The Pistol

The Pistol

by James Jones

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As Japanese planes attack Pearl Harbor, an army private commits a simple crime that will change his life forever
Richard Mast is a misfit in the infantry unit at Pearl Harbor. A bright mind in a sea of grunts, his only joy on the morning of December 7, 1941, is that today he has guard duty, which means he gets to carry a pistol. Usually reserved only for officers, the close-quarters weapon is coveted by every man in the infantry for its beauty and the sense of strength it gives the wearer. Mast intends to return the gun at the end of his shift—until the Japanese Navy intervenes. Turmoil erupts when the first bombs fall, and as the Army scrambles to organize its response to the swarm of enemy aircraft, Mast decides to hang on to the weapon, becoming a criminal on the day his country most needs heroes. This ebook features an illustrated biography of James Jones including rare photos from the author’s estate.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781453215494
Publisher: Open Road Media
Publication date: 05/10/2011
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 143
Sales rank: 190,701
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

James Jones (1921–1977) was one of the most accomplished American authors of the World War II generation. He served in the U.S. Army from 1939 to 1944, and was present at the attack on Pearl Harbor as well as the battle for Guadalcanal, where he was decorated with a purple heart and bronze star. Jones’s experiences informed his epic novels From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line. His other works include Some Came Running, The Pistol, Go to the Widow-Maker, The Ice-Cream Headache and Other Stories, The Merry Month of May, A Touch of Danger, Whistle, and To the End of the War—a book of previously unpublished fiction.
James Jones (1921–1977) was one of the most accomplished American authors of the World War II generation. He served in the U.S. Army from 1939 to 1944, and was present at the attack on Pearl Harbor as well as the battle for Guadalcanal, where he was decorated with a purple heart and bronze star. Jones’s experiences informed his epic novels From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line. His other works include Some Came Running, The Pistol, Go to the Widow-Maker, The Ice-Cream Headache and Other Stories, The Merry Month of May, A Touch of Danger, Whistle, and To the End of the War—a book of previously unpublished fiction.

Read an Excerpt

The Pistol

By James Jones


Copyright © 1958 James Jones
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-1549-4


When the first bombs lit at Wheeler Field on December 7, 1941, Pfc Richard Mast was eating breakfast. He was also wearing a pistol. From where Mast sat, amidst the bent heads, quiet murmur, and soft, cutlery-against-china sounds of breakfast, in a small company mess in one of the infantry quadrangles of Schofield Barracks, it was perhaps a mile to Wheeler Field, and it took several seconds for the sound of the explosions, followed soon after by the shockwave through the earth, to reach his ears. Obviously, as far as Mast was concerned during those few seconds, the United States was still at peace, although in actual fact she was already, even then, at war. Consequently, during those moments, Mast had no idea at all of getting to keep the pistol he was wearing.

In one way it was unusual for a soldier in peacetime to be wearing a pistol at breakfast, but in another way it was not. The day before, on Saturday's duty roster, Mast and three other men had been named to go on Interior Guard duty. This guard duty lasted from four in the afternoon to four in the afternoon, twenty-four hours, and the men assigned to it daily from the various companies drew pistols, pistol belts, arm brassards and pistol lanyards from their company supply rooms. They were required to sign for these, required to wear them at all times when they were not actually sleeping, and twenty-four hours later when they came off guard, required to turn them back immediately. This was a strict rule. No exceptions to it were allowed in any form. There was a good reason for it.

In our Army, back in those now-dead, very far-off times, pistols were at a premium. The regulation .45-caliber automatic pistol adopted by the Army was a beautiful thing; it was also a potent weapon at close range. But perhaps even more important, it was small enough to steal. It would be pretty hard for any soldier who was being discharged to steal a rifle, even if he dismantled it completely. Not so with the pistol, and any man would have dearly loved to get his hands on a loose one, without signed records following it around. This, however, was next to impossible to do. Not only was very careful track kept of them, but they were also very scarce in an infantry regiment, since they were issued only to Headquarters personnel, officers, and members of machine-gun squads. As a result, about the only time a straight duty rifle private like Mast ever got to put his hands on one, was the twenty-four hours when he went on guard.

