On the Beaches: The Pacific



Feb. 24, 1944 DEAR MOTHER AND DAD:— By now you must have discovered that this regiment has been in action, so you will probably be relieved to hear that I remain sound in wind and limb. There is absolutely nothing the matter with me except a profound weariness that will make this letter pretty short. You see, we just got back aboard ship today and I have neither eaten nor slept for nearly three days and two nights.
We arrived here [Eniwetok] and assaulted the main island of the group. I, with my MG platoon, was in the second wave of assault troops, landing three minutes after the first wave. There was some fire on the beach, but we moved inland quickly until we came to an edge of blasted coconut grove. I was in the front line with my runner, looking for possible machine-gun positions, and had the guns some fifty yards back.
We were hard hit there, and with terrible clarity the reality of the event came home to me. I had crawled forward to ask a Marine where the Japs were — pretty excited really and enjoying it almost like a game. I crawled up beside him but he wouldn’t answer. Then I saw the ever widening pool of dark blood by his head and knew that he was dying or dead. So it came over me what this war was, and after that it wasn’t fun or exciting, but something that had to be done.
Fortune smiled on me that day, or the hand of a divine Providence was over me, or I was just plain lucky. We killed many of them in fighting that lasted to nightfall. We cornered fifty or so Imperial Marines on the end of the island, where they at-

tempted a banzai charge, but we cut them down like overripe wheat, and they lay like tired children with their faces in the sand.
That night was unbelievably terrible. There were many of them left and they all had one fanatical notion, and that was to take one of us with them. We dug in with orders to kill anything that moved. I kept watch in a foxhole with my sergeant and we both stayed awake all night with a knife in one hand and a grenade in the other. They crept in among us, and every bush or rock took on sinister proportions. They got some of us, but in the morning they all lay about, some with their riddled bodies actually inside our foxholes. With daylight, it was easy for us and we finished them off. Never have I been so glad to see the blessed sun.
So we left that place and went back aboard ship, where we stayed a day and a night desperately trying to get our gear into shape. Then the following morning we attacked another island, which was much more heavily defended. The beach was swept with machine-gun fire and they had heavy mortars ranged in on us. I was again very lucky to get through there and proceeded across the ruined, shellblasted soil rocked by the continual mortar bursts. The captain to whose company we were attached suddenly pointed, and above the brush line I saw 150 or so men bending forward, moving steadily parallel to us. We were fifty yards from them and waved at them, thinking they must be Marines. They paid little attention to us and seemed to be setting up machine guns, and we suddenly realized they were Japs.
We had just half a platoon of men and two MG’s. We set the guns up and started firing at them. One gun wouldn’t work, so we buried the parts in the sand, because we thought they would charge us and we knew we couldn’t stop them. We didn’t want them to get the gun. For some reason, they didn’t attack, so we moved in against them. We threw grenades back and forth for a couple of hours and many were killed on both sides. Finally we threw a whole volley of grenades and charged in and got to the beach. Down it we could see a whole group of them. So the twelve of us, standing, kneeling, or lying prone, fired our rifles and carbines. They fell like ducks in a shooting gallery and the exhilaration of battle rose in us. They closed in on us and we had to back out.
But we got some tanks and reinforcements some half hour later and moved through them in skirmish line, which brings this tale to the most extraordinary incident of all. I was following some ten yards behind the tanks, when a Jap officer came out of a hole pointing his pistol at me; so instinctively I shot my carbine from the hip and hit him full in the face. I walked forward and looked into the trench and saw another with his arm cocked to throw a grenade. He didn’t see me. I was only six feet away. I pulled the trigger but the weapon was jammed with sand. I had to do something, so I took my carbine by the barrel and hit him with all my might at the base of the neck. It broke his neck and my carbine.
Finally we killed them all. They never surrender. Again the night was a bad one, but with the dawn came complete victory, and those of us who still walked without a wound looked in amazement at our whole bodies. There was not much jubilation. We just sat and stared at the sand, and most of us thought of those who were gone — those whom I shall remember as always young, smiling, and graceful, and I shall try to forget how they looked at the end, beyond all recognition.
I am sorry for this disjointed letter. I don’t think I shall talk of these things again. Put your mind at rest. I shall be in no more danger for a long time to come. I assure you I am in no way hurt in body or mind. Somehow such an experience either makes or breaks one, and I really feel myself to be a stronger if not better man for it. I have no regrets over killing them. They are or seem inhuman. We kill them with as little feeling one way or another as one might kill mad dogs.
I close with much love to you both, and like to think of sitting under the apple trees on a summer’s afternoon with all of us together and this time a distant and unreal dream. Do not doubt that the good time will come again. I remain ever more certain that with peace I shall devote every energy to the prevention of these things.

