D-Day, Iwo Jima 0700 hours
We heard the diesels fire up. Metal groaned as the bow of our ship split down the middle and the two twenty-ton doors swung open to the black sea. Behind the doors, amtracs were lined up inside the belly of the ship like green, steel beetles.
On deck, the sound of the ship waking up got our minds focused on the assault ahead of us. We were going to be in the first waves of men to hit the beach. It all made sense, if you were a war planner whocalculated schedules, machines, casualties and such. But we were the ones they made their plans on, so no matter how much sense it made on paper, you're never quite ready to be in that first group--even Marines like the boys in my platoon. They were mostly teenagers, a few were in their early twenties, and inexperienced, except for a few vets like me who rode herd. They were gung-ho and itching to get into the fight but even so, I could read their faces, being the first to face enemy fire was making them think things over. My younger brother George, a vet of Saipan and Tinian, saw these kids back in Hawaii and asked me, "Where the hell are the vets? You're gonna get yourself killed. Y'oughta come over to the 4th with me."
"Nothing doin'," I told him. "I'm stayin' put."
"Stubborn fuck, always were." George spit on the deck. Seemed like he didn't give a shit about anything anymore. I guessed it was from Saipan--where they say things got pretty rough. Over three thousand men, including most of his friends, got killed.
We were the 5th Division. Like George said, we had a lot of the younger legs in our outfit. Those young legs would get us across the beach faster to the airfield, our first objective. But we both knew that these youngsters would take the brunt of the dying. When you know how war works, like a wolf pack on the hunt, it made sense. But it still wasn't right. These boys were the bravest we had. They didn't wait to get drafted, they joined the Marines, and that should count for something. But of course, in the logic of war, it didn't.
The boys finished their prayers and the chaplain blessed us. The swabbies powered up more diesels and set to work getting the landing craft--medium (LCMs) and landing craft--personnel (LCPs) that would bring in the supplies after we hit the beach, hoisted up on the davits and swung over the side. All the activity set the boys murmuringto each other, "Here we go," and "This is it." For a second some of them looked down, bit their lips, like kids anywhere who were about to be punished. Inside I know some were panicking, feeling their nerve fail, even after all the training and preparation. Their instinct for survival was taking over. They wanted to beg for their lives, or hide in some cubbyhole or ammo crate of our huge transport ship, but they didn't do it. They sucked it up and believed they were ready. They weren't. What can I tell you about these young guys standing out on the cold deck with me? I loved them as much as my own brothers. Some were skinheaded young boots when they came into my platoon, some were fresh out of paratrooper school and were pissed off to be humping metal through the mud instead of floating down from the air under green silk. But all that was over now. The last six months of training together every day made them as tough and tight-knit a fighting platoon as I ever knew. They were the kind of heroes I wanted to be, not the Medal of Honor showboat that Topside wanted me to be.
Then a strange thing happened. As I watched them, I felt something release, all of a sudden. I can't really explain it, but it felt like a knot in my chest, that was there all my life, suddenly came loose. I was free somehow and quiet inside. The voice that had been inside my head since I can remember, the one that whispers all the time and gets loud when you do something wrong, was suddenly gone. When that voice in your head suddenly stops, you notice. At least I did, because I had learned to listen to it. It sounds strange and I don't go in for any sort of mumbo jumbo as a rule, but the voice told me the future, and did it more than once. Three different times I heard it clear as a bell, and it was right all three times. So I guess I learned to listen a little closer than most people. The voice was definitely gone. Maybe I just didn't need it anymore.
It was half-light, just as the sun was crowning over the horizon behind storm clouds. It was February 19th, 1945, Monday, the beginning of the workweek. We were scheduled to hit the beach at 0900. Christ almighty, Monday at 9 A.M. just like we were starting a new job, punching a time clock. It made you wonder if God didn't have some kind of dark sense of humor. The heavy seas of last night had calmed down to gentle swells. I was standing there on deck and must have looked like a tourist with nothing to do. I looked up. Storm clouds covered us like dirty wool. They changed their mind every ten minutes whether to rain or not. At the horizon, the clouds broke up. Behind them was a red-orange sky and I remembered, " ... Red sky at morning, sailors take warning," but it was too late for warnings now.
Then the boys heard the amtrac engines firing up belowdecks and they looked at me like, "What do we do now, Sarge?" Fear was already beginning to numb them. It was a natural reaction. They were like deer sensing the hungry wolves were already too close. They knew it was too late to run so they froze, hoping the wolves would miss them. And there they stood, my platoon of fifty-eight young warriors, still as sticks, looking at me. I told them to get down the gangways and get going.
I knew what was about to happen to them. They didn't know and so they were afraid. But I knew. "All Marines prepare to disembark!" The loudspeaker backed me up. The boys gathered up their things, all in a rush, like they were going to miss something. They weren't going to miss anything. They packed up the heavy 30-cal Brownies, the air-cooled 30s, the mortars, the razor-stropped K-Bar knives and bayonets. They wouldn't need any of these things right now. They would just need their young legs to carry them as far and as fast as they could, across the beach, straight into a nightmarethey would never wake up from. The guns and the knives would come later, for those of us who were left to fight back.