All this, of course, went into Mast's enjoyment of wearing, handling and possessing, for twenty-four hours at least, a pistol. But for Mast, who was nineteen and imaginative, there was an even greater pleasure in it. Wearing a pistol on his hip made him feel more like a real soldier, seemed to give him an unbroken lineal connection with the Army of the days of the West and Custer's Cavalry, made him feel that he was really in the Army, a feeling Mast did not often have in what to himself he termed this crumby, lazy outfit. It was almost enough to offset his irritation at having his weekend pass spoiled by guard duty on Sunday.

After the first rack of bombs went off and the sound and shockwave reached the little company mess, there was almost a full minute of thoughtful silence during which everyone looked at everyone else. "Dynamiting?" somebody said. Then another rack fell and exploded and at the same time the first plane came screeching over the quadrangle, its machine guns going full blast. After that there wasn't any doubt and the entire mess jumped up to rush outside.

Mast, being careful to catch up his Sunday half pint of milk so no one could steal it, went too, his pistol riding reassuringly on his hip. A pistol obviously wasn't much good against strafing airplanes, but just the same it felt good to him to have it. It gave Mast a sort of swaggery confidence. He wished rather wistfully, as he watched the next plane come over, that he did not have to turn it in tonight when he went off guard.

It was pretty exciting outside the quadrangle in the street. Out here you could see a big column of black smoke beginning to rise up through the bright morning air from down at Wheeler Field where they were bombing the planes. You could see them twinkling up there in the sun. They looked innocent, as though they had nothing to do with the destruction going on below.

Every few minutes a fighter with the red discs painted on the wings and fuselage would come screeching and blasting over, his MG fire raking the street. Then everyone would surge back against the building. As soon as he was gone, they would surge right back out again and stand staring at the smoke column as if they were personally responsible for it and proud of their achievement. They looked as though they wanted to take credit for the whole thing themselves, without giving the Japs any at all.

Mast, surging backward and forward with them, had an excited feeling of being in on history, of actually seeing history made, and he wondered if any of the other men felt that way. But Mast doubted if they did. Most of them weren't too bright, or very educated.

Mast happened to be one of three high school graduates in his company, and this fact often worked against him, in many ways. Of the other two, one was company clerk and a sergeant, and the other had been carried off on special duty to work in battalion intelligence and was a tech sergeant. But Mast had steadfastly refused to be inveigled into any such job. If he had wanted to be a clerk, he could have enlisted in the Air Corps. As a result, Mast was the only high school graduate doing straight duty as a rifle private in his company, and in a company like this, where almost nobody had completed grade school, almost no one liked or trusted a man who had finished high school.

For a moment, excitedly, Mast thought of drawing his pistol and taking a few blasts at the low-flying planes as they came over, but he was afraid of looking absurd or ridiculous so he didn't. Even though he had made Expert in pistol on the range, he was reasonably sure he would never hit one. But, boy! Mast thought, what if he did hit one? did bring one down single-handed all by himself with his pistol? What a hero he would be, and at only nineteen! Hell, maybe he'd even get a medal. He could imagine the whole thing in his mind as he allowed himself to be jostled back by the men in front as another plane screamed over: the general, the regimental band playing the parade on the division parade ground, the whole business. Boy, what would they think about that back home in Miseryville? Even so, he was still too embarrassed, too afraid of being laughed at, to haul the pistol out.

Actually, Mast was the only man present with a weapon, since the other three men on guard with him had to stay over at the guardhouse and sleep there. That was where Mast himself would have been, if he had not been picked as orderly at guardmount yesterday. Wishing he dared draw it, Mast let his hand fall down to his side and massaged the holster flap of his pistol he knew he would have to turn back this evening.

Just then a heavy hand was laid on his shoulder. Startled, Mast turned around to see First Sergeant Wycoff, a big man in his thirties, looking at him with angry eyes and the same numb, stupid, half-grinning expression on his face that all the others had, including his own.

