"UNDER DUBIOUS STARS"
Copyright ©1997 by Tony Sierra
The luck of the draw, a roll of the dice, a
rabbit's foot, a black cat, a lucky star; are these fickle amulets and fixed
clichés guarantees of a glorious life or are they omens of darkness?
Our principal memories as children often are
sermons proclaiming we are born equal and are dealt a like hand from an
unprejudiced deck of cards. We are warned to take care because how we play the
hand dictates our path and in the end our fate.
Let us ponder if some men stroking the draws and
discards of aces, kings, and other cards differently might have altered the
ways of their lives. Or was each trapped from the start by his genesis under a
A bouncing plane, crammed with terrified young men, plummeted from the clouds. Torrential winds forced a steep and erratic approach almost too bizarre for landing on the airstrip. The plane trembled and rattled, at times dropping with a thump, then with great effort , climbing, engines roaring at full throttle, other times tilting till its windows faced upwards, but miraculously levelling anew. After an eternity the captain forced it downward. The young pilot, his cap banded with perspiration, slowed the engines. He thrust the plane to the strip's threshold, touching the ground, bouncing and squealing as it approached the shack serving as army headquarters, New Guinea.
From inside this cement mixer plane, where he pissed his pants and joined three others in vomiting on the slippery deck, Johnny Martinez entered a dismalness, into an era changing his days forever. From here on, all his thoughts and actions were controlled by the power of these memories, exerting a relentless, almost brutal influence. They were inerasable.
Thirty other troopers were on the plane en route
from Australia to New Guinea. Some he knew from previous postings, others
from the ship and the train that brought them from America. Nevertheless,
he felt alone, especially during the pissing, reliving moments when he was
a scared little boy; nothing was familiar, nothing mattered except the
loneliness and the melancholy.
When the plane crunched into the ground, he leaned
from his metal seat to glimpse what awaited. As he poked his eye near the
window he beheld, in frightful wonder, torrents of water flushed back by
the propellers with such force that not a drop stuck. Floating patches of
impenetrable fog from time to time allowed a glimpse of the distant,
dreary jungle already seeming to beckon him. All this stacked like an
adobe wall back home, row upon row of depression and despondency. In a
blinking of an eye, imposing scenes and thoughts streak through the mind.
Like a flash he saw his mother in her crude house in New Mexico and
recalled his two older brothers, soldiers also, and wondered where they
might be. He dwelled on the dustiness of their dirt floor and howling of
hungry coyotes blending with the desert winds and blustering through the
glass- less windows at night. He hungered for the scent of cooking
tortillas and beans steaming in the olla and he replayed sounds of some
distant, drinking Mexican strumming his guitar and singing "La Negra
Returning to now, he pondered how a puny boy from
those remote, bleak beginnings was here in a yet more vile world. Life was
never kind to his family but those tribulations were gone; now there was
only the jungle.
The plane rumbled to the shack where trucks,
engines idling and exhaust belching from their upraised pipes, awaited
their respective loads of human fodder. The plane stopped, and a corporal,
his cowlicked hair outlined in the semidarkness, dashed from the cockpit,
neared the door and yelled, "Okay, troopers, everybody off; end of
the line and God bless you guys." All hurdled into the cold watery
propeller blast. It was a dreadful moment and they lingered wishing
somehow they could re- board the shaky plane and escape, but it was
nothing compared to what awaited in the ominous unknown.
Lacking direction, and bewildered, the herd of
drenched soldiers dragged toward the belching trucks like a flock of wet
hens seeking the chicken coop. Each soldier heaved to one shoulder a
soaking barracks bag. On the other loosely hung the ponderous rifle. For
the first time Johnny doubted whether he and another trooper trudging
alongside were strong enough for all this. A colonel at jump school once
asked the other trooper, Benny Slowe, “Aren't you too short for a
paratrooper?” Benny had stretched with all his might and answered,
"Yes, but I'm tough and someday I hope to grow a little." Johnny
From each truck stepped a grimy, unshaven soldier,
his helmet shiny with rain, hunched over and hugging against his body a
water-soaked poncho. They bellowed into the rain a string of names,
directing each drenched arrival to hustle on the right truck and hurry it
up. Johnny ended up on the last truck, together with Slowe and a poor
soul, Alvin Barbone, whose sopping uniform hung on his bony frame like a
The truck, piled to overflowing with military
paraphernalia, was covered with an oily canvas. It required tremendous
effort to hoist the bags on top of the existing heap. Without a word,
Johnny, Slowe, and Barbone jointly wrestled the bags and slippery rifles.
On top of this mess they rode, swamped in the rain, straining to hold back
tears of fear, thrust into a fate that darkened as time passed.
Atop the truck Johnny crouched and cursed himself
for cramming his poncho into the bag on the plane. The moment his feet hit
the ground he was drenched. Too late now, he lamented. As the trucks
maneuvered through the mire into the dim jungle, again he reflected on the
desert and home, questioning how God inundated this world when it was so
difficult to pump a little muddy water from the mesas in New Mexico. Here
the earth squished, soggy with hateful water. It almost made you want to
never see another drop. All this fueled his burning conviction the world
was lopsided, and compassion for his mother, alone with her scant water,
magnified with each new revelation. These emotional blocks littered a
corner of his mind. He did not know they would reappear some night as
cruel nightmares. The adobe wall of despondency was rising.
The caravan of trucks, not missing a single mudhole,
arrived at its destination. An area was shaved of its over- powering
jungle foliage. Johnny wiped the wetness from his face and peered from
beneath his helmet inspecting his new home. It was the company area; a row
of tents on each side of a barren strip twenty feet wide, known as the
-company street." The sides of the tents were rolled up and secured.
From within, sets of eyes peered at two men rolling in the muddy street.
Two moving mud statues. Their jump boots were untied and they flapped with
the erratic movement of their legs. They embraced for a moment, rolled on
the ground, got up, flailed at each other, and fell again. It would have
been comical in other settings, but here it only added to the strangeness
of the gloomy surroundings.
