author's note. I suppose it was pretty much an inevitability that I would write this story. I watched 'The Pacific' with my husband pretty much the minute it became available from Netflix, since we are huge 'Band of Brothers' fans. And if we're going to make comparisons, I thought 'BoB' was way better, but 'TP' was still worth watching in the end. The first half of the series failed to grab me, but once Sledgehammer became a major character, I was in for all ten episodes. I was surprised to see how little fan fiction there is for this series (but 'BoB' has an almost ten-year head start, that might explain it) so I am writing this because nobody else already has. This story surprised me by taking a completely different course than the one I had intended - it was just going to be a short little piece about Sledge and Snafu on the train, and in the end that scene disappeared completely. I may write it another time after I've watched the series again.
It's always a bit of a touchy thing, writing about people who actually lived. I based this mostly on the series, but I worked in some bits and pieces from 'With the Old Breed' and Ambrose's 'The Pacific,' and of course some is my own imagination. As always, no disrespect is intended.
"What if people had an ocean inside? They would move a lot." - Porter, my five-year-old son
"Right here is fine."
"Are you sure this is good?" Sid asks. And Eugene isn't sure it's good at all. All the times he's played this scene out in his mind, it's always ended here. Cut the scene and roll the credits. But then, Sid's been back for a while and he seems to be okay.
"Yep." He fishes his bag from the back seat and slings it over his shoulder for the last time. "See you later."
Sid Phillips is looking at him like he's just come back from a war. He'd told Gene not to join anything, not the Marines, not the Boy Scouts, not the Girl Scouts, and here the fool had gone and done it anyway. But what could you do with a redhead like Eugene Sledge? "Welcome home, Eugene."
Eugene's boots crunch up the gravel drive. His mother, who has always kept a meticulously clean home, would be horrified to learn that he is thinking of Pavuvu. The first time he set foot on the island - fresh from stateside training, a troop ship, and endless replacement depots - he saw Pavuvu as a tropical hole. Unbelievable heat. Rats the size of small dogs. Land crabs and empty tents and flies and rotting coconuts - he was disgusted by it, and rightly so. But landing on Pavuvu the second time, having learned on Peleliu what a tropical hole really was, it seemed like paradise. They weren't trying to kill anybody and nobody was trying to kill them. He only hopes that the return to Georgia Cottage will be half as satisfying.
The morning is quiet - too quiet - Eugene realizes what is missing. There is no small dog nipping at his heels in a frenzy of barking; his throat constricts, and it's like losing Deacon all over again. Deacon, he thinks, would have been glad to see him.
He stops at the door. There's still a banner in the window, 2 blue stars. He wonders when his mother is going to take it down. Automatically Eugene reaches for the knocker and he isn't sure what to do. He's never knocked on his own front door before - even during his college days he always came and went as he pleased. And even though the war's been over for a while, a strange man in uniform on the doorstep might give his mother an unpleasant surprise. So he walks inside.
It's the same. Everything's the same. How is that even possible, when he has changed so much?
Mary Frank is in the butler's pantry, putting up the dishes from last night's dinner. She doesn't hear a thing over the clink of the china and her own miscellaneous thoughts. She doesn't hear the clump of military issue boots behind her. But she pauses with her hand on the door when she sees his face reflected like a ghost in the glass. She won't believe it's really him until she puts her arms around him. Too many times she's sworn she saw him just out of the corner of her eye, but every time she turns he is gone.
His absence has been a constant presence with her, a dull ache lodged between her ribs. Mary Frank puts a hand to her waist, and exhales.
Now he's solid and real inside her arms - she memorizes the wool texture of his uniform, the faint clean smell of his shaving soap. And she wonders: has he always been this tall?
Dr. Sledge emerges from his office, actually in the mundane task of hunting up a new pen. He doesn't say a word either, just grasps his son's arm in a manly fashion, and the two of them just stand there and drink in the sight of him. Mary's hand is on his arm, and then she can't restrain herself any longer - with an "Oh!" that is almost like a sob, she launches herself at him again. The first embrace was for Eugene; the second one is for her.
Like most boys' rooms, Eugene's has a map of the world tacked to the wall. When he was a kid, laid up with rheumatic fever, Eugene pored over it, sounding out all the gloriously exotic names. Now he leans over the bed as he's undressing for bed and studies the map again. There's an X drawn in red pencil over Mobile, Alabama. Home.
