At Home in Guam
Tent City was far better than our accommodations on Okinawa. No one complained. It was in a way an actual city laid out in quadrants with rows of tents in neat orderly lines. Each tent quartered a squad consisting of eight men. Our machine gun platoon was assigned to one tent. Marsden was our squad leader and Johnson his assistant. Stevenson was gunner and Melanowski assistant gunner. The rest of us, Jack Chandler, Terry Howard, Harry Marshall, Walter Hecklinger and me, were ammo carriers. And there was Karl Kyley. He didn’t really count. He was a nonentity. He never had anything to say about anything. He never complained, nor talked and you didn’t even know he was there. He could be one of two people in the tent and you wouldn’t take notice of him. Maybe that’s because he was always sleeping. Even when he was awake he was sleeping. He could sleep 23 hours out of the day, using the other hour only for meals. And sometimes even the meals didn’t matter.
The tents had wooden decks and the side flaps were kept rolled up during the day. At night and when it rained, they were lowered. The temperature inside during the day was unbearable, but there was no other place to go to escape the brutal tropical heat. The only shade was a tent-like structure over the Lister bags which did little to keep the drinking water cool. They joked that the cook made coffee directly from the Lister bags without needing to boil the water.
The mess hall was a huge open tent which we entered in a single long line that wrapped halfway around the tent. We had our own mess kits and canteen cups and these we had to wash ourselves in 44-gallon drums filled with boiling water. Nearby was the PX, stocked with Planter’s peanuts, canned sardines and Chesterfields. The “movie theater” was an open-air semicircle with logs from coconut trees serving as seats. Navy ships supplied the movies. Lana Turner and Betty Grable were certain to bring a full house under the stars with Marines crowded around the periphery sitting on their helmet liners.
There would always be a ten-or fifteen-minute news feature by Fox Movie Tone. We cheered when we saw our ships plow through heavy seas making the landing for the invasion of Okinawa. And we always hooted, hollered and booed when we saw General MacArthur appear on the screen. If it was the Commandant of the Marine Corps or a Marine general, that was okay, but there wasn’t a Marine who had a nice thing to say about a dogface army general. Some Marines went to the theater several hours early to get seats, and many even gave up evening chow not to miss out.
Until we began loading ships, we drilled in daytime and stood guard duty at night. At the docks beneath a torturing sun and under the glare of a crushed white coral roadbed, we formed long lines and passed 105-mm artillery shells from man to man, cursing the man before us to slow down. Naked to the waist, with helmet liners to ward off the sun, we made ready for the invasion of Japan. At night, as armed sentries, we walked the perimeter of Tent City. Occasionally Japanese soldiers sneaked down from the hills on raiding parties and cut through the fences. Every now and then a raider was shot, and his body had to be carted off the next day before sun up to be buried. Everyone went to look at the corpse, and praised the sentry who did him in. But even the war-hardened Marines felt pity for the badly starved dead man, mosty skin and bones. They were young, young as we were. We could have been friends had the circumstances been different. One night a newly arrived replacement went on sentry duty and thought he saw two Japanese stealing a Lister bag. He called out to give the password but there was no response. He opened fire, emptying a clip of ammo. A squad of armed Marines came running, and found a dead white water buffalo. The Officer-of-the-Day made the sentry bury it using an entrenching tool to dig the hole. He was considered lucky; he didn’t have to pay a farmer for his loss.
We heard about a Japanese soldier who had stolen some Marine dungarees and had sneaked into the chow line over at the 22nd Marines. None of us could understand how a Japanese soldier masquerading as a Marine could possibly have pulled off such a stunt. But then, we always said, they weren’t too bright over in the 22nd Marines anyway.
Contrary to how most others felt, I did find Guam much to my liking. While the men lay in their bunks during their time off, sweltering in the heat, beating their gums or else talking about home, I made my escape. I knew where there was a hole in the barbed wire fence along the southern perimeter, and I would go there when I could get away. I told the guys I was going to the base library, but instead I headed out into the bush. Much of Guam was out-of-bounds for GI’s, and that included all the native villages, the jungles that surrounded the camps and most beaches. However, there were a few designated beach areas where we could swim. We always had to be careful. The Japanese not only sneaked down at night to steal food and supplies, their snipers took popshots at us every now and then. When this happened, our patrols went into the hills to flush them out, but with little success.
