Thursday, December 5, 2013

Visit to a Long-ago War


2 - The Ravine

            Back at the hotel, I told my wife that there was only one place I still wanted to find, then we could leave this Japanese colony. The next morning, we left our high-rise hotel on Tumon Bay and drove north. There were no resorts in this direction, and most of the Guamanians we saw, Chamorros or mainlanders, worked for the Air Force Base. The northern half of the island, essentially everything north of Tumon Bay, is a plateau that terminates in a cliff, some 200 feet above a beach strip, and this feature runs along the entire northern ocean shore. I was looking for a road that would somehow get us down to that beach strip.

            Our battalion had been somewhere on that plateau when Corps Headquarters declared the battle over and the island officially conquered. In making this declaration, Headquarters did not add: except for a narrow strip of beach along the northern half of the island. Granted, it was not a large area, and it probably did not hold a large number of enemy troops, but it held more than enough for us. Since no one informed our artillery battalion of this exception, several groups left our area in individual parties, looking for souvenirs and anything else of interest. One of the groups came to that section of cliff nearest to us, followed a trail down, and sauntered on to the beach strip in their search for casual amusement. The Japs there opened fire almost immediately. Our group, unarmed and unprepared for battle, ran for the trail, leaving two behind, motionless on the ground.

            They staggered into camp and reported what had happened. Two patrols were quickly formed, and I went out with the one from our battery, under the command of a lieutenant, newly arrived from the States. It was a long walk to the cliff and down the trail cut into its side. We were all thinking of our two men, dead or badly wounded, and what the Japs might do to them. When we reached the beach, the other patrol turned north to recover the two men or their bodies, and we turned south to engage any Japs that might come at us from that direction. We later heard from the other patrol that the men were dead; they had not been mutilated, but they had been stripped of their shoes.

* *

            My wife asked why it was so important that we find this ravine. I had told her what had happened and replied that I couldn’t add anything else to establish its importance. Maybe, it was only important to me.

* *

            We saw no signs of the enemy as we walked, holding our rifles ready and scanning the trees and bush between us and the cliff. Ahead of us, the beach narrowed to a few feet of width, possibly due to alluvial material brought down by a creek in the ravine beyond. As our men on point passed this cliff projection, they saw several things at once. A dry creek bed lay before them, coming out of a bush covered ravine that ran back into the cliff. A rock out-cropping, over ten feet high, stood in the center of the ravine, cutting it into two passages. A cave looked down at them from the other side of the ravine, across the second passage and behind the out-cropping. A brown-skinned man, stripped to the waist, was hanging clothing across the cave mouth. Their first thought that they had caught the enemy at home was interrupted by a burst of gunfire.

            One of the men on point was hit and dragged back to safety on our side of the ravine. A second was hit and dragged to shelter behind the out-cropping. The lieutenant motioned to four of us, and we all ran, bent down, across the ravine mouth to where the wounded man lay behind the out-cropping. The lieutenant then motioned to three of us to find beach positions where we could cover the second passage. From my dug-in position, I could see a cave in the cliff side of this second passage and realized that it was the same cave that our men had seen when they had first come to the ravine. However, I was seeing it from the side; anyone inside could not see me. I ran back to the lieutenant.

            “Sir, I think we could hit the cave with grenades from my side. They wouldn’t know we were there.”
            He had just turned the wounded man over and seen the gaping wound on his back. The bullet entering his chest had been dum-dummed. Its tumbling course from the small hole in front had produced a hole the size of a dish, coming out. The man was already in a coma, alternating between moans, screams, and shouts for his mother. The lieutenant looked at me from agonized eyes.
            “Okay. Take two men and do it. For Christ’s sake, be careful.”

            I called two buddies, momentarily wondering if careful was the right caution for a situation like this. We crept to the cliff side, and I pointed out the cave. One said that he would climb above it. Hollingsworth and I crept along the side until we were below the cave mouth. The ground beneath us sloped down to the back of the rock outcropping. We looked at each other, then I pulled the ring on a grenade and flipped it up and into the cave. It struck a small bush I hadn’t seen in the cave mouth and bounced back to lie, spitting and hissing, not ten feet from us, against the outcropping. For the first time in two years, overseas in the Pacific, I knew terror. We watched it for a frozen second, then it fell silent. It had been a dud, and we remained alive.

           Hollingsworth grimaced, then pulled the ring on one of his grenades and threw it into the cave. We heard it explode, then clambered up to look in. We smelled gunpowder but saw no bodies, only a couple of Jap helmets rolling from the blast. We slid back down.
            “Where did they go?” he whispered.
            “I don’t know,” I whispered in reply, then looked cross the main ravine channel– my eyes were now adjusted to the ravine’s darkness – and saw two slits cut into the ravine side at our eye level. I now knew my second moment of terror and nudged Hollingsworth. He had seen it too, and we sat again in frozen time, waiting for the sound of gunfire. After silent, breathless seconds, he nudged me.
            “They’re not there, either.”
            We walked across the ravine – we’d have been dead by now if the enemy was still in this carefully laid trap – and peered through the slits. Another cave, or excavated room, lay before us, and all we could see was a helmet and casual litter. We sat, leaned back against the ravine wall, and scanned this dark, bush and tree covered glade.
            “They’re waiting for us,” I whispered and pointed up the ravine. “They probably have tunnels back to a second set of caves, looking down on another wide spot like this, where they can catch us in another cross-fire.”
            We walked the short distance out the ravine, no longer concerned about the cave at our back. The lieutenant gaped at us as we turned the corner of the out-cropping.
            “There’s no one there. You’ll never take this place, sir. You’ll just lose more men as you climb up to another one of their positions.”

