The Empty Chair
Gerard L. Becker
Gerard wrote this as part of his senior creative writing group in the hope that it in some way it honoured those who had to live through the hell of a Japanese PoW Camp.
They were all gathered around the radio Sunday afternoon, December 7th, nineteen forty one, when the infamous broadcast interrupted their tranquil ritual. The Hope family, consisting of Joseph and Mary, their daughter Ruth and son Peter, stared at each other in disbelief, shock, then a knowing acceptance of what was to come. “These bastards are going to pay!” exclaimed Peter. His girl Catherine who lived down the street appeared in the parlor, breathing heavily and excitedly from her run up the hill. She stared at Peter, her eyes sensing his anger, knowing his high moral character, his determination and pride in being American, and being together since childhood, she intuitively knew what was coming. “Well, I’ve always been fascinated by the sea and planes. Its time I learned how to fly!”.
Within hours of the fateful announcement about the bombing of Pearl Harbor, he appeared at the naval recruiting station, and signed up for the draft. Peter was a natural flyer. Graduating from naval flight training first in his class, he found himself stationed on the Lexington aircraft carrier as a dive-bomber pilot. In early May of 1942 he was headed for the south coast of New Guinea to head off an invasion of its capital, Port Moresby. Both the Japanese fleet and the American, consisting of a two carrier task force, the Lexington and the Yorktown, were searching for one another. His squadron made contact in what has become known as the first major battle of the Pacific campaign-the battle of the Coral Sea. It was near dusk when he dived upon a Japanese cruiser and launched his bombs, never knowing that they struck home! All he remembered was the world around him suddenly erupting into a sheet of flames and his plane careening into the ocean. His squadron, low on fuel and in near darkness having to leave the conflict, could only presume that he was lost at sea.
As for Peter Hope, all he could remember was an endless fog of being dragged from his plane, mercilessly being beaten under the interminable babble of his captors’ screams, yet still alive! Still alive with miraculously superficial burns and bruises in the stinking hold of a Japanese freighter with other allied flyers; a hell ship retreating from the aborted invasion for the islands of the Nippon homeland. Somehow he would survive both apocalyptic nightmares! But no word of his or his fellow prisoners survival would ever reach the allies since the Japanese military permitted no contact with the enemy!
When the dreaded telegram arrived from the war department -MIA/PD- Peter’s family and his beloved Catherine were at first in a state of disbelief and shock --- this could never happen to Peter Hope --- refusing to accept the grim reality. But as the days turned into weeks, the weeks into months, and the months into years, there began the unwilling yet stoical acceptance of what seemed an unbearable truth! But the irrational pervades so many families in time of mourning! So it was that an empty chair was kept at the family dining table with an unfilled place setting. At every daily meal, at every family gathering for the holidays, an unspoken sadness pervaded the rituals; a sadness in which a phantasm, an unfulfilled dream, occupied an indescribable vacuum!
When WW2 ended with the atomic bombing of Japan, only sixty percent of the twenty seven thousand allied prisoners of war survived their imprisonment on the home islands! Beaten, tortured, starving, and enslaved, many were in a catatonic state when freed, not even realizing the war was ended! Not realizing that another personal battle beyond the purely physical was about to begin!
One such prisoner, an American, had been purchased (!) by the Mitsubishi Corporation, the maker of the zero fighter, and had been doing slave labor in their copper mines for the duration of his captivity. What was left of him had been taken aboard a hospital ship and transported back to the west coast.
Such was his high degree of PTSD that all he could do was sit endlessly rocking and blankly staring out to sea from the hospital veranda.
“He cannot be reached! We’ve tried every technique, every medication, but he doesn’t respond” said the frustrated psychiatric chief-of-staff. “ Well, we have this new doctor coming in, supposed to be a miracle worker. Maybe he can work some magic!”
“Good day, young man,” said the new doctor to his unresponsive patient. “My name is Doctor Joseph Werner, and yours is ?” He received only silence in return. “I said my name is Doctor Joseph Werner.” Again there was nothing.
Several sessions later and completely frustrated in his incapacity to reach his patient, the psychiatrist thought he detected a response: “Joseph, Joseph, Joseph,” heard the doctor, “But that’s all he says!” he informed his fellow staffers. “We can minister to his body, but his mind is closed!” he declared with justifiable anger.
