….It was amazing how the longer one lasted in this business, the less sympathy one felt for others who were getting shot up as long as oneself was in safety. Sometimes the difference was a matter of only a very few yards. But terror became increasingly limited to those moments when you yourself were in actual danger….
The Thin Red Line has nothing in common with any Pacific war story I am familiar with. No melodrama, no change-the-course-of-the-war inflationary blather.
James Jones gives the reader war-fighting as a job: episodic, atomizing, open-ended, harrowing and ridiculous.
As we follow rifle company C-for-Charlie from the day they land on Guadalcanal in 1942, characters are transformed in the forcing-frame of combat. But the absurd sniping and competition among GIs for pelf and place, for more responsibility and for less, has as much place in the narrative as fighting against emaciated, starving Japanese soldiers.
The most harrowing combat scene comes with the wounding of Pvt.Tella:
….That whole fucking outrageous ridge was one giant honeycomb of emplacements. It was a regular fortress. He himself was fast nearing the limbo of total mental exhaustion. It was hard to try and act fearless for your men when you were actually full of fear. And Beck wanted reinforcements!
Stein had lain and watched Keck lead his three pitiful little squads up that goddamned ridge with tears in his eyes. Beside him George Band had lain and watched eagerly through the glasses, smiling toughly. But Stein had choked up, cried enough moisture so that everything blurred and he had to wipe his eyes out quickly. He had personally counted every one of the twelve to go down. They were his men, and he had failed in his responsibility to each one who fell. And now he was being asked to send more after them.
Well, he could give him the two remaining squads of 2d Platoon. Pull them back out and put the reserve 3d Platoon up on the crest to fire cover. That would work all right. But before he did it, he intended to talk to Col Tall and get Tall's opinion and assent. Stein simply did not want that responsibility, not all alone. Rolling over, he motioned to Corporal Fife to bring him the telephone. God, but he was bushed. It was just then that Stein first heard from down in the little valley the first thin, piping yells.
They sounded insane. What they lacked in volume, and they lacked a great deal, they more than made up in their penetrating qualities, and in their length. They came in a series, each lasting five full seconds, the whole lasting thirty seconds. Then there was silence under the high-hanging, jouncing racket of noise.
"Jesus!" Stein said fervently. He looked over at Band, whom he found looking back at him with squinted, dilated eyes.
"Christ!" Band said.
From below, high and shrill, the series of yells came again. They were not screams.
Stein was able to pick him out easily with the glasses, which brought him up very close, too close for comfort. He had fallen almost at the bottom of the slope, seventy-five or eighty yards, not far from the other one, the Mississippian Catt, who—seen through the glasses—was clearly dead. Now he was trying to crawl back. He had been hit squarely in the groin with a burst of heavy MG fire which had torn his whole belly open. Lying on his back, his head uphill, both hands pressed to his belly to hold his intestines in, he was inching his way back up the slope with his legs. Through the glasses Stein could see blue-veined loops of intestine bulging between the bloodstained fingers. Inching was hardly the word, since Stein estimated he was making less than half an inch per try. He had lost his helmet, and his head thrown back on his neck, his mouth and his eyes wide open, he was staring directly up at Stein as if he were looking into a Promised Land. As Stein watched, he stopped, laid his head flat, and closing his eyes he made his series of yells again. They came to Stein's ears faintly, exactly in the same sequence as they had before. Then, resting a second and swallowing, he yelled something else.
"Help me! Help me!" Stein heard. Feeling sick and dizzy in the area of his diaphragm, he lowered the glasses and handed them to Band.
"Tella," he said.
Bank looked a long time. Then he too lowered the glasses. There was a flat, scared look in his eyes when he looked back at Stein. "What're we gonna do?" Band said.
Trying to think of some answer to this, Stein felt something touch him on the leg. He yelped and jumped, fear running all through his body like quicksilver. Whirling around, he found himself staring downslope into the fear-ridden eyes of Corporal Fife, who was holding out to him the telephone. Too upset even to be sheepish or angry, Stein waved him away impatiently. "Not now. Not now." He began to call for a medic, one of whom was already on his way. From below the insane series of yells came again, identical, unchanging.
Stein and Band were not the only ones to have heard them. The entire remainder of the 2d Platoon lying along the crest of the fold had heard them. So had the medic who was now running bentover along the slope to Stein. So had Fife.
