From Book One: Lewis
To the north of the battery and the troops massed below, came the blasts of two cannons firing simultaneously. Lewis yanked the lanyard of the Whitworth, felt the recoil of the cannon against his leg. In the next instant the Napoleon Boggess and Zink were manning fired, and they switched to help Dixon on the other, and it too went off and then the guns of Lewis’ battery fell silent again as the men rushed to reload, the others down the line firing and carrying on the fight.
How easy it would be, he thought. To get lost in the constant of this great battle. To forget that life hasn’t always been this way.
Private Zink’s voice carrying out away from the now silent battery—“The bill’s come due, now, you blue-bellied bastards! Past due!”—only served to emphasize the reality Lewis had come to know. He laughed and Cuthbert, not knowing the joke but always capable of enjoying one, laughed with him and suddenly Lewis was very glad to be alive at just that moment.
Across the valley on the high ground where the Union army had taken position, everything he could see appeared to be in flames. The truth, finally, of what Zink had been yelling about. Visible through the summer haze and cannon smoke, Lewis could make out blue-coated soldiers running about, trying to catch panicked horses and mules, other soldiers scuttling supply caissons to safety, and houses the Yankees had commandeered for headquarters, burning brightly in the hazy light of the day.
At least, that was what was visible to the naked eye. But when he brought out his field glass he was amazed to discover, that after nearly an hour of steady cannon fire most of the Federal batteries were still intact. Lifting the glass higher to see beyond the gun placements he saw the proof of what he had worried about earlier. They had been firing high and past the targets all along. The pounding damage of the last hour was only to the Union rear. When the Confederate troops marched out into the open valley, they would be at the mercy of the Yankee guns.
“Boggess!’ Lewis called out. “Go find the Captain and tell him we’re missing the mark. All of us are missing the targets!”
“Sir?” It was no time for Boggess’s act of confusion, yet there it was. “I can’t be leaving this Nappy gun. Zink and Dixon can’t han’le the two of them without me.”
“Don’t worry about the guns, Private. Just do as I tell you.”
Lewis watched Boggess’s scarecrow like figure set off through the hanging pall of gun smoke covering the ridge, down the line in the direction Captain Harker had ridden. He hoped Boggess would not be too late. That there might still be time and ammunition left—after the proper adjustments were made—to inflict the damage necessary for the success of the charge. Surely he wasn’t the only battery commander who had seen the mistake? Colonel Alexander had to be aware of the situation. Had to be already issuing orders to set things aright. The men massed below the ridge depended on this—the South depended on this. Yet the troops were moving now, forming up with their units, and the color bearers running to get into place, as General Picket came riding up on his charger, golden curls waxed and falling from beneath the officer’s hat atop his head. Now? It was going to begin now?
An unheard signal seemed to pass along the line, the last of the cannons fired and the others fell silent, the only sounds left to be heard: that of men shouldering arms, buckling on sabers, and fixing bayonets, sounds drowned out by the drum and fife corps marching out of the peach orchard below Lewis’ guns, followed by what looked to be the entire Confederate Army, coming in tight formation behind the color bearers and drum and fife players, out from the orchard—and the shelter of the ridge above—and into the valley.
From Book Three: Hilton
“Boys, those walls are thicker than hell.” Jesup put the binoculars down and turned to the platoon. That damn smile of his was all over his face. He was the only one of them left, it seemed to Hilton, who could still manage such a thing, Reeve’s little attempt at humor beside the point. With Jesup, irreverence in the face of it all was never-ending.
“Looks like we’ve got our work cut out for us today,” Jesup continued as he joined Reeves at the gun. He opened the breech block of the howitzer and motioned to Hilton to slide a shell into the open breech. “Good thing we’ve got the big guns to help us out. We’d be in a world of shit without them.”
There were certainly plenty of the “big guns” as Jesup called them. Hilton had quit counting when he reached a hundred, leaving probably half again that number uncounted, the row of cannons all trained on the fortress across the water. Not to mention the tank and mortar units called into play by the Brass, all of it making up an array of firepower the likes of which Hilton had never seen before.
The Guns of Dixie’s target, like that of the other units on either side of their position, was the main gate of the fort. A bricked road leading off a wide plaza ran over a concrete bridge spanning the river into the fort, and the walls on either side of the heavy gate had already been breached. The bigger cannons had pounded shells into those walls for a good forty minutes the afternoon before, the barrage an effort to soften the enemy up for the assault troops who would have to fight their way inside. Now those troops were massed to the extreme left of the rows of cannon. Like the battle for the airfield before the army reached Manila, Hilton saw how everything was strictly by the book. Once the gates were blown completely the troops waiting on the banks above the muddy river, would cross the bridge and take on the enemy within the walls.
