In those days all marine corps recruits were assigned to one of the Corps' two boot camps. Those enlisting west of the Mississippi River were sent to San Diego; those who joined up east of the Mississippi went to Parris Island, South Carolina, an isle whose reputation was just marginally better than those of Alcatraz and Devil's Island. So I was going to see the Deep South after all. Having signed up for four years, or more if the war lasted longer; having sworn that “I will bear true faith and allegiance to the United States of America; that I will serve them honestly and faithfully against all their enemies whomsoever; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States, and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to the Rules and Articles for the Government of the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps of the United States” — having, in short, put my life in hock to the most fearsome and hazardous of the country's armed forces — I boarded a special train occupied by other young men who had done the same. We had hardly begun to roll from Springfield when I made a friend in Lawrence Dudley, of Bowdoin. Dudley was heavy, flaxen-haired, and round-shouldered. He knew that once his poor posture had caught the eye of our drill instructor (“DI,” we later learned, was the salty term), he would be in for a hard time. But becoming a Marine was important to him. During his college summers he had worked in the Springfield arsenal as an assistant to John Garand, who had invented the Garand, or M1, rifle, which had replaced the Springfield '03 as America's basic infantry weapon. I had fired the '03 in an ROTC course. Dudley said the M1 was better (he was wrong) and felt, as a testament to his faith, that he should carry one in combat instead of tinkering away the war years in the arsenal, which could have been easily arranged by his friends there.
In Washington we paused for three nighttime hours and were told we could go “ashore” instead of waiting in Union Station. Dudley and I repaired to a nearby nightclub. Neither of us had ever been in one before, and we were appalled. All I can remember is a drunken brunette, apparently a customer, who insisted on taking off all her clothes, and a comedian with a voice that grated like a file who kept breaking himself up by saying: “Damon went out and got Pythias drunk.” It was an introduction to the kind of wartime entertainment available to American enlisted men. Back on the train we slept, and I awoke, trembling with anticipation, in the sacred soil of the old Confederacy. I rushed for the rear platform. Everything I had been told had led me to expect plantations, camellias, and darkies with banjos strumming “Old Black Joe.” Instead I looked out on shabby unpainted shacks and people in rags, all of them barefoot. No Taras, no Scarletts, no Rhetts; just Tobacco Road. And this was Virginia, the state of Robert E. Lee. I felt cheated; disinherited; apprehensive. What awaited me on Parris Island, which was grim even by Southern standards? Despair swept me as we reached our destination, heard departing, newly graduated sea soldiers yelling, “You'll be sorreeee!” and saw noncoms in field hats carrying menacing swagger sticks. The NCOs stared at us as though we were some low and disgusting form of animal life. They spat tobacco at our feet and kept calling us “shitheads.”
Astonishingly, I adored Parris Island. Boot camp is a profound shock to most recruits because the Corps begins its job of building men by destroying the identity they brought with them. Their heads are shaved. They are assigned numbers. The DI is their god. He treats them with utter contempt. I am told that corporal punishment has since been banned on the island, but in my day it was quite common to see a DI bloody a man's nose, and some boots were gravely injured, though I know of none who actually died. I recall being baffled later when Patton was reprimanded for slapping a GI. All of us had endured much more than that. The gentlest punishments were those for dropping a rifle (sleeping on eight of them) and for eating candy (carrying an oozing mass of chocolate for two days). If the boot called it “candy” he would have been punished further, the proper expression being pogey bait. The Corps had its own language, and boots were required to learn it, just as the inhabitants of an occupied country must learn the conqueror's tongue. A bar was a slopchute, a latrine a head; swamps were boondocks, and field boots, boondockers. A rumor was scuttlebutt, because that was the name for water fountains, where rumors were spread; a deception was a snow job, gossiping was shooting the breeze, information was dope, news was the scoop, confirmed information was the word. You said “Aye, aye, sir,” not “Yes, sir.” The nape of the neck was the stacking swivel, after a rifle part. An officer promoted from the ranks was a mustang. Your company commander was the skipper. You never went on leave; you were granted liberty, usually in the form of a forty-eight or a seventy-two, depending on the number of hours you could be absent. If you didn't return by then, you were over the hill. Coffee was Joe; a coffeepot, a Joe-pot. Battle dress was dungarees. A cleanup of barracks, no matter how long it lasted, was a field day; a necktie was a field scarf, drummers and trumpeters were field musics. Duffle bags, though indistinguishable from those used by GIs, were seabags. To be under hack meant to be under arrest. To straighten up was to square away; a tough fighter was a hard-charger; underwear was skivvies; manipulating people was called working one's bolt. Lad was a generic term of address for any subordinate, regardless of age. One of my people, a twenty-eight-year-old Vermont school principal, was known, because of his advanced age, as “Pop.” An officer five years his junior would summon him by snapping, “Over here, lad.”
Some of these terms have crept into the language since World War II, but no one outside the service knew them then. Boots had to pick them up fast. They were courting trouble if they described their combat hardware as anything but 782 gear, that being the number of the form you had to sign as a receipt. It was equally unwise to call a deck a “floor,” a bulkhead a “wall,” an overhead a “ceiling,” a hatch a “door,” or a ladder “stairs.” Every Marine was “Mac” to every other Marine; every U.S. soldier was a “doggie” and was barked at. The Corps' patois was astonishingly varied. To “sight in” or “zero” was to determine, by trial and error, the sight setting necessary to hit a bull's-eye with a given weapon. “Snap in” could mean sighting and aiming an unloaded rifle; it could also mean breaking into, or trying out for, a new job, somewhat like the army's “bucking for.” As a noun, “secure” described an outdated movement in the manual of arms; as a verb, it signified anchoring something in place or ending an activity — thus, when the Battle of Tarawa was won, the island was “secure.” “Survey” was even more flexible. It could mean, not only a medical discharge from the Corps (anyone feigning combat fatigue was “snapping in for a survey”), but also retirement from the Corps, disposing of worn-out clothing or equipment, or taking a second helping of chow. There was even a word for anything which defied description. It was “gizmo.”
On Parris Island these and all other customs of the boot's new way of life were flouted at great risk. You were told that there were three ways of doing things: the right way, the wrong way, and the Marine Corps way. The Corps way was uncompromising. Failure to salute your superiors — including privates first class — brought swift retribution. The worst discipline I saw came during floodlit midnight calisthenics. In one common exercise we paired off; each boot hoisted his rifle as you would hoist a battering ram and placed the butt against his buddy's forehead. The buddy would touch the butt and duck. The man with the rifle was supposed to try to strike his forehead before the other man could drop, but since you knew you were going to reverse roles, the sensible course was to let him get out of the way. Enter the vengeful noncom. He put a rifle butt against the offender's forehead and slugged him before there was time to dodge. The boot who merely suffered a concussion was lucky.
How could I enjoy this? Parts of it, of course, I loathed. But the basic concept fascinated me. I wanted to surrender my individuality, curbing my neck beneath the yoke of petty tyranny. Since my father's death I had yearned for stern discipline, and Parris Island, where he himself had learned discipline a quarter-century earlier, gave it to me in spades. Physically I was delicate, even fragile, but I had limitless reservoirs of energy, and I could feel myself toughening almost hourly. Everything I saw seemed exquisitely defined — every leaf, every pebble looked as sharp as a drawing in a book. I knew I was merely becoming a tiny cog in the vast machine which would confront fascism, but that was precisely why I had volunteered. Even today, despite the horrors which inevitably followed, I am haunted by memories of my weeks as a recruit. It is almost like recalling a broken marriage which, for one divorced partner, can never really end.
Our platoon was number 618, and our DI was a leathery corporal from Georgia named Coffey. The Marine Corps had always recruited a disproportionate number of men from the South, where the military traditions of the early 1860s had never died. Later I met many Raiders like that, and Coffey was typical: tall, lanky, and fair haired, with a mad grin and dancing, rain-colored eyes full of shattered light. They were born killers; in the Raider battalions, in violation of orders, they would penetrate deep behind Japanese lines at night, looking for two Nips sacked out together. Then they would cut the throat of one and leave the other to find the corpse in the morning. This was brilliant psychological warfare, but it was also, of course, extremely dangerous. In combat these Southerners would charge fearlessly with the shrill rebel yell of their great-grandfathers, and they loved the bayonet. How my father's side defeated my mother's side in the Civil War will always mystify me.
Yankee boys were just the kind of meat this Georgian Caesar fed upon. His appetite was further whetted by the fact that many of us had been university students, a fact which triggered the anti-intellectual in him. He himself was illiterate and, apart from his training duties, startlingly ignorant. Even there he sometimes skidded; while specifying the rigors of our calling, he was supposed to teach us a synoptic history of the Corps, and it turned out that he thought the American Revolution had occurred in “nineteen and ten” and World War I in “nineteen and thirty-four,” with the French as our enemies. After this last, a Dartmouth man unwisely laughed. Our DI flushed and declared his own war on all “wisenheimer college eight balls.” He invented sobriquets, most of them scatological, for boots from New England campuses. For some reason — perhaps because I obviously felt that I had found a home in the Marine Corps — I got off lightly. I was merely “Slim,” a nom de guerre which stuck to me throughout my forty-month cruise and was vastly preferable to my fraternity nicknames; I happened to be damned, or blessed, with outsize genitalia, so in college I had been called first “Tripod,” and then “Sashweight.” It embarrassed me then. Not until I joined the Marines did I learn that hefty equipment along that line was admired in some quarters. One day I found myself hip-to-hip at a trough urinal with a former Reno gigolo. He gazed down at me for a long moment and then asked thoughtfully, “Slim, what did you do in civilian life?”
