combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 04 Number 04 Fall ©Oct 2006

Breakneck Ridge

          "So this was in the valley. Before Carigara," Gruesome said. "Gorman was there and that sergeant from Texas. What's his name. Fox. You listening to me, Dane? This could save your life someday."

          The two soldiers shared a mud hole in the dark rain. The hole was long and wide enough to plant a body. Deep enough for Dane – who should have been starting his sophomore year at the University of Massachusetts – to crouch in the muck without exposing his head. Shallow enough for the pock-marked, scar-faced, hare-lipped Corporal Gus Gruesome Pavano to lean his elbows and upper body on the mud surrounding the hole while he swiveled his head to look for Jap infiltrators.

          "Shut the hell up, you moron." Dane's mind formed the words, but he could not get them out. Too tired, thirsty, nauseous to open his mouth. Does he realize how loud he is? Every Jap on the ridge can hear him. And see the red glow of the cigar clenched in his teeth. "FUBAR," Dane whispered. Fucked up beyond all recognition. Why did he have to share a foxhole every night with this asshole? He thinks he's invincible now that he shot that nip. Dane pictured a Jap bullet splitting Gruesome's cigar, smashing his brown teeth. The cold hash Dane had eaten from a tin can lay heavy in his stomach.

          During the first encounter with the enemy – after they cleared the beach, while they slogged through a field of mud – Dane stayed down, face sideways, tilted slightly up to breathe, rifle beside him, and squirmed like a snake to sink deeper into the liquid dirt. Bullets knocked down Cole, Miller and Hayes who had genuflected to fire at a heap of fallen trees on the far side of the field. Dane heard Sergeant Fox shout "return fire, return fire, you asshole" but did not know who the asshole was until he felt a boot in his kidney and heard "pick up your god-damned rifle, Dane." And then Dane was gone. Disappeared.

          From another place, he saw the men shoot at each other. Heard the din of a hundred rifles, scattered machine guns and mortars. Saw Gruesome run toward the last Jap machine gun and hurl a grenade at it. Pathetic. As if it mattered. Afterwards, when the firing stopped, Dane noticed that Fox was pulling him up by his hair. The mud sucked and he was free. Fox spewed obscenities and kicked Dane in the butt again and again. But he was alive. And not maimed. Dane learned a valuable lesson from his first combat experience. If you shoot at the enemy, you will attract their attention. If you do not shoot at the enemy, you will attract Sergeant Fox's attention. Therefore, he should get out of Fox's line of sight when they approached the enemy.

          "So he's wearing this loincloth." Gruesome's face glowed behind the cigar. "Like a red Indian. And glasses. Coke bottle glasses, you know? Walking toward us like he's surrendering."

          Dane had heard this story so many times he could puke. Gutsy Gruesome, the hero of the 21st Infantry. He who single-handedly killed a near naked Jap who appeared to be and apparently unarmed and in desperate need of a meal on a jungle path with his arms raised. Gruesome shot him twenty times. Casually, without a word. Dane saw it. While he sat on a greasy stump hidden in the undergrowth by the side of the path. Numb after 219 hours of uninterrupted nightmare. Wondering what would happen if he shot his own foot. Gruesome and Fox and a bunch of other zombies stood on the path. Exposed to enemy fire. Waiting for the order to move forward again. They watched the skinny little Jap stumble toward them. And then Gruesome raised his BAR and fired a single shot. He must have thought he missed because the Jap did not fall. So he sprayed him with a full clip, and every bullet hit home. Or so Gruesome said afterwards. And when the grenade hidden under the Jap's arm exploded under his body, Gruesome skipped in a circle and crowed that he knew the nip had a grenade all along. Why if he hadn't killed him, the fucking nip would've killed them all.

          "They got them under their arms when they come in, you know that, right? That's what they do. You'd think, where is a guy in a loincloth gonna hide a weapon, right? So most guys they let their guard down. Not me. I know the score. It's like they don't care if they die for the emperor, you know? Long as they take one of us with them. So I took one of his grenades and shoved it up his ass. Split him in two. A real riot. But the point is, you never let your guard down. You let your guard down, you don't get home. You see? Dane? You asleep?"

          Dane did not recall Gruesome shoving a grenade into the Japanese corpse. But maybe it happened that way. Maybe Gruesome didn't grab the filthy loincloth for a souvenir and position the naked body so the next tank through would crush it into flesh paste. Maybe Dane had added that part to the story himself.

          "I'm not here," Dane said. "This is not happening." As if that would make it all go away. As if by uttering the magic spell, he'd find himself back at the Ye Olde U. Mass. Malt Shoppe.

          The stench of corpses, human excrement, and jungle rot broke through Dane's defenses again. That's what happened when you let down your guard. Somewhere outside their hole, a grenade exploded. Dane sat with his back against the dirt wall – shivering in a puddle of cold mud. His knees touched his chest. His head in his hands. If he could just sleep – for just an hour – or a few minutes. Or shower. Wash the dirt and stink off. Maybe then he could wake up. Give himself a fighting chance to get through this.

