Chapter 1: Parris in the Summer CHAPTER 1 Parris in the Summer
God was late.
For six weeks he had been everywhere on the firing line. He was a deity with far-seeing eyes and an eerie professional calmness that separated him from every man any of them had known. He lectured, he taught, he named the parts and took them through the ceremonial intricacies of disassembly and assembly, and when the young recruits found themselves behind their spanking-new M1 Garand rifles, it seemed like he found time to kneel next to every boy—there were three hundred of them—issue gentle sight corrections, adjust a grip, test for a dominant eye, tighten a sling, slap a recalcitrant bolt handle forward, jiggle an en bloc clip of Government .30 into a breech, or press on the trigger-guard safety to which young fingers—the average recruit was 19.7 years old—were unaccustomed.
He never seemed to sweat, as if that human attribute was itself too intimidated to perform. He never cursed or humiliated or threatened, as did endlessly their daily custodians, the drill instructors; his way was soothing, as if he knew enough real bad shit lay ahead for them and had determined not to add to it. This disposition was part of a legend that was growing toward the ecclesiastical, while in fact he wore no ribbons on his tunics and never spoke of the islands he’d been on.
Though it was barely halfway through the year of our war 1944, it was said he’d already been on three. Most could name them: Guadalcanal, Bougainville, and Tarawa. The former was famous for its triple-canopy tropical rain forest, just the neighborhood for hiding the wily Japanese; the latter for its thousand-yard walk through the chest-high surf from amtracs hung up on unseen reefs while blue tracers flicked murderously through the air, killing randomly. He got through that. On the third day he’d been badly wounded, it was said, spending six months in the hospital. The Corps believed he’d seen enough combat and had assigned him here on Parris Island, the smudge of marshy land just south of Beaufort, South Carolina, and north of Georgia where young men were brutalized into Marines. He was the senior NCO in charge of Rifle Marksmanship, that central faith of the Marine Corps.
But where was he?
Did something dare impede the great Gunnery Sergeant Earl Swagger, or was this part of Marine stagecraft, designed to increase the aura around the man? They would never know. They swatted flies and sand fleas, glad of the island’s singular mercy, which was a ramshackle roof built over the amphitheater that somewhat distilled the near-lethal sun, and talked among themselves, waiting, waiting, waiting. They were full of piss and venom. Culled hard over the weeks, those that remained yearned themselves to get to the islands and kill a bucketful of Japs. All considered themselves invulnerable, whether they were Harvard graduates—there were fourteen of those—or had flunked out of Frog Snot High School in Swampbilge, Mississippi. They thought they were crack shots on the nine pounds of Garand rifle death they lived with; they thought they could toss a grenade through a gun slot in a pillbox forty yards hence or go all Errol Flynn with their bayonets, outdueling the yellow enemy and their cruel samurai swords. All knew they would be heroes or die trying; none knew they might just die by whimsy, accident, or tropic fever. That was too much heaviness to the spirit to bear.
“Here he comes,” came a call that became a ripple and then a wave as it coursed through the group. Indeed, a jeep came down Range Road through a meadowland of rifle acreage from a squad of administrative Quonsets a mile off, pulling up dust from the unpaved track. A PFC drove. Next to him had to be the gunnery sergeant his own self, big as life, maybe bigger, certainly the most interesting man any of them had ever met.
The sergeant bailed briskly from the vehicle, to be instantly attended by the DIs who supervised each platoon of the 3rd Recruit Training Battalion, and each gave a smart report to the effect that all were present and accounted for, meaning that the recruits were seated and rapt. This would be Swagger’s last time to address the battalion as a whole and he had words for them.
Swagger was a solid six feet, immaculate in class A khaki shirt and, for the occasion, blue dress trousers with Marine red stripes, ending cufflessly in black oxfords so bright with shine you could signal a plane with them. His visored cap was white. He wore no tie but the shirt was starched hard, its array of pockets and plackets arranged to form a metaphor for perfect USMC-style order on the chest, and a perfect pie of T-shirt showed in the valley of the collar. No ribbons, just the dark three up and two down over the diamond on the sleeve that signified rank.