They would need me even more, very soon. They would think that hell had opened up a back door just for them. They wouldn't know which way to go. Some wouldn't be able to move and would be surprised that their legs didn't obey. You couldn't tell which ones by looking at them. The bravest ones in camp sometimes buried their faces in the sand and wet their pants. You just couldn't tell and neither could they. That's when they'll need me. They'll need me to pull them or kick them to get off the beach. Maybe that's why I'm calm, because I know I'll save some of them.
We filed down the gangways into the ship's steel belly. Half of my boys loaded into amphibious tractor 3C27 with me. Amtrac 3C27 was an armor-plated, rectangular tub made for delivering men onto a beach. It rode low and slow in the water. The best of them couldn't take much more than a two-foot ocean swell. What we found out was that if they didn't sink in the water, they sank in the loose, volcanic sand. It seemed like war plans never went according to plan.
We climbed into the hold of this steel tank. The engines thundered inside the metal walls of the ship. We rolled down the ramp and plopped into the open ocean. The driver gunned the engine and we churned away toward the island just over a mile in front of us.
The fellas were hunkered down in the hold and some were starting to look as green as the olive-drab metal around us. There was already an inch of water on the deck. Some of the boys were worried about that. We all heard the joke about these things capsizing if two men farted in the same direction. Then the big Navy guns opened up. They threw the big 16-inch shells that weighed as much as a Jeep. They threw them a few miles and we could see them hit theside of Mount Suribachi on shore with a little red flash and gray blossoms of debris thrown up. The force of the cannon fire pushed sixfoot waves out from the battleships. These concussion waves rode up under our keel, tossing us up higher and flipping our steak and eggs breakfast over in our bellies.
"It's gonna be alright, boys. They're gonna be dizzy as shithouse rats after we get done pounding 'em," I lied--just like Topside lied to us when they told us it would be over in seventy-two hours. All of us vets knew that seventy-two hours was pure bullshit and said so. It was like an involuntary reaction. The minute it dropped from the CO's mouth, it sounded like a dozen men coughed at once. But it was a dozen mumbled bullshits jumping right off the lips of us vets. We couldn't help it. There were twenty-two thousand Japanese jungle fighters straight ahead who had been digging in and calibrating their guns for the past three months. That meant they had coordinates for every square inch of beach and could put Japanese steel on any point almost instantly. Maybe they thought we were all young boots who hadn't seen action yet.
We also expected mines and railroad ties raked at a 45-degree angle in the shallow surf that could punch through the bottom of our amtrac like a tin can. Before we got in the boats we smeared white flash cream on our faces, a thick grease that smelled like a garage floor. This was to protect us from the drums of gasoline that might explode under our tracks as we got close to the beach.
We didn't know it at the time, but the Japs also had new weapons: an array of huge mortars and an early version of a buzz bomb--a rocket-propelled aerial bomb. They were dug so deep into the lava and coral rock that even the 16-inch navy shells weren't touching them. We didn't know that at the time either.
But I got the boys' minds off the mess around their feet. The ones who were staring straight ahead were the ones I worried about. They knew they were about to run up and knock on the main gate to hell. But there was nothing much I could do for them until they did. They had heard all the horror stories--the Japs didn't take prisoners, they tortured you, then cut your head off. Some of them ate your liver. These boys weren't innocent like we were before Guadalcanal. And they were still ready to face whatever came at them.
Once we got up to speed, the side-to-side heaving mostly stopped and the engine noise cut out most of the opportunity for nervous chatter. It was all business now, everyone in their own thoughts. These poor boys. For a moment they all thought they were going to be the lucky one, in the next they'd remember a time when they got hit by a foul ball or tripped in the obstacle course. They'd remember a time when they weren't lucky and then they'd worry. Once you know for sure that no one is lucky, that luck has nothing to do with you personally--it's either your time or it isn't--you just get on with it.
We had time to think about what we were up against and pray while our floating tank churned through the swells. The tension and the bobbing up and down caused a few of the greener-looking boys to finally lose their steak and eggs breakfast. That started up a healthy round of cursing as the puke mixed with the seawater around our feet. Threats and counterthreats flew back and forth. It broke some of the tension. Those who didn't have one already, lit up a smoke to cover the smell.
We reached the line of departure about a mile from the beach and started circling. The clouds had lifted a bit and the big navy guns let up while the flyboys came in with rockets and 500-pound bombs. The island started sprouting mushrooms of gray dust wherethe bombs hit. The beach of black volcanic sand was just a wavy pencil line under the dishwater sky. Off to the left, Mount Suribachi squatted--its old, busted volcano top was just 550 feet above the beach.
We circled to the left, counterclockwise. The sea was crowded with our armada of 880 ships. In convoy, our formation stretched for seventy miles. We continued circling and to the south were ships laying out ten miles toward the horizon. We continued around and more ships stretched out to the east. A week ago we sailed from Hawaii to take Japan's front porch. Now, as our amtrac completed its first circle, the front porch was right in front of us. The Japs called it Iwo Jima--Sulfur Island.
The swelling mushrooms of dust and smoke thrown up by our firepower made it hard to see anything of the island. We started the next go-round. It was like everything else in a Marine's life, going in circles, waiting and trying to stay comfortable while hoping whatever was next wouldn't hurt too bad. When you get tired of worrying, your mind goes back home.
