The Man Who Could Speak Japanese

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Whitey’s greatest achievement, of course, was his mastery of the enemy’s language, the attainment that had sprung him from Portsmouth, and it was far too valuable to be confined to my section. Shortly after we crossed the country by troop train and encamped at Linda Vista, north of San Diego, preparatory to boarding ship, our gifted ex-con attracted the attention of the agth’s commanding officer, Colonel George F. Hastings. Hastings was the kind of colorful hard-charger the Marine Corps has always valued highly. Reportedly he was a native of an Arizona town named Buzzard’s Gulch. Myth had it that his middle initial stood for “Flytrap,” which was absurd, but it was quite true that between the wars he had designed the Corps’ standard MIAI flytrap. Until the agth was formed, this device had existed only on paper, but over one weekend in training he had ordered one built. It didn’t work. Not a single insect ventured into it. Nobody had the courage to tell the colonel, and on a Sunday of punishing heat the first sergeants had turned everybody out to catch flies by hand and put them in the trap so that Hastings wouldn’t feel crushed.

The colonel was a great gray weasel of a man who always wore a bleached khaki fore-and-aft cap pushed to the back of his head. He was also the hoarsest and most redundant man I have ever known. His normal speaking voice can only be described as throaty, and he was forever saying things in it like “Here in Dixie we’re in the Deep South,” “Keep fit and healthy,” and “Eat lots of food and plenty of it.”

One sunlit morning—heavily handsome as only southern Californian weather can be—I was summoned by the sergeant major into the C.O.’S august presence. Hastings was standing beside a Lister bag in Officers’ Country, slaking his thirst.

“We’re going to sail aboard ship tomorrow,” he barked after draining a canteen cup.

“Sir.”

“The first day out I want Private Dumas to hold Japanese lessons. Just some fundamental key phrases. All officers and staff N.C.O.’S will meet on the fantail in the stern. I’m requisitioning a blackboard from ship’s stores. Make sure Dumas is ready.”

When I passed the word to Whitey, he gave me what we called a thousand-yard stare—a look of profound preoccupation. Then, while we were mounting the gangplank of the U.S.S. General C. G. Morton , lugging our seabags on our left shoulders and saluting the ship’s colors as we boarded her, word was passed of our voyage’s destination. We were headed for jungle maneuvers on Guadalcanal. “Oh, Christ, not that goddamned island,” !vice groaned. As Acting John I had been the first to reach the deck, and I happened to be looking at Dumas when the news reached him. He gave me a two-thousand-yard stare.

The next morning all designated hands fell out aft, with notebooks and pencils in hand. First the colonel pointed out that the blackboard was there, with lots of chalk and plenty of it, and that we were about to get some dope that would improve our efficiency and competence. Then he introduced Dumas. It was, I later thought, one of Whitey’s finest hours. Arms akimbo, head high, with just the trace of a smile on that rugged face—the look of the learned teacher addressing eager neophytes—he proceeded with such assurance that one momentarily forgot he was outranked by everyone else there. Like English, he observed, Japanese was two languages, the written and the spoken. We would be chiefly concerned with the second, but it might be useful if we acquired some proficiency with the first. Turning to the blackboard he chalked with stenographic speed:

“That means ‘Put your hands up, Nip!’ ” he said easily. “The best phonetic rendition I can give you is ‘ Zari sin toy fong !’ ”

We wrote it down.

The next phrase was:

” ‘ Booki fai kiz soy ?’ ” said Whitey. “It means ‘Do you surrender?’ ”

Then:

” ‘ Mizi pok loi ooni rak tong zin ?’ ‘Where are your comrades?’ ”

“Tong what ?” rasped the colonel.

“Tong zin , sir,” our instructor replied, rolling chalk between his palms. He arched his eyebrows, as though inviting another question. There was one. The adjutant asked, “What’s that gizmo on the end?”

“It’s called a fy-thong ,” Whitey said. “It looks like a quotation mark, or a German umlaut, but its function is very different. It makes the question imperative—almost a threat. In effect you’re saying, ‘Tell me where your comrades are or you’re a dead Nip.’ ”

“Right on target,” the colonel muttered, writing furiously.

Next Whitey scrawled:

“Means ‘I want some water,’ ” he explained. “You say it ‘ Ruki gack keer pong tari loo-loo .’ ”

Then:

“ ‘ Moodi fang baki kim tuki dim fai ?’ That’s a question: ‘Where is your commander?’ ”