Eugene finds a sharpened pencil and traces the route back west to San Diego, the long train ride he has taken. Now he is working backward. Peiping he finds easily enough, being a good sized city. X. He locates Okinawa next, trailing after the Japanese mainland like a kite string. X. Pavuvu is tricky, it's an amorphous blob in the clump of the Solomon Islands. X. Peleliu is next to impossible to locate; it was considered irrelevant when the map was printed and so it isn't labeled, literally a dot on the map. X. Eugene pushes so hard that the point of the pencil goes right through the paper. The island is obliterated by a neat round hole, and wouldn't you know it's actually an improvement.
Mary Frank pulls back the curtain again. "He's been like that all morning," she informs her older son. Eugene is slumped in a wicker chair on the lawn, looking for all the world like the pictures she's seen of psychiatric cases after the Great War. Shell-shock, the captions always read. Not Eugene, she pleads silently, not her Gene. "Isn't there anything…" She sighs. "It might mean more, coming from you."
Edward Sledge pats the pocket of his uniform jacket to see if his flask is in there, which of course, it is. "I'll see what I can do." He holds his mother's eyes for a moment - she is a good mother, he knows, but this she can't understand. "He's only been home for a day. We just have to be patient, you understand."
Pre-war, Eugene was given to activity, hunting in the woods with his father or crawling all over Civil War battlefields with Sid. Unless he was ill, he never spent an entire morning in idleness, in almost perfect stillness. Now the only thing moving is his thumb, stroking the impossibly delicate porcelain rim of his cup. And the coffee went cold hours ago.
He's had the same nightmare so many nights in a row. It always begins the same: sliding down those muddy slippery rocks into a rank pool of water. Always the maggots, the grinning rotting skeleton. Over and over he scrapes away the wriggling maggots, writhing as there seems to be more and more of them, his own living flesh consumed. And the trick of his mind is that the anonymous corpse always bears a familiar face. He never fails to recognize it, no matter how much the flesh is decayed. At first it was the men he had served with: Burgie, Jay, Ack Ack, Snafu. Then poor Hamm, then idiot Peck. Then Sid Phillips. Then his brother Edward and - this is the one that makes him wake up screeching, his heart in his throat - his own mother. Over and over he tears away great handfuls of maggots, swollen to the size of his own fingers, and that ghastly face just sits there leering at him. He's going crazy, he knows it. Last night, the image looking back at him was his own. He is the corpse now.
Sitting almost motionless on the lawn, in his pajamas though it's nearly noon, Eugene is so frustrated he could cry. He'd thought, he had really thought, that the nightmares would stop when he got home.
"I didn't get any sleep for the longest time," Edward says. Eugene looks up. "I still can't, really. I toss and turn like crazy." Gene looks away. "Martha doesn't complain, but I know I keep waking her up."
Not a word from Gene. Edward looks back at the house - furtively, even though they are both of age, because Mary Frank is watching. "Give me your coffee." Now Gene looks alive. Edward produces his flask like a magician's rabbit, pouring a generous dose in his kid brother's cup and a healthy splash in his own.
The hooch seems to do the trick, because Eugene finally speaks. In vino veritas. "I like Martha," he says. His tone is light, as befits their impromptu cocktail party. "You're a lucky man."
"You'll be married someday," Edward promises. Eugene considers this as he takes a sip of his cold and boozy coffee. "And just how did my little brother do during his time in the service?"
He clearly isn't inquiring about the accuracy of Eugene's mortar fire. Eugene looks over his shoulder. His brother is asking this? Well, all right. "There weren't any women in my corner of the Pacific," Eugene explains. "Only nurses, and they were off limits."
Now Edward is the one who can't believe what he is hearing. "You went through the entire war and retained your virginity?" Eugene just looks sheepish. In his pajamas, red hair all tousled, he looks about sixteen. "Well, your lonely nights are numbered, Gene. Every single girl in Mobile is out to land a fighting man. At the O.O.M. ball, you'll have a leg up on all those desk pilots."
"Who says I want a leg up on anybody?"
"You show up at that ball decked out in your uniform and all the ripe fruit will fall off the tree right at your feet."
On the one hand, it's tempting. On the other hand, it's a little unsettling hearing this talk coming from his brother, Ed being a married man and all. And he doesn't want ripe fruit falling at his feet, either. "You know, Edward, I don't believe I will."
