“COX BAZAR to TIGAR,” the radio screeches.
Charles straightens up and focuses on the transmitting box as though he’s talking face to face with COX BAZAR, a British unit stationed in East Bengal. “TIGAR to COX BAZAR, copy.”
I wonder if the code name for Ledo, TIGAR, was a deliberate misspelling of tiger to mislead any spy decoding our documents. But really, even with a name like TIGAR, it can’t be too hard to place our headquarters in India or Burma.
“Chindits need clothing and food.” The English accent on the line sounds self-assured, almost casual.
Charles covers his microphone and whispers out of the side of his mouth, “What a bastard. He’s sent his boys out to be slaughtered in central Burma, and it just occurred to him now that they’ll need supplies?” He suppresses his anger to respond. “Copy, COX BAZAR. Happy to help you out in an emergency. Flying boxcar’s ready.”
“Thanks, mate. Will send coordinates shortly. COX BAZAR out.” The radio buzzes like a swarm of insects.
“You’re welcome,” Charles says to no one, then takes off his headphones and looks up at the clock, which is hanging on a sagging nail in the bamboo hut. “Harry, be a buddy and help me out by pulling together whatever you’ve got in the supply depot, like boots and k-rations. These are Wingate’s boys, and I don’t want those guys to think we’re just a bunch of office wimps, letting them take all the fire for us.”
“We’re building a road, not fighting the war. Wouldn’t those boys need more than food and clothes?” I lean back in one of the rattan chairs commandeered by Charles, who has tried to make the radio shack into something more than it is.
Charles grabs my shoulders, pushes me out of the chair, and steers me towards the door. “I know you have a good heart somewhere under that self-righteous veneer. But just get what the man asked for.”
An hour later, I hand him the requisition list. “You’re a real hero,” he says absently before starting his transmission, not noticing my sheet-white face. I just found illicit ammo stored in the stock room. It definitely looks like the start of a smuggling operation, but maybe it’s to help the boys flying the HUMP. I want to tell someone, but, unlike me, everyone’s a road cheerleader, and only a traitor would dare suggest there’s anything more important.
“TIGAR to COX BAZAR.” He releases the radio button to receive, then silently reads off the list of supplies. “Whiskey? What the hell do they need whiskey for? The Chindits are conscripts from the Nepalese and Burma rifles. They’d probably do the service for free if you told them they’d get a commendation from the queen.” Then he stops, reevaluating his words. “I take that back. There are some Brits in the Chindits. The Liverpool infantry battalion owes you. Good move, Harry.”
“I found the stash of whiskey salted away for a VIP rainy day. When will a guy be more important than right before he says adios for his country? Or, in this case, someone else’s country.”
The radio on the water-stained teak table vibrates with a response. “COX BAZAR to TIGAR, copy.”
“COX BAZAR requisition list ready for transport. Do we ship to ROMULUS? Over.” Charles can’t help showing off that he’s on top of all the operations’ names.
“Negative.” The cool British accent puts out the fire under Charles’s victory dance. “LONGCLOTH is en route. Wait for further directions. Over.”
Stunned by the news, Charles looks comatose. Then, recovering, he closes out the transmission, “TIGAR to COX BAZAR, copy. Over and out.”
Catching Charming Charles in a less-than-charismatic pose is payback for my efforts that day—maybe even for the last week. “Don’t worry, Charles. I won’t spill the beans that Operation LONGCLOTH slipped past you. By the way, how are they going to get their supplies if they’re already marching? Is there a base in Burma where the flying boxcars can deliver the goods?”
Ignoring me, Charles pulls out a set of notebooks and flips through the last few entries. “This isn’t normal,” he finally shares. “Harry, there’s a rumor that Wingate wants his Chindits to use experimental guerrilla tactics in Burma like the ones he used in Africa.”
“Wingate?” I ask. “Never heard that name before today.”
“He’s a Brit. I’ve been told General Wingate’s either batty or brilliant – at some level, it’s impossible to tell the difference. They say the guy walks around stark naked while gorging on raw onions hanging from a rope around his neck.”
He adds, “In Africa, he sent small columns of men into the desert behind the enemy line, where they sabotaged communication lines and ambushed supplies. Very nasty business: no backup, only air-dropped supplies. Here in the CBI, they’ll be in tropical forests with an enemy to fight. And we all know the Japanese are masters at jungle fighting.”
After five boring minutes of watching Charles, spellbound in his research, I get up to leave. Just then, the radio crackles: “CHAMPION to TIGAR.” Charles, still in a trance, is deaf to the call.
“CHAMPION to TIGAR,” an irritated voice repeats.
Charles is totally lost in his cryptic notes. So I hold one of the earphones to my ear and push down on the transmit button, “TIGAR to CHAMPION, copy.” Charles isn’t the only one who knows how to play with the radio, I tell myself, then realize CHAMPION is Delhi Headquarters. Charles’s eyes meet mine.
