Okinawa, May 2, 1945.
Suddenly we’re running across a dry rice paddy. Thip thip thip thip! Japanese bullets come in from the left and spin up tufts of dirt in front of us. Christ!
“Stay loose! Don’t stop!” I yell.
We run right through the spray of Nip bullets as if we are invisible. Like hell! The Japs can see us as plain as day, across a field like this! Forty yards of open ground. The earth heaves—a cauldron boiling over with a company of sprinting marines. All kinds of crap zips through the air. Explosions fall, left and right, but I am only vaguely aware of the din. Nip artillery and gunfire cancel each other out in a field bled of sound. That’s the truth—in the middle of it all, it’s life within a vacuum. No time to think. No time to feel.
Or let me put it this way before I run out of time:
This is southern Okinawa— and it’s a bastard to be here.
The whole run takes only fifteen seconds, but a lot can happen in fifteen seconds, on Okinawa. It takes one-point-five seconds for Spud Dunlop to get hit and fall like a sack of potatoes. Tick! In one second PFC Westbrook is eaten up by shell fragments (he’s not going to make it). Tick! Just a few feet over, in all this shit, Lieutenant Sam Menselos falls. Tick! Tick! I sent Mom the wristwatch I took off of the dead Nip on Peleliu. In Queens the watch ticks off the seconds as if they mean something special, but time don’t mean shit on Okinawa. Not right now, anyway. Not with Jap knee mortars coming right up our asses like clockwork.
This guy, Albert Einstein? He put together all these special figures and formulas to tell us that time is relative. He could have saved himself the trouble and spent fifteen seconds with the marines on Okinawa. Then we’d see how fuckin’ smart he is.
Here’s the rest of the story.
Fighting the Japanese, darting across a rice paddy like this, in the face of withering fire, is time compressed, time expanded, time destroyed, yet never time on the money. That’s what I want you to understand. The story’s no good if it doesn’t make any sense . . . and from this moment forward, none of it makes an ounce of sense.
When I was on Peleliu, I could break down the moments and give myself hope against the gallows. On Okinawa, the moments break the person down.
By the time we hit the embankment, on the other side of the rice paddy, we’re safe but we’re sorry. Also cold and wet—the temperature on the island has dropped considerably, the mist in the air a prelude of the rain to come.
The whole goal of this morning’s run was to go over the rise on our side of the line and attack the Nips on their side—crossing open ground in the process, and climbing over an eight-foot-tall embankment to reach the Japs.
Whatever genius hatched this plan must have been a regular Einstein.
“Dammit!” Junior yells as he runs up to the embankment. Junior, like the rest of us, attempts to slow down, lest he slam right into the slope. “Where the hell are the Japs?” He stops running.
With my back against the embankment, I crane my neck, looking over my shoulder, and then up—measuring the height of the wall that separates us from the entire Nip army. Junior sees what I see, and I notice the slow realization cross his face.
“That’s about right, Junior,” I tell him.
We’ve only been on southern Okinawa for a day, and already it’s evident what the trouble’s going to be. Unlike Peleliu, where at least the enemy would come out and play, Okinawa gives off a helpless and depressing energy. A marine can’t fight what a marine can’t see. Out here, there’s only the notion of Nips—even though we’re fully aware of who’s smacking us across the mouth.
The shelling begins to taper off, but that doesn’t make us less jittery. Some marines simply collapse from the run, out of breath; they can’t believe they made it. You almost want to check for bullet holes in your dungaree jacket. Mostly, we crouch behind the embankment, wondering what our next move’s going to be. If we’re supposed to scale this wall, forget it; we left the ladders on the amtracs a month ago. If we go back, then what was the point?
Well, that’s the infantry for you. We don’t ask questions, we just do it. It is the riflemen who are always at the front of the attack, always up against some sort of obstacle or embankment, as thick as the job is hard.
The only consolation is that, protected as we are against this wall, the Nips can’t see us either. Still, the Japs toss in a few shells on the rice paddy for good mea sure, sprinkling us with dirt, and who knows what else.
