For the past ten days, James Peabody’s life consisted of nothing more than constantly burying his head in the sand… Bullets, mortars, and grenades whizzed and exploded all around his platoon of war weary soldiers, as they attempted a full-frontal assault of a nondescript hill resting on the South Pacific Island of Okinawa.
The Japanese had prepared well for the beach landings, suckering the eager Americans into the heart of the island where they patiently lay in wait in their hidden bunkers and fortified positions. The unsuspecting 10th Army had walked right into a shitstorm of pain and death. An inch of ground gained accounted for yards of casualties and the lives of many young men fighting to save their innocent world from tyranny.
Burying one’s head in the sand was probably the wise thing to do; however, wars are not won that way; so, many young Americans bravely faced enemy fire to secure the last island before the planned invasion of Japan’s mainland and the defeat of its empire. This strategic theatre of war being staged on a piece of land thousands of miles from American homes, was now in its third act of a tragedy started when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor; and it was the penultimate final curtain of this godforsaken conflict.
Private James Peabody of the US Army, could not count on anyone but himself to survive the war because he was classified as a conscientious objector, a coward first class, and an outcast, continually sent out on point duty by his punishing gung-ho, jap-hating, platoon leader, Sergeant Dale Brock, of Lansing, Missouri.
“GODDAMNIT, MOVE YOUR ASSES!” screamed the animated Brock. “WE’RE SITTING DUCKS HERE!”
It was a cliché thing to shout, but evidently true. The Japanese defenders had zeroed in on the Americans, reigning an infernal amount of firepower down on them. Staying in position risked getting blown to pieces, and changing positions risked dancing through a wall of bullets, but James quickly made the decision to break cover and find new shelter.
His inner voice commanded him to 'GO!'
So, drawing a deep breath, he pushed himself onto all fours and scooted like a crab across 30 metres of open land toward a clump of felled trees, where Brock and two other G.I.s were returning fire at the enemy. With the sound of zipping projectiles Zinging past his ears, James somersaulted into the temporary foxhole, kicking up dirt as he came to rest. Somewhat protected from direct fire, he resumed his face-first posture into a tall clump of hilly sand, looking up only to witness a direct mortar hit on his previous position that flung two men high into the air. Pinned down by machine gun fire, he started to create a dugout with his hands, then curled up in a foetal position, his rifle tucked under him as the battle thundered its destructive power. Like it or not, James Peabody had box seats to the South Pacific’s new performance of violence, and it was hell on Earth.
Brock’s thunderous grainy voice permeated the cacophony of explosions and gunfire.
“GRAB YOUR RIFLE AND SHOOT IT TOWARDS THE ENEMY!”
Without looking up, James loudly hurled his answer back.
“I RESERVE THE RIGHT TO NOT KILL DUE TO MY HUMANITARIAN BELIEFS, SERGEANT!”
Brock hurriedly scampered his way over to James, put his mouth to his ear and calmly berated him.
“I don’t give a flamin’ arrow what your beliefs are Private Peabody. I care that you join this goddamn war, now!”
“Sarge, I’m already in it so deep, but I won’t fire my weapon.”
“Hell son, it’s kill or be killed. I ain’t got time to babysit you. Now, GET UP!”
Brock tried to pull James to his feet just as a mortar round whizzed and exploded several yards from the two of them. Brock was thrown back uninjured by the concussion; however, James caught a chunk of shrapnel in his helmet that clanged so hard, he found himself starting to pass out. He felt no pain in that dazed moment, but just before he lost consciousness, he asked himself the proverbial question, ‘Is this it?’
Born into a family of New York lawyers, James had full intentions of joining his father's law firm. He had been accepted into Harvard; however, in James’ first semester, the president of Harvard pledged all the resources of the university to the war effort – including students, so James was unceremoniously whisked off to basic training, where he quickly formed the opinion that killing was immoral and that he wanted no part in the taking of any life. For his impertinent and outspoken beliefs, James was ordered to attend a three-week, confined assessment session to determine his sincerity. It turned out to be a kangaroo court charade of cross-examining and re-cross-examining sessions that avoided any form of truth, just to appease the human rights overseers.