Two drunken troopers were entangled in a hand-to-
hand fight, amounting to a dance of clowns more than anything else. An
occasional howl of laughter burst from the tents, and now and then an
encouraging yell was heard. This farce provided a diversion for the men in
the tents; one way to pass time in this maelstrom. For the three who
jumped off the truck and unloaded bags and wet rifles it was a rude
awakening and a sad introduction to their new comrades. They stood in the
down- pour, soaked to the bone, without the least idea what to do.
Johnny couldn't accept the picture. He expected his
arrival would be so different, so organized, so military. After all, he
was a proud paratrooper who eagerly anticipated becoming part of this
Instead, here he was, afloat in a sea of mud, lost
from all he ever knew, an eternity away from the parachute school at Fort
Benning. Where had the trim youthful jumpers of yesterday gone? He
recalled the spotless khaki pants so arrogantly worn. He remembered the
immaculate form-fitting shirts and the spit-polished jump boots. In
his mind were the strong muscular youths, running and yelling,
heard throughout the military reservation. How great and invincible and
elegant they all seemed. Where had all that illusive glory gone?
He never forgot their arrival at the regiment on
that frenzied, rainy afternoon. In
the deluge, a squatty first sergeant with a loose sagging jaw,
which gave him a dentured look, led the three to their places. Slowe was
sent to one tent alone and the two others, Johnny and Barbone, to another.
In the tent were two empty cots. Four bleary-eyed soldiers were
either lying or sitting on their cots. Not a word was said. The wet ones
set down their bags and rifles and stood, dripping and lost in their
thoughts. Although it was midafternoon, there was little light in the
tent. The only illumination was from a stubby candle, almost burned to its
base, waxed atop an upturned ammo box. After an eternity of this, the
cleanest -looking soldier said, "I'm Corporal Hance, take whichever
cots you want, troopers:
Johnny's spirits rose, being called a trooper by
this mighty corporal returned him to the camaraderie he anticipated
"I'm Johnny Martinez from New Mexico and this is Barbone, we're both
privates. Jesus Christ, this is some rain." Still not a word came
back. Everyone simply glanced at each other and stared past the two new
Johnny changed to dry clothes, emptied his bag, and
spread wet things on the cot. He grabbed the dry towel and rubbed his
rifle, looking at it only, striving to hold back a lonesome sigh. While
this was going on, everyone stared by him, never fixing eyes long enough
to be noticed, pretending to gaze straight under the tent flaps into the
foliage. Finally one of the soldiers, the tall slim one, mumbled
"This squad is getting too many snot-nosed kids. How in the hell do
you get out of this shitty outfit?"
* * * * *
The parachute regiment landed twenty-eight days
ago. During a windy night jump, hundreds of troopers were wounded or
killed. And the initial battle took its toll, with many others taken out
of action. This reduced the regiment to half its normal strength. The
prime mission had been to capture the airstrip and hold it until replaced
by .ordinary infantrymen."
In spite of heavy resistance, the
landing strip and its area were captured in two days. Hundreds of enemy
were slaughtered, but thousands fled into the surrounding jungle. For
unexplained reasons, the "ordinary infantrymen" never arrived.
The pissed-off troopers were assigned the mission of running down the
defenders through the maze of foliage.
The entire campaign bogged down to having the
disgruntled regiment mired in mud, mostly chasing their own shadows and
occasionally running into several starved enemy, whom they gunned down,
incredibly with some regret. After fourteen days of forced marches,
overnight patrols, and lying in waterlogged holes covered with ponchos,
many of the troopers just about had enough. Every malady ever known in
this soaked green hell flourished among the soldiers.
To disentangle the men from their debilitating
holes, squad tents were put up and cooks with massive gas stoves, aluminum
pots, and huge cans of boiling water for the mess kits were soon sending
smoke through the tree branches. To the delight of some lucky troopers,
they were pulled from the patrols to help the cooks and dig latrines with
their unforgettable chemical odor.
The pursuit, with its never-ending patrols,
continued. The difference was the exhausted troopers dried their clothes,
slept in tents, and luxuriated in the smelly latrines.
It was on the first patrol with his new platoon
that Johnny learned the routine of march. Prowling through jungle trails,
the squad wasted away plodding and wading single file, its soldiers twenty
feet apart. The idea was to maintain enough space between them so as not
to be hit "two birds with one stone" and yet to not lose contact
with the man ahead.
These patrols became hell to the troopers. Mud and
slime were everywhere. Much of the time, the soldiers were in the
quagmire, either from slipping or by choice, to hide from some unknown.
Silence was macabre, no talking for hours, except to say what was needed,
then only in suppressed whispers. Each man was alone with only his spooked
imagination to torment him.
The point man had the worst job. Isolated out
front, he would be seen first and almost certainly hit right away. He was
the cheese in the trap. The fate of the patrol depended on the point man.
No one wanted the job. It was a natural setup for a new man like Johnny,
but much too critical a task for an unknown newcomer. This was endlessly
discussed by the officers and sergeants, who decided the best soldier
would be first scout. And since being second scout was almost as
dangerous, but not as critical, that was the task for the new person.
When these new men were recruit soldiers in
training camp, all received patrol and scouting instruction. It seemed the
war was fought by twelve guys on one side and a similar number on the
other. Back at camp everyone kept wondering when the masses of soldiers
would get together and do something. All they ever knew was the squad this
or the squad that. Crawl here, run here, hit the ground there, and
endlessly on. But always only the squad.
Now that all the training and practice were over
and they realized this was the real thing, it became apparent only the
squad could function in these crazy entanglements. On occasions even the
squad was too big to control. And so it was the squad with its twelve men
became Johnny's entire world. The squad's sergeant and corporal became
like older brothers or even father figures. The rest of the members were
Johnny wondered why the generals did not see how
fruitless these agonizing patrols were as clearly as he, a naive recruit,
did. The troopers were exhausted and wounded or even killed for no
Every day a platoon or a reenforce squad was sent
from the tent area on patrol. The rain never ceased, and everything was
dripping wet. Whatever was not under the squad tent was completely soaked.
