What do we owe our fallen soldiers?
That’s the question I was turning over in my mind one morning in March as I drove to work down Billy Farrow Highway. Speeding past Baptist churches and modest houses and farmland, I thought about Lt. William Grover Farrow and his short yet exemplary life. A few days prior, Brian Gandy, the resident historian for Darlington County, had educated me on Farrow’s participation in the WWII Doolittle Raid, a bombing campaign on strategic military targets in Japan in 1942. The story was riveting, especially the part played by Farrow, a B-25 bomber pilot. But what really got to me were Brian’s last words on Lt. Farrow: “He’s my favorite human,” he’d said, his eyes cloudy with genuine emotion. Farrow had been on my mind ever since.
Steering around a bend in the road, I decided that my boss’s favorite human, like so many of our fallen soldiers, deserved much more than a bumpy two-lane highway in Darlington, South Carolina. Because of the sacrifices made by men like Farrow, I’ve enjoyed a relatively carefree existence in this country: thirty-seven plus years of too-much food, comfortable places to sleep, and quality education from kindergarten through graduate school. And so for those reasons, I decided that I owed Lt. Farrow. Exactly what I owed him, I wasn’t sure. But I figured the least I could do was think about him a little before starting my day. A simple enough task. . .
So I turned off the music emanating from my iPhone and tried to imagine what Farrow went through as a prisoner of war with the notorious Japanese Imperial Army. Gripping the wheel at ten and two, I concentrated as hard as I could. I’d recently read Dr. Griffin’s excellent biography Lt. Bill Farrow: Doolittle Raider, so I knew all the gruesome details of what happened to poor Farrow from April to October in ‘42. The creative torture methods. The lack of proper food, water, and sleep. The pointless interrogations, culminating in the man’s unjustified execution by firing squad on October 15, 1942.
Yes, I knew what had happened to Lt. Farrow.
But as I drove along the road named after the fallen soldier, I could not imagine it. More to the point, I did not want to think about it.
Any of it.
Which made me ask other more difficult questions about myself and my character, questions that I can’t say I like the answers to.
For the same reasons I don’t watch the news at night, I didn’t want to envision Farrow’s handsome young face bruised and battered from the beatings; I didn’t want to imagine Farrow’s ribs poking out from starvation; I didn’t want to picture his eyes bloodshot from sleep deprivation. And as I sat in the cozy confines of my decade-old Subaru, those horrific images refused to unblur; they refused to coalesce into a clear picture of Lt. Farrow at his time of greatest need.
I braked for a STOP sign. I stared hard at an enormous felled tree just off the highway’s shoulder, its massive bottom half uprooted by a storm.
To drown out the voice in my head telling me I was an ungrateful coward, I turned up the music and drove on to work.
Lt. Farrow, like the seventy-nine other Doolittle Raiders, was decidedly not a coward. Far from it. He did his duty on April 18, 1942, and did it well. Piloting the Bat Out of Hell, a medium B-25 bomber, he and four other members in Crew #16 took off from the USS Hornet and flew all the way to Nagoya, Japan. There, he successfully bombed the Mitsubishi Aircraft Factory, and then flew on for another 16 hours, hoping to reach Chuchow Air Field in China, an American-friendly location where he could refuel and, eventually, make it back to the United States.
Alas, Farrow never made it back.
Instead, his plane ran out of gas and he was forced to bail out in Japanese-held territory, where he was immediately captured. For six long months, Farrow was interrogated and tortured by the Japanese Imperial Army. The Japanese erroneously claimed that Farrow and his crew deliberately targeted and killed women and children during the bombing raid. After forcing him to sign a “confession,” the Japanese held a kangaroo court and convicted Lt. Farrow of “war crimes” and sentenced him to death by firing squad. On the night before his execution, Farrow was permitted to write letters to his loved ones.
Like countless others, I was struck by the last letter Farrow wrote to his mother, Jesse Stem Farrow. In that letter, after thanking members of his family for all they’d done for him over the years, he goes on to write:
“. . .I know, Mom, that this is going to hit you hard because I was the biggest thing in your life. I am sorry not to have treated you with more love and devotion, for not giving you all that I could and will you please forgive me? . . .Let me say this, that you are, I realize now, the best mother in the world, that your every action was bent towards making me happy, that you are, and always will be, an angel. So let me implore you to keep your chin up. Be brave and strong for my sake. I love you, Mom, from the depths of a full heart.”
