The dawn sky is thick with threatening clouds. Throughout the camp, soldiers huddle around small campfires, whispering to each other as though they don’t want to wake themselves. I want to take my coffee back into my tent and sleep the day away, but my gear’s already packed. No one wants to be left behind when the orders come to march, so we’ve gotten into the habit of rising ready to run.
“Harry, I’ll trade you for your candy bar.” Pfeifer throws me his packet of coffee.
This decision is no simple task. Knowing I get chocolate for a midday snack makes the first thousand steps bearable. I consider whether we’ll even be allowed to have fires for coffee when we camp tonight, what with the panic about India. I toss the coffee back to Pfeifer.
Merrill and Hunter walk out of the H.Q. tent, followed by Darlington. A half-dozen Kachin guerrillas, burp guns slung over their shoulders, trail behind.
We kick out fires and fold up camp. My pulse pumps. The division commanders gather around Merrill and Hunter, and we watch, anxious to get started, yet dreading what will happen next. Merrill looks like he’s had a rough night.
Waiting for the men to settle down, Merrill lights up his pipe and takes a few puffs. His voice is monotone. “Gentlemen, Imphal and Kohima are under attack, but we’re still moving west to the Kamaing Road so we can take our next objective, Shaduzup. We’ll set up three roadblocks, then let Brown’s tanks and the Chinese X Force artillery move in for the final kill.”
Some of us know we’ll be going into Japanese territory without assurance that the Chinese will show up. Pfeifer and I give each other a knowing look. I kick the dirt in front of me, trying to divert my anger at Merrill’s timidity, but I guess a commander can’t tell his men he’s sending them in to die. I reach deep for Ruthie’s strength to carry me through the day. It grounds my nerves.
Merrill builds up momentum and confidence. His slight smile seems almost hopeful. “I want the White combat and the 1st I&R unit to cut back into the Hukawng Valley to form the northern block out of Shaduzup. The Blue Battalion and 2nd I&R will continue along the ridge, then swing in to form the southern block. In between, half of the Orange combat battalion and 3rd I&R will block the trails along the Tanai River. The other half of the 3rd will join the Blue Battalion.”
Preacher, standing next to me, throws a soft punch to my gut. “Let’s give the Blue Battalion some help. Maybe we’ll see some action.”
I double over from the fake blow, then straighten up. Every time I look at Preacher, with his thick dark eyelashes, I think of a llama. But he’s anything but a docile animal. The guy probably wakes up wondering who he’s going to fight that day. “I’d like to see some action, but not the kind you’re thinking about,” I answer, rolling my eyes
“Harry, didn’t anyone ever tell you that your pretty blue eyes would get stuck in the back of your head if you keep doing that?” Preacher sprints ahead to grab his gear. Once we tighten our rucksacks for the march, Pfeifer connects with us to join the 2nd Battalion.
Kachin mahouts lead a file of seven elephants holding tails, one with a young calf at her side. Darlington pats the lead elephant’s head. “You’ll find this Kachin scouting unit will help you get in and out of some nasty terrain on your march through the villages along the ridge top. Once you arrive in Janpan, Fr. James Stuart will help you from there. Not to be confused with Jimmy Stewart, the actor, Fr. Stuart still gets to act, as a man of God. So far, the Japanese believe that’s all he does.”
We watch, unconvinced of the value of our new mascots, as the mahouts prod the elephants into motion. Darlington continues, “I won’t be going with you, but we’re sending three hundred of the best Kachin rangers.” The peculiar Captain walks with Merrill towards the edge of the village, where he shakes our hands as we pass him.
Near the forest border, we pass by the young woman with the orange tree. Her child is strapped on her back, limbs relaxed and deep in sleep. When she sees me, she tentatively steps down from her basha carrying a paper-wrapped package. She hands it to me, then looks at the orange tree. I nod my thanks. She smiles and returns to her stairs. I pull out my poncho and tuck her oranges into the open spot. The clouds have opened, and it’s raining buckets. This is going to be a long haul.
