Philippine Sea, July 1944
Deacon Cole crouched in the belly of the landing craft headed for an island occupied by several thousand Japanese troops ready to fight to the death. He had more immediate concerns, such as being crammed shoulder to shoulder with dozens of other men.
He felt like a cork, bobbing up and down helplessly in a boat that made a very small speck in a very big ocean. Deacon would not have been reassured to know that their flotilla had just passed over the deepest point of the Mariana Trench, reaching into the blackness more than thirty-five thousand feet below.
As night came on, he could hear the angry seas of the Pacific Ocean washing and gurgling insistently against the metal sides.
Bad as things were in the boat, he found the sound of the ocean even more unsettling. He didn’t like the ocean, didn’t trust it. He had grown up in the mountains and preferred solid ground. Having been on ships for weeks now, making the long voyage from Hawaii, he longed for the feel of rocks and dirt under his feet. Some part of him was looking forward to getting on that island, Japs or not.
The slosh of the sea groping for them was the only noise. Nobody spoke because each soldier was caught up in his own thoughts and fears. They all knew that by the end of the day to come, more than a few of their number would be dead. It was a hell of a thing to think about, so Deacon simply pushed the thought from his mind.
For others, that wasn’t as easy.
“I’m scared, Deacon,” said a quiet voice beside him. It was Ben Hemphill. Ben was the same age, but Deacon had always seemed older than his years. Ben had latched onto him like a kid brother. “I keep thinking about what happened to all those Marines at Saipan. Aren’t you scared?”
Deacon nodded grimly. The geography was slippery, but everybody had talked in hushed tones about nearly fourteen thousand Marines had been killed or wounded taking that not-too-distant island this summer.
Was he scared? He checked himself, but didn’t feel any fear about the fight to come. However, he’d had enough of this landing craft. “I just want to get off this boat,” he said to Ben. “Listen, you’ll be all right. Just stick with me.”
“If you say so.”
“Shut it, you two,” said the sergeant. He glared at Deacon, his eyes going to the scars, and he looked quickly away. “Voices carry over water. You’re gonna turn us all into Japbait.”
Deacon didn’t reply, which he knew would steam up the sergeant. In the growing dark, he smiled.
All around him, isolated in their own cocoons of silence, other men pondered death or feared turning out to be cowards when they had to run into the storm of bullets awaiting them.
They made bargains with God, “If you let me live, I promise …”
It was no consolation that they were experiencing the same doubts and fears that Roman legionaries had felt gazing on a horde of barbarians, or that Confederate soldiers had experienced when looking toward the Union lines on Cemetery Ridge across the field that hot day at Gettysburg. Some of Deacon’s people had been there, wearing gray, their blood soon to be spilled on the Pennsylvania soil.
Deacon. His name was a given name and a nickname all rolled into one. In a church, a deacon was something like a preacher, and the name fit, considering that he didn’t smoke or drink and rarely cursed. But he was no mama’s boy. There was a meanness simmering below the surface. After what he’d done to Buster Ames, who had insisted on calling him Scar Boy, everybody knew that Deacon Cole was volatile as a jug of moonshine stoppered with a burning rag.
It didn’t help that his scars made people uneasy.
On his right side, Deacon’s face looked normal, even handsome, with a proud Scotch-Irish jawline and cool, pale blue eyes. But on the left side of his face, deep, angry gouges raked from his temple to his chin. Part of an ear was missing. They had seen the rest of his scars in the showers or around the barracks, although he rarely took his shirt off, no matter how hot it got. If anybody asked, he just shrugged and said “farming accident,” but nobody quite believed him.
After the long months of training together, they were finally going into action.
It all seemed unreal. The growing darkness only added to the sense of disorientation. Beside Deacon, someone retched. Many men were seasick. The Navy had fed them well, steak and eggs, all they could eat, and that was what was coming up now. The shame of it was that they knew it would be the last decent meal they’d be getting for a while. Knowing what was coming, Deacon had eaten sparingly.
