March 5, 1944
Last night, to the north, we heard the staccato of machine gun fire and mortar shells. The Chinese X Force kept the rear of the Japanese 18th occupied. Hoping to surprise the Japs’ front line with unexpected visitors, all three Galahad battalions move in quickly. What a coup if we can corner General Tanaka.
Supply drops have been held up until after the attack, so I’ve joined Preacher’s I&R platoon as the portable radio carrier. We’re tasked with setting up a roadblock. Unencumbered by mules or heavy equipment, we advance ahead of the infantry, who carry machine guns and mortars. We’re protected only by our M1 carbine rifles, grenades, knives, and a couple of Tommies. I lag behind with the added forty pounds of the SCR-300 radio.
We wade across the hip-high Tawang River, blinded by the fog-cloaked morning.
Immediately upon entering the forest on the other side, we encounter an enemy trail-block of crisscrossed logs. Crawling over the recently felled trees, I expect to hear gunfire, and my back crawls with the sensation of penetrating eyes. But all is quiet.
The Japanese advance ahead of us through the jungle, leaving booby traps in their wake.
We’re forced to stop and disable them before we move on, and I feel the tension building in every nerve. Ahead, the enemy moves at a leisurely pace, overconfident from running circles around the lethargic Chinese in the past. They don’t know Galahad’s on their tail now.
With such dense foliage, it’s hard to tell how close we are, but we keep finding Japanese boot prints filled with fresh water. We press on to our objective, keenly aware we may be walking into an ambush but knowing we have no other choice.
A burst of fire from the trail warns us of impending action. Preacher turns back to look down the line of taut, frozen faces. We wait for his command to commence standard operating procedure. “Get in position,” he barks. The lead squad plunges for cover, then returns fire. The other two squads drop into the woods on either side of the trail. Remaining with the lead squad, I slip the radio off my back, then ready my carbine.
Harry Flynn, this is it, I think, then suck in a lung full of strength before I squeeze off my first shot. Adrenaline courses through my body as more Japanese round the corner. Pumping the trigger on my M1 is the only thing that relaxes my nerves.
A bullet slams into the soldier next to me. He winces, calls out, “I’m hit,” then drops to the ground. Shots fly everywhere.
The enemy hears our flanking units approach and stops firing. They race ahead, shooting randomly and wildly. My pulsing heart stabilizes while we regroup.
“They’ll probably set up more ambushes,” Preacher cautions. “Try to delay us. Our job is to get that roadblock in. Now that they know we’re here, it’s critical to get it done fast.”
The Japanese continue to play cat and mouse with us for several hours. When we reach our objective, we work together silently like cogs in a machine. This won’t stop the enemy, but it will slow down their artillery and give our Chinese X Force a chance to catch up. Preacher orders the retreat while I help place the last log on the roadblock, fingers trembling.
We race back to the bend in the river, chased by gunshots. The river looks wider than it did when we crossed it this morning. We’d be sitting ducks if we tried it again now in the daylight. The ground is higher here than the surrounding area. It’s a good defensive position, but I’m not looking forward to an overnight stay. The clock is ticking, and my survival instinct tells me to get out now.
“No time to cross the river.” Preacher’s dark eyes focus on a plan. “Dig in,” he commands at last.
We drop our packs. I pull out my shovel and dislodge clods of dirt and wet sand. Others had abandoned their shovels early in the march to ditch some weight, and now their faces are twisted in regret and sinking fear. They drop to their knees and furiously scrape at the ground with their knives and scoop earth with their helmets. We have to open up foxholes for the inevitable onslaught.
“My God,” a man screams. One of our guys has been shot in the head, and his friend stands over him, paralyzed in disbelief. Our holes are barely deep enough, but we jump in. I hear Japanese voices approaching and bullets whizzing from the north. Another sergeant drops when a bullet severs the artery in his arm.
Next to me, under a crisscross of flying lead, I watch Preacher scramble over and pull the sergeant back into the relative protection of his own hole. “Give him some water,” Preacher orders me. I uncap my canteen and moisten the wounded man’s lips. The Japanese are only twenty yards away.
“More are coming,” our Nisei interpreter calls from two foxholes over. “They’ll circle us.”
“They can’t,” I yell back, sounding braver than I feel. “We’ve got the river to our backs.” I load my M1, and fire as fast as I can pull the trigger.
Preacher had the foresight to set up the platoon in a three-point star with two Tommies in the front. Their rat-a-tat-tat stops the advancing Japanese. We hunker into position, dirt flying, bullets whizzing, and men screaming. But I hear none of it. I’m enveloped in an unreachable cloud.
More Japanese arrive and hover along the fringes, thirty yards away, under the cover of the brush. Everything moves in slow motion. A bullet misses me by inches; I fire back and see my target recoil. Overhead, I hear the rustle of leaves in the softly swaying trees. But the shrieking enemy face in front of me is soundless. I rise out of my foxhole, disconnected, as if I’m watching myself from above. My rifle’s smooth metal calms me as I squeeze the trigger. I fleetingly think I’ll live forever, and then wonder if I’m going crazy. Without any sense of urgency, I drop back into the foxhole to load more bullets. After that, I lose track of time.
American Tigercat bombers strafe the surrounding area. Their bombs drop over enemy- occupied villages. Smoke rises, swirling into the drifting clouds overhead. Breaking my trance, a man shouts over the barrage of fire, “Our fighter planes found us. Where the fuck is the support from the tanks and the X Force?”
