March 11, 1944
Less than a week after we secured our first objective, we begrudgingly backtrack to Walawbum. Instead of Santa, Stilwell and two Brits, Mountbatten and Wingate, have come to town. The last two food drops didn’t include clothes or razors, so we look like a bunch of hobos. Still, they want us on show for Roundup magazine.
Its midday by the time we straggle into the clearing where they’ve set up a wooden box for Mountbatten to stand on for his “Do it for your country” speech. The area is bare of brush, and we’re far from any mosquito-infested rice paddies. Only a few desolate trees remain after the Chinese infantry and Brown’s tanks barreled through. It looks more like a desert than a jungle. The press swarm like bugs.
Mr. Doyer, with his understated New England accent, joins Pfeifer, Sam, Preacher, Doc and me to watch everyone scramble in preparation of the wartime newsreel. “They’ve flown in more than the regular handful of reporters for this performance,” he comments. We watch as they unload plane after plane of press.
Out of nowhere, a crass voice calls from behind. “I’d know that bald head anywhere.” Zimmerman, one of the photographers who felt the whiz of bullets and went hungry with us early on in our march, readjusts his camera and pulls a deck of cards from his pocket.
“Here.” He hands the pack to Mr. Doyer. “If you can’t use these, pass them on to your boys.” Then he worms his way through the mass of khakis and helmets, up to the glittering buttons and insignias.
In response to waving hands, we line up. Photographers shield their lenses from the dust clouds kicked up by the assembling mass. None of the Galahad force is in the front line; our fatigues would be an embarrassment back home, but we serve as a good backdrop. Someone’s planted about a dozen clean-shaven boys for the traditional handshakes.
As the other soldiers move forward, I drop to the back row with Doyer and Pfeifer. Sam and Preacher end up a couple rows in front of us with Doc Winnie in between. Although they’re dressed in clean uniforms and ready for the show, Stilwell and Merrill have migrated to the back, where they can talk.
Doyer cracks open the deck of cards, then whistles under his breath once, twice. “Did Zimmerman slip you a deck of fixed cards?” I ask, edging over to get a look.
Doyer pulls the cards to his chest. “I think you’re too young for this.” With a smile more leering then devious, he passes one to Pfeifer, whose impassive expression is clear. The deck of cards is stacked.
Doyer deals one to me. Stacked is right; she’s a blonde. “Va va voom.” My mind stops and, my blood rushes elsewhere.
Doc turns and snatches the card from my hands, so Doyer hands me another. Suddenly, derriere has a new meaning for me. I feel the pressure build. It’s only mildly uncomfortable until I tell myself there’s fifty two of them, and then I just about burst.
Within minutes, the cards are circulating up and down the rows. Men cough, doubling over to hide their reactions. Preacher sighs, “Oh, God.” We all know he isn’t praying.
Lord Mountbatten steps up on the box, squinting into the sun even under his Admiral’s hat. He’s taller than most Brits, with a long, strong face and dark hair. His perfectly creased white uniform is begging for a Jeep to drive by and kick up some dirt. We stand painfully at attention and salute, thankful we’re not on display in the front.
“Men, at ease.” We quickly resort to the fig-leaf pose, where we can continue to move the cards and hide our thoughts. Mountbatten flattens his uniform tails, which continue to flap in the wind. “You are facing a formidable enemy in difficult country, but you are outfighting and out maneuvering them. You have recently gained an outstanding victory in Walawbum against one of the enemy’s toughest, most seasoned divisions. I shall always remember with pride the days that I spent with you.” He descends to formally greet the men in the front row.
I’m sure more was said, but my head is filled with the card women. Agitated, the men yawn, groan, and moan under their breath, as the cards move from hand to hand; panting and sweating even with a breeze. Doyer hands me the last one, and, I hold on to it as long as I can, knowing the others may have already been pocketed. She looks as sweet as a baby, with rosebud lips and curves that my eyes can’t leave.
“Looks like Supremo’s having a good time,” Stilwell says under his breath to Merrill. “He sure has the press begging for more.”
We’d forgotten they were behind us, though it seems they’re more interested in what the press says than what we do. Finally, I slip the last card to my right.
“Did you hear he flew in with sixteen fighter escorts? That’s enough fuel for me to mount an offensive. Hell, we only had four at Walawbum.” Stilwell is so focused on Mountbatten that we could be stripped naked, rolling in the mud, and he wouldn’t notice us.
General Orde Wingate climbs on the box at Mountbatten’s bidding. He’s a handsome man, with heavy brows over piercing blue eyes and a beard that makes even the most scraggly of us look clean shaven. With the passion of a prophet, he lacks the orthodoxy of military rule.
