BRYCE ON FICTION
– The last Iwo Jima veteran returns home.
This is a chapter from a book I wrote back in 2010, “Tin Heads,” which is a work of fiction and reminiscent of the many stories we watched on the “Twilight Zone.” The book is still for sale as a PDF file, click HERE, or for a Kindle e-Book, click HERE. For more info on what is a Tin Head, see the INTRO. I hope you will enjoy it.
“THE FINAL SALUTE”
“Tin Head” – slang expression for the TN-2020 Personal Drone developed by TN Industries, San Jose, California. A “dumb” robot resembling human form with special sensors enabling humans to visit remote locations without having to leave their home location. Unit is distinguished by its domed head, hence the nickname.
James “Bum” Sanders strolled down to the local barber shop for his weekly haircut, cane in hand. He didn’t like carrying the cane but his daughter insisted he use it to balance himself as he was now 102 years young, although he certainly didn’t feel like it. He made the trip to the barber shop once a week in his hometown of Cleveland, Tennessee not because he needed a haircut, he actually had little left on his head, but to kibitz with “Big Al” Smith, the shop’s proprietor, as well as the other visiting patrons.
As Bum walked into the shop he was warmly greeted by everyone as he was well known. Bum was a bit of an institution in the Cleveland area and had run a transmission repair shop for a number of years until he was forced to sell it and retire in his 90’s. He was also active in several civic, fraternal and veterans groups so it was no small wonder just about everyone in town knew him. He was best known though for organizing and managing the Memorial Day service at the cemetery in the Spring, and the local Veterans Day parade in the Fall. As a World War II veteran, these were very important events to him and he insisted they be commemorated with dignity and grace. His signature though was a crisp salute he would give at the end of each service, followed by the words “Semper Fi” to honor his fallen Marine brothers.
During the War, Bum served in the 5th Marine Division which invaded Iwo Jima in 1945. His nickname “Bum” was derived from a wound he suffered in his posterior by a Japanese marksman. Other than this, little was known about Bum’s activities on the island as he was intensely private about the matter, not just to strangers, but to friends and family as well. Nonetheless, rarely did a day go by that Bum did not think of the horrors of war he suffered on Iwo, his friends and comrades he lost, and the enemy soldiers he killed. While on the island, he was assigned flame thrower duty to root out Japanese hidden in the caves and tunnels around Mount Suribachi. Their screams haunted him for many years, something he could not forget, and explained why he refused to talk about it. He served his country honorably, but was acutely aware of the brutalities of war.
Bum found his usual chair in the barber shop and began to chat with Big Al. He didn’t recognize the customer whose hair Big Al was cutting and inquired, “You new around here son?”
“Yes, just moved into the area from Chattanooga. The name is Jeffries, Sam Jeffries.”
“Pleased to meet you,” replied Bum, “It’s good to have another leatherneck in the area.”
Jeffries looked surprised, “How did you know?”
“Not too difficult,” began Bum, “The way you sit at attention in the chair, the crisp press of your clothes, the polish on your shoes, and that jarhead haircut Big Al is giving you. In fact, I would wager that ring you’re wearing bears an eagle, globe and anchor insignia.”
Jeffries laughed, “You got me, you’ve got a pretty good eye sir, and you are…?”
“Bum Sanders my brother; Corporal, USMC, Iwo Jima, 1945,” he snapped, “Welcome to the area.” And he rose to shake the man’s hand. “What brings you around to these parts?”
“I’m opening a new Tin Head franchise here in Cleveland.” Jeffries replied.
“Tin Head? What the heck is that?”
The rest of the people in the barber shop chuckled at Bum’s ignorance as just about everyone knew of the popular Tin Head program. In his defense though, Bum had lost interest in the news a few years ago and, like a lot of senior citizens, tended to avoid new technology.
“It’s something new that allows a person to visit just about anywhere on the planet,” and he gave Bum a brief description of the Tin Head program.
Bum listened intently but asked few questions. He had never heard of such a device before, but the more the man spoke about it, the more absurd the notion seemed to him.
As Jeffries finished his haircut, he produced a business card and said to Bum, “Tell you what; we’re planning on opening the store next week. Give me a call and I would be happy to give you a personal tour.”
