Saturday, May 23, 2009

Veterans Day, a core story

I'm a veteran, can't escape it, but I don't appear to much identify with the holliday. Never joined a veteran's organization, don't celebrate the day, don't think about it. When it comes up each year, thought seems to go back to the horrors of trench warfare, hand to hand fighting, of WWI. I remember we used to see men stumbling and shaking along the streets in downtown Los Angeles in the 1930s. My father told me they were men had been in the war, WWI, that they were suffering from shell-shock. It’s not that they were all over the place, but that it was not uncommon to see them.

Memory recalls being with Joe Hunter, a boyhood friend. It was probably about 1946. We were at his house on the small wooden front porch in South Central Los Angeles. His father was sitting in a rocking chair there. A big, healthy man who had been an infantryman during WWI. Joe had told me the story before, but now he asked his father to tell it to me. He had to ask a couple times until his father smiled and shrugged his shoulders.

He showed us the narrow, well-healed scar beginning in the right eyebrow that ran upward to the right temple. A German bayonet. The Americans had attacked and when they reached the German trench it had become a hand to hand affair. Somehow Mr. Hunter had fallen, a German infantryman had appeared above him and thrust down with his bayonet. As the German—and they were in all likelihood young men in their twenties, Mr. Hunter had thrust upward with his own bayonet. While the German almost drove his bayonet into Mr. Hunter’s eye, Mr. Hunter drove his own bayonet upwards unto the stomach of the German and then ripped it up into his chest.

It was a really interesting story. Joe and me, we were probably sixteen years old, we wanted to know more. I wanted to know what happened next. Mr. Hunter shrugged his shoulders. Joe asked him to tell the rest of the story but Mr. Hunter had become quiet. Joe was laughing, me too, but Mr. Hunter had become quiet and would only shake his head, very, very slightly. No.

In the moment, sitting here at the keyboard, I am unexpectedly moved by relating this story. For no reason why, I am moved to tears. At this moment my wife comes into the office and I have to hide my face from her. She probably saw it. She'll probably ask me about it later. It began to happen as I recalled how, that day on his front porch so long ago, that Mr. Hunter had become suddenly quiet, not wanting to remember, or to talk about what he remembered, from almost thirty years before.

In Korea in 1950 and 51 we all carried bayonets but my platoon was ordered to fix them only one time while I was there. It was morning and we were in the mountains maybe fifty miles north of Seoul. We were moving up a finger through the trees and had run into Chinese infantry and a machinegun nest. The finger was very narrow, maybe twenty-five feet from side to side with deep gorges on either side, so there was no practical way to outflank the machine gunner. I think I have written about this before, but I don’t know where.

The captain ordered the platoon to fix bayonets. Then he ordered one squad to move up the ridgeline in marching fire, a methodical exercise meant to encourage the guys on the other side to keep their heads down. If their heads are down they can’t see you, so they can’t shoot you. A practical business.

On that morning the little maneuver went well for the first few moments, but then our own fire died down. The guys had fired too fast, or moved upwards too slowly. They had emptied their clips before reaching the Chinese positions with fixed bayonets. Now it would only take a moment, the Chinese would come up out of their holes and shoot down the third squad.

That was the morning when the captain and I were sitting behind a boulder with the Chinese machine gunner sweeping the ridgeline, and shooting little Todd in the ass as he made a run for it. Anyhow in this moment, when our guys had emptied their clips and there was a moment of silence, the captain and I both understood what the problem was.

Without thinking, it had nothing to do with courage because there was no reflection involved, I jumped up and with fixed bayonet ran the few feet up the ridgeline to where third squad was hesitating to cover them while they reloaded. I moved forward slowly, firing in a proper, deliberate manner, first a little to the left, then a little to the right where I saw possible Chinese positions. The Chinese did not return fire. Behind me, I understood that Third Squad needed only a few seconds more to reload. All this happened in a matter of 30, 40, 50 seconds.

Then I surprised myself. I had emptied my M-1 clip. It had eight rounds, if I remember correctly. Maybe I should look it up. There was nothing for it. I had to reload. Behind me a few steps, I supposed third squad was just about reloaded. As I pulled a new clip from the bandoleer around my chest thought told me to be very careful. I was there by myself, third squad a few feet behind me. Thought told me it would be better for me to move a little too slowly and get it right, than to move a little too quickly and get it wrong.

With the M-1 that we used in those days you put the ammo clip in from above and pushed it down firmly until it clicked in place. If you moved too quickly and didn’t push it all the way in, when you withdrew your thumb the clip would jump back up at you. At that moment I was in front of third squad, between my guys and the other guys, I probably recognized how exposed I was, and when I pushed the clip down into the M-1 and released it, the clip jumped back up at me and the shells with their bullets fell in the leaves at me feet. I had been careless. At the same time, there was no firing, either from our side or theirs. It was a moment of unusual, empty silence.

It was at that moment that I saw the Chinese soldier stand up from a fox hole maybe 15, 20 yards up the ridgeline in front of me. I can still recall his face, long, narrow, aristocratic if you will. Then I saw that he had something in his left hand, and it was smoking. It was a hand grenade. I had seen them before in positions we had over run. A big soup can with a wooden handle. In WWI they called them “potato mashers.” It was said the Chinese had gotten them from Czechoslovakia. In the moment I didn’t recall all that. What I understood in the first instant was that the other guy had a fragmentation grenade in his hand, that he had already pulled the pin and that’s why it was smoking, so he had probably been watching me, and now he was going to pitch the thing down on top of me.