One day wears into two, then three. Men are weak with dysentery and malaria as we climb up and down the spine of the mountain range. Thank God for the elephants. They prove to be worth ten men on these steep, slippery slopes when the supply drops get a little less than accurate. But the mules are getting thinner, having to share their feed.
On the side of the road, I hand out packages of five-day rations from a pile, as the men march by, then let my eyes rest upon the horizon. Below, a faint blue ribbon meanders back and forth across the basin in the valley to the west. Above, a cloud layer floats in line with the path of the stream. For hundreds of miles, all I see are varying shades of green suffocating the foothills. I wonder why such a tranquil part of the world had to become hell for so many men.
After almost a week’s march, the Kachin in our lead greets an unofficial representative of the guerrillas at the entrance into Janpan. His nationality and official status are hard to gauge, given the widebrimmed, Aussie felt hat with a pheasant feather on the left side, turned-up British-style, and calf-length khaki trousers much like Darlington’s. He leans against a tree, chewing on a twig with an impish grin, trying to act disinterested.
When he sees Hunter, his expression turns exuberant, and he reaches out a well-muscled arm. “Colonel, I see you’ve brought the Marauder laddies I’ve heard so much about. Tis grand that ye made it before the night fell. A hundred thousand welcomes. I’m Father James Stuart.” His Irish accent is so strong that if I closed my eyes, I’d swear I was listening to my Uncle Danny from Galway. “Let me show ye to where yer men can camp. It’s a wee bit of a walk from here.”
“You’ve heard about Kohima?” Hunter asks the Irish priest as they walk the narrow path through the village.
“Aye. Tis a sad day when the Japanese took over in Burma. And now they’re on to India! Well, if yer willin’ to continue to have them, the Kachin will be your best guides.” The priest is pulled aside by one of the villagers holding a small, sickly infant.
The villagers are joyous as we march through their town. Old, leathery men and women with red-stained teeth greet us with waving windmill hands. Their bashas straddle the only path through the village. Ragged children run rampant. The men’s opium-clouded heads bob like they’re on springs. Their faces begin to show alarm at the unending column of soldiers. This must be the biggest gathering of white people they’ve ever seen. They crane their necks to see how many more soldiers are coming from the ridge, then turn to each other with childlike looks of awe.
The priest returns with a permanent grin on his face—one that’s ready to tease, rather than tolerate, your existence. “Sorry to keep you and your lads waiting, but when God calls, I can’t say no. And how long will ye and yer boys be staying with us?”
It’s obvious by Hunter’s blank expression that he doesn’t have a definite answer. “I need to wait for orders, then we’ll move out.”
“Grand. Be sure to let yer men know I’m here to listen to any of them, and if they happen to be Catholic, we can negotiate the penance.”
“There are about two-thousand of us, so I don’t expect you’ll get to know too many of them. But my boys have been whining about a nice, long furlough. So, depending upon when our orders come, you may get the unpleasant honor of hearing more than a few of them bitch.”
“I’m probably not the one to sympathize with them on that. I’ve spent ninety-six straight months in the jungle without leave. Let’s see if they can top that.”
As we walk through town, the natives try to sell us betel nuts, eggs, and rice—things we usually don’t have in our food drop. But we’re all anxious to set up camp. This morning, we got our first mail drop in months, and everyone has at least one package to open.
Not wanting to seem rude, I let a villager who’s dangling a chicken in my face stop me.
The others march on. He opens the wings, then points to the fleshy breasts. Shaking it, he emphasizes the prize he’s offering me. I hurriedly trade him an accessory pack of sugar, plus Chesterfields, and, finally, he’s satisfied with two m-rations. As I march beyond the bashas and dense brush to our bivouac site, my mouth waters for roasted chicken, and my body aches, in so many ways, to read the letter I got from Ruthie.
“Harry, over here,” Pfeifer waves me over to the only level spot with a grass cushion. We even have a little rain protection from the overhanging canopy of a twisted tree. He’s thrown down his pack and, not bothering to set up his tent, has ripped open the first envelope in his stack of mail.