"You're gonna pass on the O.O.M. ball?" This is absolutely unthinkable. The entire Sledge family would be drummed out of Mobile society.
"No. I don't believe I will ever put on a uniform again." It feels good to be taking charge of his own life, to be obeying orders from nobody, to be talking this way to a man in an officer's uniform. He's making his own decisions, no matter how trivial (except that this isn't trivial at all). "Ever."
Edward looks at him like Eugene had looked at Sid when he announced he was marrying Mary Houston. "Not a lick of sense in you," he says, and takes a sip of coffee to conceal his smile.
"Well?" Mary stands over the two of them with her hands on her hips. "Aren't you boys coming in?"
After failing to coax him to dance at the O.O.M. ball, Sid and Mary have dragged Eugene down to Gulf Shores for the day. No more gasoline rationing, no more "Is This Trip Necessary?" And while he's clearly the third wheel - he rode here in the back seat, next to the picnic basket - he doesn't mind a bit.
"Five more minutes, beautiful," Sid tells her. "Smoke 'em if you've got 'em."
After the fear and filth of Peleliu, what remained of King Company swam in the Pacific, both to clean away weeks' worth of grime and to revel in the wonder of remaining alive. Eugene was, like all of them, covered all over with scrapes and cuts from the coral rock; the cold, salty water stung like anything but it was a good feeling. The best. He'd survived, and now he was a combat veteran. Now he sits and watches the Gulf of Mexico calmly sweep over the sand, and he thinks: he doesn't really need to. He's already been baptized.
"All right," Mary says, "I'm not waiting," and she turns and runs off into the surf. Sid lights a cigarette and Eugene busies himself with his pipe so he won't be caught ogling the shapely figure of his best friend's wife.
The two veterans smoke in silence for a while, but it's an easy silence. Finally Sid flicks out his cigarette. "Hey, I heard your folks got a new dog."
"They did," Eugene agrees. "Named him 'Grunt.'"
Sid can't resist. "And every time they call, 'Here Grunt, here boy,'" he drawls, "I'll bet you come running, tail a-wagging."
Eugene gives his friend the stink-eye. "Shut up, Phillips." Sid cackles.
There's an ice cream stand a little ways up the beach, a few late-season tourists hanging around happily licking up double scoops of chocolate and strawberry. Without even really thinking about it, Eugene is mentally calculating the distance and azimuth. One hundred yards, fifty degrees. Hanging. Fire!
A cold sweat breaks over Eugene's skin when he realizes he's just killed all those civilians.
"Mary's pregnant," Sid says suddenly.
"Oh." Eugene turns back to his friend, who is grinning like the cat that ate the canary. "Oh, wow. Congratulations."
"We were going to wait until I got done with medical school, but…" Sid watches Mary diving in the surf. "Well, you know how it goes."
"Actually, no I don't."
"No, you don't, you poor fool," Sid agrees. "We need to get you a woman. Hey, when was the last time you even talked to a girl?"
"Last week," Eugene says, slightly indignant. "And she was pretty, too. A real peach."
Sid grins in anticipation. "And?"
"And…" Eugene's sheepish grin returns. "It didn't go so hot." They taught me how to kill Japs. Jeez, Eugene, what on earth were you thinking?
Sid laughs again. "Well, better luck next time, buddy."
"Thanks." Eugene knocks the bowl of his pipe against his hand. "So, you got Mary Houston in trouble. Boy, are her folks going to kill you."
"You signed the marriage certificate yourself, you idiot," Sid reminds him jokingly.
"Hey, if it's a boy, you have to name it after me."
"Sledgehammer Phillips." Sid winces. "Better hope it's a girl."
Later, of course, Dr. Sledge will wonder what on earth he was thinking.
He should have known that dove hunting was a bad idea. Before the war, though, it had been one of their favorite pastimes. It was always less about the kill (though Eugene, like his father, is an excellent shot) and more about being a man in the great outdoors. No neck ties, no responsibilities, no women. Hot coffee in the thermos bottle (and maybe something a little stronger). When Dr. Sledge proposed the outing last night at dinner, Eugene had quietly but readily assented.
Now they are rattling along in the old truck and Dr. Sledge is doubting himself. Eugene is ramrod straight in his seat, every bit as animated as "Dave" and "Bob" from the mortar range. Dr. Sledge keeps looking over at his son, keeps opening his mouth wanting to say something, but all his words have dried up and blown away.