As expected, Coffey's favorite target of opportunity was slope-shouldered, potbellied Larry Dudley. This was partly Dudley's fault. He couldn't help his figure, but he was remiss in other ways, too. The DI liked to say, “God gave you the face you were born with, but I'll give you the face you'll die with.” That was untrue of Dudley. His expression never changed. Even when he was out of step, which was often, he looked bland, nonchalant, slightly pained. His greatest blunder, however, was a spectacular feat of tactlessness. On the evening of the day we were issued our 782 gear, Coffey stood in the doorway of a Quonset hut, facing us vassals, who ranged in a semicircle outside. The only light came from the interior of the hut, at the DI's back. He was holding an M1, fieldstripping it as he talked, naming the parts. Then he reassembled the rifle. “Now,” he said triumphantly, “let's see one of you college kids do it.” He thrust the weapon at the most intent member of his captive audience — Larry Dudley, lately of Garand and Dudley. Oh, God, I prayed; don't let him do it. But Dudley did it. He took that MI apart so fast we could hardly see the blur of his moving hands; then he put it back together with the same blinding speed and handed it to the DI. There were a few stifled chuckles for the avenged shitheads of Platoon 618. Coffey turned the color of a song then popular: deep purple. His loss of face was immense, but being a DI he could strike back in many ways. He swiftly chose one. “OK, wisenheimers,” he said in a pebbly voice, balancing the weapon on the palm of his hand. “If he can do it, you can all do it. Fall out here at 0500 with your pieces, ready to fieldstrip.”
We were stunned. Our asses were in a sling. None of us had the faintest idea of what Dudley had been doing. We couldn't even tell the difference between the trigger-housing group and the barrel-and-receiver group. Fortunately Dudley, for all his faults, had also learned ingenuity from Garand. Though taps sounded twenty minutes after Coffey had dismissed us, and illumination of any kind was forbidden thereafter, we carried on a night-long seminar with flashlights under blankets. Dudley taught three men, each of them taught three more, and so on. By dawn we were exhausted, but we could do it. At 0450 our DI shrilled his whistle and strode down our line of bunks yelping his usual morning greeting: “OK, shitheads! Drop your cocks and grab your socks!” When we fell out he had already adopted a tragic expression. Clearly he expected us to fail and had rehearsed one of his sinking spells, which were as memorable as the Titanic's. Then, as he blinked in disbelief, each of us in turn took his rifle apart, identifying the bolt camming lug, hammer springs, sears and lugs, and the rest, put the piece back together, and smartly brought it to port arms for inspection. Cheated and smarting, Coffey put us through a grueling day: an hour of calisthenics, a second hour of close-order drill, a third hour of lunging, with fixed bayonets, at straw-stuffed dummies; a session of throwing live hand grenades and then rolling out of a fall (never creep), another session of instruction in how to use short-bladed Kabar knives in hand-to-hand combat (always ripping up, into the gut; a downward thrust can be blocked more easily); a cruel hundred-yard sprint wearing gas masks, suffering from inadequate oxygen; and the most idiotic drill of all, snapping in with simulated rifle fire at an imaginary enemy warplane flying overhead. Perhaps this had been practical in World War I, when Fokkers drifted lazily over no-man's-land, but since then strafing fighter planes had developed the speed to flash by before an infantryman could set his feet. Yet we were being taught to aim at the horizon, leading hypothetical Zeroes as hunters lead quail. Long before the sunset gun sounded we all knew we were being punished for Dudley's virtuoso performance. He lost a lot of popularity that day.
None of us, I think, comprehended how all this training would end on battlefields, why we were being taught monstrous things. Our thoughts and our life-style were still largely civilian. Flaked out before lights out, or standing around the lister bag, a container of pure water which resembled a seabag suspended from three te-peed poles, we whistled popular songs — the current hits were “Chattanooga Choo-Choo” and “Blues in the Night” — and shot the breeze much as we would have done at home. I remember us talking about a news item reporting America's annual consumption of seventeen billion cigarettes a year, none of us suspecting that it might be unhealthy, and what it would be like to shack up with Betty Grable or prong Hedy Lamarr. We scorned conscientious objectors and other hambos. We said inane things like, “Hello, Joe, whaddya know?” “I just got back from the vaudeville show.” We laughed at pink-toothbrush ads and cartoonist Frank King's frenzied press conference, called to scotch rumors that Gasoline Alley's Skeezix Wallett would be killed in action. The more sophisticated of 618's boots yearned for a roll of moola and a seventy-two in New York, where they could wander along West Fifty-second Street and hear, at spots like the Famous Door, the Onyx Club, and Kelly's Stable, a tumultuous crash of drums heralding “In the Mood” or Harry James leading a wickedly fast “Sweet Georgia Brown,” the brass section on their feet, horns swinging like cannon out across the ballroom.
Yet here, as so often, I dissented from the majority of my generation. Swing's orchestration, its utter lack of improvisation, still bored me; I preferred the brilliant riffs of Wild Bill Davidson, Muggsy Spanier, Eddie Condon, J. C. Higgenbotham, and Jack Teagarden. Neither could I share the growing nostalgia, among my fellow former undergraduates in the Quonset, for suburban New England's trellised verandas and croquet lawns. Sometimes memories of my grandmother's ancient homestead, with its wine-red sumac, its fire-red barberries, and its split silver-birch fence, tugged at my heart, but mostly I wanted to be where I was. And so, I think, did the rest, or at any rate the best, of the other boots. Without having the haziest idea of what combat would be, we wanted, in a phrase which sounds quaint today, to fight for our country. Subsequent generations have lost that blazing patriotism and speak of it, if at all, patronizingly. They cannot grasp how proud we were to be Americans.
Because of that pride, we survived jolts like our DI's torments and the sobering realization that citizen-soldiers are very different from professional soldiers. The peacetime Marine Corps assumed that enlisted men were brutes and treated them accordingly. I recall my shock the first time I saw a private being led away in chains. And I remember our collective horror when we all became suspects in a rape case. The victim was the daughter of a garrison officer. At one point in her struggle, she said, she had bitten her assailant's penis. Therefore, the commanding general decided, every man on the island must submit to a “short-arm inspection.” The inspection was a massive logistic undertaking, involving thousands of loins. We stood in line hour after hour, awaiting our turn. Along the way, several oddities turned up. One exhibitionist, anticipating an inspection of his short arm sooner or later, had submitted to excruciating pain for the sake of a practical joke. He had caused the words “Hi, Doc!” to be tattooed on the inside of his foreskin. He was immediately put under hack — on what charges I neither know nor can imagine. The complex operation, as complicated in its way as an amphibious landing, produced no evidence whatever. Later I learned that the son of another officer had been arrested and charged. Still later, I met a corpsman who had served as one of the inspectors. He said it had been a shattering experience. It still haunted him. “I have these nightmares,” he said hollowly. “All I can see is cocks, cocks, millions of cocks, all of them swarming around me.”
My Parris Island triumph came on the rifle range. On Record Day we fired sixty-six shots, all but ten of them rapid-fire, at targets two hundred, three hundred, and five hundred yards away. Each shot was worth a maximum of five points, for a bull's-eye. Riflemen could qualify in three categories: marksman, sharpshooter, and — very rare, requiring 305 points out of a possible 330 — expert rifleman. I knew I would do well. My M1 was zeroed in to perfection. I had steady hands; I could hold my breath indefinitely, steadying the muzzle; I could fold my right ankle under my buttocks for kneeling shots; and I had 20/10 vision, meaning that what was visible to a man with 20/20 vision at one hundred yards was just as sharp and clear for me at two hundred yards. I was also clever in adjusting my sling. The sling is the leather strap on a rifle, which looks useless to a civilian; it can be extended and looped around the left arm, locking the butt to the right shoulder. Record Day was clear and windless. I hardly missed anything. My score was 317. A colonel congratulated me and told me that 317 was unprecedented. Because of it, because of my adjustment to the Corps, and because of my college education, I was sent directly to the Corps' OCS in Quantico, Virginia. My world brightened a little, as though there were a rheostat on the sun and someone had turned it up a notch. Later I realized that was an illusion — that I wasn't meant to be an officer, at least not by Quantico standards, and that the attempt to make one of me was a grave error.