When his commander waved him away with the telephone, Fife had collapsed exactly where he was and flattened himself as low to the ground as he could get. The mortar shells were still falling at roughly one-minute intervals; sometimes you could hear their fluttery shu-ing sound for two seconds before they hit; and Fife was completely terrorized by them. He had lost the power to think reasonably, and had become a piece of inert protoplasm which could be made to move, but only when the proper stimuli were applied. Since making up his mind that he would do exactly what he was told, but exactly that and no more, he had lain exactly where he had been until Stein called him for the telephone. Now he lay exactly where he had dropped and waited to be told to do something else. This gave him little comfort, but he had no desire to see or do more. If his body would not work well, his mind could, and Fife realized that by far the great majority of the company were reacting like himself. But there were still those others who, for one reason or another of their own, got up and walked about and offered to do things without being told first. Fife knew it, because he had seen them—otherwise he wouldn't have believed it. His reaction to these was one of intense, awed hero worship composed of about two-thirds grinding hate, and shame. But when he tried to force his body to stand up and walk around, he simply could not make it do it. He was glad that he was a clerk whose job was to take care of the telephone and not a squad noncom up there with Keck, Beck, McCron and the others, but he would have preferred to be a clerk at Battalion Hq back on Hill 209, and more than that a clerk at Regiment back down in the coconut groves, but most of all a clerk at Army Hq in Australia, or in the United States. Just above him up the slope he could hear Bugger Stein talking with the medic, and he caught the phrase "his belly blown open." Then he caught the word "Tella". So it was Tella who was yelling down there like that. It was the first concrete news Fife had had of anyone since the two dead lieutenants and Grove. He pressed his face to the dirt sickly, while Bugger and the medic moved off a few feet for another look. Tella had used to be a buddy of his, for a while at least. Built like a Greek god, never very bright, he was the most amiable of men, despite his career in life as a honeydipper in Cambridge Mass. And now Tella was suffering in actual reality the fate which Fife all morning had been imagining would be his own. Fife felt sick. It was so different from the books he'd read, so much more final. Slowly, in trepidation at even raising it that far, he lifted his head a fraction off the dirt to peer with pain-haunted, fear-punctured eyes at the two men with the binoculars. They were still talking. "Can you tell?" Stein asked, anxiously. "Yes, sir. Enough," the medic said. He was the senior one, the more studious looking. He handed the glasses to Stein and put back on his spectacles. "There's nothing anybody can do that'll help him. He'll be dead before they can ever get him back to a surgeon. And he's got dirt all over his bowels. Even sulfa won't fix that. In these jungles?"
There was a pause before Stein spoke again. "How long?"
"Two hours? Four, maybe? Maybe only one, or less."
"But, God damn it, man!" Stein exploded. "We can't any of us stand it that long!" He paused. "Not counting him! And I can't ask you to go down there."
The medic studied the terrain. He blinked several times behind his glasses. "Maybe it's worth a try."
"But you said yourself nobody could do anything to help him."
"At least I could get a syrette of morphine into him."
"Would one be enough?" Stein asked. "I mean, you know, would it keep him quiet?"
The medic shook his head. "Not for long." He paused. "But I could give him two. And I could leave him three or four for himself."
"But maybe he wouldn't take them. He's delirious. Couldn't you just, sort of, give them all to him at once?" Stein said.
The medic turned to look at him. "That would kill him, sir."
"Oh," Stein said.
"I couldn't do that," the medic said. "I really couldn't."
"Okay," Stein said grimly. "Well, do you want to try it?"
From below the set, unchanging series of yells, the strangely mechanical cries of the man they were talking about, rose up to them, precise, inflexible, mad, a little quavery toward the end, this time.
"God, I hope he don't begin to cry," Stein said. "God damn it!" he yelled, balling a fist. "My company won't have any fighting spirit left at all if we don't do something about him!"
"I'll go, sir," the medic said solemnly, answering the question of before. "After all, it's my job. And after all, it's worth a try, isn't it, sir?" he said, nodding significantly toward the spot where the series of yells had now ceased. "To stop the yells."
"God," Stein said, "I don't know."
"I'm volunteering. I've been down there before, you know. They won't hit me, sir."
