Sarah is a new friend that I met in January. We had been rehearsing together for a theatrical production for a few weeks but had not found time to get to know one another. As I sometimes do to break the ice I said to Sara, “Tell me ten things about yourself that I should know, and if you feel comfortable doing so, make at least one of them something that most people don’t know about you.”
She was going through some of the typical biographical details that we tend to outline ourselves with when she said, “My father was the most wonderful man on earth and he died just before I turned forty.” Sara knew that my father had died during our run up to the play and her goal was to comfort me in my time of sorrow. She went on to tell me some of the reasons that her father was so lovely and then she described his death.
“He and Mom had gone to a movie and Dad slipped in the dark on the way in and hit his head. It was just a tiny little cut and there was hardly any bump but the theater insisted that he go to the hospital anyway. He did and the doctor looked him over, gave him two stitches and sent him home. When they got home Mom went up to bed but Dad stayed up to work on details for my fortieth birthday party. Mom found him dead at his desk the next morning from a brain injury.”
I asked, “Did your mom feel unreasonable guilt about his death?”
“Yes, to the end of her days.”
I immediately thought about unreasonable guilt because my grandparents felt that they had killed their son, Bill. They didn’t think they had killed him- they knew better than that intellectually- but they felt it in their hearts and souls.
You see Bill wanted to join the Flying Tigers international relief air force. This was a group of aviators and their crew that fought against the Japanese during World War two. Bill wanted to join and fight Japanese Imperialistic slaughter but prior to U.S. involvement in the war U.S. citizens who fought as mercenaries- that’s what they were technically though he was not interested in fighting for financial gain but rather because he saw which way Japanese, German and Italian aggression was headed before the bombing of Pearl Harbor which lead to the U.S. seeing the terrible slaughter that was going on and we were persuaded to abandon our isolationist ways- were subject to criminal prosecution. My grandparents convinced Bill to join the Army Air Corps where he became a mechanic.
Bill began basic training in the fall of 1939 and two years later he was stationed in the Philippines. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor they also attacked the Philippines and after surviving the attack, the infamous Bataan Death March, and years of starvation as a POW under the Japanese he was placed on a transport ship that was sailing to Japan with prisoners. The Japanese figured to reduce aerial bombings by filling their islands with POW’s so as to dissuade the allies from attacking. Bill didn’t make it that far.
Japan of the 1940’s was a very different country than it is today and they transported Bill in an unmarked prisoner transport. Ships that were transporting prisoners could display a red cross that meant they should not be bombed. Bill’s ship displayed no such cross so it was torpedoed October 24, 1944 with 1775 prisoners on board. A handful of prisoners survived.
I mentioned unreasoned guilt because it was my grandparents who dissuaded their son from joining the Flying Tigers and instead enlisting with the Army Air Corps. They figured doing things by the book and becoming part of the U.S. military was equally patriotic, completely legal, and probably safer. Low casualty rates for The Tigers was predicated on their training and skill and the implication that Bill would likely have survived the war had he disregarded his parents’ wishes and become a Tiger rather than Army Air Corps is something that was not lost on them.
We all have reasons to feel guilty for actions we have taken or things we should have done but didn’t. There is no way my grandparents could have foreseen the consequences of Bill’s enlisting five years prior to his death. Sometimes facts just can’t satisfy and survivor’s guilt weighs heavily on our soul.