A Quiet Kind of Hero

James Osborne

© Copyright 2021 by James Osborne

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

 Les Marriott endured a horrific childhood, having had the misfortune of being born just a few years before The Great Depression. During the Second World War, he escaped near certain death by coincidence in a naval battle, later becoming a scout master and revered role model to scores of youth.

Les Marriott was a war veteran. Some called him a hero. He didn’t. The Second World War had ended a decade earlier, and he had just become our Scoutmaster. We would learn from him far more than how to ‘Be Prepared’.

Mr. Marriott was a natural leader, dedicated to helping adolescent youth acquire life skills. This became most evident during the quiet times that ended our weekly Scout meetings. He would encourage us to ask questions about almost anything. Mostly, our discussions were about proficiency badges or upcoming Scout gatherings, and sometimes even about girls. He would listen carefully, and then patiently answer our questions. No one went home with a question unanswered.

Occasionally, someone would ask about his wartime experiences. Mr. Marriott told us he’d been in the British Royal Navy, reluctant to tell us more. He would subtly redirect our attention back to Scout matters.

One summer, our Scout troop had been camping for a week in the mountains of a national park. Time came to break camp. My friend Don and I were taking down a big tent we’d used for meals and meetings. Don was at the back, pulling tent pegs when I heard him shout. He came stumbling around to the front, his right hand gripping his left arm. Blood was spurting from his wrist.

Mr. Marriott heard the shouting and ran toward us, scooping up a flat stone about three inches in diameter. He thrust it up into Don’s armpit and pushed his elbow down to his waist. The blood flow dropped to a trickle.

Within seconds, Mr. Marriott had a tourniquet around Don’s forearm using the ever-present neckerchief. Mr. Marriott sent someone to get the first aid kit. He bandaged Don’s wrist and gave him instructions on how to release and tighten the tourniquet at regular intervals.

Mr. Marriott also ordered Don to sit quietly and sent others to find the broken bottle hidden in the grass that had cut Don’s wrist. Thereafter, the radiant smile on Don’s half-prone face told everyone he was just fine ... and that he was not at all sorry about missing the rest of the work of packing up.

Not surprising, Mr. Marriott used the incident as a teaching opportunity. During lunch before heading home, he explained what he’d done to stem the flow of blood from Don’s wrist, and why it was so important to act quickly. Once more, Mr. Marriott had seized upon a real opportunity to help us learn another life lesson.

The stone in Don’s armpit had been strategically placed to press down on an artery, acting like a temporary tourniquet. And he explained why the real tourniquet had been located where it was, and that releasing it every minute or two was essential to maintain vital blood circulation to keep the hand and arm healthy.

His experience showed, and it raised once more questions about his war experiences. After lunch and much persuasion, he finally shared with us a story none of us was likely to forget.

Mr. Marriott told us he’d been stationed on a British aircraft carrier during the Second World War. He was assigned to the hangar deck, just below the flight deck where fighter planes took off and landed. His job was to repair and calibrate instruments on the planes returning from combat missions. 

Their convoy of warships was in the South China Sea one afternoon when it was attacked by squadrons of Imperial Japanese fighter planes, known as Zero’s. Allied planes launched from the aircraft carrier engaged the enemy. Ships in the convoy blazed away with their anti-aircraft guns. The battle raged for what seemed like hours. Numerous ships in the convoy were strafed by enemy fire. A few were damaged by bombs or torpedoes dropped from wave after wave of enemy planes. Finally, the battle eased as the enemy fighter planes left, presumably running low on fuel.
Mr. Marriott told us he had been located at the stern of the carrier. That area included an aircraft elevator, one of two on the ship connecting the lower hangar deck with the flight deck above.

With the enemy planes apparently gone and the defending allied fighter planes coming back on board, Mr. Marriott heard his name called. He turned to see his buddy gesturing him to an open steel door. It led to a narrow catwalk at the back of the huge ship, outside the hangar deck high above the ocean.

Mr. Marriott joined his friend for a smoke. They’d closed the door. Standing orders were to secure all doors and hatches during combat.
The two seamen were halfway through their cigarettes when they heard the distinctive sound of enemy aircraft. An undetected squadron of enemy fighters was approaching just above the surface of the ocean, too low to be caught on radar. Mr. Marriott and his friend heard anti-aircraft fire open up from their ship and from others.
A split second later, they heard an enormous explosion and saw the massive steel door beside them bulge outward. The two sailors learned later that an enemy plane had dropped a bomb down the aircraft elevator. Mr. Marriott and his friend were able to force the bulging door inward enough to squeeze through. Before them lay a horrific scene of bloody devastation.
They ran into the smoke-filled darkness to help their shipmates, ignoring the battle raging in the skies above and the exploding ammunition from burning aircraft around them destroyed by the bomb. Their frantic calls got few responses.

They scoured their section looking for survivors. Twenty men had been on duty during the earlier battle. Their search located five men alive, most unconscious in blood-soaked clothing, badly injured. They administered emergency first aid while awaiting help from overwhelmed medics.

All the other sailors were found dead, a few from bomb fragments or flying debris, but most from concussion caused by the huge bomb that had hit the lowered aircraft elevator. Mr. Marriott explained quietly – pausing a few times to compose himself – that some remains of the others had to be scraped off the metal bulkheads and walls, including the remains of some friends.
He said that he was alive purely by coincidence … and would never again take life for granted. We as Scouts learned another lesson that day – and acquired a deep respect for his reluctance to talk about his war.

Years later, his daughter Janice told me: “Dad never said anything to us about the war. He never brought it up.” She said that during his early life he had survived far more than just that war. Born in England during the depression of the 1930s, he had been sent to a ‘work farm’ when his parents were unable to support him. In his mid-teens he was again forced out on his own when the owner of the work farm could no longer provide work or food.

Mr. Marriott was sent to Canada at the age of fourteen under a program called Home Child where he worked at various menial jobs. The deeply homesick youth briefly contemplated suicide. Instead, he returned to England by working as a stoker to earn return passage on a ship. He arrived in desperate physical shape, his clothing in rags. Not long after, the Second World War broke out.

When it was over, Mr. Marriott returned to Canada with his wife, whom he married in 1940. There they raised a family, and Mr. Marriott turned his instrument training into becoming a jeweler and owner of an independent jewelry store that came to be known for its meticulous commitment to quality work. Many customers were fellow veterans who, like him, rarely spoke about the horrors they experienced … each of them, a quiet kind of hero.

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