Bum thanked him for the courtesy, slipped the card into his shirt pocket, and quickly forgot about it.
Bum still lived at home, much to the concern of his children who worried about his well-being, but he had always been stubbornly independent and remained so after surviving not just one wife, but two. His children were grandparents in their own right and beginning to slow down themselves. At age 102 Bum was still relatively fit and alert, but he worried about losing his health and memory as many seniors do. He still tended to his yard, but finally acquiesced mowing the lawn just a couple of years ago to his great-grandchildren who he would pay generously. When he wasn’t working in the yard, Bum could be found rocking in a favorite chair on his front porch where he would often talk to neighbors walking past his house.
As he settled into his chair, he thought about the Marine he had met earlier before slipping off to a short nap. His encounter with Jeffries caused him to dream about Iwo Jima… Even though he had suffered a shot to his derrière, doctors had been able to patch him together so he could return to duty with his flame thrower, a dangerous occupation with a high mortality rate. Somehow Bum found a way to not only survive, but became quite proficient in clearing the caves and tunnels on the island. If he didn’t burn his victims to death, the flame would suck the oxygen out of the enclosure and suffocate them.
His dream became clearer as he found himself with his Marine squad on the island. It was nighttime and the battle for the island was coming to a close. Despite this, the soldiers were told to beware of desperate Japanese counter attacks. The moon was almost full which provided minimal light to detect motion. Half of Bum’s squad stayed alert while the other half slept. Bum kept checking the forward positions but saw nothing. He then thought his eyes were beginning to play tricks on him and he rubbed them. Had he seen a shadow move or was it his imagination? Squinting to get a better look, Yes, something was moving out there, but what? He shot a flare into the air only to see hundreds of Japanese poised at the edge of the American lines ready to attack. As the flare lit the sky, the Japanese shouted “Banzai!” and lunged forward to attack the American position.
Bum suddenly found himself surrounded by Japanese engaged in hand-to-hand combat. One by one, he watched his squad decimated by the attack. Before he could reach for his weapon he found himself fighting with a Japanese in his foxhole. The attack was savage and even though he fought well, he suddenly felt the pain of a sword slicing into his side. Reaching for his bayonet, he turned to face his attacker and lunged the blade into him. Bum slumped over as he saw fellow Marines respond and scuttle the Japanese charge. “At last, I can rest, I can rest…”
Bum awoke rubbing his side where he thought he had been stabbed. An unfamiliar sharp pain shot through him causing him to sit up. Something was wrong and he called his daughter who lived nearby to take him to see his physician, Dr. Ferguson.
After a preliminary examination, Dr. Ferguson had Bum admitted into the hospital for further tests. The results confirmed the doctor’s suspicions; Bum’s kidneys had become cancerous and would begin to shut down soon. Offhand, doctors would operate for such a condition and the patient would either end up on dialysis or undergo a kidney transplant, but due to Bum’s age and constitution it would be unlikely he would survive either scenario. It began to become painfully obvious to Bum that the end was near.
Word spread quickly around town that Bum was in trouble, including the commander at his VFW post, Charlie Simpson, who visited Ferguson in his office. “Doc, we’ve been old friends for a number of years right? I’m sure you know how important Bum Sanders is to the people of this community. I know he’s old, but we have to do anything we can to help this man as I’m sure he would fight for any one of us.”
“Yes, Bum is a great guy,” Ferguson said, “but he cannot survive an operation and I don’t want to be the one responsible for shortening his life.”
“Doc,” Simpson said, “I’m not sure you aware of this but I’ve been informed by the V.A. that Bum is the last survivor of Iwo Jima.”
“Really? You’re kidding me aren’t you?”
“No. They’re all gone…except Bum. We really need to do something special for him.”
“Have you got something in mind?”
Simpson opened the door and said, “Sam, could you come in here?”
The same Sam Jeffries who met Bum just last week in the barber shop walked into the room and was introduced to Ferguson.
“Sam, tell the doctor what you have got in mind.”
“I’m the manager of the new Tin Head franchise here in town,” Jeffries began, “and I happened to hear about Bum’s problem. I also heard from Charlie how important Bum is to the community and that he is the last survivor of Iwo Jima. I’m a Marine myself, and the battle for Iwo Jima was an important chapter in our history, and I’m sure to Bum.”
