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‘Islands’ recounts brutal war in Pacific

Former Marine R.V. Burgin — who inspired one of the characters in the new HBO series "The Pacific" — writes about fighting in the savage Pacific War in "Islands of the Damned." An excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

In “Islands of the Damned,” former Marine R.V. Burgin writes about the savage fighting that went on during the Pacific War, covering his climb from private to sergeant and his time spent as part of a mortar squad. Burgin’s story inspired one of the characters in “The Pacific,” an HBO miniseries about Marines fighting the Japanese in World War II. Read an excerpt from his memoir below.

Prologue: Luck

I was born on the thirteenth of August, 1922.

My dad was born May 13, 1890.

His brothers, my twin uncles Romus and Remus, were born November 13, 1894. I was named after Romus.

I joined the U.S. Marines on the thirteenth day of November, 1942.

And a big “13” was painted on the side of the amtrac we were about to climb aboard that September morning in 1944, somewhere in the southwest Pacific. It was one of seventeen amtracs tucked into the bay of LST 661, anchored off the coast of a place none of us had ever heard of before — Peleliu.

Motors were gunning, pumping out stinking clouds of blue smoke when we climbed down the ladder into the cramped hold. After a morning up top washed by a steady sea breeze, our eyes burned. Below, it was close and hot as hell. We were burdened with combat packs, carbines, sidearms, first aid kits, KA-BAR knives, two canteens each, struggling to keep a foothold on the pitching deck. NCOs were barking orders into the racket:

“First platoon, load!”

“Second platoon, load!”

“Third platoon, load!”

“Mortar section, load!”

That was us: First Marine Division, Fifth Regiment, Third Battalion, K Company mortars — K/3/5 for short. Two mortars, six men each, two squad leaders, a sergeant and a lieutenant. I was a corporal in charge of one of our 60mm mortars.

Someone spotted the number on the side of the amtrac.

“Jesus! Thirteen. Now we’re in the shit.”

“Don’t worry, boys,” I said. “Thirteen’s my lucky number.”

I believed I was going to come back in one piece. There were guys I knew, Marines I fought alongside, who got a feeling their time was up. Once they got it you couldn’t talk them out of it. When we had been fighting to hang on to Walt’s Ridge on New Britain, Lonnie Howard said, “Burgin, if anything happens to me, I want you to take my watch.”

“You’re crazy,” I told him. “You’ll be okay. Nothing’s going to happen to you.”

That night one of our artillery shells hit nearby. The shrapnel killed Howard and another Marine, Robert McCarthy.

Me, I was anxious and wary that morning off Peleliu. But I never thought for a minute I wouldn’t make it.

Number 13 was one of the older amtracs, the ones without a drop-down back end. When we rolled up on the beach we’d have to scramble over the sides. That’s when the Japs would have a clear shot at us. That didn’t seem so lucky.

There were about twenty of us, plus the driver, probably a Navy man, all jammed together like toes in a shoe. While we waited, sailors topside looked us over, giving us the thumbs-up and shouting encouragement that we couldn’t hear over the noise. Finally the big clamshell doors of that LST — Landing Ship, Tank — cranked open. Number 13 shuddered, and we followed the other amtracs down the ramp, nosed into the water, and floated out into the bright morning sun.

It was a little past eight o’clock.

An amtrac at sea wallows like a buffalo. The flat-bottomed Higgins boats could do twelve knots. We barely managed four and a half, which is about as fast as a man can walk. Think of us walking to shore under fire. We circled for half an hour until the beach master dropped his red flag, the signal to form up and head for shore. Our battleships and cruisers had been working over the island since dawn, guns cracking like thunder. They paused long enough for the Dauntless dive bombers and TBMs to sweep in and dump their bombs. Then they started up again. After our wave got under way, a couple LSTs that were parked out on our flanks sent swarms of rockets screeching over our heads. I’d never heard a sound like that before. Something like cloth ripping. A curtain of black smoke hung over the whole beach. It looked like the island was on fire.

Somewhere along our way in Jap artillery found the range and started working us over. The last thousand yards we were under fire the whole way. Over the general racket I couldn’t hear bullets dinging Number 13, but we kept our heads down anyway. Shells were smacking the water all around us, raising big spikes of foam. Here and there other LSTs and Higgins boats would disappear in a roar of flame. The first bodies floated by. We’d see many more.