Again, this multifaceted series of observations went through the brain in an instant. In that instant though, acting on its own without any input by me, whoever I am in these moments, thought organized a series of inventive and rational actions that in other situations, other moments, might be the source for a good deal of thinking. But here’s what I understood immediately, without thought.

The Chinese was above me, the grenade was smoking so he had already pulled the pin, and in the next instant he would pitch it downhill towards me. Because the Chinese was on higher ground than me, if I turned and went down hill to escape the blast of the grenade, it would, it might, follow me downhill. So the right thing to do was not to move down and away from the pitch, but to run a few steps up hill toward the Chinese to allow the grenade to pass over my head in its natural arc, fall to the ground behind me, and bounce downhill for a few feet further before it exploded.

My understanding of the situation was reached without thought, in an instant. There was no time for thought. I ran up the hill a few steps until I was only 15, 20 feet for the hole the Chinese was in and fell to my face. I had no shells in my M-1 but my bayonet was fixed. The grenade would pass over my head, I would stay down until the explosion, then I would get on up to the hole where the Chinese was. I was not thinking about what I would have to do when I got there. I understood I would do what was necessary.

At that moment I was surprised to find that the Chinese potato masher that was supposed to pass over my head in its natural arc landed in the dirt near my right shoulder. Again, without the benefit of thought, I jumped over the side of the ridge and into, for all I knew, 200 feet deep gorge. As luck would have it, and luck can be good as well as bad, I immediately landed on a little ledge a couple feet below the ridgeline. I’d had no idea it was there. At the same time my M-1 has caught in some kind of shrub above me. I was holding on to it. I wasn’t in a place, or in a situation, where I wanted to be without my M-1. I gave it one quick tug, it didn’t move, and then the grenade exploded.

There was the blast of the grenade, the shock of the hand holding onto the M-1 being blasted, the sound of small arms fire again so I understood that third squad was back in action, and then the understanding that I had to get off the little ledge I was on. I climbed back up on ridgeline using the left hand because the right one had become useless. And then I was sitting with my back to a tree in a bed of leaves. The small arms fire was so intense that clouds of leaves and small branches were falling all around me as I sat there.

The noise and commotion was somewhat distant. I was looking at the right hand. I could see the bone above the two middle fingers in and the splayed out mouths of what I supposed were two arteries, a whitish, pale yellow color. The index finger wasn’t there at all and I was looking for it in the leaves between my legs. I think there was the idea that if I could find it someone could sew it back on. I realize now that I was finished with acting, that I was thinking. And then Prescott, our medic for second platoon, was there. He was from New Hampshire and one of his front teeth was broken off at forty-five degree angle.

“What are you doing?” he said.

“I’m looking for the finger. Maybe they can put it back on.”

“The finger is there, Smith.”

“I’m looking for it.”

“It’s hanging down.”

I looked, and there it was, hanging down. “It’s hanging down,” I said. I couldn’t see it from above. I had to hold the hand up. But there it was.

Prescott bandaged the hand, putting the finger more or less in its place. In only a moment blood had soaked through the bandage. The noise was terrific. Stuff from the trees was raining down. One tattered leaf fell on the bandage and stayed there, maybe using blood for glue. I wasn’t hurting. It was as if I were outside of what was going on. I was no longer a part of it. Nothing really mattered. Prescott got a needle and some morphine from his kit and gave me a shot. He said I would be okay. I took it for granted I would be okay. Why wouldn’t I be okay?

I’ve told this story a hundred times. I’m attached to it, and attached to telling it. I think I have written about it, but I don’t know where now, or how many times. It would be interesting to know if I told it the same way this time that I told it a long time ago.

Later, when I was back in the States in the hospital at Camp Cooke, California, I would sometimes go home to South Central Los Angeles over the weekend. One day I was in the car with my mother and father, I don’t know where we were going, when my mother turned around from her front seat and observed that I never talked about what had happened to me in Korea.

I was rather surprised. I hadn’t understood that I did not talk about it. I had to think for a minute. And then I said: “I don’t want to talk about it to anyone who wasn’t there.” I don’t know now if I was being truthful when I said that. I do remember that the question had rather caught me off-guard. I still don’t understand why. In any event, I soon overcame that reservation. In the end, I never did get tired of talking about it. But not to my parents.

Earlier today, when the issue of Veterans Day came up, the first thing memory recalled was that morning long ago with Joe Hunter and his father on their wooden porch in South Central and the father, after telling the first part of his story where he bayoneted the German in his stomach, wanted to let it lay. The second thing memory recalled was that last morning on line in Korea when I faced the possibility of having to drive my bayonet into that young man's chest, if that was something I really would have been able to do. Would I have wanted to talk about it, write about it? Or would I have wanted to keep it to myself as did Mr. Hunter that day.

I don't know if I would have wanted to talk about it, but almost certainly the day would have come when I would have wanted to write about it. That's what I do.

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