A beautifully told story with colorful characters out of epic tradition, a tight and complex plot, and solid pacing. -- Booklist, starred review of On the Razor's Edge

Great writing, vivid scenarios, and thoughtful commentary ... the stories will linger after the last page is turned. -- Publisher's Weekly, on Captive Dreams

Thursday, February 23, 2017


When his step-daughter heard the news she reportedly told him, “My gosh, Harold, you’re a hero,” to which replied “No, I was a Marine.”

Last Sunday, we were having lunch with Pere at the Key City Diner, and Pere remarked that he knew exactly where he was 72 years earlier on that exact day. "I was playing in the sand," he said.

That sand was the black volcanic sand of Iwo Jima.

He used to tell my brothers and me that in the famous photo above:
I just located a good spot and said “Put it right here guys”, then moved on to give them cover.

He was just joshing us. He was elsewhere on the island at that time, but one time in the Smithsonian when the flag was on exhibit, he recalled how much it meant to the Marines on the front line to see that huge banner go up. It meant they would no longer need to worry about being shot in the back by snipers on the mountain. There was an earlier flag, he told us, but it was too small to see at a distance, so they put one up that no one could mistake. 

Here is a post from the Auld Blogge from a decade ago, with some updates and corrections.:

Hitting the beach
 Seventy-two years ago last Sunday, a young man named Joe Flynn was the first to climb down the netting from the side of his troopship to enter a smaller craft that would take him to an LST.  He fell off the netting, but a fortunate sway of the boat brought it underneath him, so he landed on his backpack in the boat rather than in the Pacific Ocean between the pitching boat and the hull of the troopship. 

LST is an abbreviation, Marines will tell you, for Large Slow Target. 

The seas were high and choppy and the boat got lost among the fleet and could not find the LST.  The navy pilot had to stop and ask for directions.  There were a lot of ships there.  (On one of them was a young navy rating who was the uncle of the Incomparable Marge.)  When they finally reached the LST, all the good spots were taken by Marines from the later boats, who had not gotten lost and so arrived ahead of them.  So young Joe found a spot on deck: a tarp stretched across a hatchway.  He lay down to get some sack-time, figuring it might be a long while before he had the chance again. 

The LST was packed to the deckline with supplies, so the tarp was covering boxes and crates.  It was hard to get comfortable.  Finally, he grew curious.  Just what was he sacked out on?  So he lifted the edge of the tarp. 

The entire hold beneath him was packed with boxes labeled "Grenades." 

Well, he figured, if something did go wrong, at least he would never know it; and he stretched out and went to sleep. 
+ + +
Note the enticement offered
+ + +
How Young Joe became a Marine. 

He had gone down to the draft board when his number came up.  There were recruiters there for every branch.  He wanted to join the Marines, so he had to go to the Navy table.  The Navy guy tells him that he thought the Marines had already gotten their quota for the day, but there were still naval slots open.  Young Joe insisted though and finally the guy relented.  Go down that hall there and ask the sergeant.  But if he's full up, I'm signing you up for the Navy. 

So Joe did so.  He sees the Marine sergeant just leaving with a group of civilians.  "I got my quota," the sergeant says holding up a hand.  "No more."

"But, sarge!" says Joe plaintively, "if you don't take me, I'll have to join the Navy!"

The Marine sergeant considers that for a moment, and the tone of voice in which it was said.  Then he huffs.  "Well, come on then."  And goes back in the room and signs him up.  
Joe's uncle Dan was already in the Marines. This may have influenced Joe.
+ + +
How he got his specialty. 

