"UNDER DUBIOUS STARS"
_________________
Tony Sierra 

 

 

Copyright ©1997 by Tony Sierra

 FICTION 

 

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 dubious star?

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 Noche."

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 worried.

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 Halloween apparition.

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 elite unit.

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 men.

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 clearly brothers.

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 apparent gain.

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 forgotten.

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 knew.

 

* * * * *

 

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 ominous night.

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 all night.

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 memories.

 

* * * * *

 

On another horrible day, four men from the squad were hit, two killed and two wounded. Then Johnny was a veteran and became point man.

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 oblivion.

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 move."

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 home.

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 courage.

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 but here.

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 gone forever.

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 did.

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 water-soaked poncho.

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 Australia and the whole damn outfit, including the new men, is going on leave to Sydney or at least to Brisbane ." Another flame was, "A corporal in regimental communications heard a message from army headquarters ordering the troopers to break camp and prepare to move." Unfortunately he failed to note the date of departure.

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 brotherhood.

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.

 

* * * * *

 

Inside an 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 church.

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 comrades.

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.

 

 Tony Sierra

 

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. 

THE AUTHOR IS FROM "D" COMPANY, 503D PRCT.  HIS OTHER CONTRIBUTIONS INCLUDE THE PASSING CAPTAINS AND THE ATTACK ON BATTERY MONJA 24 FEBRUARY 1945. 

COPYRIGHT PERMISSIONS:  
TONY N. SIERRA
P.O. BOX 1562
LA JOLLA, CA 92038

 

 

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Last Updated: May 26, 2002