It is time, odysseus said, that i told you of the di-sastrous voyage Zeus gave me. On Saturday, March 24, 1945, with heavy fighting continuing on Iwo and in the Philippines — and GIs pouring across the Rhine — I was hopping around on the distant island of Mog Mog, trying to dodge American baseball bats aimed at my skull. Is this clear? Am I going too fast for you? Well, nil desperandum; the facts are quickly told. Mog Mog is the chief island of Ulithi Atoll in the western Carolines, where 1,457 Allied vessels had assembled for the invasion of Okinawa. Each of the 182,112 U.S. fighting men heading into the battle was to be allowed two hours ashore and all the beer he could drink while PA systems belted out songs popular at home. It was a thoughtful gesture. Unfortunately, the picnic wasn't left at that. Some recreational officer thought red-blooded American boys deserved another outlet. It was his idea to issue us sports equipment, so we could burn up all that energy accumulated during the long voyage here. It didn't work quite as expected. He had no notion of what it meant to be psyched up for combat. We quickly got loaded and called, like Cynara's lover, for madder music and stronger wine. When none was forthcoming, we destroyed most of the sports gear, and the hard-chargers among us began hitting people over the head with Louisville Sluggers. The officer was furious, but his threats were as futile as a clock in an empty house. What could he do? Deprive us of the privilege of getting shot at? It was reminiscent of the notorious “Battle of Brisbane,” earlier in the war, when a file of Australian soldiers leaving their country passed a file of arriving GIs, coming in the other direction. Imprudent GIs mocked the Diggers, promising to lay every Aussie woman, married or not. Shots were exchanged — some men were actually killed — and then the sad affair was quickly hushed up. That sort of thing happens in war, but civilians on the home front cannot be expected to understand it.
Officers and senior NCOs had been briefed earlier on our objective, and once we weighed anchor and left Ulithi on the way to battle, I put my men, as we said then, in the picture. We formed a semicircle on the fantail of our APA, the George C. Clymer, and I unrolled a map of the target isle. Okinawa, in the Ryukyu Archipelago, is a big island, sixty miles long and, on the average, eight miles wide, with a fringing reef which would have been dismaying a year earlier but was no problem for our fleets of new amphtracs. The island, lying exactly midway between Formosa and Japan, would be an ideal staging area for our invasion of Dai Nippon. In the north it is rugged and thickly forested; in the south it is rolling and farmed; the Ichikawa Isthmus separates the two. One way of visualizing Okinawa is to compare it to Walt Disney's dog Pluto. The northern two-thirds, the head and long neck, is largely barren; Motobu Peninsula, Pluto's uplifted ear, is mountainous and about the size of Saipan. In the south the small harbor of Naha, the isle's capital, is just forward of the tail. The southern side of that harbor, which would acquire special meaning for me, is Oroku Peninsula. Various other bays, isthmuses, capes, and promontories form the dog's short forelegs and hind feet. Off Motobu, looking like a bee, is the tiny isle of Ie Shima.
General Buckner, our overall U.S. commander, planned to land four divisions on L-day, or Love-Day: Easter Sunday, April 1, 1945. That would leave him with three more divisions for the follow-up and another in reserve. The first waves would hit the Hagushi beaches, just south of the island's midriff. Our immediate objective was the seizure of Yontan and Kadena airfields. The lineup, right to left, would be two army divisions, the Ninety-sixth and the Seventh, then the First and Sixth Marine divisions. Once the airstrips were in our hands, the GIs of the Ninety-sixth and Seventh would wheel south, while the two Marine divisions wheeled northward. The most ambitious goals, or so it then seemed, had been assigned to the Sixth, my division — an amalgam of smaller units, most of which had fought on Guadalcanal, New Georgia, Bougainville, Saipan, and Guam — because the assumption then was that the enemy was entrenched in the north. Aboard ship, sergeants were told to pass along the usual instructions: watch out for snipers, don't shout names (a Jap would shout the same name again a minute later and drill the poor jerk who stuck his head up), maintain fire discipline when the enemy screams to draw fire and thus spot automatic weapons, and if you face a banzai charge, stay loose: don't fire till you see their buckteeth. There was the usual crap about malaria, dengue, filariasis, typhus, leprosy, dysentery, and jungle rot, and what were described as the world's two most deadly snakes, the habu and the kufau. We were issued elaborately printed scrip, as though we would have anything to spend it on. Noncoms were also assembled for a weather briefing. The annual rainfall, we were told, was 120 inches. I'm not sure I wrote that down. I tried to check later, but those pages in my diary were blurred beyond recognition by countless cloudbursts. I can't tell you how much rain there actually was, but 120 inches wasn't even close.
Our voyage to the island was smooth. We read about the natives of Okinawa, a race with mixed Chinese, Malayan, and Ainu blood who buried their ancestors in elaborate stone and concrete tombs. The Japanese had encouraged this custom, our guidebooks said; they could be expected to use these tombs as shelters from artillery fire. (Not, I thought, if I can get there first.) In their bunks some of the guys read armed services double-columned editions of the classics. Barney and I were absorbed in our endless chess tournament. Others read, wrote letters home, shot the breeze, told sea stories, played hearts, and sang songs based on awful puns: “After Rabaul Is Over,” “Ta-ra-wa-boom-de-ay,” and “Good-bye, Mama, I'm Off to Okinawa.” I didn't feel particularly cheerful, but I do recall a kind of serenity, a sense of solidarity with the Raggedy Asses, which didn't fit with the instinctive aloofness which had been part of my prewar character and would return, afterward, like a healing scar. I had been, and after the war I would again be, a man who usually prefers his own company, finding contentment in solitude. But for the present I had taken others into my heart and given of myself to theirs. This was especially true in combat. Once, when we were treated to the exquisite luxury of riding to the front in six-by trucks (six wheels, six-wheel drive), I was seized by a compelling need to empty my bowels. Just then the line of trucks stopped while the lead driver negotiated a way around a fallen tree, and I took advantage of the pause to leap out and squat in full view of a company of Marines. At the critical moment, all the truck motors started up, and I yelped, “Wait for me!” I finished the job with one convulsion and sprinted back in time, pulling up my pants as all hands cheered. Before the war I wouldn't have dreamt of hurrying so personal an errand, let alone carrying it out in the full view of strangers. But it was essential then that I not be left behind by the Raggedy Ass Marines. I had to be with my own people. Like Saul on the road to Damascus, I had entered the true fold by turning all of my previous customs on their heads. I had no inkling then of how vincible that made me, how terrible was the price I might have to pay. Yet as a Christian I should have known how vulnerable love can be.
Holy Week ended on Saturday, March 31, when the fleet anchored off western Okinawa. We were awakened in the night by the shattering crash of broadsides from over a thousand Allied warship muzzles — the Royal Navy was there, too — and like the virtuous woman in the Proverbs, we rose while it was not yet light, worked willingly with our hands, squaring away our gear, and ate not the bread of idleness. We did, however, eat. Indeed, feast might be a better word. We lined up in the murky companion ways for the only decent fare I ever saw on a troop transport: steak, eggs, ice cream, and hot coffee. I remember wondering whether this would be my last meal. This Easter happened to be my twenty-third birthday. My chances of becoming twenty-four were, I reflected, very slight. None of us, of course, had heard anything about the atomic bombs, then approaching completion. We assumed we would have to invade Kyushu and Honshu, and we would have been unsurprised to learn that MacArthur, whose forecasts of losses were uncannily accurate, had told Washington that he expected the first stage of that final campaign to “cost one million casualties to American forces alone.” All we could be sure of was that Okinawa was to be the last island before that climax, and that the enemy would sacrifice every available man to drive us off it.
At 4:06 a.m. Admiral Turner's flagship signaled: “Land the Landing Force.” We saddled up in darkness, groaning under the weight, and waited by the cargo nets, watching shells burst on a beach we could not yet see. Then dawn came rapidly, so fast you could almost watch it travel across the water. In the first dim light I could see that there was land there; there were clouds on the horizon and then a denser mass that was shapeless beneath the clouds. As the first shafts of sunlight arrived the mass became lettuce green, an isle floating in a misty haze, and in the distance you could see the torn, ragged edges of the ridges supporting the rice terraces. I hadn't expected such vivid colors. All the photographs I had seen had been black-and-white.
Now we descended the ropes into the amphtracs, which, fully loaded, began forming up in waves. Yellow cordite smoke blew across our bows, battleship guns were flashing, rockets hitting the shore sounded c-r-r-rack, like a monstrous lash, and we were, as infantrymen always are at this point in a landing, utterly helpless. Then, fully aligned, the amphtracs headed for the beach, tossing and churning like steeds in a cavalry charge. Slowly we realized that something we had anticipated wasn't happening. There were no splashes of Jap mortar shells, no roars of Jap coastal guns, no grazing Jap machine-gun fire. The enemy wasn't shooting back because, when we hit the beach at 8:27 a.m., there wasn't any enemy there. It was an unprecedented stratagem — the greatest April Fool's Day joke of all time. Sixty thousand of us walked inland standing up and took Yontan (now Yometan) and Kadena airfields before noon. A Japanese fighter pilot landed on Yontan, climbed down, and ordered a tank of gas in Japanese before he realized something was wrong. He reached for his pistol and was gunned down before he could touch the butt. Idly exploring the quaint, concrete, lyre-shaped burial vaults built on the slopes of the low hills, we felt jubilant. In our first day we had established a beachhead fifteen hundred yards long and five thousand yards deep. None of us could have known then that the battle would last nearly three months, becoming the bloodiest island fight of the Pacific war; that over 200,000 people would perish; that Ernie Pyle, the famous war correspondent just arrived from the ETO, would be killed on Ie Shima; and that both Buckner and Mitsura Ushijima, the Japanese general, would be dead before the guns were silenced.
