That word samurai still stiffened the spine of every man. It was pride, it was honor, it was sacrifice. It was worth more than life. It was what a man needed to be and would die to be. He had known it his whole life; he had yearned for it, as he yearned for a son who would live up to it.

“Samurai!” said the boy fervently, now reassured, for he believed it.

Able Company caught primary assault. It was simply Able’s turn, and Charlie and Item and Hotel would offer suppressive fire and flanking maneuvers and handle artillery coordination, but it was Able’s turn to go first. Lead the way. Semper fi, all that fine bullshit.

There was a problem, however. There was always a problem, this was today’s: Able’s CO was shaky. He was new to the 28th and rumors had it that a connected father had gotten his son the command. His name was Culpepper and he was a college boy from some fancy place who talked a little like a woman. It wasn’t anything anybody could put a finger on, not homo or anything, he just wasn’t somehow like the other officers. He was fancy, somehow, from fancy places, fancy houses, fancy parents. Was Culpepper up to it? Nobody knew, but the blockhouse had to go or Battalion would be hung up all day here and the big guns on Suribachi would continue to shatter the beachhead. So Colonel Hobbs assigned his battalion’s first sergeant, Earl Swagger, to go along with Captain Culpepper that morning.

“Culpepper, you listen up to the first sergeant. He’s old breed. He’s been around. He’s hit a lot of beaches. He’s the best combat leader I have, you understand.”

“Yes sir,” said Culpepper.

The colonel drew Earl aside.

“Earl, you help Culpepper. Don’t let him freeze, keep his boys moving. I hate to do this to you, but someone’s got to get them boys up the hill and you’re the best I’ve got.”

“I’ll get ’em up, sir,” said Swagger, who looked like he was about 140 percent United States Marine Corps, chapter and verse, a sinewy string bean of a man, ageless in the sergeant way, a vet of the ’Canal, Tarawa, and Saipan and, someone said, Troy, Thermopylae, Agincourt, and the Somme. They said nobody could shoot a Thompson gun like the first sergeant. He’d fought the Japs in China before the war, it was said.

Swagger was from nowhere. He had no hometown, no memories he shared, no stories of the good old days, as if he had no good old days. It was said he’d married a gal last time home, on some kind of bond tour for the citizens back there, and everybody said she’s a looker, but he never pulled pictures or talked much about it. He was all guile, energy, and focus, seemingly indestructible but one of those professionals with what some would call a gleam in his eye who could talk any boy or green lieutenant through anything. He was a prince of war, and if he was doomed, he didn’t know it, or much care about it.

Culpepper had a plan.

Swagger didn’t like it.

“Begging the captain’s pardon, it’s too complicated. You’ll end up with your people all running around not sure of what to do while the Japs sit there and shoot. I wouldn’t break Able down by squads but by platoons, I’d keep a good base of fire going, and I’d get my flamethrowers off on the right, try and work ’em in close that way. The flamethrowers, sir, those are the key.”

“I see,” said the young man, pale and thin and grave and trying so hard. “I think the men are capable-”

“Sir, once the Japs see us coming, it’s going to be a shit storm out there. They are tough little bastards, and believe you me, they know what they are doing. If you expect men to remember maneuver patterns keyed to landmarks, you will be disappointed. It has to be simple, hard, basic, and not much to remember, or the Japs will shoot your boys down like toads on a flat rock. The important goddamn thing is to get them flamethrowers in close. If it was me, I’d send the best blowtorch team up this draw to the right”-they looked at a smudged map at the command post a few hundred yards back-“with a BAR and a tommy-gunner as cover, your best NCO running the show. I’d hold your other team back. Meanwhile, you pound away from your base of fire. Get the bazookas involved. Them gun slits is tiny but a bazooka rocket through one is something the Japs will notice. Sir, maybe you ought to let me run the flamethrower team.”

But the colonel said, “Earl will want to lead. Just let him advise, Captain. I need him back this afternoon.”

“But-” the young captain protested.

“Sergeant Tarsky is a fine man and a fine NCO. You let him move some people off on the left when we go. He’s got to get a lot of fire going, and the people here in front, they’ve got to be working their weapons too. I need a lot of covering fire. I’ll take the blowtorch team up the right. The Japs will be hidden in monkey holes, but I can spot ’em. I know where to look. So the BAR man can hose ’em down from outside their range. We’ll get in close and burn ’em out, then get up there and fry that pillbox.”

Culpepper hesitated a second, realized this smart, tough, duty-crazed hillbilly from some dead-end flyspeck south of perdition nobody had ever heard of was dead right, and saw that his own prissy ego meant nothing out there.

“Let’s do it, First Sergeant.”

The Type 92s fired 7.7 mm tracer. White-hot bolts of illumination cut through the mist and the dust. Through the gun slit, you could not see men, not really-but you could sense them, maneuvering a foot at a time through the same chaos. Where the bullets struck, they lifted clouds of black sand.

“There,” said the captain, pointing, and the gunner cranked his windage to the right, the finned barrel revolved on its mesh of gears, and the gun rocked, spent cartridges spilled, the tracer lashed, and in the vapors shapes stumbled and went down amid the stench of sulfur.

“Sir,” someone yelled from the leftmost gun chamber.

Holding his sword so it would not clatter, the captain ran through the connecting tunnel.


“Sir, Yamaki says he saw men moving off on the left. Just a flash of them moving directly away from our position.” Gun smoke filled the room, thin and acrid, eating at nasal tissues, tearing up eyes.


“I couldn’t see, sir.”

Well, it had to be. The American commander wouldn’t move his people directly at the guns. The hairy beasts never did that; they didn’t have the stomach and they weren’t eager to die. They would die if necessary, but they weren’t hungry for it. Glorious death meant nothing to them.

The captain tried to think it out.

He’d either go to his left or right, and you’d think he’d go to his left. There was more cover, the vegetation was thicker, and it was hard to bring direct fire because the ridge was steeper. You were mostly in danger from grenades, but the Americans didn’t fear the Japanese grenades, because they were so underpowered and erratic.

The captain tried to feel his opponent. His imagination of a white man was someone impossibly big and hairy and pink. He conceived of a cowboy or a ghost, but he knew there’d be intelligence guiding it. The Japanese had learned the hard way over the years that the Americans may not have had honor but they had intelligence. They weren’t stupid, they weren’t cowards, and there was an endless supply of them.

It came down to left or right? He knew the answer: the right. He’d go to his right. He’d send the flamethrowers up that way because it was less obvious: there wasn’t much cover, he’d run into spider holes, but he had the skill to overcome the spider holes. It seemed more dangerous, but a smart hand would have the advantage if he knew how to use terrain and was aggressive.

“I’ll take care of it. You men, keep firing. You won’t see whole targets, you’ll see shapes. Fire on shapes. Be samurai!”


The captain ran back to the central chamber.

“The little gun,” he ordered. “Quickly.”

A sergeant brought him the submachine gun called the Type 100, an 8 mm weapon whose central design had been stolen from the Germans. It had a wooden stock, a ventilated barrel, and a magazine fitted horizontally to the left from the breech. They were prizes; there were never enough of them to go around. What we could have done with a million of them! We’d be in New York today! The captain had to lobby General Kuribayashi personally to get one assigned to his position.

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