Waves of heat rise from the barren, scorching ground. Floating dust particles reflect multicolor rays from the setting sun. I drive a food truck through the listless jungle to the construction site. The humidity drains my body and leaves my mind numb.
Before I throw the door open, I wrench the stick shift from low to neutral. The construction crew moves at a dazed, mechanical pace. Still, the road continues to inch forward towards Jambu Bum in the Hukawng Valley. Grinding gears from thumping power shovels and front end loaders momentarily stop for the dinner break. On my truck’s tailgate, I set out food and jugs of water. Men shuffle to where they’ve stashed their mess kits, then wordlessly line up, either too tired or too hot to waste energy on anything more than what’s absolutely necessary.
The lineup is a hodgepodge of Negro equipment operators; Chinese laborers wearing broad-brimmed bamboo hats; and ragtag, uniformed Chinese soldiers who guard the road front. They jam up the line, filling up their canteens and drinking deeply multiple times, until the water drips from the corners of their mouths. Only then do they spoon the stew into their plates. They sit along a row of trees, hoping an afternoon breeze will pick up. After ten minutes of rest and provisions, small talk breaks the vacant air.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see a battalion of soldiers and their mules spill out, single file, from a well-concealed animal trail. The headlights of an earth mover spotlight the column as they approach us.
Limp with heat exhaustion, and seemingly rooted to the ground, the road crew watches the procession of war-bound American soldiers. Grinning, some of the GIs nod at the staring workers. A dust screen envelopes the road bed; dirt clouds rise and fall to the rhythm of their shuffling feet. Helmets, leather boots, rifle butts, and a pyramid of provisions piled on the backs of mules peek out here and there from the billowing haze.
Most of the troops just plow forward, but a few drop out of rank, pull their canteens from their belts, and unscrew the caps before they tramp over to the tailgate. I shove my hands in my pockets and lean against the side of the truck, curious about the parade.
I open the spigot on the water jug as a soldier, red-eyed from dust, thrusts his canteen under the spout. He barely notices me.
“Thanks, buddy,” the tired young man mumbles when he leaves. He lifts his canteen in the air and lets the water spill over his face. Most of the clear liquid drains down his throat.
“Hey, you guys look a little thirsty. Where did you come from?” I ask. They aren’t wearing any insignia, so I don’t know who they are, but I’m not too proud to be nosey.
The soldier stops his makeshift shower, looks at me with suspicion, then walks away without another word. I shrug an apology. By now, other soldiers, faces crusted with dirt and stained from coursing sweat, crowd around the back of the truck, canteens in hand. They slowly come to life.
“Nice looking road you have here,” a man with a slow, steady smile says. His gaze takes in the road, the crew, and the equipment. “We’ve heard about you and this road of yours.” His New England accent slips in on the vowels.
I can tell that the sergeant—I can tell his rank from his lapel—wants to make small talk, but his voice is slightly anxious, as though shooting the breeze is not a luxury he can afford right now.
“Got shipped out a year ago. What about yourself?” I ask, pulling out a cigarette and offering it to the soldier.
The soldier’s helmet slides forward as I light the smoke for him. He inhales deeply. “Deogarh, India, a few weeks ago. We took a train up to a town just south of Ledo, then hit the dirt. It’s been mostly uphill since then, and our feet are sorry little puppies. Been bivouacking along the side of the road every night.” He takes another drag and throws his head back as he exhales. Then he rolls his shoulders back and forth to unwind. “If I didn’t have this sixty-pound pack on my back, and my leg muscles didn’t cramp up every night, this might be a nice place to visit.” He stares off into a stand of giant Halong trees. Absentmindedly, he smashes a mosquito on his forearm. “No, I take it back,” he grimaces. “I hate bugs.”
I make a quick check of the supplies. It looks like they need more water, and I pull out another jug. “Why the surprise party out of nowhere? Someone should get the benefit of this road we’re building to nowhere.”
The sergeant considers my question, but answers with his own query. “Seen any fighting in these parts lately?”
“I wish,” I answer too quickly, then try to backpedal. “Well, no American troops have seen any action. They’ve sent these Chinese boys, but they’re about as experienced in combat as I am in brain surgery.”
The middle-age soldier offers a comforting nod of agreement, “Yeah, I’ve heard the Chinese X Force is supposed to be our backup—just hope they don’t back up so far that we’re left facing the enemy alone.”
The other soldiers drop in and out of their columns, fill up with water, then rejoin the march. They’re like nomadic herdsmen, wild-eyed and set on survival. A colonel, younger than the sergeant by about twenty years, steps up to join our conversation. He guzzles water from his freshly filled canteen, but fixes an eye on me with a manner that tells me he’s on a fishing expedition. His youthful looks do not camouflage his commanding countenance.
“A few days ago, a British brigade passed through,” I say, reaching to pull out a cigarette for myself and offer one to him. “Looked like an infantry unit.”
He ignores me and instead he tells his men to hustle with their canteens and drop back in line. By now, a swarm of the American soldiers are jostling the truck like they want to tip it over and drain every last drop of the provisions inside, just for fun.
“Don’t worry about our guys.” The older sergeant sees my concern. “They’re just a bunch of high-spirited boys too tired to do much damage. They’ll settle down in a few.”
Then the Colonel asks, only partially interested, “How much farther does the road hold out?”
I close my eyes and consider his question, hoping I’ll get more information from them before I give away the store. “There’s the trace, cleared road bed, excavated dirt, gravel track, then tarmac finish. Which section are you talking about?”
He takes my holdout as though he suffers it every day. “The trace will do.”
“Two miles up,” I offer, wondering why the hell they’re so secretive. Then it hits me: this is Galahad.
“Appreciate the help,” the colonel answers. “Mr. Doyer, we best be on our way.” “Sure thing, Colonel Hunter,” Doyer says, but he holds back for a few minutes more.
Wheels squeal and motors rumble. I check over my shoulder to see the road crew back on the clock. Through the last bits of daylight, I watch a dozer battle a tangle of vines and hundred- foot-tall trees. My shoulder muscles are tight as Hunter walks away. I feel defeated at the thought of letting Galahad slip by without passing on what I heard from Stilwell.
Doyer looks at me expectantly, as though he knows I have information. “Rumor has it the Brits were Wingate’s Chindits,” I say.
He nods, but says nothing.
“You ask me, you’re all on a suicide mission. No heavy artillery to back you up. Just your own rifles and machine guns. The Japanese mortar and tanks will wipe you all out before you’re within firing distance.” I expect to see alarm or anger in Doyer’s eyes, but his passive lack of response tells me nothing.
He instead screws the cap on his canteen and nods his thanks. “It’s all a matter of fate,” he finally answers with an invincible confidence that seems to be founded on ignorance.
I catch Doyer’s glance back before he turns to catch up with Hunter. “You’re Galahad?” I ask, hoping for at least one answer.
“Something like that,” he says. “We’re the five-three-oh-seventh.” He pauses for effect, then adds, “Provisional.”
When I get back to my barrack, there’s a note waiting for me. “Flynn, meet me at my field office, 08:00 hours.” Signed Colonel Pick.
I’ve got a bad feeling that I’m finally going to be buried by my own stupidity.
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