Sunday’s short story this week is a little bit of historical fiction based on a true account. I’ve wanted to tell this story since one incredible man shared it with me many years ago.
Bobby and Iwo
2012 Copyright Barbara Celeste McCloskey
Bobby lay in his bunk with pen in hand. Most of the guys in his platoon were doing the same thing after the briefing. He wrote:
My darling, Arlene,
Hi sweetheart. I hope this letter finds you well. I was glad to hear that your mid-term grades were good. I’m doing well, too. Ship life is boring, but soon things will change. By the time you get this letter, the battle will be over.
I’ve gotten used to the rocking and rolling of this tug, the heaves of the rough surf, but I can’t tell you how anxious I am to set my feet back on solid ground again. I just hope my sea legs will remember how to walk. (Ha, ha)
I can’t tell you much; just that we’re sailing to some dinky island in the South Pacific. The Navy guns have been shelling this rock for days, so we’re hoping nothing’s left and the Japs have turned tail and gone home.
Don’t worry about me, sweetie. I’ll come out of this fight just fine because I want to come home and kiss your beautiful face again.
Wait for me. Love, Bobby
Bobby scrawled the familiar address on the airmail envelope, licked it shut and kissed it. He he rolled over and rested his blonde head on a thin pillow. His nervous energy kept his eighteen-old imagination active. It would be his first time to hit the beach for real. He didn’t want to admit he was scared about what would happen tomorrow, but his body confirmed he was. Bobby turned onto his side and punched his pillow to find a comfortable position. Every time he moved he rocked the bunk.
His best friend Danny was below. “Knock it off, Bobby. Jesus!”
Bobby whispered. “I can’t sleep. Every time I close my baby blues, I keep wondering what about tomorrow.”
“I know what you mean. I just hope the Navy blasted the lot of them to death, and we’ll just stroll onto the beach.”
“I doubt that. They chased MacArthur out of the Philippines. Wonder if they kick our asses? They’re mean sons of bitches.”
“Aw, don’t worry, Bobby. We’ll kick the hell out of ‘em and be back on deck before supper.”
“Yeah.” Bobby said unconvinced. “We’d better try and get some sleep.”
Danny agreed. “Yeah. I wonder what we’ll get for breakfast. Somebody said they always feed us good before a battle.”
Bobby let out a belly laugh. “You crack me up! The Marines feeding us well. That’s rich! You must be talking in your sleep and you don’t know it.”
Somewhere else in the compartment another marine shouted, “Shut up you dumb asses – you’ll be wishing you had that comfortable rack when you’re lying on your bellies on that dam rock!”
Bobby rolled over and didn’t say another word. Danny was quiet for the rest of the night, too, but neither slept. Adrenalin was pumping too strong.
As sun broke the horizon, the ship came to life. The monotony of revelry at 0600, calisthenics on deck in skivvies, dressing in olive green fatigues, and then hot chow at 0700. But February 19, 1945 was soon to be anything but ordinary. All the soldiers scarfed up the steak and eggs because they all figured it would be a long time before they’d have hot chow again.
After breakfast, Bobby and Danny waited on deck in their gear. The sun beat down on the deck as the two teenagers tried to feel like brave Marines in their camouflaged uniform and helmets. Canteens and pistols hung from their equipment belts and 50 pound packs were strapped on their slender backs. They were told they would be in the second wave to hit the beach.
“God, it’s hot!” Danny exclaimed as he wiped the sweat from his face. “I just wish we could get on the Higgins and get going.”
“Don’t be too anxious.” Bobby said. “Remember how seasick you always get?”
Danny tried to keep things light. “Hell, they probably don’t even need us. The Navy flyboys have been dropping shells on this rock for over 70 days, and the 14” guns from the battleships have been going at it for the last three days. What can be left?”
Bobby stood quietly with his rifle slung over his shoulder. Finally he said, “Why don’t you shut up for two seconds? God, you talk a lot!” After the cross words were out of his mouth, he was sorry when he saw Danny’s face.
“Sorry.” Danny looked away. “God, you’re touchy!”
The two friends waited for the squawk box to bark orders to board the LVT transport.
As Bobby stood in line to descend the cargo nets, he had regrets. “Hey, Danny.”
“I didn’t mean what I said. I’m sorry, man.”
