BOUGAINVILLE, NORTHERN SOLOMON ISLANDS
11 NOVEMBER 1943, DAWN
The eight landing craft formed a jagged line of gray ship's metal across the tumbling Pacific Ocean. The small boats rose and dove through the rough waters, the ocean's shimmering green phosphorescence pounding against the ship's straight metal sides before misting over the helmeted heads of F Company. Private Eric Davis stood corralled between Marines, their helmets dripping salt water, their fatigues dark and wet. He hunched his shoulders as the landing craft caught the crest of another wave, diving through it in a nauseating roll, more water spraying onto the men.
Two months earlier he had been home in Boston. Then there was the draft. A month of training in Mississippi, his station in the Pacific, and the rest was a blur of sleepless nights aboard rolling ships, lying on canvas bunks, one on top of the other, listening to the occasional air raid warnings as Japanese Zeros buzzed above, circling like hungry vultures over their prey.
The landing craft hit another sickening drop, forcing Eric to spread his legs wider to hold his balance as more water sheeted down on him. They had been circling the island for ten minutes, the warm sun baking their helmets, drying the salt tightly against their skin. Over the metal sides of the landing craft, the men turned their heads, watching the Navy's shells slam into the thick vegetation across the beach.
Turning suddenly, the LCM slanted toward the shore. A Marine Air Group torpedo bomber roared overhead, its single prop cutting the air as it blasted by, making one last pass at the beachhead.
Men around him began to vomit. Some leaned their heads over the sides of the landing craft, others covered their mouths with the little paper bags they had been given before boarding. Davis watched the man next to him, bent at the waist, the egg-colored vomit spilling out around his fingers as he made a vain attempt to cover his mouth.
That morning the soldiers had been woken at 3 a.m. The mess boys of the USS Pennsylvania were wearing pressed white jackets and serving up plates of eggs and bacon, while jazz thrummed through the intercom speakers. Eric felt sick when he saw the food. When the military allowed a good meal, it usually meant the men had it coming heavy from the Japs that day. His shipmate Alabama used to say that a decent one was close to a last one, like granting the condemned prisoner his final dinner before the gallows.
The day after a landing, the colored regiments clearing away the dead from the beaches always found a good amount of half-digested eggs mixed in the sand, punched out by bullet wounds to some soldier's gut. They used to serve onions mixed in with the meal, but medical corpsmen found that the smell in the Red Cross tents was too overwhelming. The onion scent literally permeated out through the wounds, mixing with the odors of blood and defecation. Standing well out to sea, the USS Galla, a transport craft from New Guinea, had nine bagged bodies ready to begin the journey home to be buried. Someone had neglected to store them far enough aft, so, in their quarters, the crew could smell them decay.
Most of the Marines were silent as they ate their breakfast, sitting around the metal mess tables under the bare lightbulbs of the ship, listening to the droning of the engines and the slapping of the ocean against the metal sides. Night after night, Davis lay in his cot, his arms stretched behind his head, with the thought of death on an unknown beach growing stronger in his nose. Davis, who had been on the Galla before transferring to the USS Pennsylvania, could smell it again, seeming to waft up from the eggs.
He thought of home, his mind wandering back to Jessica. Hanging near the head of his cot were the three letters he had from her, stored in a tight roll in one of his bandoliers. He found her handwriting comforting, not so much for what it read, but in its femininity, the shapes of the words themselves. The way each letter seemed to flow together in her familiar style.
Before, before the war, before the smell of the dead, he used not to notice when they might be apart. Now, however, it was her face that came to him in the darkness behind his closed lids. Maybe he just liked the idea of a pretty girl caring for him, but, for whatever reason, Davis found himself thinking of her. Especially the way her hair smelled. He used to press her hair against his face, burying himself deep in its sheen. That sweet smell. God, how I loved that.
An explosion slammed his ears, his helmet vibrating against his skull. The damp chin strap, dangling loosely, swung back and forth, hitting him like a wet noodle across the face. The helmet fell down across his eyes, momentarily obscuring his vision. He pushed it back in time to see a section of the beach ahead of them disappear in a red burst of sand and broken branches. The shells from the Missouri landed in the thick palms lining the edge of the beach, sending splintered wood sections into the air for a moment, before they splashed back into the rolling tide.
Eric turned his head, leaning to the side to look out across the ocean. Behind them, safely out to sea, the Missouri and the Nebraska launched their last rounds of protective fire. Dotted against the horizon, the battleships' guns seemed harmless against the vastness of the sea surrounding them, their puffs of gunpowder smoke appearing as benign as milky clouds from burst mushrooms.
The metaphor was lost by the whistle of the automobile-sized shells as they passed overhead, screaming angrily, before slamming into the beach ahead of them.
Their craft continued forward, steadily moving toward the whirl of burning jungle and frothing sand. The LCM ducked again, water spraying against its sides and shooting up into the air in white fountains. Behind him, the ship's diesel engines groaned onward, a pulsating metallic sound, the tone rising and falling with the rolling of the ocean. Sometimes up, sometimes down, but always the monotonous droning. The driver stood above, his face tight and gleaming with seawater beneath his helmet, protected by a metal wall that reached past his waist.
Eric felt a tug on his sleeve.
"Cigarette?" Jimmy Scotti was holding out a thin white stick, while another unlit one dangled precariously from his top lip. His voice was contorted, his mouth tight as he tried to talk while keeping his lips pinched around the cigarette in his mouth.
"No, thanks." Eric shook his head.
