At the far end of the airstrip, a camp of parachute tents billows in the wind. The green, blue, and white give a festive appearance. What a sick joke the sight plays on me. Litters, cots, and blankets on the ground are packed with wounded men. A stream of profanity drowns out the moaning and screaming patients. Ah, I say to myself, that’s a familiar voice; he must’ve arrived this morning.
“Just because this is a fuckin’ shithole doesn’t mean they need to treat us like crap.” Seagrave’s boisterous objection sets the reporters in jolly spirits. They think he’s joking – he’s not.
A flurry of Burmese nurses hustle about in their longyi. Finally, I catch a glimpse of the Burmese surgeon. He tosses a blood-crusted forceps in the air, followed by a rusted clamp. “Is this a hospital or a morgue? I don’t expect sterile, but would like to see some exposed metal on the instruments.” Seagrave doesn’t see the swarm of reporters until he’s poised with a jungle- clean scalpel, ready to cut. He gives us a dirty glare, then shouts, “Maran Lu, get these morons out of here.” He turns back to begin the operation and adds, “This is one of those days I wish I was dead.”
Maran Lu has always been a no-nonsense kind of girl, but now she’s a true veteran of evacuation hospital nursing. As she stretches a parachute from one bamboo post to the next, covering the operating theatre, she scolds, “You no see blood before. I give you scalpel. Slice vein here…you get lots of blood. Shoo. Shoo.” She waves the meek reporters away like they’re mangy dogs, her long braid flapping down her back. They scatter like rats about to be caught, and then she notices me.
“Harry, I surprise at you. Know Daddy not like people gawk when he busy. He say too many bad words. Then they frown. Not like Daddy.” It is so good to hear her sassy voice. Her tone softens when she asks, “You see my Earl?”
“Your Earl?” I ask, shock evident in my voice. Seeing her hurt face, I know I’ve overreacted. “Must be more to those choir practices than I thought.” She blushes, but before she can chew me out, I hear a weak call from the horde of litters.
“Harry. Is that Harry Flynn making all that noise?”
I search the sea of weary, nameless soldiers for an outstretched arm or something that would lead me to the voice, but there’s nothing. Forcing myself to do what I’ve dreaded since I joined the service, I look into the faces of each injured man. These are the boys of the 53-07 battalion, Merrill’s Marauders, Galahad—and many are my friends. They don’t look back; they think they’re the lucky ones, soon to be going home.
Finally, the lantern-jawed, boyish good looks of Lieutenant Sam Wilson stand out from the others. I weave over to him. “So how’s the Confederate historian holding up?” I ask, seeing the answer in his blood-soaked clothes. This boy, who selected his I&R platoon from men who held the world in contempt and thought life and death meant nothing, is showing a change of heart in his eyes.
“You must not have heard about our last patrol on the Irrawaddy,” he says, as he looks down and shakes his head, his southern accent soft and unsure.
I wait for him to continue. “We were starving. So were the villagers. But they gave us some rice. My stomach had shrunk so much, I couldn’t even eat a full cup. Later on, I found they gave us all they had. Then, when we were leaving, a formation of our fighter pilots roared in and strafed the hell out of them.” The vacant look of a blocked memory fills Sam’s face. “We went back after our guys cut out. One of the villagers grabbed me by the arm and led me to his dugout. There, sobbing and wailing, was a young woman clutching a toddler. The man lifted the girl from her mother, his hands reddened with blood that still flowed from the shot through the girl’s back.”
Sam looks up, his eyes red and swollen. “I did something I’ve never done before.” It’s as though he’s giving me his last confession. “I crumbled in a heap and wept.” He struggled with a couple of deep breaths. “Lord, I’ve taken it as far as I can.”
I feel someone behind me. It’s Doc Winnie. His eyes are not twinkling. “Sammy boy, you’ve got a simple case of typhus and malaria, and all the blood you’ve decorated your cot with is from amoebic dysentery. Time to go home.”
Sam nods, knowing his tour of duty is up. Still, he’s not ready to say goodbye to the Marauders and asks, “Harry, how’s Pfeifer doing?”
“He’s here?” I ask, the surprise in my voice revealing a sudden fear twisting my stomach. “That way,” Sammy answers, jerking his head to point me to the far end of cots. “Thanks, buddy.” I lay a hand on Sam’s shoulder. “You gave it more than your all.”
As I’m leaving, the soldier in the litter next to Sam asks, “Sammy, can I have your Tommy?”
I zigzag in the direction of Pfeifer’s cot, thinking that’s the nicest thing anyone could have said to Sam. He was so proud of his gun.
I pass by a soldier, his hand constantly wiping his shiny, domed head. I don’t recognize him. Then, his goading voice asks, “Too good for old friends?” I twist to find Pfeifer.
“Did you go on some kind of a diet?” I tease as I crouch next to him. “You’re skinnier than any skeleton I’ve ever seen.” I want the joking to help him, but realize it’s more for me.
Rather than answer, he gazes straight ahead and doesn’t look at me. His eyes are unblinking, unwilling to miss anything, yet seeming to see nothing. “Why are you in the hospital?” I ask, expecting the usual, typhus, malaria, dysentery or wound.
“Not sure,” he answers absentmindedly while stroking his bald skull.
I have no idea what to say if he doesn’t know why he’s in the hospital. He’s not the kind of guy to fake it so he can go AWOL. Then I notice he’s vigorously fingering something tiny in his other hand. He finally glances at me, follows the direction of my eyes, and gives me a familiar, snide Pfeifer smile. “You got your Buddha, Harry. I got my bullet.”
