THE EXPERIENCE OF COMBAT #7

 

THE LETTER

 

Dear Mrs. Haltunnen, Your son Nicolas served in my company and I was near him when he was killed on July 26th, 1944 in the campaign for Guam....

First Sergeant Deangelo stuck his head into the open flap of my tent. Wiping a bead of sweat off my forehead, I paused from my letter. "Evenin', sir," Top said ,"To The Shores of Tripoli is showin' tonight at the theater. I'm goin' to watch it. Why don't you come along and take a break from them letters? It'll be good for you, sir."

Scratching my chin, I shook my head. "Thanks Top, but I want to get a few more of these written tonight before taps."

"Sir, why don't you let me write some for ya'?

"Thanks Top, but it's something I've got to do. I appreciate the offer though."

"Permission to enter, sir?"

"You know you don't need to ask me to come in, Top. You've been in the Corps a lot longer than me."

  "I know, sir," he said, "but it's an old habit and they die hard." Top wore a sheepish look as he ducked to come into my pyramidal tent.

I motioned to my cot and told the Top to have a seat. Reaching down into the lower drawer of my field desk, I pulled out my bottle of Johnnie Walker Red. I'd been nursing that bottle for a long time and there were only a few nips left. Unscrewing the cap, I handed the bottle to Top. He reached over and took it in his big hand.

Nodding to me, First Sergeant Deangelo tipped the bottle of golden whiskey in salute. Quietly—almost too low to hear—he whispered, "To absent comrades." He took a sip of Johnnie Walker and swished it around in his mouth to savor it. Then, he passed the bottle my way.

I repeated the salute to our comrades—my Marines—who were no longer with us. Thirty-nine of my men were dead, killed on my watch. Every leader knew he would lose Marines in combat and we weren't supposed to dwell on it. But every one of them still hurt, especially in the quiet hours just before dawn when sleep wouldn't come.

Staring at the last of my whiskey for a couple of seconds, I lifted the bottle to my lips and drained it dry. There hadn't been much left anyway and now it was gone. I sighed and set the empty bottle on the deck. It was time to get back to my letter to Mrs. Haltunnen. The First Sergeant got the message and stood to leave.

"Top, you have a good time at the flick," I said.

"Hell, sir," he replied almost angrily, "I ain't goin' to see that dumbass movie. It's so damned stupid, I'll just get pissed off."

I smiled. "Yeah, I saw it at Quantico in '42 and it was a hoot then. Just like real life. What are you gonna do tonight, Top?"

First Sergeant Deangelo glanced out of the open tent flap with a conspiratorial air. He leaned close to me and said quietly, "Sergeant Major Deakins is crackin' open his newest batch of jungle juice tonight, sir. I may head over to his tent and help make sure he don't go crazy when he samples it."

I shook my head and laughed out loud. "You be careful, Top. That stuff he makes is murder. I don't need a blind first sergeant."

As he headed out into the company street, Deangelo looked back at me. "Aye aye, sir. I'll see ya' in the mornin', skipper." I watched his broad silhouette as he disappeared into the still, humid night. Then I picked up my pencil and put it to paper.

... Nicolas was a squad leader and he was the sort of Marine every commander wants. He was loyal and brave. I could always count on him to do the right thing and it was evident that you raised him to be a good man. The night he died, we were engaged by a Japanese mortar barrage and Nicolas' foxhole took a direct hit....

How could I tell Mrs. Haltunnen what really happened to her son? Nic got hit by a screaming chunk of steel that tore open the entire side of his chest. He bled and bled, but there wasn't anything the doc could do, especially since the Japs had us bracketed by a mortar barrage from hell.

...He died instantly...

Nic Haltunnen died in agony and it took a long time, but he never uttered a sound. He was that kind of Marine.

...and did not suffer any pain. The next morning, I conducted a small service for Nicolas and he was later buried in the Third Marine Division cemetery. I visited his grave after the battle ended and it is in a beautiful spot with some of his friends who died with him....

Haltunnen would have probably lived if we had time to get overhead cover on our holes, but who had time to dig in that way? It was my fault. I should've ordered my Marines to cut down logs and fill sand bags when we moved into our night position. Suddenly, I felt incredibly sad. Sad for Nic Haltunnen and his mother, Sad for thirty-nine Marines and their families.

Dammit, it wasn't as if we had any pioneer tools that night, or any other night in combat for that matter. Line companies didn't build overhead cover. What was I supposed to do? Tears filled my eyes and ran down my cheeks, bitter and salty. I was responsible and suddenly, I felt cold in spite of the lingering heat trapped inside my tent. I was all alone.

... I wish I could find the words to help with the anguish you must feel. We who served with your son will never forget him. Please do not hesitate to contact me if there is anything I can do to assist you. Sincerely, Peter M. Tilby, Captain, USMCR, Commanding"

I hunted around in the cubby holes on my field desk for an envelope. Finding one, I neatly folded the letter and stuffed it in. Then, I addressed the envelope and set it right in front of me. Staring at it for a long time, I thought about Nic, and his mom, and thirty-nine of my Marines who would never see home again.

"Oh, to hell with it," I said out loud. Maybe To The Shores of Tripoli wasn't such a bad idea, after all.

END

 

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