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The Thin Red Lineby James Jones
The two transports had sneaked up from the south in the first graying flush of dawn, their cumbersome mass cutting smoothly through the water whose still greater mass bore them silently, themselves as gray as the dawn which camouflaged them. Now, in the fresh early morning of a lovely tropic day they lay quietly at anchor in the channel, nearer to the one island than to the other which was only a cloud on the horizon. To their crews, this was a routine mission and one they knew well: that of delivering fresh reinforcement troops. But to the men who comprised the cargo of infantry this trip was neither routine nor known and was composed of a mixture of dense anxiety and tense excitement.
Before they had arrived, during the long sea voyage, the cargo of men had been cynical--honestly cynical, not a pose, because they were part of an old regular division and knew that they were cargo. All their lives they had been cargo; never supercargo. And they were not only inured to that; they anticipated it. But now that they were here, were actually confronted with the physical fact of this island that they had all read so much about in the papers, their aplomb deserted them momentarily. Because though they were from a pre-war regular division, this was nevertheless to be their baptism of fire.
As they prepared themselves to go ashore no one doubted in theory that at least a certain percentage of them would remain on this island dead, once they set foot on it. But no one expected to be one of these. Still it was an awesome thought and as the first contingents came struggling up on deck in full gear to form up, all eyes instinctively sought out immediately this island where they were to be put, and left, and which might possibly turn out to be a friend's grave.
The view which presented itself to them from the deck was a beautiful one. In the bright, early morning tropic sunshine which sparkled off the quiet water of the channel, a fresh sea breeze stirred the fronds of minute coconut palms ashore behind the dun beach of the nearer island. It was too early yet to be oppressively hot. There was a feeling of long, open distances and limitless sea vistas. The same sea-flavored breeze sifted gently among the superstructures of the transports to touch the ears and faces of the men. After the olfactory numbness caused by the saturation of breath, feet, armpits and crotches below in the hold, the breeze seemed doubly fresh in their noses. Behind the tiny cocopalms on the island masses of green jungle rose to yellow foothills, which in turn gave place in the bright air to hulking, blue-hazed mountains.
"So this is Guadalcanal," a man at the rail said, and spat tobacco juice over the side.
"What the fuck you think it was? Fucking Tahiti?" another said.
The first man sighed and spat again. "Well, it's a nice peaceful morning for it."
"Jeez, my ass is draggin," a third man complained nervously. "All this gear." He hitched up his full pack.
"Mor'n your ass'll be draggin soon," the first man said.
Already little bugs which they recognized as LCIs had put out from shore, some circling scurryingly about, others heading straight out for the ships.
The men lit cigarettes. Slowly they assembled, shuffling about. The sharp cries of junior officers and noncoms cut through their nervous conversation, herded them. Once assembled, as usual they waited.
The first LCI to reach them circled around the leading transport about thirty yeards off, bouncing heavily on the wavelets under its own power, manned by two men in fatigue hats and shirts with no sleeves. The one not steering hung on to the gunnel to keep his balance and looked up at the ship.
"Well, look at what we got here. More cannonfodder for the Nips," he shouted up cheerfully.
The tobacco-chewing man at the rail worked his jaws a moment, ruminating, and then without moving spat a thin brown stream down over the side. On the deck they continued to wait.
Down below in the second forward hold the third company of the first regiment, known as C-for-Charlie company, milled about in the companionway and in the aisles between its allotted bunks. C-for-Charlie had chanced to be assigned as the fourth company in line to go over on the third forward cargo net on the port side. Its members knew they had a long time to wait. They did not as a result feel as stoical about it all as the first wave already up on deck, who were getting off first.
In addition to that it was very hot in the second forward hold. And C-for-Charlie was three decks down. Also there was no place to sit. Tiered in fives, and sometimes even sixes where the ceiling was higher, the bunks were all strewn with items of infantrymen's equipment ready to be put on. There was no place else to put it. So there was no room on them to sit; but even had there been, the bunks were unsittable anyway: hung on pipes bolted to deck and ceiling they barely left room for one man to lie below another, and a man attempting to sit on one suddenly would find his rump sinking into the canvas laced over the pipe frame, with the result that the base of his skull would come up sharply against the frame of the bunk above. The only place left was the deck strewn with nervous cigarette butts and sprawled legs. It was either that or be left to wander in and out through the jungle of pipes that occupied every available inch, picking a way over the legs and torsos. The stench from the farts, breath and sweaty bodies of so many men suffering from the poor elimination of a long sea voyage would have been brain-numbing had not the nostrils mercifully deadened themselves to it.
