The only thing that kept me alive that day in Loi Kang was my anger. I remember a hilltop reeking of phosphorous, vomit, and blood, and feeling emotionally empty with Knight and the young Japanese soldier’s bodies lying next to me. I thought, “The only way they’ll get me home in a body bag is over my dead body.” Then I got mad and passed out.
“I was afraid you were going to sleep the war away,” Dr. Seagrave says. He arches his eyebrows as he peers through his wire-rimmed glasses; his sunken eyes are heavy with dark circles. Then he grabs my wrist to check my pulse and calls out, “Maran Lu, we got a live one over here. Give him only water until he can sit up by himself. Then we’re sending him back to Ledo. These beds in Myitkyina are reserved for sick soldiers.” His lopsided half-smile shows his relief at pulling another soldier from the grave. “Harry, next time, don’t turn your back on the enemy.”
Maran Lu pushes the doctor away. “He my patient. You go find own trouble.” As she turns me over to check my wound—her loose braid now a tangle of uncombed hair flopping in her face—she whispers, “Harry, you sweet boy. I take good care of you.” The wound hurts like hell, but that’s better than the alternative. Before she leaves, she confides, “Earl be happy you live. He no good at writing goodbye letters for friends’ family.”
All of March, 1945, I was laid up in Ledo. That’s when Stilwell’s Road was completed.
I hear it looks like a hardened scar through the jungle, undulating behind bends that wind to infinity. With the road done, I had nothing to go back to, so Uncle Sam recommended a desk job.
Because of my stupidity, I took the offer. In spite of it, in April, they sent me to Ceylon with a promotion.
CBI headquarters in Ceylon needs someone to manage the supplies for the gas lines they’re building parallel to Stilwell’s Road. With my knowledge of North Burma, I’m the man for the job. Now I realize how lucky I was to get an SOS position. But by resisting my original assignment on the road job, I just about bucked myself out of the training that will land me a good-paying position back home.
A familiar figure enters the hallway as I walk by in search of my new post in H.Q.’s main building on this tiny island off the tip of India. Closing the door to a room without any designation stenciled on the frosted glass, the soldier hesitates. So I tap him on the shoulder to see if the door leads to the SOS office.
“Harry?” Charming Charles asks as he turns to face me. His usual refined gentility is replaced with open-faced shock, which quickly changes to mischief. “You’re to report to OSS?” He narrows his eyes to study me for confirmation.
“OSS? Hell no, I’m still with SOS. Or is SOS a part of OSS? What the hell is OSS, and where is SOS?” I grab hold of Charles’ outstretched hand like a dog unwilling to release a bone.
“It’s Office of Strategic Services,” Charles cautiously answers, then points down the hall. “SOS is in the next corridor. What the hell are you doing here?”
“If the Japs can’t get rid of me, do you think Uncle Sam can?”
“You’re as skinny as a stray dog, but you’re the same, Harry.” Charles straightens his jacket and tie. “Get settled in, then meet me for a drink at the pub on Queens Road by the British Consulate.”
It takes almost no time for Charles and me to pick up where we left off in Ledo. I hail from a long line of farmers, while Charles is a Stanford man, like his father. Our former lives are from opposite social classes, but war has a way of equalizing us all.
“Whatever happened to Schmidt?” I ask Charles while nursing a beer. There are no enlisted men in the British pub, with its panels of carved mahogany and mother of pearl ashtrays.
“Funny you should ask.” He swirls brandy in the snifter cupped in his long, polished hands, downs it, then settles into the overstuffed, velvet chair. “Remember the day Colonel Pick arrived and the transport truck went missing? I had you race off to the train station to fetch the Colonel.”
He leans over the table and whispers, “Harry, this is between you and me, because I know I can trust you.” He waits for another nod. “Well, there was a tip-off that illegal supplies were being shipped from Delhi to Ledo. We weren’t sure who it was, but we were absolutely certain there was a rat in the pack. So we started planting propaganda in our radio calls.”
“Who’s we?” I ask, seeing an interesting side of Charles that I won’t blindly trust again, as I had in the past.
“You don’t need to know.” Charles dismisses my question. “Quite frankly, the way you were acting back then, you were a suspect. But the rat that walked into our trap was Schmidt. Seems he had an in with friends of the Fuhrer. We also got the guy in Delhi, but not before they had stolen and shipped out a year’s worth of contraband supplies.” With an upraised finger, he motions for another round of drinks. “We think it went down to Kohima or Imphal. Nasty business for the Brits back then. But I wasn’t sorry to see that bastard get his due. Even execution was too good for him.”
I tilt back in the chair and marvel at how quickly I’ve escaped my life of the last four years and put thousands of miles between me and that world. I recall the recruitment officer in 1942 telling me, “You have mighty fine handwriting, son. We can use men like you.” The humiliation I felt at that time blinded me. I’m ashamed to say I used my authority to order explosives that could’ve hurt the very men I thought Stilwell was sending to their graves, and now I find out I almost got caught. Lately, the little girl with the wicker basket—and all of the men I lost—haunt me. Was I one of the lucky ones? Did I really get away?
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