The Naked Truth Of Battle

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It was late that afternoon when I left Love’s outfit to return to my own command post. No jeeps were negotiating that road, so I had to walk. The enemy often operated effectively behind our front lines at night, so after dark most soldiers hunkered down. An eerie twilight descended as I trudged along. Shortly I spied the corpses of hundreds of Japanese killed by our naval gunfire on this open ridge. A sudden movement caught my eye. I swung my gun around and then stopped short. It was the flies. Many thousands of insects boiled up in unison: they had been so congested that they replicated what they had covered. Outlines of helmets, guns, bayonets, and boots shot into the air as if in an animated horror cartoon.

Thoroughly unnerved, I cursed myself for not having left earlier. All was quiet in the gloom, but I knew there must be enemy out there. A pilot whom I had traveled with a few days earlier had soberly reflected on how many Japanese were lurking underground.

Something came back to me from an old war movie. Every few yards I turned around and barked an order to an imaginary platoon, then swept up my arm, as if commanding an entire battalion to move ahead. I did this for half a mile, imagining that a mocking young lieutenant would come along in a jeep at any moment and burst out laughing at my antics. While I will never know whether any Japanese lay hidden in that devastated landscape, I did survive that solitary walk along the dark road.

Back at my own command post, all was quiet. The rumble of battle seemed farther north now. Even the ubiquitous flies seemed more subdued; a buddy told me that the Army had begun saturating the battlefield with a new chemical, something called DDT. After my friend and I chased a land crab out of our foxhole, we settled down for the night.

The next morning, dozens of gaunt, hollow-eyed soldiers drifted through our perimeter. Many had lost their weapons and even their helmets. Some were walking wounded. I grabbed my notebook and began to scribble down their stories before they limped south. Some say that fighting men do not like to talk about their experiences, but we did not find this to be the case. The commanders sensed that one day the only thing left of all their efforts would be a place in history.

Usually the men were glad to relate their own experiences; invariably they wanted to tell about their buddies’. But heroism, even where it was displayed in action, as it had been so often, was conspicuously absent in the recounting. The soldier’s tale typically focused on the fatigue, the fear, and finally the sheer relief when the ordeal ended. Word of some deed of courage emerged only when someone else described the action. A debriefed soldier might turn back to say something like, “Jones didn’t tell you about this, but he went through some hot fire to get that message back to the captain.”

Gradually I pieced together the story of the first great banzai counterattack. During the night the Japanese commander, Gen. Yoshitsugu Saitõ, had addressed what remained of the Imperial naval and army officer corps on the island, now cornered in Saipan’s far north. “Whether we attack or whether we stay where we are, there is only death. However, in death there is life.” He sent his whole command in, then arranged his own death.

Emperor Hirohito dispatched an order encouraging the 25,000 civilians on Saipan to kill themselves. Some 10,000 obeyed by attacking the American forces in a banzai, or all-out, attack or by jumping off the island’s sea cliffs. Thousands of men armed with rifles, swords, and poles with crude knives streamed through our front lines, plunging right over foxholes like a “movie stampede in the old Wild West films,” one survivor told me. That night 3,000 Japanese died, along with 400 Americans.

Next morning I reached a forward post near the front. Worn American stragglers were still passing through. One told us about carrying a wounded buddy on his back for a mile, only to discover upon taking a rest that his friend had been beheaded. Others reported that American soldiers had been killed by their own artillery fire. One man stopped to dig a deep foxhole and jumped in, cowering in terror.

Our company commander, who had been crouching by his radio, suddenly stood up and shouted at us to form a defensive perimeter a few yards north of our post. We silently took up positions, straining our eyes over the meadow beyond. After a long, nerve-straining wait, we thought we saw helmets in the deep grass across the field.

“It’s the Japs!” someone yelled. “Fire at will!” We shot off a feeble volley. Nothing happened. Then another cry. “They’re Japs! Keep firing!” So we did, even though we never saw the enemy for certain.

We lay prone for a long time under some trees, and all fell very quiet. As the hours wore on, I recalled the old saying that war is an organized bore. But it was also a disorganized bore—a few moments of excitement, even terror, punctuating endless tedium. I also remembered a passage in Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage about green Union troops coming under fire and scooping up pathetic little piles of sticks, stones, and leaves for cover—just what we were doing 80 years later. After several hours, the counterattack had exhausted itself. I doubted that any of our bullets had hit anyone. Or had the attack halted just before our position?

In the evening we were ordered back to our foxholes. The next day our camp was calm. Men lined up for chow and exchanged battle stories. The flies still clustered on leaves and twigs, but they were all dead because of the spraying.

Saipan exacted a terrible toll on both sides. Almost the entire garrison of 30,000 Japanese troops perished, along with 22,000 civilians. Of the 71,000 Americans who came ashore, 2, 949 were killed and 10,364 wounded.