BATTLING BACK FROM THE ABYSS.
At mid-morning I was placed on a stretcher and taken to a long wooden bridge. On the way, I saw unbelievable chaos and carnage. Marine and Japanese dead, some tangled together, were everywhere. The stench was horrific. Bloated bodies floated by, some face up, others face down. All types of equipment were lying about. There were several knocked-out Marine tanks along with many disabled amtracs. Japanese gun emplacements were shattered and smoking.
At the pier, my stretcher was placed on a rubber raft along with several other wounded. The raft was pushed in shallow water along the pier by sweating Marines and corpsmen. The pier stretched about 1,500 feet into the lagoon. We quickly ran into sniper fire from Japanese holed up in disabled amtracs. Several Marines were re-injured and had to be taken to the shelter of the pier. Other Marines went ahead and cleaned out some of the snipers.
As we moved along, I noticed continuing rifle fire coming from a nearby disabled amtrac. It had to be from a Japanese soldier who had made his way to the craft and was acting as a sniper. So I asked one of the stretcher-bearers if I could use his Garand. He handed it to me, and I rolled into a prone position and snapped off the rifle's clip of eight rounds into the amtrac from stem to stern. The enemy fire stopped, and as I handed the rifle back to the stretcher-bearer, he exclaimed, "Hey, that's nice shooting, Marine."
Finally we came to the end of the pier and I was transferred to a Higgins boat to be taken to a troopship for medical attention. The sympathetic corpsman aboard the craft asked if I wanted morphine. I was still in a slight daze but was able to shake my head no. I've often thought that additional morphine l at that time might have really harmed me.
I vaguely remember being winched aboard a troopship and being swung through the air on my stretcher like a giant pendulum. I looked out and saw our cruisers and battleships circling warily in choppy blue-white waters. Destroyers patrolled around ponderous aircraft carriers as they sniffed for enemy subs.
The Clink of the Shrapnel
As I WAS BEING LOWERED to the deck, I heard voices shouting directions and then I felt eager hands lifting both ends of the stretcher. The hands gently carried me across the hot deck and down a hatch. Near a bulkhead lay three lifeless forms, each wrapped in American flags. Our company had been in the first wave and suffered heavy losses. I wondered if I knew any of those flag-draped dead.
Then I heard a commanding voice say, "Bring him in!" I was carefully put down onto a table inside an emergency room. My clothes were cut off, and in the process a grenade fell out of my pocket and rolled across the floor. Panic ensued with medical personnel screaming, "Grenade! Holy sh--, a grenade!" I managed to mumble, "No, no, it's OK, it's OK! It's harmless until the pin is pulled."
Much nervous laughter broke out, and the tension broke as the doctor and corpsmen teased and called each other wimps. Then I was turned over onto my stomach and the doctor quickly went to work on my legs. I heard a steady plink, plink, plink as pieces of grenade were dropped into a metal tray. Almost musical, I thought with black humor. Yeah, some music.
Finally it was over and the doctor said quietly, "Thank you for your service, son." I was flattered and replied loudly, almost shouting, "And thank you for your service, sir!" He gently squeezed my shoulder and I saw his surgical mask crinkle into an apparent smile.
Then I was taken down into the lower depths of the ship along with numerous other wounded. Conditions were dreadful. The area was permeated with the strong smell of sweat, unwashed bodies, and antiseptics. And it was hot. Groans from the wounded resonated as I was placed in a lower bunk.
I glanced around and recognized one of the injured nearby. His name was Joey and was a member of my company. Joey wore a cast on his right arm and told me he had lost a testicle. He was worried about Archie and Tom, his two brothers. The three had enlisted together in Reno and had made it through the Tulagi and Guadalcanal campaigns unscathed. "Did you see 'em, Nick?" he asked anxiously. I said, "Sorry, Joey, but I saw neither." We learned later that both brothers survived.