Scotti shrugged and put the cigarette carefully into his front pocket, shielding it from the water.
"This is a mess, huh?" Scotti said suddenly, his voice sounding tense.
"What's that?" Eric asked.
"This," Scotti answered simply. "This whole fucking thing. Out here on the waves, landing on some Jap-infested island."
Eric nodded, thinking for a moment. "You know, I've never seen a Japanese person before."
"I've never seen anyone Japanese before."
"You're shitting me."
"No." Eric shook his head. "I swear, there was one guy down the street who I thought was Japanese, but turned out he was from China."
Scotti snorted in surprise, then, lifting his head, shouted to someone in the front of the boat, "Hey, Leonard!"
"Yeah?" came the muffled reply from one of the helmeted heads.
"Davis here never seen a Jap before."
A few of the helmets turned toward the back of the craft with mild interest.
"Yeah? Fucking-A," Leonard's reply came, muffled over the sound of the crashing sea and the roar of the engine. "Well, he's about to see a whole fucking bunch of 'em at once."
Scotti nodded at this reply. "Never seen a Jap before . . . fucking Japs," he whispered in amazement to himself, shaking his head. The cigarette was still dangling from his mouth, and Scotti tightened his lips, bringing a silver lighter up toward the white paper.
Eric watched Scotti trying to light the cigarette, the flame dancing around the end of the smoke, his hand too unsteady to hold the lighter in place. "I can't get this damn thing lit." His voice sounded angry. "It's too damn wet out here."
Disgusted, he took the cigarette out of his mouth and tossed it overboard, the white stick sucked up instantly by a rolling wave. Eric looked forward, seeing the shore approach steadily. They were close enough that he could distinguish each of the individual trees lining the sand, the gracefully arching palms rising like sentinels guarding the entrance into the jungle beyond.
There was a soft thud from the beach ahead. It was followed by a whistling noise, as if someone had left a teapot on to boil for too long. Around him, men were beginning to cringe, pulling their heads toward their shoulders like turtles. Davis lowered his head as well, gripping his rifle more tightly.
The whistling increased, until reaching a full shriek. There was a pause, then the water next to them exploded into a froth of white as a Japanese 75mm shell smacked close by the craft. The men ducked into the puky mess in the bottom of the landing barge, ceasing to watch the approaching coastline.
"Three minutes!" shouted the driver, perched in the metal-plated wheelhouse above them.
"Get ready," the captain shouted out above the noise of the sea. He was an older man of about thirty-five, with a wide face covered by stubble and acne scars. Shells began exploding in the water around them, violent bursts of white foaming the water, which kept their heads down below the sides of the landing craft.
"Tighten up those helmets," the captain shouted. "Keep the waterproofing on your weapons."
Eric pulled the loose strap tightly underneath his chin, till the helmet pressed against his head. Around him men were doing the same.
"When we hit that beach, keep moving, never stop." The captain was holding the edge of the landing craft, steadying himself against the rolling sea.
There were murmurs and nods among the men. The captain straightened his helmet. "If you feel sick, go ahead and vomit now, get it out of the way." The captain looked around at the men. "Any man that tells you he's not afraid is crazy. Put it aside."
Another explosion tore into the water ahead of them, spraying light steam across the men. Eric crinkled his nose-it smelled like someone had loosened his bowels already. The smell wafted backward from somewhere in the front of the ship.
"Hell, I ain't scared," Scotti was mumbling to himself, rocking back and forth. "Goddammit, I'm gonna be all right." He kept repeating it, until the words flowed together into a chant. He ran his hands over his face, stopping for a moment to rub his glistening eyes, then his fingers frantically began to dig at his chin strap. "This fucking thing's too tight. I can't breathe in this."
"Sixty yards!" the driver shouted from behind, holding up one finger above his head.
Numbly, Eric made the sign of the cross over himself. Beside him, a guy who'd just been transferred into the unit was unwrapping a piece of gum. He put the stick in his mouth and went to work chewing nervously, crumpling up the paper and placing it back in his pocket.
Suddenly Eric had an intense urge to urinate. He crossed his legs, trying to push the sensation away. The sky had begun to cloud over, and rain was falling in thin drizzles, striking against the ocean in gray slanted lines.
The beach ahead was covered in gray-black sand, stretching back about seventy yards before meeting an impossibly thick jungle. Above the line of the jungle, wisps of fog curled around a steep range of mountains, while the surf crashed in low waves against the shore. A thin stream of smoke rose into the air from the great jungle-surrounded volcano, Mt. Bagana. Out at sea, the Missouri and the Nebraska had ceased their protective fire and the landing craft advanced in eerie silence. The talking among the men had halted, each man staring forward in nervous expectation as the rain dotted hundreds of tiny circles on the surface of the gray ocean around them.
Through the thin mist, Eric saw a sudden flash of red on the island. Then a second, and a third. There was an instant of silence, the final moment of quiet, before Japanese bullets tore at the sides of the landing craft. Pa-ching, pling, pling. Then there was another noise, different from the hard crack of metal against metal. It was softer, like a broomstick smacking a plump feather pillow. Just as it sounded, one of the soldiers jerked backward with a short cry, collapsing to the floor of the landing craft.
"Here it comes," the captain shouted. "Stand ready."
The bullets began snapping around them, popping against the metal hull of their LCM with incredible speed. The jungle was flaring with hundreds of pricks of red muzzle flashes, appearing almost as lightning bugs in a dark wood. Eric ducked beneath the sides as much as he could, listening to the random cracking. He was suddenly glad to be in the rear of the craft, ten full rows of men ahead of him forming a protective wall of bodies.