There was an omen, had we but recognized it. At 7:13 p.m. a kamikaze dove into the West Virginia, erupting in flame. That should have been the tip-off to the enemy's strategy: sink the ships, isolating the Americans ashore. Ushijima had 110,000 Nips of his Thirty-second Army, all Manchurian veterans, concentrated in the southern third of the island. Tokyo's high command had decided to make Okinawa the war's greatest Gethsemane, another Iwo but on a much grander scale. The Americans would be allowed “to land in full” and “lured into a position where they cannot receive cover and support from the naval and aerial bombardment.” Because of the tremendous U.S. commitment, there would be ten American soldiers for every foot of ground on Okinawa's lower waist, where Ushijima planned to make his stand. Thus wedged together, they would be like livestock in a slaughterhouse. Ushijima had studied the cable traffic from Iwo in its last days. Curiously, he found it encouraging. Pillboxes and blockhouses had been built here, too; but in addition, massive numbers of caves masked heavy artillery which could be rolled out on railroad tracks, fired, and rolled back in. Naha had been the site of Japan's artillery school for years. Every gully, every crossroads, every ravine in the south had been pinpointed by the defenders. It would be like an enemy attack on American infantry at Fort Benning. The Japs could target each shell within inches. Under these circumstances, Ushijima reasoned, Buckner's army could be “exterminated to the last man.”
The Allied fleet, in this scenario, would be wiped out by the kamikazes. Even before L-day, these human torpedoes had begun their destruction of our ships. Zeroes, Zekes, Bettys, Nicks, Vals, Nakajimas, Aichis, Kagas — virtually every Nip warplane that could fly was loaded with high explosives and manned by pilots, some mere teenagers, who would dive to their deaths and take sinking Allied warships with them. In the Philippines, in the early stages of this airborne hara-kiri, fliers had operated individually. Now the American and British seamen would confront massed suicide attacks called kikusui, or “floating chrysanthemums.” Ultimately they failed, but anyone who saw a bluejacket who had been burned by them, writhing in agony under his bandages, never again slandered the sailors who stayed on ships while the infantrymen hit the beach. Altogether, Nippon's human bombs accounted for 400 ships and 9,724 seamen — a casualty list which may be unique in the history of naval warfare.
Our first night ashore was interrupted only by fitful machine-gun bursts and the wump-wump-wump of small mortars — there were a few Japs beyond our perimeter, left behind for nuisance value — and during morning twilight, after breakfasting on K rations, we NCOs shouted, “Route march, ho!” starting the long push northward, the Marines loping along in the unmistakable gait of the infantryman, our muscles feeling as though they had been pulled loose from the joints and sockets they were supposed to control. In those first days we covered about twenty miles a day, an ordeal, since we were carrying all our equipment, but we were young and grateful to be still alive. The scenery was lovely. To the left lay the sea; to the right, the hills rose in graceful terraces, each supporting rice paddies. Our path was of orange clay, bordered by stunted bushes and shrubs, cherry trees, and red calla lilies; I had never seen red ones before. Even the remains of the bridges, which had been taken out by our bombers, were beautiful. The Okinawans, like the Japanese, believe that straight lines are harsh, while curved lines suggest serenity, and the sinuosity of these arches conveyed a calm and repose wholly irrelevant to, and superior to, our mission here. Especially was this true when we rounded a curve and beheld, on the beach, the sprawled body of a girl who had been murdered. I had never seen anything like that. The thought that an American man could commit such a crime in fighting a just war raged against everything I believed in, everything my country represented. I was deeply troubled.
Northern Okinawa, we found, was not defenseless. Motobu Peninsula, steep, rocky, wooded, and almost trackless, was dominated by two mountains, Katsu and fifteen-hundred-foot, three-crested Yaetake. Entrenched on Yaetake were two battalions under the command of a tenacious officer, Takehiko Udo. In the ensuing battle the Sixth lost 1,304 men, among them Swifty Crabbe, who took a rifle bullet below his right elbow which severed a nerve, rendering his thumb uncontrollable — a ridiculous wound, but he was delighted to leave the island. To these casualties must be added the professional reputation of our redundant commanding officer, Colonel Hastings, who was fired in the middle of the fight. I was present at the dramatic moment. Lem Shepherd, the divisional commander, asked where the regiment's three battalions were, and the Old Turk, highly agitated, confessed that he wasn't aware of, familiar with, or apprised of where nearly three thousand men might be located, found, or situated. So Shepherd sent him back to the rearest echelon and appointed Colonel William J. Whaling as our new CO. Whaling had fought well on the Canal; we had confidence in him.
And our confidence in ourselves was growing. The Raggedy Asses were always in their element off parade, with no saluting and little sirring, unshaven and grimy in filthy dungarees, left to do what they did best: use their wits. There was no role here for mechanized tactics; tanks were useful only for warming your hands in their exhaust fumes. This was more like French and Indian warfare. Each of us quickly formed a map of the peninsula in his mind; we knew which ravines were swept by Nambu fire and how to avoid them. (Beau Tatum was the exception. His sense of direction, or rather the lack of it, was still uncanny. If a company had let Beau direct them, they would have wound up on Iwo Jima.) Much of the time I kept the battalion situation map, drawing red and blue greasepaint arrows on Plexiglas to show, respectively, what the Japs and our forces were doing. The genial operations officer, an Irish major from the Bronx, never pulled rank on me, though he must have been tempted. It was interesting work; better still, it was comparatively safe. Unfortunately Krank found another job for me. Shepherd planned a viselike compression, an elaborate envelopment, with the Fourth Marines assaulting the face of Yaetake while we in the Twenty-ninth attacked the rear. A patrol was needed to link up the two regiments. The Raggedy Asses, it was decided, would provide the four-man patrol. Their craven sergeant was ordered to lead it.
I took Knocko, Crock, Pisser, and Killer Kane because they were immediately available and the afternoon was waning. The veins and arteries of the dying day streaked the horizon over the East China Sea. My throat was thick with fear. We moved silently down the path, half crouched, passing Japanese corpses on both sides, any of which could be shamming. Darkness began to gather. Now I was more worried about the Fourth Marines than the enemy. Because the Nips were so skillful at infiltration, the rule had been established that after night had fallen, no Marine could leave his foxhole for any reason. Anyone moving was slain. Two nights before, a man in our battalion had been drilled between the eyes when he rose to urinate. So I moved along the path as quickly as I could, and I recall ascending a little wiggle in the trail, turning a corner, and staring into the muzzle of a Browning heavy machine gun. “Flimsy,” I said shakily, giving that day's password. “Virgin,” said the Fourth Marines' gunner, giving the countersign. He relaxed and reached for a cigarette. He said, “You heard the news? FDR died.” I thought: my father.
Resistance ended on Yaetake's peak after a hand-to-hand struggle; 347 Japs died. Since the Marines had killed nearly three thousand Japs and captured the northern two-thirds of the island — 436 square miles — we expected a respite, hot chow, and a few days in the sack. We didn't get any of them. For over a week we had heard ominous rumors of stiffening resistance in the south. GIs were encountering unprecedented concentrations of Japanese artillery fire. Progress was being measured in yards, then in feet. Regrouping, the GIs launched a massive attack and were stopped cold. It was Peleliu and Iwo all over again, but to the nth degree; because of it, Morison wrote, “the battle for Okinawa was the toughest and most prolonged of any in the Pacific war since Guadalcanal.” Being Marines, and therefore arrogant, we assumed that the dogfaces simply lacked our spirit. What infuriated us, however, was the news that one of Buckner's chief problems lay on his right flank. The division stalled there was the infamous Twenty-seventh. They couldn't keep up with the other army outfits, couldn't even recover their own dead. So we were going to relieve them and they would move up here as garrison troops. Before boarding the six-bys for the trip south, the Raggedy Asses gave the children in the little town of Nago a lesson in elementary English. When the GIs came up to take our place, we told them, they should chant loudly: “Twenty-seventh Division eats shit! Twenty-seventh Division eats shit!” Later we were told they had performed superbly. It was probably the greatest event in the history of Nago. Doubtless it was unfair to some doggies. I'm sure there were brave men in the Twenty-seventh. But if anyone bleats to me about the division's reputation and asks for sympathy, I can tell him where to find it. In the dictionary.
Our movement into the southern line took two days. As we rode south, we became aware of a grumbling on the horizon, which turned into a thumping, then a drumming, then a rumbling, and then an enormous thudding, as though Fafner and Fasolt, the giants in the Rhinegold, had been let loose. The enemy's main line of resistance bore various names, depending upon what part of it faced you; to GIs it would be remembered as Skyline Ridge, or the Kakazu, or the Kochi, or the Maeda Escarpment. The First Marine Division, which moved up on our left flank, called it the Shuri Line, because their immediate objective was the ancient ruins of Shuri Castle. We named it the Machinato Line, after a village on our front. But it was all of a piece, all horrible. Counting both sides, the line represented an extraordinary concentration of 300,000 fighting men, and countless terrified civilians, on a battleground that was about as wide as the distance between Capitol Hill in Washington and Arlington National Cemetery. In the densest combat of World War I, battalion frontage had been approximately eight hundred yards. Here it was less than six hundred yards. The sewage, of course, was appalling. You could smell the front long before you saw it; it was one vast cesspool. My first glimpse of the line itself came when our truck was stopped by the convoy traffic and I jumped over the tailgate to climb a little hillock and see where we were heading. By sheer chance, I had chosen a spot from which the entire battlefield was visible. It was hideous, and it was also strangely familiar, resembling, I then realized, photographs of 1914–1918. This, I thought, is what Verdun and Passchendaele must have looked like. The two great armies, squatting opposite one another in mud and smoke, were locked together in unimaginable agony. There was no room for a flanking operation; the Pacific Ocean lay to the east and the East China Sea to the west. A landing behind Japanese lines would have been possible and would have relieved the pressure on the front, but despite the pleas of the Marine generals for an amphibious operation, Buckner insisted on fighting it out this way.
I lingered on that hummock, repelled and bewitched. It was a monstrous sight, a moonscape. Hills, ridges, and cliffs rose and fell along the front like gray stumps of rotting teeth. There was nothing green left; artillery had denuded and scarred every inch of ground. Tiny flares glowed and disappeared. Shrapnel burst with bluish white puffs. Jets of flamethrowers flickered and here and there new explosions stirred up the rubble. While I watched, awed, an American observation plane, a Piper Cub, droned over the Japanese lines, spotting targets for the U.S. warships lying offshore so that they could bring their powerful guns to bear on the enemy. Suddenly the little plane was hit by flak and disintegrated. The carnage below continued without pause. Here I was safe, but tomorrow I would be there. In that instant I realized that the worst thing that could happen to me was about to happen to me.
