“Nick!” Tony whispered. Nick moaned.
“Wake up. And keep quiet. We gotta go now if we’re gonna go,” said Tony.
Tony was Nick’s older brother. His real name was Frank, but everyone called him by his middle name – Tony.
“Wake up goddammit! We’re goin’ now,” Tony insisted. Nick thought Tony was full of it again.
Nick reluctantly peeled himself out of bed, slid into his pants, and wrapped himself in his wool coat Before he could open his eyes he and Tony had snuck out of the house and were walking down Second Street. They silently walked for two frozen blocks, and then made a left onto Bleaker Street. The sun ricocheted off the February snow, and it was blindingly bright. Then they were there.
Utica’s Union Station was just a few blocks from their house, but Nick had only been there one other time. The marble pillars towered like sycamores over him, and the greatness of the place made Nick’s stomach hurt for some reason, like it did when he was in trouble as a boy in grade school. They waited for their train.
“You scared Nick? I ain’t scared. You just let me do the talking when we get there,” said Tony.
“I ain’t afraid of nothing. It’s the rest of ’em that’s afraid. What are they waiting for anyway? And you’re another one. I would’a gone last week if you didn’t chicken out. And you let me do the talkin’! Else we’ll end up jumping out of planes or something,” said Nick.
The Mohawk River rushed along the side of the train, and Nick stared into the ugly muddy water. Tony and Nick’s older brothers were home sleeping, and Nick was sure they would be jealous that he signed up first, being the youngest and all.
“There’s nothing to be afraid of,” he told himself. “We’re not even in the war yet, and Hitler would probably get some sense about him before it came to that. Even if we ended up in the war, I’ll never see any real action anyway. And even if I do see some action, who cares. I’m not going to die and I sure as hell don’t want to sit around here anymore.”
It was the height of the Great Depression, and the whole family was dirt poor. Nick was twenty-one, the eighth of nine, with five older brothers, two older sisters, and one younger sister. Almost all of them had found something to do with their lives – spouses, kids, working at their uncle’s factory, and so on. There were about twenty-five Demmas – if you counted all the wives and kids and aunts and uncles – living in that three-family house and the house next-door on Second Street, and all of them had something to do except Nick and Tony. And this was the primary reason they joined the United States Army in February 1941. They had nothing better to do.
“You think we’ll have to kill anyone, Nick?”
“Mingya, sometimes you’re a real moron. They wouldn’t put a stunad like you anywhere near the real action.”
“You’re the moron. ‘Sides, I want to kill nazis. And I could too. You’ll see.”
“What’d you know about it anyway? You never fought no one and you sure as shit never killed nobody,” said Nick.
“I can fight. I’ll kick your ass right here on this train. ‘Sides, I don’t have to fight no one, I just got to shoot ’em.”
“You’re talking right out your ass again, ain’t you Tony? You never even seen a rifle, how you going to shoot a nazi?”
“I guess you know everything then, huh Nick?” A few moments went by. “Maybe we shouldn’t do it. Let’s just wait, they says we’ll get drafted if there’s a real war anyway.”
“This time, we’re not turning back,” said Nick.
After enlisting, Nick went to Virginia for some training, which was terribly exciting for him. He was given new pants, a new shirt, a new jacket, a hat, and a gun, and then he was assigned to the Coast Artillery Corps. Nick and Tony stayed in Virginia for a while until December 7, when Japan sent some men in airplanes to Hawaii to kill American men and blow up their ships. A few days later Nick and his fellow corpsmen found themselves on a boat departing from San Francisco. Tony did not go to Hawaii. Before Nick realized what he had signed up for the blistering cold of a February morning in Utica, New York had transformed into the sweet thick tropical breeze of Oahu, Hawaii.
The attack on Pearl Harbor two months prior was a distant memory for Nick and the other boys, and they hovered around the pile of empty beer cans that night like it was a camp fire.
“I’m not doing it,” said Andy.