There was a heavy thundering, and a searing heat swept across his face. The landing craft next to theirs had been struck by a Japanese 75mm. Flames erupted from the back, and Eric could hear the cries of the men burning in the intense heat. Thick smoke swirled in small cyclones as the wreck continued to motor forward, running blindly toward the gray-black shore.
"Jesus Christ," Scotti cried to himself.
A sudden jolt against the bottom of their landing craft caused the LCM to shudder, the engine whining in protest.
"Reef!" the driver called from behind.
"Fuck, we're supposed to be going in on the goddamn high tide."
The jolt struck again, and the small ship yawed dangerously to the right, threatening to spill over into the sea. They were still about ten yards from the beach. If they went over, they'd have to swim. One of the men nearest Davis let go of the minesweeper he was carrying, dropping into a huddled ball at the base of the craft as he clutched his gut. Someone near him was praying softly, almost chanting. "Hail Mary. Hail Mary."
Next to him, the new guy spit out his gum, while from behind, Eric heard Scotti muttering something. He gripped his carbine tightly, reminding himself to keep it up over his head if he had to go through water. The beach approached suddenly, and the LCM ground to a momentary halt as it struck hard ground. The engines groaned and pushed toward the shore.
All around him, the hissing of bullets rent the air, moving with inescapable speed. He could hear them approach and blow past him, drilling loudly against metal or sometimes impacting with a muffled thump against flesh.
s20The craft jarred to a second stop, striking against the sandy bottom and throwing the men forward. A roar of fearful anger rose from a few of the soldiers as they prepared themselves for combat in the moments before the flaps fell. Davis closed his eyes for a moment, sucking in his breath, trying not to wet himself.
There was the sudden sound of metal chains being released and sliding forward. The heavy flap fell, splashing into the water and opening up the LCM.
It had begun. Someone was shouting, "Go! Go! Go!" and there was a frantic push forward.
Immediately men began falling, ripped open raw and bloody with numbing quickness. Eric felt the rush, the wild mindless race off the craft and onto the shore. Ahead of them stretched the pitted grayish sand, deeply scorched with rings of black ash by the Navy's heavy bombardment. X-shaped metal joints stuck up jaggedly from the beachhead, the tide washing around them as it rolled up to the jungle. Beyond the joints, multicolored tracer bullets were arching out of the trees, reaching toward the American landing craft, racing to meet the oncoming soldiers.
All along the beach, American landers were running aground, men pouring out in low, crouching runs. Davis shuffled his feet back and forth, still in the back, pressed tightly against the other soldiers. There was a sharp scream, and suddenly the air was filled with feathers. Soft floating down filled the air. It was surreal, dreamlike; the cries of the men, the pounding of the guns, all amidst the gently falling feathers.
A bullet had torn into one of the men, ripping open the standard-issue Kapok life jackets each of the soldiers wore. Davis surged forward through the clumps of featherlike material, a few of them sticking in wet clumps to his face and body.
As he reached the edge of the ramp, his foot caught on someone lying sprawled on the bottom of the landing craft, and he fell forward onto his chest. He pushed off the ground and stepped off the ramp, his boots sinking into the thick wet sand. The ocean water was cool and heavy, soaking into his clothes, weighing down his legs. He slogged forward, his body charged with the electricity of expectation, waiting for the blazing, crushing impact of metal against his body. What would it be like? Where would it hit? His face? His legs, chest?
His boots dug deeply into the wetness, sucking him in like quicksand. He remembered the familiar nightmares of something chasing you from behind as you feel your feet growing heavier, your movements slower, and a coldness pressing in at your back.
Men continued to collapse without warning, their bodies falling and forming dark clumps against the sand. A wave crashed in from behind. Knocked off-balance, Eric staggered forward a few paces, trying to pull his heavy boots underneath him to catch his body. He failed, falling facefirst into the wet sand. As he lay, the water swirled past him, its salty warmth bloody, dyed into a red ocean.
He froze for a moment, burying his face in the muck, listening to screams and the fire of weapons around him. Something heavy fell against his legs, and turning back he saw Rafuse's distorted face peering at him, his hand gripping Eric's leg tightly, a low gasp seeping out of his mouth.
Eric's eyes strayed down Rafuse's body, stopping around his stomach. Where his belly should have been was nothing but a mass of blood and protruding red. Something long and squirming had broken through Rafuse's midsection, and was lying on the sand, rolling like a snake, a quivering mess of blood and guts.
Rafuse's hand moved toward Eric's face, small bits of intestine clinging to the end of his finger. Horrified, Eric slid backward across the sand like a crab, moving out from underneath the heavy weight of Rafuse's body. He backed against something soft, and looking down he saw the leg of a fallen soldier.
Next moment he was up and running, moving as quickly as he could away from those red snakes squirming out of his friend. Ahead was a fallen tree, knocked down by the shell fire and swaying up and down with the rhythm of his feet on the damp sand.
Half-surprising himself, he reached the protective wood and threw himself down into the sand. He pressed his body tightly against the trunk, staring at the bits of rock and bark underneath. Behind him, fallen men were crawling across the beach or lying on their backs, screaming out names known only to them.
The heavy firing from the jungle continued, the red tracer bullets weaving a cross-stitch pattern over the sandy shores, breathing invisible death. In trickling numbers men began joining him behind the fallen tree. They flopped onto the sand, faces filled with the surprise of still existing, that their guts hadn't yet turned into snakes trying to break out through the skin.