The biased results from the assessment’s findings, surprisingly classified James as 1-A, combat ready, but the army delayed his deployment, until they could send him somewhere that might change his opinion. That moment eventually arrived after the US forces had reclaimed nearly all the Japanese-held islands one-by-blood-spilling-one. With short notice, James was ordered to swap his desk clerk duties and attach himself to the US 10th Army in a terrorising introduction to the horrors of war on the previously idyllic Island of Okinawa – where the boundaries between compassion and brutality were endlessly redrawn with every waking moment.
Darkness obscured James’ vision. He had the awareness of conscious thought, but his eyes registered nothing. His other senses - enhanced by the loss of one – immediately kicked in; causing him to retch, as his sense of smell took in the surrounding air of sulfa powder, rotting bodies, shit, piss, and cordite. The offensive wave of odours entering his nostrils made James jerk up into a sitting position. Immediately, a hand pushed him back to his horizontal posture, then lifted the bandage that had covered his eyes. As James focused on the man crouching over him, he quickly recognised his commanding officer, Captain Tomas Lieberman.
“Still with us, then,” the captain’s comforting voice declared.
“Sir… yes, I think.”
“Stay down, Private. It may be night-time, but the Japs don’t care and they sure as hell don’t sleep.”
Coming to after a lengthy spell of unconsciousness, James’ head had a slight pounding sensation, making him feel dizzy.”
“My head, sir.”
“It’s still there, son. Take these headache pills.”
Unscrewing his water canteen, James obligingly downed the pills in several thirsty gulps of water.
“I can see, sir,” James surprisingly declared.
“Yes... The eye cover was just a precaution.”
“Is it over, sir? Did we win?”
“No, son. We’re all just taking a breather. The flame throwers will be here at dawn, then we’ll get back to business. Where’s your rifle?”
James rummaged around his makeshift foxhole, then attempted to hand his weapon to the captain.
“Hold onto that, Private. You’re going to need it.”
“Not me,” James assertively replied.
“Why is that?”
Corporal Vince Merryweather, a farm boy from Oklahoma propped himself onto one elbow and waded in with his feelings.
“What we have here, sir, is a secular objector. Hell, he ain’t even got the religion angle on refusing to fight… He’s just yeller.”
Lieberman immediately understood the situation. Recollecting a passage from a play that he once read, he laid a comforting hand on James’ shoulder, before launching into a short soliloquy.
“Cowards die many times before their deaths.
The valiant never taste of death but once.
Of all the wonders that I yet have heard,
It seems to me most strange that men should fear,
Seeing that death, a necessary end,
Will come when it will come.”
Intrigued tired eyes quietly but curiously peered through muddy faces at the captain.
“William Shakespeare, men... Julius Caesar, telling his wife - who described her dream of him being murdered - that whatever may happen, will happen – whatever your belief.”
“I’m no coward, sir. I just believe in conserving life.”
“Hey Sarge,” Mayweather whispered loudly. “G.I. Joker here says he believes in life. Well, I believe in taking it… one Jap at a time.”
Private Billy Maher, a 19-year-old, pimply grocery clerk from New York threw in his opinion.
“I believe in the love of dead Japs… oh, and root beer.”
Merryweather supportively laughed.
“I believe in Molly Cooper’s soft white thighs… Man! How I miss those legs.”
A few muffled laughs echoed through the darkness as Lieberman attempted to boost morale.
“We just need to survive all of this and get home, men. Then we can drink all the root beer we want and stroke all the thighs of those kind enough to let us.”
Merryweather once again voiced his blinkered opinion.
“Our mission ain’t to survive, sir. Our mission is to kill as many Japs as we can – every stinkin’ last one of them… before they kill us. Then we can all go home.”
