Don’t Say “Happy Memorial Day.” – Make Peace or Die Excerpt

My Dad turns 94 today. 70 years ago today, he spent his 24th birthday charging a North Korean machine gun nest. He was awarded the Silver Star for his actions. The following is an excerpt from his memoir Make Peace or Die, a Life of Service, Leadership, and Nightmares.

When we were working on this chapter, he wanted the reader to understand the brutal reality of combat that medals and parades and citations try to sanitize and glorify. His Silver Star citation praises his “courage” and “skilled leadership,”  but leaves out, in his words, “the parts of that day I would go on reliving, the guilt over what I did and what I didn’t do… and the screams that still wake me up at night 70 years later.”  

This is a story about why you don’t say “Happy Memorial Day.”

A MEDAL AND A CRIME

MAY 29–JUNE 2, 1951

“I have long ago given up telling people what I saw them (the Marines in Korea) do on so many occasions. Nobody believes me, nor would I believe anyone else telling the same story of other troops.”

—Major General w.s. Brown, USMC

 

Every year on my birthday, May 29, Pete McCloskey gives me a call to tell me, “You should have died today.” Sometimes he adds, “You miserable son of a bitch.” I dredge up some old comeback, and we reminisce about what happened on that day in 1951. My citation puts it like this:

The President of the United States of America takes pleasure in presenting the Silver Star to First Lieutenant Charles U. Daly (MCSN: 0-50418), United States Marine Corps, for conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity as Leader of a Rifle Platoon of Company C, First Battalion, Fifth Marines, FIRST Marine Division, in action against enemy aggressor forces in Korea on 29 May 1951. Assigned the mission of driving a strong enemy force from well-entrenched positions on a high knob north of Inje, First Lieutenant Daly boldly led his men up a narrow spine, completely devoid of cover and concealment, and carried out a successful assault against the hostile strong points in the face of fierce automatic-weapons and small-arms fire, killing many of the enemy and forcing the remainder to retreat in disorder. Quickly reorganizing his unit, he pursued the fleeing hostile troops and overran an enemy regimental command post, capturing many valuable documents and prisoners. By his marked courage, skilled leadership and unswerving devotion to duty, First Lieutenant Daly served to inspire all who observed him and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.

Those words omit the parts of that day I would go on reliving, the guilt over what I did and what I didn’t do, and the feeling that the bravest thing I did, that any of us did, was just keep moving uphill into gunfire. My citation leaves out a war crime I committed, a crime for which I was only punished with haunting memories. There’s no mention of the men on both sides who died or sustained awful wounds for my red-white-and-blue ribbon with a star dangling from it. The citation praises me for “killing many enemy,” but it leaves out just how hard it is to get young men to fire accurately, or at all, so that they kill other young men. It’s unnatural to stand up “in the middle of flying metal,” as Navy Cross recipient, Karl Marlantes, relates in What It Is Like to Go to War, but it’s also unnatural to hurl metal at a boy who’s scared like you, or to stick him with a metal blade ’til he dies, or to lob grenades—designed to be roughly the size of a baseball for familiarity’s sake—and flay him with shards of metal. The “rules” of war are unnatural. They tell you not to kill a man who has surrendered, even when he’s gravely wounded and probably going to die anyway and his pitiful screams tell you that killing him would be an act of mercy. The Department of the Navy makes no mention of my after-action duties, which included going through the pockets of enemy dead looking for intelligence and in one case finding a picture of a man’s wife and his baby.

charles u daly on the day he was awarded the silver star
Charles U. Daly Silver Star Recipient, C-1-5 USMC, Photo Department of Defense

May 29 was a beautiful morning after a chilly and tense night. I turned twenty-four, possibly my last birthday. It was my platoon’s turn to lead the company into what we had been told was an area held by an enemy regiment. Our objective was to take an exceptionally rugged hill. There was a cliff just west of the top and a steep, exposed slope to the east. Our only way up was a narrow spine with all cover and concealment long since blasted away. General Thomas concluded that enemy resistance in the hills, such as this one, around what was called the Kansas Line would be “broken not by air power but by Marine riflemen.”

Roger that!

