The muscular Marine officer watched sunset with his wife and eight-year-old daughter from their porch overlooking the Pacific Ocean on the Island of Coronado, California. Water lapped the shore as the surf rolled in. Shaded streaks of magenta and orange shimmered in cloud scattered sky. The reflection cast on the smooth back-flow mirrored glowing colors smeared by Nature’s paintbrush. The pattern changed with wind or breaking wave—white foam erasing images. Plunging water from waves splashed after breaking with percussive beats in throbbing rhythms. Seagulls squawked diving for minnows, catching them in beaks, flying up, circling for more. Who would know a World War raged across that Ocean?
The transport carrying him and his platoon of marines would depart tomorrow for an island occupied by the Imperial Japanese Army. Captain Thomas Hart embraced his wife for a final time. “My ship passes Point Loma at 8:00 A.M.”
She looked at him with tear-stained eyes, “Write me every week, keep this picture in your helmet, and stay healthy.” He gazed at the photograph of his slender blond wife, freckled eight-year-old daughter, and him as they sat on his leather living room couch, petting his Labrador retriever.
He put on his cap, jumped in the waiting Marine jeep, threw his green duffle bag with his belongings in the back, and departed in a cloud of dust. Wife and daughter waved goodbye as his image faded in the twilight.
In a half an hour he had boarded the USS Zeilin, a Navy Amphibious Assault Transport carrying one hundred and fifty officers and two thousand enlisted men. Joining his compatriots in officer’s quarters, he stowed his gear, and lay in bed thinking about the journey ahead. What would he feel with his marines in landing craft plowing through the ocean approaching Japs dug in with cannons, machine guns, bullets whizzing at him, and shells bursting? He feared death, but had to hide that. Troops needed a confident leader in battle. Closing his eyes, he meditated while deep-breathing—a walk beside a peaceful lake.
The transport steamed out of the San Diego harbor with a gaggle of gulls trailing, looking for garbage from the galley, the smoke billowing out of the stacks after an Aircraft Carrier.
Hart’s wife and daughter watched the ship gliding slowly toward the horizon ever growing smaller. When only a blip, the Zeilin dropped and disappeared as if it fell off a table into a chasm.
Two months later the Japanese initiated the battle. Alerted by the pre-dawn American amphibious forces offshore, the garrison of cannons opened fire on the task force with their six-inch naval guns shortly after five A.M. His fleet’s battleships responded. Planes strafed the enemy. Fireballs lit the sky when a sixteen inch shell hit an ammunition dump. Hart’s stomach churned. “Move out,” barked the platoon sergeant, a burly Texan named Hunsicker.
The captain of the Zeilin played the Marine Hymn over the public address system, and the sailors cheered as the 2nd Battalion Marines crawled over the side and down the cargo nets.
Hart’s platoon clambered into a landing craft. They plowed through the rolling water toward the shore.A marine next to Hart vomited. One mumbled the Lord’s Prayer with eyes closed as machine gun bullets sprayed the front of the craft. A wave lifted them—do we have a guardian angel? Hart wondered. Only men, of all living things, pray.”
Explosions from cannon shells shot water high in the air and rocked the craft.As they approached the beach some men in the water tried to reach cover in the jungle. Machine guns cut down many. Mortars fired shells at them from positions hidden in the jungle. The landing craft opened its front ramp. Hunsicker screamed, “Move out.” Bodies littered the beach and floated in the water. Hart struggled through the surf, held his rifle high, and scrambled out of the water onto sand.
A soldier in a stupor, next to him with one arm shot off cried, “Oh no, no.”
In an underground concrete bunker, a clean-cut intelligent Japanese commander planned strategy with another officer before a model of the island. Allied aircraft bombs blasted close, and shook the walls and table. As he sat on a bed for support, the leader clutched a photograph of his wife, in a kimono with a parasol, hugging their young daughter on his lap—all smiling. A Buddhist shrine hung from the wall next to a large white flag with a red circle in the center. He lit a pipe, and poured green tea into porcelain cups for him and his lieutenant. On the beach the men raced over dunes, fell, and rolled. Many died.
Shouts of “Corpsman” came from wounded marines. Hart ran into the jungle with others for cover until they reached tall grass, and crawled. Automatic machine-gun fire from under palm trees and rifles across the way in shrubs, rattled sporadically. “We’re caught in crossfire,” Hart yelled. He said to Jim, an Alabama sharp-shooter, “Get the riflemen. I’ll take the machine gunner.”
“OK Captain—let’s give ‘em hell.”
Joe, a marine from Boston who loved baseball, tossed a grenade into a hidden gun nest where Jap bullets killed two marines. After an explosion, two bloody bodies rolled out from a small dirt bunker covered with palm fronds.
The sergeant yelled, “Fix Bayonets.”
Joe imagined a blade slicing into his neck, blood gushing out. Bullets flew at them from the enemy in the jungle. A marine with a buddy next to him under cover screamed, “I’ll get the sniper” and shot. A body tumbled out. They came out to inspect.
One marine turned the body over and shouted, “It’s a dummy.” Bullets rang out from a tree killing both marines.
Jim told Joe, “Bet I stay alive longer than you.”
“Shut up and fight. If I win, you won’t pay.”
The sergeant saw rifle fire coming from a cave yelled, “Send for a flame thrower.”
A wounded Japanese soldier staggered from the jungle fell with blood flowing from bullet holes. He dreamed he was with his wife and two teenage sons soaking in an ofuro, helped them towel off, and dined with chopsticks seated in the yoga position. They meditated before a Shinto shrine.
Hart told the sergeant, “Get someone to guard the prisoner. I’m going to check on our wounded,” and left the area.