          "That's one of theirs," Gruesome said. "I can tell. They're on the prowl again. Don't those assholes ever sleep?" He stopped swiveling his head and peered into the blackness. "Get up. I think I see one of them. Get the hell up, you pussy."

          When Dane lifted his head from his hands, he heard a wet metallic thump and saw Gruesome's head snap back. The corporal's body deflated. One second he was smoking, bragging and watching. The next second the invisible strings that moved his body collapsed, and the thing that used to be Corporal Pavano, U.S. Sixth Army, 21st Infantry of the 24th Division, sat in the mud with its feet in front of it like a doll on a shelf. The dark shiny spot just above its nose in the middle of its face blossomed.

          "You know what the problem is here, Gruesome? This whole thing is FUBAR. What's the point? Like what am I supposed to do now? Weep? Charge out there and gut some filthy Japs? What do I care if they shot you? What difference does it make to me?" The regurgitated hash burned Dane's esophagus and splattered onto his chest.

          "Son of a bitch. That hurt," Gruesome said without moving his lips.

          "Nice trick," Dane said.

          Something scurried through the saw grass toward their hole.

          "So – what? I'm dead? That's it?"

          Dane knelt in front of the corpse to get its cloth cap and canteen. He smeared some of the vomit off his shirt with the cap. The canteen was heavy and sloshed – warm and diesel flavored. He fought the gags as he poured the water down his throat. "What'd you expect, Gruesome? Saint Peter? A choir of angels? I told you it was all bullshit."

          "So I just stay here? I mean what am I supposed to do? Where do I go from here?"

          Something snapped above the hole and a black baseball fell between Gruesome's legs. After it exploded, Dane saw that he was on Gruesome's back. He had pulled the torso forward at the waist to cover the grenade in its lap. He had used Gruesome's body to shield the blast.

          "Well, that was quick thinking," Gruesome said. "You should give yourself a medal for that."

          A bony child fell onto Dane's back.

          "A real triple-decker," Dane said. "I grew up in one. I ever tell you that, Gruesome?"

          "What're you talking about? I'm dead, you're about to die and you're talking about sandwiches. Do you hear yourself?"

          "Not the sandwich. The apartment house I lived in back home in Lowell. Three stories. A triple decker. That's what they called them."

          Someone had wrestled the Arisaka rifle away from the tiny Japanese soldier's hands and shot him in the neck. Someone stabbed the Japanese soldier in the middle of his chest with the bayonet on the rifle. Someone plunged the bayonet into the man's chest until the mud below the body stopped it, then pulled it out, listened to the sucking noise, lifted the stock of the rifle over his head and plunged it back down. Someone's arms and shoulders ached. Someone's body spouted sweat. Stab, twist, pull, listen, lift, plunge.

          "He's dead already," Gruesome said. Dane continued to stab, twist, pull, listen, lift, plunge.

          "You can stop now, Sergeant York. You hear me? Hey."

          "What?" Dane saw the Japanese soldier corpse sprawled in the mud beneath him. He noticed how short and thin the man was. He saw a full moon in a small pool of water next to the body. "It stopped raining." Dane leaned on the butt of the rifle and tried to catch his breath. "The moon is out. How about that? Looks like gravy," he said.

          "What does?"

          "The mud. Must be the blood."

          "You want to lift me up?" Gruesome said. "I don't want them to find me like this with my face in my crotch."

          "Whadda you care? You're dead."

          "Am I dead too?" Corporal Yeiichi Kuwayama said without moving his lips. "I must be. But why am I still here? How do I get to Yasukuni Shrine? ... the peaceful country? This is not what I expected."

          "How do I know your name is Yeiichi Kuwayama?" Dane said.

          "Dane. Seriously. Lift me up, please. I don't want to be found like this. I'll be a laughing stock."

          Dane lifted the corpse's torso and pushed its back against the wall of the cave. It fell face forward again so he propped it up with Gruesome's rifle. The grenade had torn a hole in the body's abdomen and groin. Its intestines spilled on to is lap. Dane slumped down beside it.

          "So what's it like," Dane said, "being dead? Does it hurt?"

          "No pain," Kuwayama said. "No feeling. No emotion. Nothing."

          "No pain," Gruesome said, "but I'm starting to get pissed. I mean I just went to confession for chrissake. I said an act of contrition seconds before I got it. I shouldn't be here."

          "Can you still smell the awful stink?" Dane said. Are you uncomfortable?"

          "No," Kuwayama said. "Just confused. I should not be here still. I should be on my way to the peaceful country. But I do not know how to get there."

          "They must be coming for us," Gruesome said. "They can't expect us to just spend the rest of ... whatever in this hole. Can they?"

          "What are you complaining about?" Dane said. "You got it made. It's all over for you. You can relax. I should be so lucky."

          "Then why did you kill me?" Kuwayama said. "Why not let me kill you? If you feel that way."

          "Did I kill you? Was that really me? It was like I was sleep walking or something."