“No sweat. But thanks for saying so, buddy. I guess we’re all a little testy.”
“Yeah.” Bobby smiled at his friend. “We’ll give ‘em hell.”
“Damn right.” Danny smiled back.
All of a sudden, Bobby’s stomach rolled. It probably was the extra steak and eggs he’d gotten from the guy from Oklahoma. What’s the matter with you, Marine? There will be no puking before battle. Marines aren’t afraid. Buck Up! He took a deep breath and put mind over matter. You’ll be okay. After all, you promised Arlene–
Bobby had no time to finish his thought as he precariously climbed down the flimsy rope ladder on the port side of the ship. At the bottom, he jumped in the small boat that would take them into battle. Bobby and Danny were the last two soldiers to get into the boat, which was already assholes to bellies full of sweaty soldiers.
Danny yelled, “The Marines must be taking orders from the Navy!”
“Why would you say such a stupid thing?” Bobby growled.
“Well they got us packed in here like sardines, don’t they?” Danny grinned.
Bobby laughed. Danny could always break the tension with a joke.
As the transports steered toward the beach, the sailors on the ships saluted the Marines with cups of coffee, waving good luck.
Bobby said, “Maybe you got something there, sport! Look at those assholes!”
The hum of the engines of the small landing boat seemed quiet as the thunder of mortar shells pierced the sea, causing splashes that sent chills down Bobby’s spine. As bullets whizzed over them, Bobby read fear in Danny’s eyes. Others stared ahead with blank eyes, not able to fathom what was happening.
When the ramp dropped, a rush of young male bodies jumped into the water only to sink up to their knees in thick, black, volcanic sand. Bobby slipped in the muck, took in a deep gulp of salt water, and came up sputtering. He struggled under the heavy weight of his pack, while maneuvering through dozens of floating dead kids like him. As he kept his feet pumping toward the beach, Bobby didn’t look at their lifeless faces. Crouching and keeping his head down, he kept going forward. A barrage of bullets ripped through the water and whizzed by his head.
The water was freezing and he struggled for breath. Marines always go forward, Bobby told himself. Marines don’t quit. Get onto that goddamn beach! Finally, the waves were behind him, and he fell on his belly gulping in deep breaths. He turned to see Danny was by his side. “We made it! You OK?”
Danny panted. “Yeah man. I’m fine. Let’s get them bastards!”
What was left of their unit was pinned down on the beach by machine gun fire. Paralyzed by the hellish scene, Danny and Bobby first realized there was a good possibility they could die. Bombs shook the sand and the explosions produced pain pierced their ear drums like ice picks. Thick, choking, white smoke billowed in the air, while a sickening smell of rotten eggs gave Bobby a headache that reminded him of the hangover he got after drinking cheap booze on liberty in Hawaii. When a shell landed close to Bobby, his bones felt like they had turned to metal and somebody had hit him with a sledgehammer. “Oh my god, oh my god. Danny, you OK?”
“Don’t worry about me, brother. Just protect your own ass!”
They crawled like ugly salamanders to improve their position behind a small sand dune. It was clear there was no glory in war; there was only a battle to stay alive.
After a few hours, the whole unit found itself trapped behind a ridge of black sand. There was no way to dig a foxhole because the loose volcanic sand fell in upon itself. Their only option was to go forward, and that meant confronting exploding shells and machine gun fire.
The sergeant yelled. “We have to get to the top of that ridge. Kowalski and Anderson, stay behind me.”
Inch by inch Bobby and Danny crawled behind Sarge with the rest of the obedient soldiers as the surreal horror of battle surrounded them. Bobby watched guys he had eaten breakfast with that morning explode. Guys he had beaten at poker cried out with pain in their eyes. The dead lay in their wake.
As they inched forward, it was apparent the Japs were “in” the island, not “on” the island, and the American rifles were about as useful as bee-bee guns. To kill this enemy the Marines needed hand grenades and fire throwers to blast the bastards out of their caves. Bobby adopted one mantra. Run, don’t die. Run, don’t die.
But what they needed was sinking in the slippery, black sand back on the beach. Tanks sank to their tracks and Jeeps up to their axles as they were unloaded off the transports. The small beach made it difficult to organize supplies because of the large numbers of dead bodies that clogged the beach. When supplies did get to shore, getting the hand grenades and flame throwers to the soldiers in battle was another laborious and dangerous chore. Lucifer himself couldn’t top this hellish place.
