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Monday, May 28, 2012

Memorial Day

The piece below was written by my son, Brian F. Quigley, in 2006, when he was in the eighth grade. Brian has allowed me to post it here in honor of his late grandfather - my Father, Thomas W. Quigley (pictured below circa 1945)  - and in honor of all those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our nation; and in honor of the women and men who serve us now in uniform.

A Fateful Favor
Brian Quigley

How many times have you heard people say that “it was fate” or “it was meant to be”?  You think about it briefly and go on with your day-to-day activities.  However, what would happen if your entire life would be non-existent if it wasn’t for fate?  What if your parents had never met?  What if your parents were never born?  Everyone can agree that if not for fate, things would be a whole lot different.

When I was younger – about seven years ago - my grandfather told me a story that makes me think how fate really does matter.

The year was 1945.  The United States was nearing the end of World War II, the most devastating war in history.  It had started as a European conflict and expanded to the Pacific after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941.  My grandfather served in the United States Army on one of its fifteen hospital ships.  I remember my grandfather describing his ship, the U. S. S. Comfort.  The Comfort was essentially a floating hospital.  It contained operating rooms, 700 beds, and every department pertaining to the care of wounded, sick, and injured people.  The details of the ship were still sharp in my grandfather’s mind, even 54 years later.  “It looked like it could have been a cruise ship,” he said.  But being in the Army, he knew it was quite the opposite.

These ships were classified as “non-combatant vessels” used to evacuate sick and wounded Army, Navy, and Marine personnel from combat areas.  The ship bore a big red cross on its smokestack, which told the enemy that it was a hospital ship and should be respected.  The red cross was brightly lit at night, and, like all hospital ships, the Comfort usually traveled alone.

Hundreds of service men and women worked aboard the Comfort.  In addition to doctors, nurses, and other medical employees, there were also machinists, cooks, maintenance and administrative workers, and others trained in communications.  It really was a floating hospital.

My grandfather told me this story of one man who had enlisted in the Army, and had been assigned to the Comfort.  While onboard, this man met many  people, and he became friends with many of his shipmates.  This man was a Sergeant.  He was an administrative officer.  He had many duties – record-keeping, paperwork, and regular inspections of the ship.  This involved going to all the wards aboard the ship to check on needed supplies, collect reports on the condition of the patients, and checking on problems.  The Sergeant called this part of his job “making the rounds.”

On the night of April 28, 1945, the Comfort was stationed off the islands of Okinawa south of the Japanese mainland.  The Comfort was treating the wounded from the battle of Okinawa, the bloodiest battle of the Pacific War, which was still raging.  The Sergeant was scheduled to be on duty that night, and he would have to make the rounds.  As he was collecting his clipboard and preparing to leave his bunk, a crewmate who was a friend of the Sergeant dropped by and offered to go in his place and give the Sergeant the night off.  “I owe you a favor,” he told the Sergeant.  “I’ll make the rounds for you.”  The Sergeant was surprised, but grateful for the offer.  He accepted, and handed his buddy his clipboard.  After all, everyone likes a day off now and then.

About an hour after the Sergeant’s buddy began making the rounds for him, the Japanese Air Force disregarded the rule for respecting hospital ships.  On that clear, moonlit night, from out of nowhere, a Japanese kamikaze plane streaked across the starry sky and flew straight down the Comfort’s red cross-emblazoned smokestack, exploding with a deafening roar.  The entire ship shook for the force of the impact.  The communications room near the base of the smokestack was destroyed.  The engine of the kamikaze tore through the ship, finally coming to rest in the engine room far below deck. Heavy smoke filed the wards, and there was a huge fire where the telephone room had been.     

The ship was in chaos. The floating hospital, which was supposed to be a haven for the wounded, had become a floating battleground.  Forty-eight people were wounded, and twenty-eight people were killed in the attack, including surgeons, nurses, and patients.

The sergeant was among the fortunate ones.  He was jolted from his bunk when the kamikaze hit, but he was unhurt.  He scrambled to the deck to help his shipmates, and for many hours afterward he worked to put out the fire, help the injured, and begin the grim task of searching through the rubble for casualties. 

The Sergeant worked all that night and straight through the next day.  Late in the afternoon on the day after the attack, the Sergeant found out that his buddy who had gone out to make the rounds in his place was among those who had died in that horrible event on that fateful night.  His friend was killed because he had taken the Sergeant’s place.  Had it not been for his buddy’s offer to make the rounds for him, the Sergeant would have been among those killed in the attack.

As my grandfather ended the story, he told me that I should be very grateful to the man who offered to do the Sergeant’s job on April 28, 1945.  When I asked why, he replied that this man, who was in the wrong place at the wrong time on that night 54 years ago, had given me the opportunity to live.  I then realized that fate had given me the chance to know and love a great man – that Sergeant – who was none other than my own grandfather.

For more on the USS Comfort, see here.

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