Fiction

Story: Iwo Jima

By David Hariman

IwaHe’d promised Jack Borger’s widow he’d “stop by some day” to pay his respects. At the time, he never could have foreseen that a flight of steps would make that a physical impossibility.

Gordon Zane looked across Clarendon Avenue at worn concrete and brick steps leading to the front porch of a two-story, clapboard-sided house in Canton, Ohio. It was painted dull gray with flaking white trim around the windows and eaves. An old Ford sedan was parked in the driveway.

The promise Gordon made was jotted down quickly at the end of a letter he’d written fifteen years before when he was a U.S. Marine Corps officer in Vietnam. Jack was his platoon sergeant, and Jack’s death was his first war casualty.

“Hey Jack,” Gordon yelled toward a corner of the USS Iwo Jima’s vast and crowded hangar deck. “Front an’ center, an’ get your ass in gear.” Jack Borger and most of his platoon were behind a parked Sikorsky H-34 “Jolly Green Giant” helicopter. Other Marines were hustling around inside the cavernous assault force flag ship on station in the South China Sea.

“Lieutenant Gordy, my man, how the hell are you?” Jack, a trim, muscular former high school halfback, was sitting on the steel deck. His M-14 rifle was in front of him in pieces: barrel, trigger housing, wood stock, operating rod and bolt. Gordon leaned back against a gray bulkhead as Jack picked up the barrel and started cleaning it.

“A little more respect, Sergeant Jack.” Gordon smiled with an un-lit cigarette dangling from his mouth. Jack looked up at Gordon and whipped out his middle finger in a quick salute.

“That’s all you officer-types deserve, especially the smart-ass, gung-ho ones.” Jack laughed. “How’s that for respect … sir?” There was a glint in his blue eyes as he spit out the word “sir.”

“Is that the best you sorry-ass piece of white trash can come up with?” Gordon slapped the top of Jack’s head.

Despite the playful antics and bantering, Jack and Gordon had come to respect each other. They had to. The two were a team their platoon depended on to bring all of them home alive.

Gordon learned teamwork at the Naval Academy and during Marine officer training at Quantico, Virginia. Jack learned about it on the football fields of northeastern Ohio. He was a high school all-star recruited to play at Ohio State. A broken ankle and strained Achilles tendon sustained during a game against Purdue in his sophomore year sent him home. He had wanted to play professionally, but he knew the severe injuries had ended his football career. He married and joined the Corps less than a year later.

Gordon had spent his first two years with the Corps at the Pentagon as a general’s aide. When the general was assigned to take over the Fifth Marines heading to Vietnam in the summer of 1966, Gordon came along. The general quickly assigned him to Kilo Company in the Fifth’s Third Battalion. Gordon was promoted to First Lieutenant the day he reported to Camp Pendleton in southern California. The general had told him he’d be company commander in “no time at all,” once he spent some time “getting shot at over there in that god-damn Viet-nam.” Gordon wanted to finish his four-year stint with the Corps and go to law school to become a well-paid corporate attorney. Combat experience with the Marines, his corporate executive father had told him, would look quite impressive on a resume.

Gordon slid down the bulkhead and sat on the deck next to Jack. “We gotta cut this shit out, man,” Gordon said. “Otherwise, they’ll keep us from jumping into the middle of the Delta looking for Victor Charlie.” He pulled out a Zippo from his trouser pocket and lit his cigarette.

“Yeah, right,” Jack said. “Hey, you got another one there lieutenant-man?” He’d begun reassembling the M-14. Gordon didn’t hear Jack’s request for a cigarette. He was distracted, looking around the deck at Marines readying their gear for the helicopter assault. “Hey, you still here, man?”

“Yeah, yeah, I was just thinking, that’s all,” Gordon said. “I never asked because I didn’t think you wanted to talk about it much … or I didn’t know how to ask you, but here it is. What’s it like out there?”

“What’s what like?”

Umm, you know, getting shot at … combat. What’s it like, grunt man?”

“Well, sir Gordy, you gotta like living with shit and piss in your drawers because it’s scary. Just stay alert, look out for the other Marine next to ya and watch your ass,” Jack said. “It’s that easy. And pray, sir, the fuckin’ NVA don’t show up. They’ll tear you a new asshole.”

Jack already had experienced combat with a Third Division battalion near Gio Linh. Most of the battalion was wiped out by a well-trained cadre of the NVA, the North Vietnamese Army. What was left of the battalion had rotated back to Okinawa for reinforcements. But Jack was transferred to Gordon’s unit, as a replacement. Gordon’s company had lost one of its platoon sergeants, a victim of a training accident in Okinawa. He’d broken his leg.

