Fall 2014

Volume 9, Issue 2



Jack Lewis, Arriving


1201. Passing the word and the use of tones to announce the arrival/ departure of officers and officials are not a means of rendering honor. These are used simply to indicate the arrival and departure of Commanders, Chiefs of Staff, Chief Staff Officers, Commanding Officers, and Civil Officials to interested personnel.


That they would name our ship USS Jack Lewis stems from the fact that there had once been a true, human Jack Lewis who was the Platoon Corpsman for Company A, 1st Battalion, 3rd Marines during the last days of the Vietnam War. One night while encamped near Da Nang, Petty Officer Second Class Lewis found himself next to a live Chinese grenade after a major league pitch by a Viet Cong—which was unusual because most of the Viet Cong had been wiped out during the Tet Offensive three years earlier. Four Marines were also hunkered down with him in their sandbag parapet. They had been alerted to activity, but no one expected anyone to be able to heave a grenade all the way over the sandbags from outside the wire. But there it was, in the mud somewhere, sputtering. Petty Officer Lewis, as related in his citation, “in complete disregard for his own safety” then did throw himself upon the grenade and “smothered the explosion with his own body.” In so doing, Petty Officer Lewis saved the four Marines and earned the decoration known as the Navy Cross.
One would think that such sacrifice would always result in some extraordinary reward, especially posthumously. But the truth is, recognition does not come to pass without the fortune to have had someone who will write a citation. In this case, a Marine Corps sergeant gave the facts to his platoon commander, a second lieutenant who lost three fingers on his left hand and sight in one eye before he could write any sort of commendation. The sergeant, however, was persistent. Knowing that Lewis’s selfless act would be lost in the usual exhaustion, ennui, and paperwork after any combat action, he brought the circumstances forward to his company commander, a captain who would survive mostly intact and embark upon a successful career in part because he knew how to write with clarity and conviction.
The captain actually recommended Petty Officer Lewis for the nation’s highest decoration, the Medal of Honor, which is sometimes given to those who smother grenades with their own bodies, an activity usually considered to meet the criteria of being  “above and beyond the call of duty.” But the recommendation was downgraded to the Navy Cross owing to the battalion reviewing officer’s observations that no commissioned officer had actually witnessed the act, and the incident had not occurred while Petty Officer Lewis was actively engaged in his normal duties of attending to wounded and dying Marines. Rather, Lewis had been sitting around shooting the shit with members of his platoon, and as such, he had merely “distinguished himself or herself in action by extraordinary heroism in combat,” but not enough to be above and beyond the call of duty.
Once downgraded to the Navy Cross, Lewis would never have been honored by our ship’s christening if not for the fact that a particular Secretary of the Navy had personal knowledge of his distinguished performance. This SECNAV, as he is known, exercised his right as the senior civilian leader of the United States Navy, and instead of naming a frigate after a dead admiral or a politician, cited the corpsman from his unit who had paid the ultimate price. Thus the fourteenth frigate constructed of the fifty-five in the Oliver Hazard petty class was named after a twenty-one year old sailor from Otumwa, Iowa. 

