I wake to the babble of monkeys and the chafing cry of hornbills. Wild elephants trumpet, deep within the jungle. As I roll over on the hard ground, I notice the other men have eaten and are packing up. Disorientated by the unannounced wake-up call, I throw on my clothes and pack my poncho and blanket. Breakfast will have to wait.
We hear a rumble in the distance. Someone jokes, “Let’s hope it’s artillery and not thunder.”
We’re ordered to shoulder our packs, and, without further delay, the column pushes forward towards our first objective.
We march in silence until the morning’s sun wears down our caution.
Finally, my feet force words out of my mouth, “Can someone explain to me why we can’t use that perfectly good dirt road about a mile to the west?” The sand eats away the soft flesh on my soles, and this new fungus infection makes me want to scratch them raw.
Mr. Doyer slips back in the column to hold position a few paces behind me. “Harry, we’re playing a game called hide and don’t seek. The Japanese don’t know we’re here. We want to keep it that way.”
Seems to me like common sense is not something taught by the military, so I say, “As soon as I see a down slope, I know I’ll be squishing through a stream and then hiking uphill again. All I’m suggesting is that it’s easier if we stay near the ridge top.”
“And how would you hide almost three-thousand men from those Japanese Franks patrolling the skies?” Doyer’s patient voice is irritating only because he’s right. “Besides, we have another rendezvous later today with the brass outside Ningbyen. So we have to trek down because we can’t build them a light plane landing in these here steep hills.”
On our descent, the stench hits us before we’re out of the elephant grass. Dilapidated bamboo bashas sit on stilts at the edge of rice paddies. Mutilated bodies, swarming with insects, remind us why we’re here. Most are women and children within an arms reach of each other.
Rabid dogs, bloody and growling, threaten us to keep clear as they paw, rip, and disembowel their meals. As we march on I wonder if this is what they did to Maran Lu’s village.
Within a quarter mile of the road, at the edge of the river, we’re ordered to stop. We drop down and lean against the bank, letting our feet savor the few moments of reprieve.
I close my eyes, then think aloud: “Let’s call it a day, boys. How’s about a beer?” I hear restrained chuckles, warbling birds, and the sound of the rushing wind that has been concealed by the repetitive thudding of mule’s hooves. I open my eyes, breaking the spell.
Downstream, where the shallow sandbars flank the widening river, we see a procession of men crossing to our side. One of them wears a Chindit hat and shorts. I recognize him and groan.
“Stilwell sure has skinny legs,” Doyer says. We both know this is no indication of his tenacity. Still, his wiry body and ordinary looks are less than awe-inspiring, and it’s rumored his lack of negotiating flair isn’t lost on the high-ranking brass or political puppeteers.
Sunburned and stiff, I begrudgingly prepare to stand at attention. For all the times I’ve seen the General, I’ve never spoken with him. This seems to be a strange place for him to finally welcome Galahad. The other men ready themselves, too, snarling at their leader, who has abandoned them until he needs them.
“Men,” Stilwell says, parading in front of us. “You’ve been told by Colonel Merrill that we need to push the enemy out of Burma. We’re starting here in the north so we can clear a path to connect our headquarters in India to China. Your first objective is Walawbum. It’s the northernmost tip of the enemy’s control, just outside Jambu Bum Pass.” He speaks simply and quietly. “In eight days, your job is to sabotage the lines, put in a road block, and ambush the scouts so they’re caught with their pants down. Our Chinese X Force will press the advancing Japanese back and keep them busy, while you infiltrate from the rear.” Sweating in the midday sun, his energy seems to increase with each word. “You won’t be alone on this mission. Further south, the British Chindits will take out rail tracks and destroy communication lines to eliminate the possibility of Jap reinforcements moving up. I want you in and out before the Chinese infantry and tank units attack from the north.”
Lt. Sam Wilson, a lantern-jawed, fair-haired southerner and, our personal Civil War historian, states, “Sir, the men are in great shape. We can get it done in less time.”
Stilwell’s naturally gruff nature returns. “Soldier, this is no cake walk. I want you to fan out into the Hukawng Valley, then surprise them from the east. That’s a lot of marching. Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes. Sir!” Sam’s young face exudes an idealism that’s hard to supress.
Pleased with the reception from Galahad, Stilwell bites down on his cigarette holder, then confides, “Men, your role is critical to the success of the CBI Theater in Burma. We need to build that road to China so they’ll get off their butts and help us win this war. I’m looking at a well-trained, hard-hitting unit. I know it will be rough going for you boys, but you can do it.”
The General’s made a good first impression on the men, as evidenced by the way they swagger back to pick up their packs. But I know Stilwell’s too busy being a political butterfly to really concern himself with us.
Looking satisfied, Stilwell turns to Hunter before re-entering the stream. “Tough-looking lot of babies you got here.”