"I thought we'd start at what's left at that old fence down by the creek," the doctor suggests. That fence has been disintegrating since before the boys were born - he keeps meaning to go and tear it down. Maybe next year. Wordlessly, Eugene reaches for his gun; he's remembered that the passenger door is sprung and you have to open it from outside. It really is a beautiful day.
"I've been looking forward to this morning for a long time," the doctor is saying as Eugene follows stiffly behind him. "Just the two of us and a grand morning." Then he becomes aware that the footsteps behind him have ceased. He turns around as Eugene sinks to his knees, and the father for a moment fears the worst. Eugene is crying, but Dr. Sledge is only relieved it isn't his heart.
Except, in a way, it is.
They are men, and men aren't normally given over to this sort of thing, but today is different. And this isn't one of his patients, this isn't one of his Great War veterans, it's his son - his own beloved flesh and blood. Without knowing it, he holds his son the way Eugene once held a dying grandmother in a shattered mountain hut. And he cannot, it seems, hold his son closely enough.
"I'm sorry," Eugene says. He couldn't stop the tears now if he wanted to. "I can't."
The last thing in the world the doctor wants is for Eugene to feel he's letting him down. "It's all right," he says. At this tenderness a sob breaks free from Eugene. The doctor cradles his son's head to his chest while the younger man weeps in the way men rarely do - intensely, catastrophically. "You don't have to apologize to me, Eugene." Dr. Sledge looks around - the day's placid beauty is almost an insult. "I reckon the dove population is going to be mighty happy this morning."
Eugene's shoulders shake as his small laugh transforms into a sob. "I'm sorry," he says again, and Dr. Sledge knows he isn't apologizing about the hunting; he's referring to things which the doctor doesn't know about, and doesn't want to know. So he holds the younger man close through the bitter torrent of his tears.
The world keeps spinning, but the two of them are a fixed point.
Eventually, like all things, it passes. His grief subsides. Eugene drags the sleeve of his hunting coat across his eyes, and sits back on his heels. His eyes are very dark as he stares at his gun abandoned in the tall grass. Dr. Sledge follows his gaze.
"Don't worry about it," the doctor says, "I'll take care of it." He rises from the ground. "Wait right here." He thinks as he climbs the ridge to the truck about what he told Gene before he enlisted. It was not that their flesh had been torn, but that their souls had been torn out. He's repeated those words many times in his mind in the past few years, turned them over and over until the edges are worn smooth. And if the words were a prayer, they must have been an effective one, because Eugene has come back to them. His soul is battered, but still very much intact.
Back in the gully, Eugene has gotten off the ground and now he's leaning against a tree. His eyes are different. Dr. Sledge passes him the thermos bottle. "Coffee, Gene?"
"Thanks." Eugene meets his father's eyes as he takes the coffee. He sips it for a while and looks around. "I'm not sorry I went," he says after a while.
"No," the doctor agrees, screwing the cap back on the vacuum flask, "no, I wouldn't think you are." He sighs. "I tried to enlist in '17 but they wouldn't take me. Too old, and my eyesight was too poor."
"So I stayed here and married your mother and… well, you know the rest." Eugene smiles a bit. "Anyway, when the war broke out again… Well, I realized something. You boys are my contribution - you were all along." Eugene straightens. "I'm proud of you, Eugene. I don't mean I'm proud of the Sledge family or the United States or President Truman or the Marine Corps, I'm proud of you."
Eye to eye, they are on equal footing now. "Thank you."
In the end, they both decide it is far too beautiful a morning to waste. Father and son, they ramble all over the countryside, Eugene with his hands stuffed in his pockets but relaxed. The birds are just as interesting to watch as to see through the sight of a rifle, and soon Gene's telling his father about the avian spiecies of the tropics. And in the course of his stories sometimes, like quicksilver, he laughs. Finally the sun is hot in the sky - both men abandon their jackets, roll up their shirtsleeves - and it's time to be heading back. The morning didn't go quite the way Dr. Sledge had intended, but in the end, he counts it a success.
On the way back to the house - and it isn't far, maybe a mile - Dr. Sledge glances over to find that Eugene has fallen asleep. Head tilted back, mouth slightly open, he breathes in and out like the sweep of waves on the beach. Dr. Sledge wouldn't disturb his son for worlds. He drives around the back country roads until the truck is running on fumes.