About seven hundred yards out, Number 13 lurched and halted, pitching us into each other. Treads flailed and something went grinding and scraping beneath our hull. We’d struck a reef. Now the Jap shells were landing closer — left, right and behind us. We sat there churning the water, and minutes seemed to drag by, though I’m sure only seconds were passing.

Our sergeant, Johnny Marmet, leaned forward and stuck his .45 in the driver’s face.

“If you don’t get this son of a bitch moving, I’m going to by God shoot you in the head!” he shouted. “We’re sitting ducks out here!”

The driver was pushing and pulling controls, like a mad man trying to rock a car out of the mud. Treads were spinning, kicking up spray. Then something gently lifted us and we were moving again.

The instant we broke free, an explosion ripped the water right in front of us, dousing us with spray.

I made a quick mental calculation. All that time we’d been moving toward the shore, some Jap gunner was watching us, leading his target. When he figured the trajectory of his shell would intersect our path, he fired. The seconds we’d hung up on that reef were just long enough. If we’d been plowing forward we’d have ended up just where he calculated. That shell would have landed in our laps.

None of us talked about it afterward. We were busy with other things. But I honestly believed it then, and I believe it today. That was a God thing that hung us up on that reef.

We’d been lucky back on Cape Gloucester, too. The Japs expected us, but not where we landed, and we went ashore almost unnoticed and unopposed.

At Peleliu they were waiting for us and they hit us with everything they had. After we stalled on the reef they never gave us a moment’s rest. We never felt safe and we never let down our guard, not even for a minute, until the day we left the island.

Number 13 rolled up onto the beach and we bailed over the sides, dropped to the sand and took off running. That’s Marine doctrine: Get off the beach. You’re a target. You’re cluttering things up. Move out!

Beyond the beach lay a strip of dense scrub and, two hundred yards beyond, the enemy airfield that was our first day’s objective. A wall of steep hills covered with dense scrub arose behind the airfield. Navy guns were pouring shells into the far edge of the airfield and the high ground beyond, laying in white phosphorous smoke to screen our landing. There was no breeze, and it hung in the air, drifting back over the beach and mingling with black smudge from amtracs and DUKWs burning in the surf.

Coming in, we’d seen our own men floating in the water. Now we came upon the bodies of the Japs who had been caught in the bombardment before we landed. And the body parts. We also saw shell casings, Marine helmets, combat packs, weapons lost or discarded. All battlegrounds eventually look like trash dumps. As the temperature climbed past a hundred, we started dumping things ourselves. The gas masks were the first to go. Then our canvas leggings. They were a nuisance, hot and chafing. Most of us hated them. Later in the day I came upon a bazooka on the ground and I knew exactly who had left it. A bazooka weighed about twenty-four pounds, and he didn’t want to carry it. I caught up with him a little farther along and handed it to him. I said, “Don’t you ever lay that thing down again and walk off and leave it.”

The Japs had planted mines all over the beach, but most of them were duds. They’d even buried bombs in the sand with the fuse end pointed up. We picked our way around them, but they took out some of our amtracs and DUKWs.

About thirty yards off the beach we found ourselves in what must have been a small coconut grove. Fire from both sides had shredded the trees and left a low forest of ragged stumps. Still, they gave us some kind of cover. You couldn’t dig in the hard coral, but there were plenty of shell craters, and we hunkered down to catch our breath. Bullets were singing over our heads. The small Jap grenade launchers we called knee mortars were popping and artillery was rolling.

Our battalion had already lost its executive officer. Major Robert Ash was just stepping ashore when he was hit by artillery. The amtrac carrying our field telephones and communications personnel was burning out on the reef. We’d be without communications a good part of the day.

But K/3/5 had made it this far. Nobody in the mortar section had been hit.

Private First Class Eugene Sledge, one of my ammo carriers, was just behind me.

“Hey, Burgin,” he said, “you got a cigarette?”

Sledge was a college kid who had given up officer training to become an enlisted man. I knew he was a nonsmoker.

“You’re crazy, Sledgehammer,” I said. “You don’t smoke.”

“I want a cigarette,” he repeated.

I dug one out and handed it back to him.

