On a Hot Summer’s Night

10 Nov

The climb over jagged ridges and the sludgy crawl from the far edge of the rice fields, through the ravines and up to the first saddle took four days. Five thousand vertical feet of volcanic shale and powdery grey dirt towered over us, telling us to be patient; ration your strength; the best was yet to come. Inside the mountain, hundreds of soldiers kept up a stream of orders, messages of hope and hopelessness. The American dive bombers had cleared the peaks of gun bunkers. Now, the flat firing guns were pecking at each crease and crevasse. The Japanese waited; their radios no longer had purpose, there was no talk of surrender, only honor and soon meeting at the temple of warriors. Those who had escaped down the cliff sides, into the ravines must have watched in disbelief as their unassailable mountain roared and crumbled. Black clouds rose among the white ones, as stores of ammunition exploded and the fires began.

Whatever our people paid for that last piece of ridge line was too much. Looking down in late afternoon from the first ridge, the high ground, we watched grey murk settling into the flatlands and creeping up into the gullies and ravines, swallowing the trees. The tops of the low table lands still poked through the haze and miles away were the smoky orange and white fires of small villages, burned and dying out. We had taken the last mile at a dead run, passing squads staggering to nowhere and platoons of the enemy, suffocated by the blasts of parachute bombs … and we won the race at no cost. Luck was with us. Others behind us paid the price. There was an uphill mile to go, but not this night.

Our position was about fifteen feet wide and maybe fifty yards long. We were in a kind of cradle. The mountain top loomed too big and too close. Its shadow brought early darkness. They were watching. Across the lowlands on top of a sheer cliff, two batteries of small artillery pieces were sighting on us. When the time was right, probably at sunrise, they would shatter this place and its caves.

Should the Japanese make a counter assault, it would come down on us from up there, not up the trail on which we had crawled. And they could not climb the face of our ridge, the one we looked down upon as we dug in. Deep. Their mortars were hellishly accurate. As the dark came on we were as secure as we might be. We’d done this a hundred fretful times.

There was no perimeter, just a long string of people with two or three to each position and three machine guns on the high end. We had already checked off positions…who was where. Trip lines were out. Grenades with pins loosened sat side by side. An extra clip tucked into the rifle sling. We had our last, long drink of warm water; agreed on who would take what hours of watch…a few whispers, a tug on the string connecting us and then quiet.

There are moments of near insanity some nights. Dogs growled and barked somewhere down the ridge. Pigs were let loose to annoy and distract us. We heard humming, then singing. Low, soft and gentle and unmistakably Japanese. Then come the voice from maybe twenty or fifty feet down. “You American guys up there.” He spoke English with clipped university sharpness. Not loud, the way some of them would call to us, inviting the one shot that would give up our positions and start a round of scattered firing. “Hey, you guys up there, you asleep? Wake up, wake up time. Time get up now, piss call time. You speak Japan? Wakari masu ka. You understand. Get piss now before you dead.”

There were hundreds, maybe thousands of them hidden in bypassed caves, waiting for the moment to come charging out, or they were trying to find their way out of other cave openings. Thousands were moving east by night toward the coast, to slip north and reform or escape to Formosa. Most, I think were only wanting to live another day. On every step of the way among the ravines, we imagined them watching us from caves around us. If there was a cave or a ledge below us, we did not see it, though we did see a thin trail leading down, to where they’d been digging.

“We saw you come up. We give you Hell down there a couple days ago, much joyful happiness here. Now we let you come up so this much better, you think so now? You like be surrounded? Does Franklin Delano Roosevelt still eat shit?”

Now, this guy is trying to get a fix on us; he doesn’t know how few we are, doesn’t know where we are and doesn’t know that FOR died months ago. No matter, when a Japanese talks to you in front, cover your back-side, because that’s where he’ll show up. He wasn’t trying to cut a deal; just facing hard facts. Too late in the game. Too many of our people laid out in the valley out there. We saw a lot of them scattered around, baking in the sun, dead. We heard their final, sobbing radio calls for help and we were helpless. Then we heard their last goodbyes.