I saw the Raritan Valley Country Club for the first time and knew that was what I wanted. At least I thought so when I was sixteen. It had been carved out of New Jersey cow pastures and cornfields and was still surrounded by them. In the early morning, the fairways were silver with dew. Cowbells clanked in lazy time as the big Jerseys and Holsteins were let out of their barn and wandered to their grazing spot. That was my time. It was like the place was all mine then and sometimes I would just take off walking the fairways. In a few weeks I knew every tree and dimple in the grass by heart.
When I first started caddying, I thought that was it. I thought I could carry bags for the rest of my life, live on tips and be happy. After a few weeks, the bags weren't even heavy to me. I carried two bags without a problem. The only thing that interrupted my daydream was the fact that by the third hole, my feet were soaked. I wore the twice handed-down shoes from my older brothers Angelo and Carlo. The tops were so creased and cracked that the water soaked right through. The soles were split. I looked like Li'l Abner in Dog-patch. I hated those goddamn shoes.
This one day the double bags were already cutting into each shoulder but that didn't bother me as much as waiting for these damn slow players I drew. They knew me and considered it some kind of ritual that they pick me every time. I thought it was a good luck, superstitious thing but I found out later they were concerned that I would be insulted if they picked someone else. Insulting somebody was a very big deal to these guys. Don't get me wrong, they were nice enough and treated me well but that didn't make up for it. They were just so slow--I wanted to throw the bags down and start hopping around like a crazy Indian just to get a rise out of them, but I didn't, of course.
They played golf like they were building a bridge. Weighing, measuring, consulting. They took three and four practice swings. They sighted along the shaft of the club for the lay of the land. With this crew I only ever got in one round before lunch. I guess they realized this and so they over-tipped me. They were real considerate but by the time we got around to the back nine, I was ready to run off howling across a cornfield. Then one time, everything was pretty much normal--I was being nice, they were being nice--one of them saw me tapping my foot. Some song I'd heard on the radio was in my head and the boredom got to me and I was tapping my foot. That's how stupid life is sometimes. You're just tapping your foot and suddenly you're the shitbird. The guy who looked at me wasn't even shooting. He sort of raked his head to one side then straightened up and looked a hole in me. I thought he was looking beyond me for a second because he was real still, like he was looking at something far away. But it was me. When a guy looks at me like that, it usually means he's looking to get his ass kicked, but I let it go because I was still just a kid.
Tapping or no tapping, they weren't going to be rushed. Old ladies played through. The sun came up and dried the dew off the grass. These guys just smiled and bowed and kept playing. They couldn't help it--the politeness and the bowing. It was their religion, or something. And the endless chatter, in their strange hard language--Japanese. It sounded like a flat tire flapping. What were they laughing about?
That was the first time the voice in my head showed me the future. It said, "Wake up!" but I wasn't sleeping. I got the feeling like I was looking through a telescope, like I was seeing something I wasn't supposed to see. It came over me in a snap and since it was the firsttime, it went away before I knew what to think. But I saw it and I never forgot it. I saw that I was going to have trouble with these guys--these Japanese people. I didn't know how or when or anything. But it was clear enough that I went home and told my big sister Phyllis and of course she didn't know what the hell I was talking about. I told George who never paid a bit of attention to me anyhow and I told Carlo, who was just a year older than me. Carlo was a sweet kid, wouldn't hurt a fly. He listened to me and said, "Whatta ya think it means, Johnny?"
"Beats me. But it's gotta mean something."
"Maybe you were just day-dreaming. That can happen, you know."
Trouble with anybody was just about the furthest thing from Carlo's mind. He couldn't picture it. But I could. It seemed like plenty of things were cause for trouble if you asked me. Not that I asked for it, or that I wanted trouble, but when things just don't go your way and you start tapping your foot or something stupid like that, things are just naturally going to go wrong. It just seems like nature is set up to make certain people fight.
I had nothing against Japanese people then and the truth is I got nothing against them now, but I knew for sure, ten years before it happened, that there was going to be trouble. So don't tell me people only know what they can see and hear, I know better. There are things in the world that are so mysterious that there aren't even words for them.
Caddying at the country club, I'd make a dollar a round, maybe. Not bad for a kid in 1933. It paid enough to keep me in movies and ice cream and sometimes enough to make a contribution to the family coffers. But it wasn't a real job, like working in a garage or in one ofthe shops around town. I just couldn't stand the idea of that--being cooped up in a box all day. I had to be out and mixing it up. I don't know, I just wasn't cut out for regular work like most people. As far as I could tell none of the other nine Basilone kids had this problem. Maybe it was wanderlust like Phyllis said, maybe it was something else.
How did people do it? It was the same in school for me. I couldn't sit still. The words went in one ear and out the other. The numbers just sat on the page and teased me. While all the time my legs were twitching to get up and run. What was I supposed to do? The clock on the classroom wall was some kind of Chinese torture device. It sometimes went backward when I looked down for a second. Then I'd look out the window and suddenly the thing would leap ahead fifteen minutes and the teacher would be calling on me for my answer. It didn't matter what I said. I knew some of the kids would laugh. I wasn't that smart in school, but I wasn't dumb, not by a long shot. I knew what was going on. I just couldn't sit still and pay attention.