“No, no! I don’t need a stretcher! Leave me alone!” I look over in the direction of the shouting and see that they are still trying to evacuate Lieutenant Menselos. I don’t know how badly Menselos is wounded, but the way I figure it, either he’s showing his moxie or he’s playing it smart. Menselos knows that if they carry him out of here, they’ll have to cross the rice paddy to do it—and crossing the rice paddy on a slow-moving stretcher would be like putting a bull’s-eye between your ass cheeks. Bang! Anyway, I lean into Whitby and kind of joke, “Look, Wimp, if that guy don’t wanna get on the fuckin’ stretcher, I sure as hell will!”
Bob doesn’t say anything, though. He simply gives a wan smile.
The fact is, nobody’s talking—especially the new guys. They all sport the same feral look in their eyes, from being shaken in a cage and tossed in a corner. I look, and I wonder if I appeared that frightened when we hit the beach on Peleliu. Except that it doesn’t matter, because whatever they’re feeling, I’m probably experiencing the same thing.
Given that Okinawa has its own fears to fight, there’s no way even the saltiest vet could have anticipated this. What puts a sharper point on it is that the whole experience is viewed against the relative ease we had during the month we spent on the northern part of the island.
As soon as we reached southern Okinawa on May 1, 1945—WHAM!—they let us have it!
One moment we were cautiously walking through the rubble, nervously scanning the bombed-out hills before us, and in the next second the ground felt like it had lifted a foot, as the artillery began to fall in. When the earth dropped again, I swear, we were scrambling around on thin air.
We made haste, but fast!
Zigzagging at a run, I passed an officer calling into his radio, “Smoke! More smoke!” Kzzzzzkzzz! A smattering of dirt clods bounced off the top of my helmet, in between the explosions. Marines were just about breaking their necks seeking a safe place to hide. Finally I dropped into an army-made foxhole. Other marines did the same, peeking out over the rims of their holes, and flash! A volcano erupted and sent so much muck into the air, there was only a giant wall of brown before our eyes. I closed my lids, and all I saw was red.
Eventually the incoming began to die down, being replaced by a thick carpet of new smoke rising over our whole area, swirling over the ground, and shrouding us in a fog. The tendrils of smoke, wafting in our midst, reminded me of the mist that always appeared in the graveyard scenes in one of those horror pictures. I never liked that kind of film, even as a kid.
They’ve got this whole place zeroed in. Realization hits hard. There’s nothing they can’t hit out here.
Now I think about Europe and how the GIs are getting blown to pieces over there.
In this case, though, the Nip volleys were only designed to shake us up—and teach us a lesson: There’s nowhere we can’t touch you. You will be violated, repeatedly. You will never forget our advances.
“Sonuvabitch! These guys aren’t fucking joking!” Eubanks said.
“No, they’re not,” I agreed, while I watched the smoke dissipate, revealing the hillocks beyond the fog.
Meandering out of our holes, cautiously, we took in our new environs, measuring the feel of the place, ominous and oppressive. It was worse than we thought. Everything was mired in at least six feet of confusion. Not even the officers had a clue.
“What the hell’s going on with this place?”
“Whatever it is, it looks like this line has been occupied for a long time.”
“Well, you can bet the big-shot marines will have to do what the army couldn’t, huh?”
Another marine smiled. “That’s a familiar goddamn refrain, if I ever heard one.”
“Hey, fellas—but at least they left us some coffee!”
It was coffee, alright, but it was even worse than the regular sludge the marines foisted on us. The coffee was in a five-gallon kerosene can, cut off at the top, and just sitting out in the open, cold and still. So we got an idea and put some composition C underneath the can to heat up the joe. Although there couldn’t have been enough heat—not even in the earth’s core—to make this brew go down any better. For all we knew the army guys could have pissed in it, cleaned their weapons with it, or used it to prime a carburetor. But get this . . . it was good stuff! You’d take a drag off of a cigarette and then a sip of the coffee, and the bitterness in the back of your mouth alone was enough to wake you up. Not that many marines needed a pick-me-up. First of all, it rained like a sonuvabitch our first night in, and after we attacked the embankment, the following day, every marine—veterans and new guys alike—was hepped up with a good case of the nerves. For good reason, too. This was a new type of war, and it bit hard beneath the flesh, cutting against the grain of the combat we had come to expect.
