Forward the Heroes
by Tony Brown
The destroyer NATHAN J. PIPKIN is rockin’ and rollin’ as a typhoon bears down upon us from across the western Pacific. Captain Johnson relays the order from Major Paulson to Lieutenant Hudson, who in turn barks it out to the top sergeant.
“Hit the nets and give’em hell, boys…it’s show-time!” Sgt. Johnson yells, motioning with his arm over and over again.
I toss my foldin’ money over the ship’s railing so’s I can double-cross bad luck, but watchin’ it float down to the deep blue water makes me realize that only means I’ll be stone-broke if’n I should happen to survive this day. My stomach was already tied in knots enough without them awful wind-whipped waves, what with the impending assault on a strongly-fortified hunk of rock we’re about to make. The crash of the big guns is deafenin’ as salvo after salvo punishes our objective. Right now, I’m more’n happy to be here, rather than on the receivin’ end of that endless stream of shellfire.
Got a feelin’ when the enemy hidin’ over yonder opens fire, my idea on that subject will change mighty fast. So far ain’t been a peep out of’em, though, and in one well-rehearsed motion we make our way to the side of the ship and start descending the cargo nets like an army of hypnotized ants led by the Pied Piper himself. I ain’t a-likin’ this see-sawing none too much.
“‘Bout time we got off this damn bucket of bolts,” my buddy Harper yells to me over the clash of metal and the crescendo of cannon fire. Its sole purpose is to turn the island 300 yards away into a lunar twin.
The pitching and yawing of the destroyer is such that even some of the toughest salts amongst us are feeling woozy. It won’t nuthin’ like this when we was practicin’ landings back in Hawaii, that’s for dang sure! Just as I reach the bottom of the netting and stretch my foot out for the landing craft, two guys who have just gone over the railing above let loose simultaneously.
The barf that cascades down on Harper and me like grossly rotten hot oatmeal is the final straw. Both of us upchuck, but at least we have the decency to do it without covering our fellow Marines with that load of manufactured eggs they called our “final meal” prior to hitting the beach. “Final” seems to me to be a poor choice of words, in view of the hell we all are facing.
The LCT we’re assigned to has a small tank aboard. Harper and me are more’n happy to have that piece of De-troit-made machinery in front of us. This is our first time doing what seems damn near being a suicide mission, and we’re none too happy about it, neither. We’ve both heard the horror stories from those poor souls amongst us who went ashore at Tarawa and Guadalcanal and such; so we ain’t gonna be the least bit hesitant to hide behind that chunk of iron until the bullets quit flyin’, believe you me.
LCT-1205 must have a more powerful motor than our’n – or a crew more eager to discharge its load and get the hell back out from the beach – because it’s rapidly catching up to us. We wave at the guys aboard it and they wave back, giving us the thumbs up. They get the “OK” sign in return.
“How’s your daddy?” one smartass yells at us, his hand cupped to his mouth.
“Dunno,” Harper yells back. “Ask your mama an’ she’ll be lettin’ you know, Bub!”
The boys on the 1205 howl; some shake their heads.
It feels just like a ferry ride to Cape Hatteras back home. On a rough sea, that is. So far, everything’s as calm as it could be, under the circumstances. In fact, it’s eerily quiet, even with every portside gun of the supporting U.S. Navy flotilla blazin’ away at the most rapid rate possible – from the five-inchers of the destroyers all the way up to the 16-inch shells fired from the indestructible NORTH CAROLINA, God love ‘er.
The beach is as still as it can be, except for where our shells are landing. Not even a peep so far from the Japs. Maybe they’re already flown the coop like they done at Kiska in the Aleutians. Surely they’d-a let loose by now if they was on that God-forsaken chunk of atoll over there, all covered with volcanic ash from Mount Shomanki, which dominates the whole bloomin’ island. Wouldn’t give ya a plug nickel for the whole dang thing.
On and on, we go, but still no response. The Nips must have bugged out. That’s a good thing for’em, too. Surely nothing could survive the battering that island’s being given, courtesy of my favorite Uncle Sam. And that’s after our flyboys done pounded the hell out of’ ’em for three days straight. So many palm fronds have been knocked loose that they practically cover the water all along the shore, sorta lika a green carpet welcoming us.
The coconuts bobbing amongst them look way too much like human heads to suit me, but it seems that the day of my death – for which I made out my last will and testament last night – seems to have been at least postponed.
Whether it’s by the grace of God or by orders from the Japanese Imperial High Command don’t matter a whit to me. The prospect of livin’ through another day is mighty pleasin’, either way. The odor of fried barf is the only problem Harper and me seem to face, that and the ever-blazin’ sun which is making it stink so bad even a damn turkey vulture wouldn’t come within a mile of it.
