Like Hunter predicted, everything went crazy after “MERCHANT OF VENICE.” Two days after we took the airport, the loud hum of plane’s engines approaches. I yell,
“Someone radio that pilot to tell him we’ve got snipers down here still taking pot shots and to stop farting around and land.” Finally, a day late, the supplies arrived in Myitkyina.
The Dakota glides down the runway. The roaring motors and spinning blades eventually stop. Then it just sits on the tarmac. “We’d like a little help here,” the pilot demands over the radio in a huff. “I got Stilwell and his gang needing some stairs. It’s been a rocky ride.”
I grab a wood crate and drop it at the rear door. “I suppose he’ll want me to wipe his ass when he gets out, too,” I mutter, then step up on the crate and pull the door off. Was I right!
“Soldier, what the hell took you so long?” Stilwell barks at me before turning on the charm and announcing, “Welcome to Myitkyina airfield, ladies and gentlemen.”
I peer inside the plane, wondering who he’s talking to. Instead of food and ammo, a dozen newspaper correspondents with fancy photography equipment all scramble to be the first out the door.
“Take it easy,” Stilwell chuckles. “Nobody can send anything out ’til you get back to Ledo tonight.”
One by one, they push out the door, handing me what they can’t carry until I look like a coat rack. “I promised my son a Japanese flag as a souvenir,” says a stylish man with a smart blue suit and flyaway blonde hair. “Do you know where I should go to find one? I don’t want it too big.” If he could see my rolling eyes, he’d know where I’d tell him to go.
I totter towards the huts and drop their load at the entrance. “Hey, take it easy, soldier,” Stilwell growls at me as I enter the shack. “Go round up some grub and refreshments for our guests. By the way, why isn’t Hunter here?”
“I’ll tell the Colonel you’ve arrived,” I answer. “And rats are the only food we’ve been able to dig up since we secured the site.” I want to add that this was supposed to be a supply plane. So why should Hunter be here?
“Who cares what it looks like? Dress it up and make sure the drinks are a little exotic, if you know what I mean.” He claps me on the back. Before I get out the door, he shouts, “And round up Merrill, Kinnison, Liu, and Sun for the press conference.”
Gunshots ring out on the runway. Snapping bulbs into their cameras, the correspondents trip over each other: pushing to rush out of the hut.
I grab a Tommy sitting by the door. “Get the fuck out of my way,” I scream. The reporters make a narrow path by the door, looking surprised at my rude behavior.
Lying on the tarmac, a soldier clutches his leg. “I’m fine,” he shouts, then points. “Over there.”
Seeing the reflection of the sun off metal, I spray bullets from the Tommy and take down the enemy in a tree on the edge of the jungle not fifty feet away. With the gun, I scan the perimeter of the runway around the hut, searching for the enemy. The flash from what feels like a million clicking shutters blinds me. Hell, I hope there was only one sniper out there; otherwise, they’ll get great photos of my gushing blood.
“OK, all’s clear,” I yell, and sprint down the runway to the far end, where we’ve set up a temporary evacuation hospital. Along the perimeter and deep within the jungle, gunfire bounces back and forth like a deadly badminton game. A second cargo plane lands, and a third circles in the air.
“Winnie, you gotta help me out.” I barge in while Doc prepares for surgery.
He pulls out his forceps, wipes them on the seat of his GI shorts—the only thing he’s wearing—and blows on them. “Must have abs’lute sterility for this operation.” Then he uses the forceps to yank out a tick embedded in a less-than-comfortable spot on the soldier’s reproductive anatomy. The soldier shrieks.
“I need alcohol!” I say, knowing Winnie has provided his patients some form of liquid support in the past when the end seemed inevitable.
