e heard the diesels .re up. Metal groaned as the bow of our ship split down the middle and the two twenty-ton doors swung open to the black sea. Behind the doors, amtracs were lined up inside the belly of the ship like green, steel beetles.
On deck, the sound of the ship waking up got our minds focused on the assault ahead of us. We were going to be in the .rst waves of men to hit the beach. It all made sense, if you were a war planner who calculated schedules, machines, casualties and such. But we were the ones they made their plans on, so no matter how much sense it made on paper, you’re never quite ready to be in that .rst group— even Marines like the boys in my platoon. They were mostly teenagers, a few were in their early twenties, and inexperienced, except for a few vets like me who rode herd. They were gung-ho and itching to get into the .ght but even so, I could read their faces, being the .rst to face enemy .re was making them think things over. My younger brother George, a vet of Saipan and Tinian, saw these kids back in Hawaii and asked me, “Where the hell are the vets? You’re gonna get yourself killed. Y’oughta come over to the 4th with me.”
“Nothing doin’,” I told him. “I’m stayin’ put.”
“Stubborn fuck, always were.” George spit on the deck. Seemed like he didn’t give a shit about anything anymore. I guessed it was from Saipan— where they say things got pretty rough. Over three thousand men, including most of his friends, got killed.
We were the 5th Division. Like George said, we had a lot of the younger legs in our out.t. Those young legs would get us across the beach faster to the air.eld, our .rst objective. But we both knew that these youngsters would take the brunt of the dying. When you know how war works, like a wolf pack on the hunt, it made sense. But it still wasn’t right. These boys were the bravest we had. They didn’t wait to get drafted, they joined the Marines, and that should count for something. But of course, in the logic of war, it didn’t.
The boys .nished their prayers and the chaplain blessed us. The swabbies powered up more diesels and set to work getting the landing craft—medium (LCMs) and landing craft—personnel (LCPs) that would bring in the supplies after we hit the beach, hoisted up on the davits and swung over the side. All the activity set the boys murmuring to each other, “Here we go,” and “This is it.” For a second some of them looked down, bit their lips, like kids anywhere who were about to be punished. Inside I know some were panicking, feeling their nerve fail, even after all the training and preparation. Their instinct for survival was taking over. They wanted to beg for their lives, or hide in some cubbyhole or ammo crate of our huge transport ship, but they didn’t do it. They sucked it up and believed they were ready. They weren’t. What can I tell you about these young guys standing out on the cold deck with me? I loved them as much as my own brothers. Some were skinheaded young boots when they came into my platoon, some were fresh out of paratrooper school and were pissed off to be humping metal through the mud instead of .oating down from the air under green silk. But all that was over now. The last six months of training together every day made them as tough and tight-knit a . ghting platoon as I ever knew. They were the kind of heroes I wanted to be, not the Medal of Honor showboat that Topside wanted me to be.
Then a strange thing happened. As I watched them, I felt something release, all of a sudden. I can’t really explain it, but it felt like a knot in my chest, that was there all my life, suddenly came loose. I was free somehow and quiet inside. The voice that had been inside my head since I can remember, the one that whispers all the time and gets loud when you do something wrong, was suddenly gone. When that voice in your head suddenly stops, you notice. At least I did, because I had learned to listen to it. It sounds strange and I don’t go in for any sort of mumbo jumbo as a rule, but the voice told me the future, and did it more than once. Three different times I heard it clear as a bell, and it was right all three times. So I guess I learned to listen a little closer than most people. The voice was de.nitely gone. Maybe I just didn’t need it anymore.
It was half-light, just as the sun was crowning over the horizon behind storm clouds. It was February 19th, 1945, Monday, the beginning of the workweek. We were scheduled to hit the beach at 0900. Christ almighty, Monday at 9 A.M. just like we were starting a new job, punching a time clock. It made you wonder if God didn’t have some kind of dark sense of humor. The heavy seas of last night had calmed down to gentle swells. I was standing there on deck and must have looked like a tourist with nothing to do. I looked up. Storm clouds covered us like dirty wool. They changed their mind every ten minutes whether to rain or not. At the horizon, the clouds broke up. Behind them was a red-orange sky and I remembered, “. . . Red sky at morning, sailors take warning,” but it was too late for warnings now.
Then the boys heard the amtrac engines .ring up belowdecks and they looked at me like, “What do we do now, Sarge?” Fear was already beginning to numb them. It was a natural reaction. They were like deer sensing the hungry wolves were already too close. They knew it was too late to run so they froze, hoping the wolves would miss them. And there they stood, my platoon of .fty-eight young warriors, still as sticks, looking at me. I told them to get down the gangways and get going.
I knew what was about to happen to them. They didn’t know and so they were afraid. But I knew. “All Marines prepare to disembark!” The loudspeaker backed me up. The boys gathered up their things, all in a rush, like they were going to miss something. They weren’t going to miss anything. They packed up the heavy 30-cal Brownies, the air-cooled 30s, the mortars, the razor-stropped K-Bar knives and bayonets. They wouldn’t need any of these things right now. They would just need their young legs to carry them as far and as fast as they could, across the beach, straight into a nightmare they would never wake up from. The guns and the knives would come later, for those of us who were left to . ght back.
They would need me even more, very soon. They would think that hell had opened up a back door just for them. They wouldn’t know which way to go. Some wouldn’t be able to move and would be surprised that their legs didn’t obey. You couldn’t tell which ones by looking at them. The bravest ones in camp sometimes buried their faces in the sand and wet their pants. You just couldn’t tell and neither could they. That’s when they’ll need me. They’ll need me to pull them or kick them to get off the beach. Maybe that’s why I’m calm, because I know I’ll save some of them.
We .led down the gangways into the ship’s steel belly. Half of my boys loaded into amphibious tractor 3C27 with me. Amtrac 3C27 was an armor-plated, rectangular tub made for delivering men onto a beach. It rode low and slow in the water. The best of them couldn’t take much more than a two-foot ocean swell. What we found out was that if they didn’t sink in the water, they sank in the loose, volcanic sand. It seemed like war plans never went according to plan.
We climbed into the Continues...
Excerpted from I'm Staying with My Boys by Proser, Jim Copyright © 2010 by Proser, Jim. Excerpted by permission.
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