“Don’t Sit on the Torpedo!”
By Richard C. Lukas
Recalling a courageous priest and the dogs of war that washed onto an American shore during WWII
Mike sat with his wife, Marita, on the balcony of their condominium overlooking the Atlantic Ocean and reminisced about their childhood. Marita reminded him with a touch of envy, “You were so fortunate to have enjoyed a childhood like that.” As Mike and Marita talked, a squadron of brown pelicans flew majestically overhead, revealing their extraordinary grace in flight. As they descended to fly at a lower level to take advantage of the slope lift from the tops of the waves, two of these birds of prehistoric lineage broke formation to snatch a fish in shallow water. They landed clumsily, as if they had never done that before.
The episode brought a smile to Mike’s face because it reminded him of his boyhood home that was precariously perched on the edge of a cliff overlooking the same ocean hundreds of miles north of where he and Marita lived now. He recalled how fascinated he was by pelicans even as a young boy.
His mind focused on the memories of the people he loved and who had protected him as a young boy. They all meant so much to him, yet they were summoned in an instant. They were all there. He heard his Polish-born father recite huge chunks of the writings of Adam Mickiewicz and Henryk Sienkiewicz, literary giants of Poland. He saw his plump, pragmatic mother, whose dynamic energy took ninety-four years to extinguish. How could he forget his eccentric uncle, who proposed five times to the same woman before she finally consented to marry him? Or his beloved aunt, who endured so much pain from an alcoholic husband before she found a home with her sister; she had always doted on Mike because he was the youngest and most vulnerable member of the family. His older brother and sister spoiled and protected him. And there was his beautiful older cousin, his best friend, who patiently waited for him when he tired of playing with boys his age.
There was one other person Mike always considered a part of his family. His parents often referred to him as their adopted son. He was Fr. Sean O’Malley, a muscular, gruff-looking priest with a shock of red hair and a freckled face. He had a heart as big as his body. Orphaned as a young boy, Fr. Sean became a professional wrestler before he entered the priesthood. Assigned to St. Michael’s Church, Fr. Sean bonded with Mike’s family after the death of Francis, Mike’s brother. He had a unique way of reaching people, even Mike’s uncle who had not attended Mass in thirty years. After getting to know Fr. Sean, Mike’s uncle astonished everyone in the family by attending daily Mass and regularly visiting a Trappist monastery for spiritual retreats.
Mike and his friend did what they always did when they weren’t in class at St. Michael’s School—beachcomb. The hobby was like a virus that consumed them. For seven-year-old boys living during World War II, beachcombing the flotsam that washed up along the beach was a reality not yet fully comprehended, when compared with the fictional war games they played with their friends. Their diligence paid off with a collection of life jackets, binoculars, sea rations, and gun cartridges. They even found part of the stern of a ship with its name on it, a discovery that threatened to cause a major rift between them until ownership was resolved through prolonged and animated negotiations.
One day they made an unusual find. They had never seen anything like it. A long black cylinder washed up near the shore. Its belly was coated with a veneer of sand, and it had a propeller on one end. After cautiously circling the object several times, they decided it was harmless and mounted it. Their hope was that it might serve as a makeshift seesaw, but oddly enough the cylinder didn’t budge.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, Fr. Sean, who regularly walked the beach after the 7 am Mass on Saturday, ran frantically toward the boys, shrieking at the top of his lungs, “Don’t sit on the torpedo!” Shocked by the hysterical shouting of the priest, Mike and his friend froze. Without slowing, Fr. Sean scooped up the boys in his massive arms and ran to a nearby fisherman’s shack, where he unceremoniously dumped them like two sacks of flour on a wobbly oak bench.
Mike and his friend sat, bug-eyed, wondering why they had been transported so hastily to a dingy shack, forced to endure the stench of reeking rotten fish guts. Fr. Sean talked to someone on the telephone while they sat in silence and wondered what was so bad about playing seesaw on something that didn’t even move.
Four men dressed in military uniforms soon arrived. They spat out unfamiliar words to the boys—“bomb disposal unit,” “sub,” “torpedo,” “U-boat.” When one man, whose uniform sported eagles on the shoulders, explained they had played on an active torpedo from a German submarine called a U-boat, Mike and his friend began to cry.
When the weapon had been disarmed and placed on the back of a truck, an officer admonished them never to play near or on a torpedo again. The boys, still in shock, nodded, but they still did not fully understand what had just happened. The officer gave Fr. Sean a smart salute and joined the enlisted men in the truck, which left as quickly as it had arrived.
Fr. Sean provided the two boys with horrific images of the lethal impact of torpedoes on American vessels. Mike and his friend tearfully thanked him for saving their lives and begged him not to tell their parents about what they had done. He patted them on the head and promised not to talk about the incident to their parents, provided they attended daily Mass the following week and prayed for the soldiers and sailors who were fighting, as well as those who lost their lives in the war. Tearfully, they promised and kept their pledge.
When Mike returned home, his parents were in the kitchen, sipping their morning coffee. Shaken by what had happened on the beach, he sought solace in his bedroom. But his father called to him from the kitchen before he had a chance to go upstairs. His heart raced. He began to perspire. How did his father find out what had happened to him on the beach a few minutes ago? Mike wondered, Did Fr. Sean go back on his promise?
He walked into the kitchen expecting the worst. But his father merely asked him what he wanted for Christmas, which was only three weeks away.
“Anything but toy torpedoes,” Mike blurted out.
His parents had bemused expressions on their faces. “That’s an odd thing to say,” his mother said.
“I suppose you don’t want toy submarines either. After all, they go together,” his father noted with a chuckle.
“I know,” Mike replied almost in a whisper. He knew that war would no longer be something he reenacted with his toys.
As if the experience on the beach wasn’t enough to bring the reality of war to Mike, a few weeks later Fr. Sean told the family at Sunday dinner that the bishop had approved his request to join the military chaplaincy, a special vocation of the priesthood he had hoped to perform. Everyone was silent. The sadness was palpable. Mike’s uncle, who had experienced a spiritual renewal because of Fr. Sean, had to leave the tabled because he was so overcome with emotion.
In the weeks that followed, Fr. Sean kept the family regularly informed about his military training at Fort Jackson, SC. The last letter from him reported that he was on his way to Great Britain with the men he wanted to support and encourage in their mission to defend the United States. He wrote a poignant paragraph that Mike never forgot:
“If I lose my life as a Catholic chaplain, I am prepared to meet Jesus Christ. I can’t think of a better time or place to die than with the men who are fighting to defend our beloved country.”
When Mike returned from school one day, he saw his mother crying. His father also appeared to be choking back tears. They told him that Fr. Sean O’Malley had died. A German torpedo had struck the military transport carrying Fr. Sean and the unit he served to Great Britain.
Fr. Sean gave his life jacket to a soldier and helped three other men to a lifeboat before the North Atlantic overtook this courageous priest who had rescued two curious boys from the dogs of war on an American shore.