Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Guest Writer: Bill Lapham

Any Second

“…uncommon valor was a common virtue...”
           – Adm. Chester A. Nimitz, of the Marines who fought at Iwo Jima

Whether a man be judged extraordinary or not depends less upon his physical stature than upon the content of his character. In the normal flow of events, opportunities to demonstrate the content of anyone’s character are few, but when they present themselves as obstacles to good outcomes, how they are surmounted is the best indicator of it. Quite often the action of ordinary people in extraordinary situations leads us to elevate the status of some to heroes, and devalue others to, well, cowards. The difference can be attributed to something as mundane as training, preparation, readiness, study habits or physical fitness, or it could be attributed to something as essential as the quality of family and peer relationships, teacher involvement or heredity.

Stuart was lucky. Did I mention that? He came from a strong, hard-working, lower middle-class family, had great childhood friends, wonderful teachers and, if the dates on the tombstones in the family plot were any indication, came from a line of healthy family members who lived long lives. He was a good student, not a natural leader, but a loyal friend, motivated student and fun-loving boy. Stuart was your average small town chap from middle-America.

And this morning he was scared to death.

He was standing in a rocking and rolling Higgins boat, a troop landing barge, approaching a small island in the Pacific Ocean. Frankie had vomited on him he was so seasick. Seawater sprayed over the top of the boat. Machine gunners were firing at machine gunners onshore. Bullets were pinging off the exterior of the hull. Mortar and artillery shells landing in the water nearby exploded with a deafening roar. And Stuart wished he was playing baseball in the field back home in Kansas, say, or stuck in a church listening to the pastor drone on about salvation on a blistering hot summer day, anything, anything would be better than this!

But, no, he was here and there was no turning back. He was a Marine invading a tiny sulfuric island within flying distance of Japan and he wasn’t going anywhere but down that ramp when it fell. He was here to kill Japanese soldiers.

“Doesn’t sound good, does it, Stuey?” Frankie asked rhetorically, more or less. Stuart would never see Frankie after this little boat ride. Frankie was a Marine who was about to die, anybody could see that, but Stuart didn’t tell him, that’s just what he thought. Standing next to him, he could feel Frankie vibrating so hard he thought parts of him might come off. Frankie looked like he didn’t have any blood in his face.

Stuart just looked at him and shook his head. He didn’t say anything because it felt like his throat had seized, like a motor that plum run outta oil. He brushed his face with the sleeve of his uniform. God, I hope I’m not crying, he thought to himself. This is the big game. I gotta be ready! He had been in big games before. This was like that; only these butterflies were bigger, fatter, flying in faster and thumping into his stomach lining without remorse.

Overwhelmed with curiosity, Stuart, who was standing next to the hull, stuck his head up to look over the side just when the boat next to his took a direct hit. He felt the concussion right through the hull and his ears were ringing just like that time he got hit in the head with that other guy’s football helmet.

He stuck his head back down at the same time as the coxswain, the boat’s driver, yelled, “Git yer fuckin’ head down, gal-dammit! Wanna git yersef kilt?”

People think soldiers are told to spread out in order that one shell or one bullet doesn’t take out more than one soldier. That’s only part of it. The rest of it is the further away soldiers are from each other, the less likely they are to see what it looks like when their friends get ripped to pieces. That just leads to problems – shocks them. The horror of it causes men to freeze. It makes it harder for them to keep functioning effectively on the battlefield.

But sometimes massing troops in tight formation is not only unavoidable, it’s crucial to bringing the greatest amount of combat power to bear on the weakest part of the enemy defense. What Stuart wanted to know was, if this was the weakest part of the enemy defense, what was the strongest part like for chrissake?

The diesels slowed. All their training told him when the diesels slow it’s time for the ramp to come down. What he didn’t know was that when the ramp came down he would face an inferno.

Anyone standing there alone would have been immobilized by fear, wouldn’t be able to summon the courage to move against such violence. The enemy had figured, correctly, that aiming one shot or twenty shots at the beach was not as effective as firing 20,000 rounds down range all at once.

Stuart’s group was greeted by a wall of steel, but they moved, something about the power of a group. No matter how scared an individual may be training and mass action can overcome any solitary effort to balk or run away. Stuart ran through the water and onto the beach just like everybody else. The difference was he was lucky enough to make it. Or unlucky enough to make it depending on how you looked at the glass, half full or half empty. All empty today.

He didn’t run for long, though. He dove right into the bloody pulp of a dead Marine and tried to submerge in the sand, tried to bury himself in its blackness. Claw his way to China, anywhere but here! Anywhere but here! Anywhere but here! Tell my mother I love her, goddamit!

