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  • Writer's pictureNicholas Vichinsky

Mama, I love you


Dear you,

I apologize for the informality. This is new. I've been wanting to do this for awhile. There has been a lot of time that I have stared at the writing above and I thought that I would just send it like that. Let his words be the last. I couldn't have lived with myself, I decided, if that was the case. Many soldiers told me about them writing letters, but not in this unique circumstance. I haven't ever told anyone. Just you, now. This is supposed to be about him, not me.

I am not a bad person. Please, believe that.

I had just turned twenty-one and had met the woman I would hope to marry, Nancy. She’s beautiful and kind, and cares about things that I could never think about. We met at a dance outside of Yellow Springs, Ohio. I had sat out of all festivities. I was afraid of not fitting in and she approached me. She had asked me to dance and when I started to talk and make a mumbled excuse she said, “Shut up and dance.” That night was, and still is, the best night I have ever had. The United States had just started drafting people into the war. It was terrible that I had met her right when I could have been taken away. She worried everyday that we would be split forever. I told her everyday that if that day came, I would return. I think we just decided to make the most of the time we had together. She took me to her favorite spots where violence, like war, did not exist. Where wild flowers grew and pines were tall and full of green. We would picnic and watch clouds for hours. It was the best year of my life. We had this one spot, on top of a water tower, in the same reservoir, where we could bring a radio and dance like we did when we met. I was going to propose to her right then. But our dancing got interrupted.

A radio announcer came on declaring the numbers for the draft. We stood frozen under a full moon and listened as they spun the lottery. The announcer said hesitantly, but with excitement, that it was my number. I looked over at Nancy who had her hands on her face already, as if she already knew the cruel fate destiny had planned.

We both sat quietly and cried next to each other. She would not look at me. When I tried to assure her everything would be okay, she climbed down from the tower and did not speak to me.

I had a month before I left for boot camp. They told me to get any affairs in order. I said goodbye to my mother, she cried and held me until my father pulled her off of me. My father gave me a hug and told me to hold my head high and that it is a different world, that I cannot and will not be the same, and that he loves who I am and who I will be.

I left whatever possessions I had, including the ring for Nancy, to my mother and told my mother, if I did not return to give it to her. During this time, Nancy would not answer any of my letters, she refused to see me and sent me home when I tried to talk to her in person. The day before I left, she wrote me a letter apologizing for her distance, that she loved me and always would, and that she would see me when I got back. That was that.

From there I was a soldier. Basic training soon passed and I felt like I never wanted it to end. Although it was hell, I was home, and safe. I feared the day I would be left to my own and hoped only that I would be stationed someplace lucky enough to not die. Besides, at that time, it sounded as if things on the Western front had ended. It felt as if I might not have to go at all, that people would be coming home.

I made some friends at boot camp. We bonded over the women we missed and the food that we hated while we were there. We played a few card games that we used to get our mind off of what was next. But little by little, one by one, those numbers dwindled as we were stationed. An officer in the midst of a game would call one of us, never me, to tell them where they would be stationed. The men, coming back into the barrack would look as if all life was extinguished from them. The circles under their eyes would be darker and their skin would be lifeless. Some would throw up all night, and some would just walk to bed and silently cry to themselves.

The next morning, no matter how hard you tried to see them away, they were gone before you could. They left things, and we would hold on to them, take them with us.

I finally got my station one night like the rest. Sergeant walked into the barracks. He said, gently, almost like he was waking up his kid, “Brown,” and when my eyes cracked open, “Let’s go.”

He told me I would be stationed at Attu Island. They anticipated things to be quick but brutal, they needed my effort and heart. I became one of those who I had seen in the past, the guys who had disappeared. The ghosts who had left things behind. It was me. Just like the rest of them, in the middle of the night I was transported to Attu.

When I arrived, it was brisk and quiet. It was May but cold and dark, like the whole camp was mourning the men on both sides, already. It seemed like all the men were trying to come to terms with their own situation. They walked around like the day, cold and dark. They avoided eye contact with me, those who caught my eye, they nodded and looked back down at the ground. I made no new friends during this voyage, mostly because we all knew we may not see each other.

We were told of our objective, to recapture the island. We were told that the Japanese were ready for it and that we had to be prepared to fight. Again, no eyes faced upward. We all had our own images of the enemy. In my day dreams, I saw faceless men with no mercy. They killed a hesitant boy who did not want to be there.

I did not sleep that night. Although I knew I should. It might be the only night of sleep that I would get uninterrupted for a while. I couldn’t help it, I could not even close my eyes. I just listened to the noises around me. Of other men trying to tell their body to sleep but knowing it may be the last time they ever get to rest - until death.