Decades later, the smell of that quagmire had not left their nostrils;
they took this memory to their grave.
The patrols left the company area prior to
daybreak, still black and very cold. The moment they stepped out, water
took over. Sometimes the group was called a reconnaissance patrol, other
times it was called a combat patrol. To Johnny and the rest of the wet
sloggers it didn't matter what they called it. They all became the same
miserable, depressing, fearful experiences. As the squad plodded through
the muddy trails, each soldier could see only the back of the man ahead
and the imprisoning foliage around him. All would be silent, except the
noise from the jungle. Birds, wild hogs, falling waterlogged branches, and
all manner of weird sounds kept the men on edge. From the moment they left
the security of the tent area till they returned hours later, it was one
hundred percent stress.
Not an unnecessary word was said. Even the blinking
of the eyes made the soldiers uneasy. One never knew if in a blinding
moment an enemy would appear. The
patrols never encountered a major enemy group or engaged in a large-scale
battle. But the sniping, the horrid booby traps, the ambushing of the lead
men; these were the events that were killing. Two men would be hit today;
tomorrow it might be one, the next day maybe three. It was this slow
grinding of the body and the mind dispiriting the entire regiment. At this
snail's pace days turned into weeks and months. From the colonel on down,
everyone knew the big war had bypassed the paratroopers and for some
unexplained reason, no one outside gave a damn about the regiment. It was
The patrols and the squandering of men went on.
After a time it didn't matter if enemy soldiers were ever seen and
gradually the novelty of killing wore off. This depletion with its
desperation dwindled the squad, and soon Johnny was no longer a new man.
His face now owned its own dark caverns, with eyes sunken into their
receptacles, morosely embedded in a skull whose flesh was gone and that
had only the skin to cover it. Still, the patrols were there. Why, no one
* * * * *
Darkness was only an hour away when the lieutenant
ordered the platoon to halt. They were a thousand yards into Japanese
territory and orders were to continue farther. However they slowed due to
the torrential rain and the heaviness of the jungle. With the impending
darkness and inability to return to the company lines, they decided to dig
in and secure for the night.
Every soldier on the patrol was now a veteran and
had been through this many times. But no matter the times, one never got
over the foreseen torment on nights like this. In truth the more veteran
one was, the worse, for one already knew the horrors. It would be another
Sergeant Haven, the squad leader, whispered, for
now it was hush time in this void, "Castillo, Martinez, and Barbone,
you men go out and booby-trap the perimeter. Take one grenade from each
man as you need them."
"Jesus Christ, it's always me for all the shit
details," bitched Castillo. "Doesn't Havens know the eleven
others in the squad? And the cabron lieutenant, somebody better
tell him there's two other squads here beside the third. He's got a
hard-on for us or maybe Havens is bucking for another stripe. The bastard
probably volunteered us." Castillo spoke little English and this was
just about all he knew. He excelled as a trooper, but he could just as
well have been a matinee idol. He was an Adonis.
Booby-trapping the perimeter was done by wiring
grenades knee high on trees, encircling the platoon's fox- holes, now
being dug. Once the grenades were secured to the trunks, Barbone, being
best at this, would pull the pins until they were held in place only by
the last projection of the cotter key. Tied to each key was a strand of
wire webbed from grenade to grenade, enclosing the troopers by this
continuous strand of wires. One slight touch of the wire and the grenade
would blow, alerting the troopers. The setup was crude but reassuring to
the men in the foxholes. Barbone was a tall, lanky man, with blue eyes and
hair glistening red and sometimes gold when the sun's rays peeked through
the jungle leaves. He wore a subtle smile, suggesting a secret inside
joke. When he stood and we looked at him from the depths of the foxhole he
resembled Icabod Crane, hardly the form of a super trooper, which he was.
His clothes never seemed to fit, whether in dress or out here in the
field. They hung like rags on a scarecrow from the cornfields of his
Nebraska. He mostly kept to himself, never buddying up with anyone in
particular, but somewhat friendly to Castillo. He had attended college
somewhere; his demeanor was more polished and he used bigger and more
complicated words than most of us. In this jungle, the deepest, darkest
nights came fast. They brought a petrifying silence, save for the lonely,
guttural chirping of birds, the faint scraping of rodents, the snapping,
thumping, crackling of falling branches, and other noises everyone knew
was the enemy crawling toward his particular hole. No one dared move
except to roll under the poncho seeking a drier place in his hole, which
was never found. None of us knew if it was better to pull those horrifying
turns at guard, alone in a world darkened not only by the moon gone awry
but even more by the dim hopelessness, or to lie under the soaked poncho
pretending to sleep, as we did as children under security blankets, with
only imagined noises or movements of some contrived enemy soldier to
further torment us.
Core events come in unexpected moments and that
night was not one of them. In the prelight hours there was lots of
shooting of lighting tracers and scattered firing of mortar rounds. A few
hand grenades were thrown but no one was hurt.
In the morning when light came, Sergeant Haven said
in a voice stronger than last night's whisper, “The same three men who
put out the grenades, go and clear the area."
“There I go again,” whined Castillo. “When
this mission is over, I'm transferring to E Company. This bastard is gonna
get me killed." No one else said a word, for this bitching was
ordinary during those times and all of us had our moments.
Johnny and Castillo took only rifles at port arms
and slunk to the grenades. They dragged several steps behind Barbone,
providing cover if it was needed. He neared the first grenade, lay on the
ground, pushed the pin into its hole, spread the ends to retain it, took a
deep breath, and sprawled on the wetness of the jungle floor. It was a
delicate, dangerous, and nerve-racking procedure; few men could do it.
