This story is by J Hardy Carroll and was part of our 2018 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The night jungle sounds start back up almost as soon as the two Marines finish digging in, a cacophony of calls and toots and chirps that puts South Carolina’s birds to shame.
“I’m scared, Hobson,” says Peters.
Hobson ignores him and points his rifle at the trees. He squints into the blackness. It is too dark to see anything.
“I’m fucking scared.”
Hobson lowers his rifle and looks across the foxhole. Peters’s face is lost in the blackness.
Hobson and Peters had gone through boot camp together, but while Hobson was good enough to be assigned to the Third Reconnaissance Battalion, Peters was sent to a regular rifle platoon. Hobson further distinguished himself during the horrendous battle of Bougainville and received a field promotion to lance corporal. When the Third Recon rotated to Aukland for R&R, Hobson had a drunken misadventure that got him thrown in the brig for a week. The colonel was so disgusted he busted Hobson to private and transferred him to the Fourth Marines as a replacement rifleman.
The Fourth was stationed on Guadalcanal awaiting the next island invasion. Nobody knew where. After the close camaraderie of Third Recon, the callow jostle of a replacement unit was jarring. Hobson didn’t know a soul, too ashamed to make new friends. He was standing in the chow line when Peters came up and slapped him on the back.
Hobson was glad to see a familiar face. Peters said he’d been with the Second Division but got malaria a week before the Tarawa invasion. They’d evacuated him to Hawaii where his fever stayed so mysteriously high they had to keep him in the hospital for more than a year. Most of his unit was killed during the landing, so when the doctors pronounced him fit he’d been sent to the Fourth Marines as a replacement.
They started to pal around. Hobson considered Peters good company, quick with a story or a joke. Because of the constant flow of incoming replacements, the Fourth was a mess. Nobody seemed to be giving orders, so the Marines had little to do. Hobson and Peters killed time exploring the island, hiking and swimming and goofing off. The floral jungles of Guadalcanal were so peaceful it was hard to believe there’d ever been a battle there.
On what turned out to be their last day of freedom, they lounged on the beach drinking beers Peters cadged from the officers’ club. Hobson came clean to his friend about stealing an MP’s jeep and crashing into the cigar store in Aukland, how he’d only been trying to run down the wooden Indian but badly misjudged, about the lasting humiliation of his shameful interview with the colonel.
Then Peters admitted he’d secretly kept his fever high by using a Zippo on the thermometer when the nurses weren’t looking, how he’d never actually been all that sick. How embarrassed he was when the nurses finally caught him.
Hobson was horrified. He remembered Bougainville, the Banzai charge where they’d had to kill hundreds of Jap attackers with machine guns and grenades. The endless nights when Japanese would infiltrate the lines and kill Marines as they slept. Hobson especially remembered the two guys in Recon captured by the Japs and tortured, their bodies left out in the open for the other Marines to find, eyes gouged and tongues cut out, their chopped-off cocks shoved into their dead mouths.
The thought of Peters malingering in the hospital while his friends were slaughtered on Tarawa made Hobson feel sick.
He stood. “Fuck you,” he spat. He started back to camp.
Peters ran after him, calling out “What did I do?” over and over.
Gunnery Sergeant Snope was sent to Guadalcanal from Camp Lejune to whip the Fourth Marines into shape. Snope was a career Marine, a real leatherneck. He knew all about Hobson’s time in Third Recon and why he got kicked out. He also knew about Peters and happened in Hawaii.
Snope put his iron face an inch away from Hobson’s and said, “Hobson, from now on you are that man’s shadow. Peters is your responsibility. He’s a coward and a fuckup, but he is still a Marine and Uncle Sugar spent good money training him. You fucked up too. Your new job is to turn that man into a fighting machine. You do that and you might get your stripes back. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes Gunny!” Hobson yelled.