A little bit later I looked around. He hadn’t lit the thing. He was chewing on it. In fact, he had chewed it down to shreds.

The mortars and machine guns slacked off a bit and we got orders to move out.

We didn’t know it at the time, but up on the north end of the beachhead, a thousand yards to our left, the First Marines’ Third Battalion were getting the hell beat out of them. They’d landed on White Beach One with orders to take the high ground north of the airfield, and then got caught up in a bloody struggle for a foothold on a coral outcrop called the Point. Just south of them, Second Battalion had landed on White Beach Two. They were to link up with the Fifth Marines’ First Battalion, which came ashore to their right, on Orange Beach One, with intentions to sweep across the airfield. As the Fifth Marines’ Third Battalion, we’d be farther right, pushing across the south end of the field from Orange Beach Two. From the coconut grove we could see the south end of the runway a few dozen yards in front of us.

The Seventh Marines were supposed to land on our right, on Orange Beach Three. Their plan was to mop up resistance on the southeast corner of the island, then link up with us and swing north.

But the Seventh was already in trouble. Coming into shore, their Third Battalion ran into heavy fire from their right, and a number of their LVTs had to swing leftward and come in on our beach. Now there were two different Third Battalions where there should have been only one. To make it worse, both battalions had K companies.

For half an hour NCOs barked orders to find out who was who, trying to get things sorted out. The Seventh’s K Company was shifted to our right, but now we were behind schedule. It would be another hour before we caught up with our own I Company, which was to our left. The morning’s confusion would ripple through the rest of the day and by nightfall leave us in danger.

On the east side of the airfield, on the edge of a dense scrub forest, we came up on a Jap artillery piece firing away at the beach. They had a strange way of doing things. The six men working that gun were lined up, and as each took a turn firing it, that man would move off and the next man would step up, take his place, and fire. They just rotated around like ducks in a shooting gallery. We watched in amazement. Then we started shooting, picking them off one by one. As each one rotated around, we’d fire and he’d go down. Then the next one, and the next until there weren’t any left. They never seemed to catch on.

Afterward, we dropped a grenade down the barrel of the gun. That seemed to finish it. Then we moved off into the forest. This was not the tropical jungle we’d fought through on New Britain. Peleliu was a thick tangle of stunted trees and vines that was the devil to get through but screened our movements from the Japs who were up in the hills pounding everyone else. As we advanced we expected them to come screaming out of the trees in a banzai attack at any minute, like they had on New Britain. Instead we found only scattered snipers and bunkers. The bunkers weren’t much more than piles of logs and rock, but they were impossible to see until you’d almost stepped on them. We had to knock out each one before we could move on.

Deep in the woods we came across the trail where we were supposed to turn north. Some of our riflemen pushed beyond and came out on the edge of a bay. The Seventh Marines, which were supposed to be on our right, were nowhere in sight.

Our riflemen shot some Japs who were thrashing across the mouth of the bay from one shore to the other. Then we were all ordered to head out and move north along the trail.

Peleliu has always been turned around in my mind. I never was able to get it straight, north and south, east and west, all the time we were on that island. I guess our sergeant, Johnny Marmet, may have had a map. The lieutenant had one. It turned out the maps were full of mistakes. They showed the mountains and the trees. They didn’t show what was on the ground, or underneath it.

By early afternoon we lost contact with I Company on our left. A big gap opened up. L Company was moved forward with part of the Second Battalion that had been in reserve. But they couldn’t find us. To tell the truth, we weren’t sure where we were either. All we knew was that we were on a north-south trail somewhere in this scrub jungle.

We bumped into another nest of pillboxes and bunkers and had to wait for a tank to come forward and blast them out of our way.

By now communications had been reestablished. The Seventh Marines’ Third Battalion — the same outfit that had got tangled up with us on Orange Beach Two — finally called in their position to headquarters. They were somewhere off to our right, on a trail. We had already reported we were on a trail running north through the scrub. We all assumed we were on the same trail, but they were a couple hundred yards ahead of us.

In fact they were south of us, where the trail branched and one part turned east.

