The Fury Of Captain Harrington
Deep in the shit
Somewhere south of the 38th Parallel, in the thick of the Korean War: Captain James Lowell Harrington squinted through his binoculars at the nearby countryside, looking for an enemy that wasn’t supposed to be there. His King Sherman tank, “Ironsides,” rolled along slowly, leading a company to the front lines. The fingers of his right hand gripped his .45 tightly, showing his dislike of their position.
The fields of Korea are a welcome sight when you’ve spent so much of your time staring at the same five guys, a bunch of nondescript metal, and the dark coldness that is the inside of a Sherman. This day it was beautiful and calm.
Too calm. He hadn’t been on a tank ride this pleasant since he’d asked a pretty young nurse — his future wife — to go for a spin in the countryside of France six years earlier. That’s about as romantic as Captain Harrington got: a tank was still involved. On the day in question, he would rather have been holding his wife, would rather be back at that sunny afternoon after V-E Day.
But there he was, leaning out of the hatch to scan the Korean landscape for the enemy he refused to believe wasn’t waiting for him.
When Fury came out in theaters, I was psyched to see a movie about a tank crew deep in the shit of World War II. My grandfather, Captain Harrington, commanded a tank just like Brad Pitt’s character, “Wardaddy.” As such, I’ve always been fascinated by tank warfare.
Leading up to the climax of the movie, I watched with rapt attention as Wardaddy’s tank breaks down at a crossroads in enemy territory. The crew, having spent much of movie in the confines of the tank, stubbornly refuses to leave it. Determined to go out with a bang, they hunker down and wait for the enemy to arrive. As I watched, I couldn’t help but think about the story my father had told me, when my grandfather was faced with almost the same situation…
Having gone through hell in North Africa and Italy during World War II, Captain Harrington had a healthy distrust of areas deemed “safe” by out-of-touch superior officers. Surrounded by endless swampy fields of rice paddies, the three tanks under his command were confined to a narrow dirt road. It would be suicidal to try and navigate the tank onto such soft ground. The American forces were practically begging to be ambushed. The Captain knew they were unlikely to encounter any enemy tanks, but without the ability to maneuver freely, even the limited anti-armor weaponry possessed by the hostile Korean forces could damage Ironsides.
On top of that, roughly 150 men, including a lot of boys that he’d trained, were relying on his tanks for protection. The flat terrain offered very little cover for infantrymen in the event of the attack that Captain Harrington was increasingly sure was coming. Just a handful of trees dotted the landscape. The area had been cleared two days before, but two days was plenty of time for enemy forces to dig in to a fortified position. They knew the terrain better than the Americans. The same damn terrain that was forcing his company into a vulnerable situation.
Outside the tank, soldiers joked and griped, the timeless right of an enlisted man. Inside, a tense silence reigned. Captain Harrington ran a tight crew, and they knew him well enough to see he was uneasy. They stole glances at his white-knuckled grip on his sidearm.
The steel-plated protection afforded by Ironsides obscured their view of the outside world. They continued to look out of their viewports, but the Captain’s body language was still their best gauge of imminent danger. So far, he hadn’t led them astray.
Once you’ve heard the sound of a mortar round on its way to kill you, you don’t forget it. Captain Harrington knew the sound well, and slammed the tank hatch closed.
“Button up! Load an HE!” He grabbed the radio hanging next to his commander’s chair and called on the other tanks. “They’re dug in up ahead somewhere, let’s dig ’em out!”
Looking through the periscope, he saw multiple twinkles of light as machine guns opened up on his company. “They’re playing the devil’s piano for us, boys! Let’s return the favor. Fire at will!”
The forward gunner began enthusiastically squeezing off rounds. The tank shuddered as the main cannon shot off a high-explosive round. The infantrymen needed covering fire to dig foxholes, and Captain Harrington and his tanks provided it.
It wasn’t going to be enough. Foxholes were better than nothing, but provided little protection from mortar rounds. The mobility of mortars made them difficult to knock out, especially from a distance.
Ironsides’ longtime driver, Jaws, knew this. He turned to the Captain and asked, “Full ahead sir? Let’s get the bastards!”
