He had never killed before. It was the eve of his first battle and he drew in the acrid smoke with a deep sigh of apprehension. The ground around him was cooling and the shadows blending into a blanket of black. Only the glitter of his dwindling cigarette broke the enveloping darkness. Soon the night sounds would begin with the last trill of the birds going to roost and the chirping of the crickets and locusts breaking into a brash crescendo of mind numbing noise. He could not sleep thinking of what the dawn would demand of him. He took another drag and slowly exhaled the burning fumes feeling the release of his breath as a foreboding of things to come.
George Watson Travis had enlisted eight months ago in the Marine Corps. He was eighteen years old on the day of his swearing in and he was immediately ordered to a destination he believed to be the worldly equivalent of hell. Each day he awoke before light to the scream of a sadistic drill instructor who demanded he perform constant repetitious feats of agony. He marched until his toes twitched in his sleep. Left, right, left, right constantly thumping in his head from the minute he rose until he lay silently slipping into a state of utter exhaustion. Life became a series of feared anticipations. Could he get done what was demanded of him without the slip of concentration that would gain the attention of the monster that watched for his mistakes and turned them into major unacceptable sins that could not be forgiven? The day of graduation from this den of harassment seemed impossible to focus on. It was so far in the future with so many moments of embarrassment and despair the days of what were to be beyond this grind were only a brief flash in his ever demanded mind. It would pass as all days pass with each one an era of misery.
On graduation day the realization of what he had gone through and the new respect he sensed reconditioned his focus to what was before him instead of expecting a voice to demand obedience. His indoctrination was now over and the next phase of his training would be far more interesting and less stressful. This thought soon vanished as he entered the camp that would make a field marine of him. The expectations were unanticipated and the regimentation was just as demanding. Time again became minutes and hours of avoiding mistakes and physical endurance. Counting the days seemed futile and suddenly the strain was over and the clerk handed him his orders to leave for the front.
Private George Travis boarded the troop ship with a duffle bag and trepidation. Many of his companions were new to the transport and displayed the same look of apprehension George had acquired. The talk was guarded except for the ones who hid their fear in boisterous bluster. Their destination was not announced but all knew they were headed for the only place soldiers of the last three years had gone. They were being sent to kill the enemies that their government had declared to be a danger. George laid on the deck of the troop ship looking at the clear night sky feeling the gentle rock of the ship and added a small light to the millions across the endless sky. The fear of the future was dimmed by the comfort of his smoke and the distance until they arrived.
Just as the time that seemed to never pass eventually did, so too the time that he wanted to cling to disappeared much too soon. The barren beach with pock marks and smoldering billows of smoke in the distance framed the mosaic of a raped landscape. Red Cross ambulances struggled in the loose sand to reach the landing craft that would take their cargo to safety and medical attention. George wondered how long ago these “passengers” had arrived at this scene and felt the dread he was experiencing. A loud bellow brought his mind into the present and he promptly responded by hoping into the back of a Six By loaded with others holding similar expressions of fear.
The ride was rough and dusty and nothing of interest was said. Some tried to hide their anticipation with chatter about life at home but most simply sat silent. As the truck came to a halt another bellow sent the passengers into a series of trenches. Each soldier found a position that seemed secure and could be made comfortable. The word was passed that tomorrow they would attack. Before George was now the longest night he would ever know and it would pass as quickly as any he had ever known.
The morning came with a heavy mist lying low on the ground, penetrating the uniform that had already acquired a griminess of those veterans accustomed to living in the dirt. The silence penetrated the mist as a few early birds gave timid chirps and the coughs of dry throats began. Suddenly there was a huge blast that lit up the surrounding grayness and voices were heard shouting and bodies began to climb out of the trench moving toward the fire and noise that increased by the moment. Orders to advance were being shouted and in the distant turf men could be seen falling. Private George Travis involuntarily climbed the slope of the trench and exposed himself to the mayhem that had descended on him. He ran toward the chaos feeling the presence of the men who had responded to the order. As he saw men fall and hide behind whatever clump of protection they could find, he too dived into a depression and laid as low as he could.
The bullets sang above him and the explosions were closer and constant. He saw no enemy, only the smoke and noise. Lying in the ditch he knew he was only an object without hope,cause or destiny. If he never moved he might be safe but he also might be the recipient of a blast that would eliminate him forever. All the training had been for this moment where he must decide what he could do to further the cause and survive. He inched his head above the ditch and carefully scanned the horizon for what he could identify as the enemy. Only noise and blasts and flashing lights spitting missiles of death met his searching eyes. He focused intently on the small flashing lights and was able to make out a form holding the launcher of the bullets. This was the final test of his life that he must now pass. He realized the form that was shooting at him had already passed the test and was willing to kill and he would either shoot this enemy or be the victim. This was his moment of truth.
Private George Watson Travis pointed his weapon toward the man aiming at him. He carefully brought the sight to his eye and placed his finger on the trigger. On the rifle range he had calibrated his sights for various distances. He could not estimate the distance his sights should be calibrated for. He simply fired, emptying his clip at the hazard before him. After the volley he climbed back into the ditch and waited. Nothing.
George was again in the position of stalemate. If he raised his head and he had not killed the enemy he might be shot and killed. If he didn’t raise his head to see the enemy might advance to a position where he would have a shot at him. He couldn’t ponder this, that enemy, time, wouldn’t allow it. He reloaded his clip and placed his rifle in firing position again hoping he had destroyed the threat. As he scanned the surface he saw nothing. Was the man dead or was he, like George, trying to decide what to do next? George again was faced with a life or death decision. If he exposed himself to find out if he had killed his enemy he might be cut down. If he stayed where he was the enemy might think he would wait him out pretending to be shot and ready to kill him when he climbed out of the ditch.
War was not what he had imagined. He had to constantly think and to survive. He had to out think his enemy. It was not a battlefield of mindless slaughter but a deadly individual game of chess. His life depended on the moves he made or didn’t make. It depended on figuring out what the enemy’s next move would be.
George calculated his firing had been successful even though he had not seen the enemy fall. No return fire was coming and he decided he had killed for the first time.
He climbed from the ditch and headed for the location he had fired upon.Tags: war