In the morning we were fed and no one ate. We packed into one transport boat to go to the island. Teeth chattering and water splashing were the only sounds that anyone made for the multi-day trip. Through frozen water we were briefed about what we should know. We were to land on the north side of Attu and work our way down to meet with the others coming from the south. They told us again that they knew and would be waiting for us in the hills. We nodded and imagined or denied our fates.

On the day we finally arrived, the fog was as thick as snow. We wanted to wait until it cleared, but we were under orders that we had waited long enough and we needed to land to not ruin the timing of the operation. We were all purple and gray and waited for one person to stand to move, but it was a stalemate. A man next to me - eyes sunken and a trimmed silver beard - stood up and threw down his cigarette and started to get ready. We all silently followed the lead.

Young men got dressed around me, prayed, smoked cigarettes, and waited to be dismissed to their boat that would bring them to their fate. I am not religious, but I wished I was at that moment. Instead, I pretended like my momma was there. I am sure, I sounded like a child. I told my momma that I loved her and that I hope I get to have her beef stew again and that, if I don’t, that I loved it. I hope I make her proud. That I was scared, almost to the point that I’d rather be dead than that scared.

It was so quiet.

We arrived at the beach untouched. In the darkness of morning. It was almost a suicide mission, if you think about it. Japanese artillery were posted up waiting for us. The silent command to move ahead sounded and we marched like zombies into the icy and barren wilderness. Our feet were wet and cold, stepping into mud that was crusted over with ice. Each step hurt, my face, even if I could talk, could not move. Snot from my nose made my top lip warm, and then cold as it froze. I told myself I could pull no trigger, even if I tried.

We traveled days into the terrain of the island. Fog and rain continued to take over the island. Men woke up with unbearable itching on their feet and pain in their fingertips. Some starved and threw up yellow acid as their stomach ate itself. We were running close on food reserves. We had heard that we had secured a strong hold and it would be over soon, we just had to hold our positioning. Our group had encountered no fighting up to this point.

Until one night. We had started setting up camp in a valley. We heard a click and a snap. Followed by an echoed boom. Some men looked around in a panic. Some stayed very still. Some slowly put their guns up to their eyes. They focused in one direction. I stood there and spun in a small circle - looking to hide but all the fog made it hard to see past the upward direction of the mountains.

Then it started raining bullets from the south, south east, and south west. I initially dropped and covered my head, but two men with bullets through their hearts fell over top of me. I screamed and covered my head under the protection of the dead. We were sitting targets and one man ran, and then another, until everyone was jetting in different directions. I took off, pushing the two men off of me, running up the hill, north, opposite of the firing. Deep rounds that dug holes into the ground blasted behind - they created craters. I ran and ran. I did not feel my breath until I was tripped and knocked over by the deep man made thunders and the earthquakes as a result.

Behind me, I heard screams of terror, and of honor, and it was hard to differentiate screams - which side was which.

I wheezed on my stomach, coming to the realization that I am alive unlike, already, so many. I turned my head back and saw the snow far below had turned brown and red from the blood and mud. I looked forward again attempting to stand and felt my ankle shot pain up through my calf and heel. So, I crawled like a baby. Away and back as far as I could. I lay there. I figured, I’d wait until night when the shooting cleared up, I could sneak back to the battalion below. So I stayed in the snow and mud. Only peaking periodically and keeping my ears shielded from the agony below.

I’m not sure if it was the panic, fear, or exhaustion but at some point my eyes closed and I dreamt of being back at that reservoir with Nancy. I dreamt I got to ask her to marry me. I dreamt I went home and I told my parents.

Then, I woke up. I woke up to the crunching of snow and rock. Footsteps moved closely and slowly. Ahead was a large thicket. I could hide in it until the footsteps passed. I crawled trying not to make a sound under the cover of the night. I heard a pause in the footsteps and whispers, my speed on my crawl picked up. Snow ran into my jacket and sleet falling from the sky whipped my cheeks. I fit under dead branches of the lonesome thicket. I slid out my combat knife and shook, keeping my hand over my mouth. I saw shadows flash darkness under the light of the moon - the only light that broke between the dead branches. I held my breath as I saw boots move in front of me. I squeezed my eyes shut to stop shaking and fear through my body.

The boots moved and now face forward, toward the bush. A click, a gun.

The next few movements were without thought, almost complete instinct. Everything moved so quickly and whirled around in a way that I have no real comprehension of.