Even in its slow death, the giant old tree provided shelter one last time. It protected them from the angry bullets that struck against the rotting wood, trying to burrow their way through and reach the men.
Soldiers around him were unfastening their shovels from their packs, digging shallow foxholes in the sand. Eric looked back across the beach. The smooth sand was dotted with the lumpy forms of the men who hadn't made it to the tree, their bodies rocking back and forth in the water. An LCM was rolling in on the waves, its engines vibrating in the rough water. The craft hit the beach and the flaps fell. Medics with a red cross painted on their helmets poured out, carrying packs filled with supplies.
A Japanese shell landed on the beach, just beyond the barbed wire. It fizzled in the sand for a moment, before exploding, sending hot bits of shrapnel into the bodies of the men. One of the medics went down, his hand pawing at his own pulpy face.
Eric chanced a quick look over the rounded mass of the tree. Set back in the dark shade of the jungle he could see two pillboxes, solidly constructed of coconut logs and dirt, and connected by trenches and a series of rifle pits. He ducked back down and pulled a grenade from his belt. Pulling the pin, he waited a moment and tossed the ball of metal toward one of the pillboxes. Other Marines around him were doing the same, their arms throwing the grenades in quick succession.
There was a series of quick explosions, like the bursting of small paper bags filled with air, and some of the return gunfire diminished. "Let's get over!" someone shouted. Nobody moved. Looking to his side, Eric saw that the voice was coming from a man he didn't recognize, with the stripes of a captain on his helmet.
Around him, men were stripping off their equipment, trying to lighten their packs. Davis pulled off his Navy life belt, two inflatable tubes that strapped around his chest.
"Keep it tight! Keep it tight!" a new captain shouted, not making sense, the veins in his neck bulging.
Men were pressed flat on their stomachs all around Eric, hiding their bodies in depressions in the mud, lifting their heads to fire occasionally into the jungle, their rifles recoiling with each shot. Spent cartridges littered the ground, glowing brass mixed in the black mud.
The heavy fire continued, spraying into the sand and mud around them. Rain continued to fall in slanting drizzles, soaking quickly into the earth and men. Beads of water dripped from the brim of Eric's helmet.
Men were beginning to stream over the log, running bent over into the jungle, moving toward the log-and-earth pillboxes. Resting his rifle on the fallen tree, Eric fired at the Japanese positions. His gun ejected the spent cartridge and he fumbled in his bandolier for another clip. Jamming it back into the gun, he pumped out bullets blindly, his Garand making a pop, pop, pop sound like an amusement park air rifle.
His clip spent, he stood up and tried to vault over the top of the trunk. Catching his foot on the ridged bark, he sprawled forward into the mud. As he scrambled quickly along the ground, a searing heat suddenly branded Davis's arm, and he fell flat. His shoulder was bleeding through a tear in his fatigues, the sight of his own blood startling him. Something inside urged him to move. No longer thinking, he rushed forward, barely conscious of the other men around him, also moving along the ground in the same hunched-over position.
He saw a dirty soldier running quickly through the jungle, heading toward the Japanese bunker. Eric raised his rifle and pulled the trigger, firing at the only Japanese person he'd ever seen. The man jerked, his body spinning around as the bullet impacted, sending him to the jungle floor.
More Japanese soldiers were streaming out of the log structures. Their cries of attack carried through the jungle as they charged to meet the oncoming Americans. A man with a sparse beard and dark eyes appeared suddenly in Davis's face. Davis swung the barrel of his rifle forward, pulling the trigger. The man disappeared from view, falling backward into the mud, and Davis advanced without further thought.
Men had begun to fight with their hands, close enough so that the blood from the dying beat across the faces of the living. American soldiers had reached the pillboxes, swarming across in scattered groups like ants.
"Burn 'em out!" someone screamed, as one of the soldiers, his back weighted down with a long, silver-colored fuel canister, stood outside the entrance of one of the boxes. A stream of flames shot out of the soldier's weapon, exploding through the opening and filling the structure with fire.
"Light it!" an American near him urged.
A shirtless Japanese soldier, his chest patched with dirt, broke from one of the trenches, confusedly running toward the American forces. A Marine struck him heavily across the face with the butt end of his rifle, and the man collapsed to the ground stunned, blood streaming from his nose.
The Marine was silent as he struck the fallen soldier again, cracking his skull under the blows from the end of the heavy rifle. Afterward, he stood up, arching his back as if stretching and wiping his forehead with the back of his forearm.
The heavy fighting had ended, but the dense jungle cloaked the few remaining Japanese soldiers around them. Marines were moving warily, sending arching flames into trenches, dropping grenades into camouflaged foxholes. Eric collapsed with fatigue into the sand. Adrenaline shot through his body, pitting into his stomach like a drug. He bent over and vomited eggs onto the sand. Wiping his mouth with his free hand, he spit, then leaned on his rifle for support.
One of the guys had a forgotten Japanese flag and took it out, smiling. "Hey," he shouted. "A Rising Sun!"
Davis turned his eyes toward the noise and saw it was Scotti. He was waving the flag over his head and standing on one of the pillboxes. He pointed to one of the men. "I'm a fucking Jap!" He laughed.
From somewhere in the jungle a rifle cracked. Scotti dropped the flag and clutched his throat, pawing at his neck, his face turning red as if he were choking. His hands dropped to his side, and Eric saw a half-dollar-sized bullet hole where the man's Adam's apple had been. Scotti collapsed to the ground.