The former sergeant had not been surprised to hear that the award he’d proposed for Petty Office Lewis had been downgraded to the Navy Cross, but he was also not disappointed. In fact, he had presumed that nothing at all had come from the recommendation because he’d never heard anything about the award until the former captain company commander, now SECNAV, located him at his home in Eden Prairie, Minnesota, and was not only able to inform him that his recommendation had been at least partially successful, but invite him to the commissioning of our ship.
At first, the former sergeant thought he would decline the invitation. While the sergeant had found a successful life for himself, it was a life totally foreign to his experience in the Marine Corps and nothing like the stratosphere of this Secretary of the Navy who he had barely known and had never particularly liked for no reason other than he was an officer. Furthermore, the former sergeant had spent too many nighttime hours turning over and over in his bed-sheets, twisting around the notion that Petty Officer Jack Lewis had erred. When the grenade spatted into the mud at their feet, the sergeant and the other Marines had scrambled over the sandbags where they waited heartbeats before Petty Officer Lewis found himself scattered across the canvas and dirt walls of the parapet. (All of this “smothering the explosion with his own body” is a bit coy. Scattered gives the more accurate depiction of human detritus flung haphazard about the walls of a ditch.) What the sergeant knew, Jack Lewis had dumped his helmet on the grenade, fallen on top, clutched it to his belly and tried to squirm his nuts out of the way while he waited for it to go off. A long wait.
The sergeant and the other members of the squad had cowered down out of sight in the fear and knowledge of what was about to happen to Lewis.
The sergeant had not seen the detonation, only witnessed the outcome, one of several particularly disturbing memories he first nurtured, then overcame, and finally set aside to become a splendid husband and father, even though he never really quit wondering, why Lewis? Why not me? He would squirm and wrestle late into the night, all the while knowing the answer: Lewis had been the one who jumped on the grenade, that simple. Lewis had been the one with all the questions answered. 
But there were errors.
What he had done and what he had failed to do—his own error—was the memory the former sergeant visited as he sat in the padded, folding chair of the front row during the commissioning ceremony. He and 215 other guests watched Jack Lewis brought alive through the crew’s collective leap up the gangway to take their positions at the lifelines as the signal flags and the national ensign broke open on their halyards, all arrayed in color above what had been merely a dull, grey hull with a number on the bow. Finally, the captain of the new ship strode forward. Two sharp strokes of the ship’s bell, then two more peeled from the ship’s loudspeaker and all across the audience, the pier, the naval station itself, shrilled the words: Jack Lewis, Arriving! 
The former sergeant then watched the ship’s first commanding officer salute the national ensign and step aboard to one more smart, single stroke on the bell signifying the placement of his foot upon the hull of the ship whose name he would bear while in command, the name of the corpsman the sergeant had failed to protect.
Of course, the former sergeant felt grateful to have lived through the war to earn his honorable discharge. He was grateful for his career appraising real estate, grateful for his lack of injury, and even more grateful for the family he had found despite the ever more sure knowledge he could have grabbed Lewis by the scruff of the neck, snagged him, hauled him up over the sandbags and out of the way of what should have been a useless grenade. Now, grown, just when he thought he might be able to abandon this memory forever, he had been obligated to see the ship bearing the name Jack Lewis go into commission as he sat next to a slim woman in a neat blue suit who had been Jack’s mother. She was composed, radiant even. It had been nearly fifteen years since she’d lost her middle son to that Chinese hand grenade, and she did not seem bitter about anything at all. She told her son’s sergeant, "I’ve committed him to the Lord."
For some reason, unreasonably, the former sergeant found this offensive. He had never met Jack’s mother before, and he supposed he should be glad to see her so proud of her son, a hero. But he could not leave the conviction that the man who had fallen on that grenade had not been as much a hero as he had been just another victim who had glanced up at him, the sergeant, and perhaps, Him, with eyes that may have been full of hope and forgiveness. Or perhaps, accusation. Perhaps anger. But most certainly full of the question, why me?
The sergeant thought she should be asking, why him? Why did this have to happen to my child? Why did he have to be the one committed to the Lord? The sergeant thought, if she only knew how terrible it had been to see her son torn to a pulp, his eyes still wondering, why me?
And hadn’t Petty Officer Lewis dropped that helmet on top of the grenade in the weird hope that he might be spared? Forgiven? Saved? Had he imaged he might even be able to receive the Navy Cross in person, a chunk of bronze dangled under its pristine blue and white ribbon? Was it faith that somehow his sergeant now sitting next to his mother might have had the power to spare him in some way?
Lewis had not died immediately. He had been given enough time to whisper those things they whisper, and the former sergeant had been privileged to hear Petty Officer Lewis call for God, then his mother—who now sat next to the former sergeant who would always, always remain Petty Officer Lewis’s sergeant. They watched her son’s namesake ship brought into being, the sparkling voice, the clean hull, spanking new under the sun that rippled across the flags of that morning, hearing those bells stroked two by two in about the same cadence as the time it took for that grenade to go off.
Did the former sergeant take some solace from his sure knowledge that whoever may command this ship, for as long as they command, shall have their movements heralded with four strokes on the bell, two shrill heartbeats, and the name of an honored Navy Corpsman, a hero, pealed out: Jack Lewis, and his state of being: Departing, Returning, but never again arriving? For, through a strange twitch of tradition, the captain of Jack Lewis would only arrive once, upon commissioning. Thereafter, whoever held command would only depart or return, but ever with our name, Jack Lewis! And would the sergeant take some satisfaction from that fact—the certainty that the movement of this ship’s commanding officer would echo the name of frail, skinny Jack Lewis curled over his steel helmet, waiting, ever waiting?
Would we—those of us who will live aboard this ship, crew it, break it, repair it, fight it— would we believe this to be some sort of atonement, this announcement of the name of a dead man every departure and return of our captain?
No. We won’t. Not really.
In the end, ship’s names are announced only to pass a bit of information to their crews. Upon commissioning, the bells say: the commanding officer of a naval vessel being placed in service with all its potency, history, and skills has arrived. And forever more, when our captains come and go, all of the crew of Jack Lewis will hear the bells rung, two-by-two, Jack Lewis, Returning—Jack Lewis, Departing. He is Jack Lewis. He will depart and return, but the bells and the broadcast of the ship’s name signify only another routine moment of the many that fill a ship’s short life. No one will think anything of the flesh and blood Jack Lewis other than to note the faded black and white picture of a skinny boy in a dress uniform affixed above a citation to be read by newcomers and visitors to the crew’s mess of the ship named after him.
Jack Lewis, Arriving
. This is routine. The announcement has no bearing on deaths already witnessed or upon deaths to come. The dead are the dead. Our secret knowledge, our power, and our obscene glamour is this: we may make of them what we will.



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