That afternoon we pushed ahead a thousand yards, retrieving the Twenty-seventh's fallen, but our optimism was premature. The Japs were giving us the ground. They knew who we were. They now had a word for American Marines — kai-he-tai — and had developed special tactics for us. These followed a pattern. Each line was held stubbornly until it was about to be overwhelmed; then the Japs withdrew to prepared positions, leaving snipers in coral grottoes to carve up our CPs. A truer sign of what lay ahead was a stark statistic from the Seventh Marines, who had preceded us into the line and held our left flank. In nine days of attacks on a little wrinkle of land called Wana Ridge, the regiment had suffered 1,249 casualties. Our own baptism in siege warfare came when we forced a passage across the Asa Kawa, or River. The Japs had burned the bridge behind them. In those days Americans still prided themselves on their knack for mechanical improvisation — one vehicle which had made its debut on L-day was a tank which actually swam — and our Engineer Battalion welcomed the Asa problem as a challenge. At night, moving like shadows in the slimy stream, they threw a footbridge across the river. Assault companies raced across it in the first moments of morning twilight. Japs wired dynamite to their bellies, darted out of tall grass, and blew up both the footbridge and themselves. Amphtracs ferried more Marines across the water until the following day, when the engineers built a Bailey bridge strong enough to bear the weight of tanks.
Meanwhile the spring rains had begun, coinciding, I might point out, with my own arrival on the line. Torrents blew in from the East China Sea for three straight weeks, day and night, and no one who has not fought under such conditions, or even worked under them, can possibly envisage how miserable they are. Plasma, for example, was usually fed into the veins of a wounded man by taping the plasma container to the stock of a reversed rifle with a fixed bayonet; the bayonet was driven into the ground, providing a post from which the plasma could flow downward. The gruel of Okinawa mud was so thin that it couldn't support a rifle bayonet; men had to be withdrawn from the line to hold the containers. On the other side of the globe Bill Mauldin was writing: “I'm sure Europe never got this muddy during peacetime. I'm equally sure that no mud in the world is so deep or sticky or wet as European mud.” Mauldin should have seen what the Twenty-ninth Marines were up against. In places our muck was waist-deep. Jeeps, artillery pieces, even bulldozers — everything but amphtracs and DUKWs — sank in it. And there is one massive difference between peacetime mud and wartime mud. In peacetime it is usually avoidable. You can step around it, or take another route. In combat you fight in the mud, sleep in it, void in it, bleed in it, and sometimes die in it.
Your torment in combat is compounded by your utter ignorance of how the battle is going elsewhere. You know what is happening in this gully, or what lies behind that stump, but you have no idea of how things look back at the platoon CP, let alone the company, battalion, regimental, divisional, corps, or army CPs. As keeper of the situation map, I knew more than most. My map was gridded with numbered squares representing areas each of which was two thousand feet wide. Each of these was then divided into twenty-five lettered squares, A through Y, these being four hundred feet wide. In turn, the tiny squares could be further divided, for those who knew the gen, into 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5, indicating the four corners and the center. Thus the naval gunfire officer in every battalion headquarters could order gunfire from a warship offshore and put it within two hundred feet of the target. In addition, each battalion carried on its roster a full-blooded Navaho. He could talk to other Indians in other battalions over SCR-300 radios, confident that no Japanese eavesdropper would understand a word. But such information was fragmentary at best, and there was nothing from the regimental level or further up. The army divisions on the left were fighting just as hard as we were, but I don't recall any dope about how things were going for them.
I yearned for a better view. It did not seem to be an impossible dream. Before our invasion the island had supported 400,000 Okinawans, and a few relics of civilization had somehow endured. War which displaces civilizations always leaves a few odd reminders of the peaceful past — a half-demolished wall, say, or the front door of a home which no longer exists. Until L-day a large concrete sugar mill had flourished in western Okinawa, on what was now our end of the Machinato Line. Bombardments had destroyed all of it except two tall brick chimneys which overlooked the entire battleground. The Japanese were using these smokestacks for observation posts, and despite our naval gunfire, artillery, and aerial bombardment the chimneys had miraculously survived. If only I could get up there, I thought, I would know what was going on. I now know that was wrong. I would have seen the blackened ruins of Naha, still thickly toothed with Japs, to the southwest, and looking down on the line I would have had a stunning view of the fighting, emanating a sullen burning glow like a kitchen range. But the key features would have escaped me because their significance would have been invisible from the smokestacks. The whole history of war is a story of men moving closer and closer to the ground and then deeper and deeper in it. The anchor of the line, which Ushijima considered the key to it, was an undistinguished mound now known to history as Sugar Loaf Hill.
Sugar Loaf, which was actually shaped more like a bread loaf, was a height of coral and volcanic rock three hundred yards long and one hundred feet high. It was vital because it was almost impregnable. Not in itself; few summits are unscalable if attackers can reach their slopes. But this ugly hive was supported on the southeast by another mound, Half Moon Hill, and to the south by yet another, Horseshoe Ridge. Thus Sugar Loaf, a spear pointed at the advancing Sixth Marine Division, was merely the most visible feature of a triangular system connected by hidden galleries. Each of the three peaks could deliver murderous fire from heavy 15-centimeter guns on any other peak attacked by us. Moreover, a deep trough of ground within Horseshoe Ridge gave the Japanese mortar positions which could be reached only by grenades and small-arms fire, and our riflemen couldn't get that close because the three hummocks rose abruptly from a bare plain, providing no defilade. Assaulting troops charging one precipice would be cut down by converging interlocking fire from the rest of the triangle. In addition, the complex could be raked by Jap artillery, mortars, and machine guns emplaced in Shuri Hill, to the east, which had stopped the First Marine Division in its muddy tracks. Shuri was bigger, but it was the Sugar Loaf complex that cracked the whip of the Machinato Line. There the hills stood, piled in great, weighty, pressing, heaped, lethal masses, oppressive beyond words for us who studied the maps and knew that one way or another the peaks must be taken.
My first grasp of what the immediate future held for me, provided I had a future, came when my battalion relieved the battered Third Battalion, which had been fighting on a smaller mound called Charlie Hill. We were moving up in a coiling line, single file, as the Third, uncoiling, moved out. I was struck by the Third's faces: haggard, with jaws hanging open and the expressionless eyes of men who had left nowhere and were going nowhere. There was little conversation on either side, but in one of those lulls that come in any march, when there was no movement in either column, I found myself opposite John Baker. I knew Baker well. He was a former newspaperman, a cheerful, sturdy corporal whom I had never seen not chomping on an unlit cigar. In fact, I suspected it was always the same cigar. He had been stationed in San Diego at the time of Pearl Harbor, and his company had been detailed to dig trenches on the beaches because the Californians were convinced that an invasion armada was steaming toward them. I doubt that it disturbed him or even dislodged his cigar. He was a solid, imperturbable man, as steady as though he carried a binnacle in his chest. I had often wished I had him in my section, but he had remained in the Third Battalion, and now he was coming out of combat, and I asked him, “Baker, what's it like up there?”
I had thought he was looking at me. Now I realized that he was really looking through me in a thousand-yard stare. Slowly he focused on my face, removed the cigar, spat on the mud, replaced the cigar, and replied flatly: “You really want to know?” I turned away, and turned back. I noticed that this file was much shorter than ours. I asked him, “Where's the rest of your battalion?” In that same dull voice he said, “This isn't a battalion. These are the survivors of a battalion.”
The two lines of men began to move again. We rounded a bend, and suddenly I understood Baker. On the right side of the path lay about a hundred dead Marines. Each had been wrapped in his poncho, now his shroud. These had been secured with communications wire and then the bodies had been stacked as you would stack cordwood. You could see the boondockers jutting out; the rest of the bodies were covered by the ponchos. The stack was neatly made, as though ready to pass inspection. Probably I knew some of the men, but covered as they were I couldn't identify any. Every pair of boondockers looked like every other pair. I looked down at my own. They were the same.
The sounds of enemy artillery were becoming louder and louder; we were well within mortar range. Once we were in position, on the reverse slope of Charlie Hill, I set up the Raggedy Ass base in one of the little courtyards that led to the lyre-shaped tombs; every courtyard was encircled by a three-foot wall, with an entrance at one end of it and the tomb itself at the other end. Blue ceramic jars, containing the ashes of ancestors, stood on shelves within the tombs. At night we moved the ancestors out and ourselves in — these mini-mausoleums made superb bomb shelters — and in the morning we moved the vases back. During the battle we changed tombs several times, but for the time being we weren't going anywhere, because the battle wasn't moving. The Japanese still had us deadlocked here, and had even regained some ground on the left with a fifteen-thousand-man counterattack. By the end of that first week on the line, we had begun to understand the maze of hills. Sugar Loaf had changed hands fourteen times. Every time we took it, the tremendous firepower from Half Moon, Horseshoe, and Shuri drove us off. The Japs would retake it, and our artillery would do the same to them. But we couldn't see how they could be completely dislodged. They always had men on some part of the hill. And they had others in the hill, because their sappers, starting with foxholes, had dug deeper caves and tunnels, all in our direction.
Now I enter a period of time in which a structured account of events is impossible. Continuity disappears; the timepiece in the attic of memory ticks erratically. These pages in my war diary are glued together with blood which hardened long ago. Certain incidents and impressions can be recalled, but only as a kaleidoscopic montage. Somewhere in here occurred the Truce of the Fucking Dogs; one of our war dogs got loose, ran out on the killing ground north of Sugar Loaf, somehow met an Okinawan pye-dog, and mounted her while both sides, astounded by this act of creativity in the midst of annihilation, held their fire. Then there was the Matter of the Everlasting D Ration, a chunk of bitter chocolate, supposedly packed with nutrition, which looked like and tasted like modeling clay and was all I ate for five days, combat having destroyed my appetite. More darkly I remember the Execution of the Two Pricks, a supercilious pair of junior army officers who were reconnoitering the front, addressing us as “bellhops,” and ordering us to direct them to the best view of the battle. A gunny pointed toward the Horseshoe, and off they went, covering about thirty feet before they were slain. There was also the Great Helmet Debate between me and Bubba. Both of us were wearing our steel chamber pots at the time, facing each other, sitting on the reverse slope of a little rise overlooking no-man's-land. Bubba said helmets were an unnecessary encumbrance and dampened the offensive spirit. The Army of Northern Virginia hadn't needed them, he said. I was trying to introduce the subject of Appomattox when a large chunk of shrapnel whirred through the air and hit Bubba's helmet. He took it off and fingered the dent. No doubt about it; if he hadn't been wearing it, he would have been dead. He carefully put it back on, fastened the strap — and then took up where he had left off, his finger wagging and his voice rumbling, insisting that helmets were completely useless.