The next five weeks were a hell of weapons drills and forced marches and rifle practice and landing practice and field exercises in the jungle. Outwardly Peters seemed to be getting his shit together. He was a fair shot and a quick mover. But he talked all the time and perpetually asked Hobson about combat. “Is this what it’s like, Hobson? Is it like this?”
It drove Hobson crazy. He longed to tell the fucking coward that a field exercise was nothing like combat, even if it was held on Guadalcanal. There was no enemy in an exercise, no terror, no real danger. Nobody died or got mangled. But he loathed Peters and refused to speak to him. Instead, he shoved him and used gestures to get his point across. Go there. Do that.
Hobson stopped talking altogether. Careless noise is fatal, he told himself. He armored himself with silence. Hobson’s dogged speechlessness seemed to nibble away at what courage Peters had. Peters became even more talkative, needier. His movements were uncertain. He flinched a lot. Hobson remembered what Gunny Snope told him and watched Peters like a mother hen, hating his guts.
The field exercises continued right up until the Fourth Regiment was ordered aboard ship to sail for a secret destination. The exhausted men shuffled up the gangplank carrying their rifles and combat packs, eyes hollow and backs bent. The vast chambers below deck were twenty feet high. Despite its enormous size, the ship’s interior felt stuffy and claustrophobic. It was dim and hot and reeked of diesel fuel. Hundreds of closely spaced bunks like library shelves ran floor to ceiling with narrow passages between them, a few tables and benches bolted to the deck here and there for meals and poker games.
Two days before the landing, Sergeant Snope pulled the combat veterans aside and gave them cigarettes. “Listen, men,” he said. “On Tarawa six out of ten Marines got killed before they hit the beach. This landing will be worse. You Marines need to be a good example to the new guys. Help them, especially that first night.” Snope smiled. “The good news is that anyone who survives that beachhead will be a hardened veteran by dark.”
But the landing on Guam was virtually unopposed. The Marines splashed up onto the beach and into the jungle without a shot being fired. The inexperienced Marines were relieved, laughing and joking and playing horse.
Hobson was uneasy. He knew the Japs, how they hide in the jungle and bide their time, waiting for nightfall. The Japs on Bougainville moved as silently as shadows when they slipped into foxholes to slit the throats of the Marines they found there. Hobson remembered the terrible morning he awoke to find his best friend Jake dead next to him, blood everywhere, neck gaping like some hideous mouth.
Sergeant Snope sent Hobson and Peters out on point to scout the jungle. They found nothing, so the regiment marched five miles inland where Captain Fish ordered them to dig in for the night.
Hobson fingers the stacking swivel of his M-1 where the metal joins the walnut stock. He sets the rifle down, hating that he has to keep this coward alive to get his stripes back.
And Peters won’t shut up about how scared he is. First, it’s this constant whisper, but soon he’s using his regular voice. “I’m scared, Hobson. Fuck me, I’m scared.”
“Shut that man up!” calls a Marine down the line.
Peters is yelling now. “I’m goddamned scared! I don’t want to die, Hobson! I’m scared!”
“Fuck’s sake!” hisses the Marine in the next hole. “Shut the hell up before you give away our position!”
Peters rocks back and forth, yelling “HOBSON I’M SCARED” over and over. Marines in other foxholes take up the cry to silence him, cursing him and Hobson both.
“Shut up, Peters!” says Hobson, the first words he’s uttered in weeks. “Please shut up. Everybody’s scared.”
“I’M SCARED!” screams Peters. “OH GOD OH GOD OH GOD!” He sounds inhuman.
“SHUT HIM UP!” yells the neighboring Marine, panicky.
Hobson grabs Peters by his shoulders, but Peters just screams and claws at Hobson’s face. Hobson punches him in the jaw, trying to knock him out. Peters shrieks and flails like an epileptic. Hobson hits him again, but Peters has maniac strength and won’t go down.
“Just shoot the motherfucker!” yells a different Marine.
Hobson hesitates. He picks up his rifle and points it at Peters.
Peters’ s eyes are wild. He screams and screams.