The smell of vomit mixed in with the strong salty air. Beneath those smells, Deacon detected an undercurrent of rotting vegetation as the breeze blew toward them. That smell was the island of Guam, where they were fairly certain that hell awaited.
It was supposed to be summer, but it sure didn’t feel like it. The tropical breeze had turned cool, chilling the damp men in the boat and adding to their misery.
A dog lay stretched out near Deacon’s feet. This was a fighting dog rather than a mascot, although the men couldn’t help but spoil him rotten. He’d been brought along to help sniff out Japs and warn of infiltrators. The dog whimpered, sick as the men. Deacon reached down and patted the dog’s head. “Hang in there, ol’ buddy.”
Sergeant Rivers came past, squeezing his way through the jam-packed men. He didn’t see the dog at his feet and tripped, causing his to stumble forward.
“Dammit!” he turned back and kicked at the dog, making him yelp. “Get that dog out of the way!”
Nobody liked to see Rivers kick the dog, but they knew better than to say anything. The dog’s handler, Private Egan, squatted down and managed to interpose himself between the dog and Rivers’s boots. Cursing, the sergeant moved on.
Deacon glanced around at the other soldiers, who all looked about as miserable as the dog. He glanced over at Private Conlon, who slumped beneath the metal gunwales of the vessel, looking just as worried as everybody else. Conlon held a sniper rifle, a 1903A Springfield with a telescopic sight. By all rights, the rifle should have been Deacon’s. Everybody knew that he was the best shot in the whole regiment. He’d had the highest range score of anyone. No surprise there—Deacon had grown up with a rifle in his hands.
However, accuracy with a rifle was not the only requirement for being the unit’s designated sniper, which was something of a position of trust and a reward for good soldiering—something that Deacon was never going to qualify for. A sniper, paired with a scout, often operated independently. The fact was that Deacon couldn’t seem to get along with the sergeant, who was a city boy and made no secret of what he thought of “crackers” like Deacon.
Deacon’s attitude toward the officers wasn’t much better. It was the way that he always waited half a beat before adding “sir” or neglected to salute the butter bar lieutenants when the captain wasn’t around. He always had one boot toeing the line of insubordination. Blame it on Deacon’s innate sense of democracy and his mountain upbringing; he didn’t like the idea of one man being held above another. The Army didn’t agree. These shortcomings had put him out of the running for any special assignments. In eyes of the regimental command structure, he was going to make good cannon fodder.
Deacon stood on a crate and took a look over the side, out at the ocean, and immediately wished that he hadn’t. All that he could see was the endless dark chop of the Pacific, with a few shadows nearby of other landing craft. The motors were all running at low speed to avoid making too much noise or kicking up a wake.
It was no secret that the Japanese Navy was prowling these waters, looking for a chance to blow them all to hell before they got anywhere near the island. From above, Jap planes sought to do the same. So far, they had dodged both. But how long could their luck hold?
“If anybody lights a smoke I’ll throw his ass in the water,” growled the sergeant, just loud enough for his squad to hear. Knowing Sergeant Rivers, he meant it. He was a brutal man who took often his authority too far. “If the Japs spot us, it’s all over.”
Although they felt alone on this heaving ocean, their landing craft was just one of several carrying the Army troops toward the enemy guns awaiting them on the island. Nearby, several destroyers ran interference, screening the vulnerable fleet of landing craft.
They were going to join the United States Marines who had been fighting on the island, trying to wrest Guam from the Imperial Japanese Army. Capturing the airstrip would bring American planes that much closer to being able to strike the heart of Japan itself, which was why the Japanese were willing to fight to the last man to keep the island.
It was a speck of an island in the vastness of the Pacific. Before it had been invaded by the Japanese in 1941, Guam had been a United States territory for nearly fifty years, one of the spoils of the Spanish-American war. Just under thirty-five miles long and anywhere from five to nine miles wide, comprising 228 square miles, almost exactly the size of Deacon’s mountain county back home. Named after an otherwise unmemorable seventeenth century Austrian queen, the island was part of the Mariana Islands that stretched like the well-spaced beads of an abacus all the way toward Japan.