One of my clearest memories is of the Arrival of the Six Replacements. Rain was still pelting us mercilessly when we were taken off the line briefly, and I found us a dry cave near Machinato Airfield. The cave faced the shore. I was exhausted, and once inside my dry sanctuary I lay on my side for a few minutes, watching the kamikazes diving and exploding on our warships. It was one of the war's most extraordinary spectacles, but I was too weary to keep my eyes open. I took off my boondockers and lapsed into a coma of sleep without even removing my pack or helmet. Then I felt someone plucking at one of my leggings. A reedy, adolescent voice was saying urgently, “Hey, Sarge! Sarge!” I looked up and saw a half-dozen seventeen-year-old boys who had been brought here directly from boot camp. I vaguely remembered the Top having told me that they were on their way to me. We had heard that back home men were being drafted into the Marine Corps, which was outrageous, if true — every Marine had always been a volunteer — but sending these children was worse. Between Iwo Jima and Okinawa the Marine Corps was running out of fighting men, so these kids were here, disturbing (I was selfish enough to think of it that way) my siesta. They weren't much of an advertisement for the Corps. All of them looked pallid, mottled, and puffy. “What'll we do?” their spokesman asked anxiously in a voice which was still changing. He wanted orders, and I had none. I knew I should give them a full briefing; if they went into the line without one, they could die fast. It was my duty to protect replacements from that. That was what I was being paid for. I didn't do it; I turned over and again drifted off into deep sleep.
Then black comedy, whose role in war is rarely appreciated, solved the problem. Water was dripping on my face. Incredulous, I opened my eyes and realized that the cave was leaking. Over the past week the porous limestone overhead had become saturated. Now it was raining indoors. I ripped out all the filthy words I knew, repeated them, and then noticed that my new wards were still there, earnestly hoping that I could spare a few minutes of my valuable time for them. So I did. I told them how to learn about shell-fire on the job, and the tricks of Jap snipers, and booby traps, and how doubt is more fatal than slowed reflexes, and where they might avoid being enfiladed on the line, adding, however, as gently as I could, that they would seldom be in a position to benefit from that information because they would spend most of their time as runners, and a runner is exposed far more often than a rifleman. Their boondockers, I said, were their best friends; they should dry them whenever possible. If they were overrun by a Jap charge they should play dead, affecting a grotesque pose of death; they would probably be bayoneted anyway, but there was always that chance they might be overlooked. They should be alert for the sharp click of steel on steel, which probably meant trouble, because that was how Japs armed grenades. If they heard it, they should move fast. (I should have told them to leap toward the sound, getting the Jap, but this was a lesson in survival, not heroism.) I saw they were beginning to tremble, but it was better to have it out here than there. Feelings of elation in the moments before combat were normal and OK as long as men didn't become suicidal; the moth-in-the-flame threat was always there. Also OK was the instinct to fantasize, to dramatize your actions to yourself. This was actually helpful and should, in fact, be encouraged. To be avoided, and if necessary ignored, were gung-ho platoon leaders who drew enemy fire by ordering spectacular charges. Ground wasn't gained that way; it was won by small groups of men, five or six in a cluster, who moved warily forward in a kind of autohypnosis, advancing in mysterious concert with similar groups on their flanks. These young Marines were going to lose a lot of illusions, but if they lost faith in everything else, including the possibility of winning this fight, including the rear echelon and even the flag, they should keep faith with the regiment. It had an outstanding record, and all its men were proud of it. If it was any comfort to them, I ended, they should know that unfounded fears were worse than founded fears and that this battle was the toughest struggle in the history of the Corps. They nodded dumbly, kneeling there like novitiates, steadied by hands grasping upright Mis propped on the wet cave floor. I wondered whether they had understood any of what I had said or whether I had become as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.
Had anybody told me all this on my first day, I would have thought he was Asiatic, snapping in for a survey, or, as it was sometimes put, one who had “missed too many boats.” Since then I had become a disciplined fighter, however, though until now my own survival had been more a coefficient of luck than of skill. There was just one moment in the war when I saved my own life, and it came right after my soggy nap in that defective cave. Back on our own little amphitheater of war, still soaked to the skin, I started a routine tour of the line companies that afternoon, covering it much as a mailman covers his route, except that I had company, because, if possible, we always moved in pairs. My buddy that day was Chet Przyastawaki, the Colgate athlete with the shrill voice. We followed the embankment as far as it went and then moved from one local feature to another: the Long Square, the Blue Icicle, Grable's Tit, the X, the Iron Claw, Thurston's Trick, and the V, also known as the Hairless Pussy. This was a time when the Japanese were constantly challenging us, trying to infiltrate every night and sometimes, brazenly, by day. If their purpose was to keep us off balance, they were succeeding. This surging back and forth quickened the pulses of the Raggedy Asses. People like us, moving from one CP to another, could get caught by occasional Nips who were testing us, penetrating as deeply as they could and then, when found, trying to slip back.
Chet and I had covered the companies, Fox to Easy to Dog, as smoothly as Tinker to Evers to Chance. Positions around Sugar Loaf were in constant flux — at one time or another nine Marine battalions fought on the hill — and we had been told to skirt enemy lines on our way back, scouting every dip, crease, cranny, and rut in the ground that might be useful in combined attacks. The last leg of our journey, before we reached the lee side of the railroad embankment, took us past the crevice called McGee's Closet and down Windy Alley, a rock gulch which, like Sugar Loaf itself, had changed hands repeatedly. We arrived there at the worst possible time. The Japs had launched a reconnaissance in force; no sooner had we entered the lower throat of the alley than we heard the unmistakable sounds of an enemy patrol sealing it off behind us, closing our option of retracing our steps. Then we heard a familiar, husky sob in the air, directly overhead. We hit the deck, and a mortar shell burst a hundred feet away, followed by another, and then another. Silence followed. Chet crossed himself. Another shell burst. The stupid Japs were falling short of their targets, our lines, mortaring us in. When mortared, you are supposed to flee in almost any direction, but, as we were about to discover, it is not always that easy. As we rose cautiously, we heard jabbering on the opposite slopes of both sides of Windy Alley. So much for our flanks. We darted ahead, toward the embankment, and that was when the pneumatic whuff of the first bullet from that direction sang between us. It wasn't from an M1; it had that unmistakable Arisaka whine. We hit the deck again and rolled rightward together, toward the protection of a huge boulder, a rough slab of rock. Two more bullets whuffed past before we made it. Our problem now, and I cannot begin to tell you how much it discouraged me, was that a Nip sniper was in position at the alley's upper throat, behind another boulder, blocking the maze of intersecting paths there, cutting us off at the pass. We were trapped, the nightmare of every foot soldier. All I had going for me was sheer desperation. Warning: this animal is vicious; when attacked, it defends itself.
Lying in tandem, Chet and I exchanged wide-eyed glances. The coral had cut both his hands, but I was in no mood to comfort him. I felt a wave of self-pity. For several seconds I was completely mindless. Fear is the relinquishment of reason; we yield to it or fight it, but there are no halfway points. Then I struggled and shook off the panic. It was one of Napoleon's maxims that in war you must never do what the enemy wants you to do. This Jap expected us to stay put. So we wouldn't. Each of us had two grenades hooked on his harness. I hunched up and reached for one. Chet shook his head. “Too far,” he whispered. If the range was too great for a Colgate halfback, a scrawny sergeant didn't have a chance, but I already knew the distance was too great; reaching the Nip with a pitch wasn't what I had in mind. I didn't tell Chet now what was there, because as I unlooped the grenade I had to think about a weapon which would reach our man. I was carrying a carbine and a .45, both useless in a sniper's duel. Chet had an M1. I asked, “Did you qualify?” He said, “Sharpshooter. Under three hundred.” I shook my head. It wasn't good enough. For once I was going to do what the Marine Corps had taught me to do best. I said to Chet, “Give me your weapon and an extra clip.”
My problems were complicated. I knew nothing, for example, of the Japs' timetable. If this was a quick in-and-out operation, the sniper might disappear, running back to his hole in Sugar Loaf. But that wasn't the way their snipers worked; if they had quarry, they usually hung around until they flushed it. And this one now confirmed his personal interest in us in a thin, falsetto, singsong chant, a kind of liquid gloating: “One, two, three —you can't catch me!” Chet muttered in an even higher register, “No, but he can catch us.” I was looking up at the sky. The light was clouded. Soon waves of darkness would envelop us, and conceivably it could come to the knife. I couldn't even think about that. Instead, I asked Chet, “Is your piece at true zero?” He said, “It throws low and a little to the right.” I took it, leaving him the carbine, and said, “His piece must throw high, and he probably doesn't know it. He had three clear shots at us and drew Maggie's drawers every time.” Chet said, “But from where he is …” I nodded grimly. That was the worst of it. An invisible line lay between his position and ours. It was diagonal. The azimuth of his lair was about 45 degrees west; mine was 135 degrees east. On a clock this would put him at eight minutes before the hour and me at twenty-three minutes past — northwest for him, southeast to me. Since both our slabs of rock were set dead against the alley's walls, I couldn't use my weapon and my right arm without stepping clear of my boulder, exposing myself completely. All he needed to show was an arm and an eye, unless, by some great stroke of luck, he was left-handed. I had to find that out right now.
Peering out with my left eye I caught a glimpse of him — mustard colored, with a turkeylike movement of his head. He was right-handed, all right; he snapped off a shot. But he wore no harness, and I had been right about his rifle. It wasn't true; the bullet hummed overhead and hit the gorge wall, chipping it. So much for the marksmanship of the Thirty-second Manchurian Army. My job was to beat it. Luckily Windy Alley was calm just now. I checked the cartridge in the chamber and the five in the magazine. Now came the harnessing. The full sling I had perfected during my Parris Island apprenticeship involved loops, keepers, hooks, feed ends, and buckles. It took forever, which I didn't have just then, so I made a hasty sling instead, loosening the strap to fit around and steady my upper arm. My options were narrowing with each fading moment of daylight, so I didn't have time to give Chet an explanation. I handed him the grenade now and said, “Pitch it at him, as far as you can throw. I'm going to draw him out.” He just stared at me. What I loved about the Raggedy Ass Marines was the way my crispest commands were unquestioningly obeyed. He started to protest: “But I don't understa—” “You don't have to,” I said. “Just do it.” I started shaking. I punched myself in the throat. I said, “Now.”