Our lieutenant was soft hearted for an officer. We talked about how he should have been a preacher. No matter now. I didn’t realize he was lying next to our hole, listening. That’s dangerous, too. After dark, if it moves, you shoot it. “What does he want?” He’d put his cupped hands over my ear and whispered it. I whispered back, the same way, “I think he would like to be someplace else. I also think he wants our ass, Charlie.” I couldn’t see him but I know he shook his head and twisted his mouth. That’s how he showed quiet exasperation. Other than that, he was alright and airtight. I learned to read his silent mind.

“Hey, American assholes, anybody up there speak English?” He sounded closer, but damp night air could make them sound closer. When the night is completely silent, any small noise of any kind, magnifies. Hard to tell. Some nights, they could be twenty yards out, or ten feet away like one guy I tossed a rock at about twenty feet out and he screamed and took off. Another time we had a really slick one who was close in. Maybe ten feet. But they had a trick with their voices so you couldn’t be sure. “Hey, G.I. American. We get you in the morning, o.k., and we cut off your borrs. We send home to wife, o.k. Her boyfriend think is funny o.k.” That was a strange night; they were having a regular conversation. One called, “Babe Ruth eat shit.” From another place, “Roosevelt eat shit.” But then I swear I heard, in a clear Japanese voice, “Emperor Hirohito eat shit. Banzai!” One of our guys laughed out loud. A half hour later they rushed us with pole charges from the opposite side

Charlie broke the rule. This broken rule could kill people and did. You never, ever answered them back. Never…and he did. “What’s your name, soldier? What’s on your mind.” Every soldier in every army has heard that standard opener for an ass-chewing, or an order to do something rotten…and once in a while, “nice job, or well done.” There were officers who would say, “Sergeant, take that man’s name and number.” The sergeant would write something down, and you’d never hear about it again. This was something stupid, from our compassionate officer who was going to get us all killed. “Where did you learn English? You speak it very well”

“No name, just honorable Japanese Imperial tough shit soldier. Not bad for a Jap? Got English at U.c.L.A. also some French and Spanish. Camprene vous? Que pasa? Going into foreign service someday. Maybe back to L.A. but maybe this all the foreign service as I get. Also learned American slang talk from prisoners working around harbor. Good guys but not allowed to talk much. Not good shape. You know about Imperial edict, says, you invade, you get shot to shit – and all prisoners must die slow. Much excruciating. Not pleasant idea. You speak Japanese, Charlie? Wakiri mas, deska? See, I know your name. Americans talk much, talk loud.” There was a long silence and it got longer, then “Call me Hashi. Not real name, just what they called me in L.A. Is like nickname for short. Whole name take too long for Americans to say it. Five syllable. Everything too fast. Eat, drink, sleep, make pooka-pooka all too fast.”

“How many people with you, Hashi?” No answer. “Anyone else there?” I gave him, the lieutenant a punch in the side to shut him up and he punched me back. Typical. Either the guy had gone back into the cave, or sneaked out the back way…or was going to toss a grenade, in which case he was one dead duck. We learned about dirty tricks on the road to Manila, and we had one ready.

Odd, how at the beginning of nightfall everything goes still for an hour or so. Then as night goes on, you see and hear things, most of which aren’t there. But you never know, so nobody really sleeps. The Japanese can get very close to you before you know they are there, maybe a few feet away. Sometimes you can smell the cigarette smoke on their breaths.

“Hey, Charlie, you still up there? Had to make report, tell them you guys do first class job, you still on guard, o.k. They all drunk now, getting ready. You know what happen tomorrow? You move up the hill for big fireworks and we move up behind you. Hah! Maybe you already figured out. Right? So what happens when we figure out you got it all figured out? Stick around. Maybe see grand banzai charge, whole works. Boom, boom. Out of this hole like bat out of hell, like birds flying into the air and down the hill. Maybe we going fly all way home. Maybe you too. Hey, Charlie, you know Las Vegas? I spend much time there, lose lots of pop’s grocery money. You know about odds? Compared to tomorrow, they pretty good. I not afraid but don’t like waste something special smarts like me.”

Our lieutenant was trying to work something out with this guy. It had nothing to do with compassion, he was coldly methodical about executing the Jap wounded. I couldn’t see him, but I knew he had crawled a little way down off the ledge. Probably, if the Jap didn’t get him, one of our guys would. Bad idea. We’d already shot some of our own including the guy in the hold next to mine.