“Mines, private. They gotta be all over the road ahead.”
If the enemy had taken the time to set up an ambush, they had taken the time to mine the road. Captain Harrington wiped his brow as he considered the problem. If they stayed put, their ability to protect the infantrymen would be limited. A stalemate would arise, and although the American forces were more likely to be reinforced first, he didn’t want to let his company slowly bleed men until that time. If they moved down the road, a mine could blow off their treads and they’d be sitting ducks.
He wiped his brow again, his body feeling the heat of the tank in action while the gears in his head ground towards a solution. Advance or hold ground? Neither option appealed to him. But Captain Harrington always took action, and he wasn’t going to stand pat now.
“Turn us 45 degrees to the right, full ahead. Rice paddies be damned,” said the Captain.
Cackling wildly, Jaws gunned the engine and led Ironsides offroad. The gunner rotated the turret towards the enemy lines, anxious to fire. The tank went down a small incline and slammed into the next paddy. Ironsides’ treads cooperated at first, moving slowly forward. But then the soft ground gave way and she dragged to a stop. Jaws gunned the engines, but the ground just churned and churned and they went nowhere.
Captain Harrington waited for a long moment as Jaws did everything he could to move the tank. More churning. Jaws slumped back in his seat dejectedly.
“Damn it all to hell, Cap, she ain’t movin’.”
Tense silence fell over the crew as they waited for their Captain to respond. As they waited, they heard the telltale whistle of a mortar round — faint at first, but growing louder with every second. The men braced themselves. Then the round exploded directly on top of the tank: wham! The whole vehicle rocked on its treads, and the men’s nostrils filled with the acrid smell of explosive chemicals. Ironsides might have only been an upgraded version of Captain Harrington’s machine from WW2, but she stayed true to her name and kept the crew intact.
A stream of expletives exploded from Captain Harrington’s mouth as he began to punch the grey steel of the sidewall, slamming his hand into it over and over as he cursed his misfortune.
“Alright, goddamnit,” he said, composing himself. “Shut her down. Let them think we’re completely dead.” With a lot of luck and inaccurate shooting by the enemy, they might be able to hold out until dark and escape.
The small, dark-haired boy is only 8. He’s learned to open the door slowly, just a few inches per second. He’s holding his breath, straining to hear the sound of danger over his pounding heartbeat.
Whew. He’s avoided the creak, the one that screeches like an explosion in the silent house. First checkpoint cleared, private.
He gets down on all fours. He can see the bathroom just 20 feet down the hall, but it might as well be 20 klicks. Crawling now. Not awkwardly, like in his not-too-distant infancy, but skillfully. His right leg drags behind, ensuring his knee avoids contact with the cherrywood floor.
Each exhale is so gentle it wouldn’t make a flame flicker from an inch away. His body is tense with fear and the need to relieve himself. He’d tried to hold it, tossing and turning for hours. Tried to fall asleep and avoid the potential pain at the end of his midnight expedition.
There’s no turning back now. As he nears the faint bluish glow of the bathroom, he must pass the open doorway to the den. He prepares himself for the coming explosion, certain that he won’t survive the final checkpoint. He can hear the snoring, as loud as a 90mm anti-aircraft gun. Two more feet and he’s in the bathroom.
He’s in. The boy is shaking with fear but he finally allows himself to breathe. Closes the door carefully. Safety. Urinates sitting down. It feels like five minutes, and he allows himself a smile. He still has to pass back through the checkpoints, but he’s confident. Passing will be a cinch, and his warm bed awaits. He breathes deeply and finishes up. He stands up, spins, and flushes. Whhoooooooshh.
Oh shit. He’s never even said that word out loud, but he screams it inside his head now. He pulls up his pajamas and sprints toward his room. But it’s too late.
His father springs to his feet, causing the sofa to skid backwards. Then the boy hears the worst sound he can hear: Pfft-pfft-pfft goes the big leather belt as James Harrington, war hero, yanks it out of his belt loops.
