We march two abreast on the relatively flat terrain—Knight, Doyer, Preacher, and me. December is cool and dry in Burma. In the brisk, clean air, swallows track our route, swooping in and out without fear. No one wants to talk about the past or speculate about the future; it’s all painful and uncertain.
Last June, we lost control over Myitkyina. So many lives were sacrificed to get there, but the powers in charge were too busy fighting each other and accepted those deaths as a reasonable price to pay. I lost Bernie and Lin. Thankfully, Earl made it out alive. The bearing on his axle was so rusted that when the shell hit, instead of flipping the entire cab, it split in two. That’s what saved Earl from being flattened under fifty tons of metal. I’d like to think my special chemical application of HCL to decommission the equipment, safeguarded other men in the same way.
That’s what I need to believe.
Fighting through the monsoon was the mistake that helped the Allies regain Myitkyina in August. The Japanese never expected us to be so ignorant. Who in their right mind would dispatch three battalions of soldiers in two hundred inches of rain? In the end, we lost nine out of every ten Marauders. Too bad Stilwell never got it through his thick skull that wars should not be fought in jungles during monsoons, because supply planes crash in torrential downpours. And guerrilla warfare should be just that—small units used for hit-and-run assignments. Because of the Peanut, the Chinese artillery was not always there before we went into front line battle, so the Marauders had to fight alone.
Hidden among bamboo thickets along the ditch, small, Buddhist shrines with offerings dot the way. Most are stone or plaster. Mortar shells have left their scars; some are cracked and broken from random crossfire. Guarded within these tiny temples are sacred statues: the resting, the laughing, the sitting Buddhas. Only Pfeifer knew of my miniature Buddha. I compare it to its cousins along the path and hear Pfeifer’s taunt in my mind: “Is that a Buddha in your pocket, or are you happy to see me?” Now he’s gone.
“Ain’t that disrespectful, the way them little, tiny temples have been smashed up?” Lieutenant Jack Knight drawls. Knight, a newcomer with the 5332nd from the 124th Calvary Regiment, was recently assigned to Burma.
“War values nothing but victory,” Mr. Doyer answers.
Back in Myiktyina, domed stupas, flanked by guardian lions and lotus petal columns, suffered from our bomb attacks and mortar shells. Whole chunks of plaster gouged from the roof let sunlight stream in where there had previously been private corners for meditation. Still, the locals continued their daily visits, lighting candles and worshiping as though there was no war. It’s painful to see what we’ve done to their religious monuments.
“Yep,” Knight says; his gentle twang easy on my ears. “But we can’t take credit for our wins if we don’t accept the blame for our failures.”
Knight, a plain-talking guy, is cut from the same cloth as Pfeifer. Despite his intense, narrow eyes; his Slavic nose; and thin lips—all giving the impression of a high-level predator— he’s a likable guy. He came from a family with a strong sense of patriotic duty, and proudly introduced himself by saying, “If I can’t live with glory for my country, I don’t want to live without it.” He would’ve made a hell of a Marauder, but he’s definitely rounding out the 5332nd—or Mars Task Force—well.
My eyes flit back and forth, looking for any unwelcome movement. We’re in the middle of enemy country, so talk is sparse. Up ahead, everyone turns onto a dirt road that winds around a rice paddy. We’re to bivouac at the edge of the field tonight. Forests thick with undergrowth line both sides of the road, hemming us in. I don’t like it. It’s as though we’re marching to our execution with nowhere to run.
When we finally stop, the men in the lead are already digging in and setting up their tents.
We find the C.P. where Roy’s translating something in Japanese for Osborne.
“We got these off a captured Nip.” Osborne points at the papers Roy’s holding. “They plan on sending in reinforcements, so we better make sure we’re not walking straight into their front.” With that, we know we’ve just been handed an assignment.
“Let’s do a little recon,” Preacher says, dropping his large pack against a tree and grabbing his Tommy.
Nau joins us. He says, “I climb tree. Better in air than ground, where, like elephant, cannot hide behind a bamboo pole.”
He shimmies up a tree while we continue along the trail. Preacher leads us south for a while, then cuts sharply to the east, into the dense undergrowth. “Harry and Doyer, go west,” Preacher whispers. “Knight, follow me.”
I spot a Japanese scout peering from behind a tree. Automatically, I raise my Tommy to my shoulder and blaze away, dropping him. Doyer moves to my right flank to fire at movement in the brush. Another enemy falls. Preacher and Knight come charging out of the woods onto the path, firing all the way.
“Got two more back there,” Knight brags.
Nau is back on the ground, racing towards us with fear in his face but not his voice. He calls, “Get out now. We in hornet nest.”
Shrieking Japanese close in on us. It’d take too much time to follow the road back, so Preacher consults his compass and pulls out his radio. “We’re coming across the paddy from fifteen degrees northwest of C.P., about a hundred and fifty yards out. Give us some cover. Over.” He holsters his walkie-talkie, then commands, “Run!”
Like spooked rabbits, we race across the open field. Shots crack, but we’re out of their range. We just keep running and hoping nothing bigger opens fire on us.
As we stumble into camp, exhausted but exhilarated, Knight says, “That’s the way I like to fight. Let them come to us.” His dirt-splattered face can’t hide his broad smile. “They can start it. We’ll finish it.” We quickly extinguish the Japanese platoon. No enemy reinforcements arrive.
The Chinese force landed earlier and are digging in next to us. They unload their mules and set up their artillery for battle. We eat our rations cold, without fires. No one talks. We can’t even smoke, so we just wait. Looking up, I see the moon is only a shadow of itself.
Just before daybreak, the Japanese creep to within fifty yards of our perimeter. They use smokeless gunpowder, so the only way we can place them is if they make noise. By then, it’s too late, and we’ve lost a man or two. We pick them off one by one, but at dawn, the enemy opens up with everything. After a couple hours of shelling, “Whistling Willie,” their 150 mm mortar gun, can’t knock us out. So they Banzai.
As they charge across the paddy, we mow them down. I don’t let myself think of them as husbands, sons or fathers. One platoon after another race to their death, tripping over their fallen comrades as they advance. By late afternoon, the battle is over.
We search through the mutilated remains, looking for any living. A GI bends over to strip a decorative belt from a downed enemy. The Japanese soldier rises up with one last effort, his eyes wildly searching for a last moment of honor, and throws a grenade. The soldier picks it up to toss it away, but it explodes as it leaves his hand. When will this waste end?
As we pack up to move out, the radio squawks. “Bhamo taken. Japs broke ring set by Chinese, then retreated. Only fifty miles to the border. Goodbye, Burma. Hello, China.”
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