44: Touched By War.

13 February[1]

Dear girls,

Well, we left San Diego just a month ago today, and we have now started back–not all the way, but to a rest camp. Rest Camp isn’t exactly an accurate term–more like a prizefighter’s training camp where you go to put on weight, get back in trim.[2] We need some of that–a lot of new equipment to replace all that was lost or damaged, and a chance to relax the boys’ minds–they’ve been under a tension for a long time now. All they–we–want to do is get back to some safe spot and eat and sleep and loaf in the sun–and see some green hills and foamy cold beer, and see a buxom open-faced country lass–answering very closely, I suspect, to a description of what Nan looks like but is not.

The only change in me is a heavy brown tan–my hair has gone yellow again and a slight scratch on the heel of my hand–so slight that it won’t even leave a scar that I can point to and tell my children that that is as close as Jap bullets ever got to me.

The whole battle only lasted 36 hours, and while it was the most exhausting day and a half that I ever spent, we haven’t done a hell of a lot since. We camped right in the middle of our own company battlefield and had to clean it up, and it was a mess, but the ocean was only a few yards away and there was a steady sea breeze to blow the stench away.[3]

That damn sea–beautiful but deadly and treacherous–about a week ago I went swimming with three of my boys from the mortar section–it is waist to chest deep for a hundred yards out, until the point where the waves break on the big jagged sections of the coral reef, where it drops sharply off. We had no intention of going all the way out–were twenty five yards from the danger point, when suddenly all four of us were caught in a terrific undertow and carried out. A couple of the boys were really powerful swimmers, but they were as lost as I–we were sucked out to where the enormous waves rolled in and smashed onto the reef–thrown in and sucked out for what seemed to be an eternity–way over our head most of the time–gasping for air and getting only foam and water–thrashing and twisting in an infinity of dazzling white pure clean foam, tossed about like a chip by a vast impersonal malevolent force–finally too weak to fight any longer, just trying to breathe and thinking that it was all over, what a silly way to die, of home and you, but over and over again–what a silly, pointless way to die–and finally when the ocean was through with us, one enormous wave picked us up and vomited us into the shallow water, washed clean of any strength or thought or feeling–the four of us held on to each other and staggered in and collapsed on the sharp but dry coral rock–three of us passed out–it was a horrible experience, one which I will never forget.[4]

Namur Island must once have been a lovely spot–it and Roi are the largest of a chain of a thousand or more islets strung on a thread of coral around a lagoon–the water is all shades–bright green, robin’s-egg blue, a deep, satisfying cobalt blue–you can walk, hip deep, from one island to another and I went to four or five and they were idyllic–soft rich brown earth, mangoes, breadfruit and coconut crowding each other for a chance at the sunshine, forming glades of shade roofed over by the vivid green leaves. The steady breeze keeps it always cool–no mosquitoes–the only sound being the hissing of the surf.[5]

But Namur has been touched by war and there is nothing tropical or lovely left. It looks as though someone with an imagination of his own had tried to make a Hollywood set for Journey’s End. Namur is a dry, hot, fetid version of the worst section of No Man’s Land that France ever had to offer–no living green thing, blasted tree trunks, huge gaping shell holes–disemboweled trucks, heaps of concrete and lumber that were once fortifications–bodies by the thousands–parts of bodies–so disfigured that they beggar description–horrible.

I wish I could tell you the full story of this operation, but we aren’t allowed to tell the tactics that were used or the names of the casualties that we suffered.

Some of them hit pretty close to home and it is almost impossible to make yourself believe–it is a sad voyage back, a long voyage home. And actually, by percentages, our casualties were comparatively light.[6]

In a lot of ways though I find myself more collected than I had expected. I have seen, felt and done a lot and all I feel is more experienced–a little wiser, perhaps, than before. Maybe it was so short–a violent but very brief shock which did not give war time to waste the nerves and resistance away and produce another “All Quiet on the Western Front.” The boys want to go into it again–what they would like is a short rest, reorganize, and a chance to pitch one good liberty, then go at it again. And that’s probably what they’ll get.

Not from the feeling that they relish fighting and killing–they don’t particularly, for its own sake–yet it is now their profession–the profession which most of them have trained longest and hardest for, and killing shows proficiency in that profession. After the first few minutes of tight stomachs and drawn white faces, acting on the quick nervous reaction with blank mind–this is it–this is it–the squeamishness soon passed with action and they–we–soon found that killing was practical and a necessity. I killed–yes, several times–I did not enjoy it. I had to force that single motion of my index finger up from my belly the first time, but then it became the natural reaction to a situation of danger. It was easier too, since they didn’t seem to have personalities–they all looked and dressed the same. Their personal possessions and dugouts were the same. Their actions and tactics in any given situation were the same. They were not individuals, but a type–a very dangerous and undesirable type–an animal with a capacity for organization and an inexplicable taste for aesthetics. Formalized, clean and brave, if you can call their inbred disregard for life bravery.

We have spent a lot of time aboard ships now. It’s a monotonous life, cramped, and a hell of a way to fight. I’m very, very glad I didn’t join the Navy. It’s amazing how radically different the two services are.

Sea and clouds and sea and ships and sea–a vast perimeter with nothing in it but the line that divides the sea and the sky–a smooth line, satisfying in its length and immutability, but never exciting, as a broad green vista, suddenly come upon, can be; or a cool wooded vale, exquisite in its balance and planning–the intimacy of the rocks and trees–the smell of shade and moist dead leaves.

No, I don’t like the sea–its vast spaces only bore–they stultify the imagination.

Time goes on, and it is almost–no, just exactly a month since I have had any letters from home–that is a long time, but I think that it will be several weeks yet. It worries me–too much can happen in that time.

Write soon and often–even if I do get them all at once, think of what a joyous day!

Love
Phil

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FOOTNOTES:
[1] Phil’s battalion departed Namur aboard the SS Robin Wentley this date.
[2] The Fourth Marine Division was headed for the newly established Camp Maui, which would be their base of operations for the remainder of the war.
[3] So revolting was the task–and so rebellious did the combat troops become–that official policy changed following the battle, and battlefield cleanup was delegated to support units.
[4] This incident took place off “Nadine Point” on Namur.
[5] Roi-Namur are a pair of small islands linked by a causeway at the northern end of the Kwajalein Atoll–one of the largest coral atolls in the world. The primary objective of the operation was the seizure of a Japanese airfield on Roi.
[6] Total casualties for Phil’s battalion were 30 KIA, 69 WIA; Company A had 3 KIA and 22 WIA. Phil lost four men wounded (all of whom would return) and two killed.

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