Philippine Sea, July 1944
Deacon Cole crouched in the belly of the landing craft headed for an island occupied by several thousand Japanese troops that were ready to fight to the death. Right now, though, 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. They had been in these damn boats all night. Deke 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 dawn approached, 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 Deke simply pushed the thought from his mind.
For others, that wasn’t as easy.
“I’m scared, Deke,” said Ben Hemphill’s quavering voice beside him.
Ben was the same age, but seemed much younger. Hell, the poor kid barely needed to shave. Ben had latched onto him like a kid brother. The fact that Ben called him “Deke” reminded him of home because his sister, Sadie, had liked to call him that, once telling him, “It’s a short name to go along with the fact that you’ve got a short fuse.”
Deke looked over at Ben, whose face looked green—whether from fear or seasickness, it was hard to say. “Stick with me and you’ll be all right.”
“I keep thinking about what happened to all those Marines at Saipan. Aren’t you scared?”
Deke nodded grimly. The geography of the Pacific was slippery in his mind, but everybody had talked in hushed tones about how nearly fourteen thousand Marines had been killed or wounded taking that not-too-distant island this summer.
Now, it was their turn.
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. Like I said, just stick with me.”
“If you say so.”
“Shut it, you two,” said the sergeant. He glared at Deke, his gaze recoiling from Deke’s scars. On his right side, Deke’s face looked normal, even boyishly handsome, with a proud Scotch-Irish jawline and pale 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.
“Yes, sir,” Ben stammered.
“Voices carry over water. You’re gonna turn us all into Japbait.”
Deke didn’t reply, which he knew would steam up the sergeant. In the pre-dawn darkness, he smiled. He and the sergeant had gotten off to a bad start and it never had gotten any better. Not that Deke gave a damn.
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 I’ll …” Pledges were made to abstain from everything from booze to cards. Charitable acts were planned. Deke reckoned it was a waste of time. He knew from personal experience that God didn’t listen, no matter how much you begged and pleaded.
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 Deke’s people had been there, wearing gray, their blood soon to be spilled on the Pennsylvania soil. He supposed that there would be more than a little blood spilled on this day as well. He just hoped to hell that it wasn’t his blood.
After the long months of training together, they were finally going into action.
It all seemed unreal. The darkness only added to the sense of disorientation. Beside Deke, 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, Deke had eaten sparingly.
The smell of vomit and nervous sweat mixed in with the strong salty air. Beneath those smells, Deke 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 here on the water. The tropical breeze had turned cool last night, chilling the damp men in the boat and adding to their misery.
A dog lay stretched out near Deke’s feet. Her name was Whoa Nelly and she was a military dog rather than a mascot, although the men couldn’t help but spoil her rotten. She had been brought along to help sniff out Japs and warn of infiltrators. The dog whimpered, sick as the men. Deke reached down and patted the dog’s head. “Hang in there, ol’ girl.”
Sergeant Hawley came past again, squeezing his way through the jam-packed men. He didn’t see the dog at his feet and tripped, stumbling against the tightly packed soldiers nearby.
“Dammit!” he turned back and kicked at the dog, making her yelp. “Get that dog out of the way!”
Nobody liked to see Hawley 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 Hawley’s boots. Cursing, the sergeant moved on.
Deke 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. So much for all his big talk. Conlon held a sniper rifle, a 1903A Springfield with a telescopic sight. Conlon was a good shot and he never let anybody forget it.
By all rights, the rifle should have been Deke’s. Conlon was good, but everybody knew that Deacon Cole was the best shot in the company, if not the whole division. He’d had the highest range score of anyone. No surprise there—Deke 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 Deke was never going to qualify for. A sniper, paired with a scout, often operated independently. The fact was that Deke couldn’t seem to get along with the sergeant, who was a city boy and made no secret of what he thought of “crackers and hayseeds” like Deke.
Deke’s attitude toward the officers wasn’t much better. It was the way that he always waited half a beat before adding “sir” or was slow to salute. He always had one boot toeing the line of insubordination. Blame it on Deke’s innate sense of equality 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 command structure, he was going to make good cannon fodder.
Deke stood on a munitions 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 that would show white against the dark sea.
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 Hawley, 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 Deke’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 beads of a pearl necklace 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 keep 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. Deke 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. Deke 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. Deke 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.
The 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.”
Deke was a little surprised. In his mind, he had pictured them running right onto the beach, 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, even at high tide. 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. Karang!
“Let’s go!” the sergeant shouted. “Everybody over the side!”
Deke 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. Deke 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 Deke, 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 Deke, 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 Hawley 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,” Deke replied.
For the first time, Deke 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, Deke 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, Sergeant Hawley had found a way across. He didn’t like Hawley, but even Deke had to admit that the sergeant was a brave son of a bitch. 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 platoon 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 Deke 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.
Deke 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,” Deke 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!”
Without waiting for orders, Deke leapt to his feet and charged toward the dark slash of jungle.
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