“Flynn!” a crisp, decisive voice barks. “Where the hell’ve you been?”
From India’s eastern horizon, the intense sun starts its rise. Through squinting eyes, I see Schmidt, hands on his hips and extremely pissed off.
Jumping from the bed of the truck, I adjust to a full salute. “Escorted supplies to field site, Sir.” I say with little enthusiasm. I hate the chain of command kiss-ass routine, especially when it comes to Schmidt. If he wants another excuse, then he’s out of luck.
“Escorted?” Schmidt, who has no interest in men at the construction site other than making sure they receive their supplies bellows. “What kind of a jackass needs to show coolies how to do their job?”
“In my humble opinion, I thought a first-hand observation of the site conditions would help me—uh, us—understand where the supplies are going, including any illicit arms.” I add, “Sir.”
“Flynn, you wouldn’t log in the extra hours just for that. There’s something you want to tell me?” Schmidt’s voice is thick with disbelief. “I’d hate to see where they’d have sentenced you if Stilwell found out you’d hijacked an elephant for a joy ride up and down the mountain. You don’t think Ledo’s hell enough?”
I take a different tactic and remind Schmidt of our little secret. “Didn’t we agree to work together to track down those,” I cough to show my discretion, “misdirected orders, Sir?”
The stash of confiscated ammo comes to mind. I still haven’t devised an inconspicuous way to get back into the supply hut so I can find out who really is diverting ammo instead of supplies to Ledo.
Visualizing the abandoned vehicles that have slipped off the road by the Pangsau Pass from this morning’s “joy ride” I add, “It’s a burial ground out there. They just ditch equipment over the side when they don’t get replacement parts. Don’t you want to know why your orders are getting screwed up? Won’t it reflect poorly on you if you don’t?”
Schmidt scratches his head as though an answer will loosen up. “You’re right,” he concedes, begrudging our accidental partnership. He tries to take control of the conversation. “We’re nothing but a forgotten front—the stepchild. No one listens when I tell them the vehicles shipped to the CBI theatre don’t work here. The humidity’s rusting the crap out of everything.
And they’re sending all the spare parts to Europe.” He curls his lip, then adds, “They’re setting us up to fail.”
“So now aren’t you happy to see me, Schmidt?” I follow him as he tries to escape the unwritten contract he just metaphorically signed. “I’m trying to help you.”
“Let’s just say happy’s not a word I’d associate with you, Flynn.” Schmidt glares at me with a resigned acceptance.
I keep pace with him, loving his discomfort. “At the Pass it looks like a mudslide carried the whole fleet downhill.”
“So I’ve been told.” Schmidt walks swiftly towards the mess hall for breakfast, arms swaying in sync with his rapid pace as he tries to leave me behind. “The road’s not going to get done if this continues.” He stops abruptly, then asks pointedly, “Does that bother you, Flynn?”
I don’t trust Schmidt. He hasn’t shown all his cards, and his interest in the ammo doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the road crew. The sorry sucker who’s smuggling the ammo instead of ordering supplies will not be popular on base, especially if he’s trying to sabotage the road. Schmidt will decorate the base with posters of him. And without lifting another finger, the men will quarter the traitor into pieces that are so small even an ant would need glasses to see them. That guy’s going to pray for the fastest ticket to hell. I wince at the thought of being caught with my little stash.
“Until that road’s built, our boys out of Barrackpore need to keep flying The HUMP.” Schmidt checks the skies like he expects a plane to fly over any minute. “They’ve got to be crazy to take planes over those peaks since they could be chased by Jap fighter pilots or sucked in by windstorms during the monsoon. But,” Schmidt sneers, “someone’s got to get those supplies to Kunming, or else our deal with Chiang Kai-shek is off and we’ll be the ones fighting the Japs in China.”
“Why does China need our boys flying the HUMP or a new road?” I ask. “What’ve they ever done for us that we should be losing lives for them?”
“Ask the Chinese. Their 10th Regiment is being flown in next week.”
“I’m asking you.” For once I can pull some useful information out of Schmidt.
“The Japanese occupy China’s ocean ports, and they’ve blocked the land route to India. If the Japanese keep moving west and connect the Axis Power’s Pacific front with the Atlantic, the Allies may as well give up. That’s why China’s problems are ours.” He looks at me like he shouldn’t have to educate me on world politics.
“Stilwell asks ‘How high?’ when Generalissimo says ‘Jump.’ Until the road’s built, our boys will keep delivering supplies over the HUMP. And they’ll be no more than target practice for the slant-eyed Nips out of Myitkyina.” Schmidt leaves abruptly, ending our conversation.
I don’t let my conscious wonder if I’d be issuing a death warrant for the boys flying the HUMP if I blew up the road. I feel justified in my actions, knowing the thing our fly boys really need is more help from our fighter pilots.
Overhead, clouds move in quickly. I hurry over to the communications shed, hoping to find Charles.
With only one foot across the basha threshold, I hear, “Harry, you’re just in time.” Charles pulls off his earphones, then points to the radio, indicating I should take over for him. “Duty calls, if you know what I mean.”
Charles rushes out of the shed faster than an iceberg melts in the Sahara, leaving me to wonder what to expect. I plop in Charles’ chair, look for one of the girly magazines he has stashed in a secret spot, then lay back. The radio erupts in static.
“COX BAZAR to TIGAR,” a barely audible, frantic voice calls out.
I put the headphones on, realizing this is probably not a routine call. “TIGAR to COX BAZAR , copy,” I answer.
Relief spills through the radio waves, “Operation LONGCLOTH needs immediate drop. Downpour of Kawasaki blocking glider touchdown. Need FLYING BOXCAR at Indaw. Over.”
I know the objective of Operation LONGCLOTH is to demolish the Japanese rail lines and ammo depots in central Burma. It’s supposed to confuse the enemy and prevent them from attacking our construction work. With knees jiggling, I close my eyes and ask myself whether we should help LONGCLOTH now or stall Stilwell’s road and redirect support to the HUMP. Choosing between one life and another is a decision that should not be left to any one man. But the thought of our boys either being bulleted out of the sky while flying over the Himalayas, or leaving the Chindits mired in the jungle with at least a fighting chance helps me make my decision. Eventually I answer, “COX BAZAR. NEGATIVE. No BOXCARS. Over and out.”
Then I hear Charles: “HELL, Harry. Are you crazy? Indaw’s behind enemy lines. Are you trying to get the Brits killed?”
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