• The Battle for Nishinomiya Junction

    May 26, 2017

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    Posted in: Hooper's War



    Here’s an excerpt from my new book, Hooper’s War: A Novel of WWII Japan, on sale now at Amazon. This excerpt is told from the perspective of the main character, Lieutenant Nate Hooper.

    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 marked with your name. Thunk. That’s fear.

    Men were dying all around me. Each mortar 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. The pressure on my eardrums first emptied the world of sound and then pinched out tears. My mouth dried to a whisper. There was nowhere to hide; I was inside it.

    There was another sound. Sharper, closer, our mortars replying. We had the same kinds of shells, and I knew they were creating the same hellscape among the Japanese. But I truly did not care. I wanted them 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. It had become harvest time in our field. 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. We were 18-year-olds facing things even most 90-year-olds don’t understand. 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 games you screwed up in high school 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 did not refuse or surrender or run away or quit or hide because 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. I don’t know why he did that just then, maybe he saw someone else advance, but 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, all that were left in our group—Smitty, Polanski, Marino, Hermann, and Jones. 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. Me, Laabs, Smitty, Polanski, Marino, Hermann, and Jones.

    Marino ran right into the station wall, bouncing off it. Laabs dropped and rolled the last few feet, moving like he was a piece of the night. I was close behind. I counted off the men as they grouped around us, Polanski, Hermann and Jones. 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 damn thing now killing him with its thirty pounds and its two ten-pound spare batteries.

    Smitty obediently began the process of disintegrating, like cardboard in the rain.

    As the rounds stopped his forward progress, other Japanese gunners swiveled to the stationary target. What was left of Smitty’s body was held vertical for some part of a second by the force of the bullets, before he gave in and fell forward with the greatest possible violence and the least possible grace.

    Watching Smitty die, my brain squeezed down to a lump that pushed everything aside I thought only moments before. We’d gotten this far, proven ourselves; why did we have to go forward again? Couldn’t some other outfit do that, men I didn’t know? What if we stopped shooting at the Japanese, wouldn’t they figure it out and stop shooting at us? Two male pitbulls snarling at each other, who in the end back away, deciding it wasn’t worth it?

    I unbuckled my web belt and was ready to throw away my weapon. It was only Sergeant Laabs, again, who pulled me back into his landscape, deciding for all of us.

    Sergeant Laabs led us, crawling, pressed as tightly as we could against the foundation of the building, away from the Japanese, their weapons still picking at Smitty’s corpse, or aiming at other soldiers trapped like light looking to hide in the sanctuary of shadow. The wall near me had whole constellations of bullet holes violated into it.

    As we neared a door, Laabs shouted, “They’re in there, I can smell them. We’ll break through, catch them by surprise. Follow me.”

    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 for a time here before you want them to go away until the next war. You’re looking for a man mad enough to commit murder, with enough conscience to come home feeling a little guilty.

    Laabs.


    The group of us burst through the door, screaming prayers and curses, and hid behind a busted slab of office wall. I heard men scuttling across the floor. The Japanese had moved to the other side of the office, our two groups separated only by that concrete slab. We heard the clink of metal against metal. They were loading a heavy machine gun.

    “You two, Marino and Jones, job opportunity for you, around that side, throw your grenades and make as much clatter as you can pulling back to distract the scum,” Laabs said. “Polanski and Hermann, you shoot any Japanese that come around after them. I’m going alone around this other side. Lieutenant, watch it, because I don’t intend to let any of ’em past me and if you shoot me by accident running back I will return from the grave and kill you myself. If this works, I’ll get most of them, and the four of you will take apart any of the others.”

    “American, you dung man.” The Japanese were calling at us in broken English from the other side of the wall. “You surrender, you no die tonight, GI.”

    “Gentlemen, I’ll see you all on the other side,” Laabs moved up to his corner. “Marino, Jones, on my count.”

    “American, you die tonight.”

    Laabs, loud: “One.”

    Jones mouthed the word alongside Laabs.

    “You no never see your mama home.”

    Laabs, louder: “Two.”

    Jones made a low sound.

    “You die here, American.”

    Laabs, a whisper: “Three.”

    Marino and Jones turned their corner. Laabs stepped forward, me leaning to watch him.

    Marino fired, and a Japanese went down, shot just below his right eye. Marino rose and fired again, into the now prone target, all eight rounds his M-1 held. As the magazine emptied with that metallic sound the spring inside made, a second Japanese soldier rounded the corner and shot Marino twice in the chest. I heard Marino’s skull connect with the concrete floor with a soft crack, a sound people who’d never a heard a rifle shot or a skull break think sounds like a rifle shot. Jones shot the man who shot Marino who earlier had grenaded the first Japanese to die.

    Me, Laabs, Polanski, Hermann, and Jones left.

    Sergeant Laabs stepped tight around his corner, between the wall and the stream of rounds coming out of the Nambu. He grabbed the red-hot barrel of the machine gun, screaming as it hissed against his bare hand, and swung it aside.

    His hand had fused to the hot metal. He tore it off, leaving a mitten of flesh on the weapon, and fell on the one Japanese left. With bloody fingers he stabbed at the man’s eyes. Laabs could not stop, the head now in both hands, the blood in the cold air.

    The war was now between Laabs and the Japanese.

    I knew hundreds of other American soldiers were fighting somewhere around us, opposed by hundreds of Japanese. I heard distant mortaring. I heard far off screams.

    I saw only Laabs.

    “Oh hey, Lieutenant, you wanna hear a story?” Laabs said.

    “Laabs, what’re you talking about?” I barely recognized his voice.

    “On Okinawa. We’re clearing caves with flamethrowers, a day before that stuff I did saving those kids. I never talked to anyone before now about this other cave I ran into, where all I found alongside the smoked up bodies were pencil boxes and schoolbooks. Two minutes later the Doc was giving first aid to one school kid that somehow was still alive. Two minutes between one thing and the other. Go figure. And you know the worst part? It didn’t even bother me until now.”

    “Laabs, I’m sorry. I don’t know what else to say.”

    “Nothing more to say. That’s the whole story. Now get into position with Jones,” Laabs said. He smiled. “Got something I need to do.”

    I scrambled to join Jones and Polanski. Gunfire flashed from deep inside the station, as if the Japanese were taking photos at a wedding. I watched Hermann get shot through the head. Two minutes between one thing and the other.


    And there stood Laabs. What was left of Hermann’s body lay nearby. There is a lot of blood inside a man, and it looked as if some naughty boy had spilled two full cans of red paint on the garage floor.

    Everyone who’d been in the field long enough heard of a guy who one day under enemy fire just stood up and took off his helmet. Laabs left it up to us to figure out the difference between self-sacrifice and self-destruction.

    I actually think he was dead before he rose, the Japanese bullets unnecessary even as they tore him apart. That’s how Jones, Polanski, and I watched Sergeant Jason Laabs die inside the train station the day before his 18th birthday.

    “Lieutenant, we gonna die?” Jones said. His legs were bloody.

    Deep breath. Calm, waiting for my turn. An explosion, and a bright flash…


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    Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved. The views expressed here are solely those of the author(s) in their private capacity. Follow me on Twitter!

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  • Recent Comments

    • John Poole said...

      1

      Powerful writing PVB. You scooped out your own deeply aching guts and put them on the page.

      05/26/17 11:43 AM | Comment Link

    • wemeantwell said...

      2

      This is my therapy.

      05/26/17 2:10 PM | Comment Link

    • chuck said...

      3

      Thank you PVB.

      05/26/17 4:59 PM | Comment Link

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