Friday, December 23, 2005

Death notifications

Reposted from the original site, which is no longer online

It always happens - right after I announce one of my rare recesses from blogging I find a topic so compelling that I break my own vow to take time off writing.

In this case it is the combined media project between Time magazine and the Rocky Mountain News. They shared coverage of the procedures of US Marine Maj. Steve Beck, on whose shoulders falls the sad duty to notify families of Marines over a few western states that their loved one is dead.

Time's version is almost exclusively a photo-essay with minimal narrative while RMN's is a fairly detailed written narrative with extensive photo-illustration. Both are gripping, compelling pieces that should be read by every American.

They took me back to Dec. 2 when 10 Marines were killed and 11 wounded by bombs in Fallujah, Iraq. My son was based in Fallujah. Would I have heard quickly that he was one of the ten? I didn't know. I didn't know how long notification takes. 
Now I know how long: not long. There is a frenzy of necessary confirmation activity by Headquarters, Marine Corps and the headquarters of the officer who make the notification, then the two-Marine notification team drives to the next-of-kin's home and makes the notification. If the NOK isn't there they wait. Out west, where Maj. Beck is assigned, the longest delay is often the time it takes for him to travel to the NOK's home, which may be one or two states away.

The stories also took me back to the one time that duty fell to me. It was peacetime, the early 1980s - before cell phones or GPS to navigate. I was a first lieutenant assigned to Fort jackson, SC. My name reached the top of the installation-level duty roster just in time to be tabbed for NOK notification. I reported to the post's casualty office for instructions. There I was assigned a government van and driver and given a written packet of information about the deceased soldier, the address of his NOK, a map and a government credit card.

My instructions were simple: "Memorize this paragraph. You are required to state it verbatim, without notes, to the next of kin. That's all you have to do." Unlike the Marines, the Army assigns different officers to notification duty and survivor-assistance duty. An assistance officer (actually a senior NCO) would be assigned to help the dead soldier's parents with the funeral and settling his affairs; the soldier had not been married.

I got one final instruction before departing: "You must make the notification between 0600 and 2200. Use the credit card for any expenses related to this mission, including food and lodging if you need it. Don't come back until you have made the notification."

The dead soldier had been a member of the 82d Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, NC. He had died in an auto accident (fact was, he was DWI, but relating that fact was not my problem). The civilian casualty staffer at post HQ told me that tthe soldier's father already knew his son was dead (via unofficial grapevine channel from his unit), but that it didn't matter: the Army always sent an officer, in Class A uniform, to deliver the official word. Unlike Maj. Beck, I was alone; my driver was a driver, that's all. I was also distinctly forbidden to call the NOK by phone, even to ask directions.

We set out for rural northwest South Carolina. The NOK's address was an RFD box from a very small farming town. Because it was wintertime darkness had long fallen when we arrived. Absolutely everything was closed for the day; there wasn't even a place to get a cup of coffee.

The van needed fuel and we did manage to find the town's one gas station. It was, thank heavens, still open. I asked the attendant where Mr. "Smith" lived and showed him the address without telling him why I wanted it. The man shook his head and said he'd never heard of "Smith," but that the RFD route started along a certain state route heading out of town, so maybe if we began at the first mailbox and kept going, we'd find it.

I remember clearly the RFD box number: 479. What a plan.

Refueled, I bought some snack crackers and a coke for my driver and myself and we drove off to find the state route. Much to our surprise, once we left the town the first mailbox was number 100. (Apparently, all the RFD numbers were three digits.) But the next was, yes, "101." We kept going.

Believe it or not we followed the mailboxes all the way to number 479. There were many stops, wrong turns and restarts as we tried to stay on the state road; intersections were often not marked which road was which. Many mailboxes also were not marked at all and we simply proceeded on faith. Sometimes we drove a long way without seeing any box, then there would be one.

After almost four hours of navigating in the darkness, a mailbox marked 479 in simple handwritten, white paint ghosted into the headlights. It was 2145 hours. The house was set off the road about 40 yards. Bright lights shone through every window from interior lights. We turned in and parked near the front stoop. When I opened the door my ears were assailed by soul music coming from the house, very loud. I reached into the back seat and got out my Class A blouse (coat for you civilians) and saucer cap.

"Good luck, sir," my driver called as I turned to go to the house.