March 6.— Many of your fine letters have arrived since my last letter. Their full news of another way of life came like long-awaited rain and filled up the dry places. It seems that very early you guessed

our whereabouts and I hope you were not caused too much anxiety. There is no need now for worry for some little time. We are firmly ensconced on a small island of an unpronounceable name that censorship would not allow me to tell you anyway. When we arrived only the weird birds made us welcome, and the sand crabs and the ants. So again it was the old primeval struggle of cutting back the jungle, constructing shelters of every imaginable variety, of digging latrines, building roads, and in the meanwhile eating that damned K ration, which is really very ingenious but always the same.
After our battle experiences, the boys fell to with a willing hand, for we all know that we are the fortunate ones, and life even under these rigorous circumstances seems full and good. I know I look with an affectionate eye on the commonplaces of the day and night, on the blue of the lagoon and the long sandy beach, because I came too close to losing all to undervalue even the littlest thing. All in all, the Marine Corps has the best psychology. Take men out of the mental quicksands of the assault and put them to work building themselves a home out of nothing but their own ingenuity and you will have no psychoses. There simply is not time for it. One is too busy getting shelter for one’s body, and food for one’s stomach, to think of what was. There is a comforting materiality about the selecting of campsites and the building of shelters that banishes the demons of those fantastic days when my life rested like a feather on the back of my hand. As I said before, the immediate effect of it all was negligible. The sight of the first one of my men that died hardened me to all things, and we killed without rancor and died without regret.
I don’t think I praised my men properly in the last letter. They obeyed with an unquestioning courage. One of my section leaders was hit by a bullet in his arm. It spun him clear around and set him down on his behind. A little dazed, he sat there for a second and then jumped up with the remark, “The little bastards will have to hit me with more than that.” I had to order him back to the dressing station an hour later. He was weak with loss of blood but actually pleaded to stay.
My runner was knocked down right beside me with three bullet holes in him and blood all over his face. Stupidly I said, “Are you hit, boy?” He was crying a little, being just a kid of eighteen, and said, “I’m sorry, sir. I guess I’m just a sissy.” I damn near cried myself at that. I’m trying to get him a citation because he was a very brave boy and never delivered a false message or failed to do what I told him. He will live, thanks to our good doctors.
So it goes — ad infinitum. There is no room to tell it all. As one of my boys wrote home, “We done good.”
As to the real significance of the events, it will only come home to me with time, but this much I do know. As we buried our dead, I swore to myself that if it was within my power I should see to it that these deaths would not be forgotten or valued lightly. I felt more strongly than ever the wrongness of so many things. Their motionless young bodies, their inarticulate lips, seemed a monumental reproach to us the living, seeming to say, “Well, we did all you asked. We gave up everything, all we might have been and done, all love, all hope, all laughter, all tomorrows. What are you going to do now? Is it going to be any different, any better now? If you don’t do what you can, at least you will never forget us. We will trouble your midnight and your noon’s repose with the specter of our speechless gaze. Certainly we can do no more. The rest lies all with you.” So, remembering them, I find heart for the long road and the many battles and determination for the peaceful time. If there be a God, may He give us all the strength and the vision that we so badly need.
The swimming is first-rate, but I’d trade it for the rocks and cold Atlantic of Little Boar’s Head.