No matter what I did, I was always getting into trouble. The nuns at St. Bernard's would warn me, "Johnny Basilone! If you don't settle down, we're going to take points away from you!" We had points for conduct, points for grades, points for everything.
"Take them all away," just leaped out of my mouth. I wasn't really a bad kid, just talkative. But for me school was hopeless. I hated how it made me feel. I didn't want to be a bad student and embarrass everybody, so I quit. I didn't see how it was doing any good. So to hell with it. I figured I'd get a job and be just fine.
Pop didn't like the sound of it when I told him, but he wasn't one to put up a big fight about things. He wasn't going to let me off so easy, so we went a couple of rounds at the dinner table.
"Johnny," he said to me, "what is it? Somebody bothering you at school?"
"Nah, Pop. It's just not for me. I can't keep my mind on things. I gotta be out, outside. I want to get a job. It's just not doing me any good in school."
He came at me a dozen different ways and I came back with the same reasons. I just couldn't make it work. After a while he could see it was just making me mad and he let off. He knew I was stubborn and so did everybody else in the family. That's the way it is when you're at the bottom of a pile of older brothers. If you don't stand your ground, you're gonna end up in the shit. So that's the way I am and I make no apologies.
He said I could try working for a while, maybe I'd change my mind. I was a lot like him, so he understood what I was going through easier than Mom did. He had only finished enough school so that he could read, then went to work as a tailor's apprentice when he was still a kid. He worked all his life as a tailor in hot, cramped little shops. First back in Naples, then in the States when they came over. He never complained once. In fact, he thought he had the greatest life anyone could wish for. To him America was a dream that he couldn't even imagine for the first part of his life. America had given him the ability to raise ten children in a home that he owned. He was a simple tailor, uneducated but " ... look at my life," he said like he was showing off a castle. "Look at what I got. No man has more than me." That ended most conversations because all you could do was agree. After work on some days, he'd walk to his Italian club a few blocks from his shop, drink coffee, play dominoes and speak Italian to his buddies from the old country but that was as close as he wanted to come to Italy. They'd talk mostly about familiesand whose kid was doing what. They'd lie to keep up with their big hopes. One would say his kid was going to be an electrician, the next would top him about how his kid was learning everything about radios. The topper of all was somebody going to college " ... like Mr. Roosevelt's boy." There was no place more American than Pop's Italian club. In or out of the club, nobody could say the hint of a bad word about America in front of my old man. He loved to say nobody was better than anybody else in America. So he didn't worry about my future too much. If a poor, uneducated immigrant tailor like him could live well, anyone willing to work hard could do the same.
We didn't know from nothing as kids. Raritan was in the middle of New Jersey farm country so we didn't have a lot of news like city kids. We only had what we could get off the funnies and the radio sometimes. So we were always playing Lone Ranger, fighting bad guys and Indians. One of the older guys would claim to be the Lone Ranger and that left Tonto, if you wanted to be a good guy--and I always wanted to be a good guy. I didn't mind playing Tonto because he seemed to be the one who always knew how to get out of a jam. I don't know how we kept it up for hours and hours but we did. That was mostly what it was like growing up--endless battles against bad characters and long adventure hikes into neighboring farmlands.
My stubborn streak started to show early on in life. I got it in my mind one day to tame a bull. It wasn't like I hadn't seen a bull before and didn't know what I was getting into. I knew what a bull was. I just figured other people didn't know how to handle bulls and I did. I was twelve and stubborn even then. I figured to make this bull, Archie, my pet. I could give my friends rides on him and people would be amazed at the things I could make him do. I had it all figured out. So I climbed the fence into Archie's pasture where I waswarned never to go because Archie would kill me. To hell with that, I'm going to make Archie my pet, I'm thinking.
"Hi Archie," I started casually so he wouldn't catch on that I was the boss right away. He lifted his head to look at me as I crossed the pasture. I figured he would remember me since I was the kid that threw him apples sometimes. The closer I got, the bigger Archie got. I started to think maybe this wasn't such a great idea. Archie was huge. That silver ring on his nose was thick steel and dented and covered with snot. And it wasn't on his nose, it was through his nose--piercing the soft part. Now right away I figured that's why he was as mean as everybody said. Archie didn't take his eyes off me. His head was as big as a hundred-pound pumpkin and flat in front like a rock. I right away sympathized with him about the ring. I explained that when he became my pet I would get rid of it. " ... Right boy?" I said and reached out my hand to pet him on the head. He tossed his head and looked me in the eye. Damn, now I was scared but I wasn't going to run. He was going to be my pet and that was that. I just kept talking to him soft and slow, telling how we were going to have fun when he became my pet. I'd get him apples every day. While I was negotiating, Archie started to lower his head, keeping me in his sight at all times. He blew hard out of his nostrils. I knew he was getting mad but I also knew all animals were like that. They don't want to do anything until you make them and then they like it and everybody gets along fine. I'm just going to keep up coming here, I told Archie, so you better get used to it. You're going to be ... I don't think I got the whole sentence out before Archie took two fast steps at me, caught me between his horns and threw me about twenty feet over his back. It happened so fast. One second I was standing there explaining to Archie how fine it was going to be when he became mypet, the next second I was ten feet in the air. I hit the down side of a little slope to the creek that let me roll out of my fall instead of splattering flat on the ground. I rolled over and onto my feet, which were already spinning. I never ran as fast as I did that day. I was over the fence and a quarter mile down the next field before I slowed down. Archie never did become my pet.
