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A Rope in the Offing

ISSUE:  Autumn 1977

LA loo laa lollie doo, la doo daa lollie daa, I live in memories, among my souveni-i-i-irs— a watchband crafted of metals snipped from a derelict enemy fighter, nifty salt and pepper shakers fashioned from polished brass grenades, gold plated dentures and gold filled teeth and my trusty pliers, opium pipes, sake cups, sashes, sandals, a gas mask case and gas mask—Jesus, this damn gas mask; funny how you know at once that it’s a Japanese gas mask. And the case—it still has the threaded characters on the canvas. Perhaps the soldier’s wife had stitched his name. I know that part of his name was Yoshio, but I’m not certain whether the characters give his full name, or whether they represent his name at all. And in the years since the war, I’ve never bothered with mysteries of oriental calligraphy. But I can’t forget his expression the last time I saw him, can’t forget those terrible eyes. That was a long time ago, though, and the gas mask case is now stiff and mildewy. It was one of the souvenirs that I didn’t sell, one that I added to my seabag when I was preparing to ship back to the States. . . .

Okinawa is an island in the Ryukyu Archipelago in the China Sea. The name Okinawa means a rope in the offing. And it’s true; the island resembles a kinked rope dropped on the waters. On Easter Sunday, 1945, in the last year of the war in the Pacific, I was on board the converted Danish freighter Thor’s Horn when the invasion of Okinawa began. I was one of 50,000 American troops who were ferried ashore before the day ended.

The big guns of our battleships and heavy cruisers were creating a terrible din as we went over the starboard side of Thor’s Horn and inched down the cargo nets like so many thousands of crabs. There was a bit of a trick in making it safely to the deck of a landing craft. Imagine the movement of a freighter in choppy waters, and imagine the smaller vessels bobbing alongside, now and again bumping against the larger ship then drawn away by rolling swells. I was lucky enough to drop clumsily to the deck below me; a few others were crushed on the hull of Thor’s Horn, and more than a few dropped into the ocean to sink and drown because of the heavy equipment strapped to their backs.

There was virtually no shelling from the enemy as we moved shoreward, nor was there significant air attack directed against the fleet. Our forces had already captured the garrison on the neighboring Kerama Islands and neutralized more than 300 Kamikaze aircraft that were being readied for strikes on our shipping. Several days would pass before suicide planes began making runs from more distant bases.

When I skipped off the landing craft onto dry land, without suffering so much as a wet foot, without hearing a single Banzai or howdy-do, I was astonished at the notion that I was receiving no damage, for I’d truly expected to be shot to pieces when I stepped ashore. Actually, the men in my outfit, all medical corpsmen, stood idly about after disembarking, smoking, shooting the breeze, passing the time, while our officers frantically ran back and forth, imploring us to assume defensive postures: “On your bellies, bastards. You’re not on liberty. This is a goddamn war . . .” And so forth . . . .

A few hours later, we moved in toward a grove of bamboo and began to establish a temporary camp. I was looking for another enlisted man who would be willing to button his shelter half to mine for a complete tent, when Doc Stroud came panting up to me. Doc was terrified; he was trembling and almost in tears. He was a marvelous surgeon, but he was absolutely helpless away from operating tables—too simple to pour piss from a boot, if you know what I mean. I’d been his unofficial manservant since days of stateside training when our unit was being formed at Thermal Field near Indio, California,

He said, “Jesus, Potter. I just can’t stand this noise.” I said, “Relax, Doc. Our ships will probably continue the shelling for a long time.”

He whimpered, and held his ears, and he said, “Jesus, I’m all unstrung. Will you help me get my place together, Winnie?”

What else could I do? While he and his chum, Lieutenant Willard, helped themselves to the candy bars in my pack, I joined their shelter halves and erected the tent, ditched around the tent in case of rain, and exhausted myself while inflating their frigging air mattresses.

As I was leaving, Doc shouted a reminder:

“Don’t forget my laundry, Potter

All of the other corpsmen had their tents in place when I returned to my own area. As usual, I was odd man out; there was no one else standing dumbly, dangling a useless shelter half. But all of them had been waiting for me, waiting to make the usual cracks about my brown-nosing and coddling of officers. Random insults issued from various tents in the encampment. One of them: “Go sleep with your officer buddies, you little suck-ass.” And another; “Maybe the gooks will take you in.”

But what of it; they were just jealous—I decided that they could all screw themselves. I shrugged and stretched out on the ground, and soon fell fast asleep in my rolled shelter half. During the night, there was a soaking downpour, and I awoke to find myself lying in a six inch puddle of water . . . .

After a day of minor skirmishes, some of our combat troops pushed through the four miles to the eastern shore of the island. Our medical unit followed in the wake of the advance and established a permanent site of operations two miles inland. As for me, I scratched a hole for myself, crawled inside, and pulled the lid shut behind me. I was content enough to let the fighting men do their duty, and for the most part only emerged for the chow lines and my errands . . . .