Gradually the gunfire slowed to sporadic shots, individual recoils sounding from the jungle before finally dying out altogether. Davis lay back on the ground, closing his eyes. He heard the waves rolling along the sand and the crackling of the burning Japanese pillboxes. Occasionally a man would groan with pain. He looked up as a flock of parakeets flew across the jungle border, cutting back and forth in perfect formation.
Turning his eyes away from the sky, he gazed around at the wasted dead. Japanese and American soldiers covered the jungle floor, some sprawled over one another in strange embraces, blood from their wounds intermingling. A heavy rain had begun to fall, striking the wide green leaves of the canopy above. The entire jungle seemed to shimmer with wet color.
On the ground, lying close to him, was something like a man. The soldier was burned so badly that Eric couldn't tell if he were American or Japanese. His eyes were gaping holes, his black lips skinned back, his teeth showing white against the burned skin. Drops of water, falling from the trees, sizzled as they hit the man's face, little bursts of steam rising from the superheated charred flesh.
Two hours later, Eric sat in the sand, his back propped against a log, while one of the medics placed a white bandage across the wound in his arm. He looked out over the beach, watching the Pacific waters rolling up the sand in gentle waves. The coast was lined with the drab green steel of equipment. Large squat landing barges had delivered the first of the light tanks and half-tracks, which roamed the edge of the jungle burning diesel fuel. The M3A1 tanks, the Honeys, armed with 37mm guns, coughed up diesel smoke and grumbled as their tracks clawed through the fine sand.
A rough tent had been strung between two palms, and most of the wounded and dying had been carried underneath the dark green fabric. The air inside was stifling. Davis preferred baking in the sun on the beach to being inside with those men, all half-crazed with pain.
Most of the dead had been cleared from the beach. They lay in long lines just inside the perimeter of the jungle, pulled out of the way of the heavy equipment. Later they'd be searched for personal letters, which would get mailed. Then their bodies would be bagged up and taken out on the next ship.
The first bivouac was being established about a quarter mile from the shore. The trees, nothing more than burned stumps after the naval bombardment, were cleared, the ground flattened, and office tents erected. Men, stripped to the waist, their tags glinting in the sun, labored to clear out the heavy brush.
"Rough go of it?" the medic attending Davis's arm asked.
"Yeah, pretty rough," Davis replied.
"Hell, we're getting it rough all up and down here," the medic observed thoughtfully.
The MO finished patching Davis's wound and stood up, arching his back and stretching.
"You'll be all right. Get yourself a Purple Heart, take it home, show your girl."
"Thanks," Davis said, pulling himself to his feet.
The MO nodded and wandered off toward the medical tent. A wounded man was screaming inside, thrashing around on the sand while two MOs held him down as a third jabbed a long needle into his arm.
Davis turned away, walking back across the sand, his arm feeling heroically numb. Three of the guys he knew from the Pennsylvania were lounging around in the shade of a coconut tree. They were smoking cigarettes and watching the half-tracks drive across the beach.
Davis joined them, leaning up against the rough bark of the coconut tree and sliding to the ground.
"What, you kidding me? Hundred to one, I'd rather be over in Europe than the Pacific right now," a twenty-four-year-old named Jersey Walker was saying to the other men. "Shit, you got better climate, no bugs, better food."
"And the Nazis aren't crazy like the Japs. You ever heard of a Jap surrendering?" said Kelly Keaveney from New York. Keaveney had an endless amount of energy, which he seemed to pull from throughout the day. His movements were quick, his laugh explosive, punctuated by even quicker body movements. Even his hair seemed energized. Bright red, sticking in curly tufts from his head.
"And don't forget all them Frenchwomen," replied Jersey. "We see a woman what, once a month? And that's if we hit port."
"Y'all got that right," another man, J.J. Mulry, nicknamed Alabama after his home state, said. Alabama was thin, with tight, almost gaunt cheeks and hollowed eyes. He reminded Davis of the images of starving Confederate soldiers he had seen in his Civil War history class. Alabama had an easygoing air to him, almost lazy in his movement, everything seeming to be slowed down.
"I don't even know what the hell we're fighting about. I say the Japs can have these damn islands. I'm not using 'em, I could care less. Take the whole damn Pacific. I'm from New York, shit if I care," Keaveney said.
"Amen," Alabama replied. "And this heat? Shit, only thing heat like this is good for is sipping cold liquor drinks out on a front porch. First thing-"
Keaveney leaned over, interrupting Alabama with a quick hit on the shoulder before gesturing out across the beach. Davis shook his head, clearing away the sleep. Their staff sergeant, Alexander Seals, was wading through the thick sand toward them.
"Aw shit, here we go," Alabama murmured, picking up his rifle and pretending he was inspecting it.
"Look at this, huh?" Seals joked as he approached. "You must have the cleanest armaments in the entire U.S. armed forces."
He stopped and looked down at Mulry. "I swear, every time I come walking by, you pick up that damn thing and pretend like you're cleaning it."
"I am cleaning it," Alabama said mildly.
"Hey, sir," Keaveney said. "We were all just talking. We decided we'd rather go fight the Germans than the Japs. Like a town meeting, we voted on it."
"What do you think this is? A fucking travel agency?" Seals asked. "Next time we do one of these wars, I'll see if I can get you stationed someplace nice."
"I never been to Europe before," Keaveney said.
