Iggy sucked a deep breath and moved out in a slow jog. The heavy tanks on his back threw him off balance. With every out of kilter step, he felt on the verge of tipping over. Hoping to be small target, Iggy tried to stay low, but the flamethrower made an unmistakable outline.
With sort of a rhythmic motion, the gasoline in Iggy's tanks gurgled back and forth behind his shoulders. In time to the liquid, a little ditty popped into his head. "Slosh, slosh, slosh, you're almost dead. Slosh, slosh, slosh, you're almost dead." No, no--couldn't think about that... anything but that. But the ditty stuck and wouldn't go away.
Back at Camp Maui, Sergeant Ezelle had informed Iggy of his assignment to carry the flamethrower. Iggy pleaded not to carry the heavy tanks. "Please, Sarn't. Can't one of the new guys carry it?" Ezelle drew himself up to his full height and said, "Iggy, you're the biggest Marine in the platoon. It only makes sense for you to fill this billet."
Iggy persisted though. No way could he lug those gasoline filled tanks in combat. He--like every Marine--knew it was pretty much a death sentence. "Sarn't, I been in three campaigns. Can't somebody else do it?" Ezelle poked his finger into Iggy's chest. "Listen here Ignatowski. You will carry the fuckin' flamethrower and that's the end of it. Now, at ease and move the fuck out." The menace in Ezelle's tone squashed any further talk on the subject.
So there he was carrying a seventy-pound M2-2 flamethrower on his back. The jellied gasoline in the two main tanks wasn't so dangerous so long as it wasn't pressurized. If one of them was punctured, you just had to get it off before a spark hit the tank. But once the gasoline was charged with high-pressure nitrogen, all bets were off. At that point, the flamethrower was a bomb strapped on your back.
Iggy had seen what happened to flame gunners whose pressurized tanks were hit. At 3,500 psi of pressure, the tank ruptured like a smashed grape, engulfing the Marine and whoever happened to be close at hand in a cloud of fiery death. It was too horrible to think about. That was the trouble; Iggy was obsessed with it. He knew it was only a matter of time before he was at the center of that roiling inferno. But still, each time the call came for, "Flamethrower up," Iggy trudged forward to do what he got paid for.
The campaign for Iwo Jima had been grinding forward day after bloody day, leaving a steady outpouring of dead Marines to be planted beneath the white crosses. Iggy was the last of the company's original flame gunners who'd crossed the beach on D-Day. The rest were mostly dead... the lucky ones anyway. New replacements had taken their places. Many of them were dead too.
The objective today was a Japanese held cave in the jumbled badlands close by Motoyama Airfield #2. Iggy moved forward as gunfire echoed all around. Sweat gushed from under his helmet and stung his eyes as he searched for Ezelle. Spotting the big platoon sergeant in a rugged arroyo, Iggy made a beeline and flopped down to take the weight of the heavy flame tanks off his shoulders.
Ezelle wore a look of grim determination as he outlined Iggy's mission. "We got a Jap cave mouth up ahead in the draw." Using a small stick, he sketched out the details in the dirt. "I need you to skirt around the side of these rocks right here," he jabbed the stick in the ground for emphasis, "and link-up with third squad. Sarn't Kerns will take you up where they need you."
Iggy looked down at the rough sketch on the ground. He asked, "Who's comin' with me, Sarn't?"
"Nobody. We ain't got enough Marines. You'll be by yourself until you make the link-up with Kerns."
Swallowing hard, Iggy tried to force a confidence he didn't feel. "Well, I guess that's how it is." Like a turtle on its back he rocked himself into a kneeling position, then ponderously stood. The flame tanks pressed down on his shoulders as he tightened the straps. He said, "Hey, Sarn't, can I ask you a question?"
Ezelle looked intently at Iggy. "Yeah, what is it?"
"When we get outta this, can I have a seventy-two?"
Smiling, Ezelle replied, "Yeah sure, Iggy. Hell, we'll all get drunk as skunks. We sure will." He turned and began moving out toward first squad's area. He looked back at Iggy for a moment. "You take care of yourself, you hear."
"I will, Sarn't, you too," Iggy replied. He didn't know it right then, but that was the last time he'd see Ezelle alive.
Iggy headed toward third squad's area. He heard the crack of M1 rifles and the slow stutter of BARs. As he got closer, he also could make out return fire from the enemy. A Nambu machine gun was firing with its distinctive woodpecker tacka tacka tacka. From the way they were shooting, the Japs must've had plenty of ammo. Staying low, Iggy hugged the side of the arroyo and searched for the draw where he was supposed to meet Sergeant Kerns, the squad leader.