The men like him immediately.
“Americans, unlike any other nationality, have an admirable belief that if an attack is right, one will have might.” Wingate’s booming voice appeals to our patriotism and honor. “This confidence in victory is your greatest strength. But your ignorance is your worst weakness. Do not fool yourself into believing that which is not true. Most of our trained men have been sent to the European front, so you need to find where your power lies. God gives man peculiar instruments with which to pursue His will. David was armed only with a sling, yet he toppled a giant. In turn, don’t let success confuse your judgment. Let it go to your heart, not your head.
You must be unpredictable to your foes but consistent to your friends. To Galahad, I say, quietness and confidence shall be your strength.”
His abrupt speech had none of the rah rah rah I expected. We all look at each other, bewildered at his quirky style and quick exit. He appears to be more of a loner—like a poet, or even an artist—at war instead of the military technician his reputation has painted to him be. He steps down from the box and walks the wings to shake hands with the men on the fringes.
Stilwell takes his turn, now. “Men,” he says, then halts. We stop mumbling and passing cards, and resume our full military stand. His eyes search the crowd, as though he’s speaking to each of us. When his eyes meet mine, it makes me edgy. “We’ve taken Walawbum. Now the Japs know we’re a real threat. Your job is to get to the next objective before the artillery and confuse the Japs, so when our tanks and big guns are wheeled in, we can wipe them out quickly with minimal Allied casualties.”
Stilwell is articulate, but he lacks the grace of the other two men.
“The British Chindits have launched Operation THURSDAY,” Stilwell says, then looks to Wingate and nods his recognition of the commander. “On the night of March 5, American gliders and Dakota transports led by Colonels Phil Cochran and John Allison dropped thousands of soldiers behind enemy lines near Indaw, Burma. I want to share with you Cochran’s words to his men that night.
‘Anything you boys have done in the past can be forgotten. Tonight, you are going to find your souls. Tonight, you are going to take these troops in and put them in just right. Those boys have a tough job, and we are going to do our bit to help.’”
The General gets down from the podium and walks among the ranks, still speaking. “Those boys knew they were flying into uncharted land. General Wingate’s men, led by Colonel Mike Calvert, landed in a paddy field strewn with teak logs and elephant wallows so deep the first few gliders flipped. That night, those boys did their job. They’ll block the Japs from the south. Let’s show them what we Yanks can do and help them wipe out the Nips in the north.
Let’s win this war so we can go home.”
After the speeches, we’re dismissed. The brass make the rounds, posing in front of tanks and inspecting shells from the various mortars and rockets from the artillery. They’re swallowed up by photographers, and the rest of us are forgotten.
Pfeifer and I join the others to grab our rucksacks. We’ve done our duty and made Mountbatten look good for the folks back home. I guess it’s a good idea to keep our families’ spirits up, even if we’re dragging at the thought of the eleven miles in front of us.
I need to hand out the rations before we start our march. The men line up while I break open precious food, ammo, and water. I hand them the five pound packs, wondering what the Japanese will be having for dinner tonight and when we’ll meet up again.
I mark the final tally on the clipboard, then absentmindedly sigh, and pick up a loose sheath of paper off the ground and slip it in my rucksack. I pull my pack onto my shoulders while Mr. Doyer, in his indefatigable cheerfulness, asks us, “What else do you have to do tonight? Got hot dates?” He hands me a card he had saved from the deck, and I pocket it to savor later.
As we trudge past the command post, I hear Mountbatten giving Stilwell a taste of his own medicine. “I’m diverting the boys from the HUMP and some of your bombers to help the Brits take southern Burma. I know you’ll understand.”
“That’s a dumb idea. Then the Peanut—excuse me, Chiang Kai-shek—will hold back his Y Force in Yunnan. Who’s going to be covering my men in the east as I move Galahad and the construction work towards Myitkyina? We’re building that road for him, not us.” Stilwell’s defiance doesn’t hold up against Mountbatten’s regal appearance.
Mountbatten has the upper hand, and he claps the General on the back patronizingly to remind Stilwell who he’s talking to. “My good chap, this is a team effort. Think of it as achieving the Allied working accord.”
“Kee-rist! If we keep farting around, shuffling our resources between fronts, we’ll lose all the advances we’ve made.” Stilwell spins on his heels to leave.
Pfeifer, Mr. Doyer, and I move past the C.P. tent, establishing a pace as we edge towards the clearing. It doesn’t surprise me that Vinegar Joe’s lack of finesse isn’t confined to just his subordinates. It occurs to me that Stilwell may actually have the correct military solution, but it won’t work if he’s marching alone.
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