Country life was beautiful now when I think back on it. We didn't carry our worries around like some city people you see. We swam in the creek in the summer. We swam naked because nobody had special swimming pants, so no girls were allowed except on special occasions like the Fourth of July when we reluctantly covered up. We called our local resort Bare Ass Beach. We made snow forts in the winter. We got used to being quiet. We got used to the quiet that comes over a little town when the sun quits and everybody goes inside for supper. That's how it was. We were poor. Practically everybody we knew was poor. We didn't even have a nickel to spare for candy most times but we didn't care at all. Sugar on buttered bread was just as good. We were Americans so everything was possible.
Older brothers throw their weight around. It's just the way things are. Shit rolls downhill so by the time you are third or fourth in the line of older brothers, you can get buried in it. One or two, maybe I could have put up with that. But me being as far down as I was, it was just too much. I fought back. I wasn't going to put up with shit from Angelo, and I wasn't going to let him boss Carlo around either because Carlo never fought back. So I took him on for both me and Carlo even though Carlo was older than me. He wasn't going to steal our stuff and make us do chores he was supposed to do, not on mywatch. So I learned to fight. The older I got the better and tougher I got. At first I just took on the scarecrows I'd find in the fields. I'd shadow box and wrestle with Carlo just to get my moves down for when the big showdown came. He'd put up a fight knowing it was all just pretend, that I wasn't really going to hurt him. But at around thirteen I started putting on muscle and that's when I started caddying. I also worked summers baling hay for the local farmers.
Now that was my kind of work. I'd stand up in the wagon as the others walked behind and snatched bales off the ground and chucked them up to me. It was usually me and a few of the farmer's sons or cousins, sometimes even his wife. These farm people were tough. I once baled hay with a sixty-year-old woman, a granny, who was throwing the bales up to me. I'd swat them on the ends with the baling hooks and hoist them up to the next guy who would stack them in the wagon. Sometimes we'd have two above me in the wagon when the stack got over six feet, one in the middle passing the bale up to the top man. There was a rhythm to the work and I laid into it, feeling the power in my arms and back. After the first day or two, when the soreness left, I could feel the bales getting lighter. It might sound boring but it wasn't. It was the group of us working together. Around noon we'd break and sit under the wagon or a tree for shade. We'd get a farm lunch brought to us--fried chicken or baloney sandwiches and lemonade. If there was a creek along the field, we'd be in it. Of course, if the female cousins or sisters were haying with us, that added a lot to the picture. The pay wasn't too good, couple of bucks a day, but I liked it and it built up my arms and shoulders so that I could swat like hell with either hand.
I wasn't near to being able to square off with any of the older guys. It seemed like they were going to torment me forever until I found out the secret; I could attack and scare the hell out of them. Even thoughI was smaller, I could put on a show like I was some kind of wild Indian and get them to back down. It was a miracle to me and I remember telling myself, this was how I was going to be. If anybody bothered me, I could take care of it by getting down to business first--going on the attack. It must've first happened some time around that summer when I was fourteen. The particular incident isn't very clear but it was after I was starting to have trouble in school. We were playing cowboys and Indians or cops and robbers as usual. I had one of the few decent toy guns we owned. It might have been the one we made out of a piece of pipe. Anyway, Angelo came up and tried to bully me out of it, snatching it out of my hand. That was it. I went to work on him in a way that scared the hell out of all the kids in the neighborhood. He tried to fight me off but I had the drop on him and knocked him over to where gravity and a few rocks on the ground did the rest. He landed like a sack of potatoes and I jumped on him to get in my licks before he could get up. The other kids dragged me off but not before I had added a few bruises of my own to him. That was it. He didn't say a word at the dinner table that night and Pop could tell something had happened. Later on, George spilled to him what happened. There was no discussion after that and he didn't bring any trouble toward me or Carlo ever again. Maybe that's how I learned the power of the attack.
I wanted to test this new power, of course, to see how far I could go. I wasn't going to pick fights with anybody or that kind of thing, but I had a real feeling I could lick almost anybody near my size. At first I just played around with kid stuff--charging over walls at people or challenging two guys to wrestle me at once. That didn't work great because I was getting too rough and it ruined the game. I was getting too big to play kid games anyway.
Before I left St. Bernard's to find my way in the world, I found a heavy bag in the school gym that almost nobody ever used. Like I said, this was about the time I was starting to have trouble in school, so the bag came in handy. After school, or even sometimes if I didn't care about being late, I'd go into the gym and take a few swats at it. I've got to tell you that felt good.
I hit that bag and I felt the power shoot from my chest, through my shoulder, down my arm and WAM!--into that bag. The thing didn't move, didn't even dent at first. It was like I was a fly beating my wings against the thing and that gave me the concentration. I just wanted to make a dent, even a little dent in that big, stupid bag. So that's where I started, trying to make a dent in a dusty, old, heavy bag. After a while I could make a dent by hitting it in the same place four or five times.