“What about your officers, Hashi, can we talk to them? Maybe we can work something out. What do you think?” No answer, long wait. “No officers in here, just politician who wants to be big, dead hero. Already he shoot some of our people for talk back. He is totally committed and raging drunk. He leads the big breakout tomorrow if he doesn’t die of heaves first. You know Bushido? Very honorable. He first class Samurai; also crazy as bedbugs. Charlie, I like stay around for long talk with you.”

“You can’t understand that, Charlie. Even me. I don’t understand. How can dumb shit like him be officer in charge of my life? You not a dumb shit are you, Charlie? You worry about tomorrow. I hear you talk. We all crazy in here, everybody in Japan crazy now. We like one big crazy family; one big idea, one destiny, one body, one mind, one spirit. One hundred million of us. All die soon for glorious cause. Make big stink. That’s what the little man on the big white horse says, anyway.”

I don’t know how you would reason with that. I do know that I could put that guy away in a hurry. Easy, too. I had a grenade a little way down the slope, on a string, with a pull igniter screwed into it. And I’ve got the string .. ready to pull. I hope the lieutenant knows about my wires out there. They’re all over the place; maybe I won’t even find them all in the morning. Mostly, the officers let us set up our positions the way we thought best, but the first sergeant was something else, always strutting around making like he knew what was going on. He reminded me of my grandmother, always pecking around. She was tough, too, but at least she had good Irish brains.

The night I came back to the company from the hospital, still all doped up, he said, “Get those wires out there, before you dig in.” I gave him a couple of ‘but..buts’ and he said, “Now.” so even though I had bells and birds in my head and could hardly focus my eyes, I went out and laid three wires and taped the grenades about head high, and pulled the pins. I had enough sense to put the pins in my pocket, but do you know, that next morning I had no idea where I had put those wires. With a little luck I got them back in before we moved out, but I’ve wondered ever since, why that guy hated me. Or maybe I was the best man for a rotten job. Steady nerves, I guess. You can’t believe how focused you get when one slip might end everything.

It must have been after midnight when the Japanese guy called again. “You still awake up there? You get sleep. Is very good for you. Big day coming. Everybody waiting for you on top. Big surprise party. Armageddon and Pearl Harbor all in one, o.k. We come out of a thousand holes all together. Banzai.” Now, I was sure he’d had a belt too many. He continued.

“Big bullshit, too, right Charlie? Best I know is whole damned Imperial Army right here behind me, crockeyed drunk, maybe twenty guys, half of them bad wounded, half sick, half not so hot. Really stinks in there. One thing is right, I tell you. People all over this rotten island sitting in ground in holes like this waiting for the signal, …you know like divine wind..you know what is kamikaze…skibbi bakas? You find out. How you like Manila, Charlie. You have good time there? You know what army did there? That wasn’t Army, you should know that was Navy. Stupid Marines. Too bad, I never got to see Manila. Now it’s gone, right?” He had that right. Gone. We saw them. Piles and clumps of mangled bodies, big ones and little ones scattered among the piles of concrete, covered with grey dust. Waiting.

I think he was mostly talking to himself. I got to wondering how old he was. How long he was in the army. Where he had grown up. Not something I give a damn about. He was right about Manila. It was a tragedy; so was Paranaque and St. Thomas and Calamba. Burning those innocent people at Los Banos was the worst. We’d find little bunches of farmers, or whole families….There were lots of things we could never forget or forgive…and my finger tightened on the pull string, just a twitch. But not with the lieutenant hanging over the ledge. Then I heard him scraping his way back up.

“What do you think?” He actually asked me what I thought about something, now and then. I am not much of a thinker, more of a doer…get right to it. Don’t let this thinking stuff drag you down. Right now I would like to do that big mouth a favor and blow him out. I shrugged. Question: what difference did it make if I was to take out one guy? Answer: Very big difference if he hit you with a grenade …the way one did to me back in Lipa. So you ask, why not? Simple. Because when everybody’s wound up tight, it takes only one yell or one shot to get the whole show going…and too many people get hurt that way. We shoot at anything, rocks, trees, the moon, each other.