“In all the years I’ve known Bum,” Ferguson said, “I knew he survived Iwo but he never liked to talk about it.”
“Well we talked to Bum about the idea,” continued Sam, “and he would like to visit Iwo one last time before he checks out.”
“No way, impossible,” countered Ferguson, “he could never survive such a long trip.”
“Maybe not in person,” said Sam, “but how about through a Tin Head?”
Dr. Ferguson stopped in his tracks. He had never considered this.
“Doctor, you’ve been in a Tin Head before haven’t you?”
“Yes. I was surprised how easy it was to use.”
“Do you think Bum is strong enough to operate a Home unit?” Sam asked.
“I’m not sure. Don’t tell me you’ve got a Tin Head franchise on Iwo Jima, do you?”
“No, but the Navy has plenty of units and I have some contacts which could enable Bum to use a Tin Head on Iwo Jima. Since the 1980’s. the Navy has a program whereby veterans and family members once a year are allowed to visit the island. Over the years though, their numbers have understandably dwindled. Now we’re down to just Bum, and in talking to my contacts, they would be happy to arrange a Tin Head for him, but we would have to confirm this soon as they will be visiting the island in two weeks.”
“That’s an awfully tight window we’re looking at,” said Ferguson, “frankly, I’m not sure he can last that long.”
“Doctor,” pleaded Simpson, “give the man a chance.”
Ferguson paced the office and contemplated the options. “If Bum Sanders wants to take a shot at it, who am I to deny the last Marine of Iwo Jima?”
Bum Sanders still had a problem understanding what exactly a Tin Head was, but after much encouragement from Sam Jeffries and Charlie Simpson, he agreed to give it a try. He was growing tired and weaker with each passing day though. So much so, Jeffries decided to accompany Bum on the trip and assist him if necessary. Fortunately, the Navy was able to accommodate his request and made two Tin Head suits available for the visit.
Sam had to spend a number of hours with Bum explaining the Tin Head’s capabilities and features. As these were to be military issued Tin Heads, Sam explained the suits had greater strength and dexterity which would greatly help Bum who was still in a weakened condition.
As the day of his trip began, Bum Sanders became a celebrity. Charlie Simpson leaked the story to the press and the media was on hand as Bum left the hospital for Sam’s store. The media attention actually helped to raise Bum’s confidence and strength as he was flattered by the attention. He stopped to answer a few questions from reporters:
“Mr. Sanders, when was the last time you were on Iwo Jima?”
“1945; I was with the Marines and I can assure you it wasn’t a pleasure trip.”
“What do you hope to see there today?”
Bum mulled the question over before answering, “I’m not sure, perhaps some old friends and a few old enemies.”
They wished him luck and Jeffries whisked him off to his store where a team of his assistants awaited them. After they arrived, Sam showed the “Home” unit to Bum and reviewed its operations. “Bum, do you think you can handle it?”
“I’ll give it my best shot,” he said, but he was already feeling weak from the short trip to the store.
Dr. Ferguson was on hand to observe the proceedings and was on standby should anything go wrong.
Sam’s assistants helped Bum into the suit which looked like a strange space suit cut in half. The suit was applied by having the person sit in the back portion. A machine suspended from the ceiling held the front portion which was slowly eased on top of the person and pressed together with special snaps thereby forming a single suit. The machine then raised the human subject and suspended him in midair to afford him the mobility he needed to move around.
“Equipment check, Bum, can you hear me?” asked Sam.
“Yes, I hear you fine Sam.”
“Okay, my staff is going to insert our identity cards, program our trip and make contact with the Navy on Iwo. Your screens, audio, and other sensors will come on when the Tin Heads go live. Are you ready?”
“I guess so, as ready as I’ll ever be.”
“Okay, beginning countdown…10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…”
Bum and Sam awoke on the black beaches of Iwo Jima. It was a sunny day and Bum could hear and smell the salt water behind him and turned to look at it.
“Bum, are you okay?” asked Sam as he approached him on the beach.
“Yes, fine…. This is unbelievable,” he replied haltingly.