“I hate to rush you, but we need this bed,” Doc says as he helps the GI off the cot. “Harry, isn’t it a little early for cocktails?” He approaches the GI on the next bed, who requires an amputation without morphine or anesthetic. “Sometimes I have to remind myself this isn’t the American Civil War.” This time, he takes his job seriously and starts the scrub down, then stops mid-motion. “Aren’t you the supply guy?” he asks me.
“Stilwell arrived with guests who need entertaining instead of supplies,” I say, throwing my hands in the air.
Hands dripping wet, he reaches into his medical box and hands me a gallon of antiseptic. “They distilled this so much, it’ll burn your lips. I hear it tastes best with coconut milk and a twist of a juniper berry, which we don’t have, so try bamboo.”
By the time I return, Hunter’s storming into the journalist-filled hut. Without any niceties, he charges up to Stilwell. “Where are my supplies?” he asks. “I got men out there fighting with one bullet left in their chamber and others dropping, unconscious, from exhaustion and starvation.”
I lay out strips of rat meat before I start my bartender duties. A female journalist, munching on a sliver of meat, corners me while I chop the caps off the coconuts with a machete. She asks in a low, conspiratorial voice, “I hear soldiers use parachutes from the food drops to sleep in. Where can I find one?” A soldier or parachute? I think, but choose to let the noise crowd out her request.
“Why so much doom and gloom?” Stilwell sounds cheerful and ignores Hunter’s question by offering him a cigarette. “Hell, we can tell the Limeys to stick it up their asses now. And they thought we couldn’t take Myitkyina. Ha! Did you hear about SEAC’s thirty-seven- page report, How to take Myitkyina? The art of war is killing me.” A photographer positions his camera for a close-up of the General, who takes the attention in stride. “You had me sweating it out yesterday. Four hundred Japs against twenty thousand GI’s! It would’ve been embarrassing if you hadn’t put on a good show.”
Nose-to-nose with Stilwell, Hunter shouts, “Four hundred Nips? Try four thousand, if we don’t get that gap on the east side of Myitkyina closed. And our two thousand extremely sick GIs are quickly dropping down to two hundred since someone thought it prudent to replace our medical supplies with those bozos.” He gestures towards the oblivious press.
Stilwell backs up to the refreshment table for a glass of composure. “Four hundred, four thousand, it’s only decimal dust,” he grunts, and takes a swig of the sanitized coconut delight. “Besides, you’ve got two battalions from the Chinese X Force to back you up.”
I feel Hunter’s exasperation as he clenches his fists. “Back us up? Right! After they set their compasses wrong, they opened fire on their own men. They backed up so far, they ran away.”
“I heard they took a good shellacking,” Stilwell hoots. Seeing the hovering press, he wraps an arm around Hunter and puts on his camera best. “These guys are so calm and brave, they ooze it.”
While I lay out the hors d’oeuvres, which I hate to touch, and the thousand-proof aperitifs, I recall that the General had implied Mountbatten was a media whore. Now isn’t that the pot calling the kettle black?
A little glassy-eyed and with goofy grins, the press wait, pen to paper, for Stilwell and Hunter to duke it out. All the guys are in civilian clothes with sports jackets, even in this stifling humidity, and if they’re not chewing down on a cigar, then they have a cigarette hanging from their lips. We’re packed tight in the tiny hut, so the rank smell of sweat and smoke is almost debilitating.
Kinnison arrives and tries to push through to Stilwell, but he’s barred by the swarm of journalists. His K Force has been holed up at Charpate, a northern crossroad branching to the west and east. The settlement is nothing more than a slightly elevated rice paddy. “Sir,” he calls out in a failing voice, trying to catch Stilwell’s attention. He loses his balance and grabs on to the door.
My attention is drawn to a female journalist, her red lipstick and thick pancake makeup melting with the humidity. She suggestively licks her lips and shimmies up to a photographer half her age. Nauseated, I turn and notice Kinnison has made it to Stilwell’s side. He’s shivering through his sweat. Something is wrong.
