“Go get ’em boys.” General Joseph Stilwell good-naturedly smacks a stocky private’s back. In response, the surprised soldier grimaces an uneasy smile. The rest of the enlisted men dutifully continue to unload the recent shipment of food, construction material, and equipment parts onto the rail platform. Awaiting my own delivery of medical supplies, I shield my eyes and look up at the unrelenting midday sun. There are no promises of mercy, only more sweat and fatigue. The dry season can be as brutal as the monsoon.
Conspicuously lacking his insignia and rank and looking more like a severe Oklahoma dirt farmer than the highest-ranking commander of the US Forces in the CBI, Stilwell bites down on his long-stem cigarette holder. He leaves the services of supply soldiers and walks over to Colonel Merrill, who’s just arrived from Delhi. “Got a report for me?”
Standing at ease, arms behind his back, Merrill jokes with an easy smile, “Things couldn’t be better, Joe. Or could they?” He pulls out his pipe, pointing it at the piles of discarded supplies. Quickly reinserting the pipe between gritted teeth, he reaches out to shake hands with his commanding officer and friend.
The two scrutinize the growing disarray of boxes, dented canned goods, and broken equipment in the center of the station. Along the curbside, a line-up of soldiers heft supplies on to the coolies’ heads, which are to be hiked to storage bashas on base. The clanging rail cars and black soot snorting from the steam engine force the officers to leave the platform.
An army staff car, parked in front of my tarp-covered Jeep, waits for them at the entrance of the rail station. I walk a safe distance behind the two officers, followed by coolies carrying the special shipment items to be packed in the bed of my Jeep.
Glancing back at the rail platform swarming with soldiers and merchants, Stilwell says under his breath, “Looks like Larry, Moe, and Curly have joined the unit.”
“Give me the Three Stooges any day,” Merrill says. “At least I’d be laughing.”
“I got your letter,” Stilwell says, unable to hide a look of concern. “The road’s that bad?”
Merrill nods, “It’s not the Japanese blocking construction; it’s the damn rain and mud. If you think it’s a mess here, go to road H.Q. There’s a cemetery of everything that doesn’t work in Burma buried out there. Hell, I saw more ammo than spare parts in the supply hut. Joe, the road’s not going to get done unless you pull rank.”
“No Nips?” Stilwell asks Merrill quizzically. “But ammo?”
Shocked that Merrill found my ammo in the supply hut at road headquarters, I hesitate. One of the coolies, head down, plows forward and rams me from behind, so I whirl around. His box slips from his head, and I grab the cargo before it hits the ground. Together, we readjust the load, but not without shouting and dirty looks from the other carriers. I notice Stilwell and Merrill have reached their car. After settling the yelling and accusations among the coolies, we continue towards my Jeep.
I let them load the goods while I listen in on the conversation between the two officers. An image of the ammo supply at the road site, heaped in a pile looking more like garbage than shelf-ready goods, sticks in my mind. Why didn’t Merrill question me, then, if he thought something was wrong?
Last week, a shipment clearly labeled as ammo arrived in Ledo. Later in the day, I looked for the boxes. It was as though the whole truckload disappeared. When I checked the requisition tag, it had been signed by Schmidt. Guess I need to do a little reconnaissance on that before Merrill starts snooping and someone, like Schmidt, plasters my name all over something. My trip to Hell’s Gate and the little girl with the wicker basket convinced me to kick the dynamite habit. Thanks to Bernie, I found another way to do my duty.
In a barely audible undertone, the two officers continue their debriefing. “The Japanese are farther into Central Burma—the Hukawng Valley.” Merrill looks around as though he wishes this conversation was not out in the open. “And the enemy has good air coverage just south of there at their Myitkyina base. How the hell are we going to stop those fighter pilots from mutilating our boys flying the HUMP?”
The General looks over his rimmed spectacles into the distance as though he’s inspecting the supply operation. I move around to the other side of my Jeep to get within better hearing distance. Old Vinegar Joe crosses his arms, then drops the bomb: “I’ve got an idea: Code name Galahad.”
“Really?” Merrill asks, then takes the pipe out of his mouth. “What is Galahad?”
“A counterinsurgent, long-range penetration unit. The President’s put a call out to the Allies. He wants to talk when we meet in Cairo.” Stilwell shifts his gaze from the rail station to the street, observing the honking cars weaving around overloaded bicycles that dominate the road. “Roosevelt and Churchill will both be there. Rumor has it Mountbatten—what a sap—will be given the head CBI post instead of me. Most likely some inside work by my Chinese cry- baby friend, Generalissimo.”
