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Dog Company Six
By Edwin H. Simmons
Rebound by SagebrushCopyright ©2001 Edwin H. Simmons
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBayard regarded his outstretched legs with a great deal of interest. They were floating in front of him like two silver-white fish on the surface of the rusty- red water. All his civilian fat was gone. The legs were thin, and the wet, white skin was stretched tight against the bone and muscle. He must look, he decided, like one of El Greco's gaunt and attenuated figures.
Bayard was in his bathtub.
He had been wounded in April; it was now June. This was the Hotel Otsu on Lake Biwa, a few miles from Kyoto. He had arrived at the Otsu that afternoon. The hotel had been built, he supposed, twenty or thirty years ago for the American and European tourist trade. Now its shabby elegance was made available to dependents, special visitors, transient officers, and convalescents through the good offices of U.S. Army Special Services, Far East Command.
The porcelain of the tub was cracked and stained. The shoddy Oriental imitation of Western plumbing creaked and groaned and worked its secrets spasmodically. Above the chipped and broken shoulder-high tile, the walls and ceiling were painted a strident yellow. The underpowered electric lightbulb hanging bare from its cord glowed a sullen brown.
But the water was hot, and this was the bath he had promised himself-the long, hotsoaking that would wash away the ingrained pore-deep smells of Korea and the overlying antiseptic and fecal odors of the hospital.
The soaking went on for a long time. At last Bayard broke free from the lethargy induced by the bath and climbed reluctantly from the tub. He stood in the center of the tiny bathroom and rubbed dry with the thin and slightly stale towel, examining his bare body as he did so with the diligent curiosity of a child.
He dried his legs thoughtfully. They were oddly smooth. Then he remembered that the months of living in woolen underclothing had worn off the body hair.
The scar from his wound crawled like a many-legged red lizard from the angle of his hip to the lower edge of his ribs. The surgeon in the Yokusuka hospital had said, "If that piece of grenade had been one inch this way or that...."
Still naked, Bayard moved over to the washbasin, where he had laid out his shaving things. He studied his face critically in the mirror. The skin lay firm and clear against the bone. The red windburn had changed in the hospital to a deceptively healthy-looking tan. But his eyes were still tired, and his brown hair, cut to regulation length this afternoon by the hotel barber, was beginning to show streaks of gray.
If it had been an American-made fragmentation grenade, it probably would have killed all three of them. As it was, the casing had been poorly cast in some Chinese foundry, and half of it in one large fragment had ripped across Bayard's abdomen while the rest shivered into pinpoint-sized splinters that had peppered Baby-san and Havac.
Bayard shaved carefully using a new blade, combed his hair, and then went into the bedroom. He put on a new set of cotton underwear. The drawers were his regular size, but they were too big and to hold them up he had to tighten the tapes on the sides all the way. In the nine months between Inchon and now he had lost twenty pounds.
The mama-san who looked after his room had brought his uniform from the tailor shop, and it lay on the bed, the green kersey jacket and trousers neatly pressed. The uniform was enlisted issue, and the cloth felt stiff and unfamiliar. The green wool would be hot and uncomfortable on a June night, but his summer service tropical worsteds were lost, along with the rest of his officer's uniforms.
The lieutenant in charge of the warehouse had been more than apologetic for the loss. He had been practically grief-stricken. He insisted on showing Bayard that the division's personal effects were now all neatly sorted and stacked, tagged and palletized. Everything was very systematic.
But, the lieutenant had said, you remember the helter-skelter confusion of seabags and footlockers you left behind on the Kobe docks when you loaded out for Inchon in September. Then there was the typhoon, and later some of the baggage was pilfered by the dock workers before things were gotten under control. And, for a while during the worst part of the Chosin Reservoir in December, the casualty reporting system had broken down and some of the division personnel had been mistakenly reported dead or missing in action and their personal effects sent prematurely to their dependents in the States.
Bayard had listened politely to the lieutenant's explanations. The term "personal effects" bore a nice, clean antiseptic quality. A man's belongings were reduced to a neatly typed inventory and a carefully packed box. Before shipment any items of government property and all such things as condoms and pornographic pictures were removed so that what the dependents received of their son's or husband's belongings was sterile and immaculate and something like a retouched photograph.
Bayard didn't much care that his own things were missing. What was it he had lost? There was nothing, as he remembered it, that really mattered in the trunk, just his uniforms, some insignia, a few books he might have read again, some old letters, and a cheap camera.