At Quantico we were quartered, rather grandly, in permanent red-brick barracks, each company with its own squad bays. The chow was excellent. Our rank was private first class, but we wore small brass insignia on our shirt collars, each reading simply “O.C.” Weekends we were usually given liberty in Washington, and the departure of the Saturday noon train from Quantico to D.C. was always bedlam; it was said that the only people to wind up on board were those who had come to see their friends off. In the capital there were about six girls for every man. Saturday night a dollar admitted you to the weekly singles dance on the lowest floor of the Washington Hotel. Girls ringed the walls; a bold Marine O.C. could cruise the ballroom slowly, picking the cutest girl and, if he was really insensitive, firing questions about which had cars and apartments. Back at the base, weekday classes were conducted by decorated officers who spoke lucidly, wittily, and always to the point; a single phrase from one of them was worth more than all of poor Coffey's ramblings. There were courses in mapping, leadership, and tactics. Field exercises included forced marches, perimeter defenses, protection of platoon flanks, and how to deal with such crises as unexpected mortaring. Nobody called you a shithead. Some enlisted men on the streets even sirred you.
It was hell.
Parris Island had been an excursion into an exotic world, tolerable even at its worst because you were all in it together, and you knew that together you would all make it. But an officer candidate at Quantico had few friends. The system set each man against the others. If you could artfully make another man look like a fool, you did it; you were diminishing the competition. Everybody was on the muscle. “Shape up here or ship out” was the slogan heard most often. It meant that if you weren't commissioned here as a second lieutenant, and sent on to advanced training, you would be consigned to the serfdom of an enlisted man. But I liked enlisted men, and I wasn't at all sure that I liked these officers-to-be. I recognized their type. I had known many of them, if distantly, in college. They were upper-middle-class snobs, nakedly ambitious conservative conformists, eager to claw their way to the top. In another ten years their uniforms would be corporate gray-flannel suits. Now they yearned to wear officers' dress greens; some were already learning to fieldstrip Sam Browne belts. The thought that they might fail in their pursuit of gold bars turned them into quivering jelly. It would mean, they thought, that they had disgraced themselves in the eyes of their families and friends.
In this setting I was, if not lost, certainly misplaced. At first my dissidence was not apparent. Merits and demerits were awarded with “good chits” and “bad chits” written up by our officer-instructors and noncom-instructors. These brought elation or despair to aspirants, and — this soon became important — affected the stature of each man in the eyes of other candidates. I began accumulating good chits from the first day. In a week I was my company's “first sergeant”; two weeks after that I became “company commander.” Thus my stock was high when we were confronted by the school's shabbiest custom, known as “fuck-your-buddy night.” Every candidate was required to fill out a form rating his fellows, applying to each the school's ultimate test: “Would you want this man as your kid brother's commanding officer?” At first glance this sounds sensible, but a second thought exposes infamy. The men were rating themselves. They were to be judged as judgers of others. Thus those who had been publicly scorned, derided, and baited by our instructors were doomed. The process was discussed with appalling frankness in the squad bays. If a sergeant-instructor had torn a strip off John Doe, then Doe was clearly incompetent to lead kid brothers. Worst of all, Doe, unaware of the ax suspended over him, was playing the same game, putting Richard Roe at the bottom of his list because a major had chided him for tucking his field scarf into his shirt, a doggie practice and therefore unacceptable in the Marine Corps. Thus men suffered the fate of vultures; when one falls sick, the others eat him.
I remembered Thoreau: “Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion. What a man thinks of himself, that it is which determines … his fate.” My self-esteem could not survive this process. I thought of putting Doe and Roe at the top, but that would have been irresponsible, and I would have failed to make my point. So I turned in a blank form. The captain who commanded our teachers — an Amherst man whom I had met before the war — summoned me for “office hours,” the Marine Corps' equivalent of the navy's “mast,” a disciplining ritual. I was asked for an explanation. I gave it. I was warned that disobedience of orders was a grave offense and then coldly dismissed. Overnight my Niagara of good chits dried up. I was being watched. There was one consolation; I was not alone. A mustang-to-be Marine regular named Lacy, a winner of the Navy Cross, had done the same thing for the same reason. Denying a commission to a hero was unthinkable, however. Denying me one was a real possibility. And presently I made it inevitable.
I had already been measured for my officer's uniforms when I came to grief. At Quantico, unlike Parris Island, there was an undercurrent of malice, almost of sadism, in the discipline imposed by noncommissioned instructors. They knew we were fresh youths, most of whom would soon outrank them, and they can hardly be blamed for getting in a few last licks. But sometimes they went too far. On the last Saturday before commissioning, most candidates had arranged weekends in Washington, phoning parents and girls to meet them in Union Station. The last event before our noon dismissal was a rifle inspection. It was an absurd ritual. The basement of our barracks was equipped with steam hoses, guaranteeing immaculate bores. A lieutenant-instructor went down our ranks, peering at our M1s; he congratulated me on mine, the first good chit I'd had since fuck-your-buddy night. He then departed for his own weekend. But we weren't dismissed. A corporal-instructor reexamined our rifles, told us a third of them were filthy, and canceled our weekend liberty. Instead of enjoying the nation's capital we would clean our rifles properly and then roll up our sleeves for a two-day field day. Catholics would not be permitted to go to confession or attend mass. And phone calls were forbidden, which meant that the girls and parents in Union Station would mill around in confusion and anxiety.
Something snapped within me. I had no plans for the weekend; having been thwarted in my inept search for a pushover, even in the hotel ballroom where the odds were six-to-one in my favor, I had decided to stay on the base. But I considered the corporal's order an atrocity. It was like turning over a smooth rock and seeing a leggedy thing scuttle away into darkness. I decided to make what would now be called a nonviolent protest. The corporal found me sitting on my bunk, childishly pouting, staring mulishly at nothing, my rifle across my knees. “Why aren't you cleaning your weapon?” he asked. “Because it's already clean,” I said. “Says who?” said he. “The lieutenant,” said I. The fact that this was true did not diminish my insubordination. The subsequent proceedings could end only in my dismissal. I knew that. But even when Lacy begged me to go through the motions of obedience for my own sake — not to mention the sake of those who, having rated me high on their fuck-your-buddy sheets, were afraid their judgment would be questioned — I refused.
Thus I was hailed before a hastily assembled court-martial Monday morning. I still wouldn't budge. I told the kindly, troubled lieutenant colonel who presided over the court that I had joined the Marines to fight, not to kiss asses and wade through the very sort of chickenshit we were supposed to be warring against. That, I'm afraid, is exactly how I put it. I made but one request: I asked to be sent to my father's regiment, the Fifth Marines. That was denied me. I was warranted as a corporal, to be jumped to sergeant when I reached my new post in Tent City, New River, North Carolina, where new battalions were forming for imminent transport overseas. Thus I departed Virginia, an immature knight in tin armor. The rheostat was turned down several notches. But I still had my petty pride, not to mention the fact that I now outranked my father.
It was in North Carolina's Tent City that Marine General Alexander A. Vandegrift had assembled the men whom he was to lead on Guadalcanal. Samuel B. Griffith, my old commanding officer, recalls: “Headquarters Marine Corps now began pumping personnel into New River to bring Vandegrift's command to war strength; odd lots arrived almost daily. They were a motley bunch. Hundreds were young recruits only recently out of boot camp at Parris Island. Others were older. … These were the professionals, the ‘Old Breed’ of United States Marines. Many had fought ‘Cacos’ in Haiti, ‘banditos’ in Nicaragua, and French, English, Italian, and American soldiers in bars from Shanghai, Manila, Tsingtao, Tientsin, and Peking. They were inveterate gamblers and accomplished scroungers, who drank hair tonic in preference to post exchange beer (‘horse piss’), cursed with wonderful fluency, and never went to chapel (‘the God-box’). … They knew they were tough and they knew they were good. There were enough of them to leaven the Division and to impart to the thousands of younger men a share of both the unique spirit which animated them and the skills they possessed.”
I remember one of them, Master Gunnery Sergeant Lou Diamond, as a rumpled old man in soiled dungarees, with an untidy goatee and a pronounced starboard list when he was drunk, which was often. In Tent City he looked like a bum; he reminded me of some cynical old chimpanzee who goes through the motions for the sake of the bananas. But the scatological excesses of a Genet tell us more about a man's fiber than the closely reasoned insights of a Gide. If there had been such a thing as a black belt for mortarmen, Lou Diamond would have won it. On Guadalcanal his accuracy with his 81-millimeter piece was extraordinary. There was a myth that he had sunk a Japanese destroyer by manipulating increments and lobbing a mortar shell down its stack — apocryphal, but the very fact that it was widely believed suggests Lou's immense reputation.
My own reputation was quite different. I became what was called an “intelligence man.” In World War II our Table of Organization (TO) provided that the Headquarters Company of each Marine Corps line battalion include a curious unit called an “intelligence section.” I was informed that I would lead such a section in my battalion. The unit's duties were defined as “scouting, mapping, interrogation of prisoners, and other normal duties of the intelligence section.” Mapping in the middle of battle? Questioning POWs whose language we didn't speak? And what were “other normal duties”? I was told that we were to estimate enemy strength on the battalion's front, to identify enemy units by the flashes on the tunics of their dead, to patrol deep behind enemy lines, to advise our junior officers who were having trouble reading maps, and to carry messages to company commanders whose field radios — SCR-536s and SCR-300s — were out of order.