He had taken a battery of tests and scored very well on the Morse Code.  He'd had a shortwave radio at home, and a chemical lab.  He is, so far as I know, the only member of the family to have blown up his own bedroom.  (Go see if your brother has killed himself, he mother sighed on the sidewalk below, as she watched the glass flying out of the window.)  The lieutenant tells him with his scores he should put in for signal corps.  No, said young Joe, I want to blow things up.  At this, he had experience.  And so he wound up in the engineers. 
+ + +  

How he got to Iwo

As the LST approached the island, he was contacted by his platoon lieutenant, who appointed him to be liaison with battalion.  You land with the battalion commander, he was told; and then when the command post is set up, hunt me up and tell me where it is. 

This is the Marine Corps.  The battalion commanders land in the first wave. 

Joe's buddies greet this news with jolly salutations, like "You can kiss your ass good-bye." 

But the Japanese commander is smart.  He withholds fire because he wants the beaches chock full before he lays in on them.  So the first wave lands without much incident; but the second wave gets plastered by artillery that has the whole island ranged ahead of time. 
+ + +
A chance encounter

While they were still on the beach and the DUKWs ["ducks"] were bringing supplies ashore, the Japanese launched a mortar barrage.  Everyone went into foxholes.  Now, the DUKWs were driven and the supplies handled by Negro troops.  Young Joe had jumped in a foxhole with his Lieutenant.  Up to the lip of the foxhole comes a black marine, and he stops at the sight of two white men already in the hole.  "Permission to join you in the foxhole, sir?" he says. 

"GET YOUR ASS IN HERE!!" the LT suggested. 

Young Joe later reflected: What sort of society, what sort of upbringing, can lead a man to stop amidst bursting mortar shells and ask permission to jump in a foxhole with white men?  Not a very good one.

His most interesting task

He and another engineer were sent to the north side of the island to clear the beaches there of any mines.  They dig cautiously.  Eventually, they find something. 

It is a 500-lb aerial bomb. 

He and his friend consider this for a time.  Is it booby-trapped?  Then they look at each other and shrug.  What the hell. 

So they disarmed it. 

Later in life, there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that my brothers or I could do that could fluster him. 
+ + +

His most stressful task, except for when he got blown up

He had been sent back to the rear for something and was now approaching once more the front.  There is a run-off gully and he enters it on his stomach, crawling forward.  As he inches along, he sees ahead of him a place where a second gully joins the one he is in.  It is running parallel to his own course. 

He hears scrabbling sounds from the other gully.  He stops.  The sounds from the other gully stop. 

He begins to inch forward once more, and shortly the sounds from the other gully start up again.  As he nears the juncture, he brings his rifle to ready and works the bolt to load a round. 

The distinctive sound of a bolt action comes from the other gully. 

He eases his way to the juncture, peeks around the edge, and

there is his lieutenant, also with his rifle cocked and ready.  The lieutenant looks at him for a moment; then safeties his rifle. 

"Scared the shit out of me, Flynn," he says. 

The feeling was mutual.
+ + +

How he got blown up
The island is honeycombed with caves and tunnels and underground storage bunkers.  SF fans who have read Starship Troopers will recognize the battle of Iwo Jima in the battle of Sheol.   On the occasion he was blown up, he was returning with two satchels of C-2 explosives with which he proposed to plug the caves that provided entrances to the underground tunnel complexes.  

While he is crossing open ground with the C-2 slung over his shoulders, a mortar round explodes directly before him. The blast lifts him up and hurls him backward, the satchels go flying to either side, and he lands on his back. 

He lies for a while, his entire body numb, and wonders if he is paralyzed.  It had been a concussion round, he thinks. "If it had been a fragmentation shell, it would have filled me with holes." 

It happened in sight of his foxhole, and his buddy thought he had bought it.  He remembered the guy's name and told me, but I have now forgotten it.  Young Joe managed to drag himself along by his arms to the foxhole, where he slid in.  "Where am I bleeding?" he asked his buddy.  The guy checked.  "Nowhere."  There was not even a scratch.  "How did I get through that whole battle and not get so much as a scratch?" he wonders now.  Gradually feeling returned.  It was like when your arm or leg has "fallen asleep," but this was the whole body -- filled with that tingling sensation. The ringing in his ears dies down.  (It never goes away completely.  He still hears it.) 

