The morning dawns with another grueling march ahead of us. We’re barely out of the sack when we hear a gunshot. Ahead, our scout races back towards us. Men slip off into the forest, aiming rifles down the road. We hear a rumble, and the ground shakes. Trees bounce. Birds alight from branches, screeching. From a bend in the road, a wild baby elephant charges towards us. Yet, no one moves. How do you control an elephant gone berserk?
The soldier next to me raises his rifle. “Stand back,” he shouts, then fires once, twice.
The calf stops. It looks surprised, hurt, and frightened. It wobbles, then kneels down, as though it will rest a bit. It rolls over and blinks its large, wide eyes to study a platoon of soldiers grasping guns, smoke still rising from one barrel. It never gets up. I think of the gaja I rode to the construction camp; its leathery skin, flapping ears, and gentle gait, burdened with our supplies, patiently carrying me up the steep slope. I feel pity for this dumb, juvenile beast, probably left alone by its mother for but a moment. Then, alarmed, I yell, “Let’s clear the area. Where there’s a baby, there’s a mother.” I needn’t say any more. We hurry along the trail, not looking back.
It’s then I realize I never loaded my gun. What kind of a soldier am I? From behind, I hear a trumpet wailing.
We begin our steep ascent by crossing the hundred-foot-wide Tanai River over a native bridge. Five bamboo poles plank the walkway. Men grab the hemp handrail and lead their unsteady mules over the river. When I turn back, the bouncing bridge is holding twenty soldiers, each carrying sixty-pound packs. I feel a rush of relief that the hollow shoots held while I was trapped in the middle. It seems we’re always one step away from disaster.
Ahead, we take turns fighting a thicket of the willowy grass. When it’s my go, I hack with the machete until it’s dull and my arms burn. I move towards the back of the line, limp from exhaustion. The next guy slips, and his machete slices through his pants. “Get him out of here.
Next!” someone shouts.
While the others work, I grab bamboo shreds and stick them in my sack for dry kindling.
Even if we don’t get our food drops all the time, I save my packets of coffee and like it hot.
On the other side of the Tanai, we make a clearing for a light plane to land. It’s something Galahad has become experts at, so brass can be flown in and wounded—like the machete guy—flown out. When the piper cub lands, I’m struck by the appearance of its only passenger. I never noticed before that Merrill wore the same combat hat and faded fatigues as the rest of us. The only thing out of the ordinary is his pipe.
Colonels Hunter and Osborne approach the plane as Merrill jumps from the door. Even without hearing their conversation, it’s easy to see the friendship among them. Though shorter than Merrill, Hunter’s broad chest and sturdy build equalize him. And Osborne, a slight-framed intellectual—more the professor-type than a combat battalion officer—is no slouch, either.
Men busy themselves with chores close to the headquarters tent so they can learn more about Merrill, who everyone knows has a direct line to General Stilwell. The wireless radio sits at the edge of the tent’s canvas flaps, where I crank the generator. I give the code clerk an enciphered message to base H.Q. for our next supply drop, as the officers convene in the tent to review topographic maps and decide upon routes.
“Your boys look ready for the job,” Merrill says, a satisfied smile inching around his pipe.
Hunter folds his arms, then, in a crisp, low voice, answers, “Glad they meet with your approval. We do our best to please.”
Osborne adds, “Merrill, they’d like to hear that from you.”
“Then let me tell them right now,” Merrill offers. As he exits the tent, he looks in my direction and, with a friendly smile, quips, “Flynn, why am I not surprised to see you here?” The officers approach a group of soldiers cooking over a campfire.
Woomer defiantly jumps up from the fire, long arms swinging like an orangutan. “Colonel Merrill, the men would like a straight answer. Where are we going, and what’s our objective?”
Merrill eyes Hunter. Hunter shrugs his shoulders, and gives Merrill center stage.
