May 17, 1944
The morning sky is clear of rain and planes. We move in at 08:00 and by 10:00 we’re on the airfield. Something seems to be missing: it’s the enemy. At 10:30 hours Hunter announces over the radio, “IN THE RING.” Then he crosses his arms over his chest and makes a three- hundred-sixty-degree observation of the Myitkyina air field.
“Roger,” the radio replies. Then there’s static. “Take your positions,” Hunter orders.
The black tarmac is deserted of enemy forces. Marauders hug the perimeter, dashing from hut to hut, turning over crates, slicing open cargo boxes filled with Japanese supplies, and taking position behind fifty-five-gallon oil tanks. All day, the surrounding forest crawls with the 53-07th, as if we’re hunting dogs sniffing out our prey. By 15:30, we’ve captured the Myitkyina airfield. Men are happy, but hesitant. It didn’t feel like a fight, but the beginning of a setup, with Japanese snipers taking pot shots at us until nightfall.
Hunter radios H.Q. “MERCHANT OF VENICE” from the same huts where the geishas had diverted the Japanese interest only the night before. “They’ll be sending us food, water, medicine, and ammo shortly,” he tells us, but there’s no relief evident in his face. “Harry, get some cover and prepare the site for those supplies.”
On the open runway, flickering stars fill the vast sky like stepping stones to another world.
Is the clear, cloudless night a good sign? Pushing the dead soldier from last night deep into the recesses of my mind, I hurry to relay a radio message to Colonel Hunter. He stands alone on the tarmac, arms folded across his chest.
Around the bend of the Irrawaddy River, in the center of town and near the rail yard, the sounds of gunfire reverberate. One, two, three oil tanks explode. Flames soar skyward, a spectrum of yellow and orange fanning out from its shocking blue center. Near the oil explosion, an ammo stockpile erupts. The scorching fire swells further into the black sky, billowing smoke and soot.
“Sir,” I say, watching the wavering blaze dance in the distance. “We just received word that the Chinese X Force is dug in outside the railway station. Looks like they’ve announced their arrival.”
“Yes. Thanks, Harry.” Hunter’s eyes are riveted on the inferno, but his mind seems elsewhere. “You weren’t supposed to go on last night’s reconnaissance mission.” I’m too exhausted to feel fear or disappointment. “Good job at getting the coordinates on the anti-aircraft guns. We need men who can take control and make decisions.”
I heard those exact words two years ago, and my breath catches in my throat as I think about those days. From behind us, another explosion rings in the distance. We turn our gaze from the oil bonfire at the rail yard to the bridge target in the west.
“Most of those Kachin never saw a train or dynamite before the war,” Hunter muses. “Now, we’ve got the enemy almost completely surrounded.” He shakes his head, reflective rather than triumphant. “Is Operation END RUN really over? Or is this just the end of the first inning? ” He has stripped down to a pair of baggy, pocketed fatigue trousers, and the sinews of his arms and trunk are unnaturally prominent. As though I’m not there, the Colonel asks himself, “Is this it, after four months of hell?”
“Not a single Marauder was killed at the airfield,” I say. “This was too easy.”
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