"Thanks." I walked up the wooden, rickety steps to the front door. I paused and ran my hands along my blouse to make sure it was straight and checked my cap. Then I knocked on the door loudly so it would be heard over the music. Momentarily a middle-aged (or so he seemed, hard farm labor can age you quickly) man opened the door. He was bleary-eyed and I immediately saw why: there were several open bottles of liquor on side tables behind him.

"Sir," I said to him, "I am Lieutenant Sensing from Fort Jackson. I am told this is the home of Mr. 'George Smith.' If so, I would appreciate very much speaking with him."

The man motioned for me to come in and said, "That's me." I stepped inside two steps, removing my saucer cap as I did. A young man in the room yelled at a boy to turn off the music, who quickly complied. I recall that there were a couple of women in the room, too.

"Mr. Smith," I said very formally, "on behalf the secretary of the Army, I extend to you and your family my sympathy in the death of your son, Sergeant 'Jim Smith.'" I don't remember after so many years the paragraph I had memorized then. I know I said that another officer would contact them about making arrangements and settling their son's affairs, and that he would be able to answer all their questions.

Uttering those words was 100 percent of my duties. I finished and Mr. "Smith" mumbled, "Thank you." He offered his right hand. I shook it and said, "I really am very sorry for your loss, sir." We dropped hands and briefly looked at one another face to face: he of a weatherbeaten black face, an uneducated farm laborer who had toiled in tobacco or bean fields all his life, who had worked dawn to dark to see his eldest son graduate from high school and become a soldier with a bright future. Then his son got killed one day on a rural road in North Carolina. And the next day I, a lily-white young officer, walked into his home from the night's darkness. With no personal connection to his son, I stood in his sharecropper's home purely by random chance of a duty roster to tell him that the secretary of the entire US Army mourned his young son's death.

Mr. "Smith" turned away and so did I. There was nothing else for either of us to say to one another. I stepped out the door and walked back to the van, placed my blouse and cap in the back and slid into the front seat. The driver asked, "Home, sir?"

"Yes," I answered, "if you're okay to make the drive. We'll stop for supper on the interstate."

"Roger that, sir." He turned the van toward the road where mailboxes were, or were not, marked with plain white numbers that haunted the roadside at 2200 hours, local time.

Before we reached the pavement, the former home of the dead soldier was reverberating again with loud soul music, booming through the darkness.

Wednesday, December 7, 2005

Remember Pearl Harbor

Last May my wife and traveled to Oahu. On Memorial Day Sunday we visited the USS Arizona Memorial. The ship was sunk on Dec. 7, 1941, along with many others.

This is the original ship's bell of USS Arizona, recovered from the sunken vessel and now on display at the entrance to the National Park Service pavilion across the channel from the memorial, below.

Looking from the visitor's pavilion to the site of the sunken Arizona, topped abeam by the memorial.

A forward turret barbette of USS Arizona projects upward from the water. Across the channel is the hospital ship Mercy. Oil still seeps from the battleship; the oil spots have been nicknamed "black tears of the Arizona." A half million gallons of fuel oil are estimated to have sunk within the vessel. At the present rate of seeping a quart per day it will be centuries before it all leaks out. The oil bunkers seem to be in good enough condition not to spring large leaks for decades, minimally, and probably a few hundred years.

Many of the Pearl Harbor dead are buried in the National Military Cemetery of the Pacific, 
nicknamed the Punchbowl.

The Arizona Renunion web site has many links, photos and videos of movies taken by both Americans and Japanese on this day 64 years ago, including these two (both AVIs):

American movie of the explosion of Arizona. Also several frames of the explosion photographed from a Japanese airplane.

The site was transferred to the custody of the National Park Service 1980, although the US Navy retains title to the ship's remains. The San Diego Union has an outstanding article about the site and the efforts to preserve it.

It is estimated that 900 crewmembers of the ship are still entombed within it. Anyone living today who can document that he was assigned to the ship on Dec. 7 may be entombed within it. About 20 men have been entombed with their shipmates since the Park Service began allowing them. As I recall, the remains must be cremated because there is no way to manipulate a coffin under the water and entombents take place only on Dec. 7, which is certainly appropriate.

Update: See the National Park Service web site about the Memorial. Keep paging down and read the in-depth report on what happened to USS Oklahoma, too, which IIRC was berthed alongside Arizona. The site has a gallery of photos, including this one, which is the only color photo of the Arizona's agony I have ever seen.

Also, Eric Scheie has a link-rich post that is worth the time.