I started listening to the fights on the radio with Pop. He wasn't a big fight fan until the Italian giant Primo Carnera knocked out Ernie Schaaf in thirteen rounds in New York. Carnera was six foot, seven inches tall and weighed 270 pounds. They called him "The Amblin' Alp" because he was as big as a mountain. Pop took a lot of pride from the fact that Carnera was a new hero in America. He said if I wanted to be a fighter like Carnera, that was okay with him. That's when I really started to get to work.
Carnera was 23-2 and had even knocked out Jack Sharkey who most people thought was going to be the champ. So he became my hero. I guess like a lot of other Italian guys. I started working hard at the heavy bag, still trying to make a little dent in it. I got to where I started to be able to make the bag move. Again, it was a slow start because I just didn't have the power yet but I was starting to get the thing to swing on its chain a little bit.
Then a surprising thing happened. Angelo decided he wanted to be my trainer and sparring partner. He'd seen some movie I think on top of being all excited by Carnera. Maybe he was thinking he wanted to be a fighter too, I don't know, but he put together a training routine from what he saw in the movie. Mainly it was running and jumping rope--we used an old piece of clothesline--and for some dumb reason, chopping wood. It was in the movie, so that's the way it had to be. I could see the problem coming again with Angelo and me. But for a while I followed his lead. We ran in the morning before school and ran before dinner. He worked push-ups and sit-ups into our routine and kept track of everything in a little black notebook he kept. I've got to give him credit, he taught me discipline. He never missed a training session and wouldn't let me miss one either. It was about this time that things were taking a bad turn for me at school.
I don't know how much women had to do with the fact I couldn't sit still in school, but ever since I started noticing them I've been what you might politely call a ladies' man. They liked me too, which made the problem worse. They started coming up to me and asking which one of the Basilone boys I was, which they already knew, or if I was going to go out for the football team. They would've helped me with the schoolwork if I'd asked them, I'm sure. But I would never do it. I wasn't going to pretend to know something if I didn't. I didn't care if I flunked out, I wasn't going to do it. I guess that's the bad part of being stubborn, but that's the way I am.
Marion Brown lived down the street from us. I'd known her most of my life, at least since we were little kids. We played together in the whole mix with the other neighborhood kids. When we got a littlebigger and our roughhouse games got a little too rough, she stopped playing with us. I forgot about her for about five years and went on with my muddy, bloody boyhood scrapes and scrambles. As I was growing out of cops and robbers, she still stayed away. That lasted until I saw her in school when the first change of life, when we changed from kids to teenagers, came over us. She was still quiet and gentle, just the way she was as a little kid, but she was a woman. It seemed like it happened that quick. She walked around a corner one day and, there you go, she was as grown up as anything you'd see in a fashion magazine. Jesus, she was fine as china.
I couldn't keep my eyes from drifting to her and teased her when I could just to get her attention. I sort of took up where we left off as kids, poking her arm, tickling her. The honest truth was I'd do just about anything to touch her but she put an end to that with a swat at my face that let me know where the line was. She could never hit me since I'd been practicing my head bobbing and weaving for my match up against Primo Carnera one day, but that fire in her eyes let me know where to get off. And that fire just made it all worse. I'm not saying I never looked at another girl, not by a long shot. But Marion was that special one that sort of put the others in the shade when she came around. I came right around to my polite side after I felt the wind from her right hook come across my nose. She had a pretty decent swing for a girl, you could tell there was some power behind it. I apologized right away just so she knew I wasn't one of those guys who don't know when to quit.
"You keep your hands to yourself," she said.
She looked at me, more like straight through me, getting a read on my face to see if I was some kind of joker. That was the goddamnedest five seconds of my young life. I thought I was going to fall over.
When I could, I made sure I left school at the same time as she did so I could walk with her. It wasn't like we were total strangers, so talking to her was pretty easy compared to most girls. We fell into a natural friendship again and I felt good being close to her. I wanted her to feel like she could count on me, like I could take care of anything that came up, so I bragged a little bit on the sly, letting her know I was training to be a fighter like Primo. She thought that was pretty funny but I didn't see the humor in it and got pretty hot.
It got to be where I was carrying her books home pretty much every day and being invited into her parent's house for a cider or hot chocolate as winter came on. We never made a big deal out of being together, like her having a ring or her wearing my varsity sweater--I didn't have a varsity sweater. But people knew, and we knew and that was enough.
It came to a point in my training as a fighter that I was ready to start sparring. At least that was the opinion of my manager, Angelo. I worked at first practicing bare-fisted against the palms of his hands, like he'd seen in the movie. I think it was Pat O'Brien who was in the movie and sure hoped they got it right, otherwise I might be learning all the wrong things. Anyway, I was just working on the basics of trying to hit a moving target with my fists. One thing became clear right away, I had more stamina to stand there and swing than Angelo had just to stand there and get his palms slapped. It was just like in school. I had more energy than a normal person but if I ever got in a real ring with a real fighter, that wasn't going to be the problem it was in school.
I started to dream about fights and saw all the moves--the feints, the jabs and the shot to Primo's gigantic chin that would send himsprawling like Goliath in the Bible. I was spending more and more time training and less time on my schoolwork. Maybe if Mom and Pop had more school themselves, they would have been able to help me more. But in our house, school was something that was supposed to help you get a good job. I could already read and write as well as anybody, so I didn't see the reason to keep beating my brains against algebra and French grammar problems. I was going to be a fighter. My fists could do the talking. I think that was something Angelo heard in the movie, because I got it from him.
