He enlisted in the marines on the ninth of December 1941, two days after Pearl Harbor, while still drunk. His buddy Carl was so blasted the recruiter made him wait a day before joining up saying “This boy’s just too primed.”
Peter McGrew joined the Marines not because they were the best, because they were the best, but because they would have him the quickest.
That night he tried to get drunk again, but no matter how much he drank he seemed to get more sober. The men at the sawmill bought him round after round, Carl got too drunk again and still had to wait a day when he went down the next morning to join up. Every person in that bar bought Peter drinks but he just remained sober with a smile on his face that did not fade, under it was fear and a desire to run and hide. Every shot, every slap on the back, every atta boy just reinforced the fantasy of the future to come.
He was going to war. Roosevelt said the day after the attack “all measures” and he was all measures.
Years later, he doesn’t know how close he got to running.
He also does not remember her approaching him either or him approaching her, but that eventually, she was there. She smiled and her soft hand on his made him feel able and capable. Her blue eyes twinkled like she was already in love. Maybe those sparkling pools of azure just mirrored his look.
They talked all night. He would be hard pressed to remember what they talked about. Maybe God. Maybe the idea life was fleeting. Maybe that death was inevitable. Maybe that he did not want to be a hero, just good enough to do his part. She said stuff also. Maybe. Maybe it was that she just listened. Maybe she knew he had a burden that needed to come out. Maybe she saw the twenty year old kid who had never been more than twenty miles from home about to go on the biggest adventure of his life.
Eventually the sun rose and the time for his train to depart rapidly approached.
She drove him to the station. She gave him her address.
She kissed him slowly and tenderly on the lips.
He thought about that kiss the entire way South.
A day after joining, he was on a train heading to Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island and he had nothing else in his head accept a girl her friends called Charlie.
When the sign for Parris Island stopped outside his window, he felt hungover. More hung over than ever in his life and then he was in uniform learning to be a marine. Four weeks of brutal forced discipline and classes on history and esprit de corps and he thought of her kiss and wrote her letters. Every night, he would scribble words in sentences and block them in paragraphs and he would wonder how his teachers back in grade school could have failed him so readily. He told her about training and how he wasn’t that bad at being a marine and how they made him squad leader and how the other boys looked up to him.
Discipline was being a marine and he discovered he was good at discipline.
For him being a marine was easy.
Then they gave him Baby, his M1, all glowing wood stock and shiny black metal. He aimed. He shot. He aimed again. He learned that he could shoot.
He was made to be a marine.
He earned high marks on the range. He earned respect from his instructors for always being squared away. He was a leader and the men followed his example. He earned a stripe after recruit training and quickly earned another one on top of that waiting to be deployed to the far reaches of the Pacific.
The men called him Corporal.
He was called corporal when just 16 weeks ago he was nothing but a laborer at an upstate New York sawmill.
And he thought of Charlie’s kiss. In his memory the kiss was silk on skin used to only rough burlap, was water to the parched.
She sent him letters also. He read them over and over. Her words were written in expressive cursive.
He would hold them to his chest and think of kissing her and talking the words of their letters to each other in person.
He was in love and told her so in a letter he wrote on the night before getting on a navy ship.
He told her how she made him feel, but he never mentioned how much he feared death.
The ship rolled over a rough sea for months. The taste of salt in the air flavored everything. Coffee was salty, waking was salty, taking a shit was salty.
Their cloths seems to grow salt.
And the funny thing as they neared their destination was, they couldn’t wait to be free of the ship and then they were.
Green, lush tropics waited and they were told when the transport ships dropped the rear door, death would come with Japanese bullets.
“Most of you men will die, but for country and for revenge. God bless the Marine Corp, God bless America,” said a four star general.
And then they battled for 3 years, 8 months, 3 weeks and 5 days.
Six million people died.
And Peter McGrew did his part. He was a warrior, and his job was to kill. He killed and lead his team. He took over the squad when the Sergeant Hawkner got five bullets and bled out. Then the men called him sarge. He took over the platoon when Platoon Sergeant Fawks threw himself on a grenade and with still-warm juicy parts clinging to his uniform, McGrew got a rocker under his three chevrons. He got a battlefield commission when officers were few and far between. The men called him LT and the higher-ups gave him a butter bar for his collar and a forty-five to wear at his side but he did not need it. He directed others to fire their weapons and no longer needed to fire his.
Some time late in the war, he wrote Charlie a letter. He did not write about how the day to day fear made him want to jump into the ocean and swim home to her. How on his first transport to a beachhead on August sixth, he pissed himself in fear, or how once the sand was under his feet he was ready to be a marine from that day forth.
He never told her about the bodies. About his buddies and enemy that just seemed to stack up in his memory like perfectly fitting numbers of dead. About finding Carl among the dead. How he was rail thin and shitting bloody water from his ass.
No; he told her the kiss she gave him was a special paradise he could take refuge in, even in the roughest moments of his fight against the Japs.
He told her how every night when the stars would shine and the moon would wax and wane when the palm trees rustled in the breeze she would be there with him and they would share in a small moment of peace and hope for a world to come.
Then three years to the day after his first fight on the island of Guadalcanal, a huge bomb was dropped destroying a city in Japan he couldn’t pronounce. Than nine days later another one was dropped and Japan surrendered.
The war was over.
He was asked to hang around another six months but eventually got his discharge papers and transport home.
His war was over.
He boarded a ship and it took him to San Francisco.
There he mailed the last letter he would ever write and two days later boarded a train to New York City.
At Grand Central he grabbed his duffel, smoothed out his class A jacket, shook some offered hands and disembarked.
The he saw her. She looked the same. Her lips pursed in an ecstatic smile. She had tears drifting from her eyes. Her makeup ran in dark lines. She shook. Her hands trembled as she reached out for him. He dropped his duffel and ran to her. She opened her arms and he could feel the warmth of her body and the fluttering of her heart and they kissed. They kissed and kissed and kissed and in a moment where breath was need to be caught she whispered in his ear “of course” and from that day until he died, she was his and he was hers.