“That bad, huh?”

“That fuckin’ bad is right, man,” Jack said. “It was worse than bad.” He turned his head and looked at Gordon. “Hey, where’s that cigarette? Let me get a couple puffs in before we shove off.”

“Oh shit, here.” Gordon tapped out three cigarettes. “Two for you, with one to spare, and another one for me.” Jack stuck one of the cigarettes behind his ear and the other between his lips.

“Thanks, old man.” Jack playfully punched Gordon in the arm. “You’re older than me, right?”

“It’s a state secret. Can’t tell you. But I’m twenty-five. And you can’t lie about your age because I’ve seen your records.”

“Yeah, I bet. I’m just a kid of twenty-two.” Gordon laughed as he lit up again. Jack finished re-assembling his rifle and lit his cigarette.

“Hey, you promised me awhile back you were gonna show me those pictures of your wife,” Gordon said. “Or is she too ugly?”

“Shit, some officer you are. No respect for the troops. But let me show you. Julie’s a knockout. She’s a beauty.” Jack fished in his side trouser pocket for a small packet wrapped in plastic sheeting held together with short strands of “comm” – communication – wire. He pulled out the photos, leaving undisturbed several letters from his wife. “Here.”

Gordon gazed at them. Yes, Jack’s wife was a knockout. So, he thought, why would anyone in his right mind with a wife like her want to fly off this rust bucket of a ship to get shot at in some jungle?

“That’s her, Julie in all her glory.”

“And the little bundle she’s holding, who’s that? You never told me you had a kid.”

“You mean that information’s not in my personnel jacket?”

“Actually, Jack, I’ve never seen your records. I lied to you.”

“Spoken like a true officer, Gordy, my man,” Jack said. “But ain’t that little one gorgeous, too. Her name’s Patricia, but we call her Trisha, for short.”

“She’s cute as all get-out,” Gordon said. One photo showed Julie holding Trisha; the other Jack’s father and mother held the little girl. The pictures were yellowed and dirty along the edges but still clear. In both, Trisha, less than a year old, was smiling.

“The little lady was born right after I left for the ’Nam.” Gordon hadn’t expected Jack suddenly leaning into him and sobbing. “God, I really want to hold her, you know. I don’t wanna die in this fuckinshithole without ever gettin’ to see my little girl.”

“Oh shit, Jack.” Gordon put his arm around Jack’s shoulder. “We’ll stick together and get you home in one piece. I guarantee it, Jack. You got it made in the shade with me.”

A clarion’s blast sounded over the hangar deck’s PA system. It was time for Kilo Company to go. Jack took the photos from Gordon, carefully placed them between the letters from Julie, re-wrapped the packet and stuffed it into his pocket.

Gordon told Jack he’d be in the lead chopper with the company commander going into the Mekong Delta. Jack would be in the second chopper, right behind. They both stood, with Gordon helping Jack put on his heavy pack. He stepped back, stared at Jack. “Take it easy, man. See you soon.” Jack came to attention and saluted. Gordon did the same.

With a screeching thud the elevator deck locked square with the hangar deck. Jack, Gordon and others from the First Platoon would soon go topside on the long and wide huge elevator to the flight deck.

Hundreds of other Marines already had gone ashore from four amphibious landing craft into the Delta’s Ben Tre peninsula. They were part of Operation Deckhouse V, a ground and aerial assault on suspected Vietcong strongholds there. Hours before, eight-inch guns on the heavy cruiser USS Canberra and rocket launchers on the USS St. Francis River bombarded the jungle hamlets, rice fields and mangrove swamps across sixty square miles of the Thanphu District between two mouths of the Mekong River.

But Marines found no opposition, just rice-paper posters proclaiming in Vietnamese that Marines from Battalion Landing Team Three/Five were coming. The Vietcong also left behind some booby-trapped mortar rounds that killed three Marines. Overnight, six others were killed who were probably lost but somehow managed to find Three/Five’s perimeter. They were not told that night’s password, or it never got to them. Friendly fire from M-60 machine guns had mowed them down.

Jack and some others from his platoon were picked up sometime in the late morning for a chopper ride back to the Iwo. Gordon already was on board. His chopper had carried two wounded Marines back to the ship at dawn. He went down to the noisy and congested hangar deck to await Jack’s return. The large, wide elevator deck went up, but this time about ten minutes elapsed before it descended from the ship’s flight deck.