I attacked his legs, I used the knife and dug it into the back of his calves. Slicing across both of them. He screamed and he fell back and hit his head on the hard rock.

I was in shock for a moment and got myself to my knees to check his breathing. He was. I waved and snapped at his face. He was unconscious.

The sudden realization that others might be nearby struck me and in this panic, I pulled him from my knees, blood ran from his Achilles and head, to a nearby artillery creator. He slid down the side of the slope. I fixed him upward and I rested him on the side. I retreated to the other side, my back to the wall of the divot - to get some space from death. I held my gun to my chest, I closed my eyes and caught my hyperventilated breath.

When I opened my eyes, I realized that I had laid the man next to another corpse, his eyes still wide and sat up. It was apparent that he had slid straight down from above, too. Part of his head was missing. His skin was purple and black, bitten by the cold from sitting in the man created hole. He had been forgotten about, left by whoever had set his fate.

I pushed my gun to the side and warmed my hands with my breath and moved slowly over to the unconscious man. I searched him for weapons first, and then an ID. I pulled away his knife, and his rifle he carried. I gripped his knife in my hand. There was no ID that I could read. He was just an enemy. The back of his head was bleeding along with the back of his calves, you could see his Achilles sliced like white strings frayed. He was just a nameless enemy. At that moment I was convincing myself, you have to just kill him. If you don’t, he will. This would be the easiest it gets. My teeth chattered more and I clenched them, to get them to stop. I raised his knife to his chest and I shook, I could not keep still. I looked up to the sky to get strength from whatever loomed above me, but I suppose that God doesn’t take sides like that because I dropped my knife and retreated to my side of the pit in contemplation.

I pulled my legs to my chest. Like a cannonball. I shivered and heard myself get angry. I dug my fingers into the dirt and grabbed the frozen mud. I squeezed and threw it. Mud spattered on the corpse next to the man. I did it again, digging into the rocks to throw chunks of earth at the corpse. I picked a single rock and hit the missing chunk.

Then another.

And another.

I started playing a game - testing myself. The corpse stared me in the eyes as I did this, I could not flinch as I threw it. That was the game. I threw one and then another, and another. I kept my jaw clenched. I held down the stomach acid I felt churning up my throat, but it won, I puked - holding my breath so as to not make a noise.


He was holding a gun to my chest. He was shaking, he could not hold his eyes open. Kōfuku, he said. We met eyes and his eyebrows narrowed and then he turned his eyes so as to not look at what he was about to do. My hands were in the air. He was not a killer. He was like me, I saw it.

He pulled the trigger.

The sound pierced my ears. I covered them. I felt warm dripping down my cheek and into my mouth. I felt nothing but a great pain coming from my ears and hand. I forced my eyes open. I pulled my hands from my ears. A high pitched ring.

There was a hole through my hand between my pointer and my thumb. He had missed my head and hit my hand that was held in the air for Kōfuku. Blood speckled the white snow left.

No, no, no I thought. I started in a panic light scream. An ugly wail. I covered my hand and stared at the spurting blood. I ripped, in panic, my long sock and pushed the end into the hole and then tied tightly onto my wrist to cut off the blood pressure. I ripped my other sock and wrapped my hand one more time before putting my head to my chest and putting more pressure on it with my other as I tried to catch my breath. I cannot thoroughly describe the pain to you. My eyes closed and watered. I waited until he, unlike me, was able to finish his job.

It did not come. Just crying.

When I lifted my head off of the earth, he sat curled in a ball and cried against the dirt wall of the divot. My breath was sporadic and I slammed my head back down to the earth to catch my breath again, comforted - both of us - by our inaction.

Hours passed like this.

Each in pain and bleeding badly. I moved toward my bag to see what I might need to tend to my wounds. It had started sleeting. My breath barely showed because it was weak and shaky.


I looked up, and he stood there with his gun pointing at me, shaking again. I returned to my position laying flat. He kept the gun pointed. I talked from this position.

I need to get my wrap so I can fix our injuries.

No sound. I lifted my head. He was in the same position. He did not understand. I lifted my shot hand. With my other, I spun my hand around it to indicate a wrap. He was in the same position, he clenched his jaw.

I pointed to his legs and then I indicated I would wrap his legs. He lowered his gun to his waist now. I kept my eyes to him and moved slowly to my bag to the left. In it, I had a roll of dressing, morphine, and some alcohol. I took all of it, and wrapped my hand first. I felt the sanitizing burn. He looked through the side of his eye and shook. I indicated to him that I will wrap him.

He looked away.

I held out my hand with the supplies as a peace offering.

