A POWERFULLY WROUGHT MEMOIR BY A MEMBER OF WWII'S FABLED 1ST MARINE DIVISION
Sterling Mace's unit was the legendary "K-3-5" (for Company K, 3rd Battalion, 5th Regiment of the 1st Marine Division) and his story takes readers through some of the most intense action of the Pacific War, from the seldom-seen perspective of a rifleman at the point of attack.
Battleground Pacific is filled with indelible moments that begin with his childhood growing up in Queens, New York, and his run-in with the law that eventually led to his enlistment. But this is ultimately a combat tale--as violent and harrowing as any that has come before. From fighting through the fiery hell that was Peleliu to the deadly battleground of Okinawa, Mace traces his path from the fear of combat to understanding that killing another human comes just as easily as staying alive. He learns that bravery often equates to stupidity, leading to the death of close friends, but also that life goes on, with death on its heels.
Battleground Pacific is one of the most important and entertaining memoirs about the Pacific theater in WWII.
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St. Martin's Press
May 08, 2012
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Excerpt from Battleground Pacific by Sterling Mace
SAILING THE SOUTH OZONE SEA
AT 7:13 A.M. ON THE MORNING of February 2, 1924, Punxsutawney Phil, "Seer of Seers, Sage of Sages, Prognosticator of Prognosticators, and Weather Prophet Extraordinary," burrowed out of his dirty little rodent hole and saw his dirty little rodent shadow, signifying that another six weeks of winter was on its way. Later that evening, I came into this world, as my mom gave birth to me in the back of Jake Cohen's hardware store, at the corner of 135th Place and Rockaway Boulevard, Queens Borough, New York, amid the lead piping, kerosene jars, penny nails, and post hole diggers.
After I was born, my dad, the tall and dapper Harry Raymond Mace, lost everything in the stock market crash of 1929. Bigwigs were jumping out of Wall Street buildings on "Black Tuesday," and a fat banker leaped from the top of the Stock Exchange and landed right on my dad's pushcart, destroying everything we owned.
Of course, that's a little joke, but even in the biggest lies there are still the smallest grains of truth.
In this case, the standing truths are twofold: In those days, unless you were living in the White House, to some extent or another, nobody in America remained unaffected by the Great Depression of the 1930s. Secondly, the real Pacific war did not begin on the beaches of Tarawa, Peleliu, and Iwo Jima--nor did it start with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The real Pacific war began with the dreams and realities, the episodes and ambitions, that beat within the hearts of the young men who would later experience it.
We youths of the era collectively and individually were molded by the Great Depression and Roosevelt's New Deal ideals, thus finding ourselves well equipped to kill the sons of Nippon and lay low their yellow nation. We didn't know it then, but the kids of the Great Depression, a deprived generation, were preparing for war--and we were becoming damned good at it, even before we laid hands on a weapon.
For me, the New York of my time was the New York of all time.
It is a lost New York. Lost to the years, now, but very much a product of its own time, as farmsteads and subway lines spit in the palms of their hands and shook on it as if it still meant something. Wiseguys could be seen standing on the street corners on Saturday afternoons, ogling the girls and shootin' the shit--and then later that afternoon the same bunch would hitch a truck out to the potato farms, in Suffolk County and Montauk Point, and then back again, each time seeing how far they could make it out.
So when my family moved out to Queens, before I was born, all of our relatives from Brooklyn laughed and said we were moving out to the country. Yet my dad probably took the electric train to get there!
We were the overflow of Queens during the Great Depression.
From our home on 123rd Street, down the back of 128th Street, was "Little Italy," where the Italians (we called them guineas back then) would throw all sorts of exotic and colorful festivities. They'd have a feast, with food stalls dotting the sidewalks, selling greasy sausages and fat cannolis. Confetti littered the streets. There were loud voices everywhere, and chirping children ran between the legs of their padri and madri.