A new nurse was assigned to his ward. He was in his usual place on the veranda, swaying back-and-forth with his arms and legs rigidly glued to the rocking chair, mumbling the same name over and over, when she approached and compassionately whispered to him that her name was Mary.
We shall never fully understand the workings of the human mind, but from somewhere, deep within, a door opened at the mention of her name! A sudden wave of neuronal activity might have triggered the code to a long dormant combination lock. It turned, opened, and a torrent of recognition exploded! “Joseph, Mary, Ruth, Catherine and I…I am Peter Hope!” he exclaimed. His nurse watched in utter astonishment as he awakened from his seemingly endless unresponsive stupor, looked knowingly and joyfully into her eyes and repeated: “I am Peter Hope! My name is Peter Hope!” He rose tentatively, wrapped his weakened arms around her in a gentle hug and began an improbable dance as the other staff members poured on to the veranda in response to this sudden outburst of commotion. “I’m alive! alive! Where the hell am I?! What is this place?! Where have I been?!” he imploringly asked of her. The nonplussed on-lookers managed to untangle him from the astonished nurse, sat him down and slowly, compassionately, began the long explanation. He learned in disbelief that he had been in a Los Angeles veterans rehabilitation center since his release as a POW from Japanese captivity at war’s end; until this miraculous moment, he had been in an unresponsive state and that the current date was Wednesday, November 21st, 1945, just one day before Thanksgiving. Along with all this awareness of his identity, came the memories! He could not blot out the recollections of the horrors of more than three years spent in the Mitsubishi mines. He shuddered with the incoming flood! “Not now damn it!” he screamed in anger at their invasion. “I have something else to do !”
Joseph Hope had joined hands with his family, Catherine, and the empty chair: fingers touching its emptiness, the profound presence of … a haunting three and one half year absence. He was about to half-heartedly perform the annual blessing over all present when he heard a vehicle come to a halt outside their home above the Pacific Coast highway.
“Its an army VA car” he observed with some perplexity. He stopped the proceedings, stood up slowly and with his entire family, except for Catherine, walked towards the bay window in the vestibule area. They stared at what was transpiring outside, at first with curiosity then with shocked and paralyzing disbelief!
They watched as the driver opened the vehicle door, saluted smartly and assisted a fragile lieutenant Peter Hope from the vehicle. They watched, mesmerized, as their son, aged beyond his 22 years, haltingly and refusing support climbed the few steps to the front door. He opened it slowly, his family transfixed by what must have seemed both an apparition and a resurrection! All was silent for a few seconds until the tension was broken by his trembling voice. “I’m…I am home!” he murmured. And the Hope family melted tearfully into his arms, encapsulating all their shared years of pain and suffering.
For what seemed an eternity they embraced until he slowly drew back. They all read his mind: “Catherine’s in the dining room” said his mother.
She dared not look up from the table, not yet ready to believe in miracles. “Sorry…so sorry I’m late but…I was detained for awhile.” His quavering voice belied his attempt at being matter-of-fact. Her body tremulous and her sky-blue eyes awash in tears, she lifted her head and turned towards him. Their gaze locked upon one another. “Yes, yes, your chair has been empty much too long! Come sit beside me!” she gently motioned. He unsteadily made his way towards her, falling into an embrace that filled a three and a half year old void; letting a dam of deprivation break apart in her soothing caresses. “I was only two hours away! Two hours!” he sobbed, as she held him ever closer, trying to balm his wounds.
Joseph Hope surveyed the table and was struck by how surreal it all appeared: Peter and Catherine clinging to one another, the inappropriateness of mouthing a traditional
Thanksgiving blessing for a bounteous feast, his family in tears, Peter --- aive and sitting in his once empty chair! He again joined hands with his wife and daughter, let his devotion commingle with two souls so long separated now become one, lifted his glistening eyes heavenward and simply said, “Thanks for bringing our boy home!”*
GERARD L. BECKER
*Of all the Japanese companies that enslaved allied prisoners of war, only the Mitsubishi Cooperation has apologized (2015).
No reparations have ever been paid to the survivors or their descendants. The current Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, has called those executives hung by the allies for war crimes heroes(!) and is determined to rewrite the history of World War Two !