He looked away and nodded.

In the midst of the frigid night, I wrapped his legs and his head.

And we just continued to sit in silence, in pain, and paralysis of fear. I was not sure what time it had been. It was the middle of the night. I’m not sure what it was - maybe it was the presence of someone with me, or maybe it was that neither of us would come closer to death as we sat there and grunted at every movement with our injuries but I stared at the stars. I counted them. It felt like when you were a kid playing in the snow, when the streetlights turn off. You lay on your back. All you see is your breath and clouds and the moon. Its so quiet that it's eerie but peaceful. Then, in the distance, you hear mom yell.

Joe, dinner!

It was in this moment of painful peace that I decided to pull out a small pack of dried meat. I had to try to keep some strength. I moved toward my bag again.


We need to eat. I didn't look at him this time.
He held the gun at me shaking.
I gestured eating food with my hand.

He lowered the gun and rested his head against the side again. Staring out the side of his eye.

After some shuffling, I found the small pack and used my teeth to rip it open. The smell, on my already upset stomach felt like pushing acid up. I held it down. I took a bite. It was frozen. I chewed and chewed and forced a swallow. He stared at me as I swallowed.

I told him he could have some and made a gesture to grab a little out of my hand. He looked away. I went to put the bag away, to put it in my bag, and he started crawling toward me, so I met him half way and handed him the bag.

Joe, I said.
I put my left hand out to shake.
Kiyoko. He said in a whisper.
We sat next to each other in the silence of the night.

In the morning both our injuries had started getting worse. Yellow crust had built up around my hand. Kiyoko’s injuries had not stopped bleeding. He was still sleeping and on his chest lay this piece of paper. As I pushed myself to sit up, he heard the rustling and opened his eyes.

We should leave. I said.
He looked at me.
I pointed to him and then to myself. I gestured my hand walking and pointed out of the hole.
We can just go our separate ways. We could both live. I added.
There was silence. He grabbed the piece of paper. He folded it.
He did the same gesture. He pointed to me and used his hands to walk across the air, and then pointed out of the divot.
I looked curiously at him.
He held his hand out with the paper and nodded again.
I’ll come back, I said.
He nodded and handed the folded up paper and I put this into my jacket.
I'll be back.
Kiyoko looked away.

I crawled out.
I limped through the snow as quietly as I could - I could not feel my feet. When I looked back I only saw the eyes of Kiyoko peeking over the edges of the artillery hole we called home for a night.

I nodded again at him, and that was that.

The wind blew across the ridge. It pushed up icy dust that did not melt on my face. Further, the fog was so thick I could not see where the edge of the mountain started. I forced my knees high up and pushed down against the earth with as much strength as I could on every step. Few times I fell forward and slid down. I had put my bleeding hand in my coat to protect it from any of the conditions.

I thought about it and then I tried to tell myself not to think about it. I kept my eyes to the ground as I walked until I got to a point I could see downward down the mountain ledge.

A camp.

It looked American. I figured that if I went down I could get help, they could bring something to carry him. I could explain on the way up that he means no harm, that he is like us, he does not want to be here, that he is under the orders like the rest of us to kill what we see and he didn’t want to. He doesn’t care about this island, he wants to go home.

I convinced myself this is what I would do. I promise, this is what I thought I would do. I promise this is what I thought would save him.

I just had to make it down there.

I started my stumble down the hill and I did not look back up. I tried to remember each step and the distance so I could go back and get Kiyoko help. I thought about saving him. As I walked reality spun and I was at the reservoir, the warm sun and Nancy's perfume. I closed my eyes and took it in. I smiled.

Dark storms rolled over the green horizon. Over the pines a frigid breeze rolled with it. I recognized its presence. What it was.

No, please.

I ran faster, stumbling, I churned my legs, but I was paralyzed, stuck in a slow motion. I could not run from the dark, cold, air. I gave up, or my body did, against the cold sweat I leaked. I tripped. I fell onto my face into the snow that it left.

I lifted my face after a moment of darkness, a corpse.

Kiyoko's eyes were wide. His mouth slightly opened, as if he were about to say something. He held the knife tight as if it were doing everything it could to slip from his hand. His fingertips had turned white. There was a bullet through his head. Blood, dried already, dripped from the hole in his head. A fly had landed on him. He looked no different than the skeleton next to him.

Then, black.

They told me I cried and curled into a ball. They said they asked me what happened and I did not answer. I just kept crying. They put a blanket over me and carried me into a tent.

No, no, no. I said.
I promised I would go back.

I am sorry.

Private Joe Brown

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