It was time for real sparring. We took ten-pound flour and potato sacks, filled them up with wadded-up newspaper and tied them over our hands. It took a few minutes to form the sacks and paper into something that looked like boxing gloves but it did the trick eventually. That was when I thought the real fun would begin. I could really get a feel for the contact and see if I had what it took to get in and scrap with another fighter, even though it was only my brother. I had what it took all right, but I wouldn't use it until I got good and mad. All those years of holding back against my brother so nobody would get hurt--which would make Pop yell, meant I couldn't connect with any power. It was a tap fight which was okay, but it didn't let me unload, which was what I was itching to do. My sisters didn't like to watch us spar, they thought it was stupid, so it was usually just us and maybe Carlo when he wanted to referee. We thought it was the height of entertainment and considered building an outdoor ring where we could charge admission to the neighbors to watch us spar. The tap fighting was good for a while. We were getting our reflexes tuned up and maybe just as important for new fighters, we were getting over the shock of getting hit. A tap on the nose, the cheek or inthe gut sent the message but didn't do the damage. Our minds were getting adjusted to the idea that pain was coming and we would have to overcome it. Angelo still had the reach on me and the weight, so whenever he wanted to he could up the ante and let one of his stingers fly. I couldn't afford to get in close unless I was willing to get another stinger even worse, so for a while I stayed outside and took the occasional swat. It didn't bother me because I knew it was all part of the training. I was building up my tolerance to pain and I knew that was part of the whole picture.
It was only a matter of time, as anyone who has been around competing brothers knows, before they would have to have it out to see who was going to be the top dog in the pack. Our time came during a sparring session that was set up especially to be an official, scored event. We had a referee, probably Carlo again, a judge or two to count the blows and time the rounds. It was billed as a three-round main event with the decision of the judges final as to who would be the new welterweight champion of Raritan, New Jersey. We didn't know what welterweight meant but it sounded better than lightweight and we knew we weren't heavyweights. So we guessed that we were welterweights. The first round started out with lots of mean looks and fancy footwork, feints, jabs and bobbing and weaving, all on display to show the crowd that we were trained professionals who knew what we were doing. Then all hell broke loose. Angelo stepped into me and walloped me with a right hand that left my ear ringing and my head spinning. I backpedaled to get away from him but he was coming right after me. Then he hit me with a combination that nearly crippled me. I wasn't ready for this attack. I thought it was going to be an exhibition match that got scored on points and skill but it looked like Angelo was going to try andknock me out. The fear and pain turned around in me when I saw what he was up to and I played possum, like I was hurt and ready to hit the deck with his next swing. I let him close in so I could get inside his reach and then I exploded on him. He walked right into the giant killer shot on the chin that I had seen in my dreams. He was Primo Carnera, the Goliath that always beat the hell out of me until I unloaded on him with an equalizer. I'm surprised that shot didn't take out a few of his teeth because we only used bubble gum as pretend rubber mouth protectors. I was still mad as hell and went after him while he was still reeling. I took him apart. Apparently a few in the crowd had their problems with Angelo bullying them as well and their cheering brought Pop out to the backyard to see what the ruckus was about. He saw me whipping the living piss out of his oldest son. I didn't really know what I was doing but I was doing what came naturally to me and it landed Angelo flat on his back. Pop jumped in and pulled me away. Then everybody got real quiet. There wasn't anybody raising my arm and proclaiming me the new "Champeen of the world!!" like in my dream. It was just that sickening quiet time after any battle when the adrenaline fades and you wait to see who is going to stand up again. Angelo was just shaken up and had the wind knocked out of him. I think it was the only time I saw Pop lose his temper. After he knew Angelo was going to be okay, he wheeled on me like I was the bully after his innocent boy.
"Whatta you trying to do!" he yelled at me. "Kill somebody!" He tore the bags off my hands and sent me into the house to tell my mother what I'd done. It was the end of the Basilone Boxing Club and Training Camp. From now on if I wanted to box, I'd have to do it in a proper gym.
We were about a mile off shore, still at the line of departure and I could see racks of five-inch missiles being fired from LSMRs (meaning Landing Ship Medium Rocket) that ran parallel to the beach. We were unloading the whole arsenal on them now; battleships and heavy cruisers blasted dents in the slopes of Suribachi. Navy Hellcats and Marine Corsairs flew in low and laid blankets of flaming napalm just beyond the beach and down the side of Suribachi. There was so much goddamn smoke and noise you couldn't see or hear anything. Then the guns let up, the planes flew off and there was nothing but a dust cloud where Iwo Jima used to be and the droning of our amtrac engine. This was it. A few of the boys looked up. Their faces were covered with the chalk-white flash cream. They looked like the Mexican Day of the Dead figurines they sold in some of the Mexican fruit stands around Pendleton. The line control boat waved the diagonal-striped signal flag and our driver gunned the engine. Weswung out of our circle and headed straight for the beach. I don't want to give the idea that this was any kind of high-speed dash. Amtracs don't do anything at high speed, especially when they are loaded down with twenty-five men and a thousand pounds of supplies and weapons. The thing more or less waddled around and started grinding toward the beach. It didn't give you a lot of confidence that you were going to come in fast and low. Amtracs didn't move fast and they didn't turn well. They were just tanks that floated a little. If you were lucky they stayed above water and went straight ahead.
