Eighteen Thousand Two Hundred and Fifty

For Dad

John William Pennington
12/29/1926 – 12/10/1994.
GM2C US Navy WWII; SSGT USAF Korea, Vietnam

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Dad, 16 yo, 1943

There are two kinds of dead in war: those who die and those who live. Those who die stay dead; those who live die again and again and again until, someday, they too stay dead.

He died in World War II during the Battle of Okinawa, but lived another forty-nine years filled with anger that he did not die in the war and stay dead. He returned an angry old man of nineteen, no longer possessed of that youthful innocence and un-sensed sense of immortality that lead the young to reckless deeds and derring-do. He lay in bed at night praying he would not wake in the morning so he would not have to die again.

He came home from war understanding mortality, the transitory nature of life, what death felt like and smelled like. What death looked like. He stared death in the eye as the kamikaze filled his gunsight, then overflowed the gunsight, growing larger and larger, the angel of death riding an iron steed at the end of a long, dark tunnel. Tunnel vision: when his mind detached from his body and shut out the sights and sounds of the world around him until the sole object of his awareness came at the end of the long, dark tunnel.

Boot Camp, Great Lakes MI, 1944

The deadly aircraft grew larger and pushed life and fear from his mind, becoming an object of wonder as time slowed to a crawl, distorting the action of his gun and motion of its shells. He watched the shells floating into and past the oncoming aircraft. Then, as time dissolved and body and life became meaningless, he saw into the eyes of the man behind the kamikaze’s windscreen. He knew then they would die together, their bodies flying apart and spattering onto his shipmates. How slow death approached. How personal. How beautiful. He didn’t fear dying: death’s cold grip already held him. He no longer felt his body; only his mind, detached from temporal awareness, still existed. His whole being focused on killing the enemy coming to kill him. Had someone told him to run he would not have heard them. Had someone tried to remove him from his gun they could not have pried loose his grip. His white-knuckled finger mashed the trigger. “Death is glorious.”

Inexplicably, the kamikaze veered, showing its brilliant white belly disintegrating in a hail of shells, and flung itself into another gun, the after-gun, his assigned battle station, where he would have been had the gun captain not sent him forward to assist with another. A miracle, providence, a lucky stroke, it saved his life. That’s what others told him and he believed, for a while.

The kamikaze obliterated the after-gun tub, left it a smoking hole, aircraft, gun, and flesh melded into one amid the tangled, twisted, burnt, blackened, smoking steel awash with red that pooled and sloshed with the ship’s list. The scorched and shredded remains of the dead could not be identified: scattered dog tags only identified the names of those men who had manned the great gun, not their remains. The new unknown dead would join the long list of ghost dead every country musters in war. The new unknown dead would be honored at the Tomb of the Unknowns, memorialized in reverent perpetuity by the living. Old men visiting the memorial would remove their caps, tears streaming down their cheeks as they died yet again, each old man awaiting his final death, knowing it will be the last time he must die.

Then came the unseeing eyes of the dead he would see every day for the rest of his life. The eyes of the dead he would feel watching him, accusing, beseeching. They accused him, his gun, his shells of pushing the enemy aircraft into the after-gun tub. “You should have died, not us.” His gun had caused the death of his buddies, his shipmates. Then he realized his survival did not manifest a miracle, providence, a lucky stroke: his survival was a curse.

The realization marked his first death.

He spent his life after the war in pain and sorrow, lashing out with the anger in his soul at the dead, the unknown dead, the red pool that sloshed around in that part of his mind tortured with the sight of the unseeing eyes of his dead shipmates. The lucky ones. He resented them for making him die over and over again. The heart-rending cry that echoed throughout the remainder of his life was not, “Why them and not me?” but, “God, damn you, why not me?”

The pain and anger that simmered below the surface and which burst forth at the slightest provocation was tempered some by the love and affection hidden within but rarely shared beyond a handshake, an occasional forced “I love you,” a thoughtful act, a life of labor shuffling from job to job to provide for his family. His anger manifested itself in defensiveness. He hated feeling weak, cowardly, unmanly, guilty. He could not bear the thought of not being in control, and became controlling to spite the war that yet controlled him. His anger and depression found vent in verbal abuse he directed at his family as he attempted to establish control over the one thing within his reach.

His anger and depression were both symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, a misfortune of war first labeled shell shock before enough wars were fought and lives shattered and their after-effects studied to allow application of a more clinically acceptable label, PTSD. But his family didn’t know that until his wish was granted and he died and stayed dead. By that time, his son, after nearly a lifetime of questioning the anger, found the answers and then the eloquence to pen these words, not with animosity and hate, but with love and understanding.

Love and understanding: these are the son’s anti-anger, anti-hate. These are the son’s words of love and understanding.

I understand, Dad. I understand your life now, your pain and anger. I understand the ghosts of the unknown dead, the unseeing eyes of those pursuing you across time, the red pool sloshing in the ship’s list. I understand your deaths, every day of your post-war life for forty-nine years. All eighteen thousand two hundred and fifty of them.”


Mom and Dad 1989
Dad and Mom, 1989, at home in Tampa.