            He looked relieved, as he ordered men to make a stretcher for the shattered victim, now dead, and to form up for departure. The man who had climbed higher came in and agreed with our conclusion. I had an enlisted man’s bias against officers, but I empathized with this lieutenant – I could almost read his thoughts. He had no mortars, machine guns, artillery, or ship bombardment he could order up or call to pound the enemy. He had no phone wires strung to call superiors for backup or even instructions. If he had had radio, the radio we had then would have not carried past the cliff’s interference. He didn’t even have a corpsman to tend the man as he died. Nothing he had learned in Officer’s Training School could have prepared him for this, yet it was a simple situation: A party of marines, trained in artillery, had gone souvenir hunting, as they would have gone on liberty. They had run into enemy infantry, programmed to fight to the death as the last of their force and on their own ground. Our patrol sent to rescue or revenge them could do neither.

            We formed up and began the long march back. Our second wounded man, although in great pain, was able to walk. When we reached the comparative safety of the trail up the cliff, we resumed our normal bitching about the heat, why we had ever come, and the weight of the corpse we had to carry up this damned trail.

* *

            We found only one paved road, sloped down the cliff, that we could drive to the beach strip. We saw a large, windowless building which I supposed to be for electrical generation or sewage treatment. The road ended shortly past it, and I assumed that it served the building. I asked my wife to wait; this looked like the area the patrol had found at the cliff-side trail’s bottom. The ravine must be somewhere near.

            Two Lovers Point – it’s name comes from a native legend, recurrent in the Pacific Islands – closes Tumon Bay, and the cliff and beach strip begins north of it, extending some ten miles to the northern end of the island. We had found our road down the cliff in that length, and I walked at least three miles of beach strip, first to the south and then north of the lone building. Beyond the road end, I found no sign of human occupancy; it was as we had found it as a patrol. I found ravines but none with a rock outcropping splitting it into two passages as it emerged from the cliff.

            I returned to the car and told my wife it was hopeless, that maybe we could get a boat in Apra Harbor and cruise the shore in search of it. The suggestion didn’t interest her.
            “Let’s just go. It’s spooky down here. What happened after?” she asked.
            “We heard that Corps HQ sent in a battalion from the sea with ship bombardment, mortars, flame throwers – just like a miniature landing.”
            “Maybe, the bombardment destroyed the rock outcropping.”
            “Maybe.”
            “You still haven’t told me why it was important.”
           
* *

            I was still considering her question the next morning when we sat in the Air Nauru section at the airport, waiting for our flight to Truk.
            “Our battalion returned to Guadalcanal after the Guam campaign. I went back to the States two months later with 30 months overseas. There was a bunch of us from camps across the island. In all that time, that patrol was the closest I came to combat.”
            “You never saw any Japs on Guam?”
            “A few were captured and kept behind a fence in Agaña. They only wore breechcloths and glared at us like animals in a zoo would have. I saw a lot of corpses.”
            I thought of the one we had seen by the side of the road as our battalion rode by in trucks to our next firing position. His body had lain in a fetal position, barely recognizable as human, literally cooked by a flame thrower.
            “What about Guadalcanal?”
            “I was there at the invasion, and our troopship made several more trips there bringing in regiments and later, after we got the upper hand, taking them out. I was part of the ship’s marine detachment. I saw what I could see from the ship, a mile or more off shore. Our four cruisers went down the second night after the invasion, but all I saw were huge flashes on the night horizon to the north. The Jap cruisers could have come 20 miles south and taken out our entire transport group if they had known we had nothing else. Instead, they high-tailed it back to Rabaul.”
             “You were lucky.”
            “I know; I’ve been told that more than once. The first time I set foot on Guadalcanal was a year later, after all the battles, after I’d been transferred to the artillery battalion.”
            “Why did you want combat?”
            “I don’t know - visions of glory? Pearl Harbor happened when I was six months out of high school. All through boot camp, we were told we’d be rescuing the men on Bataan.  Most of the guys in my class – if that’s what you’d call it – went to the Second Marines. They went on to Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and Saipan. I know of two who died. My colonel told me I had tried to fight my own war when I came back from Emirau.”
            She looked at the counter and spoke in a low voice.
            “A large group of people just came in. They’re all in uniform.”
            I turned that way, and felt like we’d traveled back in time.
            “I’ll be damned. They’re Japs!”

Jack Eiden


Next Posting – An American Colony

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