Friday, January 19, 2007

The Way Home

From Time magazine -- Aug. 7, 1944

Across the land last week, for six warm days and nights, a troop train rumbled. It was an old train, with no fancy name. To the engineers and switchmen, it was No. 7452-C. The men on board dubbed it the "Home Again Special," and wrote the new name in chalk on the sides of the old Pullman cars. In another war there might have been brass bands at every stop. But in this pageantry-less, slogan-less war, the train just rumbled on toward New York, through the big towns and the whistle-stops.

The men aboard were 370 members of the 1st Marine Division — survivors of Tulagi, conquerors of Guadalcanal; the men who mowed down the Japs like hay at Bloody Ridge, and crossed the bloody Matanikau River; the invaders of Cape Gloucester, the rain-drenched fighters of Talasea, the men who took Hill 660 when they should have been annihilated halfway up; the unnamed defenders of Nameless Hill, the survivors of Coffin Corner.

These men on the troop train, already famed in communiqu├ęs and the war's best-sellers, were heading home for a 30-day furlough after 27 months of battle.

A little Worried. After their ship docked at San Diego, they spent 14 days just waiting around in a city none wanted to see. Finally the train left. The heroes peeled off their natty field greens and settled down in their khakis on the scratchy green seats, scared and lonely, wondering how home would be now that it was suddenly so close. "I'm a little worried about how I'll look to them, about how much I've changed ..."

The train clacked on slowly, through the desert and up the mountains. As the coffee cups rattled in the dining cars the little Marine said: "I haven't shaken so much since the night we went around Cape Hatteras, leaving the states." At Tucumcari, there was time for a beer at the station hotel: on the first round it cost a quarter; by the second the price shot to 40 cents. Said the red-haired sergeant from Rochester, not complaining, but just noticing: "Somebody's making money, and it isn't us."

The towns paraded past: Texhoma, Meade, Hutchinson, Kansas City. On the fourth day, at Moberly, Mo. (pop. 12,920), things were different. The townspeople flocked to the station with sandwiches and beer, cigarets and candy; the Moberly girls, in their summer dresses, brought their cars and took the Marines for rides through the gentle hills, up and down the concrete highways that looked like the highways near home.

There was a four-hour wait in Chicago.

For the photographers, in the dim station, the heroes brought out their Jap flags and Jap sabers, leaving the pornographic Jap propaganda leaflets packed away in their sea bags.

The Silent. On the train there were long-silences, as the Marines, having talked themselves out, stared at fields and the weather-stained buildings flitting by. But now and then conversation bubbled up.

Said Pfc. Marcel Beaulieu, 21, of Chicapee Falls, Mass.: "I think I'm going to stay in New York and see a couple of ball games. I've been thinking about that for a long time. I used to keep thinking about that last game I saw ..."

Across the aisle, Sgt. Owen Justin of Amesbury, Mass., 28, began to reminisce. "It was at San Diego they gave us our beer patches. You know what beer patches are? They're the Guadalcanal insignia that go on our sleeves. They're always good for a free beer."
The train stopped at small stations:

Wawasee and Garrett, Ind.

None in the train were heroes to themselves, or to each other. But all knew what everyone had done. The Marines pointed out Sgt. Al Goguen, one-time cab driver, holder of the Silver Star, unofficially credited with killing 700 Japs on two successive nights. But Al said: "Everybody tries to snow the folks. I had two machine guns, and I grabbed the guns a couple of times when my gunner got shot, until the assistant gunner came up. But that was my job. . . . Those figures? God, I don't know how many Japs we got. Everybody tries to snow the folks, give them a line ..."

The train pounded into Ohio, and the rolling country with the sun glinting on the stacked bales of hay reminded the marines of Australia. They had loved Australia, even though most of the time they were recuperating from malaria. "I'll never forget the head night nurse in the Adelaide Hospital ..."

The silence came back. Suddenly two Marines began to wrestle, to break the monotony, to relieve the strange embarrassment of coming home. The car jeered:

"Na-a-h, Commandos!" From the rear, snatches of song floated forward: "Someone's in the kitchen with Dinah, Someone's in the kitchen I know—oh-oh, Someone's in the kitchen with Dinah, Strummin' on the old banjo ..."

The Girls. When the train stopped at Deshler, Pvt. Beaulieu jumped outside to snatch some ice off a wagon near the train. "Boy, what we would have given for a piece of ice on Guadalcanal!" Down the platform strutted a good-looking blonde. The Marines watched, listening to the tapping of her high heels.

It began to rain. The train was hot and sticky. The blue-eyed private said: "One of the fellow's girl got married and she wrote to him asking for her picture. He got all the boys to give him pictures of their girls, and he collected some others.

Altogether, he had a stack a foot high—pictures of Australian girls, native women with nothing above the waist, movie actresses, pin-up girls. He sent this whole stack to his girl with a note: 'I don't remember exactly who you are, but if your picture is among these, please pick it out and send the rest back to me.' '' The men moved to the diner.

"Hey Joe, you going to get married?"

"Hell, no, I'm going to play the field."

Again, the Silent. Two hours before Pittsburgh, a Sun-Telegraph reporter boarded the train, begging the heroes for heroic tales. Two hours later he left, mumbling: "I didn't get a thing."

At Pittsburgh, the American Legionnaires and the members of the mayor's committee, with little COMMITTEE ribbons stuck in their lapels, stood about uneasily as Marines from Pennsylvania spilled off the train. Also at the station, in snappy summer khaki, was Lt. Mitchell Paige, the 1st Division's famed Congressional Medal winner, who had come home three weeks earlier. The Marines spied Paige and formed a circle around him.

A little Marine in blue, looking very much like a boy in costume, stepped up to shake Mitch's hand. Mitch whirled, grabbed the boy by the shoulders and all but kissed him. The two stood smiling — grinning into each other's faces. The boy was Mitch's machine gunner. A photographer rushed up: "Throw your arms around him, like you're glad to see him. Don't be bashful." Mitch and the machine-gunner just kept smiling at each other, saying nothing, ignoring the photographer.

Through the night the train puffed through the Alleghenies. In the morning, Cpl. Harold Cyr, 23, of Hartford, Conn., explained why he hadn't slept: "I just lay there all night grinning."

The men were up early, shining their shoes, polishing their buttons. As the train pulled into Baltimore at 6:30 a.m. there was a shout: "Bring on the brass band." There was no band nor any people, and the homecoming Marines got off and walked through the silent station.

Home. The final run began.

"Your wife know you're coming?"

"Sure, I wired her from Chicago."

"It's been a long time ..."

"Damn right, it's been 27 months ..."

At Philadelphia, there was just a string of taxicabs, at Jersey City, just the ferry to Manhattan. The Marines silently looked at the New York skyline. Lt. Camille Tamucci, the tough guy in charge, who had been dreaming of mounds of spaghetti, began brooding about his stomach. "It's all tied in knots," he said.

The bus from the ferry took the Marines to the Pennsylvania Hotel. Now most of them were home; others were recognizably close to home. Guadalcanal and all that was more than 9,000 miles away. That was over and done with. For all their 27 months of battle, these Marines' average age was only 21.

One Marine shouted: "See you in the next war." There was no answer. The Marines shouldered their sea bags and walked away.

Into the Valley, Guadalcanal Diary, Battle for the Solomons, etc.

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