Nick finished his beer, tossed the empty can onto the pile, and flicked his cigarette. “I’ll go.” He took a machete from Andy and pounced into the darkness. Andy and guys heard some rustling, and then the swipe of the machete, and then more rustling, and then the boom of a shotgun!
“Holy shit, the farmer’s shootin’ at Nick,” said Andy, laughing hysterically.
Next they heard the oos and ouches of Nick sprinting through the spiky plants. He emerged from the darkness with four pineapples in his arms and a farmer on his heals. They all scattered, out of breath from the laughing more than the running. That’s how Nick earned the nickname “The Pineapple Kid.”
Nick knew he was small, but his friends didn’t. He was five-three, a hundred and thirty-five pounds, but
his broad shoulders, square jaw, dark eyes, and big mouth made him seem much bigger than he was. He was scrappy and daring, with the razor-sharp wit he had to develop as the youngest boy growing up during the depression. You wanted to have a beer with Nick, partly because that, “ahhh” sound he made after his first sip, and partly because he was so damn funny to drink with. With a charming squinting smile, bright eyes, and flowing waves in his black hair, he was a perfect fit for the pre-war Hawaiian atmosphere.
Later that night Nick and Andy sat on a rock break staring into the ocean. There was no moon, and the stars illuminated a spiderweb on the water’s wake. Nick noticed a small bolder arbitrarily jutting out of a part of the ocean. A wave came and pummeled the little boulder with a crash, and then the spider web drowned the rock. A moment later the rock appeared again, and it waited for the next crash.
“What do you think it’s like out there?” Andy was wondering what his compatriots were experiencing at the Battle of Guadalcanal.
“Damned if I know. We’ll find out soon enough,” said Nick. Nick lit Andy’s cigarette then his, and the air was thick with the smell of the sea.
“Aren’t you afraid? We could die.” Andy was five years older than Nick, and he had been silently obsessing about his mortality the entire time he was in Hawaii.
“We ain’t gonna die. Those Japs couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. Besides, we won’t be anywhere near the action. We just gotta do what we’re told. I ain’t afraid of dying anyway.” Nick hadn’t really thought of death before. At twenty-one he still felt in complete control of his destiny. He still believed he was invincible and immortal, and that death was just something that happened to other people. These thoughts lingered in Nicks mind as he drifted to sleep that night.
For nearly two years in Oahu Nick would slip into the blissful repetitive routine of military waiting and preparation. In Hawaii Nick found what he hoped to find in military life. Something to do. There was no winter, no boredom, no hunger, and no guilt. There was plenty of food, a warm bed, and a new group of brothers who also had nothing better to do.
The Army gave Nick the sense of purpose he so desperately dreamed of. During his time in Hawaii he earned a respectable grade as a T5 radio operator, the equivalent of a specialist today. Nick only finished two years of high school, but the Army didn’t see him as uneducated. The Army recognized he was special, and the Army proved this with patches and insignia. The Army told him he was smart and important, and they taught him how to use giant cannons like the 155mm Howitzer. For all these reasons, and for the way he felt in those most meaningful Hawaiian days, Nick loved the Army.
Nick’s best friend Andy was becoming dreadfully aware of the naïvety of those feelings of love, safety, and boyishness. But just like people convince each other that an approaching hurricane won’t be all that bad, the boys in Hawaii convinced themselves that this was the best time of their life – an all expenses paid vacation to Hawaii with their brothers and best friends. And it was in this carefree and blissful state of mind that the batteries of corpsmen boarded warships bound for Saipan in the summer of 1944.
Infantrymen looked up to the field artillerymen. There was a certain prestige that went along the two golden field guns crossed on Nick’s shoulder. Nick stuck his chest out and nodded his head back with pride as the other grunts walked by. “The war is something that is going to happen to them, not me,” he thought. This moment of pride lingered, and then Nick was on the same boat as everyone else, heading west, and that old sick feeling returned to his stomach.