Then he went back to recover the C-2.  

In later years the VA will tell him he is not entitled to a hearing aid.  If only he had bled, just a little, he would have gotten a Purple Heart and the hearing aid would have been automatically approved.    
Some mother's son.

On another occasion, he and his squad were taking shelter and they found themselves looking straight at a Japanese corpse. 

The soldier had been killed in an explosion, the force of which had ripped the uniform from his body, so that he lay there naked while his body bloated in the sun. One effect of this bloating was a fairly prominent swelling of his masculine member. 

The guys in the squad began making jokes along the line of "He must have died happy." But young Joe could only think that this had been some mother's son and that she would be waiting for him to come home, and he never would. 

"Of course, you can't think that way in a battle," he said later, "or else you  become the corpse bloating in the sun." But he never forgot that realization later, when he was with the Occupation troops in Japan. 
+ + +

The one other thing. 

One evening, they were off the line and everyone had gotten mail.  Young Joe looked over and saw his buddy Harry Blankenship crying, tears running down his face.  The others asked him what was wrong.  "My grammy died," he said.  

The next morning, they return to the front, where their task is to seal off as many bug holes as they can locate.  (SF fans will note again how Heinlein used this in Starship Troopers.)

Joe and Harry make their way to the top of a small ridge, and creeping on their stomachs peek over the top of the ridge. 

Below is the opening of a cave and a Japanese machine gun opens up from inside the opening, stitching across the top of the ridge. 

The two of them slide back down behind the ridge. 

Young Joe is okay.  Harry has a bullet hole smack in the middle of his forehead. He is with his grammy.

That is the margin between the living and the dead.  A little swerve in the machine gun, or if they lined up differently crawling up the ridge...  

He figures from all this that he is being saved for some important work in life. 

Important work he was saved for

+ + +
How the Old Man became an old man

My brothers and I asked him once when was the first time he felt like he was an old man.

"On my 20th birthday," he answered without a moment's hesitation. 

Really?  Where was that? we said.

"On the troopship, leaving Iwo Jima." 
+ + +

 What he did afterward.

We asked him once where he was when he heard about the atomic bomb and he answered, "On a troopship, heading for Japan." 

Someone had a heads-up; or else the initial invasion troops were already on their way. Based on the resistance on the Pacific Islands, it would have been a bloodbath of unprecedented proportions, and so the bombs, horrific as they were, likely saved millions of Japanese lives. But suddenly it was an occupation force. When they landed in Japan, he and his squad marched through the ruins of Nagasaki. 

He has some stories about the Occupation, including one involving some geishas, but those are stories for another day.
+ + +

Where I come from.

Because of the initiative he had shown at several points in the battle, the Marine Corps after the war twice offered him a commission as an officer.  But he was anxious to go home and marry his girl, who had been writing him so faithfully.  And so it came to pass. 

Above, left: Pfc. Joe Flynn, formerly 5th Engineers, 5th Marine Division
on the only occasion when he wore the dress blues. It was actually a
"false front" uniform used only for pictures!
Above right: Rita, The Sweetheart of the Seventh Fleet  
Little did he know that she had been writing to half the Seventh Fleet.  He was not the only one with the cheesecake snapshot.  It maintained morale across the Pacific Theater, and it all worked out for the best - i.e., TOF.  Had he accepted the commission he would have still been in the Corps when Korea broke out, and the window of opportunity for me would have been well past.  
Sweetheart of the Seventh Fleet
Hubba, hubba.

+ + +

A month from now, Young Joe will celebrate his 92nd birthday. His doctor says he is the poster boy for nonagenarians.


  1. Wonderful stuff. Puts things into perspective.

  2. Michael, could you try to Photoshop me into that last picture?

    1. I don't know photoshop, alas. But you are in the other picture further up!


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