Headquarters ordered their Third Battalion to stay put until we closed the gap. We started forward again. It was midafternoon. The heat was suffocating. We were dripping with sweat, sucking our canteens dry and popping salt tablets. We stumbled along expecting to encounter the Seventh Marines around the next bend in the trail. But by four p.m. we still hadn’t run into them. We got further orders to keep moving until the scrub thinned out, east of the airfield.

We were all now stretched out like a rubber band. If a Jap counterattack hit us in the right spot, we’d snap.

We came out of the woods within full view of the airfield. On the far side, Jap artillery and mortar fire were building up to something, but we weren’t their target. Most of their fire seemed to be landing to our left, back in the direction of Orange Beach Two, where the First and Second battalions had come ashore. A few shells sailed over our heads, landing somewhere behind us.

As we watched, a line of what we first thought were amtracs appeared from behind the hangars and barracks on the far side of the field and started rolling southwest, parallel to the main runway. Behind them we could see large groups of men moving forward. The firing picked up on both sides, and we realized we were watching Jap tanks and infantry. They had begun their expected counterattack.

We got orders to dig in and concentrate our fire on the infantry. Digging in the rock-hard coral was impossible, so we found craters and set up the mortars and began lobbing shells into the field.

The tank battle was no contest. Those little Jap tanks were thin-skinned and fragile, and our own Shermans, plus fire from bazookas and artillery, just tore the whole column apart in minutes. The foot soldiers melted away. We blinked and they were gone. Afterward, pieces of their tanks were scattered across the airfield like insect parts under a spiderweb.

But strung out along the edge of the scrub, we now had a fresh problem.

Sledge was holding a 60mm shell, just ready to drop it down the tube, when bullets started whining over our heads. They were coming from behind us. A stream of tracers passed over, close enough to dust his knuckles.

I turned in time to look down the barrel of a Sherman tank, its turret swiveling in our direction. He was parked in a clearing a hundred yards to our right. Beyond him came more tanks, and behind them, Marine riflemen, and they were shooting. Not past us, but at us!

Someone yelled at Sledge, and he froze. If a bullet hit that shell we’d all be blown to hell.

It was instantly clear to me what had happened. While we had been trying to catch up with the Seventh’s Third Battalion in the woods, they had been behind us, waiting. Then they saw our mortar squad in front and assumed we were part of the Jap counterattack and opened fire. Those bright .50-caliber tracers that the Sherman tank was spitting would soon be followed by a 75mm shell from its cannon.

Everyone scrambled for cover. A shell crashed into the scrub just ahead of us.

I shouted, “Secure the mortars!” and took off toward the tanks, dodging from tree to tree and waving my arms. “Knock it off! Knock it off! You’re gonna kill the whole damn bunch!”

Somehow over the racket I caught someone’s attention and the firing died away.

In all the panic and confusion after the Seventh Marines had started firing at us, I did something that I’m not particularly proud of. Or I came very close to doing it.

One particular lieutenant had been making our lives miserable ever since we were on New Britain. Not that he was strict — he was worse. He was two-faced. He’d lie and cover up. He’d order us to do something, then when someone higher up came down on him, he’d come down on us for doing what he’d told us to do in the first place. When he was needed, he could never be found. He had a way of disappearing when things got nasty. I’d already had one set-to with him that morning over a mortar emplacement.

When the Seventh Marines opened fire, I saw him do something no Marine should ever do: He turned and flat out ran. That yellow son of a bitch, I thought, running like that. I brought my M1 rifle up and got him in my sights. My finger was on the trigger. He vanished behind a log.

That yellow bastard, I thought. But I didn’t shoot. Am I proud? Not particularly. If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t shoot him. It’s a good thing I didn’t.

It got dark pretty quickly. We still had no idea where I Company or L Company were situated, nor where we were supposed to be. Back at our battalion command post, behind the front lines, nobody knew where any of us were.

Sometime after the tank battle, a Jap mortar round had landed squarely on the post, spraying our commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Austin Shofner, with shrapnel and taking off the head of his communications officer, Captain R. F. Kehoe, Jr.

Shofner’s wounds were serious enough to force his evacuation to a hospital ship. In the confusion word spread that he had been killed. He was almost a legend to us. He had been fighting on Corregidor when they surrendered to the Japs. They took him prisoner and he survived the Bataan Death March. After almost a year in a prison camp he organized a successful escape party and came back to the Marines to fight again.

