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This emotional and honest novel recounts a young man’s experiences during World War II and digs deep into what he and his fellow soldiers lived through during those dark times.
The nightmares began for William Manchester 23 years after WW II. In his dreams he lived with the recurring image of a battle-weary youth (himself), “angrily demanding to know what had happened to the three decades since he had laid down his arms.” To find out, Manchester visited those places in the Pacific where as a young Marine he fought the Japanese, and in this book examines his experiences in the line with his fellow soldiers (his “brothers”). He gives us an honest and unabashedly emotional account of his part in the war in the Pacific. “The most moving memoir of combat on WW II that I have ever read. A testimony to the fortitude of man…a gripping, haunting, book.” –William L. Shirer
COPYRIGHT © 1979, 1980 BY WILLIAM MANCHESTER
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. EXCEPT AS PERMITTED UNDER THE U.S. COPYRIGHT ACT OF 1976, NO PART OF THIS PUBLICATION MAY BE REPRODUCED, DISTRIBUTED, OR TRANSMITTED IN ANY FORM OR BY ANY MEANS, OR STORED IN A DATABASE OR RETRIEVAL SYSTEM, WITHOUT THE PRIOR WRITTEN PERMISSION OF THE PUBLISHER.
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First eBook Edition: April 2002
Lines from "We'll Build a Bungalow" by Betty Bryant Mayhams and Norris the Troubadour, copyright Robert Mellin Music Publishing Corp. Used by permission.
Lines from "On the Sunny Side of the Street" by Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh, copyright 1930 by Shapiro, Bernstein & Co., Inc., copyright renewed 1957 and assigned to Shapiro, Bernstein&Co., Inc. Used by permission.
Photographs on pages 2, 8, 14, 158, 214, 348, and 392, U.S. Marine Corps photos; page 118, Mark Kauffman, copyright 1951 by Time Inc.; page 36, U.S. Navy photo; page 54, United Press International; page 76, J. R. Eyerman, © 1980 by Time Inc.; page 190, Bruce Adams; page 254, 7th AAF; page 304, U.S. Army photo; page 323, Robin Moyer; page 394, © 1980 by George Silk. All other photographs are courtesy of William Manchester.
Books by William Manchester
American Caesar: Douglas MacArthur, 1880–1964
Disturber of the Peace: The Life of H. L. Mencken
The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill; Visions of Glory:
The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill; Alone: 1932–1940
One Brief Shining Moment: Remembering Kennedy
Portrait of a President: John F. Kennedy in Profile
A Rockefeller Family Portrait: From John D. to Nelson
The Arms of Krupp, 1587–1968
The Death of a President: November 20-November 25, 1963
The Glory and the Dream: A Narrative History of America, 1932–1972
A World Lit Only by Fire. The Medieval Mind and the
Renaissance: Portrait of An Age
Controversy: And Other Essays in Journalism, 1950–1975
In Our Time: The World as Seen by Magnum Photographers
The City of Anger
The Long Gainer
Shadow of the Monsoon
Beard the Lion
Goodbye, Darkness: A Memoir of the Pacific War
The author in 1945
Blood That Never Dried
Our boeing 747 has been fleeing westward from darkened California, racing across the Pacific toward the sun, the incandescent eye of God, but slowly, three hours later than West Coast time, twilight gathers outside, veil upon lilac veil. This is what the French call l'heure bleue. Aquamarine becomes turquoise; turquoise, lavendar; lavendar, violet; violet, magenta; magenta, mulberry. Seen through my cocktail glass, the light fades as it deepens; it becomes opalescent, crepuscular. In the last waning moments of the day I can still feel the failing sunlight on my cheek, taste it in my martini. The plane rises before a spindrift; the darkening sky, broken by clouds like combers, boils and foams overhead. Then the whole weight of evening falls upon me. Old memories, phantoms repressed for more than a third of a century, begin to stir. I can almost hear the rhythm of surf on distant snow-white beaches. I have another drink, and then I learn, for the hundredth time, that you can't drown your troubles, not the real ones, because if they are real they can swim. One of my worst recollections, one I had buried in my deepest memory bank long ago, comes back with a clarity so blinding that I surge forward against the seat belt, appalled by it, filled with remorse and shame.