"So? I never been to Atlantic City," Seals answered. "Maybe next time we'll declare war on New Jersey just so as I get to go."
"All right, jackasses, listen up," Seals said to the group. "Twelve days ago. B Company landed on the island farther north. They've got a bivouac about six miles above our position. A unit of forty men from B moved southwest into the jungle, but as of a week ago, nobody's heard a peep from them."
"So?" Keaveney said.
"So, we're the closest position, and the general wants us to send in a small recon unit to see if we can locate them."
"Oh c'mon now," drawled Alabama. "They got Japs runnin' round all over here like swarms o' ants. We go in there, we ain't got much chance o' coming back out."
"I'll file your complaint," Seals answered. "Along with Keaveney's request to move to Europe, in the don't give a rat's ass drawer."
"They don't know what happened to 'em?" Davis asked.
Seals shook his head, pulling a scrap of paper from his front pocket. "Last message we got came about one week ago. Was a strange voice. Nobody recognized it."
"What did it say?"
Seals read the scrap of paper. "It said, 'Ultio ultionis possidere.' "
"What the hell does that mean?" Alabama asked.
Seals looked at him for a moment, then squinted out across the ocean.
"It's Latin," he said finally. "It means, revenge shall be mine."
They left the beach that afternoon, and, by nightfall, the sixteen-man unit had pushed almost three miles into the island. It had been the hardest three miles Eric Davis had ever walked. Everything in the jungle seemed to hate him. It was either biting, scratching, or oozing around him. Mud waist deep that left two-inch leeches quivering and pulsating on their bodies, wasps the size of half-dollars, giant snakes that moved delicately across tree branches over their heads-everything was alive and angry. They'd passed through mangrove swamps and scrub thickets, and the constant vine-draped giant forests that towered skyward above them. By the time the sun was beginning to set they still hadn't seen another living person.
Seals halted them in a small clearing for the night. The soldiers collapsed to the ground. Eric sat on his pack as darkness descended, seeping through the leaves of the jungle. Around him, exhausted men were clearing spaces to sleep and setting up their rickety tents. Davis was sharing a tent with Alabama, Keaveney, and Jersey Walker. Jersey's real name was Joe Walker, but he'd been a boxer before the war, and his fighting name had been Jersey Joe Walker, just like the up-and-coming Jersey Joe Walcott. He looked like a boxer, with a thick neck and a head so close to his shoulders that it seemed to be melting into the rest of his body. He was known for being mean back in the States, picking fights in bars over other guys' girls, causing trouble. Word was that he joined the Marines to avoid going to prison.
Alabama was inside the tent already, his boots off, flexing his bare toes in the night air. "That wasn't no joy walk today," Alabama said, picking at his feet with his bare hand. "I felt like I was walking through a greenhouse full a wet leaves."
Keaveney was digging the rain trench around the tent. He'd gone down about six inches before he gave up, throwing the shovel away in exhaustion.
"No kidding," Davis said, pulling himself off his pack and standing up. "You pull duty tonight?"
"Naw," Alabama answered, lying back into the tent. "You?"
"Yeah. Two-hour shift: 2 to 4 a.m.," Davis answered, referring to the night watch.
Keaveney and three other men were setting up the perimeter to the camp. Davis watched them digging the foxholes and positioning the two machine guns. They had a dog with them. A Doberman mix named Pete, who tracked down hidden Japanese soldiers. The dog was casually burying its nose in the ground, rooting around in the wet leaves before snorting, turning, and collapsing on the ground in a tight ball.
The greenery had begun to turn black as the light faded, their giant leaves becoming dark silhouettes against the graying sky. During the day, the light misty rain had been almost unceasing, penetrating the thick overgrowth of trees above them, gradually soaking through their clothes, until every part of his body seemed wet and he almost couldn't remember a time when he'd been dry.
With the coming of night, the air began to cool off, and the rain slowed, gradually diminishing to sporadic bursts of drizzle. In the far distance was the heavy rumbling noise of mortar fires. Eric had heard there was some action on one of the ridges about six miles away from them. He closed his eyes and listened. The rumbling was soothing, like listening to the approach of distant thunder.
Someone in the camp cleared his throat, a wet hacking sound followed by a spit into the green leaves around them. Another soldier was using the rope in his pack to make a clothesline, extending the twine between two trees.
Conversation was subdued, the men tired.
Alabama was already asleep in the tent, his bare feet sticking out the front. Keaveney wiped off his hands and, laying his Garand rifle on the ground, scooted inside next to him.
"You coming in?" Keaveney called out to Davis.
"Yeah," Davis replied, stripping off most of his equipment and crouching in front of the flaps. Inside, the men were crammed tightly together, lying almost one on top of the other. The tent's fabric was moist and smelled of mildew, making the air stuffy and close.
"Jesus Christ, it stinks in here," Davis said, squeezing in and lying on his back next to Keaveney.
"It's like wet socks and farts," Keaveney replied, laughing slightly.
"It's the fruit bars in the Ks," Jersey answered. "Gives me gas."
Davis kept his eyes open, resting his head on his hand, and began looking out at the night sky through the triangular opening of the tent. Around him in the flat grove he saw red embers glowing, the fire ends of lit cigarettes from some of the men out smoking. They seemed to hover in the air, gliding from point to point as their invisible owners moved. He lay back on the ground, surprisingly comfortable.
"Hey, Seals?" a voice whispered in the darkness from somewhere outside the tent.
"I gotta go use the bathroom."
"Who is that?"