We had been told that in the morning there would be some heavy air force hits on the top of the mountain…and then we’d move up. A company would move up behind us, and two companies would move up the lower ravines in front of anti-tank fire. We would again be the point. Very questionable honor. If we made it to the top, other units could move up under our cover and we could clean house on our own terms, one cave at a time. Phosphorous. Flamers. A can of gasoline with a charge taped to it worked sometimes…or you could dig in a charge above a cave and blow it in. That always works except that it takes time and you are exposed. You do what you must do, I know that.

Coming up to this ridge, even at a fast clip, I spotted something that looked too neat and too wrong. A piece of rotten rope beside the trail. It looked like a ship’s hawser. Then I saw the black wire tied to it, folded into the grass. What was at the end of it? Two big naval artillery shells hidden in some hollowed out trees. I cut the line. Our man in the hole down there must still be wondering why those babies didn’t blow.

“You want to come out, we can help you. You and your friends. This thing is all over, soldier. You did what you had to. Now it’s ended. Maybe you know that. You could go home to your family, your girlfriend. Your country doesn’t need you dead. It needs you alive. You’re smart. Your navy is gone and so is your air force. And every big city…, flat. Tokyo, too. When was the last time you saw a Japanese airplane? Think on it. Comes morning, it will be too late.” He was truly wound up.

“Hey Charlie, relax. You some kind of good guy and I mean it. I know the whole score. I get the real stuff first hand. I was in Yokohama two months ago, believe that? One hell of a good commissary clerk. Also very good with fake inventories. My family always had plenty to eat. Trouble was, they started to share with the neighbors. That is real Japanese way. Then people couldn’t keep mouths shut…and poof. Instead of shooting me, they send me here, me and these guys back in the hole all in fishing boat. We sick all the way. We walk thirty five, forty miles to get here.”

“Right now, my parents are praying to my spirit, do you know that. I’m a dead hero. They don’t know what happened. I’m one blossom fallen from the cherry tree. That’s what they said about my brother. They’ve got a picture of us on the wall. With flowers around it. New flowers every day. I look like the king of the Mongols with a big fur hat, a big grin, shoulders up and that big leather belt. Big six-shooter, too, like movies. You know where I got that picture taken. At a little booth by the naval base. Yokasuka. You know what they’d do if I come home and destroy that scene for them? They’d spit on me..with love. They lose face with shame. And their neighbors, the whole town of them would spit on them. We Japanese are great spitters. Like your baseball players. You know what they’d do then? They would kill themselves. I could never cause them to do that.”

There were muffled shots, three, four. Then a long, drawn out cry and one more shot. It came from the cave, maybe way inside. “What’s happening, soldier? Sounds like your boys might be taking charge in there.” No sound for a while, then, “No, no change. Old bookkeeper still there counting the bottles. You know what is Black Label? Best stuff. Got whole case. Not passed out yet. Couple of people took the easy way out of this, 25 caliber seppuku. You know what that means? They sleep now in the arms of ancestors. Bullshit, Charlie. They just dead meat and they don’t know it. Good news for you. Maybe I carry the flag in the morning. Watch for me and shoot straight.”

The lieutenant backed away toward his own hole. I think he had enough or he wanted to talk to the captain. I also think he thought too much. Too much thinking isn’t much good for anybody. He once told me how he had washed out of a.es. and then went back for another try. Came out with his bars and joined us. They told him that he didn’t have a commanding presence or something like that. It was true, he didn’t strut around like he had a bar up his rear. But he knew what he was about. And he wasn’t a phony. We trusted him. Bars don’t make you smart; neither do stripes.

Nobody ever carried his pack or dug his hole for him. Nobody ever had to do what he would not do…and if he had something from home, he’d share it among the guys. We had a couple of C-S officers who wouldn’t talk to the men except through the platoon sergeants. Only thing wrong with Charlie was that if somebody got hurt, or killed, he’d stay inside himself for a few hours. I had to shake him loose from one guy he was trying to pull out of a ditch. The guy was gone, but I hope he knew that our lieutenant did what he could to bring him back.

The beginning of sunrise is always a surprise. You think it won’t ever come, and then it does, and that is good and bad. A lot happens just as the sun breaks. We were still in darkness, but we could see the rim of light on a peak about a mile away, and some of the hills we watched in the fog last night were breaking through.

