Knight’s courage is contagious. Morale is pumped so high among the Mars Task Force that it’s floating in the danger zone. Men play cards, joking and ready to eat metal so they can spit arrowheads at the Japanese. After we punctured that hole in the enemy’s shield and obliterated one of their access roads, the other men have become anxious to take revenge. It’s hard to tether them back; they’re so sick of waiting for victory. I’m the only one digging in, but with everyone else spoiling for the big fight, I say nothing.
Tomorrow, we’ll push up to Loi Kang. Everyone knows it’s flirting with suicide to charge uphill from the valley, but we’ve run out of options. And we’ve heard the enemy is packing up under the cover of night, so the men think we’ve finally starved them out and expect to find spineless skeletons.
We’ll jump off tonight at 18:00 hours. Earlier this week, rations were cut so the cargo planes could drop more ammo for the assault. Two large-scale pincer attacks are planned for dawn, one on the village of Hpa Pen, and the other at Loi Kang. Johnson’s to lead the battalion to Hpa Pen with Preacher; Knight and I will take on Loi Kang.
“Grenades?” Knight asks. “Check.” The men shout back. “Magazine clips?”
“Check.” “Cartridges?” “Check.”
“Be prepared to stare death in the face today,” Knight says with relish, pacing among the enlisted men and making sure everyone’s ready. “Remember shot control: one bullet, one kill.” He grabs his gear. “OK, let’s get this over with.” It’s too dark to see faces, but there’s a hint of wild excitement as the men throw only their battle gear in their packs and move out.
At 03:00 hours, a barrage of Mars artillery fire provides the initial distraction we need to cross the paddies and reach the hill that leads to Loi Kang. Knight points to a rendezvous spot and then waves the men to start crossing. The first soldier takes off, with the men behind him laying down machine-gun cover. Finally, the last one darts out from our shelter, leaving only Knight and me.
Before we start our sprint, the men on the far side spray the enemy with bullets, forcing them to duck for protection. Just as we leave, an ear-splitting whistle descends from above.
Behind us, a shell from Whistling Willie thumps into the ground. I know the shrapnel is going to gouge my body any second, but I keep running with no choice but to hope the adrenaline will carry me until I disintegrate and never feel the pain. Knight races beside me, panting.
We reach the other side alive. Instinctively, we drop, cover our heads with our hands, and wait for the explosion. But nothing comes. When we look back, we see the dud: a twelve-foot vertical shell, its nose dug in the ground. I’m shaking uncontrollably and can’t stand up. I gulp in air faster than my lungs can expand.
“I would’ve shit in my pants if I had anything in my stomach,” Knight growls, and stalls to regain his nerve.
Soon after, we start the two-thousand-foot ascent from the floor of the valley to the pill boxes we spotted dug in at the top. If we can take out the anti-aircraft bunkers, our flyboys can say “Sayonara” to Whistling Willie. But trouble starts on our first three-hundred-foot climb. The danger is an ugly risk.
“Jack.” I grab Knight before he advances any further. “This looks bad. There’s another route, but it’s longer. They’ll expect us to take the shorter path. It may be better to take more time to get to the top alive. Think about it.”
Knight shrugs off my hold. “Harry, the true measure of a man is not whether he survives the battle, but how many times he picks himself up after he falls. He’s got to be convinced that whatever is pushing him forward is right. I can’t give up what’s driven me my whole life, even if I die because of it.” He waves the men to move forward. I follow.
The enemy has foxholes dug in along the trail from the base of the hill to the crest. Our men begin to fall immediately, but instead of intimidating us to retreat in fear, the Mars Men only become more determined. We race up the slope from bunker to bunker and toss grenades into their holes. Obsessed with reaching our objective, we keep moving and don’t look back.
Knight raises his rifle high, signaling a sighting of the enemy ahead. We crouch and wait for them to turn the corner. With our Tommies locked in position, we mow a half-dozen of them down. Another half-dozen falls, and the rest of their column flees into the brush. Our ammo feeds our craving for destruction and steals away our sense of mortality. We need to conquer Loi Kang. We want the enemy dead. We have to end this war.
In slow motion, I feel myself float away from reality. The air is a dense cloud of clotted blood, rank sweat, whizzing bullets, and thrashing bodies, but nothing touches me. I watch the Japanese as they spring from their foxholes and release streams of bullets. Beside me, Mars Men are slammed to their death, but it’s as though the enemy sees beyond me—like I’m not here. I toss grenades in their pits, then, in a Banzai charge, trail Knight to the top.
This is no spineless opponent, but there’s no turning back now. Our single thought is to reach the top. Only then will it be over. We stumble over bullet-ridden GI bodies, frozen mouths wailing for one final plea for life. But I hear nothing, say nothing. I let my gun talk for me. The enemy drops.
We’re beyond reason as we approach the ridge. I see our target just as a shell explodes in front of me. A massive blow from the flying debris knocks me to the ground and hammers some sense in me. Looking around the battlefield, I want to cry; so many men have been killed. What kind of god pits his creations against each other and sits back to watch? The bile bubbles up in my throat, and my body retches, emptying my stomach, my brain, and my heart. I wipe the vomit from my mouth.
“Goddamn it,” a soldier cries out as he falls to the ground and down the hill.