One beach that we all liked was eventually put out-of bounds. It was a great place, very secluded. We had to lower ourselves over a cliff by ropes, and at the bottom was a small cove with white sand and a small island a dozen yards off shore. The incoming tide swept through the channel and if we caught the crest of a wave just right we could body surf right up to the beach. Then one day a Japanese sniper took popshots and the Provost Marshall closed the beach.
Stevenson and I found another beach, and while he stood guard with his Ml, I dove into the surf to test the water. It was a beautiful turquoise, and refreshingly cool. I was about to motion to Stevenson to join me when I felt a sting, and then another, and another. Jelly fish, some only as big as a thumb nail. I came out of the water flying, covered with stinging welts that were so painful I could not put my clothes back on, not even my skivvy drawers. Stevenson escorted me back to camp as I walked naked through the streets to the sickbay.
That didn’t stop us though. Soon after I recovered, Stevenson joined me on another excursion. We sneaked through the fence and went exploring. A couple miles from camp we were hiking along the road, ducking into ditches when Jeeps and other vehicles came by, when we noticed, high up on a ridge, a disabled Japanese two-man tank. We scrambled up the hillside to take a look. One of the tracks on the left side was blown off; other than that, the tank was functional. It was one of those so-called four-ton suicide tanks. They were quite easy to knock out; a .30 Cal. armor piercing bullet could go right through the side. Except for a .37-mm gun they had no other firepower. We opened the hatch, squeezed inside, and played like we were Japanese soldiers. It was fun. The turrets worked and by turning a hand crank I could rotate the turret, raising and lowering the gun barrel that protruded from the front. I took aim at imaginary targets and pretended to fire. I then noticed a convoy of military vehicles coming down the road below us. I made out like I was sighting in on them, and lowered the gun barrel to take aim. Suddenly all the vehicles in the convoy came to a halt. When I peered out I could see the occupants jumping out of the vehicles and diving for cover alongside the road. Holy hell! We realized what we had done! They took us for Japanese!
We scrambled out of the tank and slid down the hill on the opposite side of the convoy. Fifteen minutes later, when we were on our way back to camp, we looked back and watched two P-51s dive at the hilltop and release their bombs. In two sorties the entire top of the hill, tank included, were blown away. Stevenson was more careful after that when I asked him to join me. But boredom always made him change his mind. Terry on the other hand was ready for anything, but I didn’t like his tagging along. He insisted on taking bis Ml, thought he might have secretly wanted to get himself a threatening to shoot at anything that moved. Sometimes I thought he might have secretly wanted to get himself a Japanese sniper.
For a farm boy, Guam was my dream. Here were Kipling’s Jungle Books and Edgar Rice Burrow’s Tarzan of the Apes. Their characters were alive and flourishing here. I ran among the trees, through verdant undergrowth, down sun-flecked paths, until I became breathless and could run no more. When I laid down with my back against the roots of a massive tree and looked up, I wanted to swing through the trees like the animals of the forest do, but I could hardly put my arms around any of the trees they were so mighty. And often my expectations were short lived. I tried to climb a coconut palm and found that even a simple task like that was impossible for a new comer.
I spent one afternoon in the forest; it was late when I sneaked under the fence and returned to camp. I feared I might be in trouble, but I wasn’t even missed. The men were preoccupied with a new subject. A new point system was announced. Stevenson and Whittington were hot at it debating the finer points. “I tell you this,” Whittington insisted, “the CINCPAC memorandum on the Point System states if you have 30 or more points you are eligible to go home.”
“Yeah, and a Purple Heart gets you five extra points,” Johnson interrupted.
“That doesn’t mean shit,” said Melanowski. “When are we going home anyway?”
“Overseas time is double Stateside time,” Marsden added. “That’s still not the frigin’ answer,” Melanowski said. Gradually the conversation took another turn. The war was over! What would we do now? We would certainly miss our buddies. Who could understand us better than those guys with whom we shared the same foxholes for the past year. Men began jotting down addresses, and making promises to “keep in touch.” Harsh words were no longer uttered and enemies became friends.
There were some who hated to see the war end. When the news came, they may have shouted the victory call, but deep inside there was the feeling that more than a war had ended. Back to the farm they would go, to the steel mills, to the coalmines, to the humdrum, the mundane. And I would go to work in an electric shop with my father. It wasn’t a very happy thought. No more heroes. No more victories. No more buddies to confide in. No more war to fight. It happened so quickly, and now it was over.