The LST rolled on the easy ocean swells, making a steady 12 knots. Around us, ships in our convoy stretched in every direction, plowing westward in loose formation. Our ship's antiaircraft guns were manned by sailors, some alert and scanning the skies with binoculars, others dozing in the sun.
(above) A USCG-manned LST underway
for an amphibious landing. USCG Photo
Marines were scattered all over the topside decks. Most of us, the ones who knew what was good for them, were busy squaring away their weapons and gear. Some guys were sharpening knives and bayonets with files they'd cumshawed from sailors. Other guys (the not so smart) were loafing along the rail, watching dolphins playing in the water.
The sun shone brightly, and a brisk wind blew through the ship's rigging and across the decks. It felt clean and fresh, like back home in late Spring a long time ago. High up, a few wispy clouds trailed across the sky. All things considered, it was almost a perfect day. You might have wished every day could be like this one, except for where we were; heading for another campaign.
Some of us old timers, Gizmo and me, sat together in a choice spot on some life rafts with our weapons field stripped. We never had to pull rank on the new guys for our spot. They just knew not to sit there and we never would've told them to get if they had. One time some kid over in third platoon just sat down with us just like we were all in a slop chute at Quantico. We all just clammed up on him. It didn't take him long to get the message. He just sort of shrugged his shoulders and moved on out to another spot.
(left) Marines doping off enroute to Iwo Jima
Still image from USMC combat camera film
It wasn't that we treated the kids bad. There were just so darned many of them, and it was too hard to really get buddy-buddy with them. All it did was hurt anyway. We taught them what they needed to know to try and stay alive. We took care of them and hoped they'd live long enough for it to all make sense. But there were no guarantees–not for them, not for any of us.
Gizmo said, "Man, wouldn't a cool beer be great right about now?"
I laughed. "Sure, a half dozen or so would hit the spot... nothin' like a cold Schlitz on a warm day. Hey, pass some cleanin' patches, huh?" Gizmo tossed some over to me and I thanked him. I soaked a patch in bore cleaner and started wiping down my rifle, just like I'd done a million times before. The steel was smooth and warm to my touch. I would've never said it to anybody, but I sort of liked the smell of wood, steel and oil. It was familiar, plus you could dope off for a long time working on your rifle so long as you just looked busy.
I dug an old toothbrush out of my pocket and poured a little bore cleaner on it. Carefully, I began brushing all the little nooks and crannies in my receiver. My rifle was clean, but it was just too nice a day to hurry up. There wasn't anything else to do anyway. We were too far out to know where we were heading, even though scuttlebutt had already pegged all the popular invasion spots. Wake Island was always in the running. Everybody in the Corps wanted to invade Wake.
"Hey, here comes gunny," somebody called out from toward the stern. We all started looking a lot busier. I broke out an old skivvie shirt and started wiping down my rifle for all I was worth. Today it was our platoon's turn to haul frozen boxes of chow and potatoes from cold storage up to the mess decks. Dragging 100 pound sacks of spuds up six decks wasn't my idea of fun.
Gunny Burns picked guys for working parties he thought were skylarking too much. That was our theory, anyway. He was always saying stuff like, "If you Marines ain't gainfully employed, I got somethin' for ya' to do." Usually, that meant something that would get you sweaty and keep you like that for a long while.
Coming into effective range, the gunny bellowed, "Mornin' men!" He had that I need a working party look written all over his face.
"Mornin' gunny," we replied in unison.
He looked right at me. "You gettin' your weapons good and clean, men?"
"We sure are, gunny," I replied.
Now, I can't be 100 percent sure, but I could've sworn the gunny winked at me right then, like he knew our little secret. A ways further down the deck he found his prey, a couple of new guys who were taking a nap in the shade. The gunny yelled them awake and sent them moving out at high port to way down deep in the ship. Well, they weren't going to get any naptime for the rest of the day. Gizmo and I just shook our heads and smiled at how the Marine Corps worked.
After the coast was clear, we settled back down to our pre-gunny speed on the weapons. Pretty soon, Gizmo and I started guessing what they were going to serve for lunch. Probably horsecock sandwiches and bug juice again. You could count on that for lunch at least four days a week.
After awhile, Nic showed up from somewhere with his BAR. "Hey shipmates, what's goin' on?" he asked, "Mind if I join you heroes?"