One thing for sure; the place was crawling with Japs.
Other than the airstrip, there wasn’t much to recommend the island. Rugged, mountainous, thick with jungle, surrounded by sharp-edged coral reefs, Guam was no tropical paradise, but it was where they were headed and their job to take it from the Japanese.
Aboard the landing craft, time passed in an agonizing blur.
Suddenly, the horizon came alive with flashes of light. Deep booms reached their ears. This was no tropical thunderstorm. The Navy destroyers whose mission it was to screen the landing force from the enemy must have encountered the Japanese Navy. They would do what they could to keeping the enemy ships off them. From a distance, they were witnessing a naval battle. The sight would have been awe-inspiring, if it hadn’t meant that they were in danger.
The Japs had found them.
There was no more time for stealth. Deacon felt the vessel beneath him surge ahead with new speed. The invasion fleet was racing away from the battle, just in case any Japanese ships slipped through.
They began crashing through the waves, leaving a white wake like a bright slash on the dark surface of the sea for whatever enemy plane might be circling above. But there was no helping it now. The flat-bottomed vessel slammed up and down, jarring their very bones. As the tropical dawn grew, they raced toward the shores of Guam.
“Get ready, boys!” the sergeant shouted. There was no longer any need for quiet. “We’re going in!”
Someone began to pray and nobody thought any less of him: “Our father, who art in heaven—”
From the darkness off the bow, flashes of red and orange stabbed the dawn. Alerted by the naval battle, Japanese artillery had opened fire. It was light enough now for the invasion fleet to be a target. Shells splashed into the sea, raising geysers of spray. One splash hit so close that water came in over the gunwales and drenched them all. The dog yelped.
Then came a blinding flash and ear-splitting explosion. Deacon thought at first that a Jap shell had struck them. But their luck had held. Instead, one of the landing craft nearby had taken a direct hit. Deacon glimpsed debris framed against the sky. Chunks of something soft and ragged. Pieces of ship? He didn’t want to think too much about it.
Now tracer fire skipped over the waves. Some fool looked over the lip of the gunwales to see the sights and fell back dead, shot through the head. Blood and brain matter oozed out and mixed with the slurry in the belly of the vessel.
Others stared in horror at their first dead man.
The forward motion of the landing craft suddenly slowed.
“What’s happening?” Ben stammered.
“Get ready, that’s what. This is it.”
Deacon was a little surprised. In his mind, he had pictured them running right on on the beaches into soft sand, the ramp coming down for them to run out onto soft sand, but that wasn’t to be the case. The coral ring surrounding the island prevented the landing craft from getting any closer. They had been warned about this is training and he knew what would come next.
The vessel bobbed in the shallow water at the edge of the reef. Bullets clanged against the metal sides.
“Let’s go!” the sergeant shouted. “Everybody over the side!”
Deacon clambered up and over along with everybody else. They had practiced this for what seemed like hundreds of times. Even men whose minds were frozen by fear had been conditioned to go through the motions, which they did now.
He got up and over the side, then came down with his boots splashing into water. Above him, Ben lost his grip and fell, falling headlong ito the sea. Deacon reached down and dragged him up, sputtering.
“Go! Go!” an officer shouted.
Tracers and bullets zipped across the surface of the water. Up on the landing craft, somebody started to shoot back with the big fifty caliber. But not for long. The landing craft were too vulnerable out here and were needed to carry yet more soldiers and supplies ashore. The engines roared and the vessel began to back away, leaving the men.
The soldiers remained several hundred feet from the shoreline. They would be forced to cross the coral reef between here and the shore.
“Move it!” the sergeant shouted. “Get to the beach! Don’t bunch up!”
“Stick with me, Ben.”
Ben kept pace with Deacon, moving parallel to him and keeping several feet alway as ordered. It was bright enough now that they could see the shoreline clearly: surf breaking, sand, and beyond the sand thick vegetation like a wall. The Navy had shelled the beach last night and not a single one of the trees still had all its fronds, most of which looked broken and twisted. The vegetation beneath looked dense as ever.