As the disarming of booby traps went on, and the
reassuring sun's rays streaked through open spaces in the jungle cover,
the grenade-collecting soldiers relaxed. Rifles dropped from the port arms
position to a more casual slinging over the arms. The scent of already
boiling coffee filtered through the perimeter and a bit of bantering and
cussing was heard. Gone were the whispers whose near silence haunted them
Johnny took his eyes off Barbone and casually
looked into the foliage, less in search of enemy soldiers than in a moment
of daydreaming, returning in thought to home and mother. All at once
Barbone let out a shriek straight from hell. Castillo and Johnny hit the
dirt as did about half of the men in the perimeter. They were so paranoid
that any unexpected noise or action predictably sent all to the ground.
They hardened, slithered into low spots among tree
roots, desperate to permeate the very soil, forcing heads deeper into
helmets waiting for the anticipated explosions they instinctively knew
were coming. But all they heard was the continued frantic screaming of
Barbone. Johnny peeked from under his helmet, Barbone was simulating a
frenzied war dance. He pleaded, "Help me, this damn grenade, I can't
get it out." One of the collected grenades had lost its pin and was
set to explode in his pocket. Barbone was grasping for it. He had a look
of fright, haunting forever all who saw it.
Johnny leaped toward him, cowered, unsure whether
to join in his desperate grasping with the explosion coming any instant or
to bolt and leave him on his own. There was no time to ponder the bravery
or cowardice or wisdom of anything; there was only time to press the
ground and suffer the nearness of the explosion.
Before the shreds of whatever the grenade had
loosened settled, Johnny fled into the jungle, panicky. He crawled under
the foliage, hiding from the world, and cried. What else could he do? He
could not muster enough courage to stay and witness what the grenade had
done to Barbone.
When a buddy was hit, those closest to him had a
part of their heart mutilated for a while. In an effort to erase his
memory they did not ask how serious were his wounds, if any limbs were
lost, or anything else. They hardly knew if he lived or died. All they
knew or cared to know was that he was gone from the platoon. They were
left with a vacuum in their injured hearts that knowing or not knowing
would not fill. For Johnny, another adobe was piled on the wall of
* * * * *
On another horrible day, four men from the squad
were hit, two killed and two wounded. Then Johnny was a veteran and became
This patrol commenced as most did. In that very
instant as if coordinated by some diabolic force, the rain started; every
man immediately assumed a morbid silence. Not an unneeded word transpired.
Each man's eyes sank into his skull's dark caverns. One could tell how
many patrols a soldier survived by the intensity of these caverns.
Outwardly, all went about their tasks unaffected,
but each harbored a secret hunch this day would witness the end of his
jungle sojourns. It was as close to hell as one could get here on earth,
but some unexplained force kept them going.
Each man carried his weapon and his ammunition in
belt pouches or bandoliers wound around the chest. Each had two hand
grenades taped to the straps of his harness. Each hooked two canteens of
water and the precious medical kit on his rifle belt. In his baggy pants
pocket was a one-meal ration the size of a Cracker Jack box. Speed,
surprise, and silence were crucial to these ventures, so no unnecessary
items were carried. Trenching tools, bayonets, ponchos, and even steel
helmets were considered frills. There was no rule dictating what troopers
must carry; each man's personal experience on many patrols told him better
than a hundred army manuals what the insufferable score was. The mission
was to patrol one thousand yards to the north. A recon group from another
company spotted smoke rising from that area, possibly an encampment of
enemy troops. Johnny's squad had been there two weeks before. One dubious
advantage to this assignment was a well-worn trail already in place. This
meant the lead man did not have to cut through the overgrown jungle and
lose the element of surprise with his noisy machete. However, the enemy
knew this trail as well and could plant mines or sit in ambush and
duck-shoot the patrols. Everyone understood this. It was more fearsome to
venture like this, anticipating all the gory possibilities, than to
blunder into untested predicaments where no one knew what mysteries
existed. A prime example of living content in ignorance. As Johnny
strapped on his harness, a gnawing sensation in his gut kept warning him
there was a cinch disaster waiting somewhere out there, today. Williams,
who always needed a shave and a haircut but who had long ago shrugged off
this inconsequential formality, took the lead that fateful morning. Soapy
Williams was one of the few regular army men in the platoon. He had been
tempered on the Louisiana maneuvers before the war and was revered as a
real old- timer. Three times he was a squad sergeant and three times he
was demoted for fighting, drinking, or general carousing. Now he was at
the bottom again, a private. Nevertheless, he was a good scout and all
were reassured having him as point man.
The commander of the group was Second Lieutenant
James Stoner. Stoner spent four years in ROTC at UCLA receiving his law
degree, his second lieutenant's bars, and a ticket to the parachute
school. He was a sensitive man, with a sad depth in his eyes as if his pet
dog had strayed sway. He showed great concern for his soldiers and shortly
they embraced and followed him in spite of his lack of combat experience.
Everyone was desperate for support from whatever source, even from an
untested second lieutenant. At least he cared for them.
On the hand signal from Lieutenant Stoner, Williams
trudged into the jungle, turning his head every step or two gesturing a
reluctant good-bye to those staying behind. Many had served with Soapy for
years, forming the soldier's bond that never goes away. Within a few steps
he was swallowed by the darkness of the overhanging foliage.
Trotting behind, came Johnny, striving with all his might not to
lose Williams and the contact so vital to those following him. Twenty feet
behind came Squad Sergeant Haven and then Stoner.
Trailing, properly spaced, was the rest of the
squad. Each embraced two fervent prayers, divine help in this brutality
and a chance to return home, where he would somehow repay whatever help
came. All knew only some omnipotent unknown could help them survive this
ordeal. Religion like heroism was never talked about, but each, even the
most hardened, the biggest drunkard, the loudest irreverent, carried in
his heart this secret plea. Williams, hunched over as if in this he could
become invisible, ambled a few steps, then squatted behind a shrub and
waited for Johnny. Together they scanned the area, taking in the trail and
surrounding growth seeking any extraneous movement. They remained for long
moments in silence. Satisfied that all was in order, Williams would take
his hunched position again and wave Johnny forward with a now familiar
wave of a hand. He in turn passed back to the rest of the squad whatever
information was signaled. Hour after ensnaring hour, the squad probed
deeper into the insidious jungle. Every step away from the tent area added
not only to the feeling of remoteness, but in- creased the chances of the
impending calamity. It was midafternoon, about three o'clock. The going
was slow, since in addition to the stop-and-go tactics the rain had never
ceased. Now the trail was a quagmire, sucking boots deeper with every
step, causing an alarming squish with every lifting.
