The Man Who Could Speak Japanese

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In the spring of ig44 the United States Marine Corps formed its last rifle regiment of World War n, the agth Marines, in New River, North Carolina. The first of its three battalions was already overseas, having been built around ex-Raiders and parachutists who had fought on Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and Saipan. Great pains were being taken to make the other two battalions worthy of them. The troops assembling in New River were picked men. Officers and key noncoms had already been tested in battles against the enemy, and though few riflemen in the line companies had been under fire, they tended to be hulking, deepvoiced mesomorphs whose records suggested that they would perform well when they, too, hit the beach. There was, however, one small band of exceptions. These were the nineteen enlisted men comprising the intelligence section of the agth’s second battalion. All nineteen were Officer Candidate washouts. I, also a washout, led them. My rank was Corporal, acting Platoon Sergeant—Acting John.

We were, every one of us, military misfits, college students who in a fever of patriotism had rushed to the Marine Corps’ Officer Candidate School at Quantico, Virginia, and had subsequently been rejected because, for various reasons, we did not conform with the established concept of how officers should look, speak, and act. Chet Przystawski of Colgate, for example, had a build like Charles Atlas but a voice like Lily Pons; when he yelled a command, the effect was that of an eerie shriek. Ace Livick of the University of Virginia had no sense of direction; at Quantico he had flunked map reading. Jerry Collins, a Yale man, was painfully shy. Stan Zoglin, a Cantab, had poor posture. Mack Yates of Ole Miss wore spectacles. Tom Jasper of Brown and I had been insubordinate. I had refused to clean a rifle on the ground that it was already clean, and I suffered the added stigma of being scrawny. I’ve forgotten the order Jasper disobeyed, though I knew that he too had another count against him: he admired the Japanese enormously.

Sy Ivice of Chicago christened us “the Raggedy-Ass Marines.” That was about the size of it. Love had died between us and the Marine Corps. The rest of the battalion amiably addressed us as “Mac”—all enlisted Marines were “Mac” to their officers and to one another—but there was a widespread awareness that we were unsuitably bookish, slack on the drill field, and generally beneath the fastidious stateside standards established in the Corps’ log-year history. If there had been such a thing as a Military Quotient, the spit-and-polish equivalent of an Intelligence Quotient, our M.Q. would have been pegged at about 78. It is fair to add that this rating would have been confined to our parade-ground performance. We were regarded as good combat prospects. All of us, I believe, had qualified on the Parris Island, South Carolina, rifle range as Sharpshooters or Expert Riflemen. It was thought (and, as it proved, rightly so) that we would be useful in battle. Our problem, or rather the problem of our leaders, was that we lacked what the British army calls Quetta manners. We weren’t properly starched and blancoed, weren’t martially prepossessing—weren’t, in a word, good for the agth’s image.

We were rarely given liberty, because our company commander was ashamed to let civilians see us wearing the corps uniform. Shirttails out, buttons missing, fore-and-aft (overseas) caps down around our ears—these were signs that we had lost our drill-field ardor in ocs and were playing our roles of incorrigible eccentrics to the hilt. We looked like caricatures from cartoons in The Leatherneck , the Marine Corps equivalent of Yank , and the only reason our betters allowed us to stay together, setting a bad example to one another and damaging battalion élan, was a provision in the official Table of Organization for an intelligence section and our qualifications for membership in it. Between Quantico and assignment to the agth we had all attended something called intelligence school. Theoretically we were experts in identifying enemy units by searching Jap corpses, recognizing the silhouettes of Zero fighters, reconnoitering behind the lines, etc. It was all rather vague. If we proved useless in these tasks, our commanders knew that we could always be used for odd jobs.

Meanwhile we carried out exhausting training exercises in the Carolina boondocks, inflating rubber boats, getting snarled in bales of communications wire, carrying out simulated patrol missions at night. Whenever it was Livick’s turn to keep the map, we would vanish into the piney woods, subsisting on K and D rations for hours until we were found thrashing around in the bush and led back by a rescue party from the battalion’s 81-millimeter platoon, our longsuffering neighbors in New River’s Tent City. For the most part it was an uneventful time, however. Nothing interesting seemed likely to happen before we were shipped overseas.

Then one morning the battalion adjutant summoned me.

“Mac.”

“Sir.”

“You will square away to snap in a new man.”

Marine Corps orders were always given this way: “You will scrub bulkheads,” “You will police this area,” “You will hold a field day.” There was only one permissible response.

“Aye, aye, sir,” I said.

“He’s a Japanese-language interpreter,” he said.

“A what ?”