I carefully open his hand. There, lying in his palm, is a single, 45 mm bullet—not gold, not shiny, but deadly. Without saying a word, my eyes ask him to explain more.
Pfeifer starts to tremble, and I take his hand in mine. “Harry, it was hell out there; worse than Maggot Hill. We thought we had ’em licked. Forced them to run like rabbits up the hill, even with all their artillery.” If the enemy was on top of the hill, that meant the K Force was in a hole—a slaughterhouse.
“We outlasted them. We had to. We had no ammo.” He looks to me for confirmation. “Remember those Banzais on Maggot Hill? I used to love ’em. Those bastards ran up that hill screaming with raised bayonets. Then we’d let loose with our Tommies. It was suicide.” Pfeifer swallows, his eyes frightened by what only he can see, and whispers, “We had no ammo at Charpate, Harry. Only our knives. Do you know what it’s like to be so close that you can smell the stink of a man’s breath right before you kill him? ” He starts to shudder uncontrollably. I hold his hand with the bullet tighter.
“It wasn’t until I went to load my chamber for the last time that I thought, there’s a bullet out there today with my name on it. Then I remembered you, Harry, and your damn Buddha. So I pulled out my last shell. That’s how this bullet became my Buddha. And look, I’m alive.” Pfeifer breathes deeply and reaches up to stroke his head. That’s when I see the blood dripping from his hand. He’s rubbed his scalp through his skin to bone. The cot under his head is soaked in red. I feel sick at the sight of his exposed, raw skull. Pfeifer’s inability to admit what he’s doing to himself terrifies me.
“It’s shell shock, Harry,” Doc whispers. I wonder how long Doc’s been standing next to me. He patiently waits for my nod of understanding. Pfeifer’s oozing wound has knocked out the last bit of strength within me.
Winnie leans over to check Pfeifer’s pulse. Patting him gently on the shoulder, Doc says, “Hell, Pfeifer, today’s your day. I’m giving you the last ticket on that plane to Ledo.” Compassionately, he claps me on the back and quietly says, “Spreading democracy is hell, ain’t it?”
Doc turns to continue his rounds. Lying on a litter next to Pfeifer is a green soldier, just off the plane this morning. His uniform is still creased, and he smells like the breakfast they serve in Ledo. He’s got a gunshot wound in his upper thigh that’s bleeding pretty badly. With a withering smile, Doc pulls out a scalpel and forceps. “This is going to hurt you more than me,” he says. Two Burmese nurses assist by throwing the entirety of their body weight on the man. Without any painkiller or antiseptic, Winnie digs in. “I save my morphine for our boys coming back from a real battle.”
The man screams, “What the fuck…what the hell do you think you’re doing? Get me in an operating room.” He shrieks, then finally bawls.
Holding up the bullet he has just yanked out of the soldier’s leg, Doc tells him, “This ain’t no Nip pellet.” He tosses it to the solider. “Keep it as a souvenir from the war. Someday, one of your grandkids will ask why it’s American made.”
It’s hard to stomach soldiers who self-inflict wounds so they can go home when others, like Pfeifer, move beyond what they don’t want to do. They march. They kill. And some die.
“You know, I think about Collin a lot,” Pfeifer confides, his faraway eyes seeing the kid. “Why that hour, that minute? If he’d waited one day, maybe things would have worked out for him.”
“I feel responsible for what happened to Collin,” I answer. “I know I’m just a supply officer, but he was a friend.” Had we been in the States, we probably wouldn’t have crossed paths, yet, because of this war, he’ll be in my life forever.
“Harry, you don’t give yourself enough credit,” Pfeifer scolds, sounding stronger. His eyes are focused, and, although there’s a nervous tremor in his hands, he’s clasping them together rather than raking the back of his head. “You make your own decisions and stick with them. Other men see that and respect you. You’re not your parents’ trophy or God’s puppet. And you don’t fight because you want to, but because you have to.”
The rain outside builds to a shower, and I hear the plane’s engine rev up for departure.
The damn journalists’ nagging voices approach me. I wish I could say, “There’s your plane; hop on and leave me alone.” Christ, I feel helpless. The minutes slip away as they load Sam and others onto the plane.
Seeing the injured being carried away, Pfeifer reaches with his hand to soothe his nerves.
I grab his fingers before he can cause more damage.
“They say you once had hair.” I feel the body snatchers getting closer and know our time is running out. “Stop using that hand comb with all those calluses, and you’ll get a thatch like mine.” My voice cracks, and I hold both of his hands in mine.
The litter bearers hover over Pfeifer, waiting for a green light from the Doc. Finally, Winnie rushes up to us and says, “This guy is A-O.K. to go.” Doc raises his eyebrows, ready to tell a joke, as usual. “Treat him as if he was family; that is, if you like your family.”
As four men lift Pfeifer from his cot to the litter, the journalists see the bloody damage. I clutch his hands as we hustle around the whirling blades, knowing that once he’s on the plane, he’ll have to settle his own devils. Then I let go. I don’t know if it’s the flash from the cameras or the blur from my tears, but I can’t see him any more. Doc grabs me by the shoulders and holds me back as the body snatchers hoist this last patient, the man who saved my life, onto the plane to India. I feel the rain wash the blood from my hands, but not the memories—never those.
I try to come to grips with the absurdity of the day, but my thoughts are warped and slanted. As clouds on the western horizon swallow the plane, I ask, “What day is it today?”
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