Ishmael’s life continues after the Imada family leaves San Piedro. He becomes a marine rifleman in 1942. Soon after, he gets sick with dysentery and is hospitalized. Ishmael remains in the hospital for quite some time, and he can’t help but feel that the suffering he incurs in sickness is “the kind […] he’d yearned for […] since receiving Hatsue’s letter.”
Ishmael’s immediate sickness seems to foreshadow the horrors that lie ahead in his career as a marine. Further, his experience in the military coincides with receiving Hatsue’s breakup letter. His later cynicism towards the war seems connected to the painful memory of the shocking breakup. Interestingly, Ishmael’s “yearn[ing]” for suffering parallels Fujiko Imada’s advice to her daughters to suffer in silence.
Eventually, Ishmael recovers. He’s trained as a radioman and sent to New Zealand as with the Marines. In New Zealand, he hears of a former radioman who found a dead Japanese boy while stationed in the Solomons. The radioman had removed the boy’s pants, propped his penis up with rocks, “and shot carbine rounds until he’d blown the head of it off.” The radioman was apparently quite proud of his actions.
The military is wrought with racist anecdotes and propaganda. The former radioman’s horrific mutilation of the dead Japanese boy further contextualizes the source of much of San Piedro’s racism towards the Japanese.
Ishmael and his fellow marines “practice landing maneuvers at Hawkes Bay, where the tides [are] bad.” Their training is dangerous, and some of the men die. When he doesn’t have to practice landing maneuvers, Ishmael drinks with the other marines. He takes his training seriously, but the other marines seem more indifferent, which makes Ishmael feel alienated from them. Ishmael writes letters to his parents and to Hatsue, but he rips them both to pieces before he can send them.
Ishmael sees fellow soldiers die even before he has the chance to engage in actual combat. This reality underscores the psychological baggage he carries years after his service. Ishmael’s desire not to be indifferent towards war also stands in stark contrast to the ambivalence he projects a decade later, at the book’s present moment. That shift in character shows how significantly the war will alter his personality.
On November 1, Ishmael’s division leaves Wellington, New Zealand—not for more training at Hawkes Bay, “but ending up instead at Nouméa on the French island of New Cledonia.” Less than two weeks later, Ishmael’s regiment, along with over half of the Third Fleet, is on the Heywood, a transport ship, headed towards “an unknown destination.” The troops are later informed that they’re headed to Tarawa atoll, from which point they’ll make their way ashore Betio, a well-defended island in the middle of the Pacific. There, they will “let the navy obliterate the place” before finishing off the job themselves.
An atoll is a coral reef that surrounds a lagoon. Tarawa (an atoll) is the capital of the Republic of Kiribati, located in the Pacific Ocean. The real-life Battle of Tarawa took place November 20-23, 1943. Thousands of Japanese, Korean, and American soldiers died during the battle, which is remembered as being a significant failure in United States Military history. Previous U.S. offensive strikes on the island had been highly successful, but on this occasion, the United States was opposed by an exceptionally prepared Japanese resistance situated on Betio, an island located in Tarawa atoll. Guterson includes a fictionalized account of this battle to illustrate the horrors of warfare.
The men are instructed to write letters, as it might be the last chance they get. Ishmael writes to Hatsue: “I hate you, Hatsue, I hate you always.” He writes about “how he was about to go ashore on an island in the South Pacific […] to kill people who looked like her.” Ishmael ultimately rips the paper up and throws it into the water.
Scared at the prospect of dying and looking for an outlet through which to channel his fear, Ishmael writes a prejudiced letter to Hatsue. This moment indicates how societal prejudice can affect the perspectives of even otherwise kind, loving people.
In the middle of the night, at 3:20 a.m., Ishmael receives his orders: the marines are to “lay topside to [their] debarkation stations.” The men—over 300 of them—bring their gear to the Heywood’s top deck. Ishmael hears a landing craft’s whine as it falls “over the sheaves of the boat blocks.” Men begin to leave the Heywood, navigating down the cargo nets.