Nevertheless, the patrol had almost reached its
thousand-yard goal. The exhausted troopers took a break to plan the next
move. They agreed two scouts and the lieutenant would advance the
remaining distance, thus making better time and completing the mission in
time to start the return before dark.
The three rested for a moment, sucking from their
chlorinated canteens and chawing mouthfuls of chocolate bars. Abruptly
Lieutenant Stoner rose and whispered, "Okay Williams and Martinez,
let's finish this up."
Ninety yards ahead stood a crude wooden bridge
straddling a ravine twenty feet deep. Williams moved onto the bridge
followed by Stoner. With every step, the soaked planks squished and
emitted a devilish squeal. For one frightened moment both were frozen,
forged onto the flooring, trying to quiet the denouncing sounds. Life
presents many ironic, veiled deceptions. At the instant the two men
astride the harsh bridge labored to silence its grunting, the leafy dome
overhead blew open. The force was so powerful that for a lightning moment
every tree, every growing thing, every stone, every felled limb, and even
the tiny crawling insects trembled before its vastness. A volcanic
eruption blew the bridge and its two occupants. Its place was taken by an
ever wider and deeper ravine. A wisping mist with its acrid burnt odor
pervaded the area. An inferno descended where the wooden bridge had stood,
leveling all that had dared to violate it.
Only Johnny was left draped over a smoking stump,
splattered with blood and dirt and shrouded with leftovers from the razed
trees; shocking testimony that living things were once here.
A distant chatter of firecrackers tugged at the
conscious portion of his brain. Faraway, through a faint web, he
distinguished hysterical shouting of commands, sobbing, and all sorts of
resounding noises. He wailed for his mother, then he too went into
Back on the trail Haven, his back punctured with
tiny particles of shrapnel spotting his shirt with dots of blood,
recovered enough to take action. Even while the others were dazed, some
openly crying, he set up flank and rear guards, calculating a rush by the
enemy to knock off the balance of the patrol. Finished with all he must
do, he crawled toward the ravine seeking the devastation, hoping to find
the scouts and Stoner alive, even if wounded.
Sergeant Haven was not the picture of a dashing
trooper; neither did he talk like one. His long, skinny legs and stooped
stride together with his down-home twang firmly marked him from the hills
of Georgia. Poverty and a dismal future in those destitute hills had
driven him to the paratroopers. As did most of the mountain boys, he
brought great pride to his folks. He cherished the company and worked
himself into one of the superb squad sergeants in the regiment. None of
his men ever wanted out. A fitting tribute to a sincere leader.
On hands and knees, Haven dragged himself forward,
striving to see through the maze of smoke and mist. He stopped and dropped
into the ooze. In a whisper he called "Stoner, Williams, Martinez,
can you hear me?" He hushed, waited a moment, and repeated his call.
Hearing no response, he crawled ahead a few feet. He repeated his plea,
silencing once again, hoping for a reaction. As if from a deep well,
barely audible, a feeble voice replied, "Sergeant Haven, I can't
Energized on hearing this response, Haven lost his
judgment, stood, and dashed toward the scene. The jungle ahead presented a
tragic desolation. Not a single tree stood and their downed limbs were
stark. Great tangles of broken trees cluttered the ground, as though a
band of giant woodcutters had passed. The trunks were severed a short
height from the ground. Around the exposed roots were piles of stones
mixed with mud, stones that had been sleeping in the recesses of the earth
and been brought to the surface by the explosion.
Sergeant Haven scanned the area, his vision
pouncing from one leafy pile to the next. Near the smoking ravine he saw
movement and the jerking of a boot extending vividly from beneath a
charred entanglement. He walked toward this movement and the sound of his
name whispered in desperation. Once again the chatter of firecrackers
reverberated through the morbid silence that embraced the area. Haven fell
at the moment he reached Johnny.
Johnny regained some composure and yelled the
instant the frantic sergeant fell. Haven now lay astraddle his leg,
moaning and screaming in delirium. Summoning his final strength Johnny
rolled off the stump and crawled from under the fallen limbs covering him.
He laid aside the bleeding Haven, who was pierced through the neck and now
lay writhing in pain. He dragged him behind the whacked stump and wrapped
a bandage from his kit around Haven's pierced neck. He then extracted the
morphine syringe and injected the sergeant's skinny arm.
With fortitude that could only come from the center
of his heart and soul, he crawled with Haven on his back toward the squad.
The distance was endless and once he rested for a moment. Lying in the
mud, he saw drops of mingled blood, Havens's and his own, drip onto the
ground. His thoughts returned to a faraway Sunday afternoon movie in which
the white man and the Indian cut their hands and mixed their blood as a
sign of brotherhood. An eternity later he arrived at the squad and plunged
into the abyss of quietude and unconsciousness.
Johnny and Havens were jeeped to the surgical
hospital. The next day Havens passed on. Even with four hours of surgery,
he lost too much blood; the missile had punctured an artery and too much
time had elapsed from the ravine to the surgical table.
A few days later Johnny was sent to a field
hospital from which he was almost returned home. The severity of his
wounds dictated he could not continue serving on the line. But for
mysterious reasons, thirty days later he returned to the squad.
“I never thought I would return and ever want to
see you guys again. I don't know why I came back, but here I am,” he
said in an impish, joyous voice. Everyone in the tent embraced him and
bantered back and forth about how happy they had been thinking they had
seen the last of the little Mexican.
After the bridge patrol, which is what it was
called from then on, changes had come to the other troopers. Before, they
went to extremes to mock him with jokes about Mexicans, greasers, beaners,
and the like, or at least ignore him. Now they involved him in their
activities, engaging him in all manner of pointless small incidents. This
hundred-and-eighty-degree reversal and their almost mushy manner made him
uncomfortable, but grateful.