Through the darkness came the resounding voice of Sergeant Brock.
“Pipe down, all of you! You want the Jap snipers to home in on your voices? Try to get some shut eye.”
“Good advice Sergeant,” Lieberman agreeably whispered. “I have to report to the Colonel, so I’ll say goodnight.”
Echoed calls of ‘Night Captain’ drifted through the darkness, as Lieberman quietly disappeared toward the rear line. After a few more moments of quiet contemplation, Brock once again asserted his leadership.
“Maher, you got first watch, Merryweather second, and Peabody, you better be ready to fight come mornin’ time, or we’re leavin’ you behind.”
James decided to remain silent. Tired of arguing, no amount of righteous explaining could make them understand, so he just closed his eyes and drifted off to sleep, hoping he’d wake again.
The rising sun of the new morning silhouetted its flapping counterpart – in the form of a Japanese flag flying high on a pole - less than fifty metres from the American foxholes. The enemy’s positions were situated where they had the sun at their backs, strategically aware that any early attempt to rout them would be to their advantage. However, the Army brass had prepared for this and sent up scores of flamethrowers to the front lines to await the signal to attack and flush the enemy out of their hiding places. Just prior to resuming hostilities, US Artillery launched a barrage of ordinance and smoke bombs aimed at the Japanese positions. The intention was to block out the sun with the billowing smoke, giving their side a fighting chance. It worked.
It was a rude awakening, but James’ adrenaline pumped hard from the noise of the battle resuming its intensity. Word passed down the line, forced the men to hold back until the flamethrowers swept the area before advancing. The prevalent smell of napalm was ominous. ‘That stuff sticks like glue,’ thought James. ‘Sure glad we don’t have to face it.’
“Gasoline and laundry detergent,” yelled Merryweather. “Nuthin else in the world like it… Gonna clean up the nips just fine!”
Fifteen minutes of shelling followed by another half an hour of Flamethrowers left the ground scorched and looking like a lumpy mud bath. What no-one had noticed was the silence – not just afterwards, but before this all kicked off. The previous evening had been quiet as well, but no-one mentioned it in case they jinxed the soothing peace and calm. Unknown to the Americans, the few Japanese defenders still left alive were incapable of effective combat. Disease and suicide were rife among the sheltering tunnel dwellers and with food being a scarcity, the fight was no longer in them.
Finally, the order arrived to move out. Slowly and cautiously, James and his platoon edged their way towards the Japanese defensive lines. A few intermittent shots could be heard down the line, but at his end, nothing was being fired back at them. Brock ordered James out on point, allowing him a fifty-metre head start. His senses on high alert, James halted at the edge of a Japanese fortification, witnessing a kneeling officer in the throes of dying - after impaling himself on a Samurai sword. Detecting some movement to his right, James jumped backwards; then, staying true to his resolve, he slowly shouldered his rifle. From the entrance to a hidden cave, about a dozen almost-naked Japanese males walked toward him with their arms raised in the air. They looked emaciated, despondent, and young – no older than 16 years. Motioning them to him, James invited them closer. As they weakly stumbled forward, he could hear them mumbling ‘Water’ in broken English. Without hesitating, James handed one of them his canteen and watched him take careful swallows of its contents before passing it to the next person. James couldn’t help but feel pity for them.
‘What happened to the mighty Japanese army that swept up the South Pacific like a whirlwind,’ he thought. ‘All that is left are these woeful conscripted children forced to fight for a crumbling empire.’
Minimal training, poorly equipped, and never re-supplied, their brainwashed beliefs forbid surrendering. It was either victory or death for them. Had their commanding officer not killed himself, capitulation would never have been an option. These boys, these children, saw a chance to survive and went against their programming. James couldn’t help but admire their courage, as he stepped aside, directing them back behind US lines.