The men enter willingly into their mission, as they have no other choice. Guterson seems to suggest that war is so traumatic to soldiers in part because they are never adequately able to mentally prepare for the violence.
Ishmael sees the navy “packing medical field kits.” He remarks to Testaverde, a fellow marine, that he didn’t see anything like this in any of their training. Ishmael listens to his TBX but removes it, as he doesn’t want to be weighed down with gear too early.
Again, it’s clear that training hasn’t prepared Ishmael for the logistical or mental aspects of his mission.
Ishmael sits next to his gear and gazes into the vastness of the sea that lies before him. He tries to see the island of Betio, but it’s too far in the distance and he can’t make it out. Ishmael and the rest of Third Platoon are briefed about the task that awaits them. First Lieutenant Pavelman tells them about B Company’s specific role in the mission. He shows them a model of Betio. Amtracs will go in first, followed by more landing crafts. The squads would have “air cover.” Ishmael’s group, B Company, would land on Betio at Beach Red Two. The “mortar section” would answer to “the weapons platoon leader, a Second Lieutenant Pratt, for the purpose of establishing a base of fire.”
Given how precise and well-thought out the mission appears at this point, its failure will come as a shock to Ishmael. The residual bitterness he feels after the war might be a side effect of his inability to prepare for the possibility of failure. What’s more, the failure of such a meticulous mission underscores the broader point that some things are simply beyond humans’ control.
“Second Platoon would come in simultaneously […] and advance over the seawall behind its light machine guns, then collect on higher ground and move inland.” South of Beach Red Two, where B Company would land, there were supposed to be “bunkers and pillboxes.” Intelligence was under the impression “that the Jap command bunker” was in the near vicinity, as well. It would be Second Platoon’s task to look for this command bunker “and fix the location of air vents for the demolitions teams.”
Guterson continues to portray the mission as well-planned and foolproof. The military uses the slur “Jap” to dehumanize the enemy, effectively making it easier for the American soldiers to kill the Japanese with less moral hesitation.
After Second Platoon went ashore, Third Platoon (Ishmael’s group), would follow, assisting whoever needed assisting. There would be help from K Company, who would arrive after Third Platoon. K Company “would land more amtracs, which could be used against the seawall.” A marine in Ishmael’s platoon wryly calls their instructions “suckers first.”
When the marine jokingly calls Ishmael’s platoon’s instructions “suckers first,” he implies that the first squad to reach the island stands a greater chance of dying. Joking about death serves as a coping mechanism.
The men, led by a chaplain, sing “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” before the battle. Ishmael wonders what good this will do. He’s also uncertain as to what his role is in the larger mission. The chaplain passes out candy to the soldiers.
Ishmael finds the religious fervor of the song pointless. If the soldiers are fated to die, they’re fated to die—no prayers will be able to save them. This is one of the first inklings of the cynicism that Ishmael will show later in life.
Ishmael crawls down the Heywood’s cargo net, but it is difficult with his full pack of gear. He hears the whistling of a shell and sees that one has landed in the water, “seventy-five feet” from the Heywood’s stern. Private Jim Harvey, who is next to Ishmael, expresses great disbelief: “I thought they dusted all the big guns off before we had to go in.” Walter Bennett assures them that “the big boys are still coming out from Ellice,” and will take care of “the Japs with daisy cutters” before Ishmael’s platoon arrives ashore.
Again, the soldiers refer to the Japanese with a derogatory slur. Dehumanizing the enemy will make it easier to kill them. This moment is also one of the first indications that this battle won’t go as planned.
Another shell lands in the water near Ishmael’s platoon. Larry Jackson, another marine, expresses skepticism at the lieutenant’s assurance that the Japanese forces on Betio would be “soften[ed]-up” before their platoon reaches the island. The Heywood moves closer to Betio. Ishmael hears more shells. Jim Harvey optimistically speculates that there will be nothing but “a whole lot of little Jap pieces” on Betio by the time they arrive. The water is “high and choppy.” Ishmael takes some Dramamine.