"Mast, aren't you on guard orderly today?"

"What? Oh. Yeah. Yeah, I am."

"Then you better get your tail on over to Headquarters and report," the First Sergeant said, not unkindly. "They'll probably be needing you for carrying messages."

"Okay," Mast said; "yes, sir," and began to shoulder his way back inside through the press, finishing his bottle of milk as he went. Now why the hell hadn't he thought of that himself? he wondered.

Inside the quadrangle, after he had gone back through the building, Mast found men were running everywhere. Whenever a plane came roaring, sliding over they broke and scattered like bowling pins. Then they would get back up and go back to their running. Mast saw one man actually get shot in the leg. It was unbelievable. He simply fell down and lay there with his head up beating his fists on the ground, whether in anger or anguish Mast could not tell. After the planes passed he was helped to the side lines by two men who ran out, dragging his leg for all the world like an injured football player being helped out of the game.

Up on the roofs of the quadrangle men had begun to appear with machine guns and BARs and were now firing back at the planes as they came over, and from his vantage point under the porch Mast watched them, envying them hungrily. Of all days, he would have to be on guard today; and not only that, would have to get himself picked as guard orderly.

Mast had been on guard plenty of times in the past, but he had never before been chosen orderly. This was because he always became nervous when it came to answering the General Orders questions. He always looked as polished at inspection as everyone else, and he had the General Orders memorized. But whenever the Officer of the Day asked him the questions he would freeze, and his mind would go blank.

And now today of all days, Mast thought regretfully, he would have to make it for orderly. Usually it was the most coveted job, because all you had to do was sit around Headquarters all day outside the Colonel's office and you got your whole night off to yourself, while the rest of them had to stand two hours on and four off, around the clock.

Well, that was just about what he might have expected, Mast thought sadly, have figured on, his customary luck: guard orderly on the day the dirty Japs attacked Oahu.

Standing in under the covered porch and watching the scene before him, a sad, bitter melancholy crept over Mast. It was a feeling that even the longest life was short and the end of it was death and extinction and then rotting away, and that about all a man could expect along the way was frustration, and bitterness, and phoniness in everybody, and hatred. Perhaps being a high school graduate in a company of oafs contributed to it a little bit.

Disdaining to run like the rest of them, even though he could not help feeling a certain nervousness, Mast composed his face into a contemptuous smirk and came out from under the protection of the porch and walked slowly around the square, his pistol swaying bravely on his hip. Twice as he walked flame-spitting planes came sliding over, churning up twin rows of dust across the grass and richocheting screamingly off the brick, and Mast could feel the muscles of his back twitch, but he refused to let himself run or even walk faster.

From under one of the porches of the 3rd Battalion an officer yelled at him, angrily, indignantly, outraged: "Hey, you silly son of a bitch! Get out of there! Are you crazy? Move! Run! That's an order!"

Mast turned his head to look at him, but he did not stop or change his gait. Then suddenly emotion spurted out of him like blood gushing out of a wound. "Go to hell" he shouted happily, knowing that for once he was invulnerable even to an officer. Just then a third plane came screeching, blasting over and his eyes began to blink themselves rapidly, as if that act in itself would offer him protection. Then it was gone, just like that, off over the quad. In some odd way of possessive ownership, of just knowing it was there, the pistol on his hip helped shore up Mast's courage. He sure wished he didn't have to turn it in tonight. It wasn't like a rifle. Didn't give you the same feeling at all. What the damned government ought to do was issue every trooper a rifle and pistol both. They used to. In the Cavalry.

In the Headquarters building upstairs outside the Colonel's office, when Mast got there, everything was in an uproar. Officers were running all over the place, bumping into each other, getting in each other's way. They all had the same numb, stupid, excited look the men in Mast's company had had, the same look Mast could feel on his own face, and once again Mast was struck with that awareness that he was actually seeing history made.