This is not where I want to die, but that isn’t my choice to make. We’re fighting with our balls, not our brains.
That’s when Knight shouts, “Come on, boys, I found the anti-aircraft nest.” Without waiting and under no cover, he charges towards the horseshoe cluster of pill boxes, tossing grenades left and right.
The first bullet strikes his shoulder and sends him reeling backwards, but he continues his attack. As I lay on the ground, a second bullet grabs his leg. Still, he staggers forward.
The other men follow blindly. I whisper to myself, “We’re going to die.”
My mind answers me in Ruthie’s voice: “Don’t you dare come home to me in a box.” I remember the earnest plea in her eyes and hear the soothing patter of rain on the roof. “What will you do?” Suddenly, I know the answer to that question.
It wasn’t until Knight was struck for the second time that I flashed on Maggot Hill and remembered the Japanese Banzai attacks. We took aim and watched for the whites of their eyes as they raced towards us, upright and rigid. Then we fired. But one Japanese soldier unexpectedly crept up to my foxhole to make a hit. If Pfeifer hadn’t taken him out, I’d be dead.
“Drop to the ground,” I yell. The hard confidence in my voice sounds alien.
But the men are mad with battle fever. At first they ignore me, looking for direction from Knight, but he’s down with a third bullet. I shout again, “Hit the ground. That’s an order.” One by one, they drop out of sight from the Japanese trenches.
“Dying is not the way to win a war.” I need them to think for themselves, do their duty, and save their own lives. But time is running out. “Keep low so they don’t see you and drag yourself to their bunkers. Then lob in the grenades,” I bark, and crawl to the lead.
We slither past Knight, lying in the dirt, blood seeping from his face, shoulder, leg and gut. He’s not breathing. I look away. If I live, I’ll process that later.
“Spread out. Make sure every foxhole is covered. I’ll give the signal when I get to the anti-aircraft bunker at the end. Then strike simultaneously,” I order. My command passes along the line.
I wriggle up to the first pill box, listening to the enemy’s frantic chatter. They’re waiting for our charge. Reaching one arm forward, then the next, I heave my body up the incline to the next pit. I glance back and see the men setting up for the attack. Then I feel a presence slide up next to me.
“Private, what the hell do you think you’re doing here? Didn’t I say spread out?” I snarl through gritted teeth.
“Sir, looks like you need help. I’m your man,” the young soldier answers, battle madness still in his eyes.
There’s no time to change course. “Let’s do it,” I say. We drag ourselves the last ten feet.
Before I can give the signal, a soldier stands up and lobs the first grenade. I close my eyes as the spray of bullets pummels him. Have I done the right thing? There’s no time for an answer. “Now!” I yell.
I rise from the ground to a crouch, locate the anti-aircraft gun, toss my grenade, then lunge downhill. Screams and smoke follow. Dirt, metal, and shredded, bloodied clothing lands on me. I scramble back up for another attack. One by one, we drop our grenades. The young private next to me charges the bunker—exactly what I said not to do—lobbing his grenade at the last moment. A bullet blasts through his chest, and he’s thrown backwards, eyes wide in terror. My heart sinks.
The smell of burning flesh, phosphorus, aluminum, lead, and acid forms a cloud. By now, all the pill boxes have been hit at least once, but the enemy does not retreat. They rise and fire without aiming. Our men hug the ground as bullets ricochet off trees and rocks above them. We throw our grenades until there are none left. If we’re meant to die, then we’ll go out giving it our best. I’m so terrified, I don’t think or act like a human anymore. That’s probably why I’m alive.
Finally, it’s silent. We break from that other world, dazed. Rising from the dirt, we stagger among the smoldering ruins of collapsed bunkers and mutilated bodies. Mars men gape silently at the massacre. The nightmare is over.
On the edge of the ridge, an explosion plumes into the sky. The tail of an American bomber dips a salute as Whistling Willie is engulfed in a black fire of revenge.
One of the Mars men falls to his knees and looks towards heaven with outstretched arms.
He screams at the top of his lungs in disbelief, “God saved us.”
“No,” I answer, hoping only I can hear, “Jack Knight saved us.”
I sink to the ground and wrap my arms around Knight’s body, rocking him back and forth. “Jack, you’re the only man I’ve ever envied: you lived by your word.” All that wiry tension that propels men forward has left a limp body behind. “You didn’t have to pay the final debt for glory.”
From the corner of my eye, I see a bloodied Japanese soldier stagger towards me. As slow as he is, I’m not fast enough, and I feel the cold slice of his samurai in my back. The suction as he pulls it out tugs my body towards him, and he prepares to spear me again.
The gash steals my concentration, and something inside screams, “You fucking idiot.” I release Knight, twist around, push myself off the ground, and grab the ornate handle from the Japanese soldier. He just stands there, wobbling, and lets me ram it deep into his heart. I rotate it once then twice, feeling the grief consume me. I realize it’s what he wants. Exhausted, I pull the steel out, and he crumbles to the ground.
Not strong enough to stand, I drop to my knees and prop myself against the hilt of his sword. His blood drips from my hands down the blade and onto the dirt. My eyes fix on his young face, scarred and anguished. Was he really ready to die? At the same time, I feel nothing towards him—nothing at all. I double over onto the ground. If this is glory, then I want none of it. Eventually, the smoke clears, and the world around me dissolves.
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