combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 05 Number 04 Fall ©Oct 2007

Home Again

          He came back – and maybe that was the problem. In the two years he had been gone not much seemed to have changed in the old town, but he had changed. He left a boy of eighteen, and returned an old man of twenty. Why had he come back at all? Because of the longing, the deep felt need when things were so bad on those far-flung fields, when he would close his eyes and see this place: peaceful, at rest, beckoning.

          He was trouble to a lot of people when he was a teenager, certainly to his widowed mother. There was always a restlessness in him that he could not explain, and he felt the great need to leave the cloistered life in this small mid-western town. To go – where? He had never been outside the boundaries of the state, not often beyond the limits of the town. He didn't know where he wanted to go, he just knew a song was playing deep in the back of his mind – the words were, Come away! Come away!

          And so he left. The petty officer was happy to get him for he filled a slot on the man's form. The tests were easy. Though he had never applied himself in school, he was bright and learned quickly. With a group of others as bewildered, he held up his right hand and repeated the words the officer mumbled, forgetting them as soon as they passed through his mind.

          Boot camp was a terrible surprise to many of his fellows, but he had never had an easy life, and he soon learned how to at least keep out of trouble. The time was shortened because the Navy needed men. Graduation day and he was given four days leave – he didn't go back home. Why should he? How could he? He had finally left that place, escaped – why would he want to go back? He had been accepted in Hospital Corpsman School at the Great Lakes Naval Station, and he traveled there, reporting early and standing desk watch until his class was formed.

          When this first phase of school was over, all top students who qualified were given a choice of billets. Now a newly promoted Pharmacists Mate 3rd Class, he chose Fleet Marine Corps service and was immediately sent to Camp Pendleton, San Diego, California, not far from the Navy boot camp where he started.

          The training now was tough, even brutal. He dressed as a Marine, ate with the Marines, slept in a tent, and dragged his aching body through the drills and long hikes. He did everything as a Marine except shoot. Rather than the ten pound M-1 rifle that the other men – boys really – carried, he had an extra fifteen pounds of medical supplies.

          And he wasn't a Marine at all. The others called him swab jockey, swabbie, squid, easy money, and he laughed with them, retorting that they were jar heads, cannon fodder, bullet catchers. But there was respect for him for his knowledge and his care of them, and for never complaining. And he respected them, for behind their brashness was the quiet courage of men who knew their lives would soon be in harm's way.

          When the training was over, he went with his platoon to join other Marines preparing for an invasion at an unnamed location in the Pacific. More training took place in the bay at San Diego. They learned how to drop down cargo nets from troop transports to Higgins boats, and they stormed the beach until they were sick of it. Finally the day came and they loaded onto a transport and sailed west in a group of U.S. Navy ships that stretched as far as the eye could see.

          Only after several days of steaming were they told of their destination – an island none had ever heard of located halfway between Saipan and Tokyo. The air force wanted the island as a base for their bombers, and it was up to the Marines to get it for them. At 0200 on one February morning the invasion began. Seven battalions landed on the eastern beaches of the island, and the men went in with fear and awful courage.

          There are no words to explain the horror of that black sand beach. The artillery shells rained down, and the hidden machine guns and mortars never stopped. Horror it was, but somehow once his feet touched the island a great calm descended on this one corpsman. He crawled and ran and hid with the platoon, and when someone was wounded he quickly and skillfully did what he was trained to do. The fighting went on day after day, night after night, and the men melted away. Some he saved and sent back to the hospital tents on the beach. Some died under his hands; some he comforted in their terror, some turned their wrath on him as he tried to help them.

          He came to feel that he would live through the invasion without a scratch. Time after time he was exposed to the deadly fire of the Japanese; men fell on all sides of him, but he continued in his duties almost as if it were a training exercise. Wounded men went back, and replacements came to take their place, but there were no replacements for the corpsmen. There were too few of them, for their mortality rate was very high.

          And then, finally, after over a month of slogging through the sand, scrabbling into the ravines, watching as the caves were reduced to rubble by explosives, and seeing more young men cut down in senseless suicide charges, the end seemed near.