"It's Anderson, sir."
"All right, but take someone with you."
"Yes, sir." Anderson's voice picked up a little as he spoke to the group. "Who wants to go?"
"I will." Another whisper to Eric's left.
The whispers of voices echoed around Eric, their owners indistinguishable in the darkness.
Eric heard a rustling, as someone opened up the inside of his pack.
"Aww, shit, anyone have any toilet paper I could borrow? Mine's soaking wet from the rain," Anderson said to the group.
Eric smiled and heard chuckles around him, the embers of cigarette ends bobbing up and down.
"Use some leaves," someone offered. "I saw some big wet ones over there, it'd be like a huge wet nap."
"Yeah, funny. How about I shit on your head."
There were more chuckles.
"All right, I got a dry roll here. You drop this on the ground and get this wet, Anderson, and I'll use your shirt to wipe my ass next time."
Eric heard the sound of leaves being walked on as Anderson picked up the toilet paper.
"You set to go?"
The two men headed away from the clearing, pushing deeper into the jungle. Eric lay on his back, looking once more up at the stars overhead. He remembered the night he was shipped out for basic. There was his girlfriend Jessica, the heavy blind groping under the bleachers of the empty, dark football field. The taste of the Coca-Cola she'd been drinking, the feel of the hard grass on his bare skin, then afterward lying on his back and looking up at the summer night sky. He tried finding the same stars when he reached the Philippines, but they were no longer there. Lying now and looking out through the tent flap, he tried again. The sky was different than it was back home, the formations and clusters changed.
Everything was foreign in the South Pacific, even the stars. Somewhere, where he couldn't see, he knew the moon to be full, its reflective light illuminating the sky, creating a dark, yet not entirely black, palette for the stars.
Above him stretched the branches of large palms, gently swaying and swishing in the breeze, their shapes silhouetted against the night sky. From deep in the jungle he heard a monkey hooting loudly. There was a pause and an answering hoot called out, the two animals communicating with each other in the darkness. Eric continued to stare up through the trees, listening to the wind rustle through the wet branches. Around him insects were playing, until they sounded like a thousand bows drawn long over violin strings.
He shut his eyes. In a minute he was asleep.
Somewhere in the darkness of the jungle something cracked, the noise of wood splintering. Davis opened his eyes. He was staring up at a dark shape waving slightly just above his face. A giant bat swooping down from the trees.
Disoriented, it took him a moment to realize it was only the fabric of the tent, moving slightly in the wind. Tired, he closed his eyes again, listening to the heavy breathing of Alabama, Jersey, and Keaveney in the tent with him. He tried remembering what had woken him up in the first place. He vaguely remembered hearing the noise of something moving through the underbrush outside.
His eyes jerked open again. He heard a noise. A heavy breathing sound, almost like the grunting of a pig, coming from somewhere outside the tent. There was a series of hurried whispering, and a low laugh from the jungle.
"Hey." He shook Keaveney.
"Wha'?" Keaveney said, rolling over.
"Wake up," Davis said, shaking him harder. "I hear something."
They both lay in the tent, listening. Outside a slight wind was blowing through the jungle canopy, rustling the leaves. The night insects were humming together in nonstop rhythm.
"I don't hear anything. Just the trees, you prob-"
"No, there it is," Davis hissed.
The whispering noises had begun again, then a chuckling. It sounded like there were two people outside the tent, maybe three, about twenty yards away in the jungle. Davis leaned forward, peeking out through the tent flaps. In the middle of the camp, something rose. There was a low growling noise as the shape hunched its back. Pete, the soldier's dog, was standing, ears raised, lips curled back as it stared out toward the dark jungle.
The strange laughing continued, quietly. Davis tried concentrating on the words, but the whispers were so indistinct he couldn't catch anything.
"Jesus," Keaveney said, now wide-awake. "You think it's the Japs?"
Davis shook his head. "Doesn't sound like Japanese."
"Yeah, but who the hell else would be out here?"
"Maybe it's some of our guys?"
"Should we check it out?"
"Are you crazy? I'm not leaving the tent," Davis said.
"Who's on duty now?" Keaveney asked.
"Sadlon and Hartmere."
dn0 The whispering was rising, until it sounded like whoever was out there was arguing. The voices combined into a frantic hissing noise, the words indistinct. Then there was more chuckling, followed by a screeching noise.
"Jesus that's spooky," Keaveney whispered, trying to keep his voice light, but he was right. The noise was unnerving.
Davis sat up, opening the flap of the tent, his eyes trying to pierce the jungle. He saw only the dark shapes of the leaves blowing slightly in the wind. In the clearing were the tents of the other men. They were quiet. Nobody else seemed to be awake.
He strained his eyes toward the edge of the clearing, trying to see the perimeter guards. In the night's darkness, however, his line of vision ended well before the machine gun emplacements. Again, he heard the hushed voices.
"Hello?" he called out into the jungle.
Immediately the whispering stopped. There was the sound of leaves being disturbed, like something heavy moving off through the underbrush. Someone was out there. He listened to the fading noise, then the whispering began again, this time farther away. Whatever it was seemed to be walking away.
Davis turned back into the tent. "It's moving away."
"That's good," Keaveney said confidently. "I'm going back to sleep."
"Whoa . . . wait a minute. Don't you think we should check it out?"
"Do you want to check it out? Because I'm not going out there. No way in hell am I that curious. That's why we have people on watch."
Keaveney was lying on his side. "I'm just pretending I didn't hear a thing."