No one would call him handsome; no one would call him ugly. He was simply a Marine. His face had been baked in Pacific sun, so that it now resembled a Spartan shield picked up after the big fight on the Greek coast. It was a long, hard, lean face, unadorned by flesh. He had cheekbones like howitzer shells. His nose was a blade, its precision testimony to the fact that even while winning Pacific fleet light heavyweight champion in ’39, he had been quick enough to keep it pristine. The jaw appeared to have been smelted from steel and the eyes were intense. They were also legendary. Every time he took a physical, naval aviation boys came calling to beg him to take a commission and an appointment to Pensacola and fly with them, because they knew he’d see the Zeros before they saw him. He, however, was a man of the gun, the land, the forest, and the hunt, and his skills and inclinations pointed him irrevocably in that way. Besides, generations of Swaggers had found the earth good enough to die on.
He went swiftly to the podium, not requiring the seated youngsters to rise, as he knew that would unsettle them for no point at all. He faced them.
“Good morning, marines,” he said in a tone of voice familiar to military formations for a good five thousand years, and linking him to a long line of the foremen of battle who got them up the hill or across the river or through no-man’s-land, whether the setting was Guadalcanal or Borodino. His variation on the NCO’s voice had the softness of the mid-South to it, as he hailed from Polk County, Arkansas, but the tone could have been Zulu, Greek, Roman, Hun, even yeoman’s as spoken in the mud of Agincourt.
“GOOD MORNING, SERGEANT,” they replied, and he passed on any follow-up Corps-standard theatrical bullshit as in “Sound off like you got a pair” or “I can’t hear you” to get them even more ginned up. Swagger thought such rhetorical excesses unnecessary and of no use to the combat-bound.
“I call you marines and not recruits because, though a week shy of graduation and assignment to your next units, you have all passed rifle marksmanship. You are therefore riflemen and are therefore entitled to the respect of men, for all of you fellows are now men, even that squeaky little redhead over there”—he pointed to Richie Murphy, a kind of battalion mascot who was officially seventeen but widely believed to be even younger—“and in short order will be facing Japanese infantrymen in places you never heard of, you can’t pronounce, you couldn’t find on no map because they aren’t big enough. That’s man’s work. Only men can do it, and you have proven yourself. No matter how it turns out, know today you are a man and a marine.”
They cheered themselves. They had earned it: by mastering the hard craft of the march, the compass, the push-up, the grenade, and most of all the rifle. In that discipline they showed the skill to lie flat and put rounds on targets to six hundred yards. It would be harder under fire, but if their luck held—nobody said it would—the fundamentals Swagger had pounded into them would get them through it.
“Now, you may have noticed, ain’t no officers here today,” he said.
Some had, some hadn’t. But, yes, it was strange, as platoon commanders and battalion staff had been ever present over the rigorous nine weeks that had preceded.
“That’s because I want to speak freely, with no reports being filed and investigators from the Navy Department showing up. So what I tell you ain’t official Marine doctrine as vetted by the old men with stars on their collars. I’m just giving you straight shit, and I hope you listen on it and take it to heart. I believe it may save your life someday. But before I begin, let me ask: Is there a man here from Harvard University?”
In time a few hands raised. Swagger pointed to the nearest, and said, “All right, son, you come on up here.”
The boy climbed onto the stage in his much-sweated-in herringbone twill dungarees. Though tall and slim, he wore the olive drab cotton poorly, so that it hung on him like pajamas, obscuring the crew athlete he’d once been and the war athlete he’d become. His cover was the pith helmet, a Jungle Jim thing that actually did its job against the sun no matter how goofy it looked. He was shod in boondockers, rough side out, giving him the aspect, however unlikely, of a man who made his living pushing a plow behind a mule. He came to attention.
“Stand at ease.”
The boy’s posture relaxed but still showed strength through core muscles.
“What’s your name, son?”
“Sergeant, my name is Wallace F. McCoy, Sergeant,” he said smartly.
