"We Took That Mountain"
- By John E. Trumane
I often wonder what it was like. You have trained hard at Parris Island,
slogged through mud on your belly, 50 calibers whizzing two feet overhead.
Some guys just lost it, went crazy, sent home. I often wonder. What would
be going through your mind as you see Mt. Surabachi approaching
in the smokey distance, a narrow slit on the horizon framed by your
helmet and the lip of the landing craft. Your eyes turn left, just
as a shell takes a direct hit on the next craft over, bodies and body
parts go flying in every which direction. You close your eyes and
ask yourself: they were no different from us. The Navy behind you
is pouring in 12-inch guns at a ferocious pace; they scream through
the air near the speed of sound, and echo back delayed destruction.
You trust those gunners; their aim is awesome, always near the mark.
The waves are changing shape, the water is getting shallow. More fifty
calibers are whizzing by, this time getting closer. Some ping off the
craft, a metal wash tub with twin diesels. You reach the crest of a wave,
and then surf into hell, as the ramp falls and it's the moment of truth.
You don't have time to ask, what am I doing here, because you are running
for dear life. You recognize the sound of your captain yelling, hit
the sand and crawl in, men. Dig in beyond the water line. The Japs are
ferocious too. This is their last air base before the mainland.
Two runways, actually. One at each end. These fascists will stop at nothing
to defend their Emperor. We huddle in our makeshift sand castles, trying
to keep our powder dry. My job: get the machine gun close in, take out
all buildings, and secure the first runway. We sit while the Navy pours
it on, big guns now, every 5 seconds. The roar is deafening. Men
are dying, screaming, bleeding. What am I doing here? The captain over
there loses it, goes crazy. A GI yanks him in a trench and knocks him
cold, our new squad commander, ok by me.
The Navy is relentless, big guns every second now. How can they reload
so fast? American engineering: we machinists know all about it -- the
best ever, bar none. The smoke is choking us alive, thick and black,
sulfurous, hot ashen coral raised to plasma temperatures. Why would anybody
want to work here? The Navy waits, to let the smoke clear, assay the
damages. Eerie silence. There is nothing in front of us except black sand
with huge meteor craters, freshly made. Move out, we hear, and our training
kicks in. No time to think, just keep moving. My buddy comes near. We
take inventory: one water cooled machine gun, one thousand rounds,
more for the asking, tripod, carbine, back pack, portable shovel, pick,
what we're wearing. That's it. Move out. We come upon bodies, lots of
them, still, mangled, lifeless.
Don't look down; just look forward. We drag heavy loads through black
sand and ash. No color anywhere; just black and white and grey, lots
of it. A shot from behind, a Marine down, killed in action, right in
the back. So, they lay there feigning injury, only to pop up as we pass
by. Ok, that's it. No prisoners. We pull our butcher knives and
go for throats. Grisly, effective. Every Marine is priceless, every
one expendable. Like Lawrence, of Arabia. Time starts to fade into
slow motion. We inch along, take this tree, that palm, this bunker. Charlie
gets a flame thrower, we watch in muted shock. Nothing is too terrible
now; we are going to TAKE that runway. Night falls, sleep impossible.
Charlie screams his insults in strange Jap accents. Almost funny,
almost. We count our losses: Billy, Johnny, Efraim, Christopher,
Sassy Brooks, Zeb, Mack and Danny.
All gone, all dead, going home now. The sun rises in front of us, framing
another rising sun flapping in the breeze. The runway, not far ahead,
beckons to our instincts, the killer kind. We creep in silently, no resistance.
Japs are gone, only snipers high up in the palms, sitting ducks.
Stupid too. Kamikazes with no planes, brain washed. We take turns,
it's a shooting gallery. This isn't even funny. We take their guns,
worthless rounds, and break 'em. The eerie silence is broken now by
fading gun shots. A moment of calm descends upon this seething smoking
inferno. We hear the faint drone of a Jap Zero, headed for home. He never
got word: this runway is history. He glides in, bouncy landing, taxies
to one end. Marines watch, reload quietly, no orders this time. We
all know what we're going to do. Pilot cuts his engine, opens the canopy,
we open up. Shells pour in again, this time from M-1's and machine
guns, dozens, hundreds, thousands of rounds shred the Zero into bits
and pieces, glass, rubber and aluminum flying every which direction.
That plane is history too.
We revel, leave it to block the runway. Some take souvenirs. The
rest reload. I pee in the barrel jacket again. One down. One to go.
Time again slows down. How many days now? Two? Three? I can't remember.
We trudge along. More ammo arrives. Food too. C-rations. Yumm.
We urinate into the barrel to save water. This place is hot, very
hot, almost too hot. Too hot for comfort, for sure. We set our sites
for runway two, in that clearing, up ahead. Mortar fire, first scattered,
then regular, now a frequent problem. My buddy and I move in, stake
out a position, start to dig, his shovel worthless against the hard-packed
coral. They rolled this runway, very hard, asphalt nowhere. My pick is
working, thank God. I dig, he removes debris. It's still slow going.
We dig for our lives. More mortars. Oh, no. They've zeroed our position.
You can tell as blasts come closer, faster. This one, right now, you
can hear, is coming right in. Billy, take cover, I yell. He dives in
one direction, I in another. The blast almost takes his hands off, the
ring in my ears unbearable. Through the smoke, I see Billy's hit, hit
bad, motionless, moaning. I crawl to him, he's still alive. Japs figure
our machine gun's out, they re-target. Billy goes over my left shoulder,
and two carbines over my right. Forget the machine gun; too heavy; takes
two anyway. We're now one and a half, Marines that is. Billy breathes,
but barely, can't talk, bleeding bad. I trudge through deep sand,
echoes of smoke fill the air, me yelling Medic! Medic! Billy
needs help, OVER HERE.
Nobody hears, too much chaos. I trudge, I trudge. Something is hot, liquid,
near my jaw. I been too busy to check myself. I raise my right hand
to feel my pulse, blood is pouring down by wrist. I am hit. I don't
even know it. What gives? Is this some bad dream? I realize, that's
IT. I'm OUT OF HERE. Next stop, the hospital ship. Medics near
now. I collapse in their arms, totally, completely, utterly exhausted,
and pass out, and dream of my beautiful bride, Anna Marie, slender,
loving, chestnut hair, sea blue eyes. This must be heaven, at long last.
That was my birthday, 1945. Billy made it, docs worked two miracles,
one on each hand. We ran into each other on the hospital ship.
First time, he didn't recognize me, my face so heavily bandaged, after
several surgeries. The shrapnel had just missed my spine. God's little
miracles, for sure. Everything got mixed up -- time, space, where, when,
how? It didn't matter. We were alive, and we were on our way home. The
commander wanted me back. You can wear your Purple Heart on your
lapel, he said. I told him, I'd rather take it home and show it to
my son. Thank you anyway. I later saw that photo, 4 "Gyrines"
raising old Glory, right atop Mt. Surabachi. I knew those red stripes
were soaked in blood, the whites were stained as well. 4 guys, just
like me, their names forever written on the wind. Next stop for them,
the Japanese mainland. Next stop for me, a farm in Oregon, cows, chickens,
dogs and geese. And a time to recuperate from shell shock, and a time
to thank God for this country. We left fascism behind when we came
back from hell, where it belongs, where it should stay.