It only took a few hours before the smell of death wafted over the land. The metallic smell of blood, the sulfur of the bombs, and the sickening sweetness of cheap cologne mixed to create a nauseating odor that Bobby would never forget. The smell of shit and piss was everywhere because soldiers had no other alternative to relieve themselves in battle. Bobby felt ashamed when he let go of his bowels the first time.
As dusk fell, Bobby’s unit was still on the ridge with little protection. He thought it was crazy that a small bump on the beach would be a life or death problem.
Bobby said, “This hasn’t quite been a stroll onto the beach.”
Danny said, “Yeah. How will I ever tell my mother I pooped in my pants and almost got eaten alive by land crabs and sand fleas?”
“Aw hell, you complain about just about anything, Kowalski! What are a few bug bites when you could more easily get your head blown off?”
“That’s you, Anderson, always thinking on the bright side. God, I hate you.” Danny smiled at his friend.
When darkness fell, fear intensified. Exploding shells sounded like a thousand thunderclaps. Flashed in the blackness sent horrendous, ear splitting pain, while the incessant rapid machine gun fire let them know the enemy wasn’t sleeping, either. The sounds of battle were a curious chorus punctuated with cries of dying men.
After the first day, the first lesson of war set in on the young Marines: Kill the Japs before they kill you. It was as simple as that. The oldest law of the jungle– survival of the fittest would win.
The Marines moved up one ridge after another to get to their target—the top of Suribachi Mountain. There was an airstrip up there the fly boys needed to get to Tokyo, and the mission was to take it away from the enemy.
Bobby and Danny were still alive after three days. They were hot, dirty, tired, wet and miserable, but they knew they were the lucky ones. They rested, but never slept; they knew if they wanted to be alive in the morning, sleep wasn’t an option. They began to see K-rations as delicacies.
Danny said, “I thought my mother was the worst cook on the planet, but I think the Marines take the prize.”
“Complain, complain, complain. Geez, Kowalski!” Bobby teased.
“You can’t honestly say you like this crap?” Danny’s voice was incredulous.
“It’s steak and potatoes to me, my friend. Just a little mind over matter.” Bobby smiled as he choked down another bite.
On February 22 around ten o’clock in the morning, Bobby and Danny sat behind a yet another small ridge of sand. “Well, will you look at that!” Danny exclaimed.
“Well, I’ll be god-dammed. Isn’t that about the most beautiful thing you ever saw?”
“It sure is.” Danny sounded choked up.
Bobby felt a lump in his throat as a tear rolled down his cheek.
A rousing cheer rose from the Marines who had made it through the battle went up as the red, white and blue of the Stars and Stripes unfurled on top of the mountain.
“My God, we did it! Some day you can tell your kids that you saw this –“ Bobby joked, “That is, if any girl will have your sorry, Pollock ass.”
“You think you’re so hot because Arlene took pity on you, you dumb Dane. She’ll never wait for you. She’ll marry some rich guy. I guarantee it.”
Bobby smiled. He felt proud for the first time since he crawled onto the island. The sight of the U. S. flag convinced him the Marines would take this rock and then march on toward Tokyo. “I feel like I just had a blood transfusion.”
“What?” Danny said.
“I feel charged up. Energized. Ready to go. Don’t you?”
“I feel something, but I’m not sure what it is.” Danny said.
The Marines had a day to rest before starting their charge to the north of the island. Supplies finally caught up to them, and they had a chance to get cleaned up and choke down a K-ration. Once again, Bobby’s imagination got him through the unsavory meal. Danny said he’d never complain about his mother’s cooking again.
Jimmy, the supply officer, offered all the soldiers their choice of a package of cigarettes or a cigar. Having never tried either, Bobby chose the cigar. He lit it and took a long drag. Immediately, he felt light-headed and he coughed up the smoke until his sides hurt. Not wanting to look like a sissy in front of the other guys, he tried again. By the time the stogie was half burned up, Bobby learned how to smoke and enjoyed the calming affect of the tobacco.
As the seasoned Marines rested before they moved north, replacements joined them. These recruits were kids straight off the farm; some hadn’t even fired a gun before. Bobby and Danny knew they would learn quickly or they wouldn’t be leaving the island.