Some time later the man returns to the den, belt in hand, and crashes down onto the sofa. His ears still roar with the noise. It feels like they’re full of the noise all the time. He closes his eyes and breathes heavily…
Lieutenant James L. Harrington led a squad to attack enemy lines, but they were badly outmanned and forced to retreat. The Sherman was the only cover, so the men huddled behind it. Bullets rained onto the Sherman. The ground exploded with machine gun fire and sparks lit up the tank’s metal armor. Lieutenant Harrington saw the enemy advancing rapidly, unimpeded by suppressing fire. So he made himself useful. Exposing half his body to the hailstorm of bullets, he grabbed hold of his M-1 Garand semi-automatic rifle and started shooting.
His body shook as he fired the Garand, and he squinted to aim at the enemy contingent. He was working like a horse, reloading after every eight shots. Then the enemy gunner found his target. One bullet caught Harrington just below the ribcage, and another went clear through the webbing of his hand. He grimaced and let out a string of obscenities, but he clung to the rifle, continuing to fire, forcing himself to focus. If his aim wavered or he stopped firing, the whole squad would be overrun. He kept firing and reloading, steadying the barrel with his limp arm, using his teeth to help reload, snarling like a rabid animal. His deadly aim slowed the Axis advance enough for his boys to regroup, and they beat back the enemy.
His eyes open and he reaches for the bottle on the coffee table. He pours himself another three fingers and slugs it all. Then he falls into the dream he’s had almost every night since returning home…
The burn of the whiskey overpowered the bile trying to claw its way up his throat. Captain Harrington climbed out into the fire and brimstone…
The night was silent. Here and there, fires burned, smoldering reminders of the day’s devastation. The absence of the chokka-chokka-chokka of machine-gun fire unnerved him, but he climbed down the tank with resolve.
The dim flickering of flames didn’t provide much illumination, but he had to move. He tried to avoid making a sound as he circled the tank, looking for a way out. He had an urge to lie on his belly and crawl through the muck. Anything to stay hidden from the enemy. But the Captain kept his feet, circling Ironsides, their marooned Sherman tank.
“Start ‘er up,” he breathed into the walkie-talkie. The noise of Ironsides’ twin engines cranking up roared like a death wish in his ears, and he tried not to think about what a sitting duck he was. Unsure if he would even hear incoming enemy gunfire over the sound of his heart beating, Captain Harrington began guiding the tank out of its muddy trap at an agonizing pace.
Once the tank finally wrenched itself free, he clambered back up and dropped into the relative safety of his commander’s chair. He had single-handedly guided them to safety. He had saved all their asses.
My dad and I left the Regal Cinemas at Atlantic Station feeling shaken. Furyprobably isn’t an easy watch for anyone, but for two men from a military family, it hit home.
“Hey, Dad, that scene at the end, where Brad Pitt gets out of the tank… isn’t that kinda like what grandpa did?”
“It’s exactly what grandpa did, except he didn’t have his whole crew behind him, he went it alone.”
We walked to the parking garage in silence, ruminating on the movie. Fury didn’t glorify war. It was a picture of violent realism. It crystallized all the stories I’d heard about my grandpa, Captain Harrington. Whenever I heard my uncles tell them, the war stories had a tone of adventure, of “boys being boys,” but after seeing Fury they didn’t seem that way.
“What was grandpa like when he got back from the war?” I asked.
“Which one? When he got home from World War II, he couldn’t wait to get back. He was one semester away from getting his accounting degree. That could have given him a job for the rest of his life. A decorated veteran with a college degree — he would have been set,” my dad said. “But as soon as they needed more men in Korea, he dropped the whole college thing and shipped off. They even made him a Captain. But I bet he woulda gone and fought for free.”
“What about… when he was home?” I asked. I knew it hadn’t been a pleasant childhood, but I had to ask.
My dad looked over at me and frowned. Then he leaned his head back against the headrest and retreated into his thoughts, leaving the squeaks and honks of the garage behind.
After a long beat he spoke. “Let’s just say it was better when he wasn’t.”
I didn’t pry any more. My mind raced back through my own childhood: soccer practices, Terminator marathons, Braves games, working together on my car. Nothing but love and kindness from the man sitting next to me.
I looked closely at his stoic face. He turns to me and smiled, breaking the tension.
Originally published as a two part series at popularium.com on November 3, 2016.