Even as we were being trucked down south, the sunshine turned cold and lifeless. The truck engines hummed too quietly as the weight of our new surroundings formed the manacles that would create within us the prisoners of battle, slaves to the gun.
Farther south, the scene changed slowly from green-on-green to a filthy sickness, which seemed to cover everything. Southern Okinawa looked like the black-and-white photos of Belgium during World War I—muted earth tones, scant vegetation, pitted and pocked ridges from the constant shelling—and in the many shell holes along the muted ground lay the detritus of war in its myriad forms. Empty crates of ammunition, spent shell casings, burned- out military vehicles of all types, discarded personal equipment . . .
In one spot along the road, there were the rows of army dead—covered in ponchos, lying on stretchers, most of them shoeless, their buddies having scavenged the best pairs for their own use. I looked down at my own boondockers, to check the wear, wondering if anybody would have any use for them if I got killed.
When you think like that, it’s not fatalistic. Fatalism would be checking your buddy’s boondockers to see if he wore the same size as you.
As far as I knew, nobody thought like that. In fact, we didn’t speak much during our whole journey south. Marines were simply too busy taking it all in—and puking out what the mind couldn’t stomach.
Now I know what our evening supper must feel like. It starts off nice and tasty, pleasing to the tongue, but then it gets chewed to bits by the teeth in things. That’s okay, though, because once it hits the belly, it’s still relatively in one piece. Then it has to wind its way through a labyrinth of guts and tripe, squeezing its way through the countless bends and turns that sap the nutrients from it—finally just to come out another piece of shit, like everything else that succumbs to the process.
Like the army guys we were relieving—the 27th Infantry Division. When they let us off the trucks, we walked the rest of the way to the front (This place disappoints me) as the army headed back to the rear for a well-deserved break. I had seen this exchange before, and it never deviated from exactly what it looked like—removing the dirty linen and putting out the clean. New company had arrived. Even as we loiter against the embankment on May 2, bitterness rises in the back of my throat again, only I haven’t had any army joe to put it there.
Sergeant Chase walks over.
“Say, what’s the dope, Sarge?” I ask.
“Well, we’re pullin’ out of here, for one. The way they look at it we’re stuck or somethin’.”
Well, that figures.
Chase resumes, pointing across the way. “See that embankment? The one that follows that draw, back where we came from? We’re gonna cross that thing, one at a time. Gotta keep our heads low—but when we get up to our side of the line, over the rise, we should be okay.”
So that’s the straight skinny: a “strategic withdraw.” In other words, a retreat, and retreat we do. Only this time, as far as I know, we don’t receive any casualties from the Japanese. The only thing that comes close is the poor marine who was right behind Whitby.
See, to get back, the only obstacle in our way was a gully, which most of us jumped over with ease. It was only a few feet deep, but because Bob was such a shrimp, he balked at making the leap. By the time the 3rd Platoon made our jaunt back, everybody had ceased with the one-at-a-time business. Each marine went as he pleased. So as Whitby was standing at the lip of the gully, contemplating the leap, another marine, running with his head down, plowed right into Bob’s back. The marine’s helmet gashed his nose, and Whitby went across the gully anyway.
I’m not so sure it would’ve taken us all day to go one at a time, despite our rush to get the hell out of there. Besides, the only thing that mattered was finding a secure way back, instead of the hard way forward. It was the upside to the alternative—and that was going down for good!
Excerpted from Battleground Pacific: A Marine Rifleman’s Combat Odyssey in K/3/5 by Sterling Mace and Nick Allen.
© 2012 by Sterling Mace and Nick Allen.
Reprinted with permission from the publisher.