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Showa Year 20, Second Month, 21st Day
21 February 1945
A quiet fell across the bunker. Dust drifted from the ceiling. The burnt-egg stench of sulfur lingered everywhere.
It was a private. Takahashi, Sugita, Kanzaki, Asano, Togawa, Fukuyama, Abe -- who knew the names anymore? There had been so many names.
"Sir, the shelling has stopped. Does this mean they're coming?"
"Yes," he said. "It means they're coming."
The officer's name was Hideki Yano and he was a captain, 145th Infantry Regiment, 2nd Battalion, under Yasutake and Ikeda, attached to Kuribayashi's 109th Division.
The blockhouse was low and smelled of sulfur and shit because the men all had dysentery from the tainted water. It was typical Imperial Army fortification, a low bunker of concrete, reinforced over many long months, with oak tree trunks from what had been but was no longer the island's only oak forest, the sand heaped over it. It had three firing slits and behind each slit sat a Type 96 gun on a tripod, a gunner, and a couple of loaders. Each field of fire fanned away for hundreds of yards across an almost featureless landscape of black sand ridges and marginal vegetation. The blockhouse was divided into three chambers, like a nautilus shell, so that even if one or two were wiped out, the last gun could continue to fire until the very end. It was festooned everywhere with the latest imperative from General Kuribayashi's headquarters, a document called "Courageous Battle Vows," which summed up everyone's responsibilities to the Sphere.
Above all else, we shall dedicate ourselves to the defense of this island.
We shall grasp bombs, charge the enemy tanks and destroy them.
We shall infiltrate into the midst of the enemy and annihilate them.
With every salvo we will, without fail, kill the enemy.
Each man will make it his duty to kill ten of the enemy before dying.
"I am scared, sir," said the private.
"I am too," said Yano.
Outside, the captain's small empire continued. Six pits with Nambu guns in each, each gun supported by gunner, loader, and two or three riflemen flanked the empire to left and right. In further spider holes were martyrs with rifles. No escape for them; they knew they were dead already. They lived only to kill those ten Americans before they gave their lives up in sacrifice. Those men had it the worst. In here, no shell could penetrate. The concrete was four feet thick, riven with steel rods. Out there a naval shell from the offshore fleet could turn a man to shreds in a second. If the shell landed precisely, no one would have time for a death poem.
Now that the attack was upon them, the captain became energized. He shook off the months of torpor, the despair, the terrible food, the endless shitting, the worries. Now, at last, glory approached.
Except of course he no longer believed in glory. That was for fools. He believed only in duty.
He was not a speech maker. But now he ran from position to position, making sure each gun was properly cocked and aimed, the loaders stood ready with fresh ammunition strips, the riflemen crouched to pick off the errant demon American.
A boy pulled him aside.
"Yes?" What was the boy's name? He could not remember this one either. But these were all good boys, Kagoshima boys, as the 145th was drawn from Kyushu, the home of Japan's best soldiers.
"I am not afraid to die. I am eager to die for the emperor," said the boy, a superior private.
"That is our duty. You and I, we are nothing. Our duty is all."
But the boy was agitated.
"I am afraid of flames. I am so afraid of the flames. Will you shoot me if I am engulfed in fire?"
They all feared the flamethrowers. The hairy beasts were dishonorable. They chopped gold teeth from dead Japanese, they bleached Japanese skulls and turned them into ashtrays and sent them home, they killed the Japanese not decently, with gun and sword -- they hated the blade! -- but so often from miles out with the big naval shells, with the airplanes, and then when they got in close, they used the horrible hoses that squirted flaming gasoline and roasted the flesh from a man's bones, killing him slowly. How could a warrior die honorably in flames?
"Or the sword, Captain. I beg you. If I burn, behead me."
"What is your name?"
"Sudo. Sudo from Kyushu."
"Sudo from Kyushu. You will not die in flames. That I promise you. We are samurai!"
That word samurai still stiffened the spine of every man. It was pride, it was honor, it was sacrifice. It was worth more than life. It was what a man needed to be and would die to be. He had known it his whole life; he had yearned for it, as he yearned for a son who would live up to it.
"Samurai!" said the boy fervently, now reassured, for he believed it.
Able Company caught primary assault. It was simply Able's turn, and Charlie and Item and Hotel would offer suppressive fire and flanking maneuvers and handle artillery coordination, but it was Able's turn to go first. Lead the way. Semper fi, all that fine bullshit.
There was a problem, however. There was always a problem, this was today's: Able's CO was shaky. He was new to the 28th and rumors had it that a connected father had gotten his son the command. His name was Culpepper and he was a college boy from some fancy place who talked a little like a woman. It wasn't anything anybody could put a finger on, not homo or anything, he just wasn't somehow like the other officers. He was fancy, somehow, from fancy places, fancy houses, fancy parents. Was Culpepper up to it? Nobody knew, but the blockhouse had to go or Battalion would be hung up all day here and the big guns on Suribachi would continue to shatter the beachhead. So Colonel Hobbs assigned his battalion's first sergeant, Earl Swagger, to go along with Captain Culpepper that morning.
