The black curtain of night falls. Mothers carry crying children up ladders into bashas with waiting roped hammocks, and soldiers light up their Cavaliers on their walk back to our bivouac. Set among paddy fields on a ridge top, we’re able to relax with Kachin rangers posted on sentry duty.
Sam, Preacher, Doc, Pfeifer and I follow Darlington and four or five Kachin dignitaries to the chief’s basha. Shortly after we arrive, Merrill, Hunter, Osborne, and the pock-marked Kachin join us. Inside, women, face paint fading but still in their festive best, prepare the children for sleep. As soon as their little ones are settled on the woven mats along the side walls of the hut, they pull out their red betel nuts for energy and keep to themselves. Near the back, a long-range radio sits on the floor.
We settle around an earthen hearth, where kindling erupts into sporadic flames. A Kachin adds more wood, and the fire smolders until the logs glow. Shadow figures dance on the bamboo-latticed walls from the fire’s wavering light. The Kachin smoke their black tar opium in long-stem pipes. We light up our Lucky Strikes. I lean against a pole and listen to the sounds of two languages rising and falling. The staccato joking in English intersects with languid Kachin whispers. The day’s ceremonies are coming to a close with this final ritual.
My body and eyelids wants to droop, but none of us can let go of the tension that’s become second nature. Night brings relief for those who can find sleep.
Darlington sits in his designated spot, reaches back, snaps on the radio, and adjusts its knobs. High-pitched whining and static are followed by, “The Japanese have attacked British headquarters in India.” Our muscles automatically prepare for action, bracing us for what’s to come.
“Along the southern Burma border, one-hundred-thousand Japanese have crossed into India. Imphal and Kohima are under siege.” The radio sputters, and we lose reception. Today’s reprieve is over, bringing us back to the ugly truth of why we’re here.
Hunter, normally unfazed, bristles. His jaw tightens. “We thought we were pushing the Japanese further south. Now we know they were moving west on purpose.”
“Who’s tracking the air reconnaissance information?” Preacher poses the question we’re all afraid to ask, because if H.Q. isn’t, then no one is. “The Nips seem to know where we are. We should know their positions, too.” With his long arm, he pitches his fag into the fire. “There had to be fire and smoke, unless they traveled at night when our planes can’t catch them.”
Merrill stays silent, loyal to Stilwell until the end.
Darlington shifts uneasily, then asks the pockmarked Kachin, “Nau, have you heard anything about the Japanese movement to India?”
We wait while Nau inhales deeply from the opium pipe. He passes the pipe to the chief, composes himself, then answers, “Chindit Ferguson tell American pilot Cochran to bomb ammo depot west of Irrawaddy. Many wonder why Japanese had ammo supply so far from base camp.”
“That could be good news,” Osborne says, eyes closed while he considers the enemy’s tactical plans. “If they don’t know their stash had been destroyed and they’ve unloaded a hundred thousand troops near India without enough arms, they may be handing the Brits their surrender papers.”
Nau shakes his head vehemently, “I hear there ammo dump near Kohima. It belong to Americans. Why Americans store ammo near British? Unless it not for Americans or British.”
Doc reaches for the opium pipe, “Maybe we should all smoke a bit of this. Looks like Nau is thinking more clearly than we are. We’ve been ignoring the obvious.”
“You think one of our guys in India is stockpiling ammo for the Japs?” The flickering fire exaggerates Sam’s innocent, wide eyed expression.
I get a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach as a piece of the puzzle slips neatly in place. Finally, I understand why Schmidt wanted me out of the way and reassigned to the road front. If he could push any of this on me, he would. Then they would think I’m a plant in Galahad. This is more information than I want.
Darlington takes the pipe from Doc, then passes it to the Kachin sitting next to him. “I doubt there’s only one soldier in on this.” He stares at Merrill. “I hope someone checks it out.”
Static from the radio interrupts Darlington, who repositions himself so he can adjust the knobs better. It whines a pinning sound. I grit my teeth. Still no reception. The silence is harder to take than bad news. That must be how Ruthie feels when I don’t write.
Darlington’s soft monotone draws me back to the fire ring. “Your General Stilwell insisted the Chindits help you chaps in Burma. It appears that while those boys are here to help Operation END RUN, no one’s minding British Headquarters in India.”
Hunter, leaning on one elbow, legs outstretched, throws a twig into the fire. “So you think the Japanese know we’re here?”
Darlington gets the radio to squawk. After some pinning, he fine-tunes the frequency. I recognize Stilwell’s voice. “…everybody’s buzzing and jumping up and down. How did Merrill get things so botched up?” It crackles and dies. Darlington answers Hunter: “They certainly know the Chindits are in Burma.”
Abruptly, Hunter pushes himself up into a sitting position. “I suppose Stilwell will blame us for that, too. We’ve done everything by the book, but there’s the Army way, and there’s the Stilwell way.” He looks at Merrill, who simply shrugs.
Ominous quiet settles into the basha. The Americans are as charged as a bolt of lighting with the news that the Japanese have attacked India. Panic sets in. I wish I’d gone back to my tent. We were supposed to be able to park our problems for the night, but instead, we chain smoke while our knees bob nervously. An owl hoots in the distance. Rain patters on the thatched roof. By now, the final glowing embers light only the edge of the hearth.
“Stilwell’s right,” I say, unable to believe my words. “Revenge or not, now’s the time to act, while the Japanese are spread out and focused on India. But the Chinese were a week late at Walwabum. Will they be a month late at the next objective? If we don’t have the X Force behind us, we may as well be shooting toy guns.” I can’t take any more news; my nerves are shot. I stand up to leave and push the basha flap open. It’s pouring cats and dogs.
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