Men Were Dying All Around Me
Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from HOOPER'S WAR: A Novel of WWII Japan by Peter Van Buren
After you’ve heard that thunk, you always know it. Once you know that sound, being mortared is like a sneeze coming on. It’s going to happen and there is nothing you can do about it but wonder if the shell is yours.
Men were dying all around me. Each shell exploded into light so I could see who was being killed, the explosions walking across the battlefield like giants. About the only thing I could do was roll into a hole and pull my knees up to my chin and try and dig out the dirt and snow blown up my nose. There was nowhere to hide; I was inside it now.
There was another sound. Sharper, closer, our mortars replying, creating the same hellscape among the Japanese. I wanted them then to all die in as horrible and painful a way as I was watching happen to us. I was on my knees in my hole now like every other man, thanking a no doubt horrified Baby Jesus for the American mortars. The battle became a living thing that ate men.
Then we heard whistles and shouts. Whoever was still alive on our side ordered the final assault on the rail junction to begin.
People who have not experienced this level of madness cannot understand why we left our holes and advanced. People will say “Why didn’t you surrender, or quit, or run away, or hide?” Any man who tells you he did not consider each and every one of those choices is a coward for not telling the truth.
But if you can’t understand how guys who spent all of a few weeks together 70 years ago can greet each other like brothers today, then you can’t understand why we ran forward. The best I can do for you is say time out there is dog years, a place where we gained and lost significant things, our one minute of combat together worth seven of your suburban existence. You learn what’s private and secret about a man whose first name you don’t know, because out there you don’t talk about honor or duty, you talk like goober poets about girlfriends and baseball and dads, and sometimes about the dark.
And so if love at first sight is possible at home, then love after a week in war is also possible, because the opposite of fear out there isn’t safety, it’s love. And you do insane things for those you love, including die for them. The brotherhood you hear about isn’t friendship. It’s about knowing what happens to you depends fully on what happens to all of you. It works that way, and always has, and the people who start wars depend on it. So do the soldiers.
I saw Sergeant Laabs move forward like dying wasn’t a possibility. There are no medals for things like that, Laabs just acting like sergeants leading men in combat have done since Julius Caesar's time. Once I saw him move I knew I had to move. Then someone saw me and stepped out, and someone saw that man, and we advanced. It was more like the blurry photos from Antietam or Gettysburg than anything I imagined belonged in a modern war. The battle had been handed to us on the ground. Men would pay for yards with their lives.
It was suicide to stand up, but we were certainly going to die lying down.
Laabs dropped and rolled the last few feet, moving like he was a piece of the night. I was close behind. Smitty was still trying to run as the next star shell burst overhead, spotlighting him. He’d been weighed down by the engineers who designed his SRC-300 radio, the thing now killing him with its thirty pounds.
As the Japanese rounds came in, Smitty obediently began the process of disintegrating like cardboard in the rain.
Watching Smitty die, my brain squeezed down to a lump. It was only Sergeant Laabs, again, who pulled me back into his landscape, deciding for all of us.
How the man could think clearly, I can never know. He could squeeze away everything else and what was left was not what was desirable or nice, but what was necessary. That’s what makes war such a terrible thing for an otherwise decent society, because you don’t want monsters like that teaching in your schools or working in your hospitals, but you need them here. You’re looking for a man mad enough to commit murder, with enough conscience to come home feeling a little guilty.
I knew hundreds of soldiers were fighting around us. I heard screams. I heard mortaring. I saw only Laabs. Then an explosion, and a bright flash...