Featured in 2015 Spring Issue of Rambunctious
By Anna Pluff, ’16
I forced myself to keep running, to not look back. I was deaf to the whistling of the shells that I knew where landing around me. I was blind to the sights of the dead bodies that fell beside me. I could no longer taste the blood that had dripped into my mouth. My head pounded, but I was numb, my whole body had lost all its senses. Yet there is one sense you can’t lose, smell. The smell of death filled my nose, it made my eyes water. I couldn’t escape that. No one can. You can teach yourself to become deaf to the screams, blind to the sight of death, numb to the pain, and tasteless to the metallic blood. But somehow it’s the smell that gets to you. You can always look away from the rotting bodies that feed that ground, but not the scent. It is so pungent it makes me dizzy. I hate it. I hate fighting. And most of all I hate this war. So I keep running, hoping to maybe die, yet hoping to live.
That’s when the shell exploded. Shrapnel tore into my leg, causing me to stumble unto the ground. I hoped this was it, I hoped another shell would explode unto my head and end it. This time I wasn’t numb, this time a hot, fiery pain raced through my leg and caused me to scream. My hand immediately went to my leg. The sticky feeling of blood confirmed the seriousness of the injury. I almost passed out. Everywhere I looked men were running. I called for a corpsman but no one came. I couldn’t move so I was forced to lie on my back. I looked up at the sky as I held my screaming leg. The sky had turned black from the smoke, yet I watched as tracers alighted the darkness. Please, someone help me. I decided then I didn’t want die, eighteen years is not nearly enough. The feeling of the gritty sand on my back and the pain in my leg was all I could think about, that and the words of my father.
1940. About a year before Japan attacked, the War was all we talked about. Amongst my friends we all had hoped America would join the fight for victory. We imagined we were going to be heroes. I devoured newspapers, hoping to get any bit of information I could. My friends and I would discuss whether we were going to join the Air Force or the Army. I always knew I wanted to be a Marine. My father had been a Marine and he said it was the best thing ever for a man to do. My father had fought in the Great War, and he was like a legend to me. His stories of the War captivated me, and I begged him to tell me about his battles. My favorite story was when he fought in the Battle of Belleau Wood. I could only imagine the Marne River of France where he fought the German offensive. I could almost hear the BRATATATAT of the machine guns and the shouts of his fellow men. He would tell me that war is what makes a man. Yes, there are hardships, he would say, but there is only glory to be gained. He was a proud American, and because of that I was too. I believed there wasn’t a fight we couldn’t win. We would always be decorated with victory. He made war seem so glorious and I could only wait to follow in his footsteps. Well a year later, my wait was over.
I remember the day so clearly. December 7th, 1941. Who could have ever forgotten? The whole country had turned from anti-war to pro-war in a day. Or at least that’s how I felt. The next day I signed up for the United States Marine Corps. My father shook my hand and my mother cried. I knew she didn’t want me to leave, but she loved me and she knew this was my dream. At the time it was a dream. I had just turned eighteen on December 1st, and this felt like the best birthday present ever. I was going to serve my country and destroy the Japs. The Japanese seemed like a foreign race to me. Their culture was nothing like ours, they seemed to be a world away, and U.S. propaganda had only furthered that gap. They were the villains we needed to destroy. Patriotism rang throughout the whole country. This was our duty to not only save the world from the Nazis, but from the Japs as well. We would triumph.
I was so naïve.
War is not what an eighteen-year-old kid expects it to be. War is not what your father once told you. War is not always victorious. There is not always a clear-cut when it comes to good vs. evil. You watch your buddies die. You burn the homes of the innocent. You learn to kill. That was the hard part. To watch the eyes of the enemy die before you at the hand of your gun is a degrading thing. I only did it once before the nightmares made me crazy. I wanted to escape. That’s when I found myself running. That’s when the shell exploded and I hoped to die. I would die a coward. But I didn’t care. I wasn’t the man my father expected me to be. I wasn’t the soldier I thought I was. I was a scared little boy, alone in a world of fear, pain, and devastation. I wished to go back home. But home was a thousand miles away. The pain in my leg stopped. I think everything stopped.
When I woke up someone was cutting away at my torn dungarees. The bleeding hadn’t stopped. I tried my best to tell him it was useless, I was going to die anyways. He ignored me. I tried again, louder this time. He looked me dead in the eyes. “I won’t leave a man behind.” That was all he said before he kept working on me again. The pain was excruciating. I told him to spare his own life, I was a coward, and I was the one who ran away. I don’t think he heard me, I could barely hear my own words among the raging sounds of the battle. He tried to help me up, to sling my arm around his shoulder. I was stubborn and refused his help. So instead he grunted and picked me up like a bride and carried me. Let me die, I croaked. He only offered me a steely glare. I looked past him, up again at the soiled sky.
The next time I looked up, it was into a bright light. The beach was gone. So were the screams and the bangs. The smell of death had left too. My leg was bandaged up, and it throbbed with a dull pain. I was in a small infirmary, and other men, some in worse condition, lay around me. I didn’t understand. I was supposed to die. I had been prepared. Yet here I was, in a clean cotton shirt and fresh dungarees. I was saved. I asked the nurse who had brought me in. The man’s face, and eyes had not left my memory. I needed to know who he was. She only offered me a look of pity. “It was Lieutenant Bushwell,” she said. “He died in battle yesterday after he brought you here. He was trying to help a group of men escape from a Japanese sniper.” I couldn’t think of a response so I looked away. She left me there to absorb the information. This isn’t fair, I thought. He had sacrificed himself for me and those other men, he was the hero, and he was the one who died. Was there anything fair in the world?
I was discharged from the Marines after my injury. My leg healed fine, but my heart never quite made it. I was a victim of war guilt. Those feelings of pride and devotion had left me. All that was left behind were the feelings of depression and guilt. Those feelings plagued me long after the War. The face of that Lieutenant who saved my life was always in the back of my mind. I was no longer that little boy. I was no longer that naïve child who dreamed of war. But at the same time I was a man. Not because I had achieved victory and followed in the footsteps of my father, because I had done none of that. But because I had learned the real meaning of war: sacrifice. War isn’t about victory and triumph. War is about pain and suffering. I thought I knew what war meant from the stories of my father, but instead it took the courage of a man I never knew, and who will never see again, to teach me the real meaning of war… Sacrifice.