On the other end of the line of guns inflatable boats were pulled up on the riverbank. When the walls on that side of the fortress were blown more assault troops would cross the river in the boats and go in. The enemy would be enfiladed on all sides—forced to either surrender or fight to the death. Hilton was fairly certain what the Japs choice would be. In all the fighting they had done so far, he had yet to see the enemy lay down their arms and walk out under a white flag.
At 7:35, by Hilton’s watch (a simple Timex his dad had given him before he left for college), the cannons above the inflatables waiting to carry the assault troops across the river, began to fire. As he had at the beginning of the battle for the air base—how long ago had been that, Hilton wondered? A month? Yesterday? It was so hard to keep track of the days anymore—Jesup told the platoon, “Let ‘em have it, boys.”
Then the work began in earnest: Hackett at the breech loading shells. Jesup turning the elevation wheel to meet adjustments Hilton called out from behind the gun sight. Reeves pulling the lanyard to send another high explosive shell across the river into the walls of the fortress. It wasn’t long before Hilton was only aware of what he could see through the gun sight, the smell of cordite, the sound of high explosive hitting target, the yelling of men with the excitement of battle.
Exactly one hour later, again according to Hilton’s Timex, a command squawked through the radio at Jesup’s ear and they fired a round of red smoke, the signal for the infantry to move in. Hilton and the rest of them, stepped back, took a deep breath, and watched as the assault troops dashed across the empty plaza fronting the fort and into the walled city.
Whatever could burn inside the walls of the fort was in flames, even a tall spire rising up from what must have been a church in the middle of the little city. Most everything else lay in a heap of smoldering rubble and billowing concrete dust. Expecting to hear small arms fire ringing out from inside the fort, he was surprised to hear nothing. After what seemed the longest time there came the sustained rat-tat-tat from a GI firing a long burst from a BAR. And then, nothing. While Hilton waited for something more to happen, up on the north end of the fortress the troops in the inflatable boats reached shore and stormed into the gaping holes in the city walls the artillery had made for them there. And then again, silence.
Until a loud cheer erupted from the crews manning the guns down from Hilton’s platoon. Turning at this unexpected sound Hilton saw two nuns, each holding a child in her arms, straggle out of the fort’s demolished gates. The nuns stopped. In the rising sunlight and the smoke from the recent cannonade they stood staring at the line of artillery, tanks, and mortar units. The troops manning those guns stared just as dumbly back at them.
Where did they come from? How did they survive the storm of fire unleashed on the fort? Were anymore still inside?
Hilton’s unspoken questions were soon answered, when a stream of men, women, and children, came pouring through the gates, escorted by GI’s with shouldered arms. They were blackened with dust and smoke from the attack; their clothes tattered or in some cases, mainly those of the small children, missing. Many of them seemed to have wounds of some sort crudely bandaged. They had to be weary, Hilton thought. Shocked and afraid, too, from what they had gone through inside that fort. But all of them greeted the cheering soldiers with smiles and waving arms.
“Goddamn, boys, look at that,” Jesup said. “By God, we did it.” He leapt up on the howitzer, his feet planted on the tires so that he straddled the cannon, the barrel of the gun still smoking from the last discharge. “Now one of you sorry-ass gunners just try and tell me different!”
He threw his helmet up in the air, letting out a loud, screeching yell that seemed to run out over the water in a rambling wave. Standing next to Hilton, Reeves cupped his tobacco stained lips with his hands and did the same as Jesup. And then Hilton, too, opened his mouth wide, without even thinking about what he was doing, and joined Jesup and Reeves. Hilton knew that Hackett had certainly never heard such a thing before—had maybe read about it in history books in school covering the Civil War, though certainly not in Divinity School in Pennsylvania—but he too stood up and yelled out with the rest of his platoon.
Even with the destruction he had been a part of causing and the carnage resulting because of it, for Hilton, on that gray, humid, smoking day in the center of a ruined Manila, somehow it seemed only natural—to celebrate the end of the battle the way he and the rest of the Guns of Dixie were doing—with a long and loud sustained Rebel Yell.
Excerpts from Men Without Hate © Gene Lee 2016