When he finally saw the Adjutant coming out of the Old Man's office, he reported to him and told him he was here.

"What? Oh," the middle-aged first lieutenant said, looking numbly excited, as well as harassed. "Well, stick around. May have something for you to do. Messages or something." He hurried off. Mast sat back down. What a way to spend the bombing of Hawaii. Outside the Jap fighters continued to scream over the quad, blasting. Inside, high-ranking officers continued to bump into each other in their hurry. And Mast sat.

It was some time after the attack was over, several hours, before the adjutant found time to release Mast and send him back to his company. They would not need him further. In the interim he had been sent out with a series of messages from the colonel to the various battalion and company commanders about moving out, and twice he was sent by the adjutant to the motor pool to find out what was holding the trucks up, but that was all.

Slowly Mast trudged back across the quad that was now swarming with activity. Not only had he missed almost all of the attack, but this release of the guard to take the field meant that he would have to turn in the pistol, and all Mast could think of was that if the Japs were landing (or had landed), what a wonderful personal defense weapon that pistol would be. Especially against those Samurai sabers of the officers, about which he had read so much. Because as soon as the other three men on guard reported back also, they would all be required to turn in their pistols for which they'd signed. Gloomily he kicked at a clod ahead of him that a Jap MG had churned up from the green.

When he got back to the company area the first thing Mast found out, however, from one of the disgruntled privates who had been detailed to help load the kitchen truck, was that the other three men from the company were staying behind. The entire Interior Regimental Guard with the sole exception of the orderly, which was himself of course, had been ordered to stay behind and continue their guarding duties until some provision for relieving them could be organized.

For a moment, as he heard this, Mast thought of just going on upstairs and hiding the pistol away in his full-field pack. It would certainly go unnoticed, perhaps for a long time, in this confusion. Perhaps forever. That was what he wanted to do. But what good would the pistol do him if the Japs were on the beaches and it was in his pack? Anyway, he thought with defeat, he had signed his name for it. And some essential of Mast's childhood training, some inherent nervousness at the idea of going against authority, some guilt, and the shame of getting caught, refused to let him do what he desired. Now, if he hadn't signed his name—Hell, it wasn't even simple honesty, Mast raged at himself, it was just plain fear.

But he still couldn't make himself do it. So instead he temporized. Still wearing the pistol and the other accouterments of guard duty, he went into the Orderly Room to report to the first sergeant, to see what might happen. Maybe the First wouldn't even notice it.

"What? Oh," First Sergeant Wycoff said, looking up with harassed eyes. He was behind his desk packing files and report books. "Released you? Well, turn in your gear and go upstairs and pack, Mast," he said, not unkindly. "Field uniform, full-field pack, one barracks bag."

"Yes, sir." Mast's spirits fell. He turned to go.

"And Mast," First Sergeant Wycoff said sharply.

Mast turned around, his heart in his mouth from guilt. He was caught. "Sir?"

"Don't worry about time," the First Sergeant said bitterly, without even looking up. "There'll be plenty of goddamned time for you to pack." He slammed his Morning Report book into a musette bag.

"Yes, sir."

"And Mast," First Sergeant Wycoff said sharply.

Mast turned around, his heart in his mouth from guilt. He was caught. "Sir?"

"Don't worry about time," the First Sergeant said bitterly, without even looking up. "There'll be plenty of goddamned time for you to pack." He slammed his Morning Report book into a musette bag.

"Yes, sir."

Outside, Mast tried to analyze it. The First had told him to turn in his gear. Okay. That was obviously more or less an order. On the other hand, Wycoff had not mentioned the pistol specifically or even looked at it. But then perhaps that was because he always wore one himself when the company was in the field. In addition to his rifle, Mast remembered bitterly. Well, he couldn't very well turn in the other stuff without the pistol. Reluctantly, loving the feel of the pistol on him and in his hand more now than ever before—especially when he thought about those Samurai sabers, Mast turned toward the supply room.


Excerpted from The Pistol by James Jones. Copyright © 1958 James Jones. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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