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Poisoned

Jim Schepker


As he gouged at the blackened eye of the potato clutched in his slimy palm, he thought about the men wading ashore on the atoll’s pink, sandy beach a mile away.


The place was called Tarawa.  It sounded nice, even if all the guys awkwardly pronounced the name in a myriad of different ways.  


And he wondered how much the thundering, two-day bombardment just finished had disemboweled its beauty.


“C’mon, private, knock off the daydreaming.  Get those spuds up here,” the cook, a sergeant, grumbled at him.


Jake was as an antiaircraft gunner, trained in California, under sunny skies and over green-blue seas, just like here, a thousand miles away. 


And he understood, since there had been no planes to shoot at, that he might be assigned something else to do. 


But this, sweating in the bowels of the transport ship, over a paring knife and a bobbing sea of red potatoes in the bucket braced between his boots, was not what he had expected.

He envied the guys strolling onto that beach nearby under that golden sun.


He had joined the Marines fresh out of high school.  When he visited the recruitment office, an Army lieutenant there had told him that if he joined up, he’d get to see Europe.  Having studied a little bit of geography in his high school, Jake knew they had winters, and snow, over there. 


At the next desk, sizing up the skinny kid layered under frayed jackets and scarves on that frosty, late-fall day, the Marine recruiter had told Jake, “Son, the Marines never go where it’s cold.” That had pretty much made up his mind. 


That recruiter, apparently, forgot to tell Jake about the Japanese out there, wherever that was.


Joining up had eased Jake’s escape.  From a small Arkansas farm, the fifth son of a tenant farmer mostly known for raising bourbon bottles, he had led a hard life.


That life got worse the day his twin brother fell high from an apple tree and broke his leg.

Jake had been in that same tree, filching apples from a neighbor’s orchard.  And he had carried his brother back to the family farm house, on his back, just as a ferocious thunderstorm kicked up.


“We cain’t be takin’ you boys to no hospital 30 miles away.  The roads is all washed out by now in this racket.  And sides, we ain’t got the gas to make it, nohow,” his dad told the boys after they had gotten back to the farm and had roused him. “We’ll set out in the morning,” his dad had concluded, and then retired to his room.


All night long Jake listened to the low moans of his brother in the bottom bunk.  Finally, around midnight, exhaustion silenced the bunk below.


The next morning, after Jake had hopped down to the floor next to his brother’s bed, he found his brother staring out, wide-eyed, as if he were gazing into the next world, amazed at what he was seeing there.


It was blood poison, or maybe he threw a clot, the doctor who looked at his brother the next afternoon, told the family. “You shoulda brought him to the hospital right away,” the doctor had said to Jake’s dad, “but I guess you was indisposed,” he added, and then threw his black bag into the front seat of his dust-coated black Ford and climbed in behind it.  


When folks in the valley heard about the boy’s death, most everyone figured Jake had either maybe jostled that tree limb, foolin’ around, or had stirred up the poison that had choked his brother’s life as he was carried back during that 2-mile slog home.


Six weeks later, Jake left to report for training, hitching a ride on the back of a flatbed truck loaded with goats and bales of hay, headed to Little Rock. His dad never came out of his room.


“Marines, let’s go – top deck!” an officer standing in a kitchen hatchway bellowed at Jake and others. “Now…. move it!”


Once assembled, Jake and his mates began to see landing craft bobbing toward them.  Ropes on pulleys were lowered over the side, and stretchers were soon hoisted on board.  They contained mostly blackened and bloodied corpses, and some twitching, moaning bodies. Some stretchers bore only severed limbs, with an occasional hand reaching out from under a tarp, as if groping for its owner.


That ordeal continued for the next 72 hours, Jake and his fellow Marines catching quick naps on the open deck between the arrivals of the next waves of landing crafts.


On the fourth day Jake was sent ashore, forced to wade in chest-deep water for the last 500 yards because the atoll’s razor-sharp reefs held the landing craft at bay.  On the way in, he could see the terrible toll that the atoll’s barrier had taken – shattered landing barges blackened by direct hits, disgorging earlier there in those aqua waters the bloody parts of the boys once on board.


The island had been transformed from the coconut tree-lined silhouette that Jake had earlier admired from his gun turret’s deck during that first day’s crimson sunset.  It was now a crater-encrusted, scorched patch of sand pierced by splintered tree trunks.  The dead and wounded Marines had all been removed by then.  Jake and his team were there to bury the dead Japanese soldiers in mass graves – 4,700 of them littering dugouts, bunkers and trenches in a space just a half-mile wide and two miles long.


They were assisted by the seventeen Japanese troops who had been taken prisoner, too dazed to fight any more.  They were given the job of pulling body parts out of the craters that had tried to swallow their fallen friends.


“Marines, move it – let’s get these Japs buried,” a sergeant yelled at Jake and his crew.  “There’ll be more ahead where these came from, so get on with it.”


Jake and his fellow Marines tried their best, but their constant vomiting had weakened them to the point that they could barely raise their spades to inter those bloated corpses, almost all with haunting stares.


It was near the end of the island’s northern tip that Jake came upon a lone Japanese soldier, gazing skyward from the bottom of a narrow, shallow trench.  His long, skinny frame, his slender, gentle hands, and the shattered leg, the soldier’s femur poking through his pant leg, all reminded him of his own twin bother. 


And those dark eyes, that cold stare, those were his brother’s, too, looking straight through him again, here, all this way from home. 


“Marine, bury that cuss so’s we can get the hell off this hell hole,” an officer yelled.


In a trance, Jake began digging, his brother’s second grave, laying him to rest once more… but this time taking comfort knowing that surely this terrible fight would convince the

Japanese back home, once they learned of the waste of so many sweet and promising sons and brothers, that this war was not worth that loss, not of even just one.

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