In this dimly lighted hellhole of exceedingly high moisture content, whose metal walls resounded everything, C-for-Charlie scrubbed the sweat from its dripping eyebrows, picked its wet shirts loose from its armpits, cursed quietly, looked at its watches, and waited impatiently.
"You think we'll catch a fucking air raid?" Private Mazzi asked Private Tills beside him. They were sitting against a bulkhead clutching their knees up against their chests, both for moral comfort and to keep them from being trampled on.
"How the goddam hell do I know?" Tills said angrily. He was more or less Mazzi's sidekick. At least they often went on pass together. "All I know, them crew guys said they dint catch no air raid last time they made this run. On the other hand time before last they almost got blew up. What do you want me to tell you?"
"You're a big help. Tills: nothin. Tell me nothin. I'll tell you somethin. We're sittin out here on this great big wideopen ocean like a couple big fat fucking ducks in these here boats, that's what."
"I already know that."
"Yeah? Well, brood on it, Tills. Brood on it." Mazzi hugged himself tighter and worked his eyebrows up and down convulsively, a gesture of nervous release which gave his face an expression of pugnacious indignation.
The same question was uppermost in all of C-for-Charlie's minds. Actually C-for-Charlie was not the last in any line. The numbers ran up as high as seven and eight. But this did not give consolation. C-for-Charlie was not concerned with the unlucky ones that came after it; that was their problem. C-for-Charlie was concerned only with the lucky ones who came before it, and that they should hurry, and as to just how long it itself was going to have to wait.
Then there was another thing. Not only was C-for-Charlie fourth in line at its assigned station, which was resented, but it also happened for whatever reason to have been set down among strangers. Except for one other company far away in the stern C-for-Charlie was the only company of the first regiment to be assigned to the first ship, with the result that they did not know a single soul in the companies on either side of them, and this was resented too.
"If I'm gonna get blown-fucking-up," Mazzi mused gloomily, "I dont wanta ged my guts and meat all mixed up with a bunch of strangers from another regiment like these bums. I had much ruther it's be my own outfit anyway."
"Don't talk like that!" Tills cried, "for fuck's sake."
"Well--" Mazzi said. "When I think of them planes up there maybe right now...
"You just aint a realist, Tills."
In their own way other C-for-Charlie men coped with the same imagination problem as best they could. From their vantage point against the companionway bulkhead Mazzi and Tills could see the activities of at least half of C-for-Charlie. In one place a blackjack game had been started, the players indicating whether they would hit or stay between peerings at their watches. In another place a crapgame proceeded in the same oscillating fashion. In still another Private First Class Nellie Coombs had pulled out his everpresent poker deck (which everyone suspected--but could never prove--was marked) and had started up his near-perennial five-card stud game, and was shrewdly making money off the nervousness of his friends despite his own.
In other places little knots of men had formed, and stood or sat talking earnestly to each other with widened, consciously focused eyes while hardly hearing what was said. A few loners meticulously checked and rechecked their rifles and equipment, or else merely sat looking at them. Young Sergeant McCron, the notorious motherhen, went along personally checking each item of equipment of each man in his squad of nearly all draftees as if his sanity, and his life, depended on it. Slightly older Sergeant Beck, the professional martinet with six years service, occupied himself with inspecting the rifles of his squad with great preciseness.
There was nothing to do but wait. Through the locked glass of the portholes along the companionway a few faint sounds of scrambling and some shouts came in to them, and from up on the deck a few even fainter still, to let them know that debarkation was moving ahead. From the hatchway beyond the open water-tight door they heard the clangor and muffled cursing of another company toiling up the metal stairs to replace a company already taken off. At the closed ports a few men who could get close enough, and who felt like watching, could see portions of the dark hulking figures of fully equipped men climbing down the net which hung outside the ports; now and then they would see an LCI pull away in the water. They shouted out progress reports back to the rest. Every so often an LCI, caught wrong on a wave, would bang against the hull and reverberate through the closed space of the dim hold the clang of tortured steel.