I am remembering the first man I slew.
There was this little hut on Motobu, perched atop a low rise overlooking the East China Sea. It was a fisherman's shack, so ordinary that scarcely anyone had noticed it. I did. I noticed it because I happened to glance in that direction at a crucial moment. The hut lay between us and B Company of the First Battalion. Word had been passed that that company had been taking sniper losses. They thought the sharpshooters were in spider holes, Jap foxholes, but as I was looking that way, I saw two B Company guys drop, and from the angle of their fall I knew the firing had to come from a window on the other side of that hut. At the same time, I saw that the shack had windows on our side, which meant that once the rifleman had B Company pinned down, he could turn toward us. I was dug in with Barney Cobb. We had excellent defilade ahead and the Twenty-second Marines on our right flank, but we had no protection from the hut, and our hole wasn't deep enough to let us sweat it out. Every time I glanced at that shack I was looking into the empty eye socket of death.
The situation was as clear as the deduction from a euclidean theorem, but my psychological state was extremely complicated. S. L. A. Marshall once observed that the typical fighting man is often at a disadvantage because he "comes from a civilization in which aggression, connected with the taking of life, is prohibited and unacceptable." This was especially true of me, whose horror of violence had been so deep-seated that I had been unable to trade punches with other boys. But since then life had become cheaper to me. "Two thousand pounds of education drops to a ten rupee," wrote Kipling of the fighting on India's North-West Frontier. My plight was not unlike that described by the famous sign in the Paris zoo: "Warning: this animal is vicious; when attacked, it defends itself." I was responding to a basic biological principle first set down by the German zoologist Heini Hediger in his Skizzen zu einer Tierpsychologie um und im Zirkus. Hediger noted that beyond a certain distance, which varies from one species to another, an animal will retreat, while within it, it will attack. He called these "flight distance" and "critical distance." Obviously I was within critical distance of the hut. It was time to bar the bridge, stick a finger in the dike — to do something. I could be quick or I could be dead.
My choices were limited. Moving inland was inconvenient; the enemy was there, too. I was on the extreme left of our perimeter, and somehow I couldn't quite see myself turning my back on the shack and fleeing through the rest of the battalion screaming, like Chicken Little, "A Jap's after me! A Jap's after me!" Of course, I could order one of my people to take out the sniper; but I played the role of the NCO in Kipling's poem who always looks after the black sheep, and if I ducked this one, they would never let me forget it. Also, I couldn't be certain that the order would be obeyed. I was a gangling, long-boned youth, wholly lacking in what the Marine Corps called "command presence" — charisma — and I led nineteen highly insubordinate men. I couldn't even be sure that Barney would budge. It is war, not politics, that makes strange bedfellows. The fact that I outranked Barney was in itself odd. He was a great blond buffalo of a youth, with stubby hair, a scraggly mustache, and a powerful build. Before the war he had swum breaststroke for Brown, and had left me far behind in two inter-collegiate meets. I valued his respect for me, which cowardice would have wiped out. So I asked him if he had any grenades. He didn't; nobody in the section did. The grenade shortage was chronic. That sterile exchange bought a little time, but every moment lengthened my odds against the Nip sharpshooter. Finally, sweating with the greatest fear I had known till then, I took a deep breath, told Barney, "Cover me," and took off for the hut at Mach 2 speed in little bounds, zigzagging and dropping every dozen steps, remembering to roll as I dropped. I was nearly there, arrowing in, when I realized that I wasn't wearing my steel helmet. The only cover on my head was my cloth Raider cap. That was a violation of orders. I was out of uniform. I remember hoping, idiotically, that nobody would report me.
