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This story is about one war veteran, and pays tribute to all veterans on Remembrance Day:
Les Marriott was a war veteran. The Second World War had ended a decade earlier, and now he was our Scoutmaster. As it turned out, we would learn from him a great deal more than how to ‘Be Prepared’.
Mr. Marriott was a natural leader and dedicated to helping boys learn life skills. This was evident during quiet times that often wrapped up our weekly Scout meetings. He would encourage us to ask questions and talk about almost anything.
Mostly, our questions and discussions were about proficiency badges or upcoming Scout jamborees, and sometimes even about girls. He would listen carefully, and then patiently answer all of our questions. He seemed determined that no one ever went home with a question unanswered. Occasionally, someone would ask about his experiences in the war. Mr. Marriott told us he’d been in the Royal Navy but was reluctant to tell us more. He would gently redirect attention back to Scout matters.
One summer, our Scout troop was breaking camp after a week in the mountains of a national park. My friend Don and I were taking down the big tent we’d used for meals and meetings. Don was at the back pulling tent pegs when I heard him shout. He came running around to the front. His right hand was gripping his left arm – his left wrist was spurting blood.
Mr. Marriott heard the shouting and ran towards Don, scooping up a flat stone about two inches in diameter as he went. He thrust it into Don’s left armpit and pushed the arm down to his waist. The blood flow dropped to a trickle.
The troop’s first aid kit was in Mr. Marriott’s tent. He sent me to get it. Within minutes, Mr. Marriott had Don’s wrist bandaged and had applied a tourniquet around his forearm. He gave Don firm instructions how to release and tighten it.
Don and I were the senior Scouts, then called troop leaders. Mr. Marriott gave us lots of responsibility. We were supervising a group of younger scouts packing up camp, when Don hurt his wrist. He’d cut it on a broken glass bottle someone had discarded beside a tent peg. It was hidden by long grass. Mr. Marriott told Don to sit quietly. Thereafter, the radiant smile that rose from Don’s half-prone face told everyone he was going to be just fine… and not at all sorry about missing out on the rest of the work of packing up.
Over lunch before heading home, Mr. Marriott explained to all the scouts what he’d done to stem the flow of blood from Don’s wrist, and why it was so important to act quickly. It was a valuable lesson for Scouts. Once more, Mr. Marriott had seized upon a real-life opportunity to help young boys learn more of life’s valuable lessons. The stone in Don’s armpit had been carefully placed to press down on an artery, acting like a temporary tourniquet. And he explained why the real tourniquet had been located where it was, and that releasing it every minute or two was essential to maintain vital blood circulation to the arm.
His experience showed. And it raised questions about his war experiences. After lunch and much persuasion, he finally told us a story that none of us was ever likely to forget.
Mr. Marriott said he had been stationed on an aircraft carrier during most of the Second World War. He was assigned to the hangar deck, just below the flight deck from which fighter planes took off and landed. There he repaired instruments on the planes between combat missions.
Their convoy was in the South China Sea when it was attacked by several squadrons of Imperial Japanese fighter planes, known as Zero’s. Allied planes launched from the aircraft carrier engaged the enemy. Other ships in the convoy had their anti-aircraft guns blazing away. The battle raged on for what seemed like hours. Numerous ships were strafed with enemy machine gun fire. A few were damaged by bombs or torpedoes dropped from repeated waves of enemy planes.
Finally, the fighting eased as the enemy fighter planes left the battle, probably low on fuel. Mr. Marriott was stationed at the stern of the carrier, an area that received and stowed returning aircraft. It included an aircraft elevator, one of two on the ship connecting the hangar deck with the flight deck.
With the enemy planes apparently gone and the defending allied fighters coming back on board, Mr. Marriott heard his name called. He turned to see his buddy gesturing him to an open steel door. It led to a narrow catwalk high above the ocean on the back of the huge ship outside the hangar deck.
He joined his friend outside for a smoke. They’d closed the door to reduce wind gusts getting inside. Besides, they were under standing orders to close all doors and hatches during combat.
The two seamen were halfway through their cigarettes when they suddenly heard the distinctive sound of an enemy plane. An unexpected squadron of enemy fighters was approaching just above the surface of the ocean, too low to be identified on radar. The two men heard anti-aircraft fire begin to burst above them from their ship and from others.
A split second later, they heard a massive explosion and saw the steel door bulge outward. They learned later that an enemy plane had dropped a bomb down the open aircraft elevator. The two men fought to push the door inward enough to squeeze through. They came upon a horrific scene of bloody devastation.
Despite the battle raging in the skies above them, and exploding ammunition from a dozen or so burning aircraft destroyed by the bomb, they ran into the smoke-filled darkness looking for survivors. Their frantic calls got no response.
The two men scoured their section of the hangar deck. About 20 men had been on duty during the battle. Their search located five men alive, all unconscious in blood-soaked clothing, badly injured. They administered emergency first aid while awaiting help from overwhelmed medics. All the other sailors were found dead, a few from bomb fragments or flying debris, but most from concussion caused by the huge bomb that hit the lowered aircraft elevator.
Mr. Marriott explained quietly to us – pausing a few times to compose himself – that some remains of the others had to be scraped off the metal bulkheads and walls. They included friends.
He said that he was alive purely by coincidence.
We as Scouts had learned another lesson that day – and had also acquired a deep respect for his reluctance to talk about his war.
“Dad never said anything to us about the war,” Mr. Marriott’s daughter Janice said many years later. “He never brought it up.”
But I learned from her some startling information about his early life. Turns out, Mr. Marriott had survived far more than just that war. Born and raised in England, he had been virtually abandoned as a child, sent to a ‘work farm’ during the depression of the 1930s when his parents were unable to support him. Then in his mid-teens he was again forced out, driven away from the work farm when the owner could no longer provide work or food.
At a young age, Mr. Marriott somehow made his way to Canada and worked at various menial jobs until he returned to England a few years later, working as a stoker to earn return passage on a ship. He arrived there in desperate physical shape, his clothing in rags, pants held up with twine. Not long after that, the Second World War broke out.
When it was over, he returned to Canada where he married, raised a family and turned his instrument training into becoming a jeweler, and owner of a jewelry store that came to be known for its meticulous commitment to quality workmanship. No surprise there. Many of his customers were fellow veterans who, like him, rarely spoke about the horrors they had experienced.
Each, a quiet hero.
“A Quiet Kind of Hero” is Copyright 2015 By James Osborne All Rights Reserved