“Now, McCoy,” said Swagger, “I know on account of your fine university that you’re a smart fellow. I’m guessing you have a good memory. Would I be right?”
“Well…” The boy paused. “Sergeant, I can name all the presidents and all the states. I know the table of elements, the Declaration of Independence, the names and stories of all the constellations. I’ve read every British novel ever written and all the poets and playwrights. I know the Pledge of Allegiance, Shakespeare’s sonnets, the words to the Marine’s Hymn, and I speak Spanish.”
“That would seem to be what I had in mind,” said Swagger. “Now I believe in that brain of yours there might have been room enough for something the Marine Corps taught you called ‘The Rifleman’s Creed.’ Tell me I’m not wrong.”
“Sergeant, you’re not wrong, Sergeant.”
“Excellent. Now I want you to recite it for me and all your chums in 3rd Recruit Battalion sitting out there. Speak it loud, so they can hear in the balcony”—there of course being no balcony.
“Sergeant, yes, Sergeant.”
He turned, cleared his throat.
“Wait,” said Swagger. “It works better with this.” He leaned behind the podium and removed an M1 Garand rifle, the potbellied, eight-round .30-caliber semiautomatic weapon that made the American marine or soldier the best armed in the war. He handed it to the young man, who received it with accustomed hands, immediately cleared it to check that it was unloaded, again by regulation, then turned to face his cohort.
“?‘This is my rifle,’?” he said from rote memory. “?‘There are many like it, but this one is mine. My rifle is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life. My—’?”
“Skip to the brother part,” said Swagger.
“Yes, Sergeant. ‘My rifle is human, even as I, because it is my life. Thus, I will learn it as a brother. I—’?”
“That’s enough, McCoy. Stand easy.”
McCoy went to parade rest, the rifle held precisely parallel to his right leg, secured by the grip of his right hand.
Swagger turned to the group.
“You all know that. The DIs have drilled it into your ears for eleven weeks. You have nightmares about it. You probably will remember it for the rest of your life.
“It was written in 1942 by a general named William H. Rupertus, commandant of the big base in San Diego. I had the privilege of serving with the general when he was a colonel in Honduras in the thirties banana wars. He was a fine man. I’d serve with him anytime and follow him anywhere.”
“And yet, marines, I’m telling you this one, not straight from the heart, but straight from the mud in which most battles are fought. It’s bullshit.”
The brigadier, a small gray thistle of a man who confronted reality under an iron-gray flat-top, hollow cheeks blackened perpetually by whisker that could not be shaved away, and eyes that looked like peep sights, was in conference with his senior staff in the big room just down from his office. All present wore perfectly starched class A khakis, open at the neck, short-sleeved, as much fruit salad as possible on chests, rank pins on collars and over their khaki slacks, highly shined brown oxfords. They looked like mushrooms with medals and suntans. They sat rigidly, they talked rigidly, they smoked rigidly.
The meeting had to do with construction shortfalls for the barracks to house incoming recruits for the newly designated 5th, 6th, and 7th Recruit Battalions. The new boys would be arriving by October and it didn’t appear the barracks would be habitable until November.
The issue, therefore, was where to put the boys until the building could take them.
“I don’t want them squawking about sleeping outdoors,” said the brigadier in an iron voice under iron eyes. He smiled in the presence of grandchildren only, except he had no grandchildren and his only son had died on Guadalcanal. “They should be concentrating on their training. Besides, the DI magic doesn’t work outside an intimate setting like a barrack. That’s where he builds the marine into them.”
“Sir,” a colonel said, “maybe there’s unused hangar space at Page. We could requisition cots, we could run lines with tarps to cut the room into more intimate space—”
But before the commanding officer of Parris Island’s Page Field could object, the brigadier’s aide entered, went swiftly to him, and bent over.
“Sir, call from Navy Annex,” he whispered.
The brigadier was taken aback. Such direct communications were rare. Orders and policies generally drifted down the table of organization, each level getting its turn. And Navy Annex, where the commandant and his headquarters staff were now located while something called Henderson Hall was expanded for them, meant interest from the highest level. In fact, such things almost never happened. Something large must be on somebody’s plate. He had to jump.