March 31. — There is nothing like absence to make the heart grow fonder, and right now the lack of mail for some three weeks has made letters seem an indispensable joy.
Just as I finished that paragraph, “attention to colors” sounded and the quick cry, “Colors!” rang through the camp. Everyone sprang to attention; some were swimming and stood naked at the water’s edge at strict attention until the flag was lowered. In its accustomed glory, the sun sinks beneath the lagoon and I sit out here in the quick-fading light with my writing pad balanced on my knee. When it’s dark I shall have to end this letter.
After nightfall we merely sit and talk quietly of this and that. The dark seems to provoke reminiscence, and each talks of what was dear to him in the days before the war. One officer with us knows that his wife has already had his child and he waits now for the letter that will bring him the answer to his hopes and prayers. He tells us unabashedly of how he said good-bye to her and how she wept. Then the talk drifts to those of us whom we left on that beach, and we speak of their many virtues and of what they might have been. It almost seems now that it was the best who did not return and I remember Donne’s verse: —

And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones and soul’s delivery!

We talk of the happy times when we danced, or drank with old friends, and life stretched gayly and full of promise before us. Then the conversation slowly dies away, and each man comforts himself with his own private memories. One lives in a suspended state of animation out here, continuing in the performance of one’s duties from day to day, but living in a past that ironically enough is irretrievable.
But I paint a dark picture when in reality at the present time, though our life is circumscribed by the limits of this small island and its primitive gifts of shade and water, we are well off. At 6.30, we get up and wash in our helmets, which is the neatest trick of the week. It takes a canny Scotchman to shave, brush his teeth, and wash his face and hands with about a quart of water. Then breakfast follows; and as there is now no officers’ mess, we eat at the end of the mess line — an unwritten law in the Marine Corps. Then troop and inspection is held, the one time in the day when the men have to be fully equipped and clothed from helmets to cartridge belts.
The formation is strictly by the book, which comforts the German quarter of my soul, and the rifles crack sharply open as I walk down the ranks. I take an occasional weapon to make sure they are well kept. Then we hold a short school to review those things which are easily forgotten. Then those men who cannot swim splash happily about in the water and I vainly try to teach them how to swim. The day’s work is concluded by a march of about two miles to the end of the island and back — this last a strange idea of the powers that be who feel that a daily hike has a mysterious and salutary effect on body and soul.
I should greatly appreciate any books you can discover on the Far East; that is, on the history of China and Japan, their present political and economic setup, and so on. If you could ask someone well acquainted with such things as to what books are best, I should very much appreciate it. I am trying to understand these people we fight, and to discover what force, heredity, tradition, belief, or environment drives them to such desperate extremes. I really think, if possible, I should like to make a life’s work of doing what little I can in the problem of international coöperation. No matter how small a contribution I should happen to make, it would be in the right direction. We cannot continue to make a shambles of this world, and already a blind man can see the shortsighted decisions that point inevitably to that ultimate Armageddon, World War III.
The newspapers which at one and the same time preach against optimism and then paint the news in the rosiest hues do nothing to help. From my own experience, I can assure you that though the papers do not actually falsify, they do underplay the difficulties of operations and play to the limit the final success. Actually, we have only begun out here, as no one can see more clearly than we ourselves. Ahead of us lie the limitless distances of this colossal ocean, the bitterly defended fortresses that the Japs have made of their islands, the almost impenetrable jungles where operations must necessarily move at a snail’s pace; and finally, when we have won through to the China coast, the problem of conquering 200 well-trained Jap divisions operating on interior lines of supply. I would not dare to foretell the end of such a venture; it is certainly years away.
We who have to do the fighting do not doubt our ability to win and are prepared for all endurance; we are proud of being young and strong enough to do it. But we do not like to look back and see a people divided against itself and unwilling to put the war first and their personal interests second. I know how strongly you both feel on this, and only wish all felt the same. The dark days are only beginning, and the country had better pull itself together to face them.
I did not mean this letter to be a political harangue, and apologize; but I do presume that, once in the war, we are in it to win it with the least expenditure of men and time. Anyone guilty of needlessly prolonging this to his own personal gain is guilty of far more than he will ever comprehend — which he would quickly realize if he found himself in the assault waves some sunny, tropic morning. That position gives one a perspective and an understanding nothing else can give. I hope I am wrong about the impression I gain from magazines and papers. Enough of that.
By the time this reaches you, it will be the middle of April, with the Park beginning to become green, and the baby carriages standing by the benches in the sun, and the old men blinking in the slow warmth of another spring. I just remembered that it will soon be Easter, so a very happy Easter to you both. I wish I could find a string and follow it to find Home and you at the end of it as I found that shiny bicycle so long ago. Do you remember? Well, the day will come; do not fear for that.