The lieutenant felt confident that the Japanese forces on Betio would be “soften[ed]-up” because this had been the case in previous United States offensives on the island. Harvey’s prediction that there would be nothing but “a whole lot of little Jap pieces” also speaks to the novel’s larger theme of prejudice, which dehumanizes people based on their race. Ishmael’s decision to take Dramamine subtly sets him apart from his confident, bellicose counterparts: he is scared and sick to his stomach about this mission.
Ishmael sees three other boats carrying soldiers to his left. He tries to calm his mind as they continue to journey towards Betio. Finally, the island appears before them. Ishmael sees fire ahead. Still, everyone remains somewhat optimistic. Fifteen minutes later, the troops arrive at Tarawa lagoon. They pass by two destroyers. The sound of machine-gun fire is deafening. There are no B-24s—no air cover, that is—which they’d been promised they would have. Ishmael tries to avoid being shot. He is terrified.
Already, holes begin to appear in the mission, evident by the absence of B-24s. A B-24 is an American bomber aircraft that was first introduced in WWII.
Ishmael’s platoon, still aboard the Heywood, is being shot at. They make their way off the boat and into the lagoon. Ishmael stays underwater. When he comes up for air, he sees that “everybody—the ammo carriers, the demolitions guys, the machine gunners, everybody—were all dropping everything into the water and going under,” just as he had.
Water used to be a source of comfort for Ishmael—he spent hours of his childhood playing along the shore. Now, water is a theater of unspeakable violence and destruction. It may be that this transformation of the natural world is part of what makes this experience so traumatic for Ishmael.
Ishmael and some other men swim behind the ship, which continues to be shot at. He imagines that he is a “a dead marine floating harmlessly in Betio’s lagoon.” The water that surrounds them is “tinged pink by the blood of other men in front of them.” Every moment, more men are shot down in front of Ishmael’s eyes. In front of Ishmael, “a Private Newland […] run[s] for the seawall.” More men do the same. One of these men is Eric Bledsoe. Bledsoe is shot in the knee and collapses in the water. One of his legs has been shot clean off, and Ishmael watches as the leg floats away from the bleeding body.
Ishmael would rather be “a dead marine floating harmlessly in Betio’s lagoon” than be alive to witness to violence that surrounds him. So many men have died that the water that surrounds him is “tinged pink by the blood,” an image that calls to mind the pink foam in Carl Heine’s lungs and connects these distant instances of death. Ishmael will think often of Eric Bledsoe, and of the sight of his leg floating away from his bleeding body will haunt him into the novel’s current day.
Ishmael runs and hides behind the seawall as Bledsoe bleeds to death. Bledsoe pleads for help. Ishmael and the other men who made it to the seawall can do nothing to help him. Ishmael reflects on the pointlessness of everything.
Ishmael sees war as pointless, and this will make it hard for him to come to terms with its psychological effects years down the line.
Hours later, at 10:00 a.m., Ishmael remains “crouched behind the seawall.” A sergeant from J Company appears and berates the men for being cowardly and hiding. Ishmael and the other men insist that the sergeant should take cover, but he refuses and is “shot through the spine.” A tractor creates a hole in the seawall. Ishmael digs “a half-track that had been deposited on Betio by a tank lighter and had promptly buried itself.”
Again, Guterson includes more vivid depictions of violence and gore to illustrate how traumatic Ishmael’s experience in the marines is. Horrific images like the sergeant “shot through the spine” help the reader understand the trauma to which Ishmael bears witness.
Ishmael smells something “sweetish” and realizes it’s the stench of the dead marines that litter the beach before him. He vomits. He has no way of knowing if anyone from his squad is still alive. Ishmael lost his pack when he first fell into the lagoon, but he was given new supplies—“a carbine, an ammo pack, and a field machete”—by cargo handlers who moved along the seawall earlier. As Ishmael cleans out the carbine, “a new wave of amtracs [come] up on the beach.” Ishmael watches as more men die and are wounded all around him. He stays there for hours.