Hunsicker broke both of the man’s legs with his rifle butt, and then questioned him to learn their plans. The prisoner refused to talk. The sergeant cut off his left ear. In agony the man with fear in his eyes, held his bloody head. “Where are the Jap troops?” After silence, he stabbed the soldier in the neck and twisted the knife. Screams trailed off to a choking sound as the enemy soldier fell to his death. The sergeant kicked his body into a hole hidden by a tree. Unknown to the sergeant, a young marine observed his actions.
A soldier with a flame thrower arrived as requested and torched the cave with a stream of liquid fire scorching two Japanese soldiers who burned to a blackened crisp.
The young marine nearby vomited.
In another area of the jungle, a Japanese soldier without his helmet on photographed a large purple and scarlet flower with curving petals like a brilliant jellyfish. He opened a book from his backpack and examined the flower. Smiling as he thumbed through his drawings, he drew the flower with a set of colored pens. His face relaxed into a tranquil expression.
Marines with fixed bayonets spaced out to avoid making an easy target. Japanese soldiers sharpened their bayonets that glistened in the sun, like those of their samurai ancestors.
Hart wrote in his journal, “I’ll never figure out this war. Our men are like possums in a tree, easy targets for the enemy. Japanese men go up in flames like tissue paper. The flame thrower is the worst. I’d rather take a shot.” Returning to the scene where the sergeant had the prisoner, Hart questioned him, “Where’s the enemy soldier I asked you to guard?”
“I tried to get information out of him but he ran away when I was distracted by the Japs in the cave.”
Hart shouted, “Anybody see the wounded prisoner leave?”
The young marine approached and whispered, “The sergeant broke his legs, cut off his ear, and then killed him with his knife.”
“What happened sergeant?”
“This is war. I killed a Jap. That’s what we do so they can’t come back at us.”
“Sgt. Hunsicker we fight hard, but we don’t torture prisoners. We don’t fight out of hate. We’re not professional killers.”
Hunsicker said, “That’s a bunch of crap. I’m going to bury our dead, and kill me some more Japs.”
The young marine mused, “That’s the danger. We forget why we’re here. No one warned us of that.”
Navy and Air Force planes zoomed overhead, and bombed the enemy. Explosions rocked the ground. Sounds of missiles, bombs, and machine guns from strafing sent plumes of smoke in the air as our men smiled and cheered the angels from the sky.
After twenty minutes of constant pounding, the silence left only the jungle sounds of birds, insects, rustling palms, and ferns in the wind. Hart interrupted the ambience, “Let’s find Japanese headquarters. Follow me, I have a communication from a scout in the air that we are close.”
The men reached a clearing that overlooked a roof hidden from view. They descended through the camouflage. Hunsicker broke a hole in the roof. The young marine peered in and exclaimed, “The Japanese commander committed Hari Kari with his sword.”
Hart jumped into the room, saw the sword in the commander’s stomach and the shrine. He looked at the photo of the happy Japanese family. A tear rolled down his cheek as he climbed back and faced the men, “It’s over. They followed him back on a trail and stopped when he signaled them.
“Men I have received a message we must join the others and return to the ship.” The men followed Hart toward the beach and encountered a Japanese soldier crying next to a dead friend in uniform without his helmet. Hunsicker took aim, but Hart stopped him, “He’s unarmed.” They approached the Japanese. The distraught soldier had no weapons. Hart offered him water from his canteen. The soldier reached out for the canteen with one hand and handed Hart a small book with the other. A look of astonishment came over Hart’s face, as he thumbed through the book.
The young marine watching over Hart’s shoulder said, “The soldier was an artist. Those are his paintings of exotic flowers.”
Tears fell from Hart’s eyes. He gathered the men. “We have taken this island. Only he remains and will commit Hara Kiri, an ancient form of ritual suicide that defeated samurai, or those whose shame was too unbearable used to restore their honor.” His unarmed friend was needlessly killed. Bow your heads in prayer. Dear God help us put an end to war. Amen.”
The men trudged in silence back to the landing craft. Fires burned, and smoke rose from the island. The smell of death was everywhere as were the ghastly images the men will never erase from their minds. The men entered the landing craft that returned them to the transport. They climbed the cargo nets, and entered the Zeilin. They looked from the ship’s height over the desolate island, once paradise to its natives, now desecrated by war.
The young marine said, “We won this one. There are so many more to go.”
“I’m looking for the next battle,” Jim offered, “I got myself six gooks here.”
Joe said, “I wonder how the Red Sox are going to do next year.”
Six months later the transport pulled into San Diego Harbor. The base let the families know the time of arrival when the ship approached. Tom’s wife and daughter stood at their porch as a small dot appeared on the horizon beyond the rolling ocean kissing the shore. Sea gulls flew, squawked, and dove. Porpoise cavorted bobbing up and down beyond the surf. Dry sand glistened with shells and pebbles as each incoming wave receded. Tom noticed that Nature didn’t seem to know what he and his men had done, that a war was on, that people were dying. A steady rhythm from the sounds of waves thumping after breaking, assured a casual observer that Mother Nature would weather man’s meanness.
At the gang plank where the Zeilin anchored among a crowd of well-wishers, family, and officials, Tom stood waving. The Coronado Navy band broke into the Marine Hymn. There wasn’t a dry eye. Below, Hunsicker shined his shoes. The young marine wore a wide smile. Jim cleaned his gun. His family was down south. He couldn’t wait for another medal as a sharpshooter.
When the time came, Major Tom ran down the gangplank, grabbed his wife and daughter, hugged, and kissed them.
“We are so proud of you dear. Thank God you’re home,” his wife said.
He lifted up his daughter, and wheeled around in a dance of joy, and shouted, “I’m home. I’m home to stay.” He put his daughter down and hugged his wife as the tears rolled down all of their faces. Their hearts beat as one.