At first light, I can remember thinking that we were facing a great defensive position. I had company when I stepped off the trail to take a piss after we dropped packs and were getting ready to move out and up. The air was tense. Even the chattiest Marines were silent. The smokers puffed up a storm. I wondered if the North Koreans could smell Lucky Strikes on our men as we could sometimes smell garlic on theirs.

With two words you don’t hear very often in modern combat, I gave the order: “Fix bayonets.”

That didn’t help anyone’s peace of mind. But I liked bayonets for the scare factor. I knew that frightening the enemy was a good way to keep young men from getting killed on both sides.

Warner, the new company commander, who was even greener than me, offered to call in an airstrike if we got into trouble. I declined, pointing out that strikes had been recently put under Army command and were running late, with the habit of hastily dumping their loads on friends and foe alike. Any delay in air or artillery would leave us exposed under fire. The only course of action was to get in among the enemy so their support—mortars, guns, and heavy weapons—would have to be lifted.

My job was to keep the men moving up and firing. I talked with my platoon sergeant whose advice was essential, because if a major firefight took place, it would be my first. We agreed that if we came under fire, the lead squad would charge directly up the spine, second squad would fire everything they had at the ridge to the west of the hill, and third squad would continue the charge led by first squad. The machine gun section attached to the platoon would follow and set up on the hilltop as soon as it was secure to fend off any counterattack. We had received several reports that elsewhere, a North Korean had played dead and shot a couple of Marines in the back after they walked past. I wanted to make sure that didn’t happen to any of us, so I passed the word: “If they don’t stink, stick ’em.”

At 08:00 we began slowly climbing up the ridge, single file on the narrow trail. There were small pines and some saplings blown leafless by earlier shelling. To delay our advance, branches were piled on the path, forming poor man’s barbed wire. No birds sang. I was walking close behind the first squad when we came to a small knoll at the base of the much larger hill that loomed above. Billy Bell, an experienced rifleman from Arizona, got ready to toss a grenade over the crest of the knoll just in case there was an ambush waiting there. Not wanting to alert the enemy to our advance and afraid of seeming trigger-happy in a situation where there might be no enemy, I knocked my wedding ring against the stock of my carbine to get Bell’s attention and hand signaled “No grenade.” He put the grenade back in his pocket and resumed quietly leading our first fire team over the crest of the hill in a crouched walk.

In an instant, Bell went down under a shower of enemy grenades and bullets. The rest of the fire team rolled off the rise, and those of us who weren’t shocked into inaction began shooting.

“Fire. Fire. Shoot, Goddamnit! Fire!”
“Bell is down.”
“Grenade.”
“Shit. I’m hit.”

“Corpsman! Help.”

“Keep going. Fire. Fire. Fire. Kill those cocksuckers!”

“They’re bailing out.”

“I’m out of ammo!”

“Use your fucking bayonet. Keep going. Stick ’em. Fire, Goddamnit, fire!”

I figured the louder we were, the more we’d give the impression that we were a huge force determined to kill anyone standing between us and the Yalu River. The sound of two dozen or so riflemen firing all at once is impressive.

Dacy would later recall, “It sounded like World War Two up there.”

I let loose all the rounds in my carbine, aiming uphill at no particular target. I reversed my magazine and loaded a second that I had taped to it for faster reloading and resumed firing at nothing, adding to the din. An unlucky North Korean popped up in front of me from a hole. His throat and jaw blew apart with the squeeze of my trigger finger.

A shout from my radioman, “The captain wants you. He’s telling us to drop back and wait for artillery.”

“Tell him to go fuck himself.”

There were so many grenades being tossed down the hill at us that I thought we were under mortar fire. To stop would have been suicidal.

We reached the top. There were many enemy dead, wounded, and surrendering. I was wild with frustration because my caution on the knoll had been costly. With a few riflemen, I kept running over the far side of the hill in pursuit of some fleeing enemy. We were astounded to find our charge had put us among a bunch of enemy officers with maps still in their hands as though they had been in a routine review of their position. Unbelievable. Another unarmed enemy officer crawled out of a command bunker and started berating his comrades, apparently upset that they were surrendering to this handful of exhausted Marines.

All firing had stopped. Except for picking up the pieces, this little battle was over. The pieces included Billy Bell’s right arm. He sat leaning against a tree stump, calm and pale. A corpsman held a compress to his wound.

