Before dawn breaks, we’re marching toward a nonstop baptism of shell fire back and forth across the river. The Japanese artillery has been shelling the 2nd and 3rd infantries for more than thirty hours. I trudge on, reassuring myself that it’s better for our I&R platoon to be with them than away from our combat group. Unlike in typical warfare, where battles are fought with a front line dividing the two sides, we’ve penetrated into enemy territory and need to get back to our main line of resistance.
Palm leaves and bamboo shoots slap me in the face as we weave through the dense brush towards the protection of our command post. It’s an eerie feeling, knowing the leafy layer hides us but also sets us up for exposure at every bend. Ahead, we hear nervous chatter. “Kore wa nan desu ka?”
Our lead scout drops a hand to silently halt us. The lead guy peels off, away from the Japanese voices. We follow, edgy and tired after no sleep last night.
I had lain on my poncho, closed my eyes, and willed my thoughts to be soothed by Ruthie’s voice. As soon as I relaxed, the fallen Japanese boy with broken glasses stared back at me. To avoid his face, I spent the entire night wide-eyed; fireflies flickered above, while the full moon rose in the east then settled to the west. Now I march mindlessly, eyes gritty with dust and exhaustion. I finger the gilded Buddha in my pocket. It’s terrorizing to fight the insensitivity of a bloodthirsty enemy. It’s worse to fight their humanity when they’re dead.
Most of the group is several yards ahead of me, and I try to adjust the weight of the radio to give me comfort so I can catch up. But my back is raw all over from the backpack straps, and, as I hoist the unit in search of relief, I’m thrown off balance. I try to brace myself, but branches rip at me, stealing all my control. While I’m falling, I hear a crack, and fragments scatter where a bullet hits the radio casing. My face smashes to the ground. This is bad.
“Susume! Susume!” The Japanese call is spine-tingling. Bullets scream above. Japanese soldiers advance. The Galahad soldier behind me falls forward as he’s readying his gun.
Camel-toed Japanese boots and harsh voices rush towards my face. For one last instant, I reach to hold on to everything I love. I taste the grainy dirt and inhale its pungent, moldy smell. The faint whistle of birds continues. Oh, Ruthie! I don’t want to die.
A laughing Japanese soldier kicks the man sprawled next to me. I cringe inside as cleats pound the fallen man’s back. The canvas-covered boots twist, then stomp in my direction. One toes my shoulder, cleats digging into my back, but the radio protects me.
“Nani o shimasu ka?” An angry voice challenges the soldier booting me.
Muddy water splashes in my eyes as he returns to the other soldiers. I’m blinded, but can hear them arguing on my other side. I blink the clods loose and search desperately for an escape when they’re not looking. We’re surrounded by bushes, but I can’t roll or lunge for cover under them with the radio weighing me down.
“Doko ka?” The voice is incredulous.
“Koko!” Someone pats the walkie-talkie on my back.
“Grab the Japanese’s arm the next time he reaches for the radio,” my mind screams. Then use him as a body block. But my muscles are frozen with indecision.
One of the Japanese soldiers sets his rifle against a tree trunk before he reaches to roll the fallen Galahad soldier over. His smile turns to streaking blood as bullets from the downed Galahad’s Tommy shatter his teeth. Holding his gun in position, half-standing and half-kneeling, the American soldier mows down the other two, then lifts me off the ground by the radio’s shoulder straps.
“Let’s get out of here,” he says, then pushes me hard to pick up my pace. As we hurry away, he nervously jokes, “That’s my sleeping dog trick.”
Ahead, Preacher rushes towards us, “What the hell happened?”
“Three Japs on patrol,” my companion yells. “This is a roving no-man’s land. We’ve got to get away from here, and fast.”
As we race to catch up with the rest of our platoon, raw pain shoots through my back. “Ah, does that feel good,” I say, thankful to be alive.
Near noon, we reach the rear of the 3rd combat battalion. Japanese shrapnel has killed quite a few of our mules, so they now serve as a perimeter barrier for artillery fire. The men in the front are dug in, and the major in charge orders the Galahad soldier who saved me to move up front.
After taking off his helmet and wiping the sweat from his balding head, the soldier—his name is Pfeifer—nods and moves towards his position.
I grab his arm. “Hey, thanks for…you know, back there.” What do you say to a guy who just saved your life?
He gives it only a moment’s consideration, then, with a wry smile, says, “It’s all in a day’s work. You work supplies, right? 10-in-1 rations for the rest of the war sounds like an even swap to me.” He sobers, adjusts his helmet, and runs to the battle front.
I post myself outside the H.Q. tent, ready to take my turn at the SCR-284 crank as soon as Sergeant Roy Matsumoto is done with the radio. Wearing the only set of headphones, he furiously decodes a message. All around me, runners leave for the infantry fronts and others arrive with updates.
Merrill’s standing at ease, hands behind his back, puffing hard on his pipe. Hunter, arms crossed over his chest, looks pensively towards the fireworks. Colonel Osborne debriefs them on the 1st Battalion’s position.
“We’re outnumbered and surpassed in fighting power. Also, they were waiting for us. I think we’ve got a mole in our midst, but we could use that to our advantage and feed him bad information if we find him.”
Matsumoto rips the headphones off and interrupts, waving the message in the air. “Sir, I don’t know how—maybe the enemy has gotten sloppy—but I’ve tapped into their line.” The officers look skeptical.
“Sir, there’s a Japanese ammunition dump guarded by only three men. I got the coordinates when they radioed for help.” Matsumoto’s dependable reputation leaves little room for doubt. “I don’t think it’s a set-up,” he continues. “General Tanaka’s headquarters responded that they have heavy losses and couldn’t help. I think they plan to retreat.”
“What have we radioed out?” Osborne interrupts.
“Tanks and artillery are arriving. But we didn’t say when,” Matsumoto answers
“Let Tanaka and his men think we’re bigger than we are. This long-range penetration strategy behind their lines seems to be scaring them off,” Hunter says, relief softening his jaw.
A sly smile blossoms on Merrill’s typically reserved expression. “Call in the bombers.
We’ll help the ammunition dump.”
Roy salutes his understanding. “Yes, Sir.”
Within two hours, the American tanks and Chinese X Force arrive, effectively relieving us of our duty. We can’t call out on the long-range radio, but we hear Stilwell’s tirade from base camp. “The tanks are there. The X Force has arrived. Where is Galahad? What is Merrill thinking? Did he lose his nerve? Just what I need before Mountbatten arrives. Thank God for Operation THURSDAY. At least the Chindits are in position and we’ve taken Walawbum.”
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