Utterly terrified, I jolted to a stop on the threshold of the shack. I could feel a twitching in my jaw, coming and going like a winky light signaling some disorder. Various valves were opening and closing in my stomach. My mouth was dry, my legs quaking, and my eyes out of focus. Then my vision cleared. I unlocked the safety of my Colt, kicked the door with my right foot, and leapt inside.
My horror returned. I was in an empty room. There was another door opposite the one I had unhinged, which meant another room, which meant the sniper was in there — and had been warned by the crash of the outer door. But I had committed myself. Flight was impossible now. So I smashed into the other room and saw him as a blur to my right. I wheeled that way, crouched, gripped the pistol butt in both hands, and fired.
Not only was he the first Japanese soldier I had ever shot at; he was the only one I had seen at close quarters. He was a robin-fat, moon-faced, roly-poly little man with his thick, stubby, trunklike legs sheathed in faded khaki puttees and the rest of him squeezed into a uniform that was much too tight. Unlike me, he was wearing a tin hat, dressed to kill. But I was quite safe from him. His Ari-saka rifle was strapped on in a sniper's harness, and though he had heard me, and was trying to turn toward me, the harness sling had him trapped. He couldn't disentangle himself from it. His eyes were rolling in panic. Realizing that he couldn't extricate his arms and defend himself, he was backing toward a corner with a curious, crablike motion.
My first shot had missed him, embedding itself in the straw wall, but the second caught him dead-on in the femoral artery. His left thigh blossomed, swiftly turning to mush. A wave of blood gushed from the wound; then another boiled out, sheeting across his legs, pooling on the earthen floor. Mutely he looked down at it. He dipped a hand in it and listlessly smeared his cheek red. His shoulders gave a little spasmodic jerk, as though someone had whacked him on the back; then he emitted a tremendous, raspy fart, slumped down, and died. I kept firing, wasting government property.
Already I thought I detected the dark brown effluvium of the freshly slain, a sour, pervasive emanation which is different from anything else you have known. Yet seeing death at that range, like smelling it, requires no previous experience. You instantly recognize the spastic convulsion and the rattle, which in his case was not loud, but deprecating and conciliatory, like the manners of civilian Japanese. He continued to sink until he reached the earthen floor.
His eyes glazed over. Almost immediately a fly landed on his left eyeball. It was joined by another. I don't know how long I stood there staring. I knew from previous combat what lay ahead for the corpse. It would swell, then bloat, bursting out of the uniform. Then the face would turn from yellow to red, to purple, to green, to black. My father's account of the Argonne had omitted certain vital facts. A feeling of disgust and self-hatred clotted darkly in my throat, gagging me.
Jerking my head to shake off the stupor, I slipped a new, fully loaded magazine into the butt of my .45. Then I began to tremble, and next to shake, all over. I sobbed, in a voice still grainy with fear: "I'm sorry." Then I threw up all over myself. I recognized the half-digested C-ration beans dribbling down my front, smelled the vomit above the cordite. At the same time I noticed another odor; I had urinated in my skivvies. I pondered fleetingly why our excretions become so loathsome the instant they leave the body. Then Barney burst in on me, his carbine at the ready, his face gray, as though he, not I, had just become a partner in the firm of death. He ran over to the Nip's body, grabbed its stacking swivel — its neck — and let go, satisfied that it was a cadaver. I marveled at his courage; I couldn't have taken a step toward that corner. He approached me and then backed away, in revulsion, from my foul stench. He said: "Slim, you stink." I said nothing. I knew I had become a thing of tears and twitchings and dirtied pants. I remember wondering dumbly: Is this what they mean by "conspicuous gallantry"?