“I hope you’re left-handed,” I said, not knowing how else to express my concern without upsetting him.

“I am now, Lieutenant.”

There were screams coming from a badly wounded North Korean laying close by. His dying was getting louder and louder, and I could sense how much the sound was upsetting my men.

A young corporal brought up the decent thing to do. “Lieutenant, do you want me to do him a favor?”

“Do it.”

A shot. Then silence.

I knew then, and I know now, that shooting a prisoner, or ordering such a killing, is a war crime regardless of the victim’s condition. I know that I should not have ordered it. I know that if it had to be done, I should have done it with my own weapon and protected my fellow Marine from having one more life on his conscience. I can still hear that shot.

After the murder came the next grim task, searching the pockets of enemy corpses for papers to send back to intelligence officers.

One enemy had half of his head missing. Dacy had come up and asked how I was doing. I grunted and pointed to the corpse.

In one pocket I found a picture of what must have been the man’s wife and baby.

….

I pocketed the three-striped shoulder board of an officer I killed in the first moments of the battle. Dacy picked up an unexploded hand grenade that must have been thrown by a North Korean too frantic to pull the pin. Dacy disarmed it using a can opener, and when we met again back in the States, he gave it to me. I have used it as a paperweight ever since.

The chiggy bearers arrived with ammunition, water, rations, and our packs from the bottom of the hill. We sat and hydrated among the dead and wounded. Those who could eat, ate cold tinned rations for lunch. Everyone’s favorite was the canned fruit cocktail. Some men would eat the fruit cocktail first in case they got wounded or otherwise had their meal interrupted. They would have at least enjoyed the best course.

I wrote a page or two about the day to my dad.

We had been followed by a combat cameraman who had been taking snaps all day and doing his best not to get hit.

“That was some day,” he said. “If we get out of here, you might want to have the pack numbers for those photographs.” I kept the numbers and later was able to obtain the prints.

Elsewhere on the 29th, we lost lieutenants Munday and Buckmann, who on more than one occasion aboard the troopship had said, “I’m going to die in Korea.”

PFC Whitt L. Moreland, in McCloskey’s platoon, was also killed on the 29th. He smothered a hand grenade blast with his body, saving the lives of the men around him, including Pete’s. He was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

★★★

There was another hill, a couple of days later, that we took with no resistance. Ivens was cleaning his machine gun a couple of feet above where I was sitting. We laughed about how easy this hill had been compared to May 29th. Easy, except a faulty radio left me out of touch with the rest of Charlie Company. McCloskey had sensed my problem and dispatched his own radioman, Rocky Bruder, up the hill to reestablish coms. Rocky paused to catch his breath just short of my position, winded and sweaty from his radio-laden climb.

“Get up here,” I said.

Rocky grunted, moved the last few feet, and started to hand me the mic connected by a short wire to the radio on his back.

Somewhere from behind, a burst of machine gun fire smacked into us. First one blast, then the distant gunner adjusted his aim, over one click then up one, before firing the second burst. The first volley, to my right, hit Rocky in the back. The next, high and to my left, made Ivens’s head explode.

Rocky mumbled, “Corpsman,” in his last instant of life.

I could hear the call, “Gunner down, second gunner up,” keeping the whole game moving smoothly but with two less players.

I believed then and I believe now that the lethal fire had come from our own distant machine gun. I should have known that might happen. I had been so anxious to establish radio contact because of how quickly we had taken the objective. I didn’t want our gunners to mistake our movement near the crest of the hill for enemy defenders, not realizing there weren’t any defenders.

Brain matter and blood were splattered all over me. In the coming days, every time I encountered water, in streams and rain, I would try to wash the stains off, but traces would remain until I was wounded ten days later and my clothes were cut away.

When Pete came up the hill and saw me splattered with blood and brains, he tried to calm me down.

“Beautiful day, isn’t it?” he said.

War changes the meaning of normal in ways big and small. There’s a joke about a Marine who comes home to his parents and says, “Pass the fucking butter” at the dinner table.

One June day, having rotated off the line, we watched an American tank approach a shallow river. We could sense the driver trying to decide whether to take a muddy bypass or stay on the road; either could have been mined.

We speculated out loud and made mock bets. The tank took the detour. KABOOM.