Then me and my pals, when we got old enough, we'd swagger through the crowd, browsing for those cute little Italian girls, trying to romance them amid the spinning wheels, bright lights, and games of chance (which I swear were rigged, because those "games" would clean you out quicker than those Italian girls could heist your heart).
When I returned home for the night, empty-handed and empty-hearted, I would lie in bed, hands propped behind my head, listening to the caterwauling of the Italian opera singers as they cut loose for the last time before they closed down the show. Then the fireworks would go off.
I could hear the pops, bangs, and whizzes of the pyrotechnics as the reds, yellows, and oranges smeared lightscapes across my bedroom window.
Even after the war, I lay there, watching the sounds and listening to the sights, as they held another feast, while consciously I tried to equate those sensations to the things I had experienced in the Pacific.
The fireworks wouldn't shake me up or anything. I wouldn't become frightened. Although they were pretty close.
I was pretty close.
It was simply a unique time for all of us in Queens, from the skunk cabbage farms in South Ozone to the Aqueduct Racetrack on Rockaway to places people today never heard of, like Cornell Park and Richmond Hill Circle. Queens was popping with civilization, as one million immigrants and natives shared a commonality that not many people do today. Yet as America wore the face of tragedy in the reflection of the stock market crash of 1929, my Queens, too, was no exception. Beneath the tough lessons of meager meals and Home Relief, there was a flipside to our disposition--the mask of comedy, which diametrically opposed the Depression that assailed us: the double-sided Greek mask of classic theater. We had to keep ourselves in clover, despite knowing better. Despite ourselves.
Then a miracle happened, when I was eleven years old--Christmas morning 1935.
It didn't change anything, yet to me it changed everything.
Mickey and I flew down the stairs that Christmas morning, screeching to a halt in front of the tree out on the porch. The sparkle in our eyes surely eclipsed the glamour of promises that lay beneath the traditional tree.
For traditionally, under the tree, there might be the same wooden canoe I received the year before, but this year Dad had painted it a different color, so that it looked great again. Or I had a metal dirigible, which got the same treatment a couple of times--painted up, or polished nice to give it a new shine. Rounding out our Christmas bounty, Mom and Dad put an orange, maybe an apple, and a few walnuts in the stockings that hung in front of our false-front fireplace. It didn't matter what I got for Christmas, though. It didn't matter if it was something new or a little bit of the old stuff. The happiness my family shared on Christmas had a lot to do with just being together--and also knowing that there were some children, like the kids who lived in the shantytown of Cornell Park, with their dirt roads and swamps, who were probably getting whippings on Christmas morning, just to set their minds right for the coming New Year.
Besides, we had a good roof over our heads. Our home on Panama (123rd) Street was small but comfortable. Dad had paid $2,300 for it, so that made it ours. It was a three-bedroom bungalow, with my room fairly cramped, being situated on the top floor where the roof pitched down at a slant. Mickey was upstairs also, but her bedroom was larger than mine; she got first dibs because of her age. Mom and Dad took the downstairs bedroom, coming off of the living room; then there was a small dining room and a kitchen. That was it.
We could have been a lot worse off.
Dad even had a car, a 1927 Essex, which was great, but we couldn't afford the antifreeze for it when the winter bit deep enough, so Dad would have to pour water into the radiator as a coolant. Water worked fine, until you parked the car for about three seconds. A case in point: One winter, Dad took a WPA job, building Jacob Riis Park; as he got ready to leave for the day, he went out to the Essex and tried to turn the motor over, only to find the car wouldn't start because the engine was a solid block of ice. Being the logical guy that Dad was, he built a fire under the motor with some old wood, so that after a while the water thawed and he was able to ride home again.
Even our clothes, growing up, were strictly the cheap stuff.
Mickey and I got our clothes from a handout store on 119th Street, where the uniform of the day was always brown corduroy knickers, black shoes, and black stockings. It seemed that everybody wore nothing but black in those days. And those shoes? Everyone was given a pair of size D shoes, even if they had size EEE feet. For three years I walked around with sores on my heels, trying to get into those damned lace-ups.