Only the last three of these — patrolling, reading maps, and carrying messages — proved to be practical. No Marine in the middle of a firefight, however clever he may have been, knew any more about the foe than the rifleman in the next foxhole. Even then the Marine Corps seemed to sense this, for we were being taught other roles: wiring, mortaring, replacing fallen men in our battalion's three companies — D (Dog), E (Easy), and F (Fox). Our section had the additional, grim responsibility of clipping dog tags from the necks of Marines killed in action. To allow for this, five men were added. At times I had as many as nineteen lads on our roster. We called ourselves “the Raggedy Ass Marines.” The rest of the battalion called us “the bandits.” Whatever the name, I was this odd lot's honcho.
We were in fact very odd. Most of us were military misfits, college students who had enlisted in a fever of patriotism and been rejected as officer candidates because, for various reasons, we either despised the OCS system openly or did not conform to the established concept of how officers should look, speak, and act. For example, Chet Przyastawaki, who had been a running back for Colgate, had a build like Charles Atlas but the voice of a Wagnerian soprano; if he shouted the effect was that of Kirsten Flagstad screaming. Beau Tatum of the University of Virginia had no sense of direction. At Quantico he not only flunked map reading; he repeatedly led patrols into Virginia swamps never penetrated before.
Many, like Przyastawaki, lacked command presence. There was always something lacking the Marine Corps wanted and they didn't have. Rip Thorpe came from Fordham; he had been on the first-string basketball varsity. He would have made a far better section leader than I did, and in fact I went to our battalion officer and told him so. The lieutenant threw me out of his tent. Rip, it developed, had a very black mark beside his name. He thought military traditions, close-order drill, and the rest of it, absolutely ridiculous. So he laughed at them. Not only that; he actually sought out solemn occasions for their comic relief. Let one sergeant of the guard be formally relieved by another and here came Thorpe, roaring up through a cloud of whaleshit, grinning from ear to ear. He was, in a word, a menace to established customs.
So it was with all of us. Bubba Yates of Ole 'Bama, whose accent was clotted with moonlight and magnolias, was walleyed. Dusty Rhodes of Yale was painfully shy; if summoned for any reason, he blushed to the roots of his silky black hair. Barney Cobb of Brown had been insubordinate, like me, and suffered the added stigma of openly admiring Japanese culture. Lefty Zepp was the son of a Louisville physician and had himself been a Harvard premed. He wore his father's .38 Smith and Wesson suspended from his web belt and a fancy pair of custom-made boondockers, and he carried an ivory swagger stick and expensive binoculars. Enlisted men often saluted him. He returned the salutes crisply but said nothing. Like Przyastawaki he had a treacherous voice. It had been arrested in midpuberty, trapped in a sad croak. He sounded like Mickey Rooney playing Andy Hardy; some of the machine gunners began calling him “Andy,” but he was still Lefty to us. Probably the brightest of us was an MIT physicist named Wally Moon, a pallid lad with a face like a bleached mole. Wally suffered from exophthalmia, protruding eyeballs, and in addition he wore hornrimmed glasses that gave him a look of perpetual surprise. He was built close to the ground, like a cabbage — had, in fact, the lowest center of gravity of anyone I've ever seen — and with that and his vision, Quantico had tossed him out. Yet he was the only man I've known who could do the New York Times crossword puzzle in ink. The other collegians were equally unusual. Among them was a hypnotist, a midget who had somehow evaded the height requirement at a recruiting depot, and a man with Saint Vitus's dance, or something very like it — grotesque facial tics which, when he was excited, would pursue each other across his features like snipe. Inevitably he was christened “Whipeye,” though I tried to see to it that no one in the section called him that to his face, and eventually it was changed to “Blinker.” Yet surely that would not have disabled him in combat. Indeed, the only ex-student whose OCS dismissal made sense to me was Shiloh Davidson III, a sly, vulpine Princetonian who was absolutely untrustworthy. Davidson never forgave the Marine Corps for not commissioning him. He nursed an almost pathological hatred of all officers. He was just waiting to give it malevolent expression. Sooner or later his time would come, but I could think of no way to anticipate it.
The rest of my people had never seen a campus but had scored very high on the Corps' aptitude tests. Izzy Levy was from Chicago. He had been a stock boy in a factory; he had told the Walking John that he was a salesman because that, to his knowledge, was the civilian job with the most status. He could, when he chose, look like a half-wit. Yet the tests revealed him as a genius. I have never met anyone else who could add a column of four-digit figures from the left. My most supportive lad in those early days was the huskiest and, we all thought then, the most honest man in the section. Although we did not know it, in civilian life Whitey Dumas had been a confidence man. Jailed in Portsmouth on charges of impersonating an officer, he had talked his way out by telling the warden that he could read and speak fluent Japanese. He could do neither, but the lie was so enormous that no one challenged it, and Whitey, knowing that the chances of his encountering a genuine Japanese were minimal, invented a language which looked like, and sounded like, the real article. Our colonel was proud to have an interpreter in the regiment. He ordered Whitey to give Japanese lessons to officers and senior NCOs every day. Whitey did it convincingly, with a blackboard and chalk. I still remember his Jap equivalent for “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?” It was “Naka-naka eeda koodasai?” It is meaningless, but we all committed it to memory. His hoax went unsuspected until the last months of the war, when, impersonating an officer once more, he was unmasked by a captain, a graduate of one of the Japanese language schools that had been set up after Pearl Harbor and were finally — too late — bearing fruit.
All that lay ahead as we trained in North Carolina, where already there was a widespread awareness in the battalion that the Raggedy Asses were unsuitably bookish, slack on the drill field, and generally beneath the fastidious stateside standards established in the Corps' 169-year history. If there had been such a thing as a military quotient, the spit-and-polish equivalent of an intelligence quotient, our MQ would have been pegged at about 78. It is fair to add that this rating would have been confined to our parade-ground performance. We were regarded as good combat prospects. All of us, I believe, had qualified as sharpshooters, and one other, like me, was an expert rifleman. It was thought (and, as it proved, correctly thought) that we would be useful in battle. Our problem, or rather the problem of our leaders, was that we lacked what the British called Quetta manners. We weren't properly starched and blancoed, weren't martially prepossessing — weren't, in a word, good for the regiment's image.
We were rarely given liberty, because the skipper was ashamed to let civilians see us wearing the Corps uniform. We looked like a slack-wire, baggy-pants act out of a third-rate circus. Shirttails out, buttons missing, fore-and-aft (overseas) caps down around our ears — these were signs that we had lost our initial enthusiasm for being crack troops, either in OCS or on bases elsewhere, and were playing our roles of incorrigible eccentrics to the hilt. We looked like caricatures in the Leatherneck, the Marine Corps equivalent of Yank, and the only reasons our betters allowed us to stay together, setting a bad example for one another and damaging battalion élan, were our scores on intelligence tests and our special training. Between our arrival in New River and our assignment to Tent City, we had all attended something called intelligence school. It was largely a repetition of Quantico classes. Theoretically we emerged from the school as experts in identifying enemy units, recognizing the silhouettes of enemy planes (Japanese and German; we still didn't know where we were going), reconnoitering behind enemy lines, and so on. It was all very vague. In Tent City we carried out exhausting exercises in the Carolina boondocks, inflating black rubber boats and silently guiding them toward beaches, carrying out simulated missions at night, and becoming snarled in bales of communications wire.
I remember one gigantic ball of wire, about fifteen feet in diameter. The lieutenant commanding the communications platoon, also a part of Headquarters Company, came over and stared at it in utter amazement. He had been an AT&T executive in civilian life, and he told me in an almost reverential voice that never, not even when serving as an adviser to one of Central America's banana republics, had he ever seen such an inextricable tangle. “It would take twenty years for a man to straighten that out,” he said. “Let me get my camera.” He sent the developed prints back to his company's New York office, where, he later told me, they were dismissed as fakes. That was one of our minor disasters. Whenever it was Beau Tatum's turn to keep the map, we were an even greater trial. Our patrols would disappear into the piney woods, subsisting there on K and C rations, utterly lost, until we were found thrashing around in the bush and led back by a rescue party from the battalion's 81-millimeter mortar platoon, our long-suffering neighbors in Tent City.
This sounds, I know, like an American version of Jaraslov Hasek's Good Soldier Schweik. It wasn't, really. In our own odd way, we loved the Marine Corps; it was the emperor's clothes, not the emperor himself, that we ridiculed. At the time we thought of this training period as a waste of time. Actually, it was a useful shakedown cruise. Like couples in forced marriages, we were compelled to explore one another's traits. On the whole we liked what we found. Discovering common tastes, our morale rose. Part of the section formed a quintet, built around Przyastawaki; they sang songs like “Moonlight Bay,” “The Old Apple Tree,” “Someone to Watch Over Me,” and “Let the Rest of the World Go By.” Another part, with some overlapping from the singers, played hearts night and day. (Barney, Zepp, and I, intellectual snobs, played chess.) We developed an affected jargon; we said, not “shit,” but “fecal matter from a desiccated yak.” Because, despite the TO, we were after all just heavily laden infantrymen, we groaned, “My aching back,” or, simply, “My back.” Not long before we boarded troop trains for the West Coast, we were all offered seventy-two-hour passes. There would be no second chance, we were warned, but I nevertheless declined, believing my case for leave later would be stronger without it; I was hoping for a few days with my mother and didn't want to jeopardize that. Most of the others took off for New York in an incredible automobile they had bought for twenty-five dollars. It broke down repeatedly on both the trip up and the return — they had just five hours in Manhattan — but afterward it sounded like so much fun that I wished I'd gone.