"Sure," I replied, "pull up a rock."
Gizmo piped in, "There went property values in this neighborhood."
"Ahh, Semper Fi!" Nic said jauntily.
He settled down to the warm deck and began to field strip his weapon with practiced ease. Nic was a good guy and one of the best BAR men in the company. I took a break from wiping my rifle and watched him work. He removed the trigger group, and carefully released the tension from the operating rod guide. Then, he slowly removed the guide and spring from the receiver.
I said, "Boy it would suck if you let go of that spring and launched the guide somewhere."
"Yeah, like in your eye, Mac," Nic replied.
We all remembered the guy over in 2nd Squad who was cleaning his BAR with oily fingers. His thumb slipped off the guide and it came flying out. It thumped him right between the eyes. You could see the checkering from the base of the guide dented into the bridge of his nose. He was lucky not to lose an eye. But then again, maybe he wasn't so lucky, because a few months later he got killed by a burst of machine gun fire before he even got out of the water on our next operation.
So we all were just sitting there in the sun, the three of us, cleaning our weapons. Gizmo started rubbing his rifle down pretty hard, like he was getting ready for a Saturday inspection back stateside. Nic and I decided to have a little fun. He said, "Hey Giz', you better get busy, here comes the gunny."
Gizmo just smiled, but he kept rubbing.
I frowned at our buddy. "Watch it there. You're gonna wipe the finish off if you keep rubbin' that thing like that."
Together, Nic and I deadpanned, "And that would be destruction of government property." It was one of Gunny Burns' favorite expressions.
Gizmo said, "I want to finish this and head down to the berthing compartment. I got a letter to write."
"Are you crazy?" I asked, "It must be 120 degrees down there. Anyway, how ya' gonna send it? There ain't any mail comin' or goin'"
Nic chimed in, "Yeah buddy, and them amtrackers are running their engines on the well deck right now. The whole place down there stinks from the gas fumes."
"I'm not mailing it," Gizmo replied, "I'm gonna put it in the company safe."
Suddenly, things got serious. "Oh, you mean one of them letters, huh?" I asked.
Gizmo didn't say anything, but he nodded his head a little bit. I sure knew how he felt, and so did Nic. There were only a handful of us left from our days back stateside. That was two years, three campaigns, a lifetime ago.
I went on, "Look Giz', we all felt that way before. It'll pass, but you gotta stop thinkin' about it."
He looked at me and a ghost smile passed across his face. "You remember Bacigaluppi, don't you?"
I thought for a second. Then I remembered. "Yeah sure–old Alphabet. He used to light the newspapers behind the supply tent back at New River right before reveille."
Nic finished the memory. "Yeah, and when it started to get smoky he'd yell "FIRE," and watch the headquarters guys run screamin' outta the tent. He was a funny guy."
"He was the first guy we lost in the company. We were boot camp buddies," Gizmo said real quiet.
Nic and I stopped working on our weapons and watched our buddy. I pulled out my Lucky Stripes and lit one. Then I threw the pack over to Giz' and told him to help himself. He lit a cigarette and took a few puffs. Then, he stared at the glowing cherry on the end. It seemed like he was a long ways away right then. Nic asked him what he was thinking about.
"Ya' know, just wondering what's gonna happen to us. I don't expect you guys to pump any sunshine up my butt or anything. I'll be okay."
Nic shook his head. "Ya' can't be thinkin' about guys who been dead for almost two years, buddy. Alphabet, all of them, they were good guys, but they're dead and we're not. I know it sucks, but that's how it is."
I smiled. "Hey, I heard somethin' yesterday. Scuttlebutt says after this next campaign, they're gonna start rotating guys back home who been out here since the 'canal. That's what I'm hopin' for–a ticket back home"
Just then, the ship's loudspeaker came to life. "NOW HEAR THIS. NOW HEAR THIS. CHOWDOWN FOR EMBARKED TROOPS ON THE MESS DECK."
We put our weapons back together and stowed our cleaning gear. Without a word, the three of us got up and left to go stand in another line.
Waiting by LCdr William Draper, USNR
oil on canvas from the US Navy Art Collection
Aboard a transport bound for the liberation of Guam, Marines play cards and relax, using shelter halves as sun shades.