Duty and the Well of Fortitude

by Doug Magill

On a moonless Pacific night during World War II, the pilot of a Hellcat fighter returning from a routine patrol desperately searched for the comfort of an aircraft carrier he would never find.  My father, directing fighter operations on the ship that was the home of the lost plane, listened in horror to the static-roughened panic in the young man’s voice.  Dead reckoning, compasses and wind estimates were the means of navigating in those days – and they sometimes were not enough as darkness closed in over the Pacific.  Fleet orders prevented the carrier crew from illuminating the Cowpens due to nearby Japanese submarines.

Disappearing into the blackness of the sea, terrified and alone, the pilot was not considered a coward by his shipmates.  My father first told me this story when I was ten years old, and I asked him how a brave military pilot could panic.  With a soft and faraway look in his eyes, he replied, “It’s just that his well of fortitude ran dry.  We all never knew how deep it really was for any of us.”

Dad grew up in Indianapolis and attended Indiana University.  After graduating from Harvard Law School he found employment in Washington D.C., working for a bank – a cherished position in contrast to the poverty and bankruptcy that he grew up with.  Serving in the Navy was never considered an option for him, but when the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred like so many other patriots he felt the call to serve.    Meeting with a Navy recruiter he hoped that he could become a petty officer, but the recruiter convinced him that with a law degree he would be a fine officer and Dad accepted a commission as an ensign in the naval reserve.  At that time he had never been on any vessel larger than a rowboat.

The Navy was desperate for officers in those days, and Dad ended up being assigned to Naval Intelligence in Pearl Harbor without being required to attend Officer Candidate School.   He had no idea of any of the Navy protocols, or even how to wear the uniform, but he got by through the help of other new officers and by reading the Bluejacket’s Manual. 

Deciding that staff Intelligence work was not contributing as much to the war effort as he wanted, he applied for and accepted an assignment to Radar Director School in Sea Island Georgia, hoping to return to the Pacific in a few months.  He performed so well at the school that the Navy retained him for a few extra months to serve as an instructor.  After continually applying for combat positions, he was finally assigned to a new carrier in Pearl Harbor, the Cowpens, as Director of Fighter Operations.  The ship immediately joined Task Force 14 prior to the attack on Wake Island, and later the Marshall Islands.

After the Marshalls campaign, the Cowpens joined a fast carrier attack group, Task Force 58, and participated in the campaigns against Eniwetok, Truk, Palau, the battle of the Phillipine Sea, Leyte Gulf, Iwo Jima, Okinawa and finally the home islands.  Air operations were constant and the threat of Japanese submarines and warships continued.  In between operations the Task Force anchored in lagoons to perform maintenance and reprovision.  The Cowpens was the first American carrier to enter Tokyo Harbor and he and his shipmates were responsible for the emergency activation of the Yokasuka airfield and the liberation of a POW camp near Nigata. 

The Cowpens received 12 battle stars, a Navy Unit Citation, and a Presidential Unit Citation for its service during the war. 

Eddie Rickenbacker, the World War I combat pilot once said, “There can be no courage unless you’re scared.”  He understood that there is a well of fortitude within that can be drawn upon time and again, under even the most terrifying circumstances.  And yet, military men know that there are occasions when even that is not enough, when fear can overcome even the hardiest soul, when there is no more bravery, no more strength, no more belief.  Still they are drawn beyond what can be humanly expected by their sense of duty – to themselves, to their comrades, to their country.

During the war my father’s carrier was attacked by kamikaze aircraft, and barely survived the monstrous waves of Halsey’s typhoon (Typhoon Cobra), a ferocious cyclone in the Pacific Ocean that struck the Pacific Fleet with one-hundred twenty mph winds and sank three ships. 

USS Cowpens (CVL-25) during Typhoon Cobra
18 December 1944

The Cowpens was also sent as a decoy into the Sea of Japan without escorts.   When I asked Dad if he was scared, he would only say that he was able to draw from his well of fortitude during those times, and hang on.  At times he was so frightened that he couldn’t move, but when he saw his shipmates doing their duty he felt he had to do his job and not let them down.  He never boasted or showed pride, only relief that he had performed his duty and not failed his shipmates.

One of the first Americans ashore in Tokyo after the surrender of Japan he felt no false pride as a conqueror in a strange land.  Only sadness at the poverty and hopelessness he observed in a frightened and wary populace.

Landing on the beaches of Okinawa with the 1st Marine Division, my uncle Tom suffered from migraine headaches which prevented him from seeing.  All he could do was hang onto the web belt of the man in front of him.  His comrades would tell him where to aim so that he could shoot.  Though he didn’t share many details of that bloody island, he told me of times when he was so afraid he couldn’t move, or shoot, and that the chaos of war gave countless opportunities for heroism and panic, often to the same person in the space of moments.  He described the jungle and the insects, the heat, and the constant fear.  He told me, “I was afraid all the time, and felt suffocated because there was no where to hide.  It was a relief sometimes to dig leeches out of my legs with my combat knife.  The pain was real, and distracted me from the fear.”  He drew deeply from his well of fortitude, time and again shaking and panicked.  Wanting to do his duty for the men around him he would take that next, halting step which kept him going for one more minute, one more agonizing hour, one more terrifying day. 

Proud of their service, both my father and my uncle never described themselves as heroic or deserving of special consideration.  They knew that brave men could panic, and cowards could become unexpected heroes.  Incredible feats of courage were often not recognized and medals were awarded for trivial things, or for momentary political purposes. 

To most World War II veterans, medals and awards were not indicative of the value of one’s service, and did not imply a hierarchy of bravery.  They did not judge the value of one’s duty, as they knew that even clerks in Washington were important to what they did, as were the bases and supply ships manned by tired and overworked sailors and airmen – who would never be recognized.  They, too, performed their duty and may have had to draw upon their wells of fortitude due to accidents, weather, or other events that required bravery unrelated to combat.   

A childhood friend of mine declined a Bronze Star during his service in Vietnam because his sense of honor caused him to feel that others deserved it more.  He felt it would have been false pride to accept a decoration that he didn’t deserve, though he knew he had performed his duty and saw combat that tested him.   

Most veterans understand that medals aren’t scorecards for manliness.  Performing their duty was all that mattered.  The rest was randomness and fate.  A man performed his duty when required, regardless of acknowledgement or reward, and without complaint.  The concept of duty is something that these warriors passed on to their children.  I have many childhood memories of completing required tasks, hoping in vain for recognition from my father.  Acting responsibly was not worthy of note. 

As the young Hellcat pilot found in his last moments before entering the silent embrace of the sea, duty doesn’t always involve the risks of combat.  His service and death were nonetheless noble and honorable.  Military men will forever salute him because of that.  Today, it would be fitting for those who profess to lead us, and for those who evaluate them, to humbly remember all of those who have died nobly, regardless of circumstances.  They owe the opportunity to do such things in a democracy to those who performed their duty for all of us, even if their well of fortitude ran dry in darkness and solitude, far from home.

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