FOLLOWING the capture of Eniwetok, Lieutenant Meyer’s regiment was evacuated to other islands in the Pacific, where after a rest the men went into rehearsal for the attacks on Saipan and Guam: —

U. S. NAVAL HOSPITAL.August 2. — I have already written one letter, but I doubt if it was mailed, so I shall repeat what I said there.
I was wounded [on Guam] at 0300 the morning of July 22. The Japs counterattacked; and though we beat them back, one of them managed to throw two grenades into my foxhole. The first one, I was able to throw back at him, but the second went off in my face. My sergeant, who shared the hole with me, was killed. I lost my left eye and three front teeth, ruptured both eardrums, and suffered burns and shrapnel wounds of my face and hands. They found me at dawn and evacuated me in a hurry to the ships and flew me back to the Hawaiian Islands, where I now am mending rapidly and already am able to walk around. My right eye is all right, thank God, and my hearing will improve. There will only be a few minor scans on my face, and a glass eye should find me looking pretty much the same as ever. So do not worry. I should be home in a couple of months, and after that I don’t know.
I can’t tell you where we landed, but you can guess. The action was very severe. Nearly all my friends with whom I went through Brigade School in Samoa are dead. There were only two officers left in-Company when I was hit, so you can see things were pretty rough. I find it hard to believe that so many of the people I knew and served with for so long are gone now. I feel a little out of place among the living and shall never complain. Those others have paid their last debt. I had great good luck during the day’s fighting as I had five bullet holes through my dungaree jacket and not one touched the skin. One bullet cut a cigar I carried in my left breast pocket in half. Providence, luck —call it what you will.
I hope everything goes well with you and that you have not worried too much. I look forward to seeing you both again after all these months. What a lot we shall have to tell one another. All my love to you both. I am quite cheerful and really feeling fine, so do not worry at all.

UNITED STATES NAVAL HOSPITAL.August 6. — I continue to improve daily and my hearing is better. My right eye has a few coral fragments in the cornea but they are getting them out. Every day, I wonder more at my extraordinary luck at being alive at all. It was a close thing at that. I shall never forget the doctor on the ship, when I first got there, saying to a corpsman, “I’m afraid we’re going to lose this one,” about me. I could hear but neither move nor speak, but I felt like saying, “The hell you are!” Five units of blood plasma did the trick.
Write when you can, and it won’t be long now.

UNITED STATES NAVAL HOSPITAL.August 13.— Every day, I see many here who are far worse off than I — limbless, sightless, and yet cheerful, joking, infinitely hopeful. They none of them wish to be pitied or feel they should be. Yet for the blind I have enormous respect. For a week or so I feared I was to be and I don’t know if I could have endured it. It’s like the narrowest and blackest of prisons. I think I’ll make a point of giving to the charities that care for them always.
I don’t think back much yet, and just drink my fresh milk, think about the snow falling at home, and admire the many pretty nurses. Mine is called Miss-and she looks like one of Vermeer’s Dutch girls. I call her “Fräulein” and try to talk German with her, but she speaks with a Low German accent, “Ich kann nicht verstehen.” The view out my window is a famous one and I wish you could see it.
All in all, though, I see my present condition as close to a miracle. Three weeks ago I was damn near dead.
Write often and much love,