A BOARD THE TROOPSHIP where I was recovering, we heard with elation the welcome news that the savage Tarawa engagement was finished after "the issue being in doubt" during the early hours. For three horrendous days the ferocious Japanese fighters fought valiantly and just wouldn't quit. They had to be bombed, blasted, and burned out of their formidable strongholds and improvised burrows. We also learned that a considerable portion of our losses had resulted from Higgins boats getting snagged on that damnable reef due to those fatal tide calculations. Bitter lessons were learned and applied to future Marine and army landings, and were credited with saving numerous lives.
Now all we recovering casualties settled in for the lengthy and boring journey to Hawaii. The trip was frequently interrupted by general alarms, because enemy submarines were tailing us. Overworked medical people managed to keep us sedated and quiet with the "drug of the day"--morphine. You wanted it? You asked for it and it was quickly obtained, and I was among the many requesting the precious painkiller.
Memories and Morphine
Several times during those long days I thought about the Japanese solider who had wounded me and the others with that damn hand grenade. He had been killed by another Marine. Now, he must have realized that he was going to die and he must have been as scared as I was in that compressed time. What were his last thoughts, of home and family? Was he an only child, or did he perhaps have sibling brothers who were fighting against US troops elsewhere? How old was he? My age? Older? Younger? Was he outgoing, and did he have a sense of humor? Or was he shy and introverted? The Japanese enjoy baseball; hey, did he like the game as much as I did? Could we have gone to a night game together after enjoying a good dinner and sharing a beer or two? Well, whoever he was, I forgive him for doing what he thought was his duty, as I did mine.
I also thought about the smoking mortar shell landing near my left shoulder that didn't go off. Did some munitions worker in Japan, perhaps his mind a little numbed by a night of drinking rice wine, just forget to tighten a certain screw? Something apparently had gone wrong on that assembly line and I, along with those other Marines in the shell hole, were the awfully lucky beneficiaries.
After a couple of grueling weeks, we reached Pearl Harbor. What a fantastic morning it was to be winched out of the ship's innards on a stretcher and onto the main deck. I saw stately, swaying palm trees displayed against a turquoise sky. A mild breeze with the strong scent of salt blew in from the ocean and drifted over me. The extremely bright sun bathed my pale upturned face as tears appeared on my cheeks.
We were quickly transported by ambulance to the hospital. Before long we were into the routine of meals, changing of bandages, playing poker for cigarettes, exchanging exaggerated tales, and penning letters home.
One evening when I was feeling utterly wretched and possibly depressed, I routinely requested morphine from the naval nurse on duty. She looked at me intently after inspecting my medical record hanging on the bed. Then she said with authority, "No! You don't need it, sir." "What?" I complained. "Come on now! I do need it. I really do!" But once more in a firm voice, she said, "No, I keep telling you. You don't need it and you're not getting any. So forget about it and go to sleep."
With a determined step the nurse strode away, leaving me speechless. Then came the sobering realization that she was perfectly right. I, like many others, was becoming addicted to the damn stuff. I profusely thanked the nurse the next day for steering me away from "Mr. Morphine." She smiled, patted my arm, and said sympathetically, "That's OK, son, I understand. And don't think you're the only one." From then on, despite occasional sweats, the only painkiller I requested was aspirin.
Back in the USA
The FOLLOWING DAY CAME marvelous news. We were to be taken aboard the Solace (AH-5), a hospital ship. Additional good news: we were scheduled to arrive in San Diego two days before Christmas.
The trip back home was without incident. When we reached the dock there was a group of perhaps 20 gray-clad women who were welcoming the wounded being unloaded. As I was being carried down the gangplank on a stretcher, all the women seemed to be smiling and cheerful. Except one. She was middle-aged and stared at me with almost a frown as I was carried by. I wondered: did I remind her of someone, maybe her son who perhaps had been killed in action, and what business did I have being alive (though seriously wounded), and why me and not him? The incident still haunts me.
At the naval hospital (in San Diego's Balboa Park) I was assigned to a room with five other Marines. One was a handsome, young blond boy, perhaps 18, who had lost an eye in combat. Every day near dusk one of the nurses would sit beside him and offer comforting words. The boy had told the sympathetic nurses that he was afraid of losing his other eye to an accident or some disease. He was deeply troubled by the dark. Occasionally during the long nights he could be heard quietly crying. Then he was transferred to a special ward for the blind.