A man flew out of the open hatch, now legless. One of our riflemen shouted, “I win!”


Make Peace or Die: A life of Service, Leadership, and Nightmares is available through Amazon and Indiebound, or you can ask your local bookstore to order it. 

An early draft was featured on Jocko Podcast episode 196

May Reading List – I Still Haven’t Read Lonesome Dove…

This is the monthly reading list I send out to email subscribers. If you like what you see, you can subscribe here or through one of the banners on this site. 

Thanks for reading, 

— Charlie

Spring is here, and I’m blogging again. My goal is one post per week, and so far I’m on track. My self-imposed deadline is on Friday. It’s a nice way to unwind with some thought-for-the-day writing for myself. I spend my work week writing to help my clients‘ websites stand out–it feels good to do the same for my own site.

In April, I wrote about:
Writing rough drafts by hand
Net 30 payments
and Writing tips from Sex and the City

I know I said I was gonna take on Lonesome Dove next, but I’ve decided to make it a summer read after going on a Hemingway tear inspired by the new Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary. So far, I’ve only seen the first episode–he’s just become a literary success and hasn’t transformed into Hemingway the caricature yet. Looking forward to the next two parts.

In this month’s reading list, I also have a book on how to have good ideas on a regular basis, a punctuation guide that will make you laugh out loud, and Hemingway’s burger recipe.

Light Years by James Salter – I don’t know how I made it this far as a student of American literature without encountering James Salter. He’s been called the author who “freezes time” and has a reputation for writing the best sex scenes in American letters.

A Farewell to Arms (the Hemingway Library Edition)  by Ernest Hemingway – I’m rereading this one for the first time since college. This new edition includes all 47 alternative endings, complete with strikethrough and markups by the author.

The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway – As I watch the PBS documentary, I’m revisiting some of my favorites: “Big Two-hearted River,” “Hills like White Elephants,” “Indian Camp,” and “The Snows of Kilimanjaro.”

Hemingway on Writing

Hemingway’s burger recipe

One True Podcast – a podcast by the Hemingway Society.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves – A guide to punctuation that’s as funny as it is useful.

A Technique for Producing Ideas by James Webb Young – A book about the process of coming up with good ideas on command, written by a 1930s adman. This slim volume popularized the practice of walking away from a problem to let your unconscious mind solve it.

I was recently gifted a subscription to Monocle by my buddy Dan.

Subscribe to The Hustle if you haven’t already.

Matt Ruby on the freedom of low overhead and other life lessons.

Time, Tarkovsky, and the Pandemic.”

Five (very) short stories by Lydia Davis.

How climate change impacts Japanese poetry.

Don’t be a cog.

Some history of the origin of keyboard layouts from The AtlanticWikipediaForbes, and the Smithsonian.

These videos from Vooza are hilarious.


 

April Reading List – Farsickness

This is the monthly reading list I send out to email subscribers. If you like what you see, you can subscribe here or through one of the banners on this site. 

Thanks for reading, 

— Charlie

The German word fernweh means homesickness for a place you haven’t beenliterally “farsickness.” This week I’ve got some fernweh going on as I read about two places that have always fascinated me from afar–Appalaicha and Afghanistan.

I’m also feeling plain old home-sick as I watch this tearjerker of a book promo in which my dad and I talk about our collaboration and his life story.

Suttree by Cormac McCarthy
A charmingly plotless autobiographical novel that reads something like Huck Finn meets Ulysses. If you’re new to McCarthy, this is not the place to start. If you’re already into him, this is a palate cleanse with a lower body count than his other books. I’ve also been listening to the Reading Cormac McCarthy podcast and his conversation with Werner Herzog. The second episode of the Reading podcast has some fascinating context about Appalaicha and the Tennessee Valley Authority. I’ve also been brushing up on McCarthy’s punctuation rules.

Boys in Zinc by Svetlana Alexyavich (Zinky Boys in the U.S.)
An oral history of the Soviet/Afghan war by the Nobel Laureate whose chronicle of Chernobyl became the HBO series. This is one of the most disturbing accounts of war I’ve ever read. As my buddy, Dan, who recommended it said: it’s like the Vietnam War if America had no budget and an endless supply of vodka. Reading the accounts of disabled veterans, I can understand why my dad feels so grateful to have come home to America and why he worries about what became of wounded veterans on the other side who didn’t have the benefit of our healthcare system or our appreciative culture.

