8 8th YEAR OF CONTINUOUS PUBLICATION
by EDGAR L. JONES
NOTHING about the bottle distinguished it from any other, except that the long serial number in the upper right-hand corner of its label ended with 711, a lucky number for some soldier, sailor, marine, coastguardman, machine gunner, jeep driver, radio operator, artilleryman, combat photographer, or any Jim, Jack, Jacob, or Joseph, enlisted man or officer, whose life after battle would depend upon the blood of another. This was a pint of plasma en route to battle, an unnamed bottle of human life, destined to grant a future to an unknown casualty on Iwo Jima.
Packed carefully in the deep hull of the Mars, someone’s tomorrow, a pint of borrowed time with rubber tubing attached, was being flown to Pearl Harbor. In a plywood case marked FRAGILE, THIS SIDE UP, it had been rushed by the Maine Central, Baltimore & Ohio, Southern Pacific, Great Northern, or a combination of these or any of a hundred other railroads, to San Francisco under high priority. From boxcar, to loading wagon, to six-bysix truck, to automatic lift, to embarkation warehouse, to rubber-tired trailer, to bent shoulders, to the plane itself, the life of an unknown soldier had been passed along gently by a hundred hands, by men who worked overtime in railroad yards to make up for the shortage of labor, by civil service employees who typed the movement orders in quadruplicate, by women who manned the files and ran the gummed edges of envelopes across a wet sponge.
A nation had toiled to send bottled strength to a weakening son. This was one pint from the lifestream of U.S.A., a small portion of a pool of blood pumped by the heartheats of men and women who lay, staring at the ceiling, on white tables in a thousand community centers and sent a pulsating stream of fresh stamina to some soldier resting on a litter in a distant dressing station.
Number 711 was no particular person’s blood. Like that in the other twenty-three bottles in the same case, it was the blood of America, drawn by registered nurses, Red Cross workers, and Gray Ladies from the veins of the pert elevator operator in Denver’s Brown Palace Hotel, the IV-F machinist in Detroit, the war bride in the New Hampshire State Highway Department, the harried waiter in New Orleans’s French Quarter, the aspiring starlet lounging hopefully in the Brown Derby, the traffic cop in the white-circled center of Michigan Boulevard, the childless matron on the eleventh floor of 440 Riverside Drive, the liquor dealer across the tracks from the station in Fargo, North Dakota, the Irish hostess greeting uniformed minors in Boston’s Scollay Square, the mother of five children, three in the armed forces, in Tooele, Utah, the gas station attendant in Gadsden, Alabama, the croupier in a Reno gambling house, the instructor in a Cleveland skating rink.
Copyright 1945, by The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Mass, All rights reserved.
From the bared arms of housewives, cowboys, rabbis, sextons, typists, farmers, messenger girls, tassle dancers, pin boys, debutantes, soda-jerkers, college students, lawyers, Republicans, labor organizers, Democrats, isolationists, Communists, bankers — and from countless members of the armed forces who might live to regain in foreign fields their blood shed at home. Into a cylindrical drum, the wartime melting pot, the blood of many was poured, and by centrifugal force was reduced to universal, anonymous cells, living symbols of a unified people. Each cell had its purpose. Each pint of plasma fitted into a battle plan which called for a specific number of bulldozers, mortars, heavy shells, hand radio sets, amphibious tractors, fourinch bandages, and U. S. Marines. The invasion of Iwo Jima was six months away when the heaviest matériel began moving westward; six weeks away when Number 711 reached San Francisco.
The haze-bound sun which was setting as the Mars cleared Oakland Bay was just rising as the lights of Honolulu appeared below the starboard wing tip. Negro stevedores from a port battalion with three years of overseas service to its credit hustled the high-priority cargo from the flying boat to waiting trucks. No stopover in Hawaii was on the schedule for Number 711. A four-engined C-54 already was being loaded at the NATS (Navy Air Transport Service) Terminal. The skipper of the plane was roused from his sack early and briefed on weather conditions and identification signals before breakfast. He was a former high school teacher from Boise, Idaho, with a former lawyer for a copilot and a certified public accountant as navigator. They had their second cup of coffee at the Red Cross Canteen in the waiting room as the last of the passengers and cargo was checked aboard.
Because the storage compartments of the plane were filled, the case containing Number 711 was set on the deck among the passengers. The skipper tripped over it on his way forward to the controls and cursed mechanically. Excess baggage, no matter how precious, disturbed him, because he had to fly thirty tons of metal, men, and matériel more than two thousand miles across an uncertain Pacific. The navigator and he had to find one small island among the thirty-four fly-speck Marshall atolls spread over 375,000 square miles of water. They had to find the right island, because four of the Marshalls were still in Japanese hands. They had to find it in darkness, because the trip took all day and part of the night.
