May 16, 1944
It’s 02:00 hours. Six of us crawl on our bellies to the edge of the unlit runway with our knives. It’s bad enough walking through the jungle in the night, knowing some of the most deadly insects and reptiles in the world are underfoot. But as I elbow my way forward, barely an inch separating me from the ground, each leaf that’s thrown up in my face becomes a striking cobra.
“Harry, grab your night vision goggles and tell me what you see,” the sergeant in charge orders.
I reach in my pack and drag out the binocs. The gilded Buddha entangled in the straps falls in front of me. I pick it up, hold it between my thumb and forefinger, and rub it. “I’m holding on to you, buddy. You’re my lucky fortune.” Using high magnification, I scan the field.
“It doesn’t make sense, Sarge,” I whisper. “There’s not a thing out there—no planes, no gunners, none of the enemy. Are you sure we’re at the right place?”
The sergeant slithers over to me and hisses, “Hell, give those to me.” He traces the length of the field with the binoculars, pausing every now and then, before he continues. “I’ll be damned. They’re probably asleep at the wheel in those huts.”
He points towards a dark outline on the eastern end of the field. “Harry, I want you and Doyer to flush out the surrounding jungle. We’ll check the buildings.” Slinking away into the shadows on the north side of the strip, the sergeant and three others fade out of sight.
I doubt we’ll find any enemy in the woods this time of night. They hide in the forest during the day to avoid attacks from our fly guys, but our boys usually don’t fly at night.
Doyer rubs his chin, then says, “I think we just got assigned to rear echelon duty. So much for taking control of the area. Let’s knock this out.”
Hunching over, we take a few steps, then stop to listen. The night sounds of scampering rodents turn into muffled squeals as predators make their kill. Flying foxes swoop in and around roped vines in search of insects. We give grunting wild boars a wide berth. I yawn. Boredom is a terrible, attention-grabbing thief.
“What did you think of me the first night we met?” I asked Ruthie, one arm wrapped around her shoulders as we swayed in the wood swing on her front porch. I pushed her thick, black hair away from her eyes.
She considered my question for a moment, then said, “I thought you were a handsome jerk and the best dancer on the floor.”
It wasn’t what I expected to hear, so I laughed, a little hurt and a lot surprised. “And now?” I asked.
Without a moment’s hesitation, she answered, “I think you’re a handsome jerk, and I’m in love with you.”
My body relaxes at the memory of those words. I push my hands deep in my pockets and let my pack sway on my back. Ahead, Doyer pushes a branch aside, and ducks under it. He scares up a small deer that freezes in place for a split second before leaping deeper into the brush. Jittery from the doe, my nerves start to cook. I wonder why we don’t hear even a single Japanese patrolling the perimeter. I stop to pee, first kicking at the twigs on the ground. Got to be sure I’m not walking into a snake’s nest.
By the time I move again, Doyer’s out of sight, so I stop and listen to get a reading on his location. Overhead, the soft flutter of leaves fills the air. I expect to hear the deafening, inhuman monkey cries accompany the falling twigs, but I don’t. I also gradually realize the scurrying sounds of night critters are missing. Just then, about a hundred feet ahead, a large mass drops from the trees, followed by a thud. Not sure what just happened, I keep still. The sound of wrestling and a stifled gag that follows leads me to Doyer, in trouble.
Something grabs my ankles, and I fall face-first into a web of spiders and tangle of branches. Millions of tiny legs race all over my body as I frantically lash out. The more I try to break free from the clutching vine, the deeper I sink into its thorns. Ripping through with blind strength, I finally crack its hold.
In the dark, a garbled “Kochira” is smothered as the two bodies grunt and thrash in the mud. I see an arm break free, knife in hand. It’s only then that I remember I have no gun, and my knife is still in my pack.
Reaching behind as I hurry forward, I grab the Japanese dagger tied to my pack, and rip it free, ready to help Doyer and hammer the Nip bloody. But I can’t tell who’s who in the tangle until I fall on top of them and see Doyer’s bald head on the bottom.
I raise my fist and smash the soldier under me again and again, striking with all my racing energy. Blood squirts from where the Japanese knife gouges the body beneath me. Frenzied, I stab and stab and stab until, exhausted, I slump over the limp body.
Shaken, but not injured, Doyer turns over the lifeless form. I stare at the dead man, face frozen in a permanent, silent cry. I have killed before, but with a gun. I stroke the dagger’s curved hilt.
“My mind went crazy,” is all I can say, while thinking how easy it was to slip into that other world.
“We better go,” Doyer answers, regaining his nerve. “There are probably more on patrol.”
We hide the body, but I know the face will never leave my mind. Continuing our loop, we zig-zag from tree to tree, trying to become invisible. Near the shacks, we hear whispering voices out on the tarmac. It’s the sergeant and other Marauders.
“The huts are swarming with Nips,” the sarge says as we approach him. “But they’re not expecting us—too busy with a couple of geishas, if you know what I mean.” I hear the raw smile in his voice as he baits us. “I always wondered whether they painted their whole body white.”
“We don’t need to know,” Doyer says. “Glad you were there to enjoy it.”
Like schoolboys, the others snicker under their breath. Meanwhile, I whistle softly, not daring to shout. “If you want to meet those young ladies tomorrow, let’s get some azimuth bearings on this anti-aircraft equipment. When we attack tomorrow, we’ll want our flyboys to help us out.” We survey in coordinates for our fighter pilots, then return to camp just before dawn.
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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