Second Lieutenant Philip Caputo returns from Japan on June 15th and is picked up at the airfield by Lance Corporal Kazmarack. It is a rainy day. Caputo flinches from the sound of an eight-inch howitzer firing a round. Though Caputo knows that the sound is outgoing, the noise is remarkable. Kazmarack warns him that he will be hearing the noise all night. Caputo does not feel bad about being back, for he had been lonely in Japan. He feels more at home in Vietnam with his regiment.
Caputo’s sense of identity is linked now to the U.S. Marines, and he feels incomplete without the presence of the other members of the institution. At the same time, though Caputo has experienced battles and is accustomed to the sounds of shelling and gun-fire, he remains in awe at the power of some modern weaponry.
Caputo reports to his new boss, Captain Anderson. Anderson welcomes Caputo and tells him that he can take the rest of the day off to get settled in. He is to report by 7:30 A.M. the next morning. Lieutenant Schwartz shows Caputo his cot in the junior officers’ billets. Caputo’s tent is filthy. Outside, a trench offers shelter in case of a shelling or a fighting position in case of a spontaneous attack. However, a foot of water lies in the trench. In the afternoon, Caputo rides up to Hill 268 to pick up some personal gear he left behind. He senses that something has occurred. His old friends, including Lemmon and McCloy, seem distant from him. Tester asks him about his weekend in Japan, and Caputo talks about how he spent a weekend in Tokyo with a half-Russian, half-Japanese bar girl. Then, they tell him that Sullivan is dead.
Caputo performs the mundane chores that are required of him to settle in to his new battalion, though he still remains attached to the old one. When he returns to see his former comrades, he worries that they have already detached themselves from him. He hopes that by talking about his experience with the bar girl, he can find a way to re-establish his bond with them. When he hears about Sullivan’s death, particularly after having just witnessed Sullivan’s previous brush with death during a grenade attack, Caputo is reminded of the dangers of the war front.
Caputo asks Lemmon when Sullivan was killed. He tells Caputo that Sullivan was shot and killed by a sniper a few days after Caputo left. Caputo does not believe that his presence would have made any difference, but he still feels as though he should have been there with them.
Caputo feels guilty for having been in Japan. He knows that he could not have protected Sullivan, but it seems unfair to him that Sullivan, a father and a husband, should have died while Caputo was granted an unwanted reprieve.
Caputo’s friends also tell him about a battalion-sized operation that three companies went out on, in which a marine named Ingram got shot and crippled as a result. They fired a willy-peter round at the sniper. A couple of gunships saw this and probably mistook it for them marking a target for an air strike. Shortly thereafter, Lemmon’s radio man had his arm shot off. Still, the crew made it into a village to rescue civilians, particularly women and children whom they heard crying. At the same time, the marines were rocketed by friendly fire. Evacuating casualties from the LZ presented another problem because it was under heavy enemy machine-gun fire, making it impossible for the medevac helicopters to land. Gallardo waved the helicopters in with hand signals until they landed, and the casualties were loaded inside.
The other marines describe the chaos that Caputo missed out on during his training in Japan. Though the men endured numerous casualties, including the dismemberment of some marines, they still managed to rescue civilians from danger. Their ability to do this, despite being under fire from both the Viet Cong and their own military, reveals how the marines were able to summon up extraordinary strength in nearly insurmountable circumstances. Gallardo, too, risked his life to ensure that injured parties could be safely airlifted out of the region.
Lemmon recalls Peterson being shaken by the sight of Sullivan’s body, with “a bad hole” in the side of his chest. The bullet turned the man’s insides into pulp. Peterson, Lemmon says, just turned and looked away so as not to have to look at the fallen soldier. Caputo sees Sergeant Colby, who again mentions what happened to Sullivan. Caputo asks if Colby made every marine look at Sullivan’s body, as he said he would to help them better understand the seriousness of war. Colby responds, “Of course not, sir.”
Peterson was “shaken,” not only by the revolting sight of Sullivan’s wound but also by the fact that this happened to someone so close to him. To avoid being too impacted by the incident, he turns away. His action is not a denial of Sullivan’s death but an expression of a need to move on from it. Colby decides against his “lesson,” knowing that the other marines already understand.
Caputo wonders why a decent guy like Sullivan had to get killed. Caputo still suffers, too, from the illusion that there is a good way to die in a war, and that Sullivan did not even receive that honor. For the first time, Caputo fears death. He thinks that he could also be a corpse, lying with his mouth open and his eyes staring blankly into nothing. He understands, too, why Lemmon and the others were so distant during his visit. It had nothing to do with him but with their detachment as a result of living with the constant presence of death. As a result of losing their first man in battle, they lose their youthful confidence in their own immortality. As Lieutenant Bradley put it later that evening, “the splendid little war is over.”
Death can occur at any moment, and this realization awakens Caputo to his own vulnerability. The other marines treat their relationships with each other as ephemeral, for they cannot know how much more time they will share with anyone. As casualties increase, the soldiers realize that the war will not be the brief and simple affair they had expected. Not only are more soldiers dying than anticipated, they are losing faith in their ability to make a significant impact in the country, one worthy of the sacrifice of men like Sullivan.
At the time that the company loses Sullivan, casualties are still light. What they call the “expeditionary” period of the war lasts from March to September 1965. The men who are fighting in Vietnam at this time joined the war during peacetime, when the conflict hardly made the news. One-Three Battalion’s total losses between March and August 1965, for example, amounted to 110 killed and wounded. In April 1966, a single company from that battalion lose 108 men in only an hour. Still, the company takes Sullivan’s death as a sign that they may not all remain together until the end of their assignments. The corps will continue to function without the sergeant, of course, but his friends feel that he is irreplaceable. Later in the war, a man who is killed or evacuated with wounds will only mean a gap in a space that needs filling.
Caputo distinguishes between the war in 1965 and 1966 to illuminate how the increase in casualties and the escalation of the war led to a change in the marines’ perceptions of their roles as soldiers. Initially, they felt that each man was individual and an essential part of a cohesive unit. As the war goes on, they become increasingly detached from one another, as a method of coping with loss. This sense of detachment, however, dehumanizes them and leads to their perception of other soldiers, less as individuals, and more as cogs in the machine that conducts war.