          What was left of his platoon had been moved with others to guard duty around the airfield – said to be secured and already in use. There were U.S. Army pilots and ground crews there, as well as Seabees working on the landing strip. On one warm night the Japanese, some said led by the island commander, launched an attack on the airfield, and the last and perhaps bloodiest fight of the island took place.

          He was awakened that night by the sound of mortars exploding nearby, and his hands automatically began to feel through the bags to make sure he had what he would need. They had all dug foxholes the evening before, and his was a one-man hole in which he had spread his bedroll. Kneeling in the hole he could see many flickers of fire from rifle barrels coming down the airfield, and he somehow knew that of all the combat on the island this would be the worst.

          The lieutenant was up and crouching by his hole. "We're going forward, Doc. Safer that way if they know where we are."

          He crawled out of the hole and followed the officer into the darkness, feeling more than seeing the men around him. Under the sounds of the mortar bombs and the high rip of the machine guns, he could hear Lefty chanting, "Holy Mary, Mother of God ...."

          Now they were up and running crouched over toward the tents of the Seabees. Navy men came out of the holes and joined them, swelling the ranks of the platoon. In the pale glow of a dying moon he could see the lieutenant talking to someone, and then nodding his head. The command passed from man to man: "Spread out and crawl forward."

          Now they were at the edge of the airstrip, and the light was better because a B-29 was burning not too far away. Figures danced in front of it, but no one fired at them, not knowing if they were friends or enemies.

          Suddenly the mortars stopped, and the thin quavering cry from hundreds of Japanese throats rose into the dimly lit sky. Now he could see a long line of men running down the landing strip toward them. Bullets zipped by and thudded into the ground, and the men began to fire. Some of the figures on the strip twisted and fell, but the others did not stop.

          "Bayonets, boys! Up and at 'em!" the lieutenant called, and the men jumped to their feet and ran toward the Japanese soldiers. He stayed right behind the men with the rifles, keeping pace with them, and the bullets made quick zings as they passed, like angry insects, only far more deadly.

          The two lines of men came together with the clash of bayonets, and he was there inside the line, finding Lefty on his right, shouting out his Aves now. And in mid-voice the young Marine was cut down and fell sprawled out, arms flung wide, helmet rolling away into the night.

          He dropped beside Lefty and reached for a wrist to feel for life. It was there, but thin, thready. He rolled him over and found his hands covered with warm sticky liquid. The marine's jaw was working, and he bent to listen, "Bless me Father ...." He was not Catholic, but he made the sign of the cross on Lefty's forehead and watched his eyes roll up, a smile on the now-dead face.

          On he went, stopping at the men who had fallen, binding wounds, using morphine to ease the pain, twisting tourniquets on shattered stumps. And then, as rosy dawn filled the air, the shooting and screaming stopped. Now came the after battle work, and he began to look for wounded among the dead. Two Marines came out with a stretcher made of a shelter-half wrapped over tent poles – he wondered where they found them. At his indication they picked up the wounded that could be moved and took them back to the small shade and shelter of abandoned bulldozers.

          He found one other corpsman – a Seabee – moving among the men, and together they set up a hospital under a tent fly. With few words they did what they could for the wounded, rough surgery, sewing, relieving pain, acting as minister, priest, doctor, confessor – whatever was needed.

          The mortars started again and the lieutenant and a Navy commander were talking on a walkie-talkie. Now they stood and came to the hospital tent. "Doc, any of these men able to hold a rifle?" the lieutenant asked.

          Before he could reply, several of his patients stood and picked up their gear; two were heavily bandaged. Another tried to stand but he had just had his right arm amputated above the elbow, and the Seabee corpsman gently pushed him back. He knew it was bad because the lieutenant didn't say anything, just nodded at the men and led them away. If he wanted wounded men to fight, they would not be getting any help.

          On the other side of the strip the Japanese came out of their holes and lined up, waving banners and shirts, and one of them blowing on a bugle. These were desperate men, saturated with loss and courage, veterans of many battles. They would not stop and turn this time.

          The two corpsmen filled their bags with supplies and by unspoken agreement walked left and right to take their places behind the line. Now the enemy soldiers were walking, then running toward them, and the Marines and sailors and army fliers gave a mighty unbidden yell and went out to meet them.

