“Jenkins….get your fucking head down!” Seaman First Class Pantangelo yelled as a round whizzed past the boy’s head and slammed into the empty cartridge pail, sending it flying off the deck and into the water below. The kid jumped sideways, nearly going over the edge until the strong hands of the older man grabbed his shirt collar, nearly ripping it off.
“Smitty and I got this gun… and Kowalski needs someone to feed him ammo…get yer ass up to the Bofors and help him out.” The boy remained half-seated on the deck until the same hands that had saved him moments before pulled him off the deck and to his feet. A sudden shove was accompanied by a fatherly smile as he was pushed toward the other gun emplacement only yards away. He ran up the ladder and turned to wave to the older man when a burst of gunfire slammed into the deck just below and back down the deck where he had been standing. He stood stock still, staring at the flying debris torn up off the deck by the gunfire and tried to peer through the haze.
“Hey….fuck it, kid…they’re gone.” The boy fought back bitter tears as a man behind him shouted.
“Get up here, kid….NOW!” The boy turned around and saw the Bos’n waving frantically at him. He ran the last few yards and grabbed the ammo. He watched in paralyzing panic as another Jap plane strafed the decks of Cassin and the Pennsylvania; both in dry-dock next to the Downes, tearing up both ships before flying low over him and Kowalski. He could hear the shouts of the sailors aft of his location who watched a Zero catch fire just as it flew over the Downes. The plane held altitude long enough clear the ship, slamming into a gas truck sitting on the dock a hundred or so yards away from their slip. The plane and truck disintegrated in a ball of fire that engulfed a pile of supplies.
Kowalski turned around and breathed out a sigh. The attack appeared to be over. The fire crew was just now putting out the flames on the main deck, and the sounds of the hell surrounding them were dying down even as the smoke continued to billow all across the bay. He looked at his watch. 10:07 AM. He had been at it at this position alone for nearly two hours after manning another gun further foward.
“Hey, kid...you did good.”
He turned to smile in congratulation at the newbie; the boy had only arrived at Pearl a few days before; barely out of boot camp. But the boy didn’t answer; he was flat on his back stretched out on the deck; holes in his shoulder and leg bore witness to his silence. But the boy looked as peaceful as anything Kowalski had seen. He was smiling; his face was nestled on a cartridge belt and his eyes were focused on his service cap, which had fallen off his head, exposing his short dirty blond hair.
Kowalski looked around and noticed an almost eerie calm, as if the harbor was trying to quiet itself for the sake of the survivors of the attack. He noticed two things; a letter clutched in the boy’s hand and a picture pressed tight against the inside of the kid’s cap. He picked up the cap after gently removing the letter from the boy’s hand. He looked quickly at the picture; a girl of about seventeen or so and her boyfriend, apparently, walking down a country lane; both were smiling. Kowalski shook his head and sighed before unfolding the letter.
April 12, 1941
I know you don’t feel like this will ever work. You don’t have to go away. You can still change your mind. Please think of us when you get this, please. I never knew just how much I loved you until you went away. My cousin moved to New Zealand last year to help my grandpa with the farm, and she says we can move there, okay? Just think about it. I miss you so much, and I wish you would just come home. We can work it out. I look forward to seeing you at Christmas. I love you so much! XOXOXO Love,
Kowalski looked again at the photo. The girl was what his grandmother might have called striking; her way of saying she could be prettier, but Darryl seemed to love the girl a lot; more than Kowalski could say about himself and his own girlfriend. He smiled, thinking at least that the girl would know her boyfriend had died helping to save his shipmates. It was only then that he took a long hard look at the picture once again as his gaze went back and forth between the smiles in the photo and the angelic look on the boy's face. He stifled a sob as he shook his head before placing the photo under his own service cap, almost reverently. The letter was folded and inserted in the back pocket of his jeans.
Kowalski wasn’t a much of a regulation or spit and polish sailor; it took a lot to get him to feel connected to the century and a half plus traditions, but he bit his lip and saluted the boy before walking up the deck.
“Hey, McKenna?” Kowalski yelled as the chief walked up to the gun and blew out a relieved breath.
“Fuck, Kowalski, whatya want, a fucking medal.” Kowalski shook his head and then looked down at the fallen boy.
“Jesus and Mary, no….he’s just a fucking baby.”
The man began to weep; even in the midst the routine of horror, there are some things a grown man cannot abide, and the death of a child is one of them. McKenna had a son on the Raleigh, and he could only hope that his own boy made it out okay.
“That’s not all.” Kowalski took his service cap off and showed the picture to the older man. McKenna looked at it and down at the body on the deck. He fought back tears as he knelt down. Speaking softly, he offered up a silent prayer, meaning to talk to the Padre as soon as possible for the boy’s last rites. And then he did something unheard of for a Chief Petty Officer, but perhaps entirely understandable for a father worried about his own child. He leaned further down and kissed the boy’s forehead. He stripped down to his tee and placed his shirt over the boy’s face, but not before gazing at the boy’s soft peaceful countenance.
“Hey, McKenna? XO wants to know about casualties? You got anybody hit?” A voice came from the deck above. Kowalski waved to the chief as if to say, ‘I’ve got this.’
“Pantangelo and Smitty at the gun over there took it for good,” he said, pointing down the deck.
“And just one here. Jenkins!” He stifled a sob.
“Who? Jenkins? Aw fuck!”
“We gotta have volunteers for duty here, and you two just volunteered.” The man above them laughed at the typical service humor, even more ironic in light of the fact that the men would have borne their mates with gladness. Looking down he shook his head and touched his chest with his palm as if to apologize before walking back down the deck. McKenna looked at Kowalski and the two nodded simultaneously; saluting the boy’s body as McKenna spoke one last time before bearing the boy away in solemn silence.
“So long, Seaman Second Class Gerry Jenkins. We hardly knew ye, but it was a privilege and that’s a fact. God and Mary go with you!"
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