Now, at the end of the first day of the invasion, Third Battalion’s commanding officer lay wounded and out of commission. Our executive officer and communications officer were both dead. There was no longer any effective command. And we were scattered along a thin line through scrub jungle, out of touch with everyone else and surrounded by enemy.

Our canteens were almost empty. We’d used up most of our ammunition. It was impossible to dig shelters, so we piled up rocks and logs and set up a perimeter defense. Machine guns rattled in the darkness and we fired off a few mortar rounds, more to make us feel good than to make the Japs feel bad.

From time to time a Navy destroyer lying offshore would fire a star shell. It would burst over our heads and come floating down on its parachute, shedding a yellowish glow over everything.

But it cast no light for us. Our luck had run out.

Chapter 1: A Marine’s story

They talk about the Greatest Generation. I’ve always thought the greatest generation that ever lived were my parents.

My dad, Joseph Harmon Burgin, was about six feet two. My mother, Beulah May Perry Burgin, was about five feet two. He could hold his arm straight out and she could walk under it and never touch it. I guess I took after my dad, but not quite as tall. I was only six one.

I was born in 1922, the third of seven children. I had two older sisters, three younger brothers and one younger sister.

My father had three younger brothers: George Burgin was the second child, and the twins, Remus and Romus. That’s where I got my name, that and a four-year-old kid in our neighborhood named Valton Woods. Mother had never heard the name Valton, but she liked it. So, Romus Valton Burgin. There’s not that many of us out there, I’ll tell you.

All of us Burgin boys were in the military. Edgar and Bobby, my two youngest brothers, served in the Korean War. My other brother, Joseph Delton Burgin — we called him J.D. — was killed by artillery in Alsace-Lorraine on February 17, 1945. He had just got there.

I chose the Marines under circumstances I’ll tell you about later.

In 1955 my mother and dad’s farmhouse burned down, and all of our records, all my war souvenirs and everything else went with it. Nothing saved except a cedar chest and maybe a bed or two.

The farm was about eight miles from Jewett, Texas, which is seven miles southwest of Buffalo, almost halfway between Dallas and Houston. We were about three miles off Highway 79, running from Bryan to Palestine. My dad owned sixty acres, and then he had what we called “free range.” I don’t know who owned it. Most of it was timberland where we’d turn the cows out in the wintertime. In the summer and spring we’d keep them penned up in our pasture.

For the first six years, I went to a two-room schoolhouse, Friendship School. So did my older two sisters and one younger brother. When I finished the sixth grade in 1935, they consolidated the schools. After that we rode the bus into Jewett.

We had horses and mules, cultivators, middlebuster turning plows, planters. But no tractor. My father raised corn, cotton, sugar cane, and sorghum and we made sorghum syrup and ribbon cane syrup. But the cotton was his money crop. That was about the only money crop. I picked cotton from the time I was about three or four years old. My parents would give us a little sack, and we’d go along the rows and pick cotton. The one thing my mother and dad never did, they never did hold us out of school to help on the farm. But we would come in from school and change clothes and hit the field until dark. We helped Saturdays, Sundays and whenever we needed to get something done.

When we “lay by,” as my dad called it — plowed for the last time, everything kind of waiting on the harvest — then he would take us down to Birch Creek and we’d fish. There wasn’t anything in there but just little perch and little catfish. That was all it was. But it was a good outing.

My mother cooked three meals a day for nine people, and she worked in the field. The boys in the family, we did the housework just the same as the girls. My mother felt that if the girls can work in the fields, then the boys can do housework. So we all washed dishes, ironed, helped do washing — the whole nine yards.

She was a chef. She could make pies, cakes, soups. My wife, Florence, learned to make her soup with vegetables straight out of the garden. We still call it the Burgin Soup. Mother baked bread and made corn bread and biscuits. And we had milk cows, so we had milk to drink, and fresh butter.

She cooked everything on a wood stove. She washed in an old iron wash pot with a scrub board. She made most of our clothes. And she made her own soap, you know, make a pot of lye soap. She’d put up pickles and tomatoes in quart jars. She had a canner with a crank. You’d put a can in and fill it, and the canner would seal that rascal right up. We’d butcher a cow or a hog and she would can the meat.