Corporal Hance was now a sergeant and the new squad
leader. One evening he sat on Johnny's cot, seeking whatever privacy he
could. "Johnny, the captain has recommended you for corporal and
named you the acting assistant squad leader. Stay on the ball; if the
colonel approves you'll have your stripes and be regular assistant. In the
meantime, continue as first scout until we break in a new man.”
All these things begun during his absence-the
corporal stripes, the new position, not only as first scout but also as
Hance's assistant, but most of all, the newborn admiration of the other
troopers-brought a sense of pride and a “special wanting to be” with
all these men even in these dire surroundings. Even as he knew with a
little extra push he could've been on his way to New Mexico, each day his
heart belonged a bit more to the paratroopers and this loyalty was making
him a prisoner of the regiment.
Gradually the action of the patrols petered out,
much to the delight of the troopers.
* * * * *
He came into the parachute regiment as a
replacement with Johnny, Barbone, and the other new men from the shaky
plane. Many became the stalwarts of the battalions, in the end becoming
the leaders as the old-timers dwindled from wounds, death, or returned
Benny Slowe's short hair reflected flecks of copper
like shreds from a new penny as he strutted down the company street.
Others who unloaded from that infamous paraphernalia truck stooped under
the weight of their barracks bag and their rifles, but not him, even
though the bag seemed more than he could bear. He squinted his eyes as the
sun glistened from his freckled face making it impossible to tell which
were freckles and which was teenage acne. He was the water boy on a
second-rate high school football team, not big enough to try out as a
player, now faking it as a tough paratrooper. He weighed 120 pounds, but
in this he was not alone; there were many here that runty. He became a
rifleman, not in Johnny's platoon but in the one next to it. It was close
enough so all troopers in both platoons became almost brothers. The
trooper who carried the Browning automatic rifle, called the BAR, in his
squad was a huge vulgar soldier. One day he was shanghaied out and the BAR
was up for grabs. No one wanted the job, except Benny. He approached the
platoon sergeant and pleaded, .All the other guys think I'm just a little
boy, and I want to show I am a real soldier." Everyone who heard
secretly smirked as the sergeant said, "Okays Slowe, we'll give you a
try." He thought after the first patrol, Slowe would somehow weasel
out of the job. Benny Slowe, the water boy on the jungle trail, was
grossly overloaded. He walked hunched over like a June bug, close to the
ground with his equipment forming a shell over his back. He looked so puny
and the BAR, so massive, hung so low the stock dragged in the mud. Benny
had to lift it an extra bit to keep it dry. Not after the first patrol or
ever did he surrender his BAR. He donned his harness and ponderous ammo
boxes and dragged that massive weapon from patrol to patrol, covering
miles of muddy, soggy trails. On the prowl, the chatter of the horrid
Japanese nambu gun was an alarm to Benny, like a fire horse. He unbuckled
and slung aside his gear, except the BAR and its ammunition, and no matter
the risk; he scrambled to the head of the column with the scouts.
He could have stayed amid the dubious protection of
the other riflemen and wait for orders, but he never did. He was
possessed. He could not just burrow into the mud and listen to his buddies
agonize over the torment of the unseen firing.
His booming BAR soon overwhelmed the cracking of
the lighter Japanese guns and Benny became a sought-after buddy on all
those miserable patrols. Not only was he a real soldier, he was one of the
stars. He never increased in size, but he bulged in ability, stamina, and
After a few weeks on these jungle patrols the men
had enough. They wanted to see no more. Weird behavior became commonplace.
It was time for the regiment to have a break, leave this Hades. Anywhere
No one showed a deeper cavern or changed more than
Benny. For him it was from the top to the greatest depths. Overnight he
aged. He no longer smiled; no longer did he strut as when he first carried
his bag down the company street. Even his freckles faded and his acne was
They left the jungle for a time; they were told it
was for rest and recreation in a rear area. It did no good; still every-
one was stressed. The jungle now owned them. It was embedded too deep
within. They wanted out, but only for good, none of this temporary shit.
So they came back. Incredibly, some were even glad to return when they
Destiny appeared black for Slowe. He became more
daring as the months passed, even though his buddies tried to shield him,
begging him to return to a safer rifle. It was too late. Only his emotions
guided him; he could not chance another would let up on his critical BAR.
On one of the last torrential patrols, the platoons
were set to dig in for the night; however, the two lead scouts were sent
across a tank trap six feet deep that cut the trail, to check it out and
return. After struggling for an hour they at last traversed the slippery
trap and were probing the other side. For once it was not the chattering
nambu gun that set Benny off. It was the scream of the first scout. He was
Benny's dearest buddy, the first one who befriended him in the platoon
when he arrived on the shaky plane on that rainy afternoon.
Before the initial burst of fire ended, Benny
rolled into the tank trap and was already grappling to reach the other
side. He made it with superhuman effort, but his weapon slipped and as he
stood to wrestle it he was riddled by the same nambus he had silenced so
many times. He plopped into the depth with a thundering squishy thud. It
took half a squad to get him out before darkness came.
On the last night of his fatal day Slowe reposed in
the mud close to Johnny, the last one left from the shaky plane, who
placed his BAR atop him; it belonged no where else. The final memory of
Benny Slowe prior to blackness was his rainwashed face, mystically
recapturing his freckles and smile not seen for weeks. Still more poignant
were the soles of his boots and bottom of his BAR sticking out from a
No one slept. They were unable to erase that
dreadful sight. For Johnny, it was more of the adobe wall.
* * * * *
Inevitably one day rumors started, some say in the
latrine, while others a little more refined said the mess tent. Like blown
embers the rumors soon blazed into full- grown flames. One flame said a
supply sergeant drove his jeep to the beach and saw a troopship anchored
half a mile offshore. One of its sailors told the sergeant it was there
for the parachute regiment. "We are pulling hack to
These and other phantom dreams appeared from all
corners of the regiment. Each day the talking got more serious, growing in
promise and reaching higher and higher levels of orgiastic illusions. The
newer the men the greater the credence given to all this talk. Only the
old-timers with the deepest caverns believed none of it; they merely
listened and continued gazing nowhere into the infinity of space.
