Wings of mercy

Near the end of World War II, on a large island in the South Pacific, an Air Force captain was in charge of a small unit of men who serviced and repaired fighter planes.

The captain, trained as a fighter pilot, had flown only a handful of missions during the war, and as the war came to a close, he became increasingly bitter over this fact. He began to drink heavily and to isolate himself for long periods of time. He made angry, excessive demands on his men and often threatened them with punishment for hesitating to obey.

As the camp was remote from other camps on the island, the captain's ugly, brooding behavior never came to the attention of the major in charge of the island. The men themselves were intimidated and hesitated to spread the word that he was dangerously close to losing control of himself.

Every morning at sunrise the captain ordered his men - twenty-five in all - to gather in front of his office for muster. With the men at attention he would come out of the door with a clipboard. If he had been drinking, he would hold himself steady on the railing by the wooden steps of the porch and stare at his clipboard. If he was sober, he would read from the clipboard, angrily tell the men of their shoddy work and threaten them with penalties if they continued their poor performance.

Some of the men, eager to return home after a long war, were increasingly intolerant of the captain's behavior and grew to hate him. Behind his back they wished all sorts of misfortune on him.

In the crew was a man named Smith, a short, quiet man of little education but with a soft wit and extraordinary patience. He too longed to be a fighter pilot but had failed several qualifying tests and could only be a mechanic to the planes he loved. While the level of anger over the captain's behavior increased among the men, Smith was relatively quiet and simply went about his job with the same thoroughness he had always shown.

One morning, as the men stood at attention, listening to the captain, rain began to fall, lightly at first, but then in a steady downpour. Within minutes, they were soaked to the skin. The captain, reading unimportant announcements from the clipboard, stood under the protection of the porch and steadied himself at the railing. He lashed out at the men, telling them that a little rain never hurt anybody and he didn't want to hear complaints from a bunch of crybabies. Then he dismissed them.

The men were outraged. Some threatened to report him, but did not want to jeopardize their chances to be sent home early. Smith went about his work and listened to the grumbling without comment.

The next morning, as the men gathered slowly in front of the office, dark clouds hovered again. When the captain appeared on unsteady legs, the first few drops of rain were already falling. His comments were disjointed and alternated between anger, threats and incoherence. Within minutes he was yelling loudly as the rain descended in buckets and soaked the men.

''Don't move!'' he shouted, and to prove that a little rain was nothing to be concerned about, he stepped from under the porch and walked defiantly down the three steps. He was drenched within seconds, but when he tried to get back on the porch, he lost his balance and slipped so that one leg slid painfully under the first step as he fell on his back into the mud.

There was a second or two of silence and then several of the men laughed. With his back to the men, the captain tried in silence to struggle to his feet. The men stayed in formation. But each time he failed, ripples of laughter mixed with the sound of rain. Then, to their surprise, a surprise that stilled their laughter, Smith stepped out of ranks and sloshed through the mud to the captain's side. He knelt down beside him.

The captain, seeing that Smith had stepped out of line without permission, shouted viciously at him, but Smith knelt there ignoring the verbal abuse, his lips moving quietly as he spoke. The captain stopped yelling. The noise of the rain had diminished, but Smith's words could not be heard by the men. They watched, entranced and puzzled as Smith talked for another minute or so. Then he leaned over so the captain could put his arm around his neck. Together they rose up slowly, the captain easing his bleeding leg out from under the step.

Because Smith was so short, the captain leaned heavily on him as they made their way awkwardly up the steps and into the office. The men stayed for a few more seconds, staring at the closed door, and then walked away.

Several days later, after the commandant of the island learned of the captain's behavior, there was an informal hearing. A panel asked several men to explain what had happened and all complained of their treatment, requesting that the captain be punished according to the military code of justice.

But when Smith spoke, he said he found it difficult to ask for punishment because he felt the captain needed perhaps one last reconnaissance mission, not as a solution to all of his problems but as a confirmation of his worth within a brutal war that was fought to preserve the high value of the individual.

''When I saw him fall,'' said Smith, ''I thought of him as a downed pilot, heartsick over the loss of his plane and momentarily distraught. I have always wanted to be a pilot, but frankly I don't seem to have the ability. But the captain knew what he was missing and for whatever reason, couldn't handle his disappointment.''

Although it could never be confirmed, rumor had it that a week later the captain flew two daylight reconnaissance missions and then was sent home.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.