In the trench next to me, the wounded man drifts out of consciousness, a relieved smile on his pained face. I expect to feel sad, but I’m on autopilot: fire, load, fire, load, fire.
“Banzai!” A feral, guttural chorus bellows around us from all directions. The Japanese rush out of the woods with bayoneted rifles, their eyes grotesquely distorted by their thirst for blood.
Preacher screams, “Down. Now!” We duck below the tops of our foxholes as bullets stream by overhead.
It’s suicide above. The area’s so small that, as the enemy converges towards the center, they’re just shooting at each other. A young Japanese soldier—just a boy with broken glasses— flops in front of my hole, eyes open in surprise. I close mine.
“Flynn, set up the radio,” Preacher yells. “Now!”
I hesitate, then set my rifle aside. My face burns with anger and fear. There’s nothing to do but hunker down while the enemy charges, killing each other, so I do as I’m ordered and struggle with the antenna and knobs. There’s squawking from transmission conflicts between the diving planes and infantry. From the radio, I hear Stilwell’s voice saying, “This is a damn mess. Where the hell is Merrill?”
Downstream, from the other side of the river, a bang marks our mortars letting loose on another advancing Japanese battalion. There’s Merrill, I think to myself. Where’s the X Force, is what Stilwell should be asking.
“Radio for help!” Preacher is out of sight, but I hear his command.
I switch frequencies and get the 3rd battalion’s heavy weapons unit. They’re on the other side of the river, about three hundred yards upstream. The ear-splitting din makes it difficult to hear my own voice. I pull out my compass, take a bearing off a smoke shell to identify the target coordinates, and shout into the transmitter, “Due west seventy yards.”
Woomer chuckles over the radio. “Harry, we got a mortar in position. Ready? Fire!”
The earth around us shakes, and two Japanese bodies fly twenty feet in the air right in front of me. The Nips run back into the woods as the shelling throws their retreat off balance.
“Get back,” Preacher orders. Men slip out, one by one, to the river. The shelling continues to throw up dirt and smoke in front of us.
I pull myself and the radio out of the hole and stumble around piles of Japanese bodies I can’t look in the face. Nearby, a cheap, gold-gilded Buddha has slipped from the hands of the dead Japanese boy. I pocket it. A corporal and I tie our fatigue jackets to bamboo poles to create a makeshift litter. We slip back to Preacher’s foxhole and heave the injured sergeant onto it.
We’re the last to leave the mound, save for Preacher, who pushes us out. The shelling has stopped, and the Japanese will soon charge. Crossing the river, knowing we’re as vulnerable as naked babes, I feel my courage drain. Behind me, on the bank, an enemy gunner sets up a Nambu machine gun.
On the opposite side of the river, one of our men takes aim while we’re in the middle of the current, hoisting the litter as high as our tensed muscles allow. The radio on my back makes the effort even more tortuous. My heart is beating in my throat and bile rises from my stomach.
Right as my sodden boots hit the dry bank, our side fires, and the Nambu gunner falls over his weapon. As we rush for cover, a chill ripples through me. I’m still alive.
We return to the protection of the wet rice paddy where we spent the night before, and I set up the radio. Next to me, the corporal snaps a twig, tosses each half into the distance, and fumes. “What happened to the tanks? Where are the artillery and the Chinese X Force? Are the Chindits going to stand us up, too? It sure looks like we’re in this alone.”
Preacher looks up to the sky, then answers, “Hunter said two brigades of about ten- thousand Chindits, are being flown in on gliders tonight. Operation THURSDAY is launching from Imphal, India right now.” We’re out of food, and Preacher has forbidden us from lighting up any fags, so our hopeful eyes and ears are on him.
The brilliant setting sun paints the western horizon, while a full moon rises in the east. Preacher pulls off his ripped shirt; lays his poncho over the squishy, wet field; sits down; and continues, “Michael Calvert’s 77th Brigade will land on a rice field south of the Mogaung Valley tonight; the site’s code name is BROADWAY.”
He rolls his neck around, and it pops with released tension. “Ferguson’s men just arrived at Aberdeen, and Masters’ brigade’s to be dropped on the other side of the Irrawaddy River, then march to BLACKPOOL. So the bottom tip of the Mogaung Valley will be covered by the Chindits. Sure hope Masters’ men get across that river before the monsoon floods start.”
Suddenly, there’s a crackling sound next to me. I reach for my rifle, but relax as the radio static continues. The Orange combat commander is on the line. “Where are you guys? Over.” Explosions erupt in the infantry’s background, reminding us we can’t let down our guard.
Preacher jumps up and grabs the earphones. “We’re holed up on a soggy field, east side of the river. Hey, we’re waiting for the tanks and Chinese. What happened? Over.”
We listen as raucous laughter breaks out on the other side of the line. “The tanks took a wrong turn. They’re camping for the night. And the X Force got lost on the other side of the river.” His laughing turns to coughing, so he signs out. I think about all the smoke and dust in that crossfire and wonder whether I’d rather be here or there.
We all bed down for the night, happy to be alive for the moment. No one’s to talk, walk, or smoke. “I’ll grenade anything that moves,” Preacher promises. “If you’ve got to go,” he says, “pee in your helmets.”
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