IN THE FALL of 1918, the war was going very well indeed. After struggling to within 37 miles of Paris, the Germans had gotten whacked in the snout at Château-Thierry by the fresh-faced Yanks and then again at the Second Battle of the Marne. In September, the Hun gave ground further at the Second Battle of the Somme and even more in the Fifth Battle of Arras. Numerics alone indicated the war’s strategic stagnation. Soon thereafter, the salient at Saint-Mihiel was reduced, the Hindenberg Line breached at Metz and, before Pershing could say Jack Robinson, the Allies were on Boche soil. Come October and the Germans were recruiting 14-year-old boys to defend the Fatherland. The war, over there, was almost over. Morning, very early, just off Boston. Massachusetts Bay serene, a lake, and the sun climbing, its first flames searing the misty rim of the ocean. Ignition. Another day. The Vaterland, a German merchant ship impounded when America had entered the war, hove to off Deer Island Light to wait for the pilot. Rechristened the Manhattanville after the section of the New York docks that marked its place of impressment, the ship subsequently plied the North Atlantic for nine months hauling troops and material. It might as well have been cruising the Hudson River for it saw no action. Not even one klaxon sounded for a U-boat alert. She had left Brest at the end of August laden with injured doughboys, mostly artillerymen, considered hardy enough for the ten-day voyage. Some of them, gunners from the 89th Division, had sailed to France on this very vessel a year ago. “Ironic iron-bottom,” said one of them, a Sergeant Carl Grinnel of Terre Haute, Indiana, a forward observer for a 75-millimeter battery and once a high school English teacher. Grinnel had taken a sniper round in his hand two months ago at Château-Thierry while reaching for a doughnut. One of the lesser casualties, but one that guaranteed an early trip home. It was a clean wound, no sepsis. But the bullet had shattered the three carpals at the base of the thumb and index finger, as well as demolishing the flexor and extensor tendons. Nothing could be done. His right hand would freeze in a permanent OK. As therapy, he was given a Palmer-Method exercise book by a Red Cross nurse in the military hospital near the Bois de Boulogne. Every day for two months he would sit in the sun on the wrought iron balcony working on his left-handed penmanship. He was rendering loops and whorls and curlicues with growing facility now, although crossing tees was awkward and he still smeared the letters. Yet he considered himself extremely fortunate, exhilarated to be returning home to Terre Haute and his high school students. He thought that maybe he’d even coach some baseball next spring. His wife had written that Coach Maltby was retiring. There’s talk of you for the job, dearest, she had said in her last letter. Maybe he could even grip a bat if he worked on the other fingers. He didn’t think he could ever learn to throw left-handed, too unnatural, and he didn’t want to look funny. They had been waiting on deck since early morning, newfound sea buddies all, soon all scattering, soon all home. The legless ones had been carried above, propped on deck chairs. Their blankets hung limply where their extremities had been. They sat closest to the rail while those missing arms stood in the row behind. The blind and those with shattered faces sat aft, alone, except for their nurses and a handful of Red Cross girls, the donut dollies. Grinnel and the other walking-wounded had free run of the ship. The light was coming up fast now and licks of orange flame flashed from the windows along the Boston shore. Grinnel smoked two cigarettes back-to-back pondering how he’d deal with chalk and an eraser at the blackboard. He flicked the butt over the rail, looked at his bum hand. Sure, everything will be okay. He looked up. I’m going home. Things are getting better by the minute. The pilot ship came into view, making speed, its bow well out of the water. The men cheered. Indeed, it was a hell of a good day. And Carl Grinnel cheered too. As the pilot clambered aboard the men hailed him – Hip-Hip-Hooray! Hip-Hip-Hooray! And suddenly, Grinnel lost his breath and coughed violently, staining the palm of his good hand red. He died four days later at Camp Devens, Massachusetts. That was one way that war can end. And all over America little girls played jump-rope singing,
I had a little bird, its name was Enza I opened up the window, and in-flew-Enza ####
12 April 2020
James Ryan is graduate of the United States Military Academy at West Point. A writer, he lives in Istanbul, Turkey.