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Battleground Pacific: A Marine Rifleman’s Combat Odyssey in K/3/5 by Sterling Mace and Nick Allen Review

I met Sterling Mace online, after making this rather short post about an interview he gave on a Reddit AMA.

Not thinking the post would ever reach him, his response to me personally was about “setting the record straight,” of defining the position of riflemen, in relation to mortarmen, machine gunners, and officers.

You see, Sterling Mace was a rifleman, and his book Battleground Pacific: A Marine Rifleman’s Combat Odyssey in K/3/5 seeks to put you at the front, at the very tip.

HBO all but immortalized Eugene Sledge’s and Robert Leckie’s books in the ten part mini-series, The Pacific. But Mace’s book is every bit as compelling and every bit as important in exploring common ground.

Most period memoirs make use of dialog.  Mace chose to frame his memoir in the first person, as his 19-20 year old self, and there is much dialog. Now if you are a reader who doesn’t trust recreated dialog 60+ years after a conflict, then move along.

But here is the thing. This choice adds much flavor to the narrative. What we see is a confident young man in an impossible circumstance. There is salty language, conflict between the ranks (Ambrose called it chickenshit), humor, an uncompromising attitude, and heart underneath it all.

Speaking of chickenshit, Mace shows an incident on Okinawa where he jumped from his position to aid several wounded marines who were there because of the incompetence of a Major leading another group. Mace managed to gather the wounded (six in all, with the help of a few others, he says) and get them into a nearby abandoned jeep, and then to an aid station, all while fighting the thick Okinawan mud and Japanese fire. Once he got there, a Lieutenant “gave [him] shit over a crummy jeep that would have gotten smashed to oblivion” that was sitting there in a field. “Well,” he says, “leave the jeep here. It belongs to us.” According to Mace, this Lieutenant’s attitude was all about where “he believes he resides in the world, verses the place he knows I do.” Back at the front, away from here.

This book is very much about relationships, and in it, readers get to know Sy Levy, and a host of other marines, including two afflicted by ringworm. By Okinawa, Mace had killed many Japanese (and these descriptions are included with much detail) and seen many fellow marines wounded and killed.  One moment, he is the hard marine not shedding tears over the death of company commander Haldane (which occupies part of another book), yet we see him later telling the story of Lyman Rice (afflicted with ring worm and a “real tough marine”) to George Weisdack (also afflicted with ring worm) that shows the heart. This story hits dead center at the fate of every marine rifleman there. You leave when you are killed or wounded.

Weisdack: “So…well…whatever happened to [Rice’s] ringworm? Did he get it cured?”

Mace: “Oh yeah, yeah, he got it cured in a manner of speaking, I guess. He got killed on the Five Sisters. I don’t suppose you worry about ringworm on the Five Sisters if you are dead, ya know.”

Mace continued in an even tone, as he knew Weisdack was suffering just as Rice had been.

“I want you to gather up your gear, walk past Chulis, and go down to the battalion aid station. Then I want you to get on a boat and get off this fucking island and go home, George. Go home.”

Mace knows what is going to happen. Weisdack, too, and he walks out, leaving Mace to face his fate.  Later he is concussed out of action by shell fire.

The highlight of the book for me is the description of the “dancing scene” on Ngesebus in late September 1944, which is included here in its entirety. It shows that tight bond between Mace and Levy, of friendship, of youth which make Levy’s death all the more difficult to accept, at least for this reader. My response: “NO” out loud and in disbelief. “No way.”  But Mace leaves us with an enduring image:

There’s one other thing about Ngesebus I should tell. It’s not about the battle. It’s not about the island. It’s not even about the war. It’s about the people inside the uniforms.

As they loaded us into amtracs, the victors of Ngesebus— filthy and disheveled, dungarees as stiff as canvas, weapons carried at cocky angles— they told us we would return to the bivouac area on Peleliu, and from there, we were bound for Pavuvu. We had done our duty and we had done it well.

Just a ways on the shore, a camera crew filmed us file past, capturing the moment for posterity. Marines gave various looks into the camera. Some marines smiled wanly, bashfully, as if it were expected of them to say cheese. Other marines pointed at the lens and cracked jokes. There were even some marines, unfazed by the limelight, who were just too hollow, or too tough, or too bitter, to care what the United States thought of them at the moment.

The camera merely rolled, emitting a swirling purr, in contrast to the stomp of hard boots on coral ground. The camera’s mechanical eye seemed so out of place in hell. Why would anybody want to see the sour underbelly of the world, when there were far more lovely things on God’s earth worth capturing?

As for me and Levy, when we passed by the camera, we were both too “New York” not to ham it up— to have a hoot— even in the ass crack of the apocalypse.

I grinned at Levy and he grinned back, the two of us telegraphing our intentions in perfect unison— a giddiness that is only found in kids (just kids), not yet jaded by the prospect of imminent death. In fact, in that moment, right there, there was no war … no war, no boondockers, no bombs, no bullets … no bullets, no sting of death, no Japan, no Roosevelt, no pain … no pain, no hunger, no anger, no blood, no tears … no tears, no sacrifice, no race or color, no Peleliu, and no Marine Corps.

There was only the beauty of being young and all the freedom that comes along with it.

Sy and I broke ranks. Nobody called us back. For just a few winks in the eye of forever, Sy says to me, “Truckin’!” So the two of us began truckin’— dancing— right in front of the camera, arms waving in the air, just like we had done back in the boroughs, showing off to the girls, laughing, sipping soda from candy-striped straws …

The smile on Sy’s face was unbelievable. Never to be replicated. Captured on celluloid for as long as film may last; yet forever etched in my mind for as long as I may live. A charm of friendship. A wonder of youth, immortal.

Hurriedly, Sy and I trotted back to our ranks, a spring still in our step, giggling the whole time as the aftereffects of our folly still lingered, despite being back among the Corps. Nothing on this earth or beyond could claim that moment from Seymour and me.

The search for this video remains elusive, but I’d like to see it. I hope it surfaces.

Finally, get the book. It’s an important read that will expand your knowledge of The REAL Pacific War.

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