A few more of the boys tossed their steak and eggs as we came around. Tension had been ratcheting up as we turned around in circles at the rally point. This was it, we were going in.
I got up behind the 50-cal machine gun mounted by the driver. Orders were not to fire unless we saw enemy, but I knew we wouldn't see any. After three months of waiting for us, they were dug in too deep, and the Japs were too good at camouflage. We wouldn't see a damn thing. So I planned to shoot everything, just to be sure. I chambered the 50 and squeezed off a few rounds. The driver reminded me of orders not to fire unless we saw something and I gave him my opinion, "Fuck orders and fuck you, Mac."
Except for me squeezing off a few rounds at a time, it was a quiet ride. That terrible kind of quiet. Just the engine grinding away and no other sound in the world. We got to within range of their guns and still no incoming. I didn't want to think about what might be waiting for us in the shallow surf. They'd had plenty of time to mine and booby-trap every inch of shoreline. They could impale us on steel rails just under the surface so we would block the approach, or take long, steady aim as we wallowed in at six knots and blow us out of the water. I fired off a couple more rounds into the breakers where the mines might be.Some of the other gunners got the same idea so that "No firing until you see targets" order went all to hell real quick.
We were closing in, less than two hundred yards to go. This is where things can turn ugly fast but still nothing. What the hell were they waiting for? I touched the little pocket Bible in my breast pocket for luck and a reminder of Lena back in San Diego. We got married a few weeks after we met at Pendleton. We'd only been married a few months and I didn't even know her that well yet, but she was a Marine, a reservist working at the mess hall. At least we had the Corps in common. I let myself see her face once, in her bridal veil, and that's all. I put her beautiful face out of my mind and got back to work. Sometimes people just pop up in your mind when you're going into combat. You have to just block them out and focus on the job. You hear what they said from years ago and you want to answer. Your mind is telling you to answer them, start the conversation again because that's where you should be, not here, riding in a tin can down somebody's gun sight. So you force your mind back to the job because that's the only thing that might get you back to that conversation someday. But you can hear some of the boys answer out loud or see them shake their heads as they talk to their mother or a brother. If you multiplied the twenty-five guys in the metal gut of this machine by all their special people, there was a decent size crowd that was about to hit the beach.
A hundred yards and still nothing. What the hell were they waiting for? We were lumbering through the water in these steel bathtubs and nobody's taking a shot? I opened up with the 50 sending rounds into Motoyama One, the airfield, our first objective, which was about four hundred yards inland. Even though I couldn't see anyone to shoot at, I knew they were there, dug in deep, twenty-twothousand of them. I knew their commanders' names. I knew they were going to fight to the last man. I knew they'd been there for three or four months digging in. But they weren't firing. They had to be waiting to draw us in. I fired more bursts at the airfield cursing the sons of bitches to come out of their holes and fight.
We hit the beach and rolled up to the first terrace. The angle was too steep, we bogged down in the loose black ash. This stuff wasn't even sand, it was cinders. We were up, over the sides and onto the beach in a few seconds. We sank up to our ankles in wet black ash that tried to suck our boots off.
In front of us were terraces, fifteen-foot black mounds covered with the three previous waves of Marines. Twenty yards of beach to the water was in back of us. Our amtrac backed out into the surf, going back for the next load. I didn't recognize any of the men in front of us. Jesus, we were in the wrong sector. The plan was going to hell already and half of us hadn't even landed yet. Here we are like Spam out of the can, waiting up against a wall. The next wave was coming in behind us. The black sand mound was like quicksand. You'd take two steps and fall back one. We started to crawl up the first one. The fifth wave landed and started coming up behind us. We were bunching up. The radios were crackling with orders, whole units were landed in the wrong sector. I had no idea where the rest of my C Company was. We still had no targets and no incoming fire. We sucked air slogging up these black cinder mounds. It was useless trying to dig in. The loose sand just filled in as fast as you scooped it out. Marines with their Doberman war dogs tried digging together. The dogs were throwing out more sand than their masters but the holes weren't getting any deeper. Getting over the first terrace and up to the second terrace was like running through dry cement up to your knees.
"Fix bayonets!" I ordered my boys. The Japs would spring the trap any second now and I could imagine them swooping over the terraces on top of us. Banzai! would be the last thing we'd hear on this earth. But still nothing, just the sound of amtracs beaching behind us and officers yelling to find their units. Maybe Topside was right. Maybe the thousands of shells and bombs we threw at them did the trick. Maybe we'd just move in and mop up. Maybe this really was a seventy-two-hour operation. The fifth wave was practically on top of us. We were getting packed in like sardines. This was bad, real bad. I looked over to my left, up at Suribachi towering over us. Something on the burned lava wall moved. Jesus Christ, they were still there. We hadn't even touched them. They were looking straight down at us, sighting us in.
I'M STAYING WITH MY BOYS. Copyright © 2004, 2010 by Jim Proser with Jerry Cutter. All rights reserved. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.