I turned away; he pulled the pin and threw the grenade — an amazing distance — some forty yards. I darted out as it exploded and rolled over on the deck, into the prone position, the M1 butt tight against my shoulder, the strap taut above my left elbow, and my left hand gripped on the front hand guard, just behind the stacking swivel.
Load and lock
Ready on the left Ready on the right Ready on the firing line
Stand by to commence firing
My right finger was on the trigger, ready to squeeze. But when I first looked through my sights I saw dim prospects. Then, just as I was training the front sight above and to the left of his rocky refuge, trying unsuccessfully to feel at one with the weapon, the way a professional assassin feels, the air parted overhead with a shredding rustle and a mortar shell exploded in my field of fire. Momentarily I was stunned, but I wasn't hit, and when my wits returned I felt, surprisingly, sharper. Except for Chet's heavy breathing, a cathedral hush seemed to have enveloped the gorge. I could almost hear the friction of the earth turning on its axis. I had literally taken leave of my senses. There remained only a trace of normal anxiety, the roughage of mental diet that sharpens awareness. Everything I saw over my sights had a cameolike clarity, as keen and well-defined as a line by Van Eyck. Dr. Johnson said that “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” So does the immediate prospect of a sniper bullet. The Jap's slab of rock had my undivided attention. I breathed as little as possible — unlike Chet, who was panting — because I hoped to be holding my breath, for stability, when my target appeared. I felt nothing, not even the soppiness of my uniform. I looked at the boulder and looked at it and looked at it, thinking about nothing else, seeing only the jagged edge of rock from which he had to make his move.
I had taken a deep breath, let a little of it out, and was absolutely steady when the tip of his helmet appeared, his rifle muzzle just below it. If he thought he could draw fire with that little, he must be new on the Marine front. Pressure was building up in my lungs, but I thought I would see more of him soon, and I did; an eye, peering in the direction of my boulder, my last whereabouts. I was in plain view, but lying flat, head-on, provides the lowest possible profile, and his vision was tunneled to my right. Now I saw a throat, half a face, a second eye — and that was enough. I squeezed off a shot. The M1 still threw a few inches low, but since I had been aiming at his forehead I hit him anyway, in the cheek. I heard his sharp whine of pain. Simultaneously he saw me and shot back, about an inch over my head, as I had expected. He got off one more, lower, denting my helmet. By then, however, I was emptying my magazine into his upper chest. He took one halting step to the right, where I could see all of him. His arms fell and his Arisaka toppled to the deck. Then his right knee turned in on him like a flamingo's and he collapsed.
Other Nips might be near. I knifed another clip into the M1, keeping my eyes on the Jap corpse, and crept back to the boulder, where Chet, still breathing hard, leaned against me. I turned toward him and stifled a scream. He had no face, just juicy shapeless red pulp. In all likelihood he had been peering out curiously when that last mortar shell burst. Death must have been instantaneous. I had been alone. Nobody had been breathing here but me. My shoulder was all over blood. Now I could feel it soaking through to my upper arm. I shrank away, sickened, and the thing he had become fell over on its side. Suddenly I could take no more. I jumped out and dodged, stumbling, up the pitted, pocked alley. I braked to a halt when I came to the body of the dead sniper. To my astonishment, and then to my rage, I saw that his uniform was dry. All these weeks I had been suffering in the rain, night and day, this bastard had been holed up in some waterproof cave. It was the only instant in the war when I felt hatred for a Jap. I swung back my right leg and kicked the bloody head. Then, recovering my balance, I ran toward the safety of the embankment. Just before I reached it I glanced to my right and saw, on the inner slope of a shell hole, a breastless creature leaning backward and leering at me with a lipless grin. I couldn't identify its race or sex. It couldn't have been alive.
Back at battalion, the news of Chet's death deepened the section's numbness, but the days of cathartic grief, of incredulity and fury, were gone. One by one the Raggedy Ass Marines were disappearing. The Twenty-ninth was taking unprecedented casualties. On April 1 the regiment had landed 3,512 men, including rear-echelon troops. Of these, 2,812 had fallen or would fall soon. The faces in the line companies became stranger and stranger as replacements were fed in. In our section we had already lost Lefty, of course, and Swifty; now Chet was gone, too. Death had become a kind of epidemic. It seemed unlikely that any of us would leave the island in one piece. The Jap artillery was unbelievable. One night Wally Moon was buried alive, suffocated in his one-man foxhole — he always insisted on sleeping alone — by sheets of mud from exploding shells. We didn't miss him until after the bombardment, when I whispered the usual roll call. Everyone answered “Here” or “Yo” until I came to Wally. There was no answer; we hurriedly excavated his hole, but it was too late. Wally, who had told us so much about time, was eternally gone.
Inside, though I was still scared, I felt the growing reserve which is the veteran's shield against grief. I was also puzzled. I wondered, as I had wondered before, what had become of our dead, where they were now. And in a way which I cannot explain I felt responsible for the lost Raggedy Asses, guilty because I was here and they weren't, frustrated because I was unable to purge my shock by loathing the enemy. I was ever a lover; that was what Christianity meant to me. I was in the midst of satanic madness: I knew it. I wanted to return to sanity: I couldn't. All one could do, it seemed to me, was to stop combat from breaking you in half, to keep going until you reached the other side of your immediate objective, hoping it would be different from this side while knowing all the time, with the weary cynicism of the veteran, that it would be exactly the same. It was in this mood that we scapegoated all cases of combat fatigue — my father's generation of infantrymen had called it “shell shock” — because we felt that those so diagnosed were taking the dishonorable way out. We were all psychotic, inmates of the greatest madhouse in history, but staying on the line was a matter of pride. Pride was important to young men then. Today it is derided as machismo. But without that macho spirit California and Australia would have been invaded long before this final battle.
Looking back across thirty-five years, I see the Raggedy Ass Marines, moving in single file toward the front, glancing, not at their peerless leader, in whom they justifiably had so little confidence, but back over their shoulders toward all they had left on the other side of the Pacific. They are bunching up, enraging the colonel, and their packs are lumpy and their lack of discipline is disgraceful. Griping, stumbling, their leggings ineptly laced, they are still the men to whom I remain faithful in memory. And as I had pledged myself to them, so had they to me. In retrospect their Indian file tends to blur, like movie dissolves, each superimposed on the others, but they keep moving up and keep peering over their shoulders, their expressions bewildered, as though they are unable to fathom why they are where they are and what is expected of them; anxious, under their collegiate banter and self-deprecation, to remain true to the principles they have been taught; determined not to shame themselves in the eyes of the others; wondering whether they will ever see the present become the past. And then, as their single file disappears in the mists around the bottom of Sugar Loaf, I remember how they were hit and how they died.
Lefty had been Harvard '45 and premed; Swifty had been Ohio State '44 and an engineering major; Chet, Colgate '45, hadn't picked a major; Wally, MIT '43, would have become a physicist. The class dates are significant. That was our generation: old enough to fight, but too young for chairborne jobs. Most of us — I was an exception — had been isolationists before Pearl Harbor, or at any rate before the fall of France. Unlike the doughboys of 1917, we had expected very little of war. We got less. It is a marvel that we not only failed to show the enemy a clean pair of heels, but, on the whole, fought very well. Some were actually heroic. Knocko Craddock had quivered all over as we approached the line. But on Horseshoe Ridge he found a Japanese knee mortar and carried it to his foxhole. When the Nips rushed him, he fired eight rounds at them with their own ammunition and then stood erect in his hole, blazing away with a tommy gun until they cut him down. Knocko was Holy Cross '45. He would have become a lawyer.
Bubba Yates, Ole 'Bama '45 and a divinity student, spent his last night of combat on the forward slope of Half Moon. He fired BAR bursts at the enemy till dawn. Six Nip bodies were found around him. He was bleeding from four gunshot wounds; corpsmen carried him back to a field hospital. All the way he muttered, “Vicksburg, Vicksburg …” I heard he was going to be written up for a Silver Star, but I doubt that he got it; witnesses of valor were being gunned down themselves before they could report.
Barr — I never learned his first name — came up as a replacement rifleman and disappeared in two hours. He and Mickey McGuire went out on a two-man patrol and became separated. No one found any trace of him, not even a shred of uniform. He simply vanished. I don't even recall what he looked like. Our eyes never met. One moment he was at my elbow, reporting; an instant later he was gone to wherever he went — probably to total obliteration.
Killer Kane, autodidact, was dug in for the night near the crest of Sugar Loaf when a Jap loomed overhead and bayoneted him in the neck, left shoulder, and upper left arm. The Nip was taking off his wristwatch when Kane leapt up, wrapped him in the strangler's hold, choked him to death, and walked to the battalion aid station without even calling for help.
Pip Spencer, aged seventeen, who wanted to spend his life caring for handicapped children, had his throat cut one night in his foxhole. Nobody had heard the Jap infiltrators.
Mo Crocker, with an IQ of 154 but no college — scholarships were hard to come by in the Depression — had worked in a Vermont post office. He was deeply in love; his girl wrote him every day. He disintegrated after one of our own 81-millimeter mortar shells fell short and exploded behind him.
Horst von der Goltz, Maine '43, who would have become a professor of political science, was leading a flamethrower team toward Hand Grenade Ridge, an approach to Sugar Loaf, when a Nip sniper picked off the operator of the flamethrower. Horse had pinpointed the sniper's cave. He had never been checked out on flame-throwers, but he insisted on strapping this one to his back and creeping toward the cave. Twenty yards from its maw he stood and did what he had seen others do: gripped the valve in his right hand and the trigger in his left. Then he pulled the trigger vigorously, igniting the charge. He didn't know that he was supposed to lean forward, countering the flame's kick. He fell backward, saturated with fuel, and was cremated within seconds.
Blinker Reid, Oberlin '45, a prelaw student as angular as a praying mantis, was hit in the thigh by a mortar burst. Two Fox Company men carried him to the aid station between them, his arms looped over their shoulders. I saw the three of them limp in, all gaunt, looking like Picasso's Absinthe Drinker. Blinker's face was a jerking convulsion, his tics throbbing like a Swiss watch. He wanted to talk. I tried to listen, but his jabbering was so fast I couldn't understand him. He was still babbling, still twitching, when a tank — no ambulances were available — carried him back to the base hospital.