“Gentlemen, forgive the interruption. I have to take a call.”
He turned, left, involuntarily making certain his gig line was straight, his fruit salad as precise as a Technicolor chessboard, his shirt bloused tightly, his shoes as bright brown as a cow’s eyes, his one star freshly Brasso’d and gleaming on each collar wing. No one at Navy Annex could see him, of course, but he felt better prepared if he was as squared away as any headquarters officer.
In his office, he found another orderly holding the phone. He took it and a deep breath and said his name into it.
“How are you, Brad?” asked the commandant of the Marine Corps, a soft beginning that seemed to indicate the call wasn’t to be remonstrative.
“Sir, I’m fine. We’re working hard here to keep our programs on schedule and of high standard. I can send you a report if—”
“No, no, this is another thing.”
“Yes, sir, how may I be of help?”
“You have Gunnery Sergeant Swagger down there, is that correct?”
“Yes, sir. Swagger’s practically an institution. He turns out the best riflemen in the world. I hope you’re not telling me his requests have been approved and he’s off to the Pacific again. I’d hate to lose him.”
“I wish I could help you on that one,” said the commandant, “but I answer to higher parties. In about an hour, a B-17 from the Eighth Air Force”—those were the boys who were bombing the Reich from England!—“will put down at Page.”
Was Page big enough? Well, if the pilots were good enough and the brigadier instantly understood that a far more normal procedure would be to land them at Naval Air Station Beaufort, twenty miles to the north. So this had to be highest priority.
“Yes, sir,” he said.
“It will be carrying two men. One is actually a psychologist, the other a field officer, but both will be in civilian clothes, for reasons nobody cares to explain to me. Still, both should be treated with formal military courtesy. They are attached to an outfit that even I didn’t know existed until a few minutes ago.”
“I will arrange to have them picked up and—”
“No, I want you there to greet them.”
“I want you to have Swagger with you.”
“They may make him an unusual offer. I myself don’t even know what it will be. It is of course entirely voluntary.”
“I hear you, sir.”
“However, and I can’t emphasize this enough, I wish that he accepts it. I hope that you will make this clear to him and that you will add that you wish that he accepts it.”
By long tradition of Marine culture, a senior officer’s “wish” had the impact of a howitzer shell. It meant instant compliance, as in NOW.
“They require a meeting with him to make their pitch. I am told that it is acceptable for you to sit in on it, both to communicate to Swagger that the Marine Corps is in approval here, and that you personally endorse Mr. Morgan and Mr. Leets.”
“You’d best get cracking,” said the commandant.
“It was a Canadian fellow designed this,” said Swagger to his three hundred zealots, now hanging on his every word and buzzed by his willingness to buck the hokum of “The Rifleman’s Creed.” He held McCoy’s Garand high in one hand, at the perfectly engineered point of balance, so that his audience could appreciate the lethal architecture, the high engineering art, the functionality that was the best part of the beauty that the nine pounds represented.
“Now, let me tell you, Mr. John Cantius Garand wasn’t in the Miss Lonelyhearts business. He didn’t want to hold your hand, he didn’t want to make you all happy-happy like the Easter Bunny does, he didn’t want you to fall in love with what he was designing. It ain’t your best friend. It ain’t a girlfriend, your baby, your brother, your grandma on Thanksgiving who knows how to roast up them birds, your old uncle. It’s not, no matter what General Rupertus, sitting in his office with a bottle of bourbon and all het up over Pearl Harbor, says. It’s not you. In fact, it’s your enemy.”
He let that one sink in as the boys, most of them, even the fourteen from Harvard, gasped at the apostasy.
“It wants you dead. It will always be looking for mud to choke on, for rocks to bang, for grease to slip it out of your hands and fall hard, for rain to turn its steel rusty and erode out the grooves in the barrel. Its gas plug wants to vibrate loose so it don’t get the right measure of recoil energy to operate reliably. Its rear sight wants to go out of zero, its front sight wants to bend, its sling wants to slip off your shoulder in the prone, its extractor wants to break so it don’t eject and it ties up. I’m telling you, young marines, it ain’t your girlfriend, and if you think it is, you will be sorry.