I hear him report to Stilwell breathlessly. “Sir, we’re holding the enemy back from the north at Charpate, and we’ve blocked the rail line leading out of town.”
The same rail line with the bridge we already blew up the other night? I think to myself sarcastically. Then I remember that Pfeifer and Preacher are under Kinnison’s command. I’m worried.
“Are you ready to kick their asses out of the Myitkyina rail station? Then Burma?” Stilwell asks so everyone can hear.
“Yes Sir. Can do!” Kinnison answers; collapsing against a chair rather than faint on the floor.
Hunter interrupts, spittle flying as he towers over the spineless Kinnison. “Is that the new strategy? Starve our boys? Hold their water and medicine in a dog bowl until they sit, roll-over, and pulverize the enemy, completely delirious?
“Gentlemen, gentleman,” Stilwell cuts in with a stiff, conciliatory tone, and then glares at Hunter. “Don’t be a spoilsport. Ledo hasn’t forgotten your supplies.” The General finally notices Kinnison, leaning against a wall for support, his face blanched and drained of emotion. “I can’t have you dying on me, Kinnison. Get something to eat.”
Out on the airstrip, a fifty-caliber battery, barely big enough to shoot down the Wright brothers’ glider, is being hauled out onto the runway. “You think those toy trucks and that miniature anti-aircraft gun they’re unloading are going to do us any good?” Hunter asks, hands on hips, and scowling.
A complaint rises up from the press as the leaders from the Chinese X Force, Liu and Sun, push the inebriated reporters aside. Stilwell’s attention is diverted to the newcomers. The hut shrinks even more as the crowd swells. I’m convinced I hear nails popping and expect to see boards fall off, leaving nothing but the shack’s skeleton
“My men take Myitkyina railroad station,” Sun boasts, pointing an emphatic finger at his chest.
Not to be outdone, Liu steps in front of Sun and brags, “Your men pick flowers. My soldiers kill enemy.”
Sun’s eyebrows rise in surprise before he says to Liu, “Enemy? My men kill one hundred enemy and three hundred your men.” Proud of his conquest, Sun adds. “So I kill one hundred more than you.”
Liu will not allow Sun to better him. He squares off his shoulders, and adds, “I kill three hundred total: but two hundred Japs. I kill most enemy.”
“Boys, boys.” Stilwell steps in and separates the two, putting an arm around each. “There was some confused fighting out there,” he tells the correspondents. “But we’ve got it squared away now.” He steers the two Chinese officers away from the writers and past the snacks and refreshment table, then, in barely a whisper, says, “I don’t have time to chew you out right now. This is your lucky day.” The General all but shoves them out the door. The Chinese fiasco is beyond belief. If the White Battalion killed three hundred of the Orange Battalion and the Orange wiped out two hundred of the White, we wouldn’t be bragging.
It’s only after the Chinese are expelled from the room that I notice Merrill has joined the crowd. He staggers towards Stilwell in something that resembles a two-step. The frisky female journalist sidles up and all but dances with him. Always a gentleman, the pipe-smoking officer politely answers her questions while clutching his arm. I doubt she is doing more than scribbling gibberish on her paper since she never takes her eyes off him. Merrill looks real bad. Why did he fly out with his heart problem?
Once he escapes the journalist, Merrill all but falls into Stilwell, looking like he’s about to upchuck his lunch. “Joe, I’ve got some bad news,” he says quietly. “Masters retreated from BLACKPOOL.”
“That yellowbelly,” Stilwell spouts before Merrill can finish. “Dodging his duty again.” The General shakes his head. “Shameful performance by the Brits. How will we block the Japs from the south now?”
Merrill leans against the edge of the food table. “Joe, you gotta listen to me,” he pleads. “Masters’ men were forced into a suicide position. They had to withdraw, or all of them would have been killed.” Merrill pauses, and I feel a bomb about to drop. “Nineteen of his men were shot by their medical orderlies before they left. They were too sick to haul out and were beyond recovery. I wanted you to know before rumors started spreading.”