          The air above them flashed white and waved. The mud below them trembled. Something sucked air from Dane's lungs. His ears rang. A piece of shrapnel dug into his shoulder, but he did not feel any pain. "What was that?"

          "Kyokusha Hoheiho," Kuwayama said. "Our infantry mortar – 81 millimeter. It hit ten yards behind us. Did you attend Tokyo University? Is that where you learned to speak Japanese so well?"

          "I don't speak Japanese," Dane said and realized that someone had shat in his pants and emptied his bladder.

          "God damn," Gruesome said. "I hope the next one gets you, you sonovabitch. Sitting there crying in your own dirty diaper. Why does a coward like you get to live, and me and Ku-wa-ya-ma here get to die? Is that fair?"

          "Shut up, I'm not crying," Dane shouted. Another wave of sound, wind and light passed over the hole, wobbled the mud and left Dane breathless.

          "Ten yards in front," Kuwayama said. "The next one will get us. If it's a direct hit, there will be nothing. No ashes to send to my family for a proper burial. It can not be helped, I suppose. But I must say I did not expect this. It all seems so futile now. I thought I would see my mother and father when they came to visit Yasukuni Shrine. Maybe the Buddhist priests are right. Perhaps I must wait here before I am reborn. Bardo, they called it. I should have paid closer attention."

          "Shut up, shut up, shut up." Dane jumped up and tried to crawl out of the foxhole but something held him back – would not release his feet.

          "Hey asshole," Gruesome said. "I thought you wanted in here. Just relax and it'll be over before you know it."

          "Are all American soldiers such cowards? They told us it was so, but I did not believe it."

          "Hey," Gruesome said. Don't tell me you don't have any shit-birds in your outfit."

          Something sucked the air out of Dane's chest, sprayed his body with red hot chunks of steel, lifted him up and slammed him down. Something floated loose from his body into a bright whiteness. Gruesome and Kuwayama were floating in the silent, sterile whiteness too.

          "Now we're getting somewhere," Dane heard Gruesome say.

          "We had to wait for him maybe," Dane heard Kuwayama say. "But why? This is so unexpected."

          Someone who used to be a fifty dollar a month buck private, Carl Dane, whose freshman English professor said had a promising career as a writer ahead of him, who shucked and jived through basic training, praying that the war would end before it devoured him, who tortured himself into a writhing ball of self pity every night since his induction, who learned that the instant a troop ship left a dock, his guts would heave until his ribs ached, who after fifteen days of battle as a rifleman on the front line had fired only a single shot in his final few minutes, who had spent the last night of his life as one of the two men closest to the Japanese defensive line on Breakneck Ridge near the town of Limon on the island of Leyte in the Philippines – a ridge, a town, an island, a country that he gladly would have encouraged the Japanese to rape, pillage and destroy to their heart's content, if it meant he could go home intact – that someone now floated in the whiteness with former Corporals Gruesome and Kuwayama above the mud hole where their three bodies lay, one atop the other like a stack of bloody steaks waiting to be broiled.

          And the fear, the thirst, the stink, the filth were gone. It was just like Kuwayama had said. It was good. Better than a full night's sleep good. Better than a hot shower good.

          A whiter, brighter vortex formed above them. Gruesome and Kuwayama moved toward it, following a line of Japanese, American, and Filipino men.

          "The battle is over now," Kuwayama said. The voice floated in the whiteness like joyous music.

          "About time," Gruesome said. "Hey, Dane, don't look back whatever you do."

          "Why not?"

          "He's right you know," Kuwayama said. "Don't look down. Look up at us. Follow us."

          In the morning drizzle, a soldier wearing a white armband bearing a red cross stood in the mud hole and pulled bodies off Private Dane. "He's still alive," he shouted to a sergeant standing above the hole. "Give me a hand."

          "How is that possible?" the sergeant said. "That shell landed smack dab in the hole. I saw it." Sergeant Fox. Dane recognized him. He sounded bored. Annoyed. As though the medic had just defecated and asked Fox to wipe his ass.

          "You idiot," Gruesome said. "We told you not to look back. Once a screw up, always a screw up, hey Dane."

          "How is it we are losing with men like this fighting on your side?" Kuwayama asked Gruesome as they floated into the vortex and disappeared.

          "Bastard must of hid under Gruesome and the Jap," Sergeant Fox said. "What a waste."

          Dane woke up in a bed with a nurse – an honest to god woman – leaning over and wiping his brow. His legs throbbed. They were on fire. The pain radiated up through his entire body. The tips of his hair felt it. His mouth, his tongue, his lips were made of cloth. He did not realize yet that his legs were gone – that he was feeling phantom pain.

          "You want some more morphine, sugar?" the nurse drawled.

          "Nn. Nnn," he said. He wanted to feel the pain. It distracted him from the ball of burning regret in his chest.

by Michael Enright
... who is a student of military history, with numerous publication credits, most recently including works of fiction placed in Antimuse, Circle Magazine, Fiction Warehouse, Pulse, and Writers Post Journal. Some of his compositions have previously appeared in this literary magazine.

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