More surgery was performed on my legs to remove even more shrapnel. I was encouraged to walk with crutches, and rehabilitation went smoothly. Soon I was able to cast aside the crutches, as I healed rapidly. Then I was overjoyed to learn I would be given a medical leave, and I happily left for the long train journey back to my hometown.
The reunion with my joyful family was memorable and marked by repeated kisses and an abundance of tears, cheers, and backslaps. My mother had concocted one of her incomparable spaghetti meals with spicy sausages and mouth-watering meatballs. This entree was followed by chicken cacciatore. Bottles of robust red wine were shared. Zesty cheeses and a cornucopia of fresh fruit appeared magically. Italian liqueurs such as anisette, amaretto, and Frangelico graced the heavily laden table. Neighbors had brought over pies, cakes, cookies, and scones. The long-awaited night melted into early morning and was filled with joy, love, the telling of much-repeated stories, and recounting treasured memories of our great family life.
The War Inside
I RETURNED TO THE HOSPITAL, where I was soon discharged, and went back to the Marine base in San Diego, where I was sent back to duty. Several months later I was given a medical discharge and then I was warmly welcomed home all over again.
Just after I was discharged I apparently suffered from what used to be referred to as shell shock. It was called soldier's heart during the Civil War, but now is referred to as post-traumatic stress disorder. My patient mother sat up with me many a restless night when I drifted in and out of nagging nightmares. And after I married, I often would frighten my young wife, Babe (a.k.a. Loraine), with terrified outcries during my shattered sleep, such as, "Hey, they're coming? Oh, no!" or "Holy sh--, is anybody watching the left flank?" Babe would comfort me by holding me tight and saying over and over, "It's OK, it's OK, hon, it's all over. All over!"
The disturbing dreams went on sporadically for decades and I still occasionally will wake up in a sweat. And for years I seldom discussed my apparently deeply imbedded wartime remembrances. Babe always listened sympathetically on those rare occurrences I when I did "open up."
For some 70 years I apparently suppressed my good and bad wartime memories. After being discharged from the Marines, I, like many others, doggedly decided to "suck it up" after graduating from college and get on with my life and career. I earned my degree in journalism with the much-appreciated help of the GI Bill. Without that anxiously awaited government monthly check, I, along with probably millions of other veterans, never could have gone to college.
Nick Cariello worked as a journalist for 30 years after finishing college. For all but five of those years, he was news editor of the Racine Journal Times in his home town of Racine, Wisconsin, where the Root River empties into Lake Michigan. Today he lives in Tucson, Arizona, where he celebrated his 93rd birthday on September 11, 2015.
Caption: Above: At the end of a 500-foot pier stretching into Tarawa's lagoon, marines with a raft full of wounded await a landing craft to carry the casualties to a troopship. The wounded Cariello made the same raft journey--slowed by enemy sniper fire along the way. Top: Cariello still had with him an Mk 2 fragmentation grenade like this one, standard issue for infantry. Opposite: Hauled aboard a troopship like these wounded marines off Tarawa, Cariello caused panic when his grenade fell from his fatigues onto the emergency room floor.
Caption: From Tarawa, Cariello sailed to Hawaii and California for care. Top left: Nurses aboard USS Solace (AH-5), which carried him to San Diego. Top right: Solace was a hospital ship with surgical capability. Above: At San Diego's naval hospital, a nurse reads to men recovering, like Cariello, from wounds received in the South Pacific. Nurses played key roles in recovery. One in Hawaii saved Cariello from morphine addiction.
Caption: Cariello spent Christmas 1943 in the hospital. But in mid-January he went home on leave, and his mom cooked an Italian feast. Upper right: Here he stands with (from left) brothers Rudy and Joe and his dad, Frank. Lower right: Cariello's sisters Mary (left) and Esther welcomed him home with joy.