Bullets whizzing over his head electrified the air, shook it with extreme prejudice. He turned his head to get a view of the beach. A man’s gold wedding ring was sitting there just as pretty as you please in the black sand. Like it had been sitting there since the island formed out of a volcanic eruption eons ago. He grabbed it and stuffed in his pants pocket.

A force lifted him just then. He didn’t want to rise but he was rising up out of his private little beach-womb. A voice pierced his eardrum and smashed into his brain.

“Move your ass, Marine!” It was Sergeant Craft, his platoon sergeant.

Stuart regained his senses, reclaimed his perch on the earth, snatched up his rifle and followed his sergeant, just like he’d been taught to do. He never looked back. He couldn’t. The fight was raging all around them but they moved forward, firing and running. Shoot and scoot.

They pressed ahead until Craft dove into an old shell crater. How old? Seconds, maybe minutes. Stuart flung himself in after Craft. They were below the ground and out of breath.

The sergeant grinned. Could it be he was having fun? What does it take to grin out here? Stuart said to himself. Sick bastard.

“Cartwright?” Sergeants only used last names.

“Yes, sergeant?” Stuart replied.

“Are we having fun yet?”

“Yes, sergeant!”

“Good! Follow me!” Sergeant Craft yelled as he churned up the face of the crater before Stuart was ready. He was still reloading.

Sergeant Craft no sooner lifted his head above the rim of the crater when he took a bullet right between the eyes and slumped back down into the hole. Stuart looked at the dead man’s face. It seemed – what ? Peaceful? At ease? Undisturbed?

In that instant, Stuart was relieved. He realized death waited just above the rim and there was nothing he could do to change that fact. He realized there was no sense worrying about it. If he died, he died. He’d go to sleep. Rest. Sergeant Craft had showed him in the time it takes to check your watch you could be dead out here. Any minute, hell, any second could be the second you die. It was Iwo Jima, 1945. Lots of Marines were dying all around him. Death is what happened here.

So Stuart decided. It was simple, lift your head, force your body to follow your eyes and quit worrying. Kill, die or move; you never know what’s going to happen next.

So he charged up the face of the crater and ran smack into the face of the fight.

© William Lapham 2010

Bill Lapham is a semi-professional student and retired U.S. Navy submarine veteran. He attends grad school at the University of Michigan – Flint, and he’s been published at Six Sentences and the U.S. Army NCO Journal.


  1. You've taken your sixes, multiplied them by your tens and come up with a piece even richer, more nuanced, more detailed, more full of wonderful words and images than ever. Such a lot in the way of small asides, like 'rhetorically, more or less" and "shook it with extreme prejudice" to name but two, which colour this insightful and informative piece of writing. Excellent.

  2. I need a Thesaurus to find an adjective worthy of this masterpiece. This isn't even my genre of third choice, but you held me -- spellbound -- for the entire ride. Bravo, COB. You've come and will go far in this new life of yours.

  3. I am in awe of your writing and knowledge of battle. The things you have seen should never have taken place.

  4. kill, die, or move - wow! you never fail to make us feel the moment.

  5. Stunning Bill- "What does it take to grin out here?" - made this so human and frightening-

  6. You told this story, Bill, with a mastery I always seem to get from you!

  7. The piece is a fabulous mental painting Bill.
    The emotional and background detail made this story flow.
    Kudos....Most excellent in every respect.

  8. great piece of writing Bill very realistic

  9. I am amazed at how you take the most impersonal thing there is - killing people we don't know - and made it wholly personal. Your interpretation of battle into a human experience is exceeded only by your creation of a character that is full and breathing and totally empathetic. Bravo, man. You knocked it out of the park.

  10. When I read and reread this story I'm reminded how syrupy I thought the climactic scene of All Quiet on the Western Front was, and how Bill's piece is so much more visceral. When his Stuart makes his decision to rise, there are no butterflies. You are going to feel shrapnel whether he has described it in so many words or not. We are left to ponder Stuart's ultimate fate, but we feel something painful, and are thus reminded of our own mortality and important decisions. Bill Lapham can make you laugh or hurt, but you are never less than involved with his characters.

  11. Bill you have the ability to make an inhuman situation viscerally human. An exceedingly moving account of a boy caught in a maelstrom.
    Jenny (6S)


MDJB at GoodReads

Michael D. Brown's books on Goodreads Bastille Day reviews: 2 ratings: 3 (avg rating 5.00...