Wading through the water was a real slog. Sometimes teh water was only knee deep and two steps later they were up to their chests. They struggled to keep their rifles dry.
Only the dog didn’t seem to mind. He swam toward shore, barking with excitement, oblivious to the bullets pocking the water around him.
Just ahead of Deacon, a soldier from another squad labored through the surf beneath the weight of his pack, gear, and rifle. He suddenly vanished beneath the water.
The soldier had stepped into a gap in the surface of the reef, known as a kettle. He was suddenly in water way over his head. Trapped and unable to get out, weighted down with gear, the man was drowning. Nobody stopped to help.
“Never mind him! Watch the holes!” Sergeant Rivers shouted. “There’s holes in the reef.”
As it turned out, there were a lot of holes. “This damn reef is Swiss cheese!” someone hollered.
The reef sloped down, getting deeper rather than shallower toward the shore. The advancing soldiers had reached an impasse. They couldn’t wade the rest of the way, and they sure couldn’t swim. Machine-gun fire continued to pick them off.
Then came the screaming sound of incoming rounds, arching over their heads.
“Those belong to us!” Ben shouted gleefully.
“I just hope they know we belong to them,” Deacon replied.
For the first time, Deacon looked behind them and saw a lone ship standing out to sea, its big guns belching smoke. Beyond the long destroyer his eagle eyes could barely make out the smoking hulk of a burning ship, casualty of the naval battle that had taken place earlier. Whether the ship was Japanese or American, he couldn’t say.
Another volley of shells soared overhead. The shells exploded just beyond the beach with telling accuracy, pulverizing entire trees turning them into splinters. Even from a distance, Deacon felt the oxygen being sucked from the air by the tremendous blasts. He had to admit that the power of the naval guns was awesome. He was glad not to be on the receiving end.
Sporadic fire continued from land, oddly muted rifle shots, almost like pop guns, but the machine guns seemed to have been silenced by the naval bombardment.
In the temporary lull, the captain had found a way across. A single, narrow ridge of corral ran straight to shore. They would be able to follow it to the beach. However, it wouldn’t be possible to stay spread out. They traversed the ridge in single-file, leaving the men dangerously exposed to incoming fire.
Now and then a bullet came in, and a man fell headlong into the water. With the enemy unseen and behind cover, there wasn’t a thing that they could do about it.
“Move it! Move it!”
Hustling across the coral ridge, the squad finally made its way to the beach and flopped down on the sand, rifles pointed toward the dense wall of vegetation that started when the sand ended.
They were still out in the open here, the Japs picking at them, pinning the men to the beach.
“Where are those bastards, anyhow?” a man near Deacon asked. The soldier stuck his head up to get his bearings and a bullet pierced his helmet. He flopped back down, lifeless as a rag doll.
Deacon was fairly certain that if they stayed put, they’d all end up the same way.
“Now what?” Ben asked, sounding near panic, the whites of his eyes showing.
“We get the hell off this beach, that’s what,” Deacon said. He stood up and reached down to haul the man beside him to his feet. “Let’s go! It’s move or get shot!”
Behind him, he heard the sergeant shout, “Where the hell do you think you’re going, you damn crazy peckerwood!”
Behind him, the lieutenant shouted an order, and the rest of the squad surged after him.
But Deacon was already entering the deep shade at the fringes of the jungle, rifle at the ready, Ben following.
“Deke, where are we going?” Ben stammered.
“Hush now. If we stay on that beach, we’re as good as dead. Keep your eyes open.”
A clump of grass moved in the undergrowth. Deacon stared, seeing that the grass was actually attached to a helmet on the head of a Japanese soldier. The man was artfully camouflaged to the point that he had almost walked right up on him.
Deacon was so startled that he froze. He felt his insides turn to ice. His first Jap. Well, I’ll be danged.
The enemy soldier saw him but he was struggling to reload his rifle. He shouted something—possibly a curse or a warning to other Japs nearby.
Then something clicked into place for the Jap and he swung the rifle in Deacon’s direction.