Recent articles on the opening of the World War II memorial and the abuse of prisoners in Iraq reminded me of a story my father, William H. Speck, told me.
During World War II, he served in the Pacific as a junior officer on the Murray, a Navy destroyer escort. His ship often spent days at sea under orders to maintain radio silence (to prevent the enemy from picking up signals). During one of these stretches, the Murray sighted a Japanese hospital ship. Its commander reported that he was evacuating wounded from an island that had just surrendered.
The Murray's captain was faced with a dilemma. If the wounded returned to Japan, many might fight again -- and kill Americans in a war that seemed ready to go on for years. But if the hospital ship were forced to turn around, it was likely to run out of food, water and medical supplies. Many of the wounded would die. Murray's captain could not contact another U.S. ship to request orders or alert it to aid the hospital ship. He chose to allow the Japanese ship to continue on its way.
One of my father's scrapbooks holds a yellowed copy of a New York Times story on the incident, including a congressman's call for an investigation. I don't think hearings were held, because attention shifted to the battles for Okinawa and other islands leading to what everyone thought would be an invasion of Japan.
My father's captain, with trepidation, finally was able to radio Adm. Chester Nimitz's headquarters. Since the incident was over, Nimitz had only to make a standard response: "Your decision noted."
Nimitz, however, replied: "Your decision approved."
In three words, the admiral took responsibility for his subordinate's action.
We once had armed forces in which the lower ranks respected the humanity of the enemy and in which the higher ranks took responsibility for what happened under their command. No doubt we still do, but I haven't seen much in the news lately that helps me to think so.
PAULA K. SPECK