Back in Cleveland, the Tin Head franchise had setup screens in a sequestered room in the store for Bum’s family, close friends and Dr. Ferguson to watch through the cameras mounted on his Tin Head.
Bum was startled by the clarity of what he could see, the vividness of the sounds, and the smell.
“Excuse me, Mister Sanders and Jeffries?” asked a Marine Lieutenant.
“Yes?” they said in unison.
“I’m Lt. Rice, welcome to Iwo Jima or ‘Iwo To’ as the Japanese call it. Thank you for coming. Is your equipment working properly?”
“Yes, everything seems fine,” they said.
“Then if you’re ready, I would like to take you to my Colonel who is waiting for us further down the beach,” Rice said.
“If you don’t mind Lieutenant,” Bum said, “Can I walk the beach a bit? It’s been a long time since I was here last.”
“Certainly, take your time, I know what this means to you,” and he walked ahead to meet his Colonel.
Bum was exhilarated by his Tin Head. He found he could move as easily as if he were a young man again. After coming to grips with his new physical freedom, he began to appreciate where he was.
He turned to Sam and pointed down the beach, “We landed down there in the southeast and were charged with taking Mount Suribachi. I was just eighteen years old. We were just kids.” And Bum was flooded by memories.
Bum and Sam continued their walk down the beach. Bum explained troop movements during the battle and Sam quietly listened to his friend. The two finally caught up with Lt. Rice and his Colonel who warmly greeted them.
“Mister Sanders, I’m Colonel Benson, welcome back to Iwo Jima. It’s a pleasure having you here today and an honor for us to host you as the last surviving Marine. Mister Jeffries I also want to welcome you and thank you for helping to set this up. What we would like to do is give you a brief tour of the island before we go up Mount Suribachi and visit the Reunion of Honor.”
The Reunion of Honor was started in 1985 and represented a pilgrimage of battle veterans from both sides, Japanese and American. It was held on the summit of Mount Suribachi where a monument was constructed at the spot where Marines raised the American flag. The reunions had stopped three years earlier when it was falsely assumed all the survivors had finally died.
“Mister Sanders,” asked the Colonel, “We’re going to use this vehicle to give you a tour of the island. Is there a particular spot you would like to see?”
“Not offhand, but if I see something, can I ask you to stop?”
“Certainly. Shall we go?”
The party got into the military vehicle, an old Hummer which still ran remarkably well and looked in good condition. Beginning with a general orientation at the current air base operated by the Japanese, the group visited the two abandoned airfields captured during the battle. Bum’s mind began to fill with memories as he recalled how the Marines sliced the island in two. Visions of fallen brothers flashed through his mind’s eye causing his head to suddenly twitch as he recalled one tragedy after another.
After the airfields, the group headed for Mount Suribachi. As the Hummer began to climb the road to the summit, Bum suddenly asked Lt. Rice to stop the truck.
“Sam, help me out will you; I’m getting tired but I must see this,” said Bum.
The group exited the vehicle and stood facing the foot of Mount Suribachi. Sensing Bum’s weakness, Sam kept an arm on Bum to balance him. Bum grew quiet; he had been here before.
“It was here where I was shot,” Bum said as he gazed into the general direction where he imagined the sniper had pulled the trigger.
He then pointed up the hill, “It was over there where I cleaned out the caves with my flame throw,” and he could hear the roar of fire and screams of his victims.
“And it was just about 100 yards over there where we repelled the final Japanese banzai charge. It was nighttime, but if it hadn’t been for the moonlight, they would have completely taken us by surprise and I wouldn’t be standing here with you.”
Bum could see the charge vividly; his shooting of the flare, the hand-to-hand combat, and the soldier he fought in the fox hole. The Japanese soldier appeared to be an officer even though he couldn’t recognize his rank or decorations. He was approximately the same size as Bum whom he charged with a sword. His face was an interesting combination of determination and terror, just plain crazy it seemed to Bum. The officer fought ferociously, but Bum was in better condition and more athletic. In the end, the officer succumbed to Bum’s bayonet. The surprised look on the officer’s face as life drained from his body was indelibly impressed upon Bum, something he couldn’t erase from his memory; something that had haunted him for years. He died valiantly though, a soldier’s death.