"Culpepper, you listen up to the first sergeant. He's old breed. He's been around. He's hit a lot of beaches. He's the best combat leader I have, you understand."
"Yes sir," said Culpepper.
The colonel drew Earl aside.
"Earl, you help Culpepper. Don't let him freeze, keep his boys moving. I hate to do this to you, but someone's got to get them boys up the hill and you're the best I've got."
"I'll get 'em up, sir," said Swagger, who looked like he was about 140 percent United States Marine Corps, chapter and verse, a sinewy string bean of a man, ageless in the sergeant way, a vet of the 'Canal, Tarawa, and Saipan and, someone said, Troy, Thermopylae, Agincourt, and the Somme. They said nobody could shoot a Thompson gun like the first sergeant. He'd fought the Japs in China before the war, it was said.
Swagger was from nowhere. He had no hometown, no memories he shared, no stories of the good old days, as if he had no good old days. It was said he'd married a gal last time home, on some kind of bond tour for the citizens back there, and everybody said she's a looker, but he never pulled pictures or talked much about it. He was all guile, energy, and focus, seemingly indestructible but one of those professionals with what some would call a gleam in his eye who could talk any boy or green lieutenant through anything. He was a prince of war, and if he was doomed, he didn't know it, or much care about it.
Culpepper had a plan.
Swagger didn't like it.
"Begging the captain's pardon, it's too complicated. You'll end up with your people all running around not sure of what to do while the Japs sit there and shoot. I wouldn't break Able down by squads but by platoons, I'd keep a good base of fire going, and I'd get my flamethrowers off on the right, try and work 'em in close that way. The flamethrowers, sir, those are the key."
"I see," said the young man, pale and thin and grave and trying so hard. "I think the men are capable -- "
"Sir, once the Japs see us coming, it's going to be a shit storm out there. They are tough little bastards, and believe you me, they know what they are doing. If you expect men to remember maneuver patterns keyed to landmarks, you will be disappointed. It has to be simple, hard, basic, and not much to remember, or the Japs will shoot your boys down like toads on a flat rock. The important goddamn thing is to get them flamethrowers in close. If it was me, I'd send the best blowtorch team up this draw to the right" -- they looked at a smudged map at the command post a few hundred yards back -- "with a BAR and a tommy-gunner as cover, your best NCO running the show. I'd hold your other team back. Meanwhile, you pound away from your base of fire. Get the bazookas involved. Them gun slits is tiny but a bazooka rocket through one is something the Japs will notice. Sir, maybe you ought to let me run the flamethrower team."
But the colonel said, "Earl will want to lead. Just let him advise, Captain. I need him back this afternoon."
"But -- " the young captain protested.
"Sergeant Tarsky is a fine man and a fine NCO. You let him move some people off on the left when we go. He's got to get a lot of fire going, and the people here in front, they've got to be working their weapons too. I need a lot of covering fire. I'll take the blowtorch team up the right. The Japs will be hidden in monkey holes, but I can spot 'em. I know where to look. So the BAR man can hose 'em down from outside their range. We'll get in close and burn 'em out, then get up there and fry that pillbox."
Culpepper hesitated a second, realized this smart, tough, duty-crazed hillbilly from some dead-end flyspeck south of perdition nobody had ever heard of was dead right, and saw that his own prissy ego meant nothing out there.
"Let's do it, First Sergeant."
The Type 92s fired 7.7 mm tracer. White-hot bolts of illumination cut through the mist and the dust. Through the gun slit, you could not see men, not really -- but you could sense them, maneuvering a foot at a time through the same chaos. Where the bullets struck, they lifted clouds of black sand.
"There," said the captain, pointing, and the gunner cranked his windage to the right, the finned barrel revolved on its mesh of gears, and the gun rocked, spent cartridges spilled, the tracer lashed, and in the vapors shapes stumbled and went down amid the stench of sulfur.
"Sir," someone yelled from the leftmost gun chamber.
Holding his sword so it would not clatter, the captain ran through the connecting tunnel.
"Sir, Yamaki says he saw men moving off on the left. Just a flash of them moving directly away from our position." Gun smoke filled the room, thin and acrid, eating at nasal tissues, tearing up eyes.
"I couldn't see, sir."
Well, it had to be. The American commander wouldn't move his people directly at the guns. The hairy beasts never did that; they didn't have the stomach and they weren't eager to die. They would die if necessary, but they weren't hungry for it. Glorious death meant nothing to them.
The captain tried to think it out.
He'd either go to his left or right, and you'd think he'd go to his left. There was more cover, the vegetation was thicker, and it was hard to bring direct fire because the ridge was steeper. You were mostly in danger from grenades, but the Americans didn't fear the Japanese grenades, because they were so underpowered and erratic.
