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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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