27 thoughts on “Eighteen Thousand Two Hundred and Fifty

  1. Beautiful Will. Respect and Sorrow goes out to Dad and all those who who served their Country. Real heroes still exist even if they are now memories.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Will, I have probably said it before, but your writings about those who serve in the military, including your dad and yourself, are your best work, at least in my opinion. You provide a voice for those who could never find their voice. Thanks for helping those who have not served in the military to see and humbly appreciate.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Will, just a thought (as I am inclined to tell other people what to do when I’m the last to follow my own advice!)…I’d like to suggest that you consider crowdfunding a self-published book along those lines. I believe the audience is much larger than what we might imagine. Perhaps a collection of recollections, short stories, and poems? I imagine the theme to be along the lines of “what your father (or mother) never told you about their military service.” For many, not knowing what it was like is tough. For many, not knowing how to give voice is even tougher. Just a thought though…but I’d support that project.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. That’s an interesting suggestion. I’ve thought about self-publishing a (vanity) collection of my writing but never one dedicated to military themes. I’ll have to give that some thought. I would need about 60k words so there would be plenty of writing yet to be done.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I think I might have read this once before. I was moved this time as I was then. I agree you could write more about military life–so others will understand–and those who lived it will feel less alone.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, I post it every year. I removed the parts about the effect of his verbal abuse on my older sisters so I could point it more at the effect of PTSD in general. I didn’t connect the PTSD-anger dots until after he died and it was too late to say “I’m sorry.” I flew home from my carrier to take care of him in his last eleven days alive. He was in a coma, but I got a lot off of my chest. Mainly telling him my regret at not understanding him.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. That’s what makes me cry, what you didn’t write, but what all of us children of soldiers understand, how the lashing out is uneven, unpredictable, and creates rifts and shadows between siblings who all suffer. In our family, I was spared the worst of Dad’s anger, and grew up with a different sort of survivor’s guilt, my love for the man Dad tried to be entwined with helpless rage at his abusive oubursts toward other siblings, and helpless sorrow at his life cut short by disease (and the guilt and sorrow that probably abetted that disease)… so many dynamics rippling down through our own lives. I hope it is true that it is never to late to let love prevail.
        Your writing is healing, Will, thanks for putting it out in the world.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. The original post that addresses the impact on my older sisters is still posted. The eldest went through life with zero self-esteem. My next oldest sister, and the one I was closest to, was a recovering alcoholic when she died of an accidental drug overdose. I can only imagine the lives they would have lived had there been no war. And the lives my mom and dad would have lived. I understand what you went through and still feel. Love prevailed; I’m not angry at Dad anymore.
        Thank you for reading and letting me know what you felt.


  4. Beautifully written and a great tribute to your Dad. He served his country well and you did too. I salute both of you and I hope and pray the happy memories prevails instead of other things. Hugs and Happy Memorial Day.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. yup. I cried.
    The thought above is a valid one. Writing down stories to not be forgotten is something that must be done. I’ve heard a few, I wish my talent went to where yours is. Editing things soldiers write as they are home or recovering and helping them from the darkness. (I’m writing thru tears again. You like to make me cry.)
    Thank you for what you do.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I really like the suggestion of publishing a book on military themes. TIm Russert’s second book is Wisdom of Our Fathers, a collection of dad advice written by a variety of people. The book’s sections are grouped according to themes. And with your flair for intimate prose, you could simultaneously publish a collection on lost love. The possibilities are endless! Unfortunately, finances might not be. Write on, Sir Will, write on!


    1. Thank you, dear Louise. One project at a time! 🙂 I’m getting good feedback from a writer I was in a writing group with. She read my Of Love and Memories essay and was compelled to urge me on. She’s looked at the first chapter of Tom and Aida and provided some deep insight. She suggests that I, the writer, am “present in almost every scene, so much so that (she) didn’t connect to your protagonist or Aida. You should be invisible in every line and in every scene, even though the words flow through you. Let loose. Shake out your literary hands and arms. Remove yourself from what you’ve written. See this from a new perspective. Prop your feet up, close your eyes, feel the sand beneath your feet, the warm air on your face, the confusion he feels, the longing for freedom from his past….”
      Aaaarrrgghhhh (Sailor cursing) I’m digesting her meaning. I like the part about propping my feet up and going to sleep (did she say that 🙂
      As they say in Minnesota:


  7. The portraits of your father break my heart. He was still a babe. The portrait of you I form with all of these pieces breaks my heart. You were still a babe. All of the tragedies of war break my heart; I feel much as an empath. (I BAWL over dog/military owner reunions.) Few things are sadder to me than these things. War sucks. I have heard military training accidents take many lives, too, though. Geez, Will, no telling what my vivid dreams will conjure up tonight now. I’m glad you got a bit of closure being with your father during the coma and being able to write these things. ❤ I wish the war didn't leave emotional scars on you through him. We can forgive, but some things we can't rid. I'm living that firsthand.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. They were precious days I spent taking care of dad ans gave me the time to get a lot off of my chest. I don’t remember if I asked his forgiveness first, or if I forgave him. It doesn’t matter either way I guess. It was hard watching him die. He was only 67.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I loved my father-in-law; I was close to all of my in-laws. I was the only in-law in the group when he passed away with hospice care at home. We made it just in time from out of state. I offered my assistance in the funeral preparations, and that’s when one of my sister-in-laws said “family only.” I bawled alone in another room. My mother-in-law passed away last year, shortly after my husband moved out; she died after his plane landed but was delayed on the runway. She and I were close, too. I’ve never been close to my own parents or siblings.

        Liked by 1 person

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