Shiloh Davidson III, Williams '44, a strong candidate for his family's stock-exchange seat, crawled out on a one-man twilight patrol up Sugar Loaf. He had just cleared our wire when a Nambu burst eviscerated him. Thrown back, he was caught on improvised wire. The only natural light came from the palest wash of moon, but the Japs illuminated that side of the hill all night with their green flares. There was no way that any of us could reach Shiloh, so he hung there, screaming for his mother, until about 4:30 in the morning, when he died. After the war I visited his mother. She had heard, on a Gabriel Heatter broadcast, that the Twenty-ninth was assaulting Sugar Loaf. She had spent the night on her knees, praying for her son. She said to me, “God didn't answer my prayers.” I said, “He didn't answer any of mine.”
Barney, with his hyperthyroidism, hypertension, and the complexion of an eggplant — I had thought he would be our first casualty — became one of the section's survivors, which was all the more remarkable because after I had been evacuated on a litter, I later learned, he perched on a tank barreling into a nest of Japs, firing bursts on a tommy gun and singing:
I'm a Brown man born, I'm a Brown man bred,
And when I die, I'll be a Brown man dead …
Once the battle was over, once the island was declared secure, Barney hitchhiked to the cemetery near Naha where our dead lay. He was wearing dungarees, the only clothing he had. An MP turned him away for being out of uniform.
At various times Sugar Loaf and its two supporting crests, Half Moon and Horseshoe, were attacked by both our sister regiments, the Twenty-second Marines and the Fourth Marines, but the Twenty-ninth made the main, week-long effort. In one charge up Half Moon we lost four hundred men. Time reported after a typical night: “There were 50 Marines on top of Sugar Loaf Hill. They had been ordered to hold the position all night, at any cost. By dawn, 46 of them had been killed or wounded. Then, into the foxhole where the remaining four huddled, the Japs dropped a white phosphorus shell, burning three men to death. The last survivor crawled to an aid station.” In another battalion attack, all three company commanders were killed. Now that Germany had surrendered, Okinawa had become, in Time's phrase, “the vortex of the war.”
Infantry couldn't advance. Every weapon was tried: tanks, Long Toms, rockets, napalm, smoke, naval gunfire, aircraft. None of them worked. If anything, the enemy's hold on the heights grew stronger. The Japanese artillery never seemed to let up, and every night Ushijima sent fresh troops up his side of the hill. We kept rushing them, moving like somnambulists, the weight of Sugar Loaf pressing down on us, harder and harder. And as we crawled forward, shamming death whenever a flare burst over us, we could almost feel the waves of darkness moving up behind us. In such situations a man has very little control over his destiny. He does what he must do, responding to the pressures within. Physical courage, which I lacked, fascinated me; I wanted to know how it worked. One of Sugar Loaf's heroes was a man I knew, a major named Henry A. Courtney, Jr., a fair, handsome man who looked like what we then called a matinee idol. No man bore less resemblance to John Wayne. There was something faintly feminine about Courtney, a dainty manner, almost a prissiness. Yet he rallied what was left of his battalion at the base of Sugar Loaf, asked for volunteers to make “a banzai of our own,” and led them up in the night through shrapnel, small-arms fire from Horseshoe and Half Moon, and grenades from Sugar Loaf's forward slope. Reaching the top, he heard Japs lining up on the other side for a counterattack. He decided to charge them first, leading the attack himself, throwing hand grenades. His last cry was, “Keep coming — there's a mess of them down there!” He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously. After the war I called on his widow in Oklahoma. Apart from our shared grief, I was still trying to understand why he had done what he had done. I thought she might know. She didn't. She was as mystified as I was.
The odd thing, or odd to those who have never lived in the strange land of combat, is that I never had a clear view of Sugar Loaf. I was on its reverse slope, on the crest, and eventually on the forward slope, but there were always coral dust, high-explosive fumes, and heavy clouds of bursting ammunition on all sides. It would be interesting to see a study of the air pollution there. I'll bet it was very unhealthy. In that smog, grappling with whatever came to hand, we were like the blind man trying to identify an elephant by feeling his legs. After the war I saw a photograph of the hill, but it had been taken from a peculiar angle and was out of focus. That was also true of my memory, which was blurred because, I think, there was so much that I did not want to remember. There, as in the months following my father's death, I suffered from traumatic amnesia. Some flickers of unreal recollection remain: standing at the foot of the hill, arms akimbo, quavering with senseless excitement and grinning maniacally, and — this makes even less sense — running up the slope, not straight up, but on a diagonal, cradling the gun of a heavy machine gun in my left elbow, with a cartridge belt, streaming up from the breechblock, draped over my right shoulder. The gun alone weighed forty-one pounds. Nobody runs uphill with such an awkward piece of machinery. And where was the tripod? I don't know where I had acquired the gun, or where I was taking it, or why I was there at all.
Mostly I remember a lot of scampering about, being constantly on the move under heavy enemy fire, racing from one company CP to another, always keeping an eye open for the nearest hole. Usually I was with either Alan Meissner, skipper of Easy Company, or Howard Mabie, Dog Company's CO until he was hit. There were dead Japs and dead Marines everywhere. Meissner's company went up the hill with 240 men and came back with 2. On the slopes the fighting was sometimes hand-to-hand, and some Marines, though not I, used Kabar knives, the knives being a more practical implement for ripping out a man's guts than a rifle or bayonet. At close range the mustard-colored Japs looked like badly wrapped brown-paper parcels. Jumping around on their bandy legs, they jabbered or grunted; their eyes were glazed over and fixed, as though they were in a trance. I suppose we were the same. Had I not been fasting I'm sure I would have shit my pants. Many did. One of the last orders before going into action was “Keep your assholes tight,” but often that wasn't possible. We were animals, really, torn between fear — I was mostly frightened — and a murderous rage at events. One strange feeling, which I remember clearly, was a powerful link with the slain, particularly those who had fallen within the past hour or two. There was so much death around that life seemed almost indecent. Some men's uniforms were soaked with gobs of blood. The ground was sodden with it. I killed, too.
By sundown of May 17 we had just about lost heart, ready to withdraw from the hill because we were running out of ammunition. There wasn't a hand grenade left in the battalion; E Company had used the last of them in two futile charges. As it happened, we not only stayed; we won the battle. That night Ushijima tried to reinforce his troops on the opposite slope, but our flares lit up his counterattack force just as it was forming, and twelve battalions of Marine artillery laid down so strong a concentration that he withdrew. Our battalion commander called Whaling on the field telephone and said, “We can take it. We'll give it another go in the morning.” His faith was largely based on news that other Marines had captured Horseshoe Ridge, while our Third Battalion — Baker's, beefed up with replacements and back on the line — was digging in on the slope of Half Moon. At 8:30 a.m. on Friday, May 18, six U.S. tanks tried to reach the hill but couldn't; all were destroyed by enemy mines. New tanks arrived, however, and maneuvered their way through the minefield. At 10:00 a.m. a combined tank-infantry assault, half of Mabie's D Company swarming up one side of the hill while the other half lunged at the other side, sprang at the top. It worked. There was a terrific grenade battle at close quarters on the summit, and the Japanese sent a heavy mortar barrage down on our people, but the remnants of D Company, with the fire support from F Company, which was now on the forward slope of Horseshoe, didn't yield an inch. As night fell on the embattled army, the Twenty-ninth Marines held the hill. The Twenty-ninth holds it still.
Newsweek called Sugar Loaf “the most critical local battle of the war,” but I felt no thrill of exultation. My father had warned me that war is grisly beyond imagining. Now I believed him. Bob Fowler, F Company's popular, towheaded commander, had bled to death after being hit in the spleen. His orderly, who adored him, snatched up a submachine gun and unforgivably massacred a line of unarmed Japanese soldiers who had just surrendered. Even worse was the tragic lot of eighty-five student nurses. Terrified, they had retreated into a cave. Marines reaching the mouth of the cave heard Japanese voices within. They didn't recognize the tones as feminine, and neither did their interpreter, who demanded that those inside emerge at once. When they didn't, flamethrowers, moving in, killed them all. To this day, Japanese come to mourn at what is now known as the “Cave of the Virgins.”
So my feelings about Sugar Loaf were mixed. As I look back, it was somewhere on the slopes of that hill, where I confronted the dark underside of battle, that passion died between me and the Marine Corps. The silver cord had been loosed, the golden bowl broken, the pitcher broken at the fountain, the wheel broken at the cistern. Half the evil in the world, I thought, is done in the name of honor. Nicht die Kinder bloss speist man mit Märchen ab. I now caught the jarring notes in the “Marines' Hymn” — which, after all, was a melody lifted from an obscure Offenbach operetta — and the tacky appeals to patriotism which lay behind the mass butchery on the islands. I saw through the Corps' swagger, the ruthless exploitation of the loyalty I had guilelessly plighted in that Springfield recruiting station after Pearl Harbor. On Sugar Loaf, in short, I realized that something within me, long ailing, had expired. Although I would continue to do the job, performing as the hired gun, I now knew that banners and swords, ruffles and flourishes, bugles and drums, the whole rigmarole, eventually ended in squalor. Goethe said, “There is no man so dangerous as the disillusioned idealist,” but before one can lose his illusions he must first possess them. I, to my shame, had been among the enchanted fighters. My dream of war had been colorful but puerile. It had been so evanescent, so ethereal, so wholly unrealistic that it deserved to be demolished. Later, after time had washed away the bitterness, I came to understand that.
On May 19 the Fourth Marines relieved the bleeding remnants of the Twenty-ninth. Wet as it had been, it now became wetter; eighteen inches of rain fell in the next nine days, and twice the weather was so poor that the fighting simply stopped. Nevertheless, the Fourth mopped up Half Moon and Horseshoe and then moved on Naha, or its ruins. Enemy artillery, even back where we now were, continued to be heavy. One new piece was a mammoth eight-inch rocket mortar whose shells shrieked when launched but approached their targets silently. They were variously called screaming meemies, box-car Charlies, and flying seabags, because if you happened to be looking at the right place you could actually see one coming, tumbling end over end. They were launched from crude V-shaped troughs: the propelling charge was detonated by striking it with a mallet. We were told that they were wildly inaccurate, that their sole purpose was to damage our morale. In my case they were a stupendous success. Every time I heard the shriek I hit the deck. Most of the men ignored them, saying, as I'm sure fighting men have said in every battle since the arrows of Agincourt, “It won't hit you unless it's got your name on it, and if it does, you haven't got a prayer.”