"Listen, if it was Japs, I'm not going out there and fucking with that."
"What if it wasn't Japs? I don't think they were speaking Japanese."
"Well, I'm not fucking with that either, I don't want to be running around in the jungle at night. Bad enough during the day, when you can see what's going on."
Davis checked his watch. A little before 1 a.m. He still had another hour before he was supposed to post up for guard duty. A sudden wave of fatigue flooded over him. I'll just sleep for a little while, he thought, just until I get woken up at two.
Davis lay back in the tent. He quickly fell asleep.r
His eyes jerked open again. The whispering was back, just outside the thin fabric of the tent. It was closer this time-whatever it was had moved back toward them. Now the noise was coming from inside the camp. Davis was immediately wide-awake and listening. The sounds were a strange mixture of whispering and high-pitched laughing, like a strange group conversing with each other.
He felt the back of his neck grow cold. They were miles into the jungle. Who would be out there? Davis turned his head, looking through the triangular opening of the tent. It was a clear night. The moon was low in the trees, breaking through the foliage and casting a pale light across the clearing of the camp. With his eyes, he tried to pick out familiar objects from the darkness. Another tent, the stump of a tree, anything he could recognize.
Something ran across his field of vision. He had just a quick glance, a fleeting impression of something pale, moving on two legs, but crouched over, low to the ground. It had been the size of a man, but its body was strangely curved or disfigured. Davis shivered involuntarily.
What time was it? He peered at his watch, trying to read the numbers in the darkness. Fuck.
It was just after 2:30 a.m.
Sadlon and Hartmere were supposed to have woken him half an hour earlier for the start of his shift. He clenched his teeth, thinking. His turn was up for the watch. If he didn't go, Seals would be pissed tomorrow. On the other hand, he didn't want to leave the comfortable warmth of the tent and go out there by himself. Next to him, Keaveney and Alabama were both sleeping soundly.
Davis slowly slid forward in the tent, reaching for his boots. He shook them out, knocking free any insects that might have crawled inside. Sitting in the opening of the tent, he began tying the laces and surveying the camp.
Everything was quiet, except for the constant hum of the insects in the kunai grass. The whispering voices had stopped. The five tents were arranged randomly around the clearing, their fabric sides billowing in and out from the wind. Another breeze blew in, smelling of the ocean three miles away. Davis turned his face toward it, breathing in the slight salty smell.
His boots strapped on, he picked up his Garand rifle and walked slowly across the camp toward the machine gun post. He could see where the strips of barbed wire had been strung out, forming a weak perimeter fence. Just before that were two dark openings in the ground, rectangular blocks, each the size of a man, cut into the dirt. They were foxholes, but in the
up0moonlight they looked more like open graves.
Both of them were empty.
A dark form lay next to one of the coffin-shaped holes. Davis nudged the shape with his foot. It was soft, yielding against the toe of his boot. In the darkness, it was just a bulbous outline. Davis leaned over. Taking out his lighter, he flicked the flame, holding the light toward the ground.
He felt the back of his throat twitch as he fought down an attack of nausea. Lying crooked on the ground was the dog, Pete, his neck snapped jaggedly backward, his tongue hanging limply from his mouth.
"Jesus," Davis whispered, leaning over Pete, the shadows thrown from his lighter flickering off the matted fur.
Suddenly conscious of the darkness of the jungle around him, Davis snapped shut the lighter, pale colors flooding his eyes as his vision moved to adjust. The light machine gun was propped up on a swivel stand just outside the foxhole. In the darkness, it had a strange crooked appearance, like the silhouette of a sitting man.
Beyond the machine gun, the jungle faded into black, where tree branches seemed to turn into rushing enemy soldiers, fallen logs into crouching Japs. Insects were thrumming loudly in waves of sound. Water fell in bulbous droplets from the leafy canopy above, smacking occasionally against Davis's helmet. There was a rustling noise, like something pushing through the thick branches.
Davis had heard that when the Japanese attacked at night, they called with bugles and shouted war cries to distract the Americans. Another quick snapping of a branch in the distance jolted Davis with a sudden rushing intensity. Something was out in the jungle. He slowly lifted his carbine, crouching lower to the ground. His knee brushed against something warm on the ground, and he pulled back in disgust as he realized he was crouching almost on top of the dead dog.
There was another noise, something strange. He cocked his ear, listening closely, trying to make it out.
It was the sound of laughter.
Slowly, Davis eased himself forward until he was positioned just behind the machine gun post. A silver-colored metal box lay in the mud near him. He opened the top, pulling out a heavy flare gun. Cracking the barrel of the gun, he loaded in a flare.
Ahead of him, the noise of laughter died down, replaced by a furtive whispering, like two people arguing. Davis listened carefully, trying to pick up individual words. The language the voices spoke was strange, flowing quickly together, almost like a chant. Holding the silver flare gun in the air, he rested his finger against the trigger. There were more sounds coming from the jungle in front of him. The crackling of something walking through the heavy underbrush, then more hissing whispers, followed by a calling sound, like the hooting of an owl.
Keeping the flare gun raised, Davis pulled the trigger.
The red light arced up into the air, rushing from the barrel with a popping noise. Almost instantly, the jungle around the campsite was lit with a reddish glow, the shadows bouncing back and forth as the flare slowly tumbled back to earth. The dark shadows faded away from between the trees, opening up the jungle with light, allowing Davis to see ahead of him.
Something was out there.
Copyright © 2004 by Matthew B.J. Delaney