Within a few weeks, the Marines were in control of the Kunigami district, the entire northern area of the island. But southern Okinawa was to be the arena for decisive engagements, Ushijima, the Japanese Commander, had decided against major conflict at either the beaches or Kunigami. Rather, he chose to concentrate his forces beyond the ridges that cross the island from shore to shore in the south. The thick walls of an ancient castle served to anchor his lines of defense.

When the 24th Army Corps moved south, they encountered Ushijima’s waiting forces, Before long, the American troops in the south were pinned down by a severe artillery duel, It soon became apparent that the walls of the ancient fortress, Shuri Castle, had to be breached.

In late May, the U. S. S. Mississippi turned its 14-inch guns on the walls of Shuri. The bombardment continued for two full days before cracks began to appear in the walls. On the third day, the Mississippi moved closer inshore and intensified the shelling. Shuri Castle, first conceived by the island king Shumba-Junki in the 13th century, was reduced to rubble by nightfall.

The Japanese fought fiercely during their retreat to the cliffs that mark the southern shore of the island. Rather than surrender, Ushijima and many of his soldiers chose death from the ledges that overlook the sea.

The organized Japanese resistance lasted 80 days against our invasion force that eventually numbered more than a half-million men. Including Okinawan conscripts, the Japanese had less than one hundred thousand troops. We took only four thousand prisoners of war . . . .

Even after final surrender was accepted aboard the Missouri in September, there were still plenty of the little devils mucking about in the hills. But there weren’t enough of them to discourage me when there was the prospect of money to be made.

The island was relatively quiet, and I was getting just bold enough to journey out for souvenirs. Believe me, there was a hell of a market for my trinkets. The other men all wanted the stuff, but they lacked the initiative for inland treks. So I began to accumulate quite a bankroll—a Japanese 25 mm. rifle brought 25 dollars, a kimono was good for 20, and the cigar-shaped, brass explosives converted into salt and pepper shakers that could be sold for five dollars a pair.

I rather enjoyed my days. My officer friends kept me off the duty rosters, so that I was able to make regular expeditions for booty. I would always set out in early morning, armed with a carbine, a Colt pistol, and two grenades. Oh, don’t scoff at the idea of an armed medical corpsman; we all had weapons from the beginning, and none of us ever wore the red crosses on our sleeves or helmets. It was too easy to train rifle sights on a red cross. . . .

If it hadn’t been for the typhoon, I would have returned home with an impressive amount of moola. As it turned out, I decided to abandon all of my ventures after the typhoon. . . .

We’d all been briefed on typhoons, on their severity and danger. Always one to play it safe, I’d rigged myself a dandy storm shelter in one of the thousands of burial caves that are scattered over the hillsides of Okinawa. The outside entrances of these tombs had been shaped to represent the lower half of a woman’s anatomy, so that the earthly body could complete a full cycle, so that in death the body could be returned to its origins. . . .

Before the storm struck, I was on my way to my picked tomb. I’d buttressed the outside of the tomb with sandbags, and stocked the interior with a ship’s battle lantern, a cot, a supply of K rations, and some reading material. I’d invited Doc Stroud to share the shelter with me, but he would have none of it and chose to go to the storage quonsets with the other men. . . .

When I arrived at the shelter, I noticed that some of my burial jars had been thrown outside the tomb. I cursed myself for having fogotten my sidearm, but it was pointless to turn back with a storm just beginning to break across the island. I could only hope that my guest turned out to be an American. I held my breath, and went inside the tomb. In the glow of the battle lantern, a Japanese soldier crouched; the barrel of his 25 mm. rifle was pointed at my forehead.

He was a slight man in a tattered uniform. A man of about 35 years, with short hair and a thin mustache. He was wearing two pouches suspended from straps over his shoulders—a musette bag and a gas mask case.

I turned my pockets inside out, and stepped around in a circle to show him that I was unarmed. I whispered rash promises to God and tensed my sphincters to keep from fouling my britches.

The wind started really howling outside, and that Jap did a rather curious thing; he ejected the shells from his rifle and put them in his pocket. He laid the rifle aside, and motioned for me to be seated. While I was digging out some K rations, he fumbled through some ratty papers and finally produced a worn photograph, evidently the likenesses of his wife and daughter. Fine. I smiled and nodded over the picture, and I thanked my lucky stars that I’d at least stumbled upon one Jap who wasn’t interested in hara-kiri or murder. He was probably only concerned with surviving the war and returning to home and family.

It occurred to me to identify myself, I thumped my chest, and tried to yell over the noise of the wind.”Winnie,” I yelled. The Jap was startled, I thumped my chest, and yelled again, “Winnie.”

He smiled widely, and in a half-assed manner, repeated my name, “Winnie.” And in a brief glimpse, I saw that the poor bastard’s mouth was devastated, with rotten teeth and red gums. He thumped his own chest, and he yelled, “Yoshio.” I screamed Yoshio back to him, and I had a second look at that terrible mouth.

