The Last Boat Out of Hungnam

Gunnery Sergeant Davis was exhausted. He had heard that term before, and while he certainly thought he felt it during the war, he was really feeling it now. He remembered General Almond saying that the evacuation from Hungnam was going to be a big one, but no one could fathom the scope of it. They had already lost big, and needing to evacuation all of these people was tough. His pride hurt. His bones hurt. He was tired of directing people, and he was tired of still fighting. He’d been in Korea since the beginning, and going on was just getting to be too tough for him. He had no idea how he was going to keep moving on. 

He just helped the last few civilians and some equipment onto a helicopter bound for the SS Meredith Victory when his body and mind had finally had enough. Marines were tough, but even he was getting ready to the breaking point. He sank behind an ammunition crate that had already been loaded to the helipad, waiting for the next  round  of helicopters. “You ok, Sargent?” 

The kid couldn’t have been older than 19. He must just have arrived, he was too fresh faced, too young. There was no way he could have been here for the whole mission. Looked like he could bug out any minute.

“Just needed to take five,” Davis said, reaching into his top pocket and pulling out a cigarette. He lit it and took a drag, “Next shipment’s not going out for a few minutes.”

The kid nodded, then disappeared. There was plenty to do. Davis was part of the First Marines, the first group here. The group that had been here too long. Too many of his buddies were also getting worn down. He took another drag, exhaled sharply. When  this whole project started, it seemed like an impossible task. Evacuating all of these people to Pusan. It was a retreat, is what it was. He couldn’t keep going like this, and he knew his buddies couldn’t, either. There was grumbling that this whole mission was going to be a failure, and despite his dedication to his duty, he was starting to believe them.

He was about to get back to it when a man approached him. He  stood up, needing to lean on the crate for support. 

He was Korean. One of the soldiers from the First Korean Regiment by the look of it. He had the same look as Davis, haggard, his bags under his eyes had bags under them, and he clearly hadn’t shaved in a few days. His uniform was wrinkled as had probably slept in it, more than once. He had the look of a man who had been searching for something. Slowly, he approached Davis. 

“I’m all good here,” Davis said through his cigarette. 

The man reached into his pocket and pulled something out barely concealed in his clenched fist. Davis took a cautious stance. He’d seen too much. Slowly, the man opened his hand and held it out for Davis to see. It was a small wooden toy boat, caked in dirt and blood, the edges worn down presumably from being handled so much. He looked back at the man, who was holding it out in his outstretched hand, looking for Davis to take it.

“Thanks, hoss, I appreciate it, but I don’t need your boat.”

The soldier continued to hold the toy out with one hand, and placed another hand on his chest, “Not… mine.” 

Davis looked skeptically at the toy boat. He picked it up, it wasn’t heavy at all. He knew he’d seen one of these before, he had bought it for his sister’s kid before he shipped off to Korea. They were pretty common back in the States, he had no idea why this man was trying to offer to him now. He looked at the bottom and saw a list of names crudely etched into the bottom. There were five in total. 

The last was in Korean. 

“What is this?”

The solider pointed to the first name scrawled on the bottom.  Private Michaels. “It was… his.” He said again.  Davis shook his head. He didn’t know a Private Michaels. The soldier pointed to the next name on the bottom, Sergeant Franklin. “When this man die, this man pick it up,” he explained. “This was given to first man by his…” he searched for the word. 

“Brother,” the solider finally said. “Told him to bring toy home.” The solider’s eyes were pleading. “Can you bring this home?”

Davis suddenly felt the weight of the toy in his hand. He picked up on the implication of the other names on the list, including this last one. He had no idea how he was going to get anything back to anyone. Did this man think that everyone in the military just knew everyone? 

He looked back at the soldier and was surprised to see him smiling. Davis was surprised to catch himself smiling back. He held up the toy and waved it slightly, an acknowledgement that he had accepted his new mission. The soldier turned slightly to leave, but stopped and looked back.

“Merry Christmas,” the soldier said. 

Davis was still looking at the toy. He had no concept of the date, but doing the math in his head, he realized that Christmas was, in fact, only. A few days off. He said back to the solider, “Merry Christmas.”

He started to ask the soldier his name, only for the telltale sound and wind of another helicopter incoming to the helipad he was manning. Davis made some room and slipped the toy boat into his pocket. 

There was work to be done. 

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