Without further encouragement, Merrill walks over to the campfire and asks, “If this isn’t a private war, can I join you?” He waits for a nod from Woomer, then describes the plan. “Your mission is to wipe out the enemy on the Kamaing Road. It’s the north-south axis for Japanese communications through the Hukawng and Mogaung valleys.” Merrill reaches out to shake Woomer’s hand. “Thanks for asking.”
By now, the men are gathering to meet Merrill. He walks among the ranks, answering questions. His unassuming demeanor gives the men confidence that someone cares, and we’re happy to finally have a leader. After he talks with a number of the men, he boards the plane and leaves.
The plane left a full food drop, but, unfortunately, the mail run wasn’t loaded. Galahad hasn’t received mail since last fall, and the disappointment is thick. These men’s unshaven appearance and disdain for life led me to believe they didn’t give a damn about anything. But they do.
After bushwhacking through fourteen miles of jungle and up thirty-five-hundred feet of sheer cliffs, I’m exhausted from the day’s brutal beating, but my body refuses to relax. Lying on the hard ground, I look up and follow the luminescence from a shooting star until it fizzles into the horizon. My wish is for immediate sleep to wash away the pain from today’s march. On top of everything else, breaking in new boots has been murder on my feet. I’ll have to do a better job of wrapping them tomorrow. Now I’m thinking; my poor GI back.
Laughing aloud as I recall one of the mule skinners coaxing—or, more accurately, harassing—his pack animal today, I force myself to sit up before I cough to death.
“You need a drink or a shrink.” Joe Doyer’s New England accent catches me off guard. “You don’t mind if I join you, do you?” He sits down and lights cigarettes for us both.
“Thanks.” I take a drag, and it shoots a little energy into my numb body. “Did you see that guy this morning chewing out his mule?”
“My feet hurt, too.” I mimic the soldier’s sarcasm. He had shoulder-pushed the animal’s rump, cussed him, tugged his rope raw, and whispered sweet nothings to try to get his ass up a finger-clawing steep slope. “This is my second assignment in Burma, and it’s only your first, you son of a bitch. Blah blah blah. You volunteered, too, so shut that hee-haw of yours, or I’ll have to call you Jack, cuz you won’t have an ass after I’m done kicking you up this here hill.”
Mr. Doyer, which most men call him instead of Sarge, was my first Galahad friend. Like me, Mr. Doyer, a Chief Warrant Officer, is an SOS man. More than twenty years my senior, he can out-march me and most of the other soldiers. As the story goes, Colonel Merrill assigned him to the rear echelon. But Joe, having fought in the first war and knowing how the game is played, was not ready to be put to pasture. He bet Merrill he’d out-hike and outshoot the Colonel.
Needless to say, Mr. Doyer got front line duty.
“That mule may have a direct line to God. If so, we’re in for shit.” Mr. Doyer’s down-to- earth tone makes the listener believe in what he says. “Maybe we ought to make him General.
We got enough other asses with brass.”
He stubs out his cigarette, rubs the back of his neck, and lion yawns. “Think I’m going call it a night, Harry.” He stands to go. “And don’t go laughing to yourself too often. The other guys will think you’ve got a screw loose.”
As I lay back on my blanket, wind rustles the trees overhead and the stars slowly disappear behind the developing clouds. The long-range radio plays a soft refrain in the distance from Aida. The music is so incongruent with the surroundings, infusing the primitive wild habitat with a crystal-clear aria—whether the voice cries out passionately in pain or pleasure, I don’t know.
My mind returns to Stilwell’s Road—that broad gash through the jungle, undulating up slopes and down ravines, disappearing behind bends and fading in the distance. Now that we’re deep in the jungle following uncut paths, I feel lost without its constant presence giving me a reason to fight. Instead, I’m stuck with a bunch of suspicious, trigger-happy guys. And these are the boys Pick told me to learn to trust. I got what I asked for; a gun in my hand. But is it what I really want?
“This is radio KXKY, signing off from Darwin, Australia.”
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