Stilwell starts coughing uncontrollably, having just taken a long inhale from his cigarette. He grabs the already-unstable Merrill and glances around to see who is within hearing distance. Deciding it’s only me and the two of them, Stilwell berates Merrill in a gruff whisper. “You dumb cluck. You don’t spill the beans with intelligence like that in front of the press. I know you’ve been a little sick lately, but get a hold of yourself; you’re slipping on the job.” He lets loose with a bogus laugh—end of conversation.
Stilwell says no more, but does seem to chew over the news. I try to believe that he’d make a different decision than Masters and would find a way to get his men out. Pulled out of his reverie, the General clears his throat to make an announcement to the press, who have taken photos of everything from the geisha’s cast-aside clothing to the spread of food and drinks.
“Let us show you around this place.” Stilwell rounds the table and grabs my elbow. “This Lieutenant will be your tour guide.” I groan, but obediently follow the command.
“Over here,” I order the reporters and point to the side of the hut. “Line up like you did in kindergarten. We’re going down to the evacuation hospital at the end of the airstrip. Remember, there are snipers out there, so don’t clump up. Leave a ten foot space ahead of you.” They do the exact opposite and glob together, making themselves easy targets for any gunman.
What a bunch of fucking idiots. Maybe I should just treat them like dogs. I start walking. “The tarmac is chopped liver from our bombs,” I say, in case someone is listening. “Those Dakotas will land wherever they can. They’re military transport planes: they can’t brake on a dime, and they’re not going to stop for you. So stay in line with me.” The wind builds up into gusts as a gentle patter of rain slaps against the fan leaf palms edging the strip.
A lone photographer runs out on the runway to get a shot of a plane nosing in for a touchdown. His jacket flaps open and hat flies away as a blast of air from whirling blades blows towards him.
“Make it chopped liver and imbecile meat,” I yell, secretly hoping that the photographer makes an example of himself.
A scouting Jap Zero slips in, the rising red sun emblazoned on its skin. Intent on getting a photo of the landing Dakota, the photographer doesn’t see the enemy aircraft approach. He tap dances as it spits gunfire down the airstrip. Chunks of metal spray from our fighter planes on the ground. Some reporters run towards the jungle, and others let loose with their bulb-flashing cameras. Some stay in place and crouch on the open tarmac. The Zero tips its wing at the new anti-aircraft and waves goodbye without a scratch.
Within minutes, the Zero disappears behind the clouds. “That anti-aircraft gun they just unloaded is worthless from the first time you use it. What a piece of crap,” I say. Pilots scramble out from hiding to assess the damage on their planes.
The bamboozled correspondents remain rooted in place, stunned or stupid. I scan the airfield. As I call, “All clear,” I see that, instead of weapons, construction equipment: dozers, rollers, and dump trucks, are rolling out from a grounded Dakota. Incredulous, I ask, “Does anyone in Ledo know what they’re doing? First Stilwell, then toy guns, now…” I trail off and do a double take Smiling largely and whistling like he’s out for a Sunday stroll is a large Negro soldier, his biceps just about splitting his uniform sleeves. The mechanics around him reassemble a newly arrived bulldozer with a bulletproof blade.
The Negro halts mid-step as our eyes connect. “Harry? Harry, my man, is that really you?” he shouts. Without waiting for an answer, he half runs, half hobbles over to me.
I reach to shake hands, but Earl grabs me in a bear hug instead. “Gee whiz, I thought you was out fighting with Merrill’s boys. Instead, lookee what we have here! A boy scout with all his little cubs.” He snickers, then raises a questioning eyebrow, daring me to give an explanation.
“First Stilwell and his merry band of reporters this morning, and now you, Earl. What’s going on? I thought this was a warzone, not a circus.” It’s great to see Earl, but I’d rather they be unloading ammunition and food.
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