Private First Class Doll, a slender, longnecked southern boy from Virginia, was standing with Corporal Queen, a huge Texan, and Corporal Fife the orderly room clerk.
"Well, we'll soon know what it feels like," Queen, an amiable giant several years older than the other two, said meekly. Queen was not usually meek.
"What what feels like?" Fife said.
"To be shot at," said Queen. "To be shot at seriously."
"Hell, I've been shot at," Doll said, drawing up his lip in a supercilious smile. "Hell, aint you, Queen?"
"Well, I only just hope there arent any planes today," Fife said. "That's all."
"I guess we all hope that," Doll said in a more subdued tone.
Doll was very young, late twenty, possibly twenty-one, as were the majority of C-for-Charlie's privates. He had been in C-for-Charlie over two years, as had most of the regulars. A quiet, freshfaced youth with considerable naivete, who talked little and shyly, Doll had always remained pretty much in the background; but lately, in the past six months, something had been slowly happening to him, and he had been changing and coming forward more. It did not make him more likeable.
Now, after his subdued remark about the planes, he put back on his lip-lifting supercilious smile. Very consciously he lifted an eyebrow. "Well, I reckon if I'm goin'a get me that pistol, I better get with it," he smiled at them. He looked at his watch. "They ought to be about primed, about nervous enough, by now," he said judiciously, and then looked back up. "Anybody want to come along?"
"You'll do better on your own," Big Queen rumbled distantly. "Two guys after two pistols'll be just twice as noticeable."
"Guess you're right," Doll said, and sauntered off, a slender, small-hipped, really quite handsome young man. Queen stared after him, his Texas eyes veiled with dislike of what he could only see as affectation, and then turned back to Fife the clerk as Doll went out from between the bunks into the companionway.
In the companionway against the far bulkhead Mazzi and Tills still sat hugging their legs up, talking. Doll stopped in front of them.
"Aint you watchin the fucking fun?" he asked them, indicating the more or less crowded portholes.
"Aint interested," Mazzi said gloomily.
"I guess it is pretty crowded," Doll said, with a sudden lessening of his superciliousness. He bent his head and wiped the sweat out of his eyebrows with the back of his hand.
"Wouldn't be interested if they weren't," Mazzi said, and hugged his knees up more closely.
"I'm on my way to get me that pistol," Doll said.
"Yeah? Well have fun," Mazzi said.
"Yeah; have fun," Tills said.
"Dont you remember? We talked about gettin a pistol one day," Doll said.
"Did we?" Mazzi said flatly, staring at him.
"Sure," Doll began. Then he stopped, realizing he was being told off, insulted, and smiled his unpleasant, supercilious smile. "You guys'll wish you had one, once we get ashore, and run into some of them Samurai sabers."
"All I want is to get ashore," Mazzi said. "And off of this big fat sitting fucking duck we all sittin on out here on this flat water."
"Hey, Doll," Tills said, "you get around. You think we're liable to catch an air raid today before we get off this damned boat?"
"How the fucking hell would I know?" Doll said. He smiled his unpleasant smile. "We might, and we might not."
"Thanks," Mazzi said.
"If we do, we do. What's the matter? You scared, Mazzi?"
"Scared? Course I aint scared! Are you?"
"Okay then. Shut up," Mazzi said, and leaned forward and thrust out his jaw, working his eyebrows up and down pugnaciously at Doll with what could only be called comic ferocity. It was really not very effective. Doll merely threw back his head and laughed.
"See you chaps," he said and stepped over through the watertight door in the bulkhead they leaned against.
"What's all this 'chaps' shit?" Mazzi said.
"Ahh, there's a bunch of Anzac Pioneers on this boat," Tills said. "Guess he's been hangin around them."
"That guy just aint hep," Mazzi said decisively. "He's as unhep as a box. I can't stand people who aint hep."