"But you were on the left. It's not as bad there."
"I'm volunteering," the medic said, blinking at his Captain owlishly.
Stein waited several seconds before he spoke. "When do you want to go?"
"Any time," the medic said. "Right now." He started to get up.
Stein put out a restraining arm. "No, wait. At least I can give you some covering fire."
"I'd rather go now, sir. And get it over with."
They had been lying side by side, their helmets almost touching as they talked, and now Stein turned to look at the boy. He could not help wondering whether he had talked this boy into volunteering. Perhaps he had. He sighed. "Okay. Go ahead."
The medic nodded, looking straight ahead this time, then sprang up into a crouch, and was gone over the crest of the fold.
It was all over almost before it got started. Running like some fleeting forest animal, his medic's web equipment flopping, he reached the damaged Tella, swung round to face him up the hill, then dropped to his knees, his hands already groping at the pouch which held his syrettes. Before he could get the protective cap off the needle, one MG, one single MG, opened up from the ridge stitching across the area. Through the glasses Stein watched him jerk straight up, eyes and mouth wide, face slack, not so much with disbelief or mental shock as with sheer simple physiological surprise. One of the objects which had struck him, not meeting bone, was seen to burst forth through the front of him puffing out the green cloth, taking a button with it and opening his blouse a notch. Stein through the glasses saw him jab the now-bared needle, whether deliberately by design or from sheer reflex, into his own forearm below the rolled up sleeve. Then he fell forward on his face crushing both the syrette and his hands beneath him. He did not move again.
Stein, still holding the glasses on him, waited. He could not escape a feeling that something more important, more earthshaking should happen. Seconds ago he was alive and Stein was talking to him; now he was dead. Just like that. But Stein's attention was pulled away before he could think more, pulled away by two things. One was Tella, who now began to scream in a high quavery babbling falsetto of hysteria totally different from his former yells. Looking at him now through the glasses—he had almost forgotten him entirely in watching the medic—Stein saw that he had flopped himself over on his side, face pressing the dirt. Obviously he had been hit again, and while one bloodstained hand tried to hold in his intestines, the other groped at the new wound in his chest. Stein wished that at least they had killed him, if they were going to shoot him up again. This screaming, which he ceased only long enough to draw sobbing breath, was infinitely more bad than the yells for everyone concerned, both in its penetration and in its longevity. But they were not firing more now. And as if to prove it deliberate a faint faraway voice called several times in an Oriental accent, "Cly, Yank, cly! Yerl, Yank, yerl!"
The other thing which caught Stein's attention was something which caught the corner of his eye in the glasses as he lay looking at Tella and wondering what to do. A figure emerged from the grass on the righthand ridge plodding rearward across the flat and began to mount the forward slope of the fold. Turning the glasses on him, Stein saw that it was his Sergeant McCron, that he was wringing his hands, and that he was weeping. On his dirty face two great white streaks of clean skin ran from eye to chin accentuating the eyes as if he were wearing the haunting makeup of a tragic actor in some Greek drama. And on he came, while behind him Japanese MGs and smallarms opened up all across the ridge, making dirt puffs all around him. Still he came on, shoulders hunched, face twisted, wringing his hands, looking more like an old woman at a wake than an infantry combat soldier, neither quickening his pace nor dodging. In a kind of incredulous fury Stein watched him, frozen to the glasses. Nothing touched him. When he reached the top of the fold, he sat down beside his Captain still wringing his hands and weeping.
"Dead," he said. "All dead, Capn. Every one. I'm the only one. All twelve. Twelve young men. I looked after them. Taught them everything I knew. Helped them. It didn't mean a thing. Dead."
Obviously, he was talking only of his own twelve-man squad, all of whom Stein knew could not be dead.
From below, because he was still sitting up in the open beside his prone Captain, someone seized him by the ankle and hauled him bodily below the crest. To Corporal Fife, who had seen the vomiting Sico go and who now lay looking up at McCron with his own fear-starting eyes, there was some look not exactly sly about his face but which appeared to say that while what he was telling was the truth, it was not all the truth, and which made Fife believe that like Sico McCron had found his own reasonable excuse. It did not make Fife angry. On the contrary, it made him envious and he yearned to find some such mechanism which he might use with success himself.