“Chiang Kai-shek’s got nerve, throwing his weight around,” Merrill says. “He’s constantly bellyaching, even though most of his men are still in Kunming.” He, too, shifts his attention, suddenly finding the sirens and blare of street traffic interesting and probably a better place for his words to vanish.
“I just want to squeeze the brass enough to get some help and push this road through.” Stilwell says, brushing off Merrill’s sympathy with an annoyed wave of his hand. “Mountbatten ought to be feeling a little guilty if he gets the post and not me, so I expect he’ll cut me a few breaks. Wingate’s under Mountbatten, and he’s also supposed to be there.”
“Now there’s a loony toon,” Merrill laughs, filling his pipe with tobacco.
“And a genius,” the General adds. “He’s always boasting about his Chindits slipping behind the enemy line and sabotaging the Nip communication lines. I want to pick his brain and find out how to form our own commando unit, Galahad.”
Out on the street, horns honk. I move closer to the front of the Jeep, adjusting the tarp’s ties.
Stilwell’s thin lips are barely moving. When it quiets down, I hear, “I want an American team leading the guerrillas in Northern Burma. We need to wipe out all the Japs in Myitkyina to build the road. So I’ll ask for the commando unit to be shipped to India in a couple of months, November at the latest. By spring, they’ll infiltrate Burma and disrupt enemy operations; then we can send in the Chinese X Force combat battalion to clean out the site for the road crew.”
“Galahad will land in India in two months, and then what?” Merrill’s skepticism hangs between the two men.
“Mountbatten will want Wingate to train them with his Chindits,” Stilwell says, his hawk eyes narrowed and jaw set firm. “But I want you in charge. You know Northern Burma.
Wingate can work the south with his Chindits. You’ll have until February to get them ready. I want Myitkyina before the end of the next monsoon season.”
Merrill’s only answer is raised eyebrows and a lot of tobacco smoke.
I move back towards the rear of the Jeep. The suffocating smell of rotting fruit and human sweat wafts in from the train station as this news shakes me. I gasp for air as I re-arrange goods under the Jeep’s canvas tarp.
I remember Charles’s quick research on the Chindits a few months ago when Operation LONGCLOTH penetrated the Japanese line in Burma and blew up a few railroad bridges and ammo piles. They’re a tough bunch of Brits, Burma Rifles, and Gurkhas. They travelled light, so they were fast, but they had no artillery cover, and all supplies were air-dropped. So during the monsoons, when rains grounded the planes, they were literally abandoned.
Now Stilwell wants an American version of the Chindits—Galahad—to start right before the monsoon season. Seems like a risky idea. How does Stilwell think a group of American-led guerrillas—hell, any group with only a few months of training—can take down the whole town of Myitkyina? It’s swarming with the enemy. But Stilwell’s so thick-skinned, he doesn’t think twice about sacrificing young men.
Stilwell stands transfixed, as though he sees his plan in action. “We’ve got to get behind enemy lines and wipe out the Myitkyina airfield by next April. I’m calling it Operation END RUN.”
“Joe, be realistic,” Merrill interrupts. “It’s taken us eight months to get fifty miles.
Myitkyina is another two hundred miles. At the rate we’re going, we’ll get there in three years. There are ten major rivers in the way, with more rain than you’d ever see in the Everglades. Then, as if that isn’t enough, the Himalayas are the toughest mountains in the world. Oh, and by the way, did you forget the Japanese are waiting for us in the Hukawng Valley and…”
“Okay, Okay,” Vinegar Joe answers, slamming an intolerant fist into the car door. “But we need a man in charge of the road, not that insect we have there now. I want someone to get this road built over that mountain range between India and Burma so we can catch the Nips with their pants down. I want to get to Shingbwiyang by the end of ’43.”
“What the hell?” Merrill argues. “That’s almost sixty miles in four months. Besides, there’s something screwy in SOS.”
“Colonel Lewis Pick.” Stilwell answers. “He’s a can-do soldier. We need men who can help us win this war. Except for the Chindits, we’ve got enough British pansies who’d prefer we never get to the front, and the Chinese are such cowards; they won’t fight unless they’re sure they’ll win.”
Still hidden behind my Jeep, I stand motionless as perspiration rolls over my eyes.
Sounds like Stilwell wants to fly solo.