          He was trotting with the platoon when the mortar shell landed just behind him, blowing him down like the mighty wind of a typhoon. Down on his face, but not dead. Pain in his back and legs – good. He could feel pain. He tried to move his legs and found that he could. Taking a morphine syrette out of his shirt pocket he stuck the needle into the thigh of his right leg and pushed. Now the same in the left leg. He could stand, and he went forward, almost falling over the lieutenant. The man was not dead, but his chest was covered in blood and his eyes flickered with shock. He dropped beside him and laid a large bandage on the chest wound tying it to the tatters of his shirt. Next he used morphine, inserting the needle into the man's left shoulder, the uninjured one. "Help them, Doc," the officer whispered as his eyes closed.

          On he went until he came to a line of men kneeling and firing their rifles. As he came up to them they stood and surged forward. Bayonets flashing in the sun of a new day. The enemy seemed beaten, but they were not done. They came up and clashed once again with the Americans and pushed them back, back. He held up a Seabee with a bloody face, blinded and stumbling, pulling him back over rocks and bodies until a new line was formed.

          A corporal with a hanging left arm – one he had bandaged himself – came to him and said, "Doc, we ain't goin' to make it without some help, but I can't find a radio or a talkie. You got any ideas?"

          "Are you in command now?" he asked.

          "I reckon. Officers are all down and I can't find a sergeant nowhere on this side."

          They both heard the loud cries and shouts from a small ragged palm grove on the other side of the strip. The Japanese were staging, and they would come again.

          "Well, Corporal, I don't think we have to go out and find the enemy – I have a hunch he's going to come calling real soon. Why don't we dig in here and wait on him?"

          They dug in, and he waited as long as the pain would allow before his next morphine injection. The shrapnel in his back and legs had not hit anything vital enough to put him down, but the pain was bad and it affected his judgment.

          Here they came, and the men began to fire carefully for ammunition was low. Halfway across the airstrip they were melting away, but those alive kept on coming, the corporal was standing and firing a Colt forty-five with his good hand when he took a round and fell. He dropped beside him and could only watch as the man's last breath rattled in his throat.

          Now he moved forward and tended to the wounded. They would not hold the Japanese on the airstrip – there were just too many of them, and they were too bent on destroying the Americans. And now they were into the line and fighting was hand-to-hand. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the long thin blade of a bayonet thrust at a Marine, drawing a long scarlet ribbon as it was pulled out. The Marine fell and the bayonet was raised, set to plunge into the man's exposed body when he dropped his bag and threw himself down on top of the Marine. He felt the pain of the bayonet as it slid like a fiery branch into his back, and then it was gone, and he was gone, and blessed peace laid her blanket over him.

          The Marines and sailors and airmen held and the Japanese were wiped out to a man, but he only learned that much later on the hospital ship. He was hazy even then, for the drugs they used to ease his pain created a haze in his mind. The ship slipped under the Golden Gate Bridge and docked in San Francisco Harbor. He was transferred to a Naval hospital in Vallejo, and there he slowly recovered – as much as he would recover. Six months slid by, and he was released. "You're going home," they said to him.

          And now here he was, and he wondered why. Two friends from the hospital had escorted him all the way back. They lived on farther east, and against his protests they helped him off the train and out to a place on the platform. As they got back on the train he looked and smiled his thanks. There was his mother, his family, his high school friends, his pastor, even the mayor. They all had something to say to him, and they welcomed him home. He heard the word hero, but he was no hero. He was alive, and all the heroes were dead.

          At the end of the short ceremony, he began to wheel the chair along surrounded by family and friends. Where did he want to go? What did he want to do? Who did he want to see? They meant well, but they could not understand the tears that slid down his cheeks.

          Was he home again? No, not really, for much of him was buried there in the fields and ravines of that tiny island in the great ocean, buried with Lefty and the lieutenant and the corporal, and all the other good men dead. But who could he tell? How could he tell them?

          The train whistled, lonely and hopeful as it pulled away.

          He was home again.

by Herb Marlow
... who was a Naval Aviation Machinist Mate aboard the USS Bennington (CVS-20), and has since been a history teacher and sociology professor, and has published thirty-five books as well as numerous stories and articles in national periodicals. He wrote a weekly column on pastoral counseling entitled Family Scene for the Graham Leader in Graham, Texas. Some of his books are available from the Four Seasons Bookstore.

Table of

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