Whether it was the deafening effect of war or just being caught in a moment of detachment from reality, James did not hear the volley of machine gunfire raking his prisoners of war. He just saw them falling in slow motion, several with their hands tightly clasped together, pleading for their lives. Their executioners, blinded by fury and deafened by hatred, just mowed them down. Brock stood over a fallen Japanese boy who started to crawl away, then killed him with one shot to the back of his head. James stood in silence, looking blankly at the battlefield murderers – their Thomson sub machine guns still smoking from the heat of rapidly using up every round they had in their magazines.
“THEY WERE MY PRISONERS!” cried James.
“They were Japs,” replied Brock.
“They were unarmed!”
“...They dead now, College Boy,” added Merryweather. “Welcome to war.”
“Not just any war,” Brock philosophised. “This here is the Good War, boys! Simply good versus evil… and we’re the good guys killing the evil ones!”
Pulling at each man’s arms, James tried feverishly to get their attention, but one by one, they irritably shoved him away as he vented his anger.
“You’re nothing but cold-blooded murderers! Are you gonna tell your mommas you’re war heroes, that you killed jap boys? Go on, make 'em proud, kill some more children, KILL ‘EM ALL!”
“Listen College Boy,” Merryweather interrupted. “You see all these dead Japs? They wanted to die. It’s their principle. That just demonstrates an unwilling act of weakness… We're Americans... We want to live. That ain’t so bad a thing. The desire to breathe for another second, minute, or longer, proves we’re stronger than them… That’s why we’ll win this thing, College Boy... resolve… What the Cap’n said last night about Julius Caesar… sounded like ol’ Julius knew the score. Hell, he's my new hero!”
Shouting dramatically at the top of his lungs, Merryweather declared his existence to all those within earshot.
“WE’VE GOTTEN THAT TASTE OF DEATH, DEAR CAESAR… AND WE’RE STILL HERE!”
Reloading his machine gun, an impatient Brock twirled his left forefinger in the air, signalling to move out; however, he quickly changed his hand shape, presenting an open palm to James, signalling him to stay put.
“This is the war wagon, son. You either climb on board to glory or dig a hole.”
James impassively shook his head, then sat back against a dirt mound and watched the men head out, leaving him behind. The muffled sound of a grenade’s clip being released, suddenly halted them in their tracks. In his eagerness to kill the surrendering conscripts, Private Maher had pulled the pin from one of his grenades. Before he could throw it, the slaughter had finished, so he held the safety lever tightly to the grenade, and during the previous conversation, lost concentration and forgot. When the three men moved on, he just casually put the grenade back onto his webbing belt. The resulting detonation cut Maher in half and blew shrapnel in all directions. Bone fragments accompanied white hot pieces of shrapnel as they sliced through Brock and Merryweather, killing Brock instantly. Merryweather lay in the soft mud, apologising to his mother as James – wounded in both legs - called for help. Almost immediately, two medics appeared from nowhere. One crouched at Merryweather’s side, then looked over to his buddy and shook his head.
“A necessary end,” laughed Merryweather, before coughing up blood and dying.
“What did he mean?” the intrigued medic queried as he administered a jab of pain-killing morphine to James’ left leg.
“It’s Shakespeare,” explained James, wincing at the pain. “Julius Caesar, act II, scene 2.”
“You some kind of college boy?”
“I plan to be.”
“Well plan on not dying. This wound just bought you a free education and your ticket home. I reckon a purple heart too. You’ll be returning a war hero.”
“Ain’t that ironic,” muttered James as the morphine took a dreamy hold of his senses.
“A coward returning as a hero.”
“You be what you wanna be, bud. You’re getting a second chance at life. That’s more than your buddies over there have… Life moves on… whether we act as cowards or heroes.”
James lay on his back, languidly studying the drifting battle smoke forming shapes in the air. A few moments passed before a beautiful blue sky brought a sense of relief and hope surging through his fragile and drug-induced mental state.
“Hey, I know that one. That’s Henry Miller, right?”
“Sure is, buddy… it sure the hell is…”