The Three Pillars of Zen by Roshi Phillip Kapleau
A foundational text of Western Buddhism. I’m rereading it for maybe the tenth time.

After Ikkyu By Jim Harrison
Zen poems with a Big Sky Country twist. Inspiration as I get back in the habit of writing a haiku every morning.

Writing Movies for Fun and Profit by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon
A guide to screenwriting that deliberately breaks with the stuffy, over-serious tradition of screenwriting theory. It helps that the authors are screenwriters and not story theorists like so many who pedal screenwriting advice.

The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing by Al Ries and Jack Trout –
An illustrated guide to marketing from the early 1990s. Many of the examples are dated, but the principles hold up. This is a must-read for anyone interested in copywriting. It’s also a prime source of vintage Trump-bashing. The authors use the Donald as a recurring example of how not to build a brand.

This week, we lost literary immortal Larry McMurty. My next read is going to be Lonesome Dove. But in the meantime, I’ve been checking out his blog.

Writer Emergency cards come in handy when you get stuck.

William Faulkner’s writing advice helps too.

In one of my favorite newsletters, comic Matt Ruby dispenses travel wisdom.

And this podcast talks about long-distance hiking in your own backyard.

The cinematography of There Will Be Blood.

Ryan Holiday on  100 very short rules for a better life and how to learn anything.

Peter Matthiessen on Zen meditation.


 

Writing by Hand — like Jim Harrison

For the third writer in this writing-by-hand series, I’m taking a look at another legal pad legend, Jim Harrison.

Like Matthiessen and Hemingway, Harrison was as well known for his off-the-page adventures as for his work. His appetite for French food and game birds was a frequent subject.

He hunted, he fly-fished, he showed Anthony Bourdain around Montana and was pals with Jack Nicholson. He chose screenwriting as a day job over teaching and lived in Montana, Michigan, and Arizona instead of New York. He was the kind of novelist we desperately need more of.

Harrison’s work earned him the ultimate back-handed compliment for an American writer: to be more popular in France than he is in the States. I once visited a suburban bookstore in Alsace where they have a huge black and white photo of Jim Harrison behind the counter, smoking a cigarette and regarding the camera with the permanent wink of his missing eye.

Jim Harrison wrote for the senses. Whether he’s describing a meal or a bottle of red wine or a strip club or a vast horizon or a lost love, to read him is to have your appetites aroused.

Naturally, Harrison wrote in a tactile and direct, unpretentious way that suited his style: by hand, on legal pads, with intensity.

In some cases, the legal pad draft was the only draft. Harrison rarely rewrote. He jotted the draft of Legends of the Fall in just 9 days, but he claims to have worked on the story in his head for a decade.

A feature in Esquire describes his process, which he practiced into his last days.

On the wall behind Harrison is a giant bulletin board with Buddhist and Taoist maxims. On his desk sits two boxes of American Spirits, one empty and the other unopened. Stacks of yellow legal pads sit in front of him. Nothing is on the wall in front of his desk. When he writes, he stares into the void.

Jim Harrison archive legal pad pages
Jim Harrison’s papers. Image: Brick, a Literary Journal

Why They Call it “The Forgotten War” – Make Peace or Die Excerpt

The following is an excerpt from Make Peace or Die, a Life of Service, Leadership, and Nightmares. In it, my father relates his memories of recovery from his wound in a Navy Hospital and talks about why we call Korea “The Forgotten War.”

BETHESDA

1951–1952

“When I’m asleep, dreaming and lulled and warm,
They come, the homeless ones, the noiseless dead.
While the dim charging breakers of the storm
Bellow and drone and rumble overhead,
Out of the gloom they gather about my bed.
They whisper to my heart; their thoughts are mine.
“Why are you here with all your watches ended?
From Ypres to Frise we sought you in the Line.
In bitter safety I awake, unfriended;
And while the dawn begins with slashing rain
I think of the Battalion in the mud.
“When are you going out to them again?
Are they not still your brothers through our blood?”