“Hell,” I look enviously at his pile of at least fifty letters while I throw down my gear. “Do you have a pen pal, or is that all from your ma?” I know he doesn’t have a girl, so I’m glad someone’s thinking about him.
Flashing a photo of a hubba hubba, definitely not the girl next door, he says, “Dream on, buddy.”
Ruthie’s letter screams to be opened, but I’m not sure what will be inside. I debate whether to read it now or tonight while I enjoy my succulent chicken dinner. Eventually, I drop the chicken on the damp ground and search for the letter in my pile. Right now, there’s nothing more important than her.
My hands shake as I unfold the paper full of her handwriting. I can almost smell her Palmolive soap. I sit down and lean against the tree trunk, briefly close my eyes, then tell myself I can handle anything before I begin.
It’s been so long since I last heard from you, and I’m sorry I haven’t written. I know life must be miserable for you, and I hate to be the one telling you this, but there’s no easy way to say what I must. My heart is breaking.
I pull my eyes from the paper, and my chest constricts. My heart thumps so hard I can hear it in my ears. How can it be that the very thing I’ve waited for day after day, I now want to tear to shreds? Why didn’t I see this coming? Because all I thought about was me. I tell myself I can make it right later. So I read on.
You see, Bob is gone. We don’t know where or when, but his mother received the telegram.
My mind flashes back to Bob, smoking his pipe and honking the horn in his shiny Studebaker, the first to wear an officer’s uniform. Without warning, tears flood my eyes and blur my vision. No, I shout inside. My body shudders as I try to hold in the pain. I can almost feel his paternal arm around my shoulder and hear him saying, “They saw something in you, Harry— something the rest of us don’t have.” I’ve seen so much death already, but this time, it’s Bob.
Why him, someone who was my strength when my life seemed empty?
My body convulses as I silently sob. I feel Pfeifer looking at me, but he says nothing. I push the letter back to my face so I can hide behind it. It doesn’t seem possible.
Maybe they’re wrong. But I would hate for you to come home thinking he’ll be here waiting for you. I know you miss him terribly...like I miss you.
I love you. I always have. Ruthie
I’m surrounded by a mass of wet, cruddy, unshaven soldiers, heads bowed, absorbed in their private lives. I hear chuckling, grunts, and whistles in response to their letters. I’ve got to get away from this place, from my mind, from the truth, from this war.
Standing up, I knock my letters into a puddle. The papers soak up the water, and the ink bleeds until it’s drained, illegible, and worthless. Right now, I don’t want to read any more, anyway. Without seeing, I weave in and out of the maze of men sprawled about the bivouac and run away.
“Hey Harry,” Pfeifer calls after me. “Where are you going?”
I push aside several joking soldiers standing in my way. “Sorry,” I mumble. “Just a little sick.”
“Aren’t we all?” one answers back, sympathetic, yet oblivious. His group of friends is in high spirits, and why not? Life is good, they’re alive.
My feet take me in an unknown direction. First, I follow a dirt trail, and then push into the dense jungle. I wander in circles. Why you, Bob? I retch, then let loose the tears. Branches scratch my bare arms and face, but I don’t push them away; the pain is soothing. My eyes are itchy and swollen, but I can’t stop crying. Gradually, I become aware of the drizzle splatting on the leaves and dripping to the ground. Rain soaks my hair and clothes, but if I stop walking, I’ll have to admit that it’s real. So I keep moving. Night falls before I realize I’m trapped in its darkness. I can almost touch it and smell it. The last thing I recall is crumbling to the ground in a thicket without energy to move, think, or cry.
When I wake, it’s still dark. I’m in my tent, wet, with welts stinging my entire body.
Someone’s thrown my blanket over me so I’m not cold. I roll over and see light from the cigarette in Pfeifer’s tent as he inhales and exhales audibly. I turn back to hide under my blanket, not ready to face the truth. But the facts are relentless.
Bob saw goodness in everything and everyone. If prayers could bring him back, I’d get on my knees. Oh, God, give me the courage to understand why you took away the only man who believed in me. Show me why I should live instead of him.
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