"Honestly, Eugene, you look like a gangster with those glasses on."
He was asleep. That's what the glasses were for: so she wouldn't know. He sleeps better during the day, propped against a tree, than he does in a comfortable bed at night. Eugene figures this is a marine trait. A month ago, he would have woken with a start and felt for his rifle to aim at Japs. Now he cracks open his eyes but remains otherwise motionless - that's an improvement.
The iced tea is just a pretense - she clearly wants to say something. He's annoyed at being woken up. And how would she know what a gangster looks like, anyway? Movies?
"Your brother's coming for supper this evening." He doesn't think for a moment that's what she came out to say. "Evidently he's been named some kind of supervisor at the bank."
Bully for Edward, Eugene thinks. He's become petulant lately, brittle. Twenty-two years old and he feels sixty. He is desperate for a single night's sleep. "Better get our money out of that bank."
Mary Frank smiles a little, but not that much. "I'm sure Edward could arrange a starting position for you at the bank."
Now she's coming around to her point. He might have guessed it was something like this. Eugene shakes his head. "No." Taking orders from Edward is not part of his plan. "I'm never going to work in a bank, Mother." He can't believe she doesn't see.
"Well, you need to make a plan for the future."
Eugene has good parents - he knows this. The other men in King Company had envied the frequency and generosity of their packages (and always shared in their largesse). And he suspects that Mary Frank can't shut off her mothering instinct, not just yet. But she's standing over him asking about his future, of all things, and he's thinking, Lady, are you kidding me?
"My plan," Eugene says with his last ounce of patience, "is to do nothing for a while." He would have thought that this plan was obvious.
Mary Frank sighs. "How long is a while, Eugene?" Her son doesn't say anything, only clutches the iced tea glass with an angry hand. He's only been home a month, anyway. It feels like no time at all. Heck, the battle for Peleliu took twice as long to accomplish this much nothing.
Fortunately Dr. Sledge had seen the tense scene unfolding through the window; he strides across the lawn now to defuse the standoff. A few weeks ago, the doctor read an editorial in a magazine which roundly criticized Truman's use of the atomic bomb. The writer had tossed around a lot of words like 'unconscionable' and 'barbaric'. Civilized men win conduct their wars in a civilized fashion, even if it means losing a few more men. And oh, if we can't win the war without sinking to the level of our enemy, then we don't deserve to win them at all. He had burned the magazine before Eugene could see it, just lit a match to the corner right there in the kitchen sink, and cancelled his subscription the same night.
Now he thinks of that editorial, and the idiot who wrote it, as he stands on the lawn looking down at his son. Or what's left of him. And the doctor's only beef with Truman is that he didn't use the A-bomb soon enough.
Dr. Sledge speaks gently. "Leave him alone, Mary Frank."
She turns to him, seeking an ally. "The boy is idle."
"He is not a boy."
"Well, he's acting like one," Mary Frank counters.
Eugene sits there in disgust. He doesn't like the way they are discussing him like he is not even there. He is about to get off the lawn and go in the house, but his father's next words stop him. "Mary Frank," the doctor says, "you have no idea what men like him have been through."
Mary Frank looks down at her son on the lawn. He's right: she has no idea. Neither one of them really does. "Now go on," Dr. Sledge says. He takes her elbow to steer her towards the house. "Let him be."
Head resting against the rough bark of the tree, Eugene takes a sip of his drink.
Eugene lies on his back in the sun-soaked meadow. His mother would probably think he is idle, but actually his mind is working a mile a minute.
Squinting into the sun, he twirls a wild flower by its stalk. Why, he wonders, does it have eight petals and not six or fourteen? And the meadow lark over there, what mechanism actually allows it to fly? All the time he's devoted to hunting birds, he's never actually considered this question.
He's always believed that God created the earth. He still believes this, although Eugene wonders what He was thinking when He created Peleliu. Now, he thinks, it's time he found out how. Lying on his back, Eugene figures it out. His mother would be proud of him for making a 'plan' but that's not what he's doing, not exactly. It's just that now he finally understands. He can go back to 'Bama Poly and try again, and this time he won't be unnerved by pretty blondes with silly questions. He is the Sledgehammer, after all.
He may never be able to put it behind him, but he'll try to put it aside.
Eugene presses the wild flower inside the cover of his notebook, and tucks the notebook in his pocket. Time to go home.
That night ends up being the best sleep he's ever had.