In keeping with Stilwell’s orders, we march east into the valley until it’s dark. We grope around boulders, find places to drop our packs, unload the mules, set up communication lines, then eat a cold meal. The skies are clear, so rather than pitch tents with the supply drop parachutes, we lay out our ponchos and pull our blankets over our heads. It’s only the first day of this mission, and we’re already exhausted. Still, unworried, sleep seeps in immediately.
We’re not out of the valley in the requisite eight days. The long, less-than-scenic route has been a tip-toeing nightmare. Small parties of Japanese hold the high ground, so at every bend we prepare for an ambush. Galahad’s suffered its first causality in-action today, Pvt. Robert Landis.
At camp, I sit on a rock, killing time, hoping I’ll soon get a response regarding the next supply plane. Yesterday, we abandoned the food and ammo drop when we received an emergency call from Galahad’s blue platoon in the 2nd Battalion. By the time we arrived at the coordinates, a sprawl of dead Japanese bodies told the story. But now, we’re low on supplies. Thankfully, we can harvest water from bamboo shoots, but manna isn’t floating down from heaven.
We wait nervously for the intelligence and reconnaissance platoons to return with news of Japanese locations before we press ahead. Sam and his team are the first to drag themselves back to Galahad’s command post.
Sam, at nineteen years old, leads the 1st Battalion’s I&R platoon. “Every step, I expect to hear something behind the thick elephant grass. But how can you hear a Jap waiting silently with his rifle aimed at your head?” Sam wormed his way out of shooting range after taking down a roving enemy patrol. The relief on his peach fuzz face turns authoritative when he orders his men to turn around and retrace their steps in the morning. “What is courage when you’re risking the lives of other men?” The guilt on Sam’s face shows the toll this operation is already taking on him.
I’m still waiting for static from the radio to send us news of our next drop when the Orange 3rd Battalion’s I&R platoon returns. Lt. Logan Weston, the team’s officer, who was a divinity student in the states, drops to the ground and begins his story while he unlaces his boots and rubs his feet.
“Our corporal in the lead was immediately suspicious, scouting a village a few miles south from here. Unlike at other Kachin sites, we were not greeted by timid native women or racing children. He lifted a hand to halt our platoon. I finally caught up to him, but the foot path was thick with vines, and slowed me down.
“I had heard sounds ahead,” the corporal chimes in. “Weston thought they may be Chinese. He wanted me to make sure they were the enemy before I shot. So we moved forward towards a bend in the road to get a better look. Weston covered me from behind. I yelled back, ‘There’s two Chinese. They’re smiling and waving us forward.”
Fear still hangs in the guarded expression on the scout’s rugged face.
“Weston followed, still in firing position, when the Asian man’s waving hand went down and two machine guns broke loose. I hit the ground firing, and a bullet grazed my cheek. But I could see one dead Jap sprawled out. After diving into the brush, Weston and another soldier covered me so I could scramble back to safety.”
“We could’ve knocked them off,” Weston boasts, now within the comfort of the camp. “But our mission was to find out if there were Japanese in the area, not take them down.”
After dinner, I make it a point to find Sam, who you’d never guess was distressed from his perpetually bright temperament. Next to Sam sits Weston, whose gentle appearance could mislead one to underestimate his nerves of steel. They’re sitting on the ground outside the H.Q. tent where, with the aid of a Zippo lighter, Hunter finishes going over tomorrow’s route.
After Hunter leaves, I stoop to join them. “I hope you don’t mind me asking, but how did you guys choose the men on your I&R teams?” I’m not ready to give up supply duty yet; just curious.
With his normal youthful exuberance, Sam lights up, ready with his answer. “I went into the guardhouse looking for the guys I had seen stand up to authority. The ones annoyed when someone told them what to do. Men with the gut instinct to react without my direction. My theory is, men who don’t give a damn if they live or die will survive, and they’ll hold anyone trying to stop them from doing it their way in contempt.”
Weston laughs as though he’s heard it all before. He begins his explanation like he’s preaching to a congregation. “I’m a man of God,” he starts. “I went through the ranks and asked for all the men who had been in a hopeless combat situation before. I chose the men who told me that when they couldn’t advance a step further, they’d dropped to their knees and trusted in the Lord.”
Later, I learned Weston was thought of as the Fighting Preacher, which is why everyone calls him Preacher.
Expecting only three days’ travel time to our objective, we receive the order we’re waiting for from Stilwell. Strike! We begin a forty-hour nonstop march to Walawbum, out of food and low on ammunition. In a typical, cocky, Galahad fashion, one man boasts, “We’re gonna decimate those yellow slant-eyes.”
With a distinct disadvantage going into this operation, I have a visceral urge to jump ship. But I remember once having said that it’s easier to judge a stranger the first time you meet them than someone you’ve known a lifetime. In front of me is a group of men with no other alternative than to win. Whether we’re right or wrong, we’ve had to convince ourselves we’re invincible.
At dawn on March 4, with only fifteen miles to go, Galahad’s three battalions split up. Orange moves south to set up a roadblock. White heads north to secure the high ground. And Blue Battalion will cut a jungle trail due west and march into the heart of Walawbum.
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