And the large photograph of Donna-a Harris and Ewing photograph-younger and perhaps better looking than she really was. But he didn't need a photograph to remember Donna's tall, full-curved figure, her warm chestnut hair, or the faint violet shadows under her eyes.
Gratuitous issues of clothing were supposed to be made only to enlisted marines, but the lieutenant seemed to feel he had to make up for the loss of the trunk. Bayard accepted just what he thought he would need for the trip home. Then he had gone to the army px in downtown Kobe and bought himself a new set of insignia and ribbons and a few other essentials.
Now, in his hotel room, Bayard pinned onto the green jacket his silver captain's bars, the bronze Marine Corps insignia, and the two rows of World War II ribbons, now topped off with the Silver Star and the gold-starred Purple Heart.
That twice-awarded Purple Heart was his ticket home. Two wounds requiring hospitalization, and back to the States you went. That was Marine Corps policy. He would finish his convalescent leave, present his orders for endorsement, and get air transportation back to the continental United States. His ribbons were his passport. He had done his share. No further explanations were required. No apologies to anyone. None needed. He didn't owe anything to anybody.
"Dearest Donna," he had written from the hospital just before his release,
Please thank your father for his offer to contact the Secretary of the Navy but it isn't necessary. I am practically home. Everything has been repaired. You have nothing to worry about. All the essential parts are functioning perfectly-a fact which I will demonstrate to you at the earliest opportunity. Also I have a very handsome scar. Unfortunately the damned thing is located where only my very best friends will ever see it.
The powers-that-be tell me that returning officers, especially perforated heroes such as me, get their choice of duty stations, so I am asking for Quantico. I think that will be better for all concerned than Washington itself. Close but not too close. As you know better than I, your father can sometimes be a little over-powering.
It won't be long now, so till then,
All my love,
It wouldn't be long. He would finish his tour of active duty, secure behind the breastworks of his combat decorations. He wouldn't have to put himself to the test once again, to wonder if his thin reserve of courage had been expended or whether it would be sufficient for the next attack, the next assault against some new hill.
There would be no more nights of lying in a foxhole, waking in the dark to feel the wet earth and to wonder if you were already dead and if this were your grave. At first you were cloaked in the secret illusion of your own immortality. You got over that. When you saw your own blood spilling out of a wound, then you knew that you too could die, that it was just a matter of time and the weirdest sort of chance.
He put on a clean, new shirt, buttoned it, and tied the khaki tie three times before the knot suited him. He grimaced in the mirror and stretched his neck against the unfamiliar constriction of the collar around his throat. His brown socks came next, then the green trousers.
His combat boots stood there waiting, like a pair of shining sentries. Mama-san had labored long on them in exchange for a pack of cigarettes, and now only the deepest scars showed through their gleaming mahogany surface.
When the medics cut off his blood encrusted utilities, they had wanted to take the boots, but he hadn't let them. The boots had ridden the stretcher with him to Japan. They were part of him. He had worn them ashore at Inchon, and he had walked down the hill in them from the Reservoir. They were his lucky boots, nonregulation but lucky, given to him by an army paratrooper on Okinawa just before the end of the war. The war. The real war. World War II. When he got home, he was going to have the boots bronze plated.
He pulled the boots on now, secured them tightly with the new laces he had bought in the post exchange, and let his trouser legs drop down over their shining uppers.
Baby-san had cut down the Chinese grenade thrower with his Browning automatic rifle. First Sergeant Havac had stood there cursing "those goddamn sonsabitches," and Baby-san, his own face flecked with blood from the grenade splinters, had lit Bayard a cigarette and crouched there beside him with worried china blue eyes.
"It's my fault, Captain," he said. "I fouled up. I never thought to look at the rafters."
Then Pilnick had injected Bayard with a syrette of morphine and he had slid off away from things. He would remember the battalion aid station only dimly.
"I've done the best I can for you, George," the battalion surgeon had said, his round face smiling whitely out of the darkness. "I think you're going to be all right. It was something like a Caesarian section. Tell the surgeons in Japan that Goldberg did the job-Goldberg the baby doctor."
Was Goldberg still with the battalion? Bayard went to his bag and pulled out a square brown bottle of Scotch. Ballentine's was only two dollars a bottle at the Yokusuka club. He took a glass from the top of his dresser and poured himself an experimental half inch. He had not drunk any whisky in Korea.
Baby-san's letter was also on the dresser. Bayard picked it up and looked reflectively at the large uneven handwriting on the dirty envelope. He put the letter down again without rereading it. Dog Company was no longer his concern. All of his life Bayard had known when a thing was over, when it was opportune to let go. This time was no different.
