We stop along the banks of a tributary draining into the Chindwin River in Northern Burma. Some of the guys go swimming; others wash clothes before we bivouac for the night. Wet fatigues and t-shirts form a camouflaged carpet on the boulders and along the shores of the stream. Plopping down, I unlace my boots and empty the sand that has been grating my flesh all day.
A scrawny soldier, looking no older than fifteen, jokes, “Hey, Harry, I have a uniform for every day of the week.” Looking down at his attire, he continues, “and this is it.”
It hasn’t always been so lighthearted in the couple weeks since I joined Galahad. If it wasn’t for Stilwell wanting to build his damn road, we wouldn’t be on this suicide mission. So the General better do his job and help us do ours, then get us out of here, because the alternative is grim. It’s been impossible to ignore the bitterness the men of Galahad feel towards Stilwell and H.Q.
As I strip down for a swim, a captain, red-eyed from kicking up dust all day, gives me an earful. “At least we have a name now: the five-three-oh-seventh. Hell, we didn’t even have a proper designation until we hit India.” He spits out the words with disgust. “We were just a soon-to-be something. Do you know what it feels like to wake up each morning not knowing what you are? Especially if you’re a volunteer on a mission that you’re not expected to return from. It’s like they didn’t know what to do with us, so they pretended we didn’t exist.” He wades into the stream, exasperated.
On shore, another soldier picks up a stone and skips it over the clear running water. “They think we’re outlaws, outcasts. Maybe we are.” He’s a long-jawed soldier with a wicked grin straight from the Wild West. I feel my stomach turn when he boasts, in his machine gun staccato, “I relish hand-to-hand combat. It’s pure joy, hearing them squeal like puppies as you slit their throats from their neck to their skull and watch the blood spurt.” Looking down at his scuffed boots, he nervously digs out chunks of earth with his toe. “Guess that doesn’t sound very healthy, does it?”
It seems their isolation and this refusal to conform is what welds them together. Instead of just taking in the strangeness of India and maybe even finding it fascinating, they fight it like they fight everything. The men in Galahad see the turban-headed porters and their stick-like limbs as threats, ready to rob them. For these men, the smells of curry and aromatic wood smoke can’t stifle the stench of the open-drain sewage. Rather than being swept away by India’s flowing silk and vibrant jewels, they focus on images of rag-torn beggars. From the soldiers in Ledo, who don’t give a damn about anything, to Galahad, who only give a damn about themselves, what have I gotten myself into?
Downstream, Winton Steinfeld, nicknamed Doc, floats on his back in the glittering current, soaking in the filtered light and indulging his playful love of life. His wet, black hair shines blue in the afternoon sun. Cloaked by a canopy of overhanging trees and vines, the stream would have been idyllic had we not been alert to the poisonous vipers hidden in the branches.
Doc responds nonchalantly to the complaints by the men: “He giveth and He taketh away; both very inadequately.” Then he sings out his own rendition of things.
“The Five-Three-Oh-Seventh Comp. Unit Provisional
Has come to battle for CBI on the basis of one conditional
They not be scorned for being themselves, which one may think is too original
For they have sinned as one may judge on a scale that is beyond super divisional.”
At night, we camp uphill, away from the beach, to avoid the sand flies. Lt. William Woomer…or Woomer the Boomer, so named for his exploits in the South Pacific…and I take our rifles and try our luck at a little hunting. Woomer is in it for the meat. I need the target practice. Even though I’m assigned to supply duty, everyone carries a rifle and is expected to fight.
“Harry, over here,” Woomer whispers, then motions towards a clearing ahead with his long, lanky arms. Barely visible in the night’s fading light, a tiger stalks an unsuspecting marsh deer. The tiger’s yellow stripes are illuminated by a rogue ray of light, and its amber eyes are intent on the kill. Each limb of the cat moves in stealthy, synchronized motion; every muscular molecule is activated in sequential order at the precise time. The deer looks up, alert and sensing trouble. But the smell from our bodies, combined with that of the tiger, confuses it. Instead of loping off towards safety, the doe jumps directly into the claws of the leaping tiger. The brush thrashes.
“I think I’ll let him have that one.” Woomer turns instead towards the animal trail that leads to the stream, then ducks under the draping branches. Within the hour, we’re hauling a dead deer, legs tied to a bamboo pole and head dropping to the ground, towards camp.
We skin and roast it for dinner. We haven’t had a food drop in two days.
As the supply officer, I work with the radio crew to pinpoint the coordinates for our food drops. The flight carrying our drop two days ago was cancelled because of a torrential downpour. Flying low over the mountainous treetops through clouds is the best way to crack up a plane. No sense in adding to the death toll. The next day, in agony, we watched the white, green, and blue billowing parachutes plummet into the one-hundred-fifty-foot-tall jungle canopy. I still can’t figure out how they missed the coordinates I gave them. We shot our rifles to dislodge the bundles and even tried a mortar or two, but our only reward was shattered branches and bits of food blown to bits. With the road crew, talk of dames enlivened our evening poker games; in the far reaches of this Burma jungle, our nighttime conversation turns to fried chicken and apple pie recipes.
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