killed most of the soldiers. That was a remarkable, courageous act of heroism. I have nothing but respect for it. The battle is interesting to me because my father, Captain Hideki Yano, was an infantry officer in the Japanese Imperial Army, Second Battalion, One Hundred Forty-fifth Infantry Regiment. He was in command of Point I-five, or the blockhouse on Suribachi’s northwest slope. In other words, I believe as the battle progressed, your father killed mine.”



Earl was trying to dig out and master a Nambu Type 96 light machine gun in the nearest gun pit when the grenades detonated. Though he was forty feet from them and they’d been wedged deep in a trench against the steel door of the blockhouse, the concussion still swept across him, punching him to the earth. He fell on a dead soldier, the man’s face beaten in by the butt of Earl’s Thompson. Earl saw the hideous rearrangement of features, the swelling, the shattered delicacies of the face and teeth, the bloated lips-then looked away. You train yourself not to see that stuff. He knew he had to focus. The gun, the gun!

The 96 was no BAR, but enough of them had shot enough lead at him for him to respect it. He looked at it, understanding its principles immediately; machine guns were pretty much alike in most respects. He rummaged around for a pouch of mags, found one, shifted to a new, fresh tin of ammo, locked it in, looked for, found, and locked back a bolt. Now he lifted it, feeling the ungainly slippy rotation of the loose bipod on the end of the finned barrel, and raced back to the rear of the house. If men shot at him, he wasn’t aware of it.

He slipped down. The door was blown asunder and black smoke boiled out of the entrance. It was like the doorway to hell. This is where you needed a flamethrower, for one cleansing stream from outside would search out nooks and crannies, crevices and corners, and take care of business and you didn’t have to crawl in and go from room to room, killing.

He took a breath and entered a subterranean world, fighting the acrid drift of smoke, the stench of latrine and blood and food, the sudden clammy coolness of the underground chamber. It was like entering an insect nest.

He heard the heavy rhythm of a woodpecker from the left and turned, stepping over a body. Bap bap bap bap bap, the pound of the slow-firing heavy machine gun. An entrance yielded a chamber, and indeed three men serviced one of the big Nambu 7.7 92s, concentrating on downhill targets, one locating them, one firing, one feeding ammo strips into the big gun, fighting hard to the end. They hadn’t even noticed the blown doorway.

It was pure murder. Usually you didn’t see it; shapes moved and stopped moving or disappeared. Now he pressed the trigger, felt the hot sputter of the gun, the tracers just swept them away in less than a second, so goddamned easy. It shouldn’t be as easy as with a hose against flowers. The gun in his hand emptied in a spasm and the soldiers never had any idea what happened, they just went down, flipping this way and that, this one fighting it, that one going down hard and fast, this one just slumping, caught and lit in a neon net, the Jap tracers white-blue and hot. It was over in a second.

Earl rotated to his left, stumbled a bit, burned some skin off his forehead on a low ceiling, and moved to the next chamber.

The captain shook spiderwebs, broken glass, fly wings, and dust from his brain. He was in pain everywhere, and when he breathed, only hot stench poured into his lungs and rasped at his throat. He thought he was drowning in an underwater of smoke and fumes. He gripped his skull to squeeze the pain out, but it didn’t help. Where was he, what was this, what was happening?

It was his chamber that had caught most of the blast when the steel door was blown. The big Nambu wasn’t firing; it was tilted askew to the right and the loader was either dead or dying; at any rate he lay on his back, his face and chest bloody, his eyes unseeing. He was gone, some piece of shrapnel to brain or spine, turning off his light in a microsecond of mercy.

It was Sudo of Kyushu.

Your sacrifice wasn’t by fire, he thought. I kept my word.

One of the privates, though, had gone to the gun and was fighting to get it righted and the third man joined him, albeit feebly as he too was seriously hit.

Then the captain heard the sound of fire from close at hand and knew one of the hairy ones had penetrated. He reached swiftly for his pistol but found the blast had torn his belt off. He was defenseless. He looked about. The sword lay to his right.

He bent, picked it up. It was, of course, ridiculous. In this modern age, Japanese NCOs and officers went into battle with these frog-stickers, helpful in executing Chinese partisans and waving in staff photographs and patriotic rallies and little else. Yet throughout the army they were beloved, because they connected to a thousand years of the bushido way of the warrior and conjured up men in elaborate armor or brilliant robes meeting and destroying each other in battles or back alleys for the sake-this was the lie, at any rate-of the hundred million. In the sword was freedom from the gaijin, dignity, spirituality, samurai. The captain drew the sword from its metal scabbard, feeling the friction of metal on metal, and then it sprang free and described a fine, glorious arc across the smoky space as the American approached.

In truth, it seemed to be not much of a sword. It was but shin-gunto, short, almost stumpy, its brightness suspect upon inspection, because the skin was a mass of scratches and hazing, and a bit of edge here and there had chipped off, in some forgotten adventure. The captain had drawn it from resupply as part of his kit when he’d left Tokyo for the Volcanics, and it was one of thousands in a room of reconditioned swords recovered from returning soldiers back from the Sphere’s expansions all over the southern half of the globe in the last decade. Possibly it had been carried by a now-dead man in China or Burma or Malaysia, who knew, who could possibly know?

But it was always weirdly sharp. This one, despite its mundane, even shabby appearance, had a will or destiny toward cutting. You could shave with it, or cut paper with it, and it had a lively quality unlike the heavier, duller sword that had been his first issue in China. It seemed to want flesh; it sought battle, destiny, fate. In some odd respect, he felt unworthy of it, though it was but military issue, presumably manufactured in a plant with thousands like it.

Yet it reassured him, and he drew it back in both hands, above his head, slightly separated for leverage, assuming position jodan no kamai, or “high-level stance,” or even “fire stance,” because his spirit was so strong it meant to burn the opponent, oppressing his resolve. He saw the next second perfectly: the downward diagonal between neck and shoulder (perfect kiroshi, cutting technique), the sword traveling straight without wobble, cutting cloth, skin, muscle, bone, the newly approved seventh kata of 1944, kesagiri, the preferred killing stroke of the diagonal cut, the clavicle stroke. Then the quick withdrawal, followed by chiburi, or that flick of blood removal before resheathing. The ritual was pleasing; it gave him comfort and brought calm to his tumultuous mind. He became one with the sword; he waited.

Earl killed the six men in the central chamber in a single second. It was just like the last: the tracers ate them up, tossed them up and down, and they fell, some mute, some twitchy. This was war: all the bullshit about doing your bit, about the team, about gung ho, semper fi, was forgotten: in the end, it was killing and nothing but.

He withdrew, aware that the gun was either empty or near to it. He diddled, unlocked the empty magazine, and it fell away. He inserted a new one, locked it in, drew the bolt back, slid down the weird hallway, low, burning yet more skin off his bare head, and came to the last chamber.

He knew they were waiting for him.

God help me, he thought, this one last time.

Then he plunged in.


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