adak Island to supplement the crew of a larger radio intercept ship already diverted to Adak Harbor. Japanese marines were already landing on the island before the ship arrived, so it was diverted. Concerned with the intelligence gathering knowledge of the surviving Random crew, command initiated a plan to have them escorted by American marines to a departing cargo aircraft.
A squad of Japanese marines ambushed them and during the fire fight Gerhardt became separated from his group. He faced a single enemy with a bayonet mounted rifle with only his empty Pistol. Gerhardt realized that if the enemy he faced had bullets he would have been shot. The Japanese Imperial Marine lunged.
Gerhardt side stepped and parried the rifle with his arm. He heard the ulna in his left arm snap but his in-fight adrenalin dulled the pain. The marine continued his parried thrust with a rifle butt-stroke to Gerhardt’s head. He avoided the second thrust with a quick turn, but the tip of the bayonet nicked his already broken arm. The marine slipped on a loose rock and Gerhardt took momentary advantage by striking a blow to the enemy’s jaw with his pistol. The Japanese recovered and charged again but was taken down by a round from an American marine.
Gerhardt had not received compensation for his cooking duties on the fishing boat but did receive all of his Cordova back pay in one check during his fourth week of rehabilitation. With new clothing and more cash than he had ever known in his pockets, he met a woman fifteen years his junior at a dance, and they were married in less than a month.
He still wanted to serve, and his status was no longer a mental roadblock to him. He was reexamined and declared fit for duty in a non-combat role. He was required to take a shortened version of basic training and would be restricted to base for four weeks.
The day before he reported for training, his new wife convinced him to put their accounts in her name so she could set up an apartment for them to share when his training was over. He did that and filed official papers naming her as his allotment recipient and heir to his military insurance policy. The day after he entered basic training she filed for legal separation.
Gerhardt was forced to live on base and the pay he received would be only enough to pay for his necessities. He was resolved that he had been taken, but an Army attorney said his retirement would be safe if he served twenty years.
The soldier cook was hospitalized with scarlet fever in late April of 1943. Pneumonia took over his lungs and his doctors anticipated lengthy hospitalization and possible separation from service after recovery. His estranged wife was contacted, and without visiting, she picked up his belongings.
Pfc. Gerhardt did not recover.
Military mortuary personnel found two nickels, four pennies, and a Washington State tax token on his hospital nightstand.
As my octogenarianism continues, my mind wanders as I wonder.
Or could it be that my mind wonders as I wander?