He threw on a bandolier hung with pouches full of grenades and spare magazines, buckling it tight to his body. Carefully, he disconnected his sword from his belt, laying it aside.

“I want to ambush the flamethrower attack. I’ll intercept them well beyond our lines. Give me covering fire.”

He turned, nodded to a private, who unlatched the heavy steel door at the rear of the blockhouse, and scrambled out.

“What’s your name, son?”

“MacReedy, First Sergeant.”

“Can you shoot that thing?” Earl said, indicating the sixteen pounds of automatic rifle the boy held.

“Yes, First Sergeant.”

“How ’bout you, son? Can you keep him loaded and hot?”

“Yes, First Sergeant,” said MacReedy’s ammo bearer, laden with bandoliers of BAR mags.

“Okay, here’s what we’re going to do. I’m squirming up the ridge. I’m going to check out the draw. When I see a monkey hole, I’m going to put tracer on it. You’re with me in a good prone. Where I put tracer, you put five rounds of ball thirty. Hold tight, stay on my forty-five tracer. Tracer won’t go through them logs the Japs use as revetment, but the thirty will, ’cause it’s moving three times as fast. Your buddy there’s going to feed you mags as you run dry. He’ll switch them on you. You got that, son?”

“Got it, First Sergeant,” said the assistant gunner.

“Now you blowtorch guys, you hang back. We got to clear this out before I can get you up on the ridge and you can get to work. Okay?”

There was a mumble of reluctant assent from his loose confederation of troops clustered just below the ridge, a couple of low, “Yes, First Sergeant.”

“And another thing. Out here, where there’s Japs, I’m Earl. Forget all the First Sergeant bullshit. Got it?”

With that Earl began his long squirm. He crawled through volcanic ash and black sand. He crawled in a fog of sulfur-stinking dust that floated up to his nose and tongue, layering him with grit. He held his Thompson tight like a woman, felt the two BAR gunners with him close, and watched as Jap tracer flicked insolently above. Now and then a mortar round landed, but mostly it was dust in the air, cut with flecks of light, so brief, so fast you weren’t sure you really saw it.

He was happy.

In war, Earl put everything behind him. His dead, raging father no longer screamed at him, his sullen mother no longer drifted away, he was no longer the sheriff’s boy, hated by so many others because they so feared his father; he was nobody but First Sergeant and he was happy. He had the United States Marine Corps as a father and a mother now, and the Corps had embraced him and loved him and nurtured him and made him a man. He would not let it down and he would fight to the death for its honor.

Earl got to the crest of the little ridge and poked his head up. Before him he saw a fold in the sandy soil that led up to the blankness of a higher ridgeline, a rill that was a foothill to Suribachi, which rose behind them, blocking all view of the sea. It was 2/28’s job to circle around the volcano, cut the mountain off from resupply, then inch up it and take out the mortars, the artillery emplacements, the artillery spotters, and the spider holes and pillboxes that dotted its scabrous surface. It had to be done one firefight at a time, over a long day’s dying.

The landscape of the draw seemed empty, a random groove cut in the black sand, clotted with clump grass and bean vines. The odd eucalyptus bush stood out amid the desolation.

Once he would have led men up and all would have died. But like his peers, he had learned the craft of war.

He looked now for gnarled root groupings in the clump grass and eucalypti, for patches of lemongrass, for small, stunted oak trees, for the Japanese had a genius for digging into them, for building small, one-man forts, impregnable to artillery but at the same time inescapable. There was no such thing as a back door. Thus they would die to kill. Retreat and surrender were terms they did not comprehend.

“You set up, MacReedy?”

“Yes, Earl.”

“On my fire.”

Earl marked the target, thirty yards out, a tuft of vegetation in a crest of black sand that had a too-studied look to it, and he knew a man lurked in a chamber behind the screen of fronds, and he put four rounds of tracer onto it, watching as the neon flickered across the distance and whacked into the green, throwing up clouds of black dust. He was so strong and so salty he could hold the gun with no rise; it never sent.45s careening wildly into space. He could shoot skeet with it and had famously put on an exhibition on shipboard for all the squid officers.

Next to him, MacReedy jacked a heavier.30 caliber burst into the position; these bullets exploded in geysers of angry power when they struck.

“Good work. That boy’s gone to his ancestors.”

Earl worked the slope. His eyes picked out things few others would have noticed; he put the tracer on them, the BAR kids followed with the heavier.30 caliber ball, and in minutes, the draw seemed clear.

“Now’s the hard part. See, the Japs have guys on this side. I mean, facing toward their lines, guys we can’t see. That’s how their minds work, the smart little monkeys. They been at this a while; they know a goddamn thing or two.”

“What’s our play, Sergeant Earl?”

“We’re going to roll grenades down this slope. I’m going to take the BAR. After the grenades pop, I’m jumping down there. I can pick out the monkey holes and lay fire on them. You move over the ridge and cover me with the tommy. Got it?”

“Earl, you’re sure to get yourself killed.”

“Nah. No Nip’s quick enough to hit old man Earl. Okay, I want the gun loaded and cocked. MacReedy, take the bipod off too. You, get your grenades out. Ready?”

“Yes, Mr. Earl.”

“Okay, on my count, pull, pop the lever, then just dump the grenades over the crest. Got it?”

Battle was weather. He ran through clouds of vapor, dust in the air, through layers of sulfur. There was no sun. His boots fought for leverage in the black sand. The thunder pounded, except that it was gunfire. The slope was alive with rounds striking, and it looked like small animals peeping about. Below he could see nothing but dust and shapes scurrying through it, hairy beasts trying to squirm ahead, get within grenade range, always hunted by the whiter tracers his own men fired.

He ran from gun pit to gun pit.

“Keep firing. We’ll drive them back. You have ammunition, water? Any wounded?”

The men were wonderful. All believed in the hundred million, all believed in duty to the emperor, all had already made peace with death and sacrifice, saw and believed in its necessity, and would not bolt or flee; they were the best men on earth. Samurai!

“There, to the left!”

He pointed and the Nambu cranked around, sent a burst skittering through some vegetation, and all were rewarded with a rare sight of an enemy rolling out of the brush limply.

“Search for targets, keep shooting, they will tire of dying and fall back soon.”

Now Captain Yano reached a last shelf. By geographical oddity, a few feet of ridge lay where the far slope was too severe to negotiate and no trenches had been dug. It was wide open. It had to be crossed.

“Captain, be careful!”

“Long live the emperor,” he cried, as if to invoke a higher purpose.

Did he believe it? A part of him did. You gave yourself to it, you accepted your death, even in pain or fire, you embraced the suffering, you longed for the void. You raced through fire, in search of your duty and your destiny.

But another part said, Why?

What waste!

These fine men, they could contribute so much, they die on a crest of black sand on an island of sulfur that held no meaning at all that could be divined. For the emperor? How many of his men knew that the godlike, all-knowing,

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