Indigenous people peacefully inhabited the tiny island of Saipan for nearly three thousand years. Then, about a hundred and fifty years ago, foreign men arrived on ships. First the Spanish came and killed the necessary amount of local people to claim the island. Then the Germans came and controlled Saipan until the other Great War, when the Empire of Japan claimed Saipan until the Americans came, and killed nearly everyone in 1944. We killed so many people that we still maintain control of this tiny island today.
Both the Japanese and the Americans knew the strategic importance of the Mariana Islands – that is, Saipan, Tinian, and Guam. If the Americans controlled the Marianas, they would be able to launch air attacks on mainland Japan using their Superfortress B-29 bombers.
The Japanese entrusted the island to the inexperienced General Yoshitsugu Saito. Saito was only thirty-two years old, and he rose through the Japanese ranks more out of their Army’s need for commanders than his achievements. The Americans were under the command of General Holland “Howlin’ Mad” Smith, a World War One veteran who would later become known as the father of amphibious warfare.
The United States Navy and Army Air Corps began dropping explosives on Saipan in April, and for weeks the tiny island quaked with terror. The natives and the Japanese soldiers fled to Saipan’s extensive network of caves and did the only thing they could do – sit in their caves in a constant state of horror.
Nick and the other soldiers and marines arrived on their warships in early June. Upon arrival at the shores of Saipan they did the only thing they could do – sit in a constant state horror in their rooms aboard their Naval destroyers and listen to the freight trains of fire roar over their heads. The men, women, and children on both the island and the warships wondered why this terrible thing was happening. Something was moving the action forward, but nobody knew what, or why, or how to stop it.
Now Nick was afraid. The deafening rockets above him made him suddenly aware that he was not invincible, but he was unimaginably insignificant and vulnerable. He now thought that maybe the war would happen to him too, not just the others. When there was a break in the firing, Nick was able to calm himself down and convince himself that everything would be just fine. But then the roaring would start again, and Nick would be forced to think about it, that terrible it – death. Was there really life after death or would he simply cease to exist suddenly on the battlefield? This thought sent a terrible and cold shock through his body, and this cycle of thought continued for days.
On June 15th, 1944 the United States Marines stepped off their amphibious trackers onto the beach on the western shores of Saipan. Bullets and rockets were in the air and men from both sides ran through this air filled with bullets. Some of the men’s paths had bullets in them and some didn’t. No one thought, because all thoughts made no sense. Men just acted out of horror and instinct, and died or lived based on what seemed like luck rather than intention.
The next day Nick and his battery made landfall. The marines were elsewhere on the island, killing Japanese and being killed during a series of attacks and counterattacks.
The corpsmen in Nicks battery only spoke enough to do their job. Andy opened the breach block, Nick and a coworker rammed the round home into the empty cannon tube, another corpsmen plunged the round deeper with a ramrod, another added the primer, and then Andy closed the breech block and pulled the lanyard. When Andy pulled the lanyard it cocked the firing pin and then ignited the primer which ignited the powder charges and sent the round flying off somewhere else. This was Nick’s occupation at the moment, and he did it just like you sell pharmaceutical drugs, or teach children math, or do people’s taxes, or whatever it is that you do.
Someone out there in the field had been in that round’s path their whole life. They were born somewhere in Japan and that round was born somewhere in a United States factory. The moment when they would meet had always existed, but neither would ever be aware of it. Something pushed and pulled the Japanese person and round together over twenty years or so. Nick was the person who picked the round up off the grass in Saipan and rammed it home into that breech. It’s whole life, that round had been destined to go home into that cannon tube. Andy’s whole life he had been destined to pull that lanyard. And that Japanese person had been destined to stand on that tiny island and meet that round his whole life.
Nick and Andy and the other fellows in their battery did this about once per minute for a long long time.
The battle waged for days, and the Americans advanced north killing many orders of magnitude more Japanese than the Japanese were killing Americans. The American lines moved north and the northern most tip of Saipan did not move. Smoke plumed all over the island, and the ground was filthy, thickly littered with airplane parts, empty rounds of ammunition, and dead bodies of all sorts. Nick gazed silently while able men marched toward the front and injured men were carried in the opposite direction, with limbs missing and intravenous bags held above them. “Why was everyone behaving this?” Nick wondered.