“Suppose you have to use someone else’s weapon when Miss Marianne is blown up? Suppose you have to use Jap weapons? Suppose you get picked to replace the assistant machine gunner and now you got his dinky little carbine? Suppose you’re on night patrol with a .45 and a knife? Are you going to get all Section 8 because your precious Miss Marianne ain’t there? You cannot plan what’s going to happen to you; you can only prepare for the most likely contingencies. The best way is to face the truth: it’s a tool. Nothing more, nothing less. Its real good at what it does, if you do your part. We had Springfields on the ’Canal, and I’ll tell you in every way this one is far better, the best in the world. If you do your part.
“And what is your part? Real simple. You maintain it every single goddamned second you are on the line. You do not get sack time unless you ram the barrel clear, oil the bolt channel, check the clicks on your sight, run a rag over the insides, look hard into it, test that the trigger guard is still locked into the action and that the action is still rigid in the stock. All of that, every night, before every patrol, every invasion, every assault, every opportunity the Marine Corps gives you to kill Japs.
“You will grow to hate the goddamned thing because it demands so much of you. But it don’t care what you think. It only cares about itself and the springs and recoil energy and the parts and the levers that all work in perfect timing to make it operate. It ain’t going to congratulate you when you hit a Jap at 240, or gun down a fleeing Nambu crew fast as you can trigger it, or pot a sniper in a high green tree who’s been making life hell for you. You only impress it by working it hard every day.
“Maybe at the end of the war, your last day as you muster out and you go to the armory and sign it over to the battalion arms room for some other young green thing to use, maybe then, and only then, when you see Miss Marianne racked with all her girlfriends as you head out and back to your life, can you let yourself imagine that the goddamned thing is a gal that has a soul and is giving you a tiny bit of smile. At that moment, you will have earned it. So it’s okay to smile back.”
They rode in silence. It was beyond any service etiquette that an enlisted man, even a gunnery sergeant of vast experience, should ride in the backseat of a staff car with a general, even a brigadier. Thus, neither knew what to say as the car, which had showed unexpectedly at the rifle range amphitheater to acquire Swagger, rolled through the ranges, then into marshy land where Parris Island seemed as much liquid as solid and supported stands of vegetation that had once sustained the stegosaurus. Eventually, the road yielded to the dried-out southern tip of the island, where Page Field had been built to accommodate biplanes, then Wildcats, then Hellcats but never a bird as big as a 17.
“Gunnery Sergeant Swagger,” the brigadier finally said, “you should know up front that some very important folks are involved in this party, and all of them, including me, hope that you’ll enthusiastically embrace what is coming on.”
“Sir, you know I am 150 percent Marine Corps, and if that’s what the Marine Corps wants, I will provide it, same as any hill it told me to climb up under fire.”
“I knew that to be the case, Sergeant. I did want to get it out in the open so there’d be no confusion. I think that—”
But at that moment a great roar engulfed them, followed by enough shadow to kill the sun for a second or two, and then it swept over them, just one hundred feet up, a B-17 on landing vector, its twin tires cranked down to embrace the ground shortly.
It was a huge plane by any standard of its time, wingspan one hundred feet, four Wright R-1820-97 Cyclone engines whose whirling props chewed the atmosphere like hungry tigers, its streamlined seventy-five-foot tube of fuselage broken only by double bubbles of shiny Perspex turrets, .50-caliber Messerschmitt-killers bristling from each, its proud tail itself a two-story blade for cutting the air. It was beautiful like the Garand was beautiful, out of the perfection of its design for the hard task it had been assigned.
“That’s a B-17G, sir,” said Swagger. “The latest model. Chin turret, double fifties in the tail.”
“If they think coming to get you is worth pulling a ship off the missions to Germany, then that should give you some idea of how important this thing is.”