Providence, as if to disprove this cynicism and
inject a bit of faith in the conduct of the war, and to prevent a complete
loss of confidence in the generals, loaded Johnny and all his comrades on
a tranquil ship to Australia.
The return to the living world was pure ecstasy to
all the men. After all the talk of women and carousing the previous weeks
had consumed, none of this came to pass, at least not to the degree
envisioned. The troopers were so content and replete with the joys of
secure living, the well-cooked meals, tons of cold milk and ice cream, the
endless hot showers, the new clothes with their glorious mothball
fragrance-all these things simply overwhelmed them. They had forgotten the
wonders of common everyday living. Not to say some did not immediately
return to their animalistic endeavors. Every woman in the area who could
be had, was. Whiskey and beer containers for miles around were drained to
their last milliliter. Fights and a smattering of tearing up occurred, but
not to a point the colonel and other officers in their own gatherings
could not laugh off with a slap to the wrist.
The entire affair was glorious and forty years
later most considered the furlough episode one of the highlights of the
regiment. Everyone who was there embellished the tiniest detail, growing
in sweetness as the years went by.
All was not play, however. New men came and were
trained to synchronize with the ways of the older troopers. Many who had
not parachuted for months honed their skills. Some, including Johnny,
jumped as many as three times in one day. In addition, the usual number of
renegades fractured some rule and were locked in the stockade. But all
this only added spice to the further welding of an already solidified
During the chaos of the furlough in Australia,
reorganization, returning a few old-timers home, outfitting and training
the new men, and whatever else had to be done, many changes occurred. On a
high plane they appeared insignificant, but at the intimate level of the
squad each soldier was profoundly touched.
Sergeant Hance was sent to another company,
elevated to platoon leader. Veteran Johnny became squad sergeant, new
stripes and all. Six of his men were new, four were his vintage, and one
was a lifer, Nolan Pratt, another regular army man.
Training increased and the bitching reached its
expected levels. Drained by the hangover of the furlough plus frustrations
of combat inactivity, everyone was on edge. Action must come now, else all
sorts of psychos would appear throughout the regiment. Word soon got
around the colonel had flown to army headquarters begging the general to
use the troopers. The old-timers never pushed this issue. They were
content to let nature take its course; they already knew sitting around,
even if it drove you nuts, beat the easiest mission. If the new men were
eager beavers, let them be, it wouldn't take them long to smarten up.
* * * * *
Like a bolt out of the blue, at the peak of all
this bedlam, one evening the troopers were ordered to pack only the most
needed items. Ammunition and rations were issued and by midnight two
battalions, including Johnny's, boarded for a destination known to no one.
Just when it was thought bitching was perfected to
its highest level, it now achieved a virtuosity never heard before in the
entire Pacific. Here were the parachutists, jammed into their planes. No
chutes were present, no briefing had been given, no maps were around, only
minimal combat gear was brought. Even the lieutenant was flustered. Once
during the frenetic flight he attempted to appease the men by declaring it
must be some kind of emergency. "That's why your Uncle Sam pays you,
to take care of these little problems," he bantered. No one thought
it was clever. A remark was passed around that even the pilots did not
know where they were going "It's a prank," a college boy yelled.
.We are simply flying aimlessly around as a diabolical joke."
The flight lasted several hours; already the first
peeking of the sun could be seen as the planes began their descent. The
planes followed closely onto a corrugated strip where only the headlights
of two vehicles could be seen at the edge of a distant jungle.
Once more the troopers were in their familiar
world. The instant they left the haven of the planes everyone and
everything was drenched, for it appeared the rain had not ceased since
before the Australian furlough. Each slithered under his poncho and faced
his weapon downward to keep the barrel dry. Instantly a forced march
started toward the beach two miles away.
Shortly, the troopers boarded landing ships drawn
up onto the sand as much as possible, not enough, though, to keep the men
from wading waist high in the surf. In spite of the rain, the sand in
their boots and crotches, and the pounding of the surf, they were finally
hustled into the lower decks where some degree of comfort existed.
In a few moments the battalion commander's voice
was heard on the intercom. At last he gave them the details of their
mission. An unknown infantry division was cornered on a stretch of beach
on one of the islands. In the beginning, the generals planned to drop the
paratroopers in a rescue effort, but the weather had prevented this, so
they were landing a small force to take the pressure off the infantrymen.
The major said it would be a difficult task, but not of long duration,
three to four days at the most. The older men snickered at this limiting
remark. How many limes had they heard this illusionary promise before?
Hours later the squad was in their foxholes, part
of the perimeter formed where the jungle met the beach. They had blundered
ashore amidst lots of confusing movement and a horrendous artillery and
mortar barrage. By some miracle, none of the men in the squad were hit,
although an unknown number from the company were lost. Darkness was about
to take over and the rain intensified, if that was possible. Two of the
new men and Johnny occupied the outermost point, their foxhole, entirely
surrounded by the foliage. The instant the troops hit the beach the level
of talk and any noise, by some never understood rule, was reduced to a
whisper. None could ever explain how this whispering, hunched-over stance,
a tendency to burrow into every crevice, a newly acquired nearness to your
buddies, and the return of the cavernous stare sneaked in. One moment
there would be a dispersed stab of joking, some boisterous bantering, an
occasional prank, and general horseplay, then came this veiled instant of
change as if a giant hand turned down the volume on the entire world.
Before complete darkening, Johnny made the final
check into each of his squad's outposts. In the newly acquired whisper he
repeated every warning he knew, cautioning the men about wild shooting,
spooking each other, venturing around in the dark, and endless things they
hopefully knew about foxholes, dark rainy nights in these devils' jungles
and its horrid noises. But most of all, he harped on the satanic
deceptions cavernous eyes staring for hours into the unknown dark can play
on edged emotions and minds already stressed.