The Wind-Grieved Ghost
The dreams started after i flung my pistol into the connect-icut River. It was mine to fling: I was, I suppose, the only World War II Marine who had had to buy his own weapon. My .45 was stolen and hidden by a demented corporal the day before we shoved off for Okinawa, and the battalion commander regretfully told me that there was no provision for such a crisis. He promised me the rifle of the first man to fall on the beach. Somehow unreassured, I bought a Colt from a supply sergeant who would never be close enough to the front line even to hear the artillery. The transaction was illegal, of course, but I had a receipt for thirty-five dollars, and afterward I kept the gun. It lay, unloaded and uncleaned, in the back of a file cabinet for twenty-three years, until Bob Kennedy was killed. Then, on impulse, in a revulsion against all weapons, I threw it away. That, I thought, severed my last link with the war. Kilroy, for me, was no longer there.
Then the nightmares began. I have always had an odd dream life. I can waken, interrupting a dream; go to the toilet, return to bed, fall asleep, and pick up the same dream from where I left off. I can dream of playing tennis and wake up with tennis elbow. I seldom have more than one drink, yet sometimes I dream I am roaring drunk and waken with a hangover. It lasts less than twenty seconds, but I am reaching for the aspirin bottle when I come to my senses. Once, after dreaming that I had climbed the Matterhorn, I awoke exhausted. My new, recurrent nightmares were unique, however. Ordinarily I dream in color; these incubi were chiaroscuros, stark black and white, like old movies. Under a Magellanic Cloud, the stars like chipped diamonds, stood a dark, shell-torn hill, its slopes soggy with gobs bearing the unmistakable clotting pattern of fresh blood. The air was rank with the stench of feces and decomposing flesh, and the cratered surface looked like hell with the fire out. Two men were trudging upward from opposite sides. One, wearing muddy battle dungarees and the camouflaged helmet cover that we wore to distinguish us from army infantrymen, was the scrawny, Atabrine-yellow, cocky young Sergeant of Marines who had borne my name in 1945. The other was the portly, balding, Brooks-Brothered man who bears it today.
They met on the crest, facing each other in the night like mirror and object. But their moods were very different. The older man, ravaged by the artillery of time, the outside corners of his eyes drawn down with the hooded lids of age, was diffident, unsure of himself. The Sergeant's eyes, on the other hand, flamed like wildfire. He angrily demanded an accounting of what had happened in the third of a century since he had laid down his arms. Promises had been made to him; he had expected a nobler America and, for himself, a more purposeful career than the pursuit of lost causes: Adlai Stevenson, John Kennedy, Bob Kennedy, Martin Luther King — all of them irretrievably, irredeemably, irrevocably gone. So the Sergeant felt betrayed. He hadn't anticipated that his country would be transformed into what it has become, nor his generation into docile old men who greedily follow the Dow-Jones average and carry their wives' pocketbooks around Europe. As in most dreams, his wrath was implied, not said, but the old man's protestations were spoken. Indeed, that is how each nightmare ended, with me talking myself awake. Then I would lie in darkness, trembling beneath the sheet, wondering who was right, the uncompromising Sergeant or the compromiser he had become. Here was the ultimate generation gap: a man divided against his own youth. Troubled, I saw no way to heal the split. Kilroy had returned, and this was his revenge.
It was ironic. For years I had been trying to write about the war, always in vain. It lay too deep; I couldn't reach it. But I had known it must be there. A man is all the people he has been. Some recollections never die. They lie in one's subconscious, squirreled away, biding their time. Now mine were surfacing in this disconcerting manner. It had, I knew, happened to others. Siegfried Sassoon wrote of his "queer craving to revisit the past and give the modern world the slip," and Sassoon's remembrances of World War I had been, if anything, gorier than mine. I also knew that, like most of my countrymen, I am prone to search for meaning in the uncon-summated past. "America," John Brooks observed, "has a habit of regretting a dream just lost, and resolving to capture it next time." One thinks of Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Frost's "road not taken," Willa Cather's lost lady, and Thomas Wolfe: "Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten … lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door. Where? When? O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again."
I could think of but one solution. I had to revisit the Pacific. One motive was a yen to see the sights in the South Seas I had missed before, which means almost all of them; Napoleon said that his soldiers' only view of Russia was the pack of the man in front, and that was pretty much the case with me. (The only native woman I saw on Guadalcanal had a figure like a seabag. She was suffering from an advanced case of elephantiasis. Hubba hubba.) But the chief reason for going was to try to find what I had lost out there and retrieve it. Not only would I go back to my islands; I would visit all the major battlefields to discover, if possible, what we had done there and why we had done it, the ultimate secrets of time and place and dimension and being. I felt rather apprehensive, for I knew that most of it would be irrational. War is literally unreasonable. Today's youth cannot understand it; mine, I suppose, was the last generation to believe audacity in combat is a virtue. And I don't know why we believed it. The mystery troubled me and baffled me, for some of my actions in the early 1940s make no sense to me now. On Okinawa, on Saturday, June 2, 1945, I suffered a superficial gunshot wound just above my right kneecap and was shipped back to a field hospital. Mine was what we called a "million-dollar wound." Though I could hear the Long Toms in the distance, I was warm, dry, and safe. My machismo was intact; I was simply hors de combat. The next day I heard that my regiment was going to land behind enemy lines on Oroku Peninsula. I left my cot, jumped hospital, hitchhiked to the front, and made the landing on Monday.
Why had I returned to terror? To be sure, I had been gung ho at the outbreak of war. But I had quickly become a summer soldier and a sunshine patriot. I was indifferent toward rank, and I certainly sought no glory. "We owe God a death," wrote Shakespeare. So we do, but I hoped God would extend my line of credit indefinitely. I was very young. I hadn't published a short story, fathered a child, or even slept with a girl. And because I am possessed, like most writers, by an intense curiosity, I wanted to stick around until, at the very least, I knew which side had won the war.
So, craftily, I became the least intrepid of warriors, a survivor, not a hero, more terrier than lion. If there was a coward's way I took it. The word hero, to me, is redolent of Nelson Eddy in his Smokey Bear hat, with Jeanette MacDonald shrieking in his ear, or of John Wayne being booed in a Hawaiian hospital by an audience of wounded Marines from Iwo Jima and Okinawa, men who had had macho acts, in a phrase of the day, up their asses to their armpits. To be sure, I was not an inept fighter. I was lean and hard and tough and proud. I had tremendous reserves of stamina. I never bolted. I was a crack shot. I had a shifty, shambling run, and a lovely eye for defilade — for what the Duke of Wellington called "dead ground," that is, a spot shielded from flat-trajectory enemy fire by a natural obstacle, like a tree or a rock — coupled with a good sense of direction and a better sense of ground. To this day I check emergency exits immediately after registering in a hotel, and in bars you will find me occupying a corner table, with my flanks secure.
But that was the sum of my military skills. I had walked through the valley of the shadow of death and had been terribly frightened. Afterward, those few of us in my unit who had survived received a document from Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal citing us for "gallantry," "valor," "tenacity," and "extraordinary heroism against enemy Japanese forces," but those shining words didn't really apply to me. Indeed, at times it seemed to me that they applied to no one except the dead. I agreed with Hemingway: "Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage, or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates." For us, they had been Buna and Suribachi; the Kokoda Trail and Tarawa; the First Marine Division and the Eleventh Airborne; the Kumusi and the Asa Kawa; December 7, 1941, and V-J Day. I honored them while hating the whole red and ragged business of war.
By the summer of 1978 I knew that I had to return to the islands. I had to find out, and the fact that I couldn't define what I sought merely made the journey inevitable.
So: once more unto the breach.
But first let me introduce myself to myself.
From the Argonne to Pearl Harbor
At daybreak on friday, november 1, 1918 — all saints' day — the American Expeditionary Force in France launched its final offensive of World War I, sending a huge wedge of fifty-six thousand doughboys to break the back of Erich Ludendorff's last-ditch defenses on the west bank of the Meuse River. At the point of the wedge crouched its spearhead, the Fifth Marines. After five days of waiting in the wilderness of the Forêt d'Argonne, cloaked and soaked in a blinding fog, the leathernecks sprang forward behind a creeping artillery barrage and quickly overran the main trench line on the heights overlooking the Meuse. The Germans fled; their scribbly ditches caved in; apart from stolid machine gunners, who kept their murderous barrels hot to the end, the enemy soldiers became a disorderly mob of refugees. The army commander of the AEF drive, Major General C. P. Summerall, USA, praised the Marines' "brilliant advance," which had succeeded in "destroying the last stronghold in the Hindenburg Line." He called it "one of the most remarkable achievements made by any troops in this war. … These results must be attributed to the great dash and speed of the troops, and to the irresistible force with which they struck and overcame the enemy." "Nothing," crowed the New York Times, "could stop our gallant Devil Dogs."
That was not entirely true. It never is. Generals and war correspondents are preoccupied with the seizure of objectives, but attacking troops, however victorious, take casualties, individual fighting men who are, in fact, stopped in their tracks. One of the Fifth Marines who fell in no-man's-land that morning was a twenty-two-year-old runner, Lance Corporal William Manchester of Attleboro, Massachusetts, the father of this writer. Lance Corporal Manchester had survived the drives on Soissons and the Saint-Mihiel salient, but this was his unlucky day.
Before dawn he and the rest of his company had stealthily crawled out of their trenches, advanced a thousand yards, and lain down in the mud. Then flares had burst overhead, opening the battle. In a letter dictated to a nurse, Manchester wrote his mother afterward: "At 6:30 A.M. we started, and believe me we had some barrage. … But the Heinies were chucking over a few themselves, and it was the worst they had — overhead shrapnel. We had advanced about two miles when one busted that had my initials on it. I say initials because it had a chap's name on it that was about ten feet away. He was killed instantly. The first that I realized I had been hit was when my arm grew numb and my shoulder began to ache. One piece went through the shoulder, just missing the shoulder blade. Another went in about 4½ inches below the other, but by some miracle missed my lung. The two wounds together are about eight inches long. The bones were missed but the cords and nerves were cut connecting with my hand." Later, in what he called a "left handed puzzle," he told his family that he would soon be sent "to a nerve hospital in Washington D.C. and have another operation. … The operation will be a very slight one for the purpose of tying the nerves when they were out of my shoulder."
William Manchester, Sr., Fifth Marines, at age twenty-two, in 1919
Like many another casualty trying to spare his parents, he was putting a bright face on what was in reality a desperate business. Indeed, his entire Marine Corps career, beginning with his enlistment in Boston, had been a compendium of American military incompetence. He had spent less than four weeks as a recruit on Parris Island, the Corps' boot camp, and most of that had been occupied building a road. Somehow he had qualified as a sharpshooter with the Springfield 1903 rifle; otherwise he was untrained and unprepared for the fighting in France. Then his voyage across the Atlantic was interrupted when his troopship, the U.S.S. Henderson, caught fire three days out of New York; leaving all his personal possessions behind, he was transferred to the U.S.S. Von Steuben. As a replacement at Soissons and in the salient he learned something of combat on the job, but he still lacked the animal instincts of the veteran. His worst experience of official ineptitude, however, came after his November 1 wound. It was grave but not mortal; nevertheless, the surgeon at a casualty clearing station, following the French triage principle — concentrating on casualties who could be saved and abandoning those who couldn't — judged his case to be hopeless. Appropriately, on November 2, All Souls' Day, the Day of the Dead, his litter was carried into a tent known as the "moribund ward"; that is, reserved for the doomed. Gangrene had set in. He was left to die.
He lay there in his blood and corrupt flesh for five days, unattended, his death certificate already signed. Three civilians passed through the tent, representing the Knights of Columbus, the Red Cross, and the Salvation Army. The first, distributing cigarettes and candy, saw the Masonic ring on his left hand and skipped his cot. The Red Cross man tried to sell him — yes, sell
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