Soon there were only a few Japanese left alive, but they kept fighting.
Then General Saito ordered something called a banzai attack. A banzai attack is what the Americans called charges by the Japanese in which men, women, and children fought with guns, rocks and sticks until they died. Since the goal of this charge was to fight to the death, they were able to kill a lot of Americans even though some of them only had sticks and rocks, and even though some of the fighters were little boys and girls. When ask what would happen to the Japanese civilians left alive on the island, the Japanese General Saito said, “There is no longer any distinction between civilians and troops. It would be better for them to join in the attack with bamboo spears than be captured.”
The great General Saito did not participate in the banzai attach. He just stabbed himself in the stomach with a sword, which caused his guts to spill out onto the floor in his cave. His adjutant shot him the back of the head, and then he died.
After the banzai attack, almost everyone who was on Saipan was either American or dead, except a few women and children on the northern most portion of the island. The Americans walked further north. The helpless women and children had previously been told quite definitively that the Americans were evil and they would rape and torture them. The Americans walked further north. Japanese speaking Americans tried to call out to the women and children, but the helpless Japanese women and children kept moving north too, pulled by their fear and something else, their fate. And then most of women and children leaped off the two-hundred foot tall bluffs at the northern most end of the island. They fell to the rocks below, and died, and then they were swallowed by the sea.
On July 9th about 95% of the people who were not American on the island were dead. 95% meant that 30,000 Japanese fighters and at least 25,000 civilians were dead. This cost the Americans 3,000 dead soldiers and marines, plus another 10,000 wounded. This was sufficient for the Americans to declare victory at the Battle of Saipan.
Nick was no longer enjoying his time in the Army. He now hated it, and he hated how he felt, which was different than how he felt that last morning in his bed in Utica, New York. He felt all those dead Japanese, and he felt the cold rounds in his hands, and he felt fractured from himself. He felt as if he was surviving a terrifying earthquake. He saw the ground crack beneath him, and he helplessly drifted forever away from the ground he once stood on.
Nick’s battery later turned their guns south towards Tinian, which the Americans took in nine days, and then to Guam, in what would later become known as the Western Pacific Theater of Operations. It was all very brief, hazy, and perplexing, and the Army gave Nick a nice patch for participating.
This series of battles would become famous because just a few months later something even more perplexing happened. An airplane called the Enola Gay took off from an airport on the island of Tinian, the very same island Nick helped capture. This airplane dropped off an atomic bomb nicknamed Little Boy in Hiroshima, Japan. When Little Boy hit the ground, a small chemical explosion slammed two pieces of uranium-235 together causing a nuclear fission reaction. This reaction transformed a uranium mass into kinetic, heat, and light energy, which instantly incinerated a lot of Japanese people. It was around the time of this incineration that World War Two ended and Nick suddenly got to go home.
My grandfather never spoke about the war again, like most of the men who were in the Pacific in the 1940s. He never spoke of glory or honor or pride. He never spoke about the enemy or his comrades. He never spoke about Hawaii or Saipan or Tinian or Guam. He never felt like all the killing and dying accomplished anything, and he never knew why it all happened. His sons know almost nothing about Nick’s time in the war.
When Nick returned home he started a business that still stands today. He fell in love, and raised a family. When he kept busy his mind was quiet. But when he was still, the sound of the rockets roaring would return, along with those terrible thoughts of death, and the senseless thoughts of trying to figure out why.
Why did we all go to those islands to kill each other? Why did all of those people die? Why didn’t I die? What will happen to me when I do die? Did I do something evil?
Nick Demma died when I was nine, so I don’t remember much of my old grandpa. I remember his big belly and scruffy face. I remember him as a serious man, and I remember seeing him in staring off in moments of introspection. But I also remember his bright smile, the same smile from those old pictures of him in Hawaii. I remember him smiling in his den with a cold beer in his hand and a football game on the TV tickling his grandkids’ feet and laughing.