All was drearily silent, save for a murmur like the
world turning on a greased axle. No one knew when an eerie moaning started
directly in front of the squad. Its onset was so subtle, for a time few
noticed. Only the man on guard
in his particular hole heard. The others were not really asleep; rather,
they were in a stage of suspended indifference, not deep enough to rest,
but not sufficiently awake to hear.
Johnny, on guard in his hole, knew the scary
moaning was a ploy to draw the men out and inject fear into each one, as
if that were needed. Each stared desperately into the darkness, seeing in
every stump, in every bush, in every shadow a living enemy crawling
straight at him. Although the staring men in reality could see nothing
save the unfathomed darkness, all were sure in some mystic way the
crawling human could see all.
A solitary shot rang out, followed predictably by a
massive fusillade. The flaming tails of bullets and blazing fingers of
fired tracers revealed the locations of their fox-holes. In two minutes
this entire world shook. It sounded as if every thunder in the universe
had met here to finally rest. Mortars and grenades exploded over the
entire area. These were followed closely by midrange artillery firings, no
one knew whose. This madness lasted no more than five minutes. Then again
all was almost silent; nothing was left but the soft calling of wounded
men, stranded somewhere in this dark hell.
As if from a deep hole, he heard the pleadings of
Nolan Pratt. “I'm bad
hit out here, I crawled out to help Jones and we're both down.” Everyone
knew the worst thing was to start moving around in this unknown. Torn up
inside, all sat in their holes suffering to the supplications of Pratt and
other wounded. Johnny stood it as long as he could; tried to ignore it. He
thought of other things. He knew nothing could be done, yet deep inside
his gut he knew never would he forget these entreaties. For every day as
long as he lived, they would tug at his heart and he would agonize and
wonder if he could have done something other than sit in this hole and
look after his ass.
Not that he ever thought to be a hero. Out here
with the troopers no one ever spoke of such crap. Actually, it was
embarrassing to even talk about heroics, glory seeking and the like.
Doing all in his power to shut out these agonizing
cries there came a time when he simply could no longer fool himself,
particularly with Nolan screaming. He decided he could not sit and pretend
things would work out. Experience and training told him to sit in silence
and wait for daylight, but love and concern for the men had already
imprisoned his logic.
He crawled out, armed only with rifle and two hand
grenades. Into the agonizing center he went, seeking blindly the source of
the pleas. Long minutes later he touched an unconscious Pratt and dragged
him back to the line, imploring the men to hold fire. Energized with what
can only be described as shock adrenalin he returned to the spot where
Nolan had been. The mortars and grenades once again brought hell into this
moment. By now all the growth in front of the foxholes was leveled.
They found Johnny next morning lying atop the body
of the new man, Jones. He went not knowing that Nolan was already dead
when he pulled him back. So was the new man. His action this night was
hardly known outside the immediate area. It was useless as far as the
outcome of the campaign was concerned. It did, however, infuriate and
inspire his men to the point that a vicious attack was stopped. All those
who ultimately survived this episode carried memories of this night and
relived them in their talks and minds till the end of their days.
* * * * *
emblazoned pine box were the
remains of the little boy who in this very church, wearing a cheap, undersized white outfit with a black tie, performed his first communion. It was what was left of
the youngest son who suffered countless hours glued to a window seeking
the first glance of his overworked mother coming home evenings. Here lay
the bones of the young boy who with his brothers had perforated mother
earth seeking her moisture. All his illusions of grandeur at the parachute
school with ever the extra effort to excel among his more sophisticated
and affluent comrades were locked in these velvet confines. The new
trooper who arrived on a faraway rainy afternoon at what was to be his
final destiny finally returned to this.
No one present at this ultimate ritual really knew
or remembered him, for his two brothers also passed into their own boxes
somewhere in Europe and his mother started dying the day Johnny expired. Two
days after, a Spanish-speaking lieutenant from the nearby
military base visited to extol the virtues of her last son, but it was
already too late. She was virtually dead; only her mechanical body moved.
All else was gone and a few days later she, too, was brought to this very
The fervent trooper lived only a short time and
tried so hard in his cherished regiment. He finally became a squad
sergeant, who never ordered his men on chancy missions; rather, he went
with them. He had been a sergeant who always personally welcomed his new
men with as much encouragement as he possessed, recalling his own dismal
arrival at this same squad.
Life cut Johnny off at the quick. He never lived
long enough to savor its flavors, its variety; even the divination of a
woman. All he took in his heart was the love and the memories of the
regiment. For him maybe that was enough, he cared too much for his
All was not, however, total sadness. In resulting
years when remaining troopers gathered, all who served in his squad or
even in his company spent pleasant moments recalling the little sergeant
from New Mexico. As years passed even the colonel came to admire and
praise him although he never met him personally. A part of them always
returned to yesterday and they knew he heard when with moistened eyes they
would proclaim, "He was one hell of a trooper.”
The entire episode of his life was a sinister
pageant, as all life finally is. He was destined to do what he did and
leave for reasons unknown to us. He and the departed others knew we are
players, often tragic. Yet, they hoped they taught lessons and left
memories making it all worthwhile. They also suspected all the horrors of
those jungles, those cannonades, those parachute jumps, and ultimately
their emblazoned pine boxes could end nowhere but in some peaceful plot
sheltered by their adobe wall conceived under such arduous conditions.
On the fateful evening of the day the pine box with
the velvet lining was brought to the walled cemetery, the stars over New
Mexico had a singular splendor. If they were counted, one would see a
certain star was gone. It too died; it chose to join the little boy with
the worn white suit and the black tie.
THIS IS A WORK OF FICTION. IT DOES NOT PORTRAY PERSONS OR
EVENTS AND ANY SIMILARITIES OR RESEMBLANCES TO LIVING PERSONS OR EVENTS
ARE COINCIDENTAL AND NOT INTENTIONAL.
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Copyright ©, The Corregidor Historic Society, 1999-2002
Last Updated: May 26, 2002