Meanwhile I was trying to learn to be a leader. It would never be easy for me. I felt bogus. But by giving my people a free rein, and arguing their cases with the skipper and staff NCOs, I was slowly building a reservoir of goodwill. During our North Carolina weeks I had just two problems: Hunky O'Banion and Shiloh Davidson. Hunky thought I was soft. He was a born griper. He was a born griper. He was forever threatening to write his congressman, whose name, unfortunately, he didn't know. Though he was naturally bright, his values were those of the Philadelphia slum in which he had grown up. He expected an iron hand; when I refused to flex one, he kept trying to incite me. Since I knew he had been a Golden Gloves boxer, I was wary of him. I sought appeasement. It didn't work; soon he was taunting me openly, calling me “Priscilla.” The others were enjoying the spectacle, so finally, reluctantly, I invited him to join me in the boondocks. He knocked me down. I rose and he knocked me down again. And again. And again. My nose felt dented and my mouth was full of blood, but with the help of a nearby sapling I labored back upright each time. In the beginning Hunky enjoyed himself, but then it became too easy. After I had been flattened five times, he muttered, “Ah, screw it,” and strode back to camp. I cannot say I gained anything from this one-sided bout, but clearly he had lost something. He started showing up in sick bay each morning, complaining of a strained sacroiliac. Back problems were known as the surest way to a survey; they always puzzled physicians. (Later, whenever we were headed for combat, Whitey Dumas, the con man, would moan and wiggle his shoulder muscles until the sighing corpsman sent him to a base hospital.) So Hunky returned to Philadelphia, to the vast relief of one scrawny sergeant of Marines.
Shiloh Davidson was another matter. He was, and plainly considered himself to be, at the opposite end of the social spectrum from Hunky, though Hunky was too isolated in his own cultural cage to be touched by Shiloh's snubs. The Davidsons were in the Social Register, member of the New York Yacht Club, and given to annual tours of Europe. Shiloh had nothing against me, provided I didn't throw my genealogy at him, but his feelings toward officers continued to border on the homicidal. One day he was routinely assigned to police duty in Officers' Country. This entailed picking up debris, squaring away tents, cleaning up the head, and filling the lister bag. At some point that day he was struck by a mad flash of inspiration. Since officers regarded enlisted men as numbskulls, he reasoned, he would offer them proof of it. Water and gasoline were kept in almost identical green five-gallon “jerry-cans,” distinguished by the color of the X's on the outside, white for water and yellow for gasoline. The lister bag was empty, so Shiloh filled it — with gas. A first lieutenant, returning parched from a training patrol, filled his canteen cup, swallowed once, and spluttered fuel all over himself. The strange thing is that Davidson's assumption was proved right. No one reproached him except me; for the first time in my life I threatened another man and meant it. Lieutenant Colonel Krank, very upset, vented his wrath on the innocent platoon leader. The lieutenant was declared a fire hazard, confined to his tent for three days, forbidden visitors, and ordered to give up cigarettes for a week. The poor victim was a chain-smoker. I thought he, at least, might give me a hard time. He never mentioned it to me. Nobody expected much from the Raggedy Ass Marines then.
Our regimental commander, Colonel Horace F. Hastings, USMC, a.k.a. the Old Turk, was the kind of colorful hard-charger that the Marine Corps has always valued highly. The years had shrunk his slabs of muscle to gristle, and he had a grooved, wind-bitten face with wattles that turned crimson when he was enraged, which was often. I remember his brooding eyes, corded neck, sinewy hands, veined nose, the touch of crimson at his temples, and the way his lips nibbled at each other, like those of a nervous horse. It was reported that he was a native of Vulture's Gulch, Arizona, a community which, I later discovered, does not exist. If the town was bogus, so, in part, was he. Our colonel, though doubtless brave, was not very bright. Inside his second-rate mind, one felt, a third-rate mind was struggling toward the surface. But on one point officers, NCOs, and privates were in full agreement: he was a terrific swordsman. The evening before we sailed for the Solomons I saw him surrounded by young women in the lobby of San Diego's U. S. Grant Hotel, wearing dress blues and all his decorations, striking the lordly pose of a czar carefully choosing tonight's bedmate. (Recently I learned he is living in London, an octogenarian pleasuring English girls who hadn't been born when we fought under him.) In the field he adopted a piratical stance, wearing a bleached khaki fore-and-aft cap pushed rakishly to the back of his head, his hands on his lithe hips, his chin tilted up aggressively. He looked every inch the gifted commander. Alas, he wasn't. He was relieved in the middle of his first battle for incompetence.
He was the most redundant man I have ever known, forever saying things like “Eat lots of food and plenty of it,” “Here in Dixie we're in the Deep South,” and “Keep fit and healthy.” In San Diego he announced: “We're going to sail tomorrow aboard ship.” Our elusive Japanese language interpreter would, he told me, meet officer and senior noncoms on the General C. G. Morton's “fantail, in the stern.” On Guadalcanal he predicted: “Sunrise will come at dawn.”
The Marine Corps was his whole life. The Corps birthday is November 10. On such occasions, even when in the jungle, he would wear all his medals — not just the ribbons, but the actual medals — and preside over an officers' banquet. The high moment was always his toast to the Corps, during which he recited all Corps victories, including, erroneously, Bull Run, where leathernecks broke and ran. (Most of their officers had defected to the Confederate Marine Corps.) The United States went unmentioned, and though the regimental colors were there, the Stars and Stripes was conspicuously absent.
The Old Turk had had a strange career. Bit by bit we pieced it together from Old Salts, thirty-year men who had fought with him in World War I. Hastings was a mustang. In 1918 he had been a First Soldier, a Topkick. At the height of the Saint-Mihiel offensive he had misunderstood an order; the word was passed to fall back, but he thought it meant the opposite. So while the others withdrew — he thought they were bolting — Hastings plunged ahead. As it happened, the Germans had just decided to retreat. So he seemed to have taken the position single-handed. He won a Navy Cross and put up second-lieutenant bars. Between wars he picked up a Silver Star and two Purple Hearts in the banana republics. Until he was appointed our commanding officer, he had never led a large body of troops. Indeed, his most notable professional accomplishment was the invention of a device designed to catch insects.
A wit in the Third Battalion spread the rumor that Hastings's middle initial stood for “Flytrap.” Truth is often veiled in myth, and so it was here. Bedeviled by bugs in his Caribbean campaigns, he had devised a complicated cage, with many tunnels, chambers, and mazes, which, he believed, would ensnare flies faster than the stickiest flypaper. The result was a celebrated field manual. Featuring detailed drawings and precise instructions (“… the prey form a cone of dispersion, a beaten zone, with the slope of Plane ‘A’ determining the approximate curve of the trajectories …”), it was adopted by the Navy Department as the “m1-a1 Flytrap.” All the information necessary to put the contraption together was in the manual, but until he became our leader, neither the inventor nor anyone else had actually built one. Now he ordered it done. Our company constructed a snare, faithfully following the directions, and we were told that the colonel would inspect it at 0900 the following Saturday to count the number of flies ambushed. A day passed, then another. The trap was empty. The regiment confronted its first crisis. If we stayed on course, Saturday would bring catastrophe. It would be as though Odysseus, having said his farewells before leaving for a historic journey, went down to the sea only to find that the boat had left without him. Foreseeing this, Hastings's executive officer grimly ordered that enlisted personnel capture ten flies each and put them in the trap. Mike Powers gave me this appalling directive and threatened to strangle me when I asked for it in writing. I told the section to think of it as a challenge. It was; we barely beat the Saturday deadline, but we did make it. The colonel was obviously pleased. Heartened, he told the exec that if that many bugs could be enmeshed by a trap with one opening, why not catch twice as many with two openings? The exec — for the first, and to my knowledge, the only, time — made a genuine contribution to the war effort. If there were two entries, he discreetly suggested, the quarry could fly in one and out the other. Hastings pondered this. At last he said it was a good idea with lots of merit. A week later the trap was quietly dismantled.