Guterson’s depictions of the horrors of war don’t stop at the visual; he also describes the “sweetish” smell of the dead soldiers’ bodies.
A colonel instructs the men who are still alive to “re-form and improvise quads.” Soon, everybody will go over the top of the seawall. A lieutenant from K Company asks Ishmael where his squad is. Ishmael tells him that everybody who’d been around him is now dead, and he also doesn’t know where his original gear went, as he lost it when he originally landed in the water. The lieutenant tells Ishmael to pick other men along the wall and form a new squad. Ishmael tries to form a new squad, but the remaining soldiers are less than cooperative. Ishmael reunites with Ernest Testaverde, who had been a part of his original platoon. Testaverde tells Ishmael that basically everyone is dead, and Ishmael exchanges similar information.
Despite the hopelessness of their situation, the soldiers push forward. Ishmael is forced to reform a squad after his original group is either missing or dead. The amount of detail in this war chapter is Guterson’s way of making Ishmael into a more sympathetic character. Though the cynicism and selfishness of his character in the novel’s present day can become grating, the trauma he suffered as a soldier contributes, in large part, to these less than savory personality traits.
Ishmael crouches against the seawall. He doesn’t want to think about Eric Bledsoe, whom he watched bleed to death in the water. Ishmael sees his current predicament as dreamlike in is repetitiveness: “He was dug in against the seawall, and then he found himself there again, and again he was still dug in beneath the seawall.” Ishmael reflects on the pointlessness of the mission and on everything as a whole. He can’t recall why he is where he is or why he enlisted in the Marines in the first place.
Ishmael tries not to think about Eric Bledsoe, but he will not be successful in this endeavor: Ishmael will recall the image of Bledsoe bleeding to death later on in the novel, and he will admit that he thinks about him often. The repetitive language describing Ishmael’s circumstances also highlights how inescapable these memories will be for him.
At 1900 hours, Ishmael, Testaverde, and hundreds of other men in their new, re-formed squads finally go over the seawall. They are met with “mortar and machine-gun fire” straight on. Testaverde is shot, though Ishmael doesn’t see it happen. Apparently, Testaverde ended up “with a hole in his head roughly the size of a man’s fist.” Ishmael is shot in the left arm and blacks out.
Testaverde’s injury is particularly gruesome. Ishmael carries images like these with him years after the war.
Ishmael wakes hours later, beside two medical officials. A man next to him has suffered a gruesome head wound, “and his brains [are] leaking out around his helmet.” Ishmael takes in the horrors around him and says, “Fucking Japs.” Later, Ishmael has his arm amputated by an inexperienced assistant pharmacist. The man removes Ishmael’s arm, clumsily, with a handsaw; the resultant scar tissue would be “thick and corse.” Ishmael had been semi-conscious for the procedure, and recalls “[awakening] to see his arm where it had been dropped in a corner on top of a pile of blood-soaked dressings.” He stills dreams of his amputated arm a decade later. In and out of consciousness after his amputation, “all Ishmael can think to say” is “that fucking goddamn Jap bitch.”
Guterson describes in detail the endless horrors Ishmael witnessed during the war to explain and create sympathy towards the cynicism he carries with him in the present day. Visceral details, such as the man whose “brains [are] leaking out around his helmet,” and Ishmael’s memory of seeing his arm “where it had been dropped in the corner on top of a pile of blood-soaked dressings,” help to bring the horrors to life for the reader. When Ishmael talks about “that fucking goddamn Jap bitch,” it also shows how desperate and unable he is to make meaning of the senseless violence the war has forced on his life. “That […] Jap bitch,” of course, refers to Hatsue. Ishmael’s anger is misdirected, but it shows how he groups together all of the facets of his life over which he has no control. So much of this novel centers around Ishmael’s need to accept the things he cannot control and act on the things he can control, and this moment shows him struggling to do just that.