Having broken through the Machinato Line, we thought we had won. The Japanese, as usual, refused to concede. Six days after we took Sugar Loaf, Ushijima launched a daring airborne attack on Yontan and Kadena airfields, sending giretsu (paratroopers) tumbling down. Both sides suffered casualties; U.S. planes were destroyed. Two American fuel dumps, containing seventy thousand gallons of gasoline, were set off. Kamikazes, launching their seventh major kikusui assault, ravaged the Allied fleet and its shore stations. But the Fourth Marines had already waded through the waist-deep waters of the Asato Kawa and entered Naha. Okinawan bodies were everywhere — in shops, in gutters, hanging from windows. Once a city of sixty-five thousand, Naha now teemed with Jap mortars and machine guns. In Tomari, the city's suburb, white phosphorus was fired into the frame buildings to destroy enemy positions, and on May 30 the Twenty-second and Twenty-ninth Marines, strengthened by reinforcements, drove through the Shichina area to the Kokuba estuary, isolating the island's capital. Three days later, on Saturday, June 2, I suffered my superficial gunshot wound. I remember asking a corpsman, “Will I get a Purple Heart?” He nodded, and I thought of my father: We're even.
So I had my million-dollar wound, the dream of every infantryman. I was moved back to a field hospital where the only reminder of combat was the rumble of artillery on the horizon. I was served hot chow on clean plates, and even heard rebroadcasts of radio programs from the states, including, that Sunday, Jack Benny, Charlie McCarthy, and the Great Gildersleeve. Then I learned that General Shepherd, determined to avoid a repetition of Garapan and Manila, had decided to bypass the city and outflank the enemy with an amphibious landing on Oroku Peninsula, behind Japanese lines. So I left my dry bunk, went AWOL, rejoined what was left of the Raggedy Ass Marines, and made the landing on Monday. It went well. There were a few perilous moments at a seawall, but then the Japs pinning us down with Nambus were rolled up from the right, and we had our beachhead, which rapidly expanded during the day. In the late afternoon I, shamed by the example of others, temporarily abandoned my timidity and stayed on my feet when a screaming meemie screamed. The shell landed close enough to knock me down, thereby renewing my respect for the big mortars and, as it turned out, saving my life.
Early the next morning several of us were standing in a tomb courtyard when we heard the familiar shriek. We were on a reverse slope from the enemy; the chances of a shell clearing the top of the hill and landing on us were, we calculated, a thousand to one, and the Nips, we now knew, had no way of controlling the flight of these missiles. I crept into the doorway of the tomb. I wasn't actually safe there, but I had more protection than Izzy Levy and Rip Thorpe, who were cooking breakfast over hot boxes. The eight-incher beat the thousand-to-one odds. It landed in the exact center of the courtyard. Rip's body absorbed most of the shock. It disintegrated, and his flesh, blood, brains, and intestines encompassed me. Izzy was blind. So was I — temporarily, though I didn't know that until much later. There was a tremendous roaring inside my head, which was strange, because I was also deaf, both eardrums having been ruptured. My back and left side were pierced by chunks of shrapnel and fragments of Rip's bones. I also suffered brain injury. Apparently I rose, staggered out of the courtyard, and collapsed. For four hours I was left for dead. Then one of our corpsmen, Doc Logan, found I was still hanging on. He gave me two shots of morphine and I was evacuated to an LST offshore which served as a clearinghouse for casualties. All the beautiful white hospital ships — Solace, Relief, and Comfort — were gone. There were just too many wounded men; they couldn't handle the casualty traffic. So I sailed off for Saipan on an APA. Goodbye, Okinawa, and up yours.
The gravest Marine cases, of which I was one, were sent to Saipan by ship and then flown in stages to San Diego's Balboa Park. I was on and off operating tables, beginning in Hawaii, until mid-autumn, when the surgeons decided that some of the shrapnel was too close to my heart to be removed. It was safe where it was; they would leave it there. I remember wondering, one bad night, whether the old saw — that men were likeliest to succumb with the coming of dawn and at the turn of the tide — was true. For me the worst part of the day was the doctors' prodding and poking for the shrapnel. They gave me a piece of wood to bite while the long steel instruments probed around. I think I screamed just twice.
But that was the only bad part. In Honolulu's Aiea Heights Naval Hospital I even made a friend, a chief petty officer named Claude Thornhill, who had been a bandleader in civilian life and whose band had, in fact, played at my last college prom. I was still in an Aiea Heights ward when I first heard the voice of the new President, learned that Okinawa had been secured and that 207,283 people had died there. In San Francisco the news of the Hiroshima bombing was read to me. And I was napping in San Diego when I was awakened by church bells ringing all over the city. A nurse ran in, a starched white dragon of a woman. I asked what had happened. She cried, “The war's over! The Japs have surrendered!” I said, “Thank you.” I meant it. I was really very grateful, though why, and for what, I didn't tell.
Returning to Okinawa today is like watching a naked priest celebrate mass. It is so incongruous, so preposterous, that indignation is impossible. Solemn memories suppress the urge to laugh, so you simply stand stunned and helpless, unable to respond or even move. Luckily, two Marine friends of friends, Lieutenant Colonel Jon Abel and his Top Sergeant, Arnold Milton, are there to assure me that I haven't lost my sanity, that there's no need for that stiff drink I've begun to crave. Of course, I could get it immediately. On today's Okinawa one quickly becomes accustomed to instant gratification. Everything on the island seems to be for sale, including female inhabitants. Thus, the greatest of the island battlefields, more precious than Gettysburg — or at any rate more expensive in American blood — at first glance appears to be covered with used-car lots, junkyards, stereo shops, pinball-machine emporiums, and vendors of McDonald's fast food, Colonel Sanders's fried chicken, Shakey's pizza, and Dairy Queen sundaes. All-night drive-in restaurants prosper, including one overlooking White Beach Three, where the Ninety-sixth Division landed that April 1. In an Apollo Motel you and a girl you've just met and will never meet again, with whom you have nothing in common but convexity, concavity, and a few dollar bills, can rent a bed for an hour. The Okinawans who once moved slowly and gracefully among their lovely terraced rice paddies now sweep around cloverleaf intersections in their souped-up Hondas and Toyotas, and race into neoned Naha — which has become a metropolis the size of Indianapolis — on a four-lane freeway. The Okinawan Expressway carries you from Motobu to the central part of the island in two hours. On the peninsula, by a seawall on the Ie Shima side, Top Milton says: “This is Route Fifty-eight. You probably knew it as Highway Number One.” How can I explain that I knew it as an unnumbered path of earth a yard wide?
Off Motobu, Japanese scuba divers disappear under water and reappear triumphantly holding aloft exotic shells. The Americans have built two golf courses, countless tennis courts, and athletic fields. The Japanese enjoy them very much. Sometimes they play against Americans. When they win, they crow. The Americans are good losers, and they are acquiring a great deal of experience in that. Out in the boondocks you can still find rice paddies, but with rice selling at ten dollars for a twenty-five-pound blue plastic bag, the magnificent hillside terraces which once supported thousands of paddies have disappeared; sugarcane and pineapple plantations, which need far less irrigation, are far more profitable. And though many of the old lyre-shaped tombs still stand, the new mausoleums lack the lyre design. Instead they are small, and, being built of cinder blocks, cheap. One entrepreneur is erecting three hundred of them on Motobu. Reportedly he is giving serious consideration to a suggestion, made in jest, that he call it Forest Lawn East.
There are about thirty-five thousand Americans on the island, ten thousand of them in the Third Marine Division. Okinawa is considered good duty. Since Vietnam-bound B-52s are no longer serviced there, it is also light duty, and now that the old DUKWs have been replaced by the more efficient LBTP-7s as amphibious workhorses, landing maneuvers are far easier. The U.S. PX complex at Camp Butler, a small city in itself, is more impressive than any shopping center I've seen in the United States. Local entertainment is provided by bullfighting, sumo wrestling, and habu-mongoose fights. Bullfights aren't bloody. The matador carries a heavy rope. His job is to loop it around the bull's horns and pull, persuade, or trick the animal out of the ring. Sumo wrestling, subsidized by local businessmen, is very popular with GIs and Marines. It is more psychological than physical. Two grotesque, 350-pound Japanese men circle one another again and again, making little movements and twitches which, one is told, have enormous symbolic significance. The actual struggle, the period of contact, lasts no more than thirty seconds, and the wrestler, like the bull, loses when he is forced to leave the arena. The popularity of the fights between mongooses and habus — the habu is a poisonous snake, much feared — is peculiar, because the mongoose always wins. But the Americans love to watch them, too.
The more they like it, the more they try to integrate themselves into the local culture, the more the islanders exclude them. Before the war, Okinawa's inhabitants, like Korea's, were little more than colonial subjects of the emperor. Since the spring of 1972 the island has been the forty-seventh prefecture (ken) of Japan, with a bicameral legislature which swarms with political activity. Although the U.S. victory in 1945 paved the way for this, Okinawan politicians and intellectuals resent the American presence among them. When they say “Us,” they mean themselves and the Japanese; when they say “Them,” they are talking about Americans. From time to time they stage demonstrations to remind the world of their hostility toward Them, though they know, as everyone who has mastered simple arithmetic knows, that an American departure would be an economic disaster for the island, ending, among other things, the $150 million Tokyo pays Okinawan property owners as rent for land occupied by U.S. forces. This paradox, of course, is not unique in history. The British learned to live with it, realizing that the world's most powerful nation is the obvious choice for anyone in need of a whipping boy. When I recall the sacrifices which gave the Okinawans their freedom, the slanders seem hard. Then I remember the corpse of the girl on the beach; our patronizing manner toward a little Okinawan boy we picked up as a mascot and treated like a household pet; the homes our 105-millimeter and 155-millimeter guns leveled; the callousness with which we destroyed a people who had never harmed us. The Americans of today may not deserve the slurs of the demonstrators, but the fact remains that more than seventy-seven thousand civilians died here during the battle, and no one comes out of a fight like that with clean hands.
