Beside a Burning Sea - By John Shors


Warm winds bear old scents.

I ask why I have fallen

And how I may rise.


SEPTEMBER 23, 1942


Ten minutes before a torpedo sliced through the sea and slammed into steel, most everything was normal aboard the U.S. hospital ship Benevolence.

Parting the temperate waves of the South Pacific at a speed of twelve knots, Benevolence more closely resembled a transatlantic passenger liner than the handiwork of the U.S. Navy. The five-story vessel spanned four hundred feet and boasted engines that generated four thousand horsepower. The ship was coated in white paint, with giant red crosses dominating its sides and smokestack. From a distance, Benevolence looked far more majestic than a massive chunk of floating steel had any right to. The ship radiated comfort and security and solace.

Below deck, reality was far different. Benevolence held nearly five hundred hospital beds, which were filled with soldiers who suffered everything from chest wounds to lost appendages to malaria and psychiatric maladies. Attending to these patients were several dozen navy doctors and nurses. Though few of these healers had been on the front lines, during the course of the war most had been shot at by snipers, lifted off the ground by bomb blasts, and contracted a tropical illness. Moreover, the mental toll of trying to cure the often incurable had pushed many of the staff to and beyond the breaking point.

Benevolence was designed to linger on the outskirts of battle, to swiftly enter burning waters, and to provide aid to the men who’d been maimed by bombs and bullets. International law mandated that hospital ships save both friend and foe, and Benevolence was filled with torn American and Japanese soldiers. The ship stank of unwashed bodies and disinfectants and bleach. Much worse, depending on one’s location, the stench of burnt flesh could be as oppressive as the humid air that kept everything in an eternal state of dampness. Though the drone of Benevolence ’s engines drowned out the moans of the dying, the screams of the burn patients often pierced the air.

Ten minutes before his ship was split in two, Captain Joshua Collins absently studied the chart before him, wondering how his wife, Isabelle, was faring with the fresh batch of wounded. He knew that she’d be darting from soldier to soldier, creating order and sanity where no such havens should have existed. During this frenzied dance she’d act as a mother or lover or sister to the men who suffered and died before her. As far as he was concerned, she was able to almost magically transform into whoever these suffering men so desperately needed her to be.

Though Joshua and Isabelle had been together for almost a decade, and though he recognized that she wasn’t perfect, he still marveled at her. He hoped that the men she saved understood the extraordinary measures she took to save them—for to do so she’d left a trail of herself from North Africa to Midway. This trail was filled with her laughter and youth, her faith and strength. Painfully aware of her sacrifices, Joshua often prayed that she wouldn’t be an empty shell by the time the war ended. He’d seen too many such shells, and the fear of her becoming one was a burden that weighed heavily upon him. Unfortunately, despite this fear and his consequent longing to mend her as she mended others, he had his own demons, and such monsters rarely set him free.

Still absently gazing at the chart, Joshua reflected on what he worried was a growing chasm between Isabelle and him. For as much as he admired and loved her, over the past few months he hadn’t felt as compelled to spend time at her side. As he saw it, the two of them inhabited different realms. After all, his complete focus centered on the safe and effective operation of Benevolence, and her duty was to ensure the best possible medical care for her patients. Neither task left much room for anything else. And the less time they spent together, the less inclined they were to seek each other out. It was as if, having left the overwhelming demands of the helm or the patients, neither spouse had energy for the other. And so they drifted apart, like kites released into a storm.

Saddened by the recent unraveling of his marriage, Joshua turned from the chart and, looking through a window, studied the calm waters surrounding Benevolence. The nearby sea had already witnessed enormous conflicts between American and Japanese warships, and Joshua knew that