We didn’t have an icebox. We had a food cabinet with screen wires on the front and back so the air could circulate. We had a smokehouse built of logs with wooden shingles. My dad would go down on a little branch and find a tree that was pretty straight with no knots in it. He’d cut that down with an axe and crosscut saw, and saw it up in the lengths that he wanted for shingles. He had another tool with a big handle and a kind of axe-type blade on it, real sharp. He’d split the shingles to the thickness that he wanted. Then he would shingle that smokehouse that he had built out of logs.

Whenever we butchered one of the hogs and hung the hams and shoulders and the side that you make bacon out of in the smokehouse, it was my job before I started school to keep that fire burning. But not blazing, just let the smoke out of the hickory wood. I did that practically all day long. Dad would sugar-cure the meat, and it was absolutely delicious. No doubt about it.

We didn’t have electricity and we didn’t have indoor plumbing. When I was thirteen or fourteen we dug a well in our yard. I did most of the digging. My dad would pull the dirt up with a rope and a pulley in a deal that had a steel rim about two inches wide, about twelve to fourteen inches in diameter. A gunnysack made the bucket part. That way if it broke it wouldn’t drop a metal bucket on me. At the end of the day he’d pull me out with the pulley.

We went down about thirty-two feet, and it was great water. The only trouble, if we had a drought it went dry. So we would have to haul the water from one of the branches and my mother would have to go down to the branch to wash her clothes. I would imagine it was pretty close to three-quarters of a mile.

We still didn’t have electricity when I joined the Marine Corps in 1942. Rural Electrification finally came in sometime between 1942 and when I got home from the Marines in 1945.

I didn’t want to miss a day of school. It wasn’t because I wanted to learn. I just barely passed, I made Cs. But I liked being around other folks and playing whatever they were playing at the time. I didn’t want to miss anything. I tell everybody that during my high school days I majored in PE and athletics. That’s almost true. It didn’t make any difference whether it was basketball, football, volleyball, track, or field. I was into it. I ran the low hurdles, high hurdles, pole vault, 440s. I was never a distance runner. I never ran a mile at one time in my whole life, even when I was in the Marines. But I was pretty speedy. I could run a fifty or a hundred in real good time.

I guess I liked football best. When I was a senior the team voted me captain. I still have the jacket with the star on it. I was always proud of that because the men voted me and not the coach. We weren’t a .500 team, I’ll tell you that. We won a few games, but not that many. But I enjoyed it. I would play basketball at night, but the bus wouldn’t stay for the basketball players. After the ball game was over I’d walk eight miles home.

During Depression days there wasn’t any money. There was a Works Progress Administration program in the schools, and they gave me the job of cleaning the gym. It paid three dollars a month. In the Depression a silver dollar — and silver dollars were plentiful in those days — looked as big as a wagon wheel. It was really something to get a silver dollar. Several dollars, man, that was something. That would carry me for a long time.

In the spring I picked berries and took them to town to sell for a dime a pail. Wild blackberries and dewberries. If we needed notebook paper or school supplies, mother would give me one or two dozen eggs and I’d take them in and sell them to merchants for a dime a dozen. You could take a dime and buy pretty much what you needed.

When I was about sixteen, Ed Hull, a neighbor, hired me for a couple or three days in the spring to chop cotton. There’s a lot of grass and weeds that the plow won’t get, and so you come in and chop cotton, that’s what they call it. Thin down the stalks, cut the weeds out of it. I would be out there at the break of day and stay until it was dark. He fed me lunch and paid me seventy-five cents for the day. The next year he raised me to a dollar a day.

But farming wasn’t one of my things. I’d seen my dad work hard only to see the crop fail. I thought, There’s a better way to make a living than on the farm. I graduated from high school in May 1941, and as quick as I graduated I went to Dallas. My sister Ila was there and I lived with her until I found a place of my own.

My first job was in a warehouse for thirty cents an hour. I’ll never forget that summer. We were unloading boxcars of candy bars. There were Snickers, Milky Ways, Baby Ruths, Butterfingers, all in eighty-pound boxes stacked chest high. The temperature was 110 to 115 a lot of days. The candy didn’t melt, but we melted. We’d pull those boxes out of there and put them on a two-wheeler and roll them out and stack them in the warehouse — eighty pounds of those rascals. They were heavy. But I was young and I had played football, so it didn’t bother me.