That night in the Okinawa Hilton I dream of the Sergeant, the old man, and their hill. It is a shocking nightmare, the worst yet. I had expected irony, scorn, contempt, and sneers from him. Instead, he is almost catatonic. He doesn't even seem to see the old man. His face is emaciated, deathly white, smeared with blood, and pitted with tiny wounds, as though he had blundered into a bramble bush. His eyes are quite mad. He appears so defiled and so miserable that on awakening I instantly think of Dorian Gray. I have, I think, done this to myself. I have been betrayed, or been a betrayer, and this fragile youth is paying the price. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. And for this there can be no absolution.
But I cannot leave it at that. Despite my disillusionment with the Marine Corps, I cannot easily unlearn lessons taught then, and as the youngest DI on Parris Island can tell you, there is no such word as impossible in the Marine Corps. There must be more on this island than I have seen. And there is. Next morning I explore the lands beyond the neon and all it implies, and find that the island's surface tawdriness is no more characteristic of postwar Okinawa than Times Square is typical of Manhattan. Hill 53, for example, once an outer link in the coast-to-coast chain of the Machinato Line, is now shared by an amusement park and a botanical garden. The peak provides a superb view of modern Naha. Looking in that direction through field glasses, it is satisfying to see that the city's tidal flats, where we trapped a huge pocket of Nipponese after Sugar Loaf had been taken, have been filled in and are part of the downtown shopping center. The city's suburbs reflect quiet good taste: flat-topped stucco houses roofed with tiles and shielded for privacy by lush shrubs.
The pleasantest surprise is Shuri, the Machinato Line strong-point which was second only to Sugar Loaf in Ushijima's defenses. Japanese tourists seem to prefer visits to the Cave of the Virgins, or a descent of the 168 sandstone steps that lead to the Japanese commanders' last, underground command post on the island's southern tip, but to me Shuri is more attractive and far more significant. Commodore Matthew C. Perry first raised the American flag over Shuri Castle on May 26, 1853; the Fifth Marines did it again on May 29, 1945. Since 1950 the ruins of the castle's twelve-foot-thick walls — some of which have survived, curving upward with effortless grace — have enclosed the University of the Ryukyus, Okinawa being the largest island in the Ryukyu Archipelago, and dotting the ridges flanking the university are modest, immaculate, middle-class homes. The castle-cum-university is on Akamaruso Dori, or Street, on the opposite side of which are swings, jungle gyms, and sandboxes. Under the shade of a tree in one corner stands an old Japanese tank, rusting in peace. None of the children in the little park pay any attention to it, and neither, after all I've seen, do I.
Before leaving the island I want to pay my respects to scenes once vivid to me. This seems a recipe for frustration, because most of them are gone. Green Beach Two, where my boondockers first touched Okinawan soil, is remarkable only for a silvery petroleum storage tank and two fuel pumps. My leaking cave near Machinato Field is gone; so is the field; only a renamed village, Makiminato, remains, and there is nothing familiar in it. The seawall on Oroku Peninsula and the tomb where I nearly died have completely vanished; a power station has replaced them. Motobu Peninsula, still clothed in its dense jungle, is the least-changed part of the island. The trouble here is not the absence of memorabilia. It is, once more, in my aging flesh. Precipices I once scaled effortlessly are grueling. Nevertheless I make it up the peninsula's peaks, Katsu and Yaetake. The pinnacles there provide first-rate views of the peninsula, and my presence on them attracts inquiring guards. I have been trespassing, once more, and I have been caught. But the guards are more curious than punitive, and presently I am talking to a voluble Japanese technician, Mr. Y. Fujumura. He explains that the peaks are used for Japanese and U.S. Signal Corps equipment which relays long-distance telephone calls, monitors radio traffic, and eavesdrops on phone conversations as far away as North Korea. He provides details. I understand none of them. We part, and on my way once more, checking my notes, I conclude that I have touched all bases on Okinawa.
I am wrong. I left the United States believing that a revisit to Sugar Loaf was out of the question because it had been bulldozed away for an officers' housing development. In La Jolla, General Lemuel C. Shepherd, Jr., the retired Marine Corps commandant, said he had been in the neighborhood recently; he assured me that the hill just wasn't there any more. But I ask Jon Abel and Top Milton to join me in a visit to the development anyway. There we pass a teen center, turn from McKinley Street to Washington Street, and, as I give a shout, come to a complete stop.
There it is, a half-block ahead. I am looking at the whole of it for the first time. It is the hill in my dreams.
Sugar Loaf Hill.
Jon and Top, almost as excited as I am, begin digging out old maps, which confirm me, but I don't need confirmation. Instinctively I look around for patterns of terrain, cover and concealment, fields of fire. To a stranger, noticing all the wrinkles and bumps pitting its slopes, Sugar Loaf would merely look like a height upon which something extraordinary happened long ago. That is the impression of housewives along the street when we ring their doorbells and ask them. They are wide-eyed when we tell them that they are absolutely right, that those lumps and ripples once were shell holes and foxholes. Now a mantle of thick greensward covers all. I remember Carl Sandburg: “I am the grass … let me work.”
Up I go — no gasping this time — and find two joined pieces of wood at the top, a surveyor's marker referring to a bench mark below. I take a deep breath, suddenly realizing that the last time I was here anyone standing where I now stand would have had a life expectancy of about seven seconds. Today the ascent of Sugar Loaf takes a few minutes. In 1945 it took ten days and cost 7,547 Marine casualties. Ignoring the surveyor's marker, I take my own bearings, from memory. Northeast: Shuri and its university. Southeast: Half Moon; officers' dwellings there, too. South-southwest: one leg of Horseshoe visible, and that barren. Southwest: Naha's Grand Castle Hotel, once a flat saucer of black ruins. And beneath my feet, where mud had been deeply veined with human blood, the healing mantle of turf. “I am the grass.” I the Lord am thy Saviour and thy Redeemer. “Let me work.” Sacred heart of the crucified Jesus, take away this murdering hate and give us thine own eternal love.
And then, in one of those great thundering jolts in which a man's real motives are revealed to him in an electrifying vision, I understand, at last, why I jumped hospital that Sunday thirty-five years ago and, in violation of orders, returned to the front and almost certain death.
It was an act of love. Those men on the line were my family, my home. They were closer to me than I can say, closer than any friends had been or ever would be. They had never let me down, and I couldn't do it to them. I had to be with them, rather than let them die and me live with the knowledge that I might have saved them. Men, I now knew, do not fight for flag or country, for the Marine Corps or glory or any other abstraction. They fight for one another. Any man in combat who lacks comrades who will die for him, or for whom he is willing to die, is not a man at all. He is truly damned.
And as I stand on that crest I remember a passage from Scott Fitzgerald. World War I, he wrote, “was the last love battle”; men, he said, could never “do that again in this generation.” But Fitzgerald died just a year before Pearl Harbor. Had he lived, he would have seen his countrymen united in a greater love than he had ever known. Actually love was only part of it. Among other things, we had to be tough, too. To fight World War II you had to have been tempered and strengthened in the 1930s Depression by a struggle for survival — in 1940 two out of every five draftees had been rejected, most of them victims of malnutrition. And you had to know that your whole generation, unlike the Vietnam generation, was in this together, that no strings were being pulled for anybody; the four Roosevelt brothers were in uniform, and the sons of both Harry Hopkins, FDR's closest adviser, and Leverett Salton-stall, one of the most powerful Republicans in the Senate, served in the Marine Corps as enlisted men and were killed in action. But devotion overarched all this. It was a bond woven of many strands. You had to remember your father's stories about the Argonne, and saying your prayers, and Memorial Day, and Scouting, and what Barbara Frietchie said to Stonewall Jackson. And you had to have heard Lionel Barrymore as Scrooge and to have seen Gary Cooper as Sergeant York. And seen how your mother bought day-old bread and cut sheets lengthwise and resewed them to equalize wear while your father sold the family car, both forfeiting what would be considered essentials today so that you could enter college.
Sugar Loaf, then and now
You also needed nationalism, the absolute conviction that the United States was the envy of all other nations, a country which had never done anything infamous, in which nothing was insuperable, whose ingenuity could solve anything by inventing something. You felt sure that all lands, given our democracy and our know-how, could shine as radiantly as we did. Esteem was personal, too; you assumed that if you came through this ordeal, you would age with dignity, respected as well as adored by your children. Wickedness was attributed to flaws in individual characters, not to society's shortcomings. To accept unemployment compensation, had it existed, would have been considered humiliating. So would committing a senile aunt to a state mental hospital. Instead, she was kept in the back bedroom, still a member of the family.
Debt was ignoble. Courage was a virtue. Mothers were beloved, fathers obeyed. Marriage was a sacrament. Divorce was disgraceful. Pregnancy meant expulsion from school or dismissal from a job. The boys responsible for the crimes of impregnation had to marry the girls. Couples did not keep house before they were married and there could be no wedding until the girl's father had approved. You assumed that gentlemen always stood and removed their hats when a woman entered a room. The suggestion that some of them might resent being called “ladies” would have confounded you. You needed a precise relationship between the sexes, so that no one questioned the duty of boys to cross the seas and fight while girls wrote them cheerful letters from home, girls you knew were still pure because they had let you touch them here but not there, explaining that they were saving themselves for marriage. All these and “God Bless America” and Christmas or Hanukkah and the certitude that victory in the war would assure their continuance into perpetuity — all this led you into battle, and sustained you as you fought, and comforted you if you fell, and, if it came to that, justified your death to all who loved you as you had loved them.
The author in 1979
Later the rules would change. But we didn't know that then. We didn't know.
My last war dream came to me in Hong Kong's Ambassador Hotel, in a room overlooking the intersection of Nathan and Middle streets. The dream began in a red blur, like a film completely out of focus, so much so that I didn't have the faintest idea of what I would see. Clarity came slowly. First: broad daylight, for the first time in these dreams. Second: the hill. No mystery about that now; it was Sugar Loaf down to the last dimple. The old man appeared on the right and began his weary ascent. But there was no figure rising on the left to greet him, though he didn't know that until, breathing heavily, he reached the summit and peered down the reverse slope. He saw nothing, heard nothing. There was nothing to see or hear. He waited, shifting slightly this way and that with the passive patience of the middle-aged. A cloud passed overhead, darkening the hill. Then the old man grasped what had happened. Embers would never again glow in the ashes of his memory. His Sergeant would never come again. He turned away, blinded by tears.