Marines scrambled around the helicopter as the elevator leveled with the hangar deck. Body bags appeared, hauled from the gunner’s side doorway. The helicopter’s fuselage skin was heavily damaged, punctured with hundreds of shrapnel holes no bigger than a nickel. Slippery blood smeared the chopper’s deck. Jack’s face and what was left of his torso were visible only for a moment before the body bag was zipped closed. Grunts quickly carried it off the elevator deck, along with seven others leaking blood and viscera.

Gordon was stunned. He became nauseous. Stomach bile rose to the back of his mouth. He bent over and threw up on the deck. Two enlisted Marines nearby grabbed his arms, held him up and walked him away from the chopper.

The co-pilot navigator of the low-flying chopper carrying Jack had spotted a lone Marine roaming near a river bed. The lost Marine carried three or four grenades clipped to his belt-suspender straps with regulation cotter studs removed. They had been replaced with diaper pins. When he was pulled up through the chopper’s open side door, two fused grenades fell to the deck. The near-instant explosion obliterated him and mortally wounded the door gunner, Jack and five others. The pilot and navigator somehow managed to stabilize the aircraft, lift off and fly back to the Iwo.

That night, Gordon walked around the nearly empty hangar deck numerous times. He stopped near the ship’s large cold-storage locker. Its eight-foot-high and four-foot-wide gray steel door was unlocked, slightly ajar. Comforting cold air breezed through the opening. Gordon pulled back the door and peered in. It was dark. He struck his Zippo, raising it above his head. He could see his breath. In front of him, to his left and to his right stacked on pallets four high, were shuttered aluminum coffins, most of them empty. But Jack’s was there somewhere. Gordon stepped back, pushed to close the heavy door and twisted its handle to seal the lock.

No one was around. He was alone. He only heard the ship’s engines and the slicing sound as the ship made its way north. The sea was calm. He covered his face with the palms of his hands and cried.

He had several more months of his tour in ‘Nam left to serve. He vowed to survive somehow, never to cry again.

“Sir, there’s a lady coming out the house,” the driver said. “Do you want me to fetch her for you? There ain’t no time, sir, to get your wheelchair out of the trunk.”

Gordon looked at the driver in the front seat, then back to the front of 325 Clarendon Avenue. “No, that’s okay.”

A man holding a teenage girl’s hand followed a tall, fashionably dressed woman in heels down the worn concrete steps. The three walked to the driveway. The man, dressed in a suit, opened the Ford’s passenger side door for the woman. The young girl got into the back seat. Gordon stared at the house’s concrete steps as the man got into the driver’s side and started the car. It backed out of the driveway, stopped and then headed south toward Canton’s downtown. Gordon quickly had rolled down the back window, stuck out his hand as if to wave. It’s Sunday, he thought; they’re probably going to church.

Gordon twisted his body in the back seat and reached for a briefcase. He pulled out an oversized brown envelope. In it was a one-page letter offering condolences on the loss of Staff Sergeant John H. Borger during combat in the Republic of South Vietnam on March 4, 1967. It was signed by U.S. District Judge Gordon Rogers Zane of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The envelope also contained a small packet wrapped in plastic sheeting held together with short strands of communication wire. Inside the packet were the photos of Jack’s wife, daughter and parents. The packet of photos and letters was last opened on board the USS Iwo Jima.

“Jimmy, my friend,” Gordon said to the driver, a once-wounded Vietnam War veteran, “I got a favor to ask of you. Could you please put this envelope in that mailbox on the porch? I’d certainly appreciate it.” Jimmy turned around and reached for the envelope.

“No problem, sir. It would be a pleasure.”

Gordon was relieved. He’d kept his promise to Jack’s wife.

Gordon Zane was severely wounded during a murderously long firefight and bombardment on the perimeter of the Marine airstrip at Quang Tri, South Vietnam during the early morning of October 10, 1967. A Marine 155-millimeter artillery round exploded only feet away as Captain Zane was trying to pull a mortally wounded lance corporal into a bunkered foxhole. The concussive shrapnel-laden blast smashed Zane’s legs and decapitated the young Marine. Minutes before he was wounded, company commander Zane had called in an artillery barrage on his own position. A large brigade of NVA troops had overrun the perimeter.

Recuperating at a U.S. Navy hospital in Yokosuka, Japan, Major Zane was awarded his second Purple Heart and the Navy Cross. Both his legs above the knee had been amputated a week before on board the Navy hospital ship USS Mercy.

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