—“Sick Leave,” Siegfried Sassoon

People talk about the “Forgotten War” as if future generations of students and textbook authors didn’t do their job. But the fact is few at home were thinking about Korea even when we were in it. The year 1951 was a year of wonderful distraction in America: I Love Lucy premiered and The Catcher in the Rye was published. There was a new Chevy on the market. There was no home front. The Greatest Generation, who had put their lives and comfort on hold to fight the last war, were buying suburban homes with G.I. loans and starting families in the most comfortable era in American history. Unemployment was 3.3 percent. There was no antiwar movement like there would be in the next war. Then, as now, few Americans could find Korea on the map. Today, most Americans don’t know that there’s never been an official armistice and that the Korean War is technically still going on as of this writing.

The complacency and indifference at home became clear to me on one of my first trips out of the Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. I’d been given a pass to spend the night away. Mary and I stayed at the Tidewater Inn in beautiful Southern Virginia. In the bar at the Inn, some locals noticed my sling and cast and assumed I was the gentleman whose boating accident they’d read about in the local paper. I had to ask them to repeat the question. I suddenly didn’t know where I was. I couldn’t imagine pleasure boating mishaps any more than they could picture the circumstances of my wound. Before dinner, the house band played “Dixie” and everybody stood. I remained seated and breathed hard. Despite Mary holding my trembling right hand, I felt completely alone. I thought about Cowart and Ables, Rocky and Ivens, and longed to be with them, if not joining their ranks in death, at least back in the dirt cracking sick jokes and feeling like my work mattered. That feeling would return for a very long time. It’s only recently, looking back with the perspective that comes from a lifetime of dwelling on the personal cost of “the game,” as my slain Uncle Charlie called it, that I no longer wish to be back there with them but wish they could be here with me instead.

I was rated 40 percent disabled for my semi-useless arm according to a Veterans Administration chart that compensates one leg

at one rate, two legs at another, and another for loss of sight or for one or both of “the brains” or a “three-piece set.”

MASH field hospital korean war batalion aid station
Navy Doctors and Corpsmen perform emergency surgery on wounded Marines in a Battalion Aid Station field hospital during the Korean War (Photo/ Department of Defense.)

My therapy started when the seepage stopped. For a while, the closest thing I had to exercise was putting my arm in a warm whirlpool for hours. That wasn’t pleasant, but not totally unpleasant. Eventually, my prognosis turned around and there were no more jokes about waiting for the arm to fall off. The Navy doctors were able to fuse the two bones in my forearm, the radius and ulna, into a one-bone forearm, resulting in an arm that can no longer pronate (twist). Progress was slow. Finger exercises were frustrating. For a while, I was motivated by the relief of knowing I could keep the limb. The reconstruction left my arm much more fragile than if I had both bones. With each fracture came the dread that I may be starting from square one with therapy. The bullet damaged the ulnar nerve, leaving me with a permanent “funny bone” feeling and an arm that’s sensitive and somewhat painful when touched from the elbow down. Since then, I have worn my watch on my right wrist. Protecting the arm and holding it close and in front like it’s in a sling has twisted my spine slightly over time. So today I use a walking stick when I feel I’m listing too far over. The official report describes it like this:

“Malunion left forearm, incomplete paralysis of musculospiral nerve, limitation of flexion, limitation of extension hand, limited loss of pronation and supination.”

While I was still in the hospital, my father insisted that I get the opinion of a civilian specialist to see if there was anything more that could be done. The specialist told me it was a miracle the Navy docs had been able to save my arm. I was grateful for that, but what bothered me at the time was that I couldn’t hold Michael properly. On one of my early trips home, I was walking around our tiny apartment with him. I tripped trying to close a door with my foot. Rather than drop Michael, I fell on my arm. The docs set my broken arm, and the healing started over.

One brilliant thing military hospitals do is put every patient in contact and close quarters with fellow wounded, many of whom are maimed in ways that make you thankful for your own condition. As much as my hydrotherapy tickled, I could never compare my discomfort to the tortured grit of fellows with missing limbs trying to run, walk, or swim again. So what if I couldn’t hold Michael properly? Some other Marines couldn’t ever have kids. I saw one badly disfigured lieutenant hold a mirror to inspect the results of multiple plastic surgeries, the way you would in a barber’s chair. With despair in his voice, he pleaded with the doctors, “This is all you can do for me?”