December 7, 1941, was a Sunday. I was at home listening to the radio when the news came over that the Japs had bombed Pearl Harbor. I don’t think I really grasped the impact of what was happening. I knew a war had been brewing. Lots of folks had been gathering up iron and steel and selling it for about half a cent a pound. We knew where it was going — to Japan to make battleships. Even in high school we had joked about those guys shooting that steel back at us. But I didn’t realize how Pearl Harbor would change the world, or how long we would be in it. Or how long I would be in it.

I went on working in the warehouse, but by February 1942 I was looking for another job. I read in the paper that a stationery company out of Columbus, Ohio, wanted a salesman to travel the country. I thought I’d go down and interview just to see what would happen. They hired me and put me on a sales crew.

We were driving brand-new 1941 Studebakers. The company provided two of them. Clyde Malone was driving one of them. He was from Tennessee and I was with his crew. Then Bill Duebner, the owner, and his wife and another crew.

I loved it because I was getting an education that this old farm boy never knew. I had been to Houston and to San Antonio a few times and I’d been to Dallas half a dozen times. That was about as far off as I’d ever gone. I thought working for that stationery company was worth about two years of college, really, just being out in the world.

We started up through Oklahoma, went through Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa, the Dakotas, Montana, Idaho, Washington State, Oregon, California. Then we came back through.

One day in the spring of 1942 we had just left Jamestown, North Dakota, heading for Bismarck. We came to a roadside diner and decided to stop for dinner. We were in the back end of the place washing up when two guys came in with guns drawn, one of them the local sheriff. They were looking for “those four guys that was in the Studebaker out there.”

Well, that was us. The sheriff, who had a gimpy leg, deputized somebody right there on the scene, and they drove us in two cars back to Jamestown. Then they locked us up for the night.

I’d been in a jail. When I was in sixth grade, going to that two-room schoolhouse in Jewett, our teacher took a carload of us boys to visit the state penitentiary in Huntsville. I can still hear, walking those aisles with the cells on either side of you, those guys hollering at us, the guards clanging those big steel doors.

On the way home, the teacher said to us, “Boys, you don’t ever want to be in there. You don’t ever want to go to jail.”

And now here I was in jail. For what, I couldn’t even begin to imagine.

We didn’t get anything to eat that night. The next morning they brought us cold oatmeal.

We’d ask the jailer whenever he came by, “What’s going on? What’s happening here?”

“You’ll find out soon enough.”

About four o’clock that afternoon they came and let us out. The sheriff’s wife had made fresh rolls for us, with butter.

We sat there eating them, gratefully.

“Well,” I finally said, “this is the first time I’ve been in jail. Just for the record, what the hell were we in for?”

“First off,” the sheriff said, “you was driving a brand-new Studebaker. And we thought that might not be right. So we were checking for a stolen car.

“And then we thought, that car is registered in Ohio, and you’re up here in North Dakota. So we thought you might be draft dodgers. So it just took time to get all the information that you was okay.”

“Okay,” I said. “That’s all I wanted to know.”

I was twenty, not yet of draft age. But the war had already thrown its shadow across my path.

My story is the story of hundreds of thousands who fought for our country in World War II. In a way, there’s nothing special about it. In another way, everyone who fights for his or her country has a special story to tell.

In 2004 and 2006 I was asked to present the Old Breed Award for distinguished service in the First Marine Division. At these gatherings there are always five or six World War II vets. The young guys, young Marines, always gather around to hear our stories.

One of them, a mortarman, asked me, “They don’t shoot mortarmen, do they? I mean, you’re always behind the lines.”

“Let me tell you something,” I said. “They don’t discriminate. They shoot anybody. I lost several men to rifle fire. A firefight is a firefight, whether it’s in the South Pacific or Korea or Vietnam or Iraq or Afghanistan.”

But I understood what he meant.

I have a photograph on my wall at home. There we all are, what’s left of K Company, on the beach at Peleliu. We’re waiting for the ship to take us somewhere, anywhere away from the battle. That young mortarman could be any one of us.

I look at that picture today and I think, I don’t remember I was ever that young.

Excerpted with permission from “Islands of the Damned” by R.V. Burgin (NAL Hardcover).