“Rommel’s last stand in Africa. Repeat. Rommel’s last stand in Africa. CHAMPION, over and out.”
We took down the bastard that killed Joseph Graf; such sweet revenge. “Hitler and his gang of bullies seem to have a hole in their amour.” I slap Charles on the back. “And we’re about to rip it wide open.” Charles glares at me, but I couldn’t care less. It’s not my fault he was too lazy to do his own work and I had to get the call. It’s a powerful feeling, being the bearer of good news.
When I leave, instead of going back to the barracks, I turn towards the supply hut, hoping no one spots me. I’ve got to find out why there’s a new horde of illegal boxes.
Walking between the radio hut and supply depot when it’s a part of my regular routine is as natural as breathing; I don’t think about it. But now it feels like every clod of dirt I kick up makes me look like I am rushing into trouble. So I slow down. A couple of soldiers by the water spigot seem to watch me too closely. I struggle with my key chain, testing every key as though I’d never opened the door before. Finally, with hands shaking and sweat blurring my vision, the door slips open.
“Hey there,” I call out as a precaution. Thankfully, no one answers.
Curiously, several shipments have been separated from the other supplies and purposely mislabeled. I would never have uncovered the diversion, except I knew the ration for Indians was not the same as that for Americans or Chinese, so I opened a few boxes in the corner to make sure I’d grabbed from the right stack for the Chindits. Instead of ration staples, I found Thompson submachine guns, Browning Automatic Rifles (BARs), M-1s, colt hand guns, flamethrowers, dynamite, and a wide assortment of knives. No one had to tell me this wasn’t a shipping accident. But why was someone deliberately hijacking arms?
I’m torn between exposing this undercover operation and buying in to it, but the perpetrator and I may not be fighting for the same cause.
I decide to see how tight of a tracking system this covert operator has by lifting a few pieces out of each box. I try to deny my fear, but feel myself hyperventilating. My hands work without direction from my consciousness. I deliberately empty my brain and refuse to take responsibility for what I know is wrong. But it looks like no one is minding the store on the CBI front, so I convince myself I should.
In less than ten minutes, I’ve created a pile by the door that looks more like discarded trash than a horde of arsenal. Dreading the possibility that someone may notice the weapons cache had been uncovered, I reseal the boxes, leaving the arms inventory where it was, in a corner against the back wall.
Then I turn my focus back to finding the right set of boxes and closing up the Chindits’ order as fast as my sweaty hands allow. I re-inspect the boxes of staples I had set aside, labeling them Operation LONGCLOTH. With one ear open, I listen to the sounds outside. Scurrying lizards and muffled conversations beyond the basha walls rebuild my fragile confidence. My breathing returns to normal. There is no excitement or suspicion in the voices beyond; they speak as though there could be nothing more boring.
I almost laugh out loud, like a madman. Instead, I reward myself with a thin smile of satisfaction, pleased with my easy deception.
Without warning, I feel the light pressure of five fingers on my shoulder. “What the hell,” I barely whisper as I abruptly turn and find Schmidt. His steely grey eyes and curled sneer let me know this is no chance visit. Fortunately, I hadn’t thrown an instinctive punch.
Schmidt eyes me with mistrust, his body pulled tight to full attention, leaving me feeling exposed. “You look a little nervous, Lt. Flynn. Is it the heat of the room, or is there something we should talk about that has you sweating like you just signed a contract with the devil?”
“You scared the shit out of me,” I complain, then release an involuntary sigh of relief.
Schmidt smiles, thinking he has the upper hand. “Flynn, if you are doing what I think you’re doing, you should be petrified.”
Remembering it’s only Schmidt, I look around the supply room to see if we’re alone, then point to the cluster of boxes marked Operation LONGCLOTH. “This order, for the Chindits, has got to go out immediately. Do you mind if I continue with business?” I head over to the boxes, but he doesn’t seem satisfied. Neither am I. “By the way, why did you drop by?” I ask.
He waits a moment, deciding whether or not to answer. Then he relaxes and lets the truth be his excuse. “I heard another arms shipment arrived. Came to check it out.” His eyes make me feel dirty; guilty without a trial.
“Really?” I keep packing, and my faked surprise sounds authentic. “What’d you find?” He doesn’t hesitate: “You.”
Why do I feel like I’m hanging, ready to drop into his un-cinched noose?
Instead of crumbling, I gamble my death warrant into a chance to partner with this enemy. “Did you come up empty-handed? Let me know if you want me to keep an eye open for you.” My glare shows him I know something, and, as my prime suspect, I’ll be tailing him like a hound on a jackrabbit. I say, “Is it possible someone’s been shipping arms to help the boys flying the HUMP until—or maybe I should say if—the road ever gets done?”
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