John C. Fryer, whom I met in therapy, had lost a leg along with most of his hands to a Chinese grenade.

He had asked the man who found him, a Mexican American private, to leave him and save himself. The Latino kid pulled a crucifix out from around his neck. “I will never leave you,” he vowed.

Before the war, Fryer had been a fisherman in Alaska, ironically America’s most dangerous job. When he returned from a long trip, a buddy met him on the dock and said, “Hey, John, let’s go to war.”

“What war?” Fryer asked.

While we were in Bethesda, I asked Fryer what he would do if that buddy had asked him to go back to war, knowing exactly what would happen. Without hesitation, he said he would go.

The first time Fryer was up and walking on his prosthetic leg, Mary and I had him over for dinner. When Mary saw him off his crutches she exclaimed, “John, you’re so tall!”

He smiled and stood even taller.

Fryer had dreamed of being a forest ranger after the war. I’ve always hoped he made that happen with one leg.

***

The last thing I heard Bob Aylmer say, when Gunther Dohse and I rescued him from that rice paddy, was, “I’m okay.” Bob was okay in the end. We met again on the same medical transport flight back to DC. He was a mess, bandages everywhere, but alive. The night we landed, a young girl named Helen had called the Navy asking about Aylmer. She was his high school sweetheart, and they were engaged to be married. She was told she couldn’t see him that night but could visit the next day. She and her parents went to the hospital for a bedside reunion. Bob told her that his eye just needed resting and that he’d soon be patched up, good as new. Then he asked Helen for a moment alone with her parents. Aylmer leveled with them about his true condition. In despair over his prognosis, he said that Helen better move on and find somebody else to marry.

Helen soon got the truth from a local paper announcing Bob’s return after losing an eye in Korea. She was furious.

“You’re not marrying my parents,” she told him, “you’re marrying me. Anything you can say to them, you can say to me. I can handle it, and I’m not going anywhere.”

Bob didn’t have any family of his own besides a stepmother who came to the hospital once or twice and never returned, too upset by the sight of him. Helen, on the other hand, was back at his bedside the next day, and the day after that, and every day for many months until he was well enough to be discharged, half-blind and unable to walk without pain.

During my time with Bob at Bethesda, I watched men less wounded than him give up to lives of disability checks and self-pity. They didn’t have Helen, though. Thanks in no small part to her love, Bob always had enough encouragement to go around.

“Lieutenant Daly,”—for the rest of his days I would try to get him to drop that “Lieutenant” routine—“maybe you can’t move those fingers. So what? I saw you hold your baby, that’s pretty good. How about I lend you my glass eye so you can roll it around and exercise those fingers?”

His unending drive to rebuild his body shamed and inspired me never to moan about my arm.

A decade passed. In 1962, I was working in the White House when the guard at the Northwest Gate called my office and asked if I knew a man named Bob Aylmer. “He says you saved his life.”

“That’s not true. He saved his own, but send him in.”

We caught up. He was working full time in the State Department and walking the halls, as a messenger, in spite of his shattered knee.

“Lieutenant, I got married.” “That’s great, who’d you marry?”

“Who do you think I married?”

Besides being the center of Navy medicine, Bethesda was my hometown. At Sunday family dinners, it could feel like I had never left. But there were times when their worry and pity was all too transparent. A tough moment came when my dad visited the hospital. His own memories must have been welling up as he watched a nurse change the dressing on my arm. At my family’s home one afternoon, I was napping on the couch following a big lunch. Ann, the ever-doting, much-beloved sister, watched me sleep. She remembers feeling overjoyed her brother was home safe. She went to plant a kiss on my forehead, and the next thing she knew, my fist swung past her head. I was waking up in Korea.

On May 31, 1952, First Lieutenant Charles U. Daly was retired from the United States Marine Corps, as confirmed by these excerpts from the Marine Commandant’s letter:

Your disability is permanently related at 40 percent.

I regret that physical conditions necessitate your separation from the active list and wish you many years of happiness and prosperity.

It was time for me to try living a normal life.


Make Peace or Die: A life of Service, Leadership, and Nightmares is available through Amazon and Indiebound, or you can ask your local bookstore to order it. 

An early draft was featured on Jocko Podcast episode 196