combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 05 Number 02 Spring ©Apr 2007

From the Halls of Montezuma

My daughter and I were having lunch at our favorite fast food place when I spotted this member of the giant humanoid species enjoying a burger and fries. Draped across the back of his chair was a shiny jacket bearing the U.S. Marine Corps logo. "Look over there," I told Gloria. "That fellow is a prototype Marine."

In the mood for a little mischief, I asked Gloria if she was up to a challenge. "What do you have in mind, Daddy?" Even after all these years, she still calls me daddy.

"Why don't you go to that Marine and ask him if he's in the Army?"

She thought about it, and then declined.

"Okay," I said, "maybe I'll do it."

So, on our way out, I walked to the behemoth's table. "Excuse me," I said, "are you in the Army?"

He slowly rose from his seat, looked down at me and said, "If you weren't so old, I'd deck you."

"Just kidding," I told him, then added, "I was once in the Marines."

"Well, you don't act like it," he snarled.

Our conversation over, our eyes met for a final exchange. My eyes told his, "hey, lighten up a little." His eyes responded with a glaring defiance, "I've had enough of you. Move it!"

I waved at him as we left. He didn't wave back.

"You know something?" I asked Gloria as we headed for the car. I'm glad he's on our side."

"I am, too."

I've thought about that incident a few times. It brought back memories of when I was a young Marine. Gung ho – absolutely fearless and brash – there wasn't anyone I wouldn't take on if the opportunity presented itself. Some of the brashness remains, but the swagger and fighting spirit have long gone. Even the memories of those days are dimmed by doubt – doubting that I ever assumed such a role.

But memories can be refreshed and doubts assuaged.

Reading the story of Jack Lucas, a Marine serving during World War II, brought some of those days back into focus. His story reminded me of the rigorous training, including the days spent on the rifle range. Suddenly, my recollection of the rifle range sharpened as though it were yesterday. I recall there was the haunting fear of failing to attain Marksmanship. The reputation of the entire U.S. Marine Corps, it seemed, hinged on my attaining a qualifying score. No Marine must embarrass the Corps with a failing score. There was some concern amongst the trainers that I might be such a person. My big-boned, unyielding body didn't lend itself to getting into the desired positions for accurate shooting. But they would fix that. While I assumed the prone position, more or less, one instructor proceeded to scrunch one arm under my body into an impossible, not to mention painful, position. At that point, another instructor sat on my back to keep all parts in place. It still hurts when I think about it. This procedure went on for days, and included hours of lecture sessions, during which the instructor perched himself on my back while the other members of the platoon gathered round, Before long, my arm flopped into place without assistance. I did manage to qualify, giving cause for the entire U.S. Marine Corps to rejoice.

There is good reason why I should recall those nerve wracking days on the range. True, the entire Marine Boot Camp experience was a harrowing one. In my case, it meant transforming an irenic Wisconsin farm boy into a savage warrior in only eight weeks. I recall the ceaseless blasting of vulgarities into my tender ears to get me to straighten up, accompanied by barrages of skull-resonating screams that caused my toes to curl in terror. The process made me wormlike, devoid of personality, concerned only that I might conform, to become one of them. A brain transplant would have been so much easier. But the apex of the boot camp experience was clearly the rifle range. Here, it all came together. Here, either you became a bona fide Marine or you did not. Pity the ones among us who failed to qualify.

Lucas, too, had to experience this transformation. He made something special of himself. Indeed, his heroism earned for him the Medal of Honor, the youngest Marine ever to be so honored. He got it for falling on a live grenade, thus saving the lives of those around him. I once did that, but went unrewarded. Well, it wasn't exactly the same.

It was at night, and I was standing guard while the two others in our foxhole slept. Suddenly, I was struck by a metallic object which somehow came to rest inside my field jacket. Thinking it was a grenade, I fell across the feet of my startled comrades, urging them to keep down. "It's a grenade," I warned them while frantically trying to remove it from inside my jacket. When I did remove it, I was embarrassed to find a bracket which had fallen from one of our flares. I never lived it down. "Beware of flare brackets," they would caution me. It didn't seem fair. I thought I had acted bravely, but learned that they don't issue medals for falling on flare brackets.

It happened that both Lucas and I participated in the Battle for Iwo Jima. Reading his book, Indestructible, I was reminded of the sticky volcanic sand that crunched under our weight and sometimes stuck to our clothing. I liked it because it was easy to dig. I was a good digger.

Over and over I marveled at the training we had received. Except for real bullets and live mortar shells bursting in our ranks, most days seemed like field training exercises. A steady diet of K rations and our foxhole sleeping quarters made us feel right at home. At night, we had time to think of our comrades who had fallen that day.

I still think of Siever, a fun loving strapper, whom I had befriended. I keep wondering, "Why him?" Where would he be now, and what would he be doing?

Why did that jagged piece of shrapnel find Siever's body? It happened so quickly. Just moments before, I saw him crouched, darting across the black terrain gripping his M-1. Then suddenly, there he was, prone and lifeless. "Right in the heart," I heard someone say. We moved on. No parting words. No bugle sounds. Not even time for a prayer. Just a backward glance toward where he lay. It doesn't seem fair. Even in war, this doesn't seem fair. Siever. He was just a kid. But then, so were most of us.

I thought again of Lucas, a remarkable man and a true war hero. I would like to have met him, to shake his hand. He got the medals, but I was the more fortunate. He left Iwo with severe wounds, while I left unscathed.

On one occasion Lucas spoke for both of us: "I had always loved my country dearly, but after Iwo Jima, I possessed a much deeper appreciation for her. In addition, my pride in the Corps had more deeply rooted itself in my heart and I knew it would remain with me forever. An enormous price was being paid to guarantee our liberty. I had seen it with my own eyes and personally made payment in more units of blood than I could count. No matter the cost, she was well worth fighting for."


by Al Schneider
... who is retired from the military, having served in both the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Air Force, with writings previously published in Stars and Stripes, The Wittenberg Door, The Covenant Companion, and other local or literary publications, including this magazine.

Table of

C O M B A T, the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones