"We Took That Mountain"
[a true story]
In honor of my father, on Veteran's Day.

Dad, there aren't many men, like you, still left in this world.
From Paul Andrew Mitchell

"We Took That Mountain"
By John E. Trumane

I often wonder what it was like. You have trained hard at Parris Island, slogged through mud on your belly, 50 calibers whizzing two feet overhead. Some guys just lost it, went crazy, sent home. I often wonder. What would be going through your mind as you see Mt. Surabachi approaching in the smokey distance, a narrow slit on the horizon framed by your helmet and the lip of the landing craft. Your eyes turn left, just as a shell takes a direct hit on the next craft over, bodies and body parts go flying in every which direction. You close your eyes and ask yourself: they were no different from us. The Navy behind you is pouring in 12-inch guns at a ferocious pace; they scream through the air near the speed of sound, and echo back delayed destruction.

You trust those gunners; their aim is awesome, always near the mark. The waves are changing shape, the water is getting shallow. More fifty calibers are whizzing by, this time getting closer. Some ping off the craft, a metal wash tub with twin diesels. You reach the crest of a wave, and then surf into hell, as the ramp falls and it's the moment of truth. You don't have time to ask, what am I doing here, because you are running for dear life. You recognize the sound of your captain yelling, hit the sand and crawl in, men. Dig in beyond the water line. The Japs are ferocious too. This is their last air base before the mainland. Two runways, actually. One at each end. These fascists will stop at nothing to defend their Emperor. We huddle in our makeshift sand castles, trying to keep our powder dry. My job: get the machine gun close in, take out all buildings, and secure the first runway. We sit while the Navy pours it on, big guns now, every 5 seconds. The roar is deafening. Men are dying, screaming, bleeding. What am I doing here? The captain over there loses it, goes crazy. A GI yanks him in a trench and knocks him cold, our new squad commander, ok by me.

The Navy is relentless, big guns every second now. How can they reload so fast? American engineering: we machinists know all about it -- the best ever, bar none. The smoke is choking us alive, thick and black, sulfurous, hot ashen coral raised to plasma temperatures. Why would anybody want to work here? The Navy waits, to let the smoke clear, assay the damages. Eerie silence. There is nothing in front of us except black sand with huge meteor craters, freshly made. Move out, we hear, and our training kicks in. No time to think, just keep moving. My buddy comes near. We take inventory: one water cooled machine gun, one thousand rounds, more for the asking, tripod, carbine, back pack, portable shovel, pick, what we're wearing. That's it. Move out. We come upon bodies, lots of them, still, mangled, lifeless.

Don't look down; just look forward. We drag heavy loads through black sand and ash. No color anywhere; just black and white and grey, lots of it. A shot from behind, a Marine down, killed in action, right in the back. So, they lay there feigning injury, only to pop up as we pass by. Ok, that's it. No prisoners. We pull our butcher knives and go for throats. Grisly, effective. Every Marine is priceless, every one expendable. Like Lawrence, of Arabia. Time starts to fade into slow motion. We inch along, take this tree, that palm, this bunker. Charlie gets a flame thrower, we watch in muted shock. Nothing is too terrible now; we are going to TAKE that runway. Night falls, sleep impossible. Charlie screams his insults in strange Jap accents. Almost funny, almost. We count our losses: Billy, Johnny, Efraim, Christopher, Sassy Brooks, Zeb, Mack and Danny.

All gone, all dead, going home now. The sun rises in front of us, framing another rising sun flapping in the breeze. The runway, not far ahead, beckons to our instincts, the killer kind. We creep in silently, no resistance. Japs are gone, only snipers high up in the palms, sitting ducks. Stupid too. Kamikazes with no planes, brain washed. We take turns, it's a shooting gallery. This isn't even funny. We take their guns, worthless rounds, and break 'em. The eerie silence is broken now by fading gun shots. A moment of calm descends upon this seething smoking inferno. We hear the faint drone of a Jap Zero, headed for home. He never got word: this runway is history. He glides in, bouncy landing, taxies to one end. Marines watch, reload quietly, no orders this time. We all know what we're going to do. Pilot cuts his engine, opens the canopy, we open up. Shells pour in again, this time from M-1's and machine guns, dozens, hundreds, thousands of rounds shred the Zero into bits and pieces, glass, rubber and aluminum flying every which direction. That plane is history too.

We revel, leave it to block the runway. Some take souvenirs. The rest reload. I pee in the barrel jacket again. One down. One to go. Time again slows down. How many days now? Two? Three? I can't remember. We trudge along. More ammo arrives. Food too. C-rations. Yumm. We urinate into the barrel to save water. This place is hot, very hot, almost too hot. Too hot for comfort, for sure. We set our sites for runway two, in that clearing, up ahead. Mortar fire, first scattered, then regular, now a frequent problem. My buddy and I move in, stake out a position, start to dig, his shovel worthless against the hard-packed coral. They rolled this runway, very hard, asphalt nowhere. My pick is working, thank God. I dig, he removes debris. It's still slow going. We dig for our lives. More mortars. Oh, no. They've zeroed our position. You can tell as blasts come closer, faster. This one, right now, you can hear, is coming right in. Billy, take cover, I yell. He dives in one direction, I in another. The blast almost takes his hands off, the ring in my ears unbearable. Through the smoke, I see Billy's hit, hit bad, motionless, moaning. I crawl to him, he's still alive. Japs figure our machine gun's out, they re-target. Billy goes over my left shoulder, and two carbines over my right. Forget the machine gun; too heavy; takes two anyway. We're now one and a half, Marines that is. Billy breathes, but barely, can't talk, bleeding bad. I trudge through deep sand, echoes of smoke fill the air, me yelling Medic! Medic! Billy needs help, OVER HERE.

Nobody hears, too much chaos. I trudge, I trudge. Something is hot, liquid, near my jaw. I been too busy to check myself. I raise my right hand to feel my pulse, blood is pouring down by wrist. I am hit. I don't even know it. What gives? Is this some bad dream? I realize, that's IT. I'm OUT OF HERE. Next stop, the hospital ship. Medics near now. I collapse in their arms, totally, completely, utterly exhausted, and pass out, and dream of my beautiful bride, Anna Marie, slender, loving, chestnut hair, sea blue eyes. This must be heaven, at long last. That was my birthday, 1945. Billy made it, docs worked two miracles, one on each hand. We ran into each other on the hospital ship. First time, he didn't recognize me, my face so heavily bandaged, after several surgeries. The shrapnel had just missed my spine. God's little miracles, for sure. Everything got mixed up -- time, space, where, when, how? It didn't matter. We were alive, and we were on our way home. The commander wanted me back. You can wear your Purple Heart on your lapel, he said. I told him, I'd rather take it home and show it to my son. Thank you anyway. I later saw that photo, 4 "Gyrines" raising old Glory, right atop Mt. Surabachi. I knew those red stripes were soaked in blood, the whites were stained as well. 4 guys, just like me, their names forever written on the wind. Next stop for them, the Japanese mainland. Next stop for me, a farm in Oregon, cows, chickens, dogs and geese. And a time to recuperate from shell shock, and a time to thank God for this country. We left fascism behind when we came back from hell, where it belongs, where it should stay.

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