The captain tried to feel his opponent. His imagination of a white man was someone impossibly big and hairy and pink. He conceived of a cowboy or a ghost, but he knew there'd be intelligence guiding it. The Japanese had learned the hard way over the years that the Americans may not have had honor but they had intelligence. They weren't stupid, they weren't cowards, and there was an endless supply of them.
It came down to left or right? He knew the answer: the right. He'd go to his right. He'd send the flamethrowers up that way because it was less obvious: there wasn't much cover, he'd run into spider holes, but he had the skill to overcome the spider holes. It seemed more dangerous, but a smart hand would have the advantage if he knew how to use terrain and was aggressive.
"I'll take care of it. You men, keep firing. You won't see whole targets, you'll see shapes. Fire on shapes. Be samurai!"
The captain ran back to the central chamber.
"The little gun," he ordered. "Quickly."
A sergeant brought him the submachine gun called the Type 100, an 8 mm weapon whose central design had been stolen from the Germans. It had a wooden stock, a ventilated barrel, and a magazine fitted horizontally to the left from the breech. They were prizes; there were never enough of them to go around. What we could have done with a million of them! We'd be in New York today! The captain had to lobby General Kuribayashi personally to get one assigned to his position.
He threw on a bandolier hung with pouches full of grenades and spare magazines, buckling it tight to his body. Carefully, he disconnected his sword from his belt, laying it aside.
"I want to ambush the flamethrower attack. I'll intercept them well beyond our lines. Give me covering fire."
He turned, nodded to a private, who unlatched the heavy steel door at the rear of the blockhouse, and scrambled out.
"What's your name, son?"
"MacReedy, First Sergeant."
"Can you shoot that thing?" Earl said, indicating the sixteen pounds of automatic rifle the boy held.
"Yes, First Sergeant."
"How 'bout you, son? Can you keep him loaded and hot?"
"Yes, First Sergeant," said MacReedy's ammo bearer, laden with bandoliers of BAR mags.
"Okay, here's what we're going to do. I'm squirming up the ridge. I'm going to check out the draw. When I see a monkey hole, I'm going to put tracer on it. You're with me in a good prone. Where I put tracer, you put five rounds of ball thirty. Hold tight, stay on my forty-five tracer. Tracer won't go through them logs the Japs use as revetment, but the thirty will, 'cause it's moving three times as fast. Your buddy there's going to feed you mags as you run dry. He'll switch them on you. You got that, son?"
"Got it, First Sergeant," said the assistant gunner.
"Now you blowtorch guys, you hang back. We got to clear this out before I can get you up on the ridge and you can get to work. Okay?"
There was a mumble of reluctant assent from his loose confederation of troops clustered just below the ridge, a couple of low, "Yes, First Sergeant."
"And another thing. Out here, where there's Japs, I'm Earl. Forget all the First Sergeant bullshit. Got it?"
With that Earl began his long squirm. He crawled through volcanic ash and black sand. He crawled in a fog of sulfur-stinking dust that floated up to his nose and tongue, layering him with grit. He held his Thompson tight like a woman, felt the two BAR gunners with him close, and watched as Jap tracer flicked insolently above. Now and then a mortar round landed, but mostly it was dust in the air, cut with flecks of light, so brief, so fast you weren't sure you really saw it.
He was happy.
In war, Earl put everything behind him. His dead, raging father no longer screamed at him, his sullen mother no longer drifted away, he was no longer the sheriff's boy, hated by so many others because they so feared his father; he was nobody but First Sergeant and he was happy. He had the United States Marine Corps as a father and a mother now, and the Corps had embraced him and loved him and nurtured him and made him a man. He would not let it down and he would fight to the death for its honor.
Earl got to the crest of the little ridge and poked his head up. Before him he saw a fold in the sandy soil that led up to the blankness of a higher ridgeline, a rill that was a foothill to Suribachi, which rose behind them, blocking all view of the sea. It was 2/28's job to circle around the volcano, cut the mountain off from resupply, then inch up it and take out the mortars, the artillery emplacements, the artillery spotters, and the spider holes and pillboxes that dotted its scabrous surface. It had to be done one firefight at a time, over a long day's dying.
The landscape of the draw seemed empty, a random groove cut in the black sand, clotted with clump grass and bean vines. The odd eucalyptus bush stood out amid the desolation.
Once he would have led men up and all would have died. But like his peers, he had learned the craft of war.
He looked now for gnarled root groupings in the clump grass and eucalypti, for patches of lemongrass, for small, stunted oak trees, for the Japanese had a genius for digging into them, for building small, one-man forts, impregnable to artillery but at the same time inescapable. There was no such thing as a back door. Thus they would die to kill. Retreat and surrender were terms they did not comprehend.
"You set up, MacReedy?"
"On my fire."
Copyright © 2007 by Stephen Hunter