Not only was it dark when the C-54 landed: it was a different day, because the plane had crossed the International Date Line. The crew and passengers could rest overnight, but not the plane. Another crew was ready to fly the C-54 to the Marianas as soon as the engines were checked and refueled. A fresh batch of passengers climbed aboard, but the cargo was unchanged, except that a few sacks of inter-island mail were stuffed into the aft hold.
The case containing Number 711 remained in the passenger compartment, where it served readily as a combination buffet and card table. The flight engineer set a container of coffee, a loaf of bread, and a plate of sandwich meats on the flat surface of the box, and when the passengers and crew had satisfied their hunger, the co-pilot came back to play gin rummy with an Army major, first brushing the crumbs from the top of the wooden case.
Nearly 1400 miles of ocean lay between the Marshalls and the Marianas, a long and lonely haul for a heavily loaded land plane. A sultry, sweatladen new day was half over by the time the C-54 eased down to the long runway which the Seabees had whacked out of the jungles.
Guam, Tinian, Saipan — these were islands which meant nothing to most Americans until war splattered their staccato names across the front pages of last year’s newspapers. Yet here was Number 711, the blood of American citizens, in a medical warehouse in the Marianas — G000 miles from the United States, but only 1300 from Tokyo. It took less than thirty minutes to transfer the case of plasma from the C-54 to the warehouse, but millions of man-hours had made possible such an apparently simple operation.
Bulldozers, road-scrapers, stone-crushers, steamrollers, dynamite, and macadam had to be transported one quarter of the way around the world before a road could be constructed. There would have been no warehouse without cement, sheet metal, telephone and electric wiring, hammers and nails, and the ships, cranes, wharves, and trucks necessary to move the building materials from industrial centers to the new American frontier. Men, ammunition, fuel, planes, food, clothing, and violent death preceded Number 711 on its flight.
AN amphibious operation is not so much the beginning of a new battle as the extension of an old one. Progressive bases of operations have to be captured, and as the struggle for one island eases up, a surplus of men and materials becomes available for a fresh fight farther along the road to Tokyo.
American troops were still engaged with stubborn Japanese in the Solomons, Carolines, Marshalls, Marianas, and Philippines in February of 1945; yet a surplus fighting force which made possible additional commitments had been built up. Even the progress of the war on the other side of the world affected the timetable for Pacific movements, since battleships and personnel which previously had been in the European theater joined the Iwo invasion fleet.
The island of Iwo, shrouded by black clouds of volcanic dust and smoke, appeared from the sea to be lifeless. The Marines swarmed down the nets and into the waiting boats as the Navy pummeled the beachhead with a final bombardment of shells, bombs, and rockets. The first waves seemed to get ashore safely. From an anchorage several miles away from the actual beach, one cannot see mortar bursts and small-arms fire. Yet before H Hour had run its course, a lash-tipped voice over the public address system announced, “Casualties, Number Three hatch! Casualties, Number Three hatch!”
The waves slammed the small boats against the steel side of the transport and jarred into temporary consciousness the men who lay wounded on unsteady stretchers. The boom on Number Three hatch was swung to starboard, a sling was lowered, and the casualties, two at a time, were taken aboard. A medical officer made a rapid survey and gave his orders: “Take this one to the Op Room at once; these two can go to Ward Two; and this one — this one is already dead, but take him below.”
The corpsmen hurried, because there were more wounded to come. Even in the small boats, some of the more critically wounded were being kept alive by plasma. Standing over the wounded men, the coxswains held the bottles in one hand while they clung to the rail with the other. During the few seconds the wounded were being lifted aloft in slings, the bottles were on the stretchers beside them, but as soon as they reached the deck of the transport, corpsmen raised the bottles so that the life-giving fluid once again flowed downward and into the arms of those who lived on the strength of others.
The number of Marines who went ashore that first day was more than double the number of those who returned to the ship on stretchers, but it was difficult for the personnel of the transport, many of whom worked below deck, to appreciate this fact. It seemed as though the bosun piped notice of the arrival of casualties as rapidly as he announced the departure of fresh boatloads of pack-laden Marines. The sick bay filled up, and additional wounded were quartered in the bunks recently left vacant by troops headed shoreward.
Case after case of plasma was broken open, but 711 was undisturbed. Throughout the first night, the case containing 711 remained in storage. Then at dawn the next morning the signal came that a medical dressing station on the beach needed more blood. Marines carried the plywood boxes topsides and lowered them in nets to a waiting landing craft. The four Coastguardmen who operated the boat made sure the plasma was secure before shoving off.
The turbulent sea had reached a state of violence which equaled that of the bloody battle on the beaches. So many small boats had been smashed by the waves and spewn as twisted rubble along the sand that no more were allowed to land, unless they carried cargo which could not wait. In a voice which was carried a quarter of a mile out to sea by loudspeakers, the beachmaster bellowed a command for the Coastguardmen to tell him what they had aboard. The coxswain wigwagged his arms to signify blood. The beachmaster ordered them to catch a line from the small craft on their port side and to ride the next wave into the beach.