Bobby said, “I’m really glad they brought in such green replacements.”
“Why? The dumb fucks don’t even know how to shoot. What good are they?”
“Yeah, and they don’t know how to play poker, either. I’m really glad they’re here. I’ll go home a rich man!”
“Any man who goes home will be a rich man.” Danny said dryly.
The next morning, the Marines pushed northward. After the fierce battle for Suribachi, the whole unit thought taking the rest of the island would be easy. But they were mistaken.
Out of nowhere, a shell hit Danny. “Oh no!”
Bobby watched as his best friend fell. He lay down beside his friend and rolled him over, only to see that awful far-away stare in Danny’s brown eyes. He had gotten it in the chest.
Bobby felt rage rise up from his gut as he yelled, “No!” He fired wildly into the direction where he thought the shots had come from. Sarge pulled Bobby forward. “Don’t think, son. Keep moving. We can’t help him.”
Bobby followed orders and let his training take over. He ran beside his sergeant, and his mantra took over where the training left off. “Run, don’t die. Run, don’t die.
But locking out Danny’s blank stare was impossible. Why did the Pollock get it? Why not me? He ran along in a daze, only to be trapped up against another ridge.
Sarge radioed for air support and a few minutes later, bombers appeared in the sky. The men fought all morning to take 400 yards, only to fall back 500 yards later that afternoon. Nothing was worse for Marines. Falling back, having to give up ground they paid for with blood was not in their nature. Sarge assured them it was better to fight another day.
Another fight tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that? When will it end? I want to go home.
After a week of fighting, Bobby believed the Japs were no better than rats. They couldn’t be human. They burrowed in caves and tunnels like rodents, and even when flame throwers burned them to a crisp, there was always another Nip to pick up the fight. They had to be exterminated, just like rats.
Every afternoon torrential rain poured down on the volcanic island. The sun and rain made temperatures rise above 115 degrees, and Bobby felt weak for the first time since landing on the beach. The thick, humid air made it hard to breathe, and Bobby was finding it hard to fight on. Sleep deprivation, living in stinking, filthy clothes and surviving on K-rations was enough to make anyone want to lie down and die. What kept him going was thoughts about Arlene. He wanted to hold her and make love to her; he pictured them married with half a dozen kids. He had to get home.
After Danny’s death, Bobby found himself helping a new recruit accept the situation that was too foreign to imagine. George Pulaski was from Milwaukee, and even though Bobby and he were exactly the same age, Bobby felt like the old man of the two. George was grateful for the quick friendship, but Bobby wondered why he attracted another dumb Pollock.
One day when they were eating their noon rations, Bobby heard the high pitch whistle of an incoming shell; he pushed George into a shallow ditch, and as he did, he felt an excruciating surge of pain travel down his back.
“Bobby! Bobby!” George screamed. “Bobby! Come on man! You can’t die! Oh God, Bobby!”
George rolled Bobby over and saw bullets had ripped down his right side. George dropped his rifle and took the roll of gauze he carried in his pocket and did his best to stop the bleeding that seemed to be coming from everywhere. Where Bobby lay, the sand turned red. George pressed as hard as he could to stop the flow, but his little bit of gauze was about as effective as a Cur-Aid bandage. Bobby had little time. He screamed, “Medic!”
Bobby drifted in and out of consciousness. I can’t feel anything. Oh my God! There’s grandpa over there! Am I dead? I can’t be dead! Arlene! I’m coming sweetheart, please wait for me. What’s this? I’m falling back to earth. I’m in a hole. There’s George!
Bobby whispered, “George, are you there?”
“Yeah, buddy. I’m right here.”
“I’m bleeding ain’t I?”
“Yeah man. The Nips got you good. You gotta fight, Bobby. You can’t die. Arlene is counting on you to come home.”
“I don’t feel anything.”
George ordered, “It’ll be okay. Rest easy.” George screamed again, “Medic! Jesus God! Medic!”
Bobby whispered, “We gotta get out of here, Pollock—
“How many times have I told you not to call me that?” Danny yelled.
“We gotta get out of this hole, George. I’m not dying here! I can crawl, just steer me in the right direction.”