Except for his dismissal — I was present when he was fired, and was embarrassed by his humiliation — that was my worst experience under the colonel. It was not, however, the worst for certain collegiate ex-jocks. Athletes tended to join the Marine Corps; their values and skills were appreciated there. One morning Hastings and Colonel Branch Packard, commander of the Fourth Marines, discovered that each could form a complete all-American football team from the men on his roster. Born competitors, they decided to have a football game. The fact that the temperature was 103 degrees in the shade didn't discourage them. Neither did the absence of a field; that was what enlisted men were for. So we cleared a more or less level area 120 yards long and 60 yards wide. Goalposts were erected. Then we tried to remove all the stones, an insuperable task. The players, most of them junior officers, had suggested they play touch, but both colonels indignantly rejected the idea; Marines wouldn't settle for sissy stuff. The day of the big game dawned hot and muggy. A little podium had been erected at the fifty-yard line, protected from the sun by a huge green parasol. There the two regimental commanders stood erect, like sahibs at a durbar, while the sweating, gasping jocks, wearing only camouflaged skivvy shorts, toiled and grunted. Most of the rest of us encircled the field, cheering mechanically, though I left in disgust after the first few plays. Later I learned that the navy doctors, alarmed at the incidence of heat prostration on the field, had demanded that the contest end after the first quarter. It was a scoreless tie.
Nevertheless, the notion that good athletes make good fighters persisted. Had our leaders paid closer attention, they would have found that ectomorphs and endomorphs fight just as well on the battlefield as mesomorphs. Whatever Wellington said about Waterloo being won on the playing fields of Eton, it didn't apply in the Pacific. The war against Japan was won by the muscular, the skinny, the fat, the long, the short, and the tall. It was won in the gut.
Once we boarded our troop train for California, I knew my expectations of fighting the Nazis were a pipe dream. Now I would have to learn to hate the Japanese, a people whom at the moment I hated less than, say, I hated the troop train. We slept there in built-in tiers of bunks, like those in SS concentration camps, and we all swore that no one could be confined in closer quarters and survive. (We were wrong. Troop transports — APAs — followed the same principle and were even more cramped.) Like Lenin in his sealed train we rolled swiftly and unheralded across the Deep South, Arkansas, Oklahoma, the Texas panhandle, New Mexico, Arizona, and, finally, California, where we bivouacked under canvas in Linda Vista, a few miles north of San Diego. The First Marine Division had sailed for Guadalcanal from San Francisco, Norfolk, and New Orleans, but our port of embarkation would be Dago. This was my introduction to southern California, and my first impression was that it was wonderful. At dawn we would rise in a gentle mist, which would burn off by midmorning. The rest of the day was fresh, sunny, and glorious. The harbor was sapphire blue, the shore rocks emerald. At dusk ribbons of purple streaked the hills inland, the western sky reddened, and the sun's drop was spectacular. Most evenings we had liberty in Dago. Nights we slept beneath blankets.
Recently — some thirty-five summers later — I returned to San Diego. Everyone had told me I wouldn't recognize it, but I did. The smog was new, and Linda Vista had vanished beneath weeds and new construction, but the part of the city I knew best was still familiar. The Grant Hotel, though seedy and dwarfed by the gleaming Little Americana Westgate Hotel across the street, looks as it did from the outside, which is mostly how I saw it then. The uniform store still stands on Broadway, four blocks from the waterfront, though it now provides uniforms for nurses, chauffeurs, doormen, orderlies, elevator operators, and policemen. Balboa Park is largely unchanged. A short walk from there takes you to the enormous Marine Corps parade ground, where with a little tug you watch field-hatted DIs chewing out trembling boots. Across the water an immense aircraft carrier looms grayly. The gaping docks at the foot of Broadway are unused, but if you close your eyes you can recall boarding an APA wearing a field marching pack, your seabag on your shoulder, saluting the ensign on the fantail even though you couldn't see him. And a brief stroll from the transport bays takes you to the railroad station, where I — or, more correctly, Barney — met my mother.
This was a terrible time for her. She had already lost her husband; my baby brother and I were all she had. To support herself, she had taken a secretarial job at the Federal Reserve Bank in Oklahoma City. We had both assumed I would have at least a few days' leave before sailing. As it turned out, the only way she could say goodbye to me was to come to Dago. That day, for unexplained reasons, all liberty was canceled, so I went over the hill, climbing a wire fence. Barney went with me. By now we were skilled in the arts of evasion; we could almost enter a phone booth and leave by a side door. And we were deft improvisers. We didn't know whether my mother would be arriving by train or by bus — actually she was aboard a train, standing up for most of the thirty-six-hour trip — so he covered one depot while I covered the other. We met every batch of arrivals for twelve hours. Then he found her, and I embraced her and took her to the Grant, where I had hired a room. The manager intercepted us outside the elevators. She has always looked much younger than she is. He misunderstood our relationship, and I was about to fly at him when he recoiled, hopping, and apologized.
We ate at a little red waterfront sandwich shop, strolled around the square outside the hotel, and returned to her room. For the first time since leaving for Parris Island I could take a real bath; like Blanche DuBois, in my youth I felt deprived without frequent soaks in a hot tub. And then the two of us talked hour after hour. The mother-child dyad is central to any man's development, and this was especially true of me, for I had always been more anima than animus, more “feminine” in the Jungian sense — sensitive, poetic, creative, warm — than “masculine”: direct, orderly, logical, assertive. I had begun to change since putting on a uniform, but my mother was still the sun around whom I orbited. We reminisced about my childhood, about nursery stories from those days, even sang some nursery songs. We didn't talk much about my father. That wound was too recent even to have begun healing. Later I remembered those hours of tender talk when I read why MacArthur, in writing postwar Japan's constitution, gave Nipponese women the vote. It was, he said, the most effective way of curbing samurai militarism. Men make war, he told his staff. Women hate it. Certainly my mother did, and no one had better reason. This frail, loving woman, incapable of hurting a soul, had been raised by the fierce Confederate Valkyries and shattered by the death of the war-crippled man she loved. Now she had to see her son off to even more terrible fighting.
She gave me a watch, which miraculously survived the war and still keeps good time. Then she rode down to the lobby with me and we embraced. Outside on Broadway I looked back through a window. She was still where I had left her, standing alone, crying. Our eyes locked. I turned away, my eyes also damp. In many ways I was still a boy.
But I wanted to be a man, and an essential step in the process —one my mother wouldn't have understood — was the forfeiture of my own virginity. To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven; a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to kill, and a time to heal. There is also a time to get laid, and I was due. We weren't going to be stateside much longer — there was ominous activity around the APAs by the docks — but my prospects for strange purple sins were improving. I was surer of myself, readier to take charge; being a sergeant had done that for me, too. And I had a couple of good leads. The best one came from an unlikely source, a fellow sergeant named Bareass Miller. Even by Marine Corps standards, Miller was crude. If he felt horny and no relief was in sight, he said, he would “walk into a crowd of women, pull out my cock, and burst out crying.” That hadn't been necessary here, he said, because a girl named Taffy Meredith, from his Midwest hometown, was working for the government in a town south of Dago. She had lined up a bombshell for him. He had screwed Taffy herself before enlisting. “She puts out,” he said, “and she's classy.” Her father was a judge. She had been a coed at Michigan State; now she had a defense job. She thought it patriotic. Besides, all the boys had left the campus. Bareass had told her he'd try to find someone suitable for her here. “Lovely tail, more your type than mine,” he said. He'd phone her, tell her I was collegiate, and set up a tryst.
We met in the San Diego Zoo. The lioness was pissing at the time. There I was, as agreed, and just as I heard a feminine rustle approach, this coarse beast ejected a stream of urine like water from a garden hose. I stared at it, enthralled and blushing, wondering darkly whether Bareass could have arranged this — it would have been just like him. Then I heard the girl giggling. She touched my sleeve and said softly, “Slim?” The lioness finished and I turned, doffing my barracks cap and saying, “Taffy?” Neither of us spoke for a long moment. She was giving my fraternity ring a sidelong glance, and I was speechless. In a lifetime a man may encounter three or four young women with such extraordinary figures, and hers was my first. But there was more to her than that, an indefinable air of breeding. Bareass was right; Taffy had class. Her upper lip was long and aristocratic; her neck high; her smallest movements dainty; her spill of hair just the right shade of light auburn. Altogether she was beautiful in a hieratic, mystic way. Her dress was designed along classic Greek lines: white matte silk crossed cleverly at her throat and then fell away in liquid folds. Her arms were bare. Earrings were her only jewelry. On my initiative — I think it was mine; in our generation a girl like that always made you believe it was yours — we impulsively held both hands, face to face, and rocked back on our heels like a couple in a square dance, appraising each other in a growing silence. At that time less than I percent of the population had a college background — a tenth of today's. We paired off, speaking almost simultaneously: Michigan State and Massachusetts State, Chi Omega and Lambda Chi, varsity swimmer and cheerleader. Simultaneously we both burst into laughter, as though we had heard a marvelous intramural joke. In less than a minute we found that back east we had three mutual friends, and in another minute, still laughing but holding just one hand now, her right and my left, we were frolicking through Balboa Park naturally and easily and, we thought, as gracefully as Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, pausing to sing the old songs, so recently heard on campuses across America but already dated:
We'll build a bungalow big enough for two,
Big enough for two my honey, big enough for two,
Please do to me what you did to Marie
Last Saturday night, Saturday night,
First you caressed her, then you undressed her …
And words which still haunt me, though my college students today tell me they are sexist:
A man without a woman is like a ship without a sail,
Is like a boat without a rudder, is like a kite without a tail …
On a park bench she raised her hands to her hair, and the movement did something for her. I asked her about her work, and we were howling before she could finish: “… in the data-analysis group of the aptitude-test subunit of the worker-analysis section of the division of occupational analysis and manning tables of the bureau of labor utilization of the War Manpower …” We dried our eyes after that one, and she said seriously that she had heard scuttlebutt about the Women Marines. She intended to join up. Later I heard more about these female leathernecks. The men in the Corps called them “BAMs,” for “broad-assed Marines,” and they called the men “HAMs,” for “hairy-assed Marines.” Men like Bareass enjoyed such exchanges, but whatever Taffy and I were, we weren't vulgar. I know what we thought we were. We thought we were in love. Already on the bench, once the giggling stopped, we were caressing each other, our bodies arching, yearning for each other. It seemed remarkable at the time, but of course it wasn't. In peacetime we wouldn't have reached this point until the eighth or ninth date, but the clock and the calendar were moving relentlessly, and it seemed a millennium since either of us had met someone from the same background.