The landing craft next to us has taken a two-boat lead now, and it looks like them fellers is gonna be eatin’ cocoanuts and easin’ under the shade of the few palm trees that remain standin’ near the beach long before we get some relief from this a-cursed sun that never seems to find a cloud to hide behind.
A huge swell comes up as we’re wavin’ and laughin’ with them fellers on the 1205, and all of a dang sudden the bottom drops out of the ocean – and our stomachs. Our LCT dips so far it seems certain we’re done for. I’m thrown to the deck, but up she pops like a cork out of a fancy-pants’ champagne bottle on New Year’s Eve.
“That won’t good,” Harper says, getting no argument from me as I check my arm bones.
I nod, green as a row of Carolina collards back home in Pitt County. “Yeah, man. What a rollercoaster ride! That woulda cost ya two bits in New York City.”
Harper throws out that silly laugh of his, then looks off to port. His head cocks back.
“Hey, Roy! Where’s the 1205?”
I grab a handhold on the rear of the tank and pull myself to my feet. Looking astern, I begin to point. “Right – ” I start to say, but the word “there” don’t never leave my lips.
The 1205 is gone.
Not a single bullet yet fired in our direction, and already the casualties have begun. Harper and me scan the crashin’ waves, but no sign of the 1205, its cargo – or its personnel – ever comes to sight. The eager hubbub of small-talk stops.
My God! How quickly death comes, and for no reason a’tall.
One minute them fellers was as happy as clams and a-talkin’ like us; the next minute, they was deader’n a doornail. Are we next? A shiver runs through me as I ponder my fate, but at least we’re only a hunnerd yards or so from safety, and it looks to be shallow enough that even if the LCT goes down now we got a good chance of makin’ it to the beach that we previously were so deathly afraid of reachin.’ Still, though, with the weight of all the equipment we’re carrying on our persons, even relatively shallow water could mean drowning.
The boat relentlessly pushes through the surf, and we realize we’re really gonna make it, seein’s there’s still nothing stirrin’ ashore. We’ll be the first to them coconuts after all, and with so many trees shattered by our Navy boys, they’ll be a-plenty of ’em on the ground to sate our thirst and replenish our stomachs. I can almost taste that sweet coconut cake Mama always cooks for homecomin’ at Mount Tabernacle Methodist Church near Waltonburg. My tongue moistens my parched lips in anticipation of an unexpected treat.
I think I spot movement a couple hunnerd yards inland, and point towards it.
“Say, Harper, ol’ buddy. Ya see somethin’ off to the right at about three o’clock? Where that there cave is?” I nod for emphasis.
“You gettin’ edgy’s all it is. Ain’t nothin’ but a bunch of damn seagulls over there. We done gone through all this worry for nothin’.”
“Tell that to the guys on the 1205,” I say. Again I see movement at the cave, but this time I keep quiet. Maybe I am just seein’ things.
“Keep your noggins down, you lunkheads!” Sergeant Johnson says. “You may think you’re on a Sunday picnic, but mark my words…all hell’s gonna break loose any second now. The Nips are layin’ low to lull us to sleep. They’re there, believe me!”
Despite the sarge’s experience, most of us are skeptical that anything more dangerous than a coral snake is facing us, assumin’ of course, that even a snake could survive this pounding. Surely, if there’s Japs still alive yonder, they’d-a opened up on us by now. Even as the landing craft beaches and the front ramp smashes down, sending a geyser up and sprayin’ those of us near it, not a peep is heard from the island.
“All right, you guys! Let’s hit the beach and let’s hit it hard!” the sarge yells, waving us on. “Move your sorry butts like there’s no tomorrow and you just might make it to tomorrow! Remember, fellas. Those who hesitate are the ones that won’t leave this beach alive. Let’s go!”
With that, the tank lurches forward, surrounded by the landing party, Corporal Wooten leading the way, Sgt. Johnson shepherding us from the rear. The coolness of the clear water feels mighty fine, shoving aside the heat that was radiating from all that metal aboard ship and sendin’ beads of sweat down our foreheads.
Corporal Wooten, Harper, and the rest of the first wave throws themselves down to provide covering fire for the advance. The bombardment from the flotilla has proceeded from the shore to further inland as we approach, but even now there’s no sign of resistance. Some fools let loose with a volley of bullets anyway.
“Cut it out, you knotheads!” Sgt. Johnson snarls. “After you hear Gabriel blowing his trumpet, you’ll have plenty of use for the ammo you’re wasting!”
The firing stops as the second file – me included – advances a little farther, only to find that the volcanic nature of the beach sand makes it so fine that it’s difficult to maneuver in, even for the tank. Almost immediately it’s stuck. Another tank comes to its aid with a chain and our tank is underway again, to our great relief. At least we’ll have something to ride on when they declare the island free of resistance.