George knew there was no crawling out of that hole alive. There was already another nameless dead Marine sharing it with them. All they could do was wait for help.
“Whadda ya waiting for, Marine?” Bobby asked. “Move it, move it. . .” he passed out.
A second later a medic jumped in the hole where the two friends lay. George said, “What took you so long? He’s hit down his back, his arm, leg on the right side.” George started to cry. “I didn’t have enough gauze to do any good.”
The medic said, “You did good, kid. Help me get this IV started; he’s lost too much blood. We have to get this plasma in him.”
George held Bobby’s arm and the medic pierced the vein on the first try. The medic took out large bandages from his pack and wrapped them around Bobby’s wounds. “We have to get him down to the beach for evacuation.”
George nodded as he watched the medic work faster than any nurse.
When the Marines rooted out the sniper, Bobby was rolled onto a stretcher. George and another recruit hauled him over the sharp lava terrain. The medic held the plasma as they moved his bullet-ridden body down to the beach. Bobby was in and out of consciousness, and George prayed they weren’t too late. He hoisted Bobby’s stretcher onto the transport that would take him to the hospital ship. George jumped in and took his hand. “Bobby, can you hear me?”
Bobby opened his eyes and nodded.
George said, “I’ll see you on the fourth of July next year, buddy. I’ll drive down to Kenosha, and I’ll buy you a ham on rye and a beer.”
Bobby cleared his throat. “Lettuce and tomatoes, too?”
“Of course. Anything you want.”
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep, my friend.” Bobby whispered.
“I’ll keep my promise. You keep yours. No dying.
Bobby gave him a weak smile. He thought George looked exhausted and he should be the one laying on the cot.
“You tell Arlene to bring along her prettiest friend for me, okay.?”
“OK.” Bobby took a deep breath. “Hey George?”
George turned away and didn’t let Bobby see that a tear had escaped his eye.
When Bobby woke up 36 hours later, his ears still rang from battle, his back screamed with pain. He opened his eyes to find himself in a plaster cocoon. His right arm and leg were bound in heavy white bandages and his left arm and leg were pieced with IVs—one with saline the other with blood. Even though he couldn’t move, he was thankful he was safe on a hospital ship. He was thankful to be clean again. He was thankful for the coolness of the good smelling white sheets. He was even thankful for the disinfectant odors of bleach and alcohol, which replaced the rancid smell of battle and death.
He heard the smooth wailing of Frank Sinatra singing, “Nancy with the Laughing Face.” His pain was like his body was on fire, but a Navy nurse injected something in his IV and he felt better. He saw George’s face loading him on the transport and vaguely remembered falling into a hole. He searched his memory for details, but when he remembered the exploding shell, he tried to think of something else.
About an hour later a doctor came into his room and checked his chart. “Marine, you awake?”
Bobby opened his eyes. “Yes, sir. Where am I doc?”
“You’re on the Good Samaritan,” the doctor answered.
“You’re a pretty lucky, guy, soldier. If it hadn’t been for your friend George and that medic, you’d be hearing a choir of angels instead of Sinatra.”
“Where was I hit?”
“One in the arm, six in the leg, three in the back – we had to remove your kidney and you broke your back. That’s why the cast. I’m assuming you fractured your back from a fall – if a bullet ripped though your spine, you’d be a paraplegic or dead.”
“You’re just a ray of sunshine, doc.” He asked. “Am I going home?” Bobby hoped he would never see battle again.
“I don’t know soldier. I just patch you guys up, and then the Marines decide what to do with you.”
“I won’t have to go back into battle, will I?”
“Like I said, son, I don’t know. The Marines will make the decision for you.”
The doctor moved to the next soldier who was wrapped in gauze like a mummy.
Bobby asked, “Hey doc, what happened to him?”
“Oh,” Bobby took a deep breath. “Doc?”
“Bobby, I really have to get on with my rounds.”
“Just one more thing. Thanks.”
“No thanks necessary, son. You did your job, and I do mine.” The doctor smiled.
Bobby closed his eyes. He knew he’d get through this, and dreamed of the day when George and he would share a beer with Arlene and her prettiest girlfriend.
Bobby went home some months later, married Arlene, had three children and ran several successful businesses in Kenosha, Wisconsin and Sydney, Australia. He lived a good life well into his 90s.