“Thank you gentlemen, we can go now. Sam please help me get back in the car, I’m weak.”
Back at the “Home” unit in Tennessee, Ferguson and Bum’s daughter were monitoring Bum’s vitals which were dropping noticeably. So much so, he was forced to call the two through the Tin Head communications channel.
“Sam, this is Dr. Ferguson, can you read me?”
“Yes, we copy just fine. What’s up?”
“Bum’s vital signs are dropping dangerously low. We’re going to have to call this off and get him back to the hospital.”
“No, don’t stop it,” insisted Bum, “I’ve waited too long for this. I must see it to the end.”
“But your family is worried about you Bum.”
“Worried about what? I’ve spent most of my life worrying about everyone else, now it’s finally my turn to worry about myself. I must see this to completion. Whatever you do, I beg of you not to stop this. I relieve all of you of responsibility.”
Reluctantly, Ferguson and Bum’s family acquiesced to his wishes. All they could do now was watch the images he was transmitting back from his “Remote” unit.
The Hummer slowly made its way up to the summit of Mount Suribachi. Upon arrival, Bum climbed out with Sam’s assistance. Despite the strength and durability of the suit, Sam could feel Bum’s weakness.
From the top of Suribachi, Bum could see the overall island. He could see where the ships had been when they pummeled Iwo with shells as a prelude to the invasion, he could see the black beaches where the troops landed, the air fields that were captured, and the caves below.
Here, atop Suribachi was the memorial he had longed to see. It commemorated the battle with two monuments, one side for the Japanese, and the other for the Americans. It wasn’t a massive memorial but it was still very dignified and marked the spot where the Americans had raised the flag denoting the capture of the island.
The group helped Bum over to the American side first where Sam read the inscription to him. They then walked him to the Japanese side. Although it was windy at the summit, Bum appreciated the quiet dignity of the memorial. He was finding peace.
“Please, take me back to the American side.”
They slowly walked him back over to the American monument. He could hear the ocean below, feel the wind, and smell the salt water.
“Please, leave me for a moment, there is something I have to do myself,” and they did so reluctantly.
Bum studied the words on the plaques for a few moments. Then, mustering what little strength he had left, he stood at attention and saluted the monument with his customary crispness. “Semper Fi” he whispered.
He then turned to pay homage to his Japanese adversaries. As he turned towards the Japanese monument, he was suddenly face-to-face with a Japanese officer in full uniform; the same Japanese officer he had fought to the death in his fox hole years ago. The soldier was emotionless and didn’t speak, but snapped a salute to Bum and awaited the return. Bum was stunned. The soldier was impeccably dressed and, by the uniform, Bum could tell he held the rank of captain. The Japanese stood unwavering at attention, still waiting. Bum then drew himself up to attention and returned a crisp salute. As he dropped his arm, he suddenly realized he was surrounded by his squad in Marine dress uniforms quietly lined up behind him. Bum looked confused. He then looked back to the Japanese captain who was now standing with three rows of his soldiers behind him in dress uniform.
Bum’s sergeant then barked, “Attention. Present arms.”
The Japanese captain replied in kind in his native tongue.
Then, one last time, Bum snapped off a salute to his former adversary who returned the salute and slowly smiled at him. The last warrior of Iwo Jima was finally home.
At first, Sam Jeffries, Colonel Benson and Lt. Rice didn’t realize what had happened, nor did Charlie Simpson, Doctor Ferguson, or Bum’s daughter, who had watched the screens from afar; they all just saw Bum standing motionless at attention in his Navy Tin Head saluting the American monument. It was only then, that Ferguson noticed Bum’s vital signs had plummeted. By the time they opened the “home” unit suit, they found a tired old man with his arm at salute and a tear on his face.
For more information on the “Tin Head” book in PDF format, click HERE. For Kindle e-Book, click HERE.
Keep the Faith!
P.S. – Don’t forget my new book, “Tim’s Senior Moments” now available in Printed and eBook form.
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Tim Bryce is a writer and the Managing Director of M&JB Investment Company (M&JB) of Palm Harbor, Florida and has over 40 years of experience in the management consulting field. He can be reached at [email protected]
For Tim’s columns, see: timbryce.com
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