“Charlie, good morning.” He said it like “Chorri.” I said to myself, I’ll be damned. He is a gutsy bastard. The lieutenant was up the hill somewhere, but the guy kept on. “Charlie, you there? I’ve got to tell you important things. You cannot win. The Filipinos don’t want you here, just like they don’t want us; they cut you same as us, big knife in the back. You should go home now and make some babies, and rock them on the back porch. Another thing. You will not ever put your foot on sacred soil in my country. Not you, not any of your soldiers. Because every old man, every old woman and every little kid, right down to the ten year olds…they are, every last one of them ready to die for the emperor. You know Iwo Jima. Wegot one thousand Iwo Jimas of them for you. You know what means Banzai? Means, a thousand years. You don’t yet know what is waiting for you.” He must have been into the booze because his voice trailed off and we didn’t hear anything more from him, ever. Except for the singing.

On a ragged peak over there, with the sunlight glinting on it, on that perpendicular pile of rock and rubbish, sat a 75mm pack artillery piece. It had been dragged, wrestled, hoisted over miles of swamp, up a ravine and then by pure muscle and guts up that crag along with a gun crew and a hundred rounds of ammunition. It took a hundred men a day and a night to lever it up there, with ropes and pulleys and desperation and with blood and sweat. It was sighted on the caves in the hillside below us. We didn’t know anything about it until an hour or so later. Our artillery boys never got the credit they deserved, except from those of us on the ridge.

Daylight was up pretty high. There was noise and some action further up the ridge. Our lieutenant came snaking down on his belly. Helmet on and dragging his pack. “Got to get out of here. Fast, move it. Got to make the next saddle. We’ll be under cover when we get there. Load up and move out.” Now, I’m all for that, but I said, “Take me just a couple of minutes to get the tripwires in.” Never saw him get mad before. “I said move it, now, go…go…go. Fifteen minutes to clear this ridge.” Alright, so we moved it. The first and second squads were already running like hell. I looked back for the lieutenant and there he was, kneeling down by the ledge, looking over. I didn’t know if he was talking or praying. He picked something up, brushed it off and put it in his pocket. I started to turn back, but he got up, hunched over and ran after us.

The place where we had been, maybe fifteen minutes before, blew up, again and again, taking the caves out, one or two at a time. No fast fire, just slow and steady. Not much noise either. Just a whistle and a big whump and a lot of smoke, rocks and dirt falling down the hillside. I had my head tucked in/ and had the prayer wheel going/ too. Top speed. Our artillery guys were firing flat, right into those caves. Not for long, but long enough…and then a flight of three dive bombers came in on top of the mountain and cleaned it off with parachute bomb clusters. Now, those were noisy.

So we made the next ridge, and the next, and two days and nights later we were under the crest, reasonably safe but absolutely gone if those bombers came over again. In fact, one of them did, and lost one of his five hundred pounders. Anybody who saw it coming, remembers the feeling of helplessness. You can do a lot of praying, though. You could see the top of the mountain. It looked unhealthy. And it was looking down on us. From our place, we could see for miles, far up and down the valley. The colors looked like rolling fields in upstate New York, green and brown and yellow. Our place was nothing but grey grit, rock and a terrible smell. With a thousand feet down on all sides but one … that was straight up

Way below was a stretcher party, picking up the people we lost when they took a wrong turn. Our man in the cave must have watched it happen.

He’s still there, I guess. But I wondered if he ever stood on this place and took in the beauty of it all. I know now, that what we saw was a lot like Japan, the hills, the fields, the colors and the cool breezes, the waterfalls and the evening fog.

I sometimes joke about our officers, but they knew what they were doing, and they knew that we knew what we were doing. We did think somewhat alike in our common cause, which was survival, and after all, what’s to think about? Few orders were ever given and few needed. Someone in an ancient army said, “After all, it is the sergeants who win the battles and the politicians who win the wars.” Or lose them. Even Von Clauswitz and Sun Tzu agreed that once the stuff hits the fan, everybody just does the best he can, for his own reasons. Usually the reason is he can’t let down the guy on his right or left or in back or in front of him. There is no big picture at the front of your rifle. All the plans and maps and aerial photos on the wall of the command center, and all those people giving out orders, don’t count for a hill of crap.