But unfortunately this time there was no convenient curtain in his mind that he could close on the parade of unwanted memories. They kept marching past, like a record that kept replaying itself.
He sipped wryly at the Scotch. Havac and Baby-san, the two who had been closest, the two indestructibles. He remembered the first meeting with Havac in the brick company barracks at Camp Lejeune.
Bayard had gone into the company office escorted by Gibson, the company executive officer. There, squarely facing the door, sat Havac. Bayard's first impression of the man was purely visual: short spiky black hair turning gray at the edges; a hard broad Slavic face; massive chest; and an ironed khaki shirt, immaculate despite the North Carolina summer heat.
Gibson had made the introductions.
"Nice to meet the Captain," said Havac in those gravelly tones Bayard had gotten to know so well. "The sergeant major phoned me that the Captain was on his way over."
What was there about that first meeting that had put Bayard on the defensive? Had Havac deliberately been a trifle slow in getting to his feet? Had it been his exaggeratedly formal use of the third person?
Even now, Bayard was not sure. Perhaps it was simply that Havac was so obviously armored in self-assurance. Havac had been with Dog Company since the reorganization of the Fleet Marine Force at the end of the war. He had argued his way off a dozen transfer orders. Other master sergeants could take their well-earned ease at post headquarters or at the rifle range, but in Havac's view, there was no place for a marine to be except in the Fleet Marine Force and there was no billet for a master sergeant except to be the first soldier of a rifle company.
When Bayard joined Dog Company, Havac was in his nineteenth year of service. He had enlisted in 1931, the year, in fact, of Baby-san's birth-although this was no particular coincidence, for there were many in Dog Company who were nineteen.
As Havac told it, 1931 had been a gray year for the bohunks who worked Pennsylvania's anthracite mines, as gray as the endless mountains of slag that surrounded the company town. Havac was seventeen, the youngest of four sons and three daughters. The big mine was shut down. The only money coming in was the little his father and oldest brother made from working in a bootleg shaft.
A poster in front of the post office showed a marine in laced leggings and a flat-brimmed campaign hat standing guard with a Springfield rifle in the shade of a palm tree. In the background was a red-and-gold pagoda.
Havac succumbed to the lure and never regretted the choice. As a private he had chased banditos in the jungles of Nicaragua. As a private first class he had patrolled the Standard Oil docks in Shanghai and had known the exotic pleasures of Nanking Road. As a corporal he had stood watch with the Legation Guard in Peking. Then there had been the war, the big war with Japan.
Senior among Havac's ribbons was the blue-and-white Navy Cross, then came the Silver Star, and then a gold-starred Purple Heart. There were many Purple Hearts among the noncommissioned officers of Dog Company. The Purple Heart, reflected Bayard, was as much the hallmark of the professional marine as the saber scar was a Prussian's badge of honor. There were also a good number of Bronze Stars and two other Silver Stars in the company. But there were no other Navy Crosses. The Navy Cross alone would have marked Havac as an exceptional marine, but that Havac had both the Navy Cross and a Silver Star meant that among the master sergeants of the Corps he stood almost alone.
Bayard had not known all this at the time of his first meeting with Havac. He had just come from his initial interview with the battalion commander, and that in itself had been disconcerting.
Excerpted from Dog Company Six by Edwin H. Simmons Copyright ©2001 by Edwin H. Simmons. Excerpted by permission.
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What People are Saying About This
“Ed Simmons’s evocative writing cuts through the mists of half a century to bring into stark relief a proud Corps of Marines in one of their darkestand finesthours.” W.E.B. Griffin
“A superb novel. It works as a story of the Korean War and the U.S. Marine Corps, but also as a probe into the deepest reaches of the human condition.” Jim Lehrer
“An intense, psychological novel by a retired Marine general who fought in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam and knows how to write. [Simmons is] a master at technical details.”USA Today
“A fresh, compelling look at the forgotten war and the tough men of the old breed who fought it. General Simmons’s insights into the tactics, personalities, and minutiae of battle make this a first-rate combat narrative.”James Webb, author of Fields of Fire
“Will bring you to tears of sorrow and tears of joy.” Leon Uris
“Excellent…Simmons writes with the salty authority of a man who has seen war.” Publishers Weekly
“Not just an action-adventure storythough it is that, to be surebut a starkly realistic portrait of infantry combat.” Marine Corps Gazette
“The best autobiographical novel to come out of the Korean War.”Leatherneck