It was later, when I was in the Marine Corps, that I remembered those shoes, when I saw how happy the rednecks in our platoon were when they received their U.S.-issue boondockers--which, as it turned out, were the first shoes they'd ever owned in their lives.
It was funny, and we New Yorkers would crack wise at the Rebels; nevertheless, it brought back a certain thankfulness for how lucky some of us were, compared to those who had grown up in the Dust Bowl days of the Great Depression. Yet which one of us could claim we were unaffected by the hard knocks of our era? There wasn't a single marine who didn't have at least one drum to beat over the want and worry of the 1930s.
Even in 1943, as we marines took the train from Camp Lejeune to California, crossing into Georgia, the call of the Depression still knew every one of us by name. The train made frequent stops, and little black children ran up to our open windows and began dancing, performing, for any change that we'd throw out to them. They didn't know any different; they still smiled and danced, kicking up puffs of dust around their ankles. They were maybe seven or eight years old, dirty from head to toe, and living in dry wooden shacks. I even recall one such "home" being constructed out of the back end of a rusted automobile.
Those poor children probably didn't even know what a Christmas morning was.
Eight years earlier, however--before I had any notion of the Marine Corps, or of death from Japan--happiness abounded in a little corner of New York, when I saw the miracle behind our Christmas tree.
It was the greatest gift a boy could ask for.
Somehow (gasp!), some way (it's the most beautifulest thing I've seen in my whole entire life!) ... there was a Junior Racer Flexible Flyer behind the tree--a brand-new sled! No, not just any sled, but the Cadillac of sleds! The Flexible Flyer was a work of art that might as well have been crafted by da Vinci, or God, for that matter, as far as I was concerned. The high-polished gleam-sheen of the wooden board was so glossy I could make out the shiny reflection of my huge grin, mirroring off its golden-hued surface. The fiery red runners, at the sides of the board, held their own dimensions of beauty--long and sleek, almost knifelike in their finely tooled curvature.
I wheeled around to face my parents--unbelieving, almost afraid to touch such a gift, lest it evaporate before my eyes--only to see their approving smiles as they nodded for me to go ahead and take it, love it, cherish it ... it was mine! Dad must've knocked over a bank to get that kinda scratch!
"Thank you, thank you thank you!" I said, jumping up and down, hugging my parents, wetting their faces with kisses. Miz Muggins, our old family dog, merely lay there, with her muzzle between her paws, looking up at us indifferently. It had been a long time since Muggins had been spry enough to wag and jump about anything.
It was a miracle.
I never asked my dad how he could afford it--but I never forgot that he did.
That Christmas I went sledding the whole day, coming home only once to change my wet clothes, hanging my soaked socks by the stove and putting on fresh knickers. I must have been quite a sight, going up and down Donnelly Hill with my pals, spinning snow as we went, intentionally dragging one foot behind my sled when a buddy started gaining on me. The snow would pelt him in his face, blinding him, skidding him off into a spin!
I didn't have fancy winter wear, but with my old knit cap and my rough suede workman's gloves, I was warm enough. To keep the water from getting through the holes in my shoes, I took some old burlap bags, put my feet through them, and tied them off at the ankles. I must have looked silly, though I couldn't have cared less how I appeared, just as long as my eyes watered from the speed of flying down the hill in my gold and red chariot.
Eventually some girls our age showed up, laughing and carrying on, as they are wont to do. We would speed up right behind them as we flew, and with one arm we'd take their sled and spin it! Around and around they went until they took a soft tumble in the powder. Then we'd go up and pretend we were sorry for doing it--but for some reason (a reason none of us knew at that age), we did it just to be close to them.
That evening I walked back home under the moonlight with my best pals, Tommy Colonna and Billy Boscha, none of us saying much. The only sound was the crunching snow beneath our shoes.
Presently Billy piped up and said something akin to what the rest of us were thinking.
"Ya know," Billy said, "everything was just peachy till those girls showed up."