U.S. Grant, or Nathan Forrest said, “The trick is to get there first and fast with the most” Probably every smart general who ever lived including Scipio and Hannibal said that. Farragut trusted audacity above planning, so did George Patton, Genghis Khan and Robert E. Lee and Johnny Madden said rightly that the team that makes the fewest stupid mistakes takes home the goal posts. Or was it Lombardi?

So, we had audacity; moved fast and first, made no mistakes and were blessed with more luck than we deserved. There’s another thing. Momentum. When you’re ahead, don’t look back…and don’t stop to pick up your marbles, either. We rested on the last slope. It was like the last few nights, but now, there was no sound from our enemies. There were fewer of them, but how many were still hunched down deep in their caves, we didn’t think on that.

There was no fanfare as morning broke. Just a couple of crackers and some bad water. Not a single command was given…it was all understood, just as before, except this time we could see the goalpost. Everything we had paid for over the last few weeks was for this. None of us knew that the mountain was laced with caves…whole apartment complexes in solid rock.

The strategy was simple…get to the top, as fast as you can, as many as you can, don’t slow down, don’t look back…and when you get to the top, spread out, cover the guys coming behind you. Simple stuff, actually. The captain said, O.K., you know what you have to do.”

Now, you can not usually run up a vertical wall, but we did. We grabbed at rocks, roots, bushes and pulled and pushed and dragged each other up when we had to. Then, there were one, two, three, a dozen men up there and soon, our platoon. Then our company, all of us. There was a kind of turkey shoot when we got to the top. They had made the big mistake. They had broken the law that says, “Don’t underestimate the other guy; expect the unexpected, assume nothing and keep the back door open.” In about an hour, we owned the whole farm, and I suppose it was by radio signal that all at once, all of the ridges sent up a red smoke signal. The whole damned Malapunyo ridgeline, right to the top was ours. And that is some feeling. No, it wasn’t a giveaway. Some of our sister companies paid a price, down in the ravines, and in the weeks that followed we all paid a little more.. Not much more to the story.

The inside of the mountain kept exploding for a few days, twenty four hours a day and night… and we thought it would go sky high. And we with it. We had a few accidents and some guys got hit going for water. On our last morning, we saw a new company moving up to take over our mountain. I sat at the backside of the hilltop. A train of our wounded moved down the trail we had come up. As a farewell shot, someone had tossed a satchel charge and wounded another half dozen or so of our people, most not badly, but a few went home.

Our lieutenant sat own alongside me and we broke open a can of beans and had some tasty Japanese dried fish. “What are you thinking?” I answered, “I’m thinking I wish I had some water to help wash down these beans.” We had not had fresh water for several days. With that a small plane came over and dropped radio batteries and water containers on small chutes. I volunteered to go down the hill for the water can, and did. I must confess this: as I dragged the water can up the hill, I stopped and helped myself to a long drink. Then the plane made another pass and a guy with a bullhorn said the water was not for drinking, but for washing and shaving. That’s crazy! The Colonel flying over with bullets zipping up at his little airplane. Somebody wanted us to look good when we came down. Somebody wanted us to be domesticated and not remember our dirty, smelly dead, wounded and sick. I made powdered coffee in my helmet. It was good.

Then I knew what I was thinking about…that guy in the cave, down below that ridge. How he was so certain we would never set foot on the sacred soil of Japan. There are people who believe that in time, we could have walked in like tourists.

They were ready to quit, so I’m told. Just a little more time. Not so. Having been there in those first days, and having seen what they had in store for us…! do not wonder what it would have been like, to jump into land like this, faced with mountains full of caves, like this, among millions of people ready to die..people of every age. As Hashi said on that last night. “The odds at Vegas are much better.” I guess you know that Hashi means chopsticks.

One more thing I should tell you. That thing the lieutenant picked up on the lower ridge—-he tossed it to me as we started back down. A leather wallet with a few yen, an army paybook, an J.D. card and a picture of a cocky Japanese who went to UCLA … with a big fur hat, broad leather belt, a grand cavalry pistol and a chest full of medals. I saved the picture for a few years. Then I threw it out. I’m still throwing those old things away, and they come back in memories that won’t fade.

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