I decided that Yoshio was probably a shopkeeper. He looked like a shopkeeper to me. Perhaps he’d once sold firecrackers and Buddhas and ink stones and delicate brushes.

I crawled over the floor, and picked through the fine rubble of centuries until I found a soft stone.”Watch this, Yoshio,” I said, too mildly for him to hear. I went to the wall and scratched a rough outline of the U.S. I scratched a large check mark to show the location of my home.”Indiana,” I screamed.

Yoshio smiled again, and I thought that it would be better if he would keep his mouth closed when he smiled. I handed him the stone, and he drew an outline of Japan. When he made the check to indicate his home, I felt my throat go very dry.”Nagasaki,” he shouted, and showed those ruined teeth once more,

I took the stone from Yoshio, and executed a few crude cartoon figures. Yoshio drew a delightful dragon or two, as if to satisfy my expectations of things Japanese, and he spent quite some time on a rather intricate rendering of a temple facade. Eventually, we filled a section of wall with our desecrations.

I divided the rations between us, and Yoshio devoured his portion as greedily as tender gums would permit. But what of it; he probably hadn’t eaten in days, and had little more substance than a wraith. I was more restrained while we dined. The jungle sores on his arms didn’t do much for my appetite.

The howling of the wind diminished, and the increasing silence was eerie—as if an air-tight lid were gradually being sealed over the mouth of the cave. Yoshio’s expression was appropriately inscrutable, but his hands were shaking as if palsied. I was also getting rather rattled, and began imagining barely perceptible whisperings—perhaps the tiny voices of generations of spirits flitting about the tomb like butterflies.

The storm was still with us, for the wind began to build again, found its way into the tomb, and whistled over the tops of open burial jars—I remembered creating similar notes in childhood, the flute tones blown over the lips of soft-drink bottles.

The wind was a roar at the tomb entrance. Suddenly, a mass of debris was swept past the entrance. Yoshio and I were startled enough that we found ourselves clutching one another for dear life. After a moment, we broke away and laughed in spite of our mutual embarrassment.

I brewed some coffee, and shared my cigarettes with Yoshio, and we discovered another diversion in making shadow pictures by the light of the battle lantern. I was limited to the execution of a simple animal or two, but Yoshio was particularly adept at our dumb show. I was unable to duplicate the subtle manipulations of his fingers which created shadow forms that were oddly oriental.

Later, when I was lying on the cot, just on the verge of sleep, Yoshio quietly crawled to my side. I tensed myself, prepared to leap from the cot at the first gesture of assassination. Yoshio gently lifted my head and stuffed his rolled jacket under it for a pillow . . . .

As I recall, we were in the tomb for about a day and a half. When the storm finally abated, I brewed some more coffee and shared a smoke with Yoshio. I decided to return to camp for more rations. I motioned for Yoshio to remain in the tomb, but he seemed uneasy at the notion that I would be leaving. With additional gestures, I tried to convey the idea that I was only going for food.

When I returned from camp carrying a pot of hot stew, I found that Yoshio had left the tomb. I ran down the hillside looking for him—not yelling, of course, for it would have been folly to have gone scurrying about that place calling “Yoshio, Yoshio. . . .”

I located him in the field below the hillside. Two marines were escorting him toward an open patch of ground, through the tangle of rubble that had been scattered nearly everywhere by the typhoon. I ran to overtake them. One of the marines was leading, while the other walked in the rear and prodded the captive. Yoshio seemed so pitiful and frail in comparison to the burly Americans. I fell in step with the second marine.

I said, “Where did you catch him?”

The marine said, “We caught him crawling out of one of those gook holes.”

We reached the open patch of ground, open except for a ruined tree in its center, The marine grabbed Yoshio’s collar and brought him to a halt. He twisted his grip and forced Yoshio to a sitting position.

I said, “What will you do with him?”

The other marine opened a fuel can that he’d been carry ing, and poured its contents over Yoshio’s head and shoulders.

I said, “Jesus Christ, the war’s over.”

The marine said, “Tell that to some of our guys we’ve found without their heads, with their nuts cut out,”

“But this one could be different. Couldn’t he be different? Just a poor slob who doesn’t give a shit for the war.”

Yoshio kept watching me. I averted my eyes from his accusing stare, fastened my gaze on the scorched tree trunk behind him. When the marines backed off from him and flipped burning matches in his direction, I turned away and began walking toward the nearby hillside. I cursed Yoshio for his terrible screams and fought the tears that were flowing from my eyes. At the base of the hill, I stopped and retched until nothing more than bile came forth., ..

I returned to the shelter site, and spent some time putting things in order. I gathered those burial jars that Yoshio had thrown outside the tomb, stuffed the scrubbed bones of long dead Okinawans back in the jars, and lugged them inside.

I discovered that Yoshio had left his gas mask behind. I picked it up and traced my fingers over the needlework on the case and decided that I should find someone to translate the characters. I slung the case from my shoulder and started walking to camp.


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