Living: A Ben Hoffmann Story

“Brothers! This is Living! Fighting for a Cause!” Sarge yells. He was always one for pomp and circumstances, especially in the face of death. Many crew members often joked that Sarge was death itself, and that’s why he wasn’t afraid of the impending case the Japs could give us.

It was night. Cold, blustering night out on the sea. We had been sailing for countless days now, each day coming closer and closer to the archipelago that would inevitably deliver our fate. I suppose it had been on the verge of a month now. There were thirty letters to her under my cot, tucked and hidden away so as not to be seen by any of the other sailors. Especially not Sarge. Sarge gave people the slightest bit of hell for having feelings, let alone thirty days of them. It had been months since Josiah had boarded the ship, and even in the sick bay he was given hell by Sarge. My cheeks heat up when thinking about it, finding myself pushing away thought of anything involving her when I face death. I pull my coat closer around my body and stare out at the expanse of black before us. The Japs would only see us coming through their radar. Would we be able to spot them in time?

“We are men tonight. Real. Unadulterated. Men. So, get dressed and let’s kill some fucking Japs.” Sarge said, always a man of confidence, even now standing shirtless in the bitter cold, his white navy pants blowing up with the wind like big balloons. Even with the funny image of our commander, he was still the picturesque virtue of everything we were supposedly to be taking from this war: courage, faith, and strength.

A chorus of hurrahs and hollers echo across the deck, and part of me wants to yell at them to shut up. Just shut up.

The truth was, Sarge’s optimism made me scared shitless. If there was one thing Colonel Lewis always said to me back home, it was that a person should never be too confident in their abilities. Isn’t that what we were being right now? Overconfident? Shouldn’t we be preparing to evade death, perhaps even win over death?

My voice pipes up over the crowd. “Assignments, sir?” I ask meagerly, ashamed at how much emotion was betrayed in my shaky voice. Some sailors laugh, but Sarge just smirks. My heart hammers in my chest, waiting to either be ridiculed, or given what could be my last assignment. My right arm tapped my pant leg, feeling the photos in the pocket. One of my brother, William, and my mother and father, and the other, of course, of her. This couldn’t be my last assignment. If only for them.

“Well, I think the only person here more eager to kill Japs than me is Lieutenant Commander Hoffmann! Funny. We all need some humor in war time, don’t we boys? Hoffmann, I need you in sonar, but listen to the gunners. If they need you, that’s where I need you. Brinkley, guns, as always. Jim Cross, sonar, follow orders from Hoffmann, it’s just you two down there.” I don’t wait for him to give any more names. I have all I need. Jim Cross and myself, in charge of the safety of the whole damn ship.

Cross follows me, I can hear him without even having to see. His shoes were too big for him and so every step was more like a clown shoe clip rather than an actual step. The sound it made was solely attributed to Cross, on the ship at least. On top of that he was humming a radio tune, “Lili Marlene”, that one I knew. It had been her absolute favorite, she absolutely adored the tune and the message. Often in her letters she would quote the song, but that was before we got out of range of recieving letters. It had been a month since I had heard from her, knowing her and her line of work, she was probably worried sick.

By the time we reached the cabin and hooked up all the equipment I couldn’t stop myself, I turned to face him and pointed a finger in his direction. “Any other song would be nice Cross.” Before I knew it he was humming Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition louder than he had been humming before. That was a tune I could get behind. The nation was at war now, had been for a while, so by god if we didn’t all come together to Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition in the hopes that this horror would end soon.

My fear had dissipateddissipated some. I was in charge of one person at least. I would pull them out of this alive. Rather, him, Jim Cross. The one man I was responsible for. “East! East!” He calls, and I look on my screen to see the same thing. Torpedoes.

My hand flies to hit the button and the alarms blare. The battle had begun. Gunners began to launch their array of explosives at the torpedoes. It was unclear which we had actually hit and which were still on their way towards us. My voice was coming out of the speakers without even registering it, telling the gunners where to aim, telling them where the ship approximately was. Cross and I kept talking, watching the monitors in front of me and pressing buttons. Then there was nothing. One by one each screen showed nothing. They were still operating but it was as if the ships had disappeared into thin air.

“Sarge get down here! I need Sarge now! Keep firing in the same direction boys! Don’t waste ammo!” I yell into the microphone connected to my headset, minutes later hearing the same words get repeated to the crew. In less than a minute Sarge bursts through the doors and looks at the screens.

“Where in the hell are they Lieutenant? They couldn’t have gone far, we’ve only been at this for ten minutes.” He’s frustrated, but I know it isn’t with me. His large frame pushes past me until he is standing in front of the controls rebooting them one by one.

Still. Nothing.

“Hold your fire.” I say quietly through the microphone. Where the hell had they gone? There was land 70 nautical miles north, but it was American controlled. Surely the Japanese didn’t go there. That was our next stop actually. To stock, refuel, and connect ourselves with the postal service once more. Several of these things I was grateful for. All of this could easily be jeopardized if even one Japanese torpedo was allowed to hit the ship. My job was crucial, clearly enough, but currently, it appears that my job was in fact in the hands of the enemy. What had they done?

“Still nothing, Sarge. My readings are clear as day.” Cross says, and Sarge frantically rubs his brow, a nervous tick from his one year in the Great War when he was eighteen.  

Suddenly Sarge points to the open cabin door and we both stand at attention. “Cross, go check the deck, tell them to be alert. Hoffmann stay with me, and help me get this damn thing working again.” His evidently frustrated tone shakes the room, and as Cross Scurries out, Sarge takes his spot by the sonar.

He turns to face me from his new position in the cabin, he stood a good head taller than me, but right now it looked as if he felt like the smallest man in the world. His face was grim. He was an army man, he liked to think in facts. Right now the absolutes were grim. We were under attack. The Japanese were nearby. Our sonar did not work. Death could happen at any moment. The date was June 19, 1945.

Josiah limps in, as fast as his legs can carry him, and stops in the doorway, face flushed. “Sir, important telegram. The boat was on it’s way back to Japan, there were torpedoes launched. All missed except for one which is unaccounted for. We bombed Shizuoka sir. Japanese surrender could be near. That’s why they are sending them back sir. At least, that’s what the man on base thinks. They were going pretty fast sir, the ship. They wanted nothing to do with us.”

Sarge nods, thinking it all through. All that goes through my mind is “one which is unaccounted for”. I turn my head back to the sonar equipment.

Green.

Red.

Green.

Red.

“FIRE!”

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