from Common Virtue
a new novel coming out in December from Eva McCollaum
On February 24, 1945, the Fourth Marines landed on the beach at Iwo Jima—a volcanic wasteland in the Pacific, a strategic island, home to three air strips, and occupied by 20,000 Japanese troops who had laced the island with a network of tunnels connecting the myriad fortified machine gun nests. John Lowell McCollaum landed as an experienced member of his platoon. Having already engaged the enemy in island warfare on Tinian and Saipan, he carried an M2-2 portable flamethrower that the Gyrenes used to clear captured machine gun nests. He was six feet tall, with unusually strong arms, and he could move swiftly and silently with the full sixty-eight pound weapon strapped on his back. He was twenty-two years old.
On July 20, 1962, John Lowell carried furniture and cardboard boxes into his new home, a two bedroom, one bath ranch style frame house on a five acre plot just north of the town limit of Estancia, New Mexico. It was a white hot summer day in that high valley, and in the early afternoon the family gathered around the black and white television. The pictures they watched were projected from the moon. Walter Cronkite, the CBS news anchor, described the scene as Neil Armstrong, the first of the two astronauts who would walk on the moon that day, descended an aluminum alloy ladder. There was an uneven cut in the broadcast voice. “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” A few minutes later his partner, Buzz Aldrin, posed for a still photograph on the moon’s surface. Armstrong can be seen in the reflection from Aldrin’s helmet visor.
That afternoon, John Frederick, John Lowell’s second son, would get the family’s stars and stripes and post it at the gate by the road in front of their new house. A couple of hours later, a rainstorm would blow in from the west.
On Iwo Jima the Marines sustained heavy losses—over 6,800 dead, but that was a third of the 20,000 Japanese killed on the black volcanic rock and sands of Iwo. Soon after the battle began, the Japanese employed guerilla tactics. They had no choice. Abandoned by the Japanese Imperial Command, they would get no reinforcements and no supplies as battleships, carriers, and destroyers, bombarded them with ship to shore and airborne attacks. Eventually, 70,000 Marines could take the costliest island in the South Pacific.
After unloading the last of the boxes, all with magic marker labels of “kitchen,” “bath,” “kids’ room” and such, John Lowell sat on the couch, and put his feet on the coffee table. He was bone weary, but satisfied. “That wasn’t too bad,” he said.
His wife looked at the stacked boxes. She decided to unpack the baby’s things first, after the moon program. The older boys would be of little use when it came to putting away dishes and towels, making beds, and the one daughter, having just turned seven, wanted to spend what little sunshine that followed the rain riding her bike on the dirt roads that cut a grid through the surrounding countryside.