Before the push toward the ominous Mt. Yaetake on the China Sea peninsula, the squad’s regiment was camped outside a small village by the end of the second week. The troops rose before the crack of dawn to line up before the regimental cooks who had prepared hospital rations—a cuisine approach to dehydrated foods with a smattering of fresh meat and vegetables whenever logistically feasible. Infantry men burn up heaps of energy and calories and it is preferable that they not extend beyond ten or fifteen days without a reasonably decent meal. From the chow line with each one’s mess kit filled with dried eggs tastily prepared with "fresh" powdered milk, diced dehydrated potatoes hashed brown, and bacon strips from New Zealand, the squad returned to its line of assault.
"This is more like it—feels like I’m back with my howitzer outfit," Big Gun yelped. The squad had labeled this new replacement because he had been detached from the 105 ’s, as well as had others from other support companies to help fill in the lines until infantry trained replacements arrived from Guam or directly from the states. "We never eat the C and K rations you guys live on—strictly A and B for us cooked in real pots, not the slop you guys throw into your helmets."
"What gives with this ’you guys’ stuff—you’re one of us now, Big Gun," the saint reminded him.
"Not for long, I hope."
Saint Agony wouldn’t let it go: "Bah, you home front gyrenes are all alike—glory without the blood. Weren’t twenty thousand marines on Tarawa, yet there are a fifty thousand stateside who claim they were there."
"Why can’t our cooks do this all the time?" Li’l Brownie grumbled as he picked away at his appetizing breakfast.
"Too busy stretcher-bearing—you know that—those guys do a heck of a job getting the wounded back to the battalion and regiment’s doctors," St. Agony informed him while chewing on a strip of bacon.
"Yeah, you’re right—they have to take some chances….Wonder if they were told in cook’s school that their job in combat was mainly stretcher-bearing?" Johnny half quizzed as he looked beyond a high ridge to the imposing mountain shrouded in the morning mist. He chuckled to himself that Janie didn’t know—that’s for sure.
"Reckon not," Tennessee piped over to the saint, "just like those Brooklyn swabs on the LST…they never dreamed they’d be touring the China Sea."
"I know one who didn’t—that’s for sure," Johnny inserted, thinking of Steve Stanton. "Jeez, that’s a heap of terrain up there." Johnny whistled.
Tennessee looked over at Long Island staring up at Mt. Yaetake. "Shaw, ain’t you never seen a mountain before?"
"Sure,…where we been for the past ten days? Plenty around, but that sure is the tallest I’ve ever seen."
"’Shaw, t’ain’t nothin’ to what we got back home."
"That’s gotta be as high as the Empire State Building!"
"Well, we ain’t got none of that in Nashville. Somethin’ unholy about man’s works scraping the sky—that’s for angels and nature’ s mountains."
"Always felt at home in the Catskills—somethin’ friendly about mountains," Li’l Brownie mused.
St. Agony convulsed into his canteen of coffee, then let out a roaring laugh. "Priceless! Gracie! George Burns hasn’t an answer for that one!…Friendly, you say, like Casper, the ghost, eh? Yeah, knucklehead, they’ll be plenty of ghosts up there before we’re through!"
"Damn, Saint, you’re always knott’n’ up my words!" Brownie yelled back.
Chic strolled over looking somber and took a few sips of coffee from his canteen. He sat down on a pile of packs and stared up at the mountain. "Sh-iaa, old reaper is up there waiting for us, I bet."
"Real thoughtful of you, Chic." Johnny wrinkled his forehead. "I look forward to a little philosophy each morning. It helps in keeping silly hopes down."
Chic looked over at him grimly and asked, "Ever hear of Truman?"
"What kinda question is that?…like asking us two weeks ago if any of us ever heard of Okinawa."
"Where’s that, Chic?" Tennessee asked. "Sure doesn’t sound Japanese."
"Knucklehead, it’s not a place—it’s our commander in chief."
"Shaw, you don’t mean our top brass got nailed here?"
"Why don’t you stand awhile and give your hillbilly brains a chance to breathe in some oxygen—Jumpin’ Jehovah." Chic lit up a borrowed Lucky.
Johnny thought of Sally and how disappointed she would be if she knew he let his mind erode again. He pulled out the small five-pack of Camels from the Red Cross—she’d blame the nicotine, he mused with a faint smile. In fact the only time he bothered with affairs of the mind would be to write her—he was as careful about writing to her as he would be for his English teacher. Out here the mind did not seem to matter. He left that to Ernie Pyle, who, he had heard from scuttlebutt, was somewhere on the island with the army infantry. With Janie, he never had to think about what he was writing—it came naturally.
"Who in blazes did get hit, then?" Tennessee queried him, scratching his red hair.
Chic shook his head, gulped some coffee, tossed the rest out. "Bah, supposed to be fresh ground—no different than the George Washington powdered coffee." He shook out the cup and slipped it under his canteen. "Roosevelt’s dead."
"Jimmy, the president’s son, from the old Carlson Raiders?" Long Island chirped.
"The president, dummy—Jumping Johnny, you’ve been rocked by too many concussion grenades!" Chic snapped at Johnny. "Seems he had a heart attack or somethin’—s’ree…- well, somethin’ to do with a stroke."
"Jeez," Johnny let out in disbelief, "that’s the only president I ever had!—thought he’d go on forever."
"Yeah, I thought so too," the saint joined in. "So that’s it, Chic, huh…this Truman guy?"
Chic nodded. "Seems he was our vice-president."
"No sugar, man? What happened to that farmer feller?" Li’l Brownie asked.
"Wallace?…guess Roosevelt dumped him for this other guy."
Big Gun suddenly remembered, "Say, I know that Truman guy!…Yeah,…I remember my mom tellin’ me in a letter. He used to be our senator.…I’ll be damned, he’s from my home-town—Inde-pendence!"
"Sounds like something right out of Pennsylvania—ain’t there an Independence there?" Li’l Brownie tugging on his helmet strap, looked puzzled. "Thought you were from the far west?"
"Wouldn’t call Missouri the far west.…Jesus, you guys from the east still think we have thirteen states."