Stein apparently felt somewhat the same thing himself. With only one further look at the handwringing, still weeping, but now safe McCron, Stein turned his head and called for the medic.
"Here, sir," the junior medic said from immediately below him. He had come up on his own.
"Take him back. Stay with him. And when you get back there, tell them we need another medic now. At least one."
"Yes, sir," the boy said solemnly. "Come on, Mac. That's it. Come on, boy. It'll be all right. It'll all be all right."
"You don't understand that they're all dead," McCron said earnestly. "How can it be all right?" But he allowed himself to be led off by the arm. The last C-for-Charlie saw of him was when he and the medic dropped behind the second fold, now seventy-five to a hundred yards behind them. Some of them were to see his haunted face in the Division's hospital later, but the company as a whole saw him no more.
Stein sighed. With this last, new crisis out of the way and taken care of, he could turn his attention back to Tella. The Italian was still screaming his piercing wailing scream and did not seem to show any indication that he was ever going to run down. If it kept on, it was going to unnerve them all. For a fleet second Stein had a lurid romantic vision of taking up his carbine and shooting the dying man through the head. You saw that in movies and read it in books. But the vision died sickly away, unfulfilled. He wasn't the type and he knew it. Behind him his reserve platoon, cheeks pressed to earth, stared at him from their tense, blank, dirty faces in a long line of white, nerve-racked eyes. The screaming seemed to splinter the air, a huge circular saw splitting giant oak slabs, shivering spinal columns to fragments. But Stein did not know what to do. He could not send another man down there. He had to give up. A hot unbelieving outraged fury seized him at the thought of McCron plodding leisurely back through all that fire totally unscathed. He motioned furiously to Fife to hand him the phone, to take back up the call to Colonel Tall which Tella's first screams had interrupted. Then, just as he was puckering to whistle, a large green object of nature on his right, a green boulder topped by a small metallic-colored rock, rose up flapping and bellowing. Taking earthly matters into its own hands, it bounded over the crest of the fold growling guttural obscenities before Stein could even yell the one word, "Welsh!" The First Sergeant was already careering at full gallop down into the hollow.
Welsh saw everything before him with a singular, pristine, furiously crystal clarity: the rocky thin-grassed slope, mortar- and bullet-pocked, the hot bright sunshine and deep cerulean sky, the incredibly white clouds above the towering highup horseshoe of the Elephant's Head, the yellow serenity of the ridge before him. He did not know how he came to be doing this, nor why. He was simply furious, furious with a graven, black, bitter hatred of everything and everybody in the whole fucking gripeassed world. He felt nothing. Mindlessly, he ran. He looked curiously and indifferently, without participation, at the puffs of dirt which had begun now to kick up around him. Furious, furious. There were three bodies on the slope, two dead, one alive and still screaming. Tella simply had to stop that screaming; it wasn't dignified. Puffs of dirt were popping up all around him now. The clatterbanging which had hung in the air at varying levels all through the day had descended almost to ground level, now, and was aimed personally and explicitly at him. Welsh ran on, suppressing a desire to giggle. A curious ecstasy had gripped him. He was the target, the sole target. At last it was all out in the open. The truth had at last come out. He had always known it. Bellowing "Fuck you!" at the whole world over and over at the top of his lungs, Welsh charged on happily. Catch me if you can! Catch me if you can!
Zigzigging professionally, he made his run down. If a fucking nut like McCron could simply walk right out, a really bright man like himself in the possession of his faculties could get down and back. But when he skidded to a stop on his belly beside the mutilated Italian boy, he realized he had made no plans about what to do when he got here. He was stumped, suddenly, and at a loss. And when he looked at Tella, an embarrassed kindliness came over him. Gently, still embarrassed, he touched the other on the shoulder. "How goes it, kid?" he yelled inanely.
In mid-scream Tella rolled his eyes around like a maddened horse until he could see who it was. He did not stop the scream.
"You got to be quiet," Welsh yelled, staring at him grimly. "I came to help you."
It had no reality to Welsh. Tella was dying, maybe it was real to Tella, but to Welsh it wasn't real, the blueveined intestines, and the flies, the bloody hands, the blood running slowly from the other, newer wound in his chest whenever he breathed, it had no more reality for Welsh than a movie. He was John Wayne and Tella was John Agar.