Kerns was waiting for Iggy right at the corner of the draw in a covered position. He waved the flame gunner over and quickly but efficiently sketched out his plan. Kerns said, "Okay, this fuckin' machine gun has us pinned down hard. I have a fire team on the left and one on the right. You're going right. We have an engineer with satchel charges. You know the drill. We'll lay down suppression, you torch 'em and the satchel charge will seal up their position."
Moving out low, Kerns said, "Follow me."
Without thinking, Iggy took up slack behind the squad leader, keeping a five-yard interval. In a slight depression, they inched forward through the blasted landscape. The Jap machine gun was close and streams of bullets sleeted back and forth like rain above their heads. Little chunks of dirt and rock cascaded down from the bullets striking close by.
Kerns led Iggy up behind some riflemen who were firing steadily. They pulled up behind a dusty rock formation where the cave mouth was clearly visible. The noise was deafening and Kerns had to lean close to give his final orders. "This is the last covered spot. That gun," Kerns gestured to the enemy position, "is set back a ways in the cave. You'll need to get right up on it to get the job done. We'll give you coverin' fire. Now move out."
Feeling sick to his stomach, Iggy began inching forward, hugging the edge of the draw for everything he was worth. The volume of Marine fire increased and he felt bullets snapping past his head. Suddenly, he realized he'd forgotten to have Sergeant Kerns charge his flame tanks. "Damn it," he whispered, as he stopped to fumble around for the valve behind his right hip. He grasped the fitting and cranked hard. High-pressure nitrogen whooshed into the tanks. Okay, this was it.
Moving forward, Iggy saw the muzzle blast from the hidden machine gun as it kicked up dust at the cave mouth. Good, the Japs still didn't realize he was coming. He glanced back to Kerns' position. Camouflaged helmets stuck out from the rocks and ejected shell casings glinted in the sunlight as they flew through the air. Funny, until right then, Iggy hadn't realized how bright the sun was.
Iggy could see Kerns back there and realized he was waving as he yelled something. Unable to hear the words, Iggy guessed from the gestures that Kerns wanted him to get closer. He resumed his crawl, moving like an inchworm. The rocks tore at his knees and hands, leaving a little trail of blood-tinged dust to mark his path.
Finally, after an eternity of minutes, Iggy reached a good spot to do his work. He held the pistol grips of his flame gun tight and aimed the nozzle at the cave mouth. His hands shaky and damp, he took a deep breath and launched a wet shot toward the cave. Guessing the range at about twenty yards, he watched as the gasoline mixture splashed against the rocks, making a slick of sticky gel.
Suddenly, a long burst of Japanese bullets tore past Iggy, slamming into the rugged ground just to his left. Rock slivers pelted him and he felt sharp cuts as some drew blood. Ricochets twanged all around, clearly audible above the wall of noise in the little draw.
The machine gun hammered. tacka tacka tacka-- tacka tacka tacka-- tacka tacka tacka.
A sheet of flame burned at the cave mouth and filthy black smoke rose into the sky. Still, the Jap machine gun fired desperately as its crew tried to ward off the inevitable. Iggy caught a glimpse of the engineer crawling up on the other side of the cave with a heavy satchel charge. The Marine yelled across, "YOU TORCH IT WHILE I THROW MY CHARGE, BUT WAIT FOR MY SIGNAL!"
The engineer screamed, "NOW!"
Again, Iggy pressed his triggers and launched a stream of hell into the cave mouth. No way could anybody survive that. No way. The engineer ran in a tight crouch right up to the side of the cave.
In that moment, the draw fell silent. Only the crackling flames were audible. Heaving the charge into the cave, the engineer turned and took off like a stripe assed gazelle. He threw himself down behind some rocks that provided dubious cover.
Iggy dove for cover too, making another of his little deals with God. "Please Lord; if I survive this, I'll be good from now on."
The satchel charge detonated with a heavy KER-WHOOMP. Iggy looked up as the cave mouth collapsed, belching dust and smoke. Rocks and pebbles cascaded down. Ears ringing, he stood up and Sergeant Kerns loped up to him. Taking his helmet off, Kerns said, "Good job Ignatowski. How much fuel you got left in your tanks?"
Iggy replied shakily, "About three shots, maybe."
Giving the hand signal to assemble, Kerns shouted, "THIRD SQUAD, RALLY ON ME!"
Then to Iggy, "Okay, you stick with us. There's another Jap position up ahead we gotta take. Then you can go back and top off your tanks."
The squad clustered around Kerns as he sketched out the plan for the next position. Once all hands knew the deal, Kerns said, "Okay fellas, move out and stay low." Iggy took up his place in the formation. The fuel in his tanks gurgled. He tried not to listen to the ditty in his head, but the words just stuck there.
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