As the boat ground its nose into the black sands of Iwo, the craft on the port, side stood offshore and tugged on a stern line to keep the boat perpendicular to the beach. When the ramp was lowered, a chain from a waiting bulldozer was attached to the bow, so that while the cargo was being unloaded, the boat was held fore and aft by the bulldozer on the beach and a small craft in the water. The waves poured over the stern, drenching the crew, but Seabees waded through the knee-deep water in the well of the boat and shouldered the cases of blood. Number 711 had reached the beach of Iwo Jima.
THE medical dressing station was close to the shore. Corpsmen brought in wounded and went back for more. The casualties were given temporary treatment and held until the beachmaster signaled that a boat was ready to take them to the nearest transport vessel. Number 711 was shoved under a tarpaulin until needed, but that moment was close at hand.
A panting corpsman hurried into the dressing station to ask for plasma. A kid was pinned in a tank, he said, and needed blood until they could get him out. The tarpaulin was yanked back, a plywood case was dragged into the open so that its cover could be pried off, and Number 711 was on its way into action. The front lines skirted the airfield, only a quarter of a mile from the beach, but it was an uphill climb, with thick sand to make every step an effort. Mortar and shell fire forced the corpsman to dive for cover, crouch and run forward, and dive for cover again.
After sixty-eight consecutive days of being bombed, the Japanese still had effective land mines. One of the first American tanks to reach the airfield was put out of commission when it ran over an underground mine and was blown upside down. Four of the crew were killed instantly, and the fifth was trapped head down among his dead companions. His leg was crushed between the gun mount and the side of the turret, preventing his being removed. He had to be given medical treatment inside the tank until a repair crew could get him out. Number 711’s mission was to keep the man alive. Via train, plane, truck, ship, landing craft, and weary corpsman, the lifeline of American blood had been extended from a white table to an overturned tank on distant Iwo Jima.
The escape hatch on the bottom of the tank was now facing upward. The enemy was plastering the entire area with heavy fire, but the corpsman lowered himself into the interior of the tank. With the aid of a flashlight he groped among the bodies until he found the live one. Blinking in the glare of the light, the injured man smiled wanly and murmured, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” The corpsman gave him a shot of morphine and told him it was no wonder that he was strung up like a side of beef if he pulled corny gags like that one. Finding nothing else handy, the corpsman used a near-by body as a pillow to raise the kid into a more comfortable position. He examined the leg and saw that it could be extricated without amputation if the tank were turned upright. It was just a question of hanging on until the turret could be opened.
There was no place to hang Number 711, so the corpsman had to stand and hold it. Down the rubber tube and into the white underside of a bloody arm flowed the surplus strength of the elevator operator, the traffic cop, the Irish hostess, the liquor dealer, the farmer, the war bride, the college student, and all the others at home.
“Whose blood is it?” the kid wanted to know. “Blonde or brunette?”
For five hours the kid was trapped in the tank. Gas fumes filled the interior, and the corpsman did not dare to light a cigarette. Marines shouted encouragement from time to time through the open hatch, but help was slow in coming. Close mortar bursts thickened the air in the tank with dust and smoke. More plasma was sent for, but Number 711 had accomplished its mission. The injured man’s pulse was strong, and his crushed leg, pinned in an elevated position, had stopped bleeding.
The corpsman was relieved when he no longer had to hold his arm aloft to keep the plasma flowing downwards. Finally a retriever truck with a heavy crane was pushed and pulled through the deep sand and maneuvered onto hard ground. The corpsman held onto his patient while the tank was turned over. Fresh air rushed through the open turret. The tankman was eased out, followed by the corpsman, who started to take one end of the stretcher but was shoved aside by a Marine who felt the corpsman had done enough for one day.
Number 711, an empty pint of expendable American blood, was left among the dead inside the tank. The retriever truck towed the tank to a place of comparative safety, where repairmen could go to work on it, and a burial party removed the bodies to a cemetery started near the beach. Number 711 was tossed onto a pile of empty K ration tins.
From San Francisco, to the Marshalls, to the Marianas, to the airfield at the foot of Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima, Number 711 had been passed along by countless hands in order that the life of one man might be saved. While the kid was waiting in the dressing station for a boat to take him out to a transport, he tried to thank the corpsman. Without looking as though he were trying to make an impressive, heroic speech, the corpsman bent closer to the wounded tankman and replied, “Don’t thank me, mate. You’ll get a ticket to the States for this, and when you get there and see someone in a restaurant, bus depot, or hotel lobby with a blood bank button on, thank that guy, because someone at home saved your life, not me.”
After distinguished service with the British Eighth Army in the African campaigns, EDGAR L. JONES is now an Atlantic correspondent with our armed forces in the Pacific. During the past three months he has lived with his fellow Americans on Kwajalein, Tarawa, Guam, and most recently with our Marines at Iwo Jima.