Finally the scream stopped of itself, from lack of breath, and Tella breathed, causing more blood to run from the hole in his chest. When he spoke, it was only a few decibels lower than the scream. "Fuck you!" he piped. "I'm dying! I'm dying, Sarge! Look at me! I'm all apart! Get away from me! I'm dying!" Again he breathed, pushing fresh blood from his chest.
"Okay," Welsh yelled, "but goddam it, do it with less noise." He was beginning to blink now, and his back to crawl, whenever a bullet flipped up dirt.
"How you going to help me?"
"Take you back."
"You can't take me back! You want to fucking help me, shoot me!" Tella screamed, his eyes wide and rolling.
"You're off your rocker," Welsh yelled in the noise. "You know I can't do that."
"Sure you can! You got your pistol there! Take it the fuck out! You want to help me, shoot me and get it over with! I can't stand it! I'm scared!"
"Does it hurt much?" Welsh yelled.
"Sure it hurts, you dumb son of a bitch!" Tella screamed. Then he paused, to breathe, and bleed, and then he swallowed, his eyes closed. "You can't take me back."
"We'll see," Welsh yelled grimly. "You stick with old Welsh. Trust old Welsh. Did I ever give you a bum steer?" He was aware now—he knew—that he wouldn't be able to stay much longer. Already he was flinching and jerking and jumping uncontrollably under the fire. Crouching he ran around to Tella's head and got him under the armpits and heaved. In his own arms Welsh could feel the body stretch even before Tella screamed.
"Aaa-eeeee!" The scream was terrible. "You're killing me! You're pulling me apart! Put me down, goddam you! Put me down!"
Welsh dropped him quickly, by simple reflex. Too quickly. Tella landed heavily, sobbing. "You son of a bitch! You son of a bitch! Leave me alone! Leave me alone! Don't touch me!"
"Stop that yelling," Welsh yelled, feeling abysmally stupid, "it ain't dignified." Blinking, his nerves already fluttering like fringe in a high wind now and threatening to forsake him, he scrambled grimly around to Tella's side. "All right, we'll do it this way, then." Slipping one arm under the Italian's knees and the other under his shoulders, he lifted. Tella was not a small man, but Welsh was bigger, and at the moment he was endowed with superhuman strength. But when he heaved him up to try and carry him like a child, the body jackknifed almost double like a closing pocketknife. Again there was that terrible scream.
"Aaa-eeeee! Put me down! Put me down! You're breaking me in two! Put me down!"
This time Welsh was able to let him down slowly.
Sobbing, Tella lay and vituperated him. "You son of a bitch! You fucker! You bastard! I told you leave me alone! I never ast you to come down here! Go away! Leave me alone! You shiteater! Stay away from me!" And turning his head away and closing his eyes, he began his desperate, wailing, piercing scream again.
Five yards above them on the slope a line of machinegun bullets slowly stitched itself across from left to right. Welsh happened to be looking straight at it and saw it. He did not even bother to think how all the gunner had to do was depress a degree. All he could think about now was getting out of here. And yet how could he? He had come all this way down here. And he had not saved Tella, and he had not shut him up. Nothing. Except to cause more pain. Pain. With sudden, desperate inspiration he leaped across the prostrate Tella and began rummaging in the dead medic's belt pouches.
"Here!" he bellowed. "Tella! Take these! Tella!"
Tella stopped screaming and opened his eyes. Welsh tossed him two morphine syrettes he had found and began to attack another pouch.
Tella picked one up. "More!" he cried when he saw what they were. "More! Gimme more! More!"
"Here," Welsh yelled, and tossed him a double handful he had found in the other pouch, and then turned to run.
But something stopped him. Crouched like a sprinter at the gun, he turned his head and looked at Tella one more time. Tella, already unscrewing the cap from one of the syrettes was looking at him, his eyes wide and white. For a moment they stared at each other.
"Goodby," Tella cried. "Goodby, Welsh!"
"Goodby, kid," Welsh yelled. It was all he could think of to say. For that matter, it was all he had time to say, because he was already off and running. And he did not look back to see whether Tella took the syrettes. However, when they were able to get to him safely later in the afternoon, they found ten empty morphine syrettes scattered all around him. The eleventh remained stuck in his arm. He had taken them one after the other, and there was an at least partially relaxed look on his dead face….
17 March 2018