In my next incarnation I may choose not to fall in love in wartime, not unless I am at least a major and can afford a room of my own. Taffy and I had literally nowhere to go. Already other couples were passing slowly, eyeing the bench. We parted then, but the next night I took her to a movie, Mrs. Miniver, during which I established that Taffy had an active tongue, wore Munsingwear, and responded to my restless foreplay with the normal prickling of erectile tissues, labial weights, and thickenings. As the last reel spun she explored me. I was fully tumescent. My fingers entered her — two of them, then three, then four. She whispered: “Girls are sort of elastic.”
All this was wrong, and I think it was jarring for both of us. Such a poem of a girl deserved to be wooed by candlelight, with gentle reassurances and Debussy in the background. At the very least I should have given her a whirlwind courtship, with gifts and flowers and, above all, a mattress. We were not this kind of people. But they were that kind of times. And I had to keep glancing furtively at my watch. I was due back at Linda Vista in a half hour. Payday was two days away, and I wanted to reach an understanding now. After the show, in a rundown diner which advertised “Scotch-type” whiskey and “hamburger-type” meat — one of those places with two price lists, servicemen paying more — I took my courage á deux mains and made a puerile remark, one I'd been rehearsing during the movie, about the taste of the original apple remaining in our mouths. Again she made it easy for me. She eyed me, then dropped her eyes, sighed, and said, “I guess I'm kind of roundheeled.” I looked blank. The expression was new to me. So she said, “You know — a pushover. Miller probably told you. I've been naughty, really bad, a couple of times. I was nervous about this blind date.” She took my hand and looked up again. “But now I'd like to be with you if you want.”
In those days hotel clerks gave couples a hard time if the woman wasn't wearing a wedding ring. She said she could borrow one. I stammered something about reserving a room at the Grant right now, and after a telephone call there, we were all set for Saturday night. There was a bad moment when I came out of the phone booth. She was nursing her elbows. She bowed her head and mumbled, “I feel dirty.” But when I kissed her she kissed back, hard. I was elated. I knew Powers would cover for me. We would have the whole night. As we parted her eyes widened, then looked heavy. Her mouth softened. Her lips silently said, “Slim.” She rose and left, her walk slow and swaying.
Back at the camp, in the NCO slopchute, Bareass leered and demanded, within hearing of a half-dozen other sergeants, a full report on my patrol. I was angry, which was unreasonable of me. He, after all, had made my assignation possible. And although I was trying to keep my romantic feelings on a lofty plane, on another level they were quite primitive, even exploitive. Part of me wanted to tumble the girl out of sheer lewdness and male vanity. I wanted to be in like Flynn. Try as I might to suppress it, a crude tabloid headline kept flashing across my mind: manchester gets ashes hauled / puts blocks to knockout coed. I wanted to take out bragging ads, rent billboards, buy air time to announce that I had hit the mother lode.
Nevertheless there was more to our relationship than that. I believed that I had adored her at first sight, that I wanted more than carnal knowledge of her. I felt sure that each of us could live joyously in the other. Subconsciously, I suppose, I wanted to leave my seed in her before sailing. Subconsciously, perhaps, she wanted to receive it. Our time together had been cruelly brief — though thousands of others had made wartime marriages after a few hours' acquaintance — but already I had an idealized image of her, and I believed that was true of her image of me, too. I had to be tender with her, and selfless. Coupling would mean more to her than it meant to, say, the lioness. I was right. To my everlasting sorrow, I was right.
Paydays were erratic in the Marine Corps, but liturgical. The paymaster sat behind a little desk in the company compound, and we formed a line in front of him. I thought he would never get to me. I was at the end of the line; I had been packing my gear. Taffy and I were to meet three hours later, outside the uniform shop, as soon as she could leave work and take the Ramona bus to Dago. Actually I had no idea how much dough I would get. My sergeant's pay was seventy-eight dollars a month, but because the paymaster's visits were irregular, and there were deductions for war bonds, I had never given cash much thought. I only knew that since my mother's visit I had been stone broke; I'd had to borrow to take Taffy to the pictures. Had I been better informed, I might have anticipated the monstrous injustice which was about to be visited upon me. It happened, from time to time, that the Marine Corps would discover that it had been systematically overpaying a man. In that event, the account would be squared on the next payday. The paymaster patiently explained this to me as I stood, baffled and then apprehensive, before him. At last I said, “How much do I get?” Wordlessly he slapped a quarter on the desk. “That's all?” I cried. He nodded. And I knew that there was no appealing a paymaster's decision.
Frantically I ran around the camp, trying to lay the sleeve on friends. All the Raggedy Ass Marines were gone. There was Bareass, but he and his girl had a date at the Grant, too. In his tactful way he suggested I take it up with the chaplain. So I was left with an erection and two bits. Twenty-five cents bought exactly three minutes of conversation between Linda Vista and Ramona. I called Taffy, but it was impossible to explain such a situation to a girl, any girl, in three minutes. She was at first startled, then subdued — her voice so low that I could hardly hear her. I promised to get the money together somehow. Would she meet me outside the uniform store next Saturday? She mumbled; I didn't understand her and said so, and she said in a slightly higher register, “No, Sunday. At the zoo, where we were.” I was about to tell her I would change the reservation at the Grant, but then my time was up. The line went dead.
During the next week I raised every nickel I could. I borrowed shamelessly from the Raggedy Asses when they returned from liberty that night. I would have robbed a bank if I had known where one was. Altogether I amassed over a hundred dollars, enough to rent the hotel's honeymoon suite. In the zoo I waited a long, long time. Darkness was coming down upon the park when she arrived in a dull frock, with a haggard, heartbreak look and eyes which avoided mine. She wore no ring. I studied the dress. “Did you molt?” I asked with hollow cheeriness. Then I tried to take her in my arms. She turned her cheek and let me peck it. She was standing stiffly, her elbows at her sides, clasping her purse as though she were afraid someone might snatch it. Someone did; I did. Again I tried to embrace her. She folded her arms high over her shoulders and pivoted away in that way girls did then when they were embarrassed, or caught off balance. “Let's sit on the bench,” she said. The weight of unshed tears hung in her voice. Feigning confidence, I told her I had made another reservation at the Grant and felt stunned when she shook her head decisively. We really didn't know each other, she said; we had been crazy to think of such a thing; she wasn't that kind of a girl; she didn't want her name to become a barracks joke. The words made no sense, but the bleak, funereal music was clear. She had been ready the other day, but she wasn't now. The wine had passed its point. She finally said that we mustn't see each other again.
Stricken, I just sat there, 140 pounds of bone, gristle, and dismay. I felt a gray, hopeless lassitude. Looking back across the years, I yearn to tell the Sergeant: Play for time, you jerk. Take her to another movie; get back on the campus track; let her laugh and warm up and then take her; she'll want you then. Instead I idiotically hummed a few bars of “Something to Remember You By,” the broadest possible hint at the memorable something I wanted from her. She retrieved her purse and took a tighter grip on it. Fighting the pain in my chest, I looked over her shoulder at the night sky. A roving moon sailed through a white corridor of cloud; then a wind vexed the sky and stars were visible through rags of clouds. Taffy fell silent. I glanced down. A moonbeam rested on a long diagonal across her face, from eyes to lips. She had nothing more to say; neither did I. We left the park holding hands once more, but now as children walk hand in hand from a playground that has been closed, this one, for us, having just been closed forever. At the time I invested the scene with the dimensions of tragedy, silver rain slanting on cruel lilacs. In fact it was a temporary disappointment, like having to give up a good book before reading the last chapter. It seems merely poignant now, regrettable but remote. I knew little about Taffy, and nothing about war. At that time I wasn't even aware of the naval hospital elsewhere in the park. Certainly I never dreamed that I would one day lie there, tormented by memories of horrors which, the day Taffy and I said goodbye, would have been incomprehensible to me.