I’ve tried to envision Farrow in a cramped and disgusting prison cell writing those beautiful words to his mother. I’ve tried to summon the courage to imagine what all he must have been feeling in those last hours before his execution.
But it’s beyond my capability.
I, quite simply, cannot do it.
Whether it is a lack of empathy or a failure of imagination or basic self-protection, I cannot allow myself to go there. And for that, I am ashamed.
But what I can do for Lt. Farrow is fall back on my training as an English instructor. Which leads me to revisit the post script to Farrow’s letter to his mother, where he writes:
“Read “Thanatopsis” by Bryant if you want to know how I’m taking this. My faith in God is complete, so I am unafraid.”
With newfound hope of connecting with Farrow, I obey the man’s last wish and read “Thanatopsis” by William Cullen Bryant. The poem, a truly lovely and uplifting meditation on death and Nature, speaks to me, particularly these lines:
“. . .When thoughts/ Of the last bitter hour come like a blight/Over thy spirit, and sad images/Of the stern agony, and shroud, and pall,/And breathless darkness, and the narrow house,/Make thee shudder, and grow sick at heart;-/Go forth, under the open sky, and list/To Nature’s teachings, while from all around–/Earth and her waters, and the depths of air–/Comes a still voice.”
It’s all right there, in breath-taking verse. Farrow—a dedicated Christian, a steadfast soldier, an honorable son—understands that his death is a natural part of Life, and, astoundingly, he is not bitter. In fact, he is “unafraid,” which humbles me to my core. He appreciates the cyclical beauty of Nature, and how his physical body will become one with the Earth, while his soul will ascend to Heaven.
With its lovely similes and pleasing turns of phrase, “Thanatopsis” is both a pep talk to Jesse Stem Farrow and a personal statement about the heart and soul and character and faith of William Grover Farrow. Read the poem, please. It’s gorgeous, heart-wrenching, haunting.
But, sadly, the poem doesn’t bring me any closer to Farrow, for I cannot comprehend his positive attitude in those final hours, and now, as I look through pictures of Farrow and read about all the great things he did even before his military service, I cannot help but get angry at what might have been. What could this man have accomplished had he not been executed by the Japanese? How many people could he have helped, how many lives impacted? Would he have gone on to become the third Governor of South Carolina to hail from Darlington County? Might he have become an Army flight instructor, or a professor of literature, or Baptist preacher? Certainly with his intelligence and character, anything was possible.
I’ve read this poem several times now, studied it the way I studied literature in graduate school, and here’s what I’ve concluded: “Thanatopsis,” much like the life of William Grover Farrow, is far too short and much too beautiful to fully appreciate.
Another sunny morning driving along Billy Farrow Highway. I’m on my way to work. I’m listening to NPR. North Korea has just test launched some missiles, and I quietly absorb this sobering fact as I whiz past Baptist churches and modest houses and farmland. It’s not even eight o’clock and already I’ve thought about Lt. William Grover Farrow twice. The first time was at breakfast that morning when I asked my three-year son to pretty please eat his grits, and he said, “Okie dokie artichokey,” and then saluted me. The second time: when I turned right off of Railroad Avenue and onto the bumpy two-lane highway named after Darlington’s greatest aviator.
Up ahead, I spot the enormous felled tree, and I pull onto the shoulder and get out. The air is cool, the sun bright, and for reasons I fail to comprehend, I approach the tree with caution. Gently, I touch one of its massive roots. Even though it has been uprooted by Mother Nature, this tree feels unbreakable; this tree feels permanent. Running my fingers along the rough bark, I remember something from my reading. When Farrow was a teenager, he was fond of climbing up the two-hundred foot water tower there in Darlington, South Carolina. Lost in thought, I lean against the tree for support and picture a young Billy Farrow, already tall and handsome and brave, sitting at the top of that water tower, his long legs dangling over the edge. My breath catches at how clearly I can see him. A car passes by, its driver shooting me a confused look. I wave.