"You think he'll get a pistol?" Tills said.
"Hell no he wont get no pistol."
"He wont," Mazzi said. "He's a jerkoff. 'Chaps!'"
"Right now, I couldnt care less," Tills said. "Whether he ever gets a pistol, or whether anybody ever gets a pistol, including me. All I want is to get off this here fucking boat here."
"Well you aint by yourself," Mazzi said as another LCI clanged against the hull outside. "Lookit over there."
Both men turned their heads and looked over into the bunk area and, hugging their knees nervously, observed the rest of C-for-Charlie going through its various suspension-of-imagination exercises.
"All I know," Mazzi said, "I never bargained for nothin like this here when I signed up in this man's army back in the old fucking Bronx before the war. How did I know they was gonna be a fucking war, hanh? Answer me that."
"You tell me," Tills said. "You're the hep character around here, Mazzi."
"All I know, old Charlie Company always gets screwed," Mazzi said. "Always. And I can tell you whose fault it is. It's old Bugger Stein's fault, that's who. First he gets us stuck off on this boat clean away from our own outfit where we dont know a fucking soul. Then he gets us stuck way down in fourth place on the list to get off this son of a bitch. I can tell you that much. Churchez old Bugger Stein. Whatever it is."
"There's worse places than fourth, though," Tills said. "At least we aint in seventh or fucking eighth. At least he didnt get us stuck down in eighth place."
"Well it aint no fault of his. He sure didnt get us in no first place, that's for sure. Look at the son of a bitch down there: pretending he's one of the boys today." Mazzi jerked his head down toward the other bulkhead, at the other end of the companionway, where Captain Stein and his exec and his four platoon officers squatted with their heads together over an orders map on the deck.
"So you see, gentlemen, exactly where we will be," Captain Stein was saying, and he looked up from his pencil at his officers with his large, mild, brown eyes questioningly. "There will of course be guides, either Army or Marines, to help us get there with the least amount of trouble and time. The line itself, the present line, is, as I've shown you, up here." He pointed with the pencil. "Eight and a half miles away. We will have a forced march, under full field equipment, of about six miles, in the other direction." Stein rose, and the other five officers rose too. "Any questions, gentlemen?"
"Yes, sir," said Second Lieutenant Whyte of the First Platoon. "I have one, sir. Will there be any definite order of bivouac when we get there? Since Blane here of the Second and I will probably be in the lead, I wanted to know about that, sir."
"Well, I think we shall have to wait and see what the terrain is like when we get there, dont you, Whyte?" Stein said, and raised a meaty right hand to adjust his thick-lensed glasses through which he stared at Whyte.
"Yes, sir," Whyte said, suitably chastised, and reddening a little under it.
"Any further questions, gentlemen?" Stein said. "Blane? Culp?" He looked around.
"No, sir," Blane said.
"Then that's all, gentlemen," Stein said. "For the moment." He stooped and scooped up the map, and when he straightened back up he was smiling warmly behind the thick lenses. This was an indication that the official solemnity was over, that everybody could relax. "Well, how goes it, Bill?" Stein asked young Whyte, and slapped him warmly on the back. "Feel all right?"
"Little nervous, Jim," Whyte grinned.
"How about you, Tom?" Stein asked Blane.
"Well, I guess you better all of you have a look at your boys, dont you?" Stein said, and stood with his exec, First Lieutenant Band, watching the four platoon officers go off.
"I think they're all good boys, dont you, George?" he said.
"Yes, Jim; I do," Band said.
"Did you notice how both Culp and Gore were taking everything in?" Stein asked.
"I sure did, Jim. Of course they've been with us longer than the youngsters."
Stein removed his glasses and in the heat polished them carefully with a large handkerchief, and then replaced them firmly on his face, adjusting and settling them over and over again with the thumb and fingers of his right hand on the frame, while he peered out through them. "I make it about an hour," he said vaguely. "Or at most an hour and a quarter."
"I just hope we dont get any of those high level bomb groups before then," Band said.
"I rather do too," Stein said and made his large, mild, brown eyes grin behind their lenses.
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