“Joe.” Merrill grabs Stilwell’s arm. “We’re all Allies. I know I’m your subordinate, but I’m also your friend. Get a grip on your emotions. You need the Allies’ help to build this road. So, don’t alienate them. You’ve got to have patience.”
“Patience. I hate that word,” Stilwell answers. He pauses, then shrewdly asks, “So is Operation END RUN by next spring really asking for too much?” Vinegar Joe doesn’t wait for an answer. “Get me Pick. I’ll pull rank if I have to.”
The train, next to the nearly empty platform, belches another cloud of grunge and grime.
The officers’ chauffer finally arrives, and Stilwell and Merrill hop into the waiting staff car. Sounds like big adjustments and a little drama are in store under the name of General Lewis Pick. I slam my door shut and head to the supply station to drop off the goods, then find Bernie and Charles.
Bernie thinks I drop by the garage after work each day to wait until he’s done so we can grab Charles, then hit the mess hall together. He doesn’t watch me as I wander in and out of the hulking masses of metal, not so much to inspect their condition, but to make it difficult for someone to observe me. During my first month back from the construction front, Bernie introduced me to my dynamite substitute.
On my first day back from the construction front, I had singled out Bernie from a circle of mechanics, whose expressions said they wanted to tear me to shreds, slowly. “Hey, buddy, isn’t it closing time?” I asked as I joined the group.
“You’re not actually a welcome sight around here, Harry,” Bernie warned, holding up a spark plug clearly having seen its full life. “We need parts that work.”
I threw my hands up in surrender. “Don’t shoot me, boys. I suggest you take it up with Vinegar Joe Stilwell.” I nodded towards the door as a hint for Bernie to stop. He ignored me.
The whites of Bernie’s eyes and his red hair stood out in stark contrast to his oil-smudged face. “Looky here.” He held up a bottle that looked like it belonged in a chemistry lab. “HCL.
Now, what can I do with hydrochloric acid?” He pronounced hydrochloric as though it was four separate words, then looked me straight in the eye. His sarcasm would have soured water.
Knowing Bernie’s volatile spirit, I suggested, “It’s probably a mixup with the medical supplies. I’ll check it out.” I reached out to grab the bottle, but Bernie held tight.
One of the other mechanics nearby overheard us talking. Before Bernie could respond, the old guy was looking over our shoulders. “Hey, I hear you can use HCL as battery fluid when you’re out of sulfuric acid.” In his strong Brooklyn accent, he continued, “Since your buddy here won’t send us new batteries, we may as well doctor up the old ones we scavenged from the cemetery. One of the SOS typos may have been a brilliant accident.” He laughed with more disappointment than humor.
Bernie looked skeptical. “I thought that stuff only rusted metal.”
“Full proof with no dilution, it’d eat metal like sugar dissolves in water,” the mechanic answered. “You’ve got to mix it with water, like you do your liquor.” He gave Bernie a good New York ribbing, then grabbed a discarded battery and placed it on a bench. In a glass container, the older mechanic carefully mixed a solution of HCL and water. He poured the mixture into the battery’s opened caps. Within a few minutes, several other mechanics surrounded them as they placed it in a vehicle, and waited for a resurrected battery.
While they played scientists, I pretended I wasn’t interested. Hydrochloric acid, I repeated to myself. It eats away metal. Sounds wicked, I thought. Why would anyone need to rust metal away unless they wanted to destroy it? That’s when the idea popped, just like the rusted pin in Earl’s overturned rig. The chain separated from the dozer’s track because the rusted pin snapped. Without the pin, the rig was useless. Without the rig, there’d be no road.
Since that day, I’d been adding a drop of HCL to all the pins and bushings my eye- dropper could reach. Bernie thought I was just lazy, wandering around the garage with nothing to do.
Today, after having eavesdropped on Stilwell and Merrill, I have no time for doctoring the machines. Stilwell’s obsession with winning the war with his road has left him blind to the real reason for war, which should be to save American lives. I grab a rag and walk in between all the vehicles floating on hoists, looking for Bernie. “Go wash your face, then lets pay Charles a visit before he’s off radio duty.” I thrust the rag at Bernie. If he’s stubborn and says he wants to tune up a couple more vehicles, then I’m out of here without him.
“Sure, Harry.” Bernie cocks his head back and eyes me with irritation. “I see there’s something burning a hole in your brain.” He lowers the hoist and grabs the rag, then tosses it on the bench in three smooth moves.
“I just got a tip that’s a real cliffhanger,” I taunt in singsong. “Let’s get Charles to check out Lewis Pick and Galahad.”
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