By the time they arrived at the airfield, a rude collection of Quonsets and wooden shacks as well as new corrugated steel hangars on a spit of land which yielded at its tip to Port Royal Sound and a gateway to the Atlantic, the plane had come to rest, its nose up on tires half as big as a man, its tail down. Fuel trucks attended it, mechanics swarmed over it, some Marine pilots had gathered just to admire it. Army Air Forces officers, in waxy-brown A2 jackets and squashed forty-mission hats and huge teardrop sunglasses, supervised. No Air Forces enlisted men were visible in the ceremony of refueling, which even more suggested the plane was stripped for weight for its longer-distance job today.
The brigadier and Swagger got out of the car and were greeted by the exceedingly nervous captain who was now in command of Page, since the authentic CO was back at Base HQ, presumably still arguing overusing the extra hangars for the new recruit battalions.
“Sir, they’re in here, sir,” he said.
“Were they annoyed we couldn’t be here to greet them off the plane, Mason?”
“Not at all, sir. Very friendly fellows, casual and joking. I have them in the pilot’s ready room enjoying good Marine Corps coffee and I’ve promised them and their crew real eggs and bacon as soon as Cookie gets it together. They seemed to like that.”
“Okay, fine, Mason.”
Mason led them in, through a briefing room loaded with photos on the wall of famous air machines and their flyers, all in jaunty leather coats with diagonal rows of buttons or slanted zippers, all “Smilin’ Jack” for the tremendous adventure of roaring through the air. The ready room was smaller, a comfy warren and fewer pictures with an alcove of lockers, a chalkboard with names and missions scrawled on it, and a sign that read: “… IN THE AIR, on land, and sea,” from the “The Marines’ Hymn.”
One older, one younger. In suits, gray and brown. The ties were red, the white shirts had little buttons on the collars, the shoes, heavy for both, had patterns of perforations about them. They were like star maps in Florsheim leather.
One looked like the sort who’d be comfortable anywhere. His relaxed position on the central sofa suggested ease of being, quick study, confidence in charm and wit, and nimble mind.
The other, younger, had football written all over him. Pleasant, open face; blond crew cut; maybe, despite linebacker size and shoulders, a little less sure. One smoked, one enjoyed a mug of black joe, and they seemed to be chortling over something.
They rose, smiling.
“Gentlemen!” the older one said heartily, as if all were old pals meeting at a golf course watering hole, “thanks so much for accommodating us so quickly. Brigadier and, I presume, Gunnery Sergeant Earl Swagger, Marine Corps star and already a three-island vet.”
This annoyed the shit out of Swagger; it was as if they were welcoming outsiders to their little club, not the other way around. It was also clear that they had no real interest in the brigadier, who took all this with dignity, but again it pissed Swagger off, because it upset the order of the world. All rule breakers start with the little ones, like these two, while working up to the big one that fucks everything up.
The brigadier nodded, let himself be ushered to a leather chair, while Swagger felt himself maneuvered toward another, better, closer one.
“We’re not much on ranks in our outfit. I’m Bill Morgan,” said the older. “This is Jim Leets. I’m the psychologist. He’s the hero.”
“Mr. Morgan, then, Mr. Leets, welcome to Parris Island, and please tell us how to help you,” said the brigadier.
“Here it is: we have a bad jam-up in Europe,” Bill Morgan said. “Our organization—it’s supposed to be secret, but I don’t think I’m betraying anything when I tell you we’re called the Office of Strategic Services—”
“OSS,” said the other, Leets. “We do spy stuff. We blow stuff up and kill field marshals and connect with the underground all over Europe. At least, that’s the idea.”
“Jim, tell them why we’re here.”
Leets, the younger, continued. “On highest priority we were assigned to find the best combat rifleman in American service. Didn’t matter if he was a marine or a Boy Scout or an Army jeep driver. The deal is, we find him, we get him to Europe by the fastest route possible, and he starts working on our little problem.”
“You wouldn’t go wrong with Swagger,” said the iron brigadier, unbidden. “He may be the best NCO in the Corps. He should be a colonel by now. Why he won’t take a commission is something even the commandant has lost sleep over.”
“So we hear.”
“Can you tell me the problem?” asked Swagger.
“In one word,” said the one called Leets, “snipers.”