After the war, when my first book was published, I heard from her. She had become a Pan Am stewardess and was living in Paris. I was newly married, so my reply was merely cordial. But I still have flickering memories of her. As we parted on Broadway a jukebox somewhere was playing, We'll meet again, don't know where, don't know when. It wasn't true, yet I think of Taffy whenever I hear the lyrics of those years, when the Dipsy Doodle was a thing to beware, and there was going to be a certain party at the station, when the lights went on again all over the world; when she wouldn't sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me, and would walk alone, and be so nice to come home to, till the end of time. Thanks for the memory, Taffy. Here's looking at you, kid.
That left Mae. Or May. I never learned how she spelled her name, and I'm not absolutely sure she knew, either. She was very dumb: a bleached blonde in her late twenties, a borderline alcoholic who would have turned pro if she hadn't had money coming in from another source and hadn't, rightly, feared the competition. Her problem was that her orifice was tight. But I had no inkling of that beforehand. All I knew was that a gunnery sergeant in Fox Company had met her in a dance hall south of the new Camp Pendleton and shacked up with her. The gunny had made a habit of passing on this sort of information — he was known, I groan to report, as the battalion's lay preacher.
So I went from Taffy to Mae, from the sublime to the ridiculous. Mae did have a certain gargoyle charm; she was a character out of George S. Kaufman by Ring Lardner, with Al Capp acting as accoucheur. I had never known such a woman. If Taffy was upper middle class, Mae was underclass. Her complexion was purpled by past pleasures, and after my second drink in the dance hall her mouth developed a disconcerting way of seeming to wander all over her features. She was wearing about twenty bracelets — she sounded like a light machine gun when she moved. From a distance she had a sepia thirties prettiness, but her mouth had been eroded by at least a decade of promiscuity. Her voice had the timbre of a saxophone. When she raised it, it sounded as if she was telling somebody to sack Troy. She accepted my assurance that I was a friend of the gunny without batting a false eyelash, and before I could even order new setups she had yanked me to my feet with a startling flex of muscle, crying, “Let's dance!” That was her first remark. Her second, after a half-dozen clumsy steps, was: “Just because I let you dance with me don't mean I'm going to let you get into my pants.” Her third — by now her hips were really swatting me — was: “On the other hand, it don't mean I won't.”
She had my riveted attention. Back at the table she chugalugged both our drinks (“Booze ain't good for a man, dear, it takes the lead out of his pencil”); then, at her instruction, I paid an outrageous price for a fifth of Southern Comfort and gripped my shrinking roll. “So much for prelims,” she said practically, seizing the bottle, taking my arm, and kissing my cheek with slack, rubbery lips. “Now I guess you want to get your end wet. I got Freddy's car outside.” Dazed, wondering who Freddy might be, I meekly followed her to a coupe in the lot behind the hall. I had hardly slipped behind the wheel when she was in my arms. Only the young and the short can achieve coitus under those circumstances; I had youth, but I was six feet tall, and after several acrobatic attempts Mae conceded that we couldn't make it here. We would have to go to her furnished room. I glided out to the highway, following her directions. “There's just this one thing,” she said, powdering her nose and rattling on as I raced toward whatever nest she had. “I've got this new bed. One of them Murphy beds? It came new last week. I think they sold me a lemon.” She patted my arm. “But you'll fix it for sure.” I heard a liquid sound. She was gulping Southern Comfort from the bottle.
Chez elle was an incredible warren. Langley Collier couldn't have improved upon her spread: a snafu of clothes and jars and empty bottles, more bracelets, necklaces, a douche bag, shards of broken glass, unraveled toilet paper, and at least three mousetraps littered the floor. To an anal compulsive, it was shocking. The only illumination was provided by a bridge lamp which had fallen on its side. By this light I saw that Mae, between gulps from the bottle, was stripping. She looked at me with transomed eyes. She said, “Hurry up.” She was naked now, and I saw what looked like a tattoo on her lower abdomen, just above her pelt. It was a tattoo. I held the lamp closer and incredulously read: “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.”
She was beaming down at me, obviously proud. “Oh, come on!” I said, disgust momentarily mastering lust. She pouted. “It was Freddy's idea.” I asked who Freddy was. She said, “My husband.” I cried, “You've got a husband?” “Oh, he's over in England, in the Eighth Air Force,” she said casually. “Probably screwing one of them duchesses. Just think of it as lend-lease. The old switcheroo. Sometimes one of his buddies comes by and takes a poke at anybody I'm with. But you can't make an omelet without breaking eggs,” she ended inanely.
So that was how she lived: on an allotment. And yet, against all sense, I too had undressed. She looked and gasped: “Jesus, I don't know, I'm on the tight side. …” But in the next instant our tongues were entwined. If it hadn't been for the broken glass, and uncertainty about what else lay underfoot, I think I would have floored her there. Instead, I looked around for the bed. She panted, “In the wall,” and pointed to two straps dangling from what could only be the Murphy bed. “Take one and I'll take the other.” She had been right; it was defective. The strength of the springs holding it upright was almost unbelievable. I stood back, wiping my brow. “Some Marine!” she jeered. I asked, “How do you get it down alone?” She said, “I can't. I sleep down the hall with my girl friend Mabel. I complained to the company. They're sending somebody down tomorrow A.M.”
By a herculean effort, during which I expected a rupture any moment, and with ferocious tugging from Mae, the bed descended. Almost at once it started to rise again. We grabbed it. “That's the other thing,” she said defensively. “It don't lock down good. The catch was put on wrong.” She showed me. I tugged. It was like trying to pull a grenade pin with numb fingers. I skinned a knuckle and wiggled the gizmo back and forth until it held. Then, drenched with sweat and smelling of it, we boarded the mattress and I mounted her in the missionary position. I didn't fit. Mae reached around, groped in the debris below, and produced a jar of Vaseline. “We'll give you a grease job, that's what we'll do,” she said confidently. I tried again. She started to moan, but I simply couldn't penetrate her. Then the bed began to rise again. Following the law of gravity, my knees slipped from her hips to her armpits, bringing my equipment over her chin. She shrieked: “I ain't gonna eat that thing!”
I apologized, explained, and told her we'd have to start again, by which I meant the bed; the rest would have to wait. Again we brought it down on the floor and worked on the catch. Mae, who had felt horny, was beginning to feel rage. She was hanging over me, her lank hair shaking and that mobile mouth slurring obscene invective. I told her I wasn't very good at that sort of thing. She heckled: “And you call yourself a man!” “But not a mechanic,” I said, wincing as I lost skin to the damned catch. She said: “Wait a minute! I just remembered — I got instructions!” Bare, dripping perspiration, my desire slackening, I studied the leaflet she brought under the dim light bulb. It resembled the manual on detail-stripping a BAR, or the one for building the colonel's flytraps. Mae was gurgling Southern Comfort; I think she had already given up. But I felt challenged. Shafts, rods, gears — it completely baffled me. Still, I read on. Like Mount Everest for Mallory, the Murphy bed was There.
We made two more feeble attempts. If we had been physically compatible, I think I would have rolled us off the mattress and chanced the glass, the mousetraps, and whatever else lurked below. But it was useless. My strength was ebbing. By the time I grappled with my skivvies and khakis, I was not only frustrated, I was also suffering from motion sickness. I rolled off the levitating mattress and left Mae sprawled across the litter below, snoring and belching. The bottle was almost empty. I wanted to break it over either her head or the bedstead. But I was too tired, and too sore with lover's nuts, for either. Instead, I stumbled downstairs, found a pay phone, and called a taxi. Sexwise, my score was still zero to zero. And after paying the cabbie for the long trip, I was broke again. I couldn't even afford a tip. The driver was surly. I was surlier.
Nine hours later I led my section aboard the APA Morton, into a compartment below the waterline which would be our pent home throughout the seventeen-day voyage to Guadalcanal. Two light meals would be served each day; we would have to bolt each down, while standing, in a maximum of three minutes. We could expect to grow filthier each day; the only showers would be saltwater showers. We couldn't exercise — there was no room — or, for security reasons, remain on deck, where we might catch a breeze, after darkness. Already, as the winches shrieked and the transport built a welter of water beneath her hull, we were encountering one of the miseries of life on a transport: the deafening sound of the PA system, the blast of “The smoking lamp is out. Now sweepers, man your brooms! A clean sweep-down, fore and aft!”
But my thoughts were elsewhere just then. I wasn't thinking of Mae, or Taffy; not even of my mother. I was trying to make peace with my very personal, existential, Augustan faith, remembering Psalm 107, about men that go down to the sea in ships. Most fighting men cannot imagine their own deaths. All those I knew on that ship were confident that they would see America again. I wasn't; I had no premonition, but I knew the odds and was uncomforted by them. In any event, my destiny was nonnegotiable. I stood on the fantail, watching the California coastline recede as the Morton and the rest of the convoy began zigzagging to evade submarines. I was aware, and depressed by the knowledge, that this was probably my farewell to the United States. I hoped I would fight well. I felt ready; I felt that my men were ready. Then I made my way to the other end of the ship and peered westward across the gray expanse of water, superficially like my Atlantic but immeasurably larger and more vivid. Its name, considering the role it was about to play in our lives, was the ultimate irony. It was called Pacific.