So many gigantic potholes cover the landscape from the 16-inchers that it’s hard to believe anything could be left alive, let alone a human being. But, dang it! There’s a sand crab right in front of my face, actin’ as if it’s business as usual. Just don’t know no better, I guess. I hear a strange tinny sound from near that cave I seen before.
Gabriel’s trumpet? No…a bugle!
The sound of a lone rifle shot – much higher-pitched than our M-1 Garands – distinctively whines through the air. All hell does break loose. Jap artillery, all higher-pitched than our’n, explodes into action. Seems they got every grain of sand zeroed in. God help us all! The beach explodes in a sea of violence, instantly becoming a dying zone, men falling all around me, body parts a-flyin’ through the air. A blast of volcanic sand punishes my face from a near miss. Somebody’s hand lands right in front of me, a gold wedding band shinin’ in the sun. A woman has lost her man…maybe a child has lost its father.
I shudder, and shove it out of the way, tryin’ to wipe the blood off my wrist as my mind sends uncontrollable spasms through me. Today might be my last day on Earth after all. Paw’s a tough old bird, but what’ll it do to my poor mama? Look how she went on and on when Aunt Rosa died, and she won’t even on Mama’s side of the family.
The noise of constant multiple explosions all around me don’t leave much time for thinkin’ such thoughts. So much black smoke is on the beach that it’s practically turned mornin’ into midnight. The smell of death and cordite, the sound of dying and wounded men, the whizzing of artillery shells to and fro, never ceases. The first wave merges with the second as we find out how low we can go in this sorry real estate we find ourselves hugging.
Low ain’t the word for it.
“Guess the sarge was right, huh?” Harper says into my ear, his head vibrating like a gong.
The look I give him says it all.
Sgt. Johnson’s screamin’ at us now, standing up like he’s invincible. He points inland.
“Come on you guys! The only way to get off this beach is to go that way! Only the dead will be left behind; only the living will go forward!” He urges us on fearlessly as shells blast the beach to the left and right, sending more body parts flyin’.
On we go.
Harper ‘n me hunker down behind our tank and keep our rifles firing to either side, whether we’s seein’ anything to shoot at or not. Makes us feel better, somehow.
A large puff of smoke comes out of another hidden embankment straight ahead of us, and in a flash our tank’s turret pops up, sent skyward as a shell penetrates its thin skin and explodes its ammo. Two heavy machine guns in the same pillbox keep screamin’ a torrent of bullets thicker’n December molasses.
“My God!” Harper yells at the sound of men screaming in mortal agony as they’re cooked alive in mere seconds. He grasps a long piece of twisted metal that’s stuck in his gut, pulls it out, and throws it down; cussin’ the Japs all the while.
I feel a sharp pain in my forehead. Somethin’s runnin’ down my face.
Blood. My blood. Red as it can be, and warm. I must of been hit, too, dammit! I grab holt of a wad of Carolina Chaw tobacco from my mouth and cram it into the hole on my forehead. It does the trick, just like when Paw shot himself huntin’ deer one time over to Reverend Brown’s spread down Chicod way.
I look at Harper, and he looks back at me. We shrug at each other like it’s no big deal and slap in new eight-round clips. Behind us, we see everybody else is pinned to the sand, frozen by the hailstorm of bullets and howitzer fire comin’ from that dang pillbox. Nothin’ more than waitin’ to die is happening on the beach.
I’m-a startin’ to get riled up.
Harper looks at me again, his cheekbones jutting out from his taut face. His steely stare as he taps on a pair of hand grenades dangling at his waist lets me know he’s thinkin’ the same as me.
Somebody’s gotta do somethin’.
I check my own grenades, then close my eyes for a second as I take a deep breath. We nod the least little bit at one another, then step to either side of the smolderin’ hunk of De-troit metal, walkin’ through the smoke and a-firin’ at an unseen enemy hidin’ in a concrete emplacement.
Like the sarge says, it’s go forward – or die where you stand.
Tony Wayne Brown served 1972-76 in the 644 Radar Squadron at Richmond Heights AFS (out of Homestead AFB) as an admin specialist, rising to sergeant. With a USAF Remington manual typewriter that had no exclamation point, he first began writing stories that had to be unexciting, but has since found that his exclamatory work is a bit more interesting. After his service he received a BA in Communications from East Carolina University on the GI Bill and worked several years as a journalist. He lives in Greenville, NC where he is working on a novel. His fiction has been published more than 40 times, in publications such as The Huffington Post, Foliate Oak, Infective Ink, Gemini, The Write Place At the Write Time, The Storyteller, and Every Writer’s Resource.