The Man Who Could Speak Japanese

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A company commander raised a hand. “Why no fy—fy …”

Fy-thong ,” Whitey prompted. He spread his hands. “I really can’t explain it, sir. The imperative just doesn’t exist in certain conjugations. They call it a narrow inflection. It’s a weird language.” He grinned. “But then, they’re a peculiar people.”

“Murdering ∗∗∗∗heads,” hoarsed the colonel, flexing his elbow and scribbling on.

The battalion operations officer—the nn-3—cleared his throat. He was a squat gargoyle of a man with a thick Brooklyn accent, the comic of Officers’ Country. He asked, “How do you say ‘I got to take a crap?’ ”

Into the laughter Whitey said earnestly, “That’s a good question, sir. The Japanese are very sensitive about bodily functions. You have to put it just right.”

He chalked:

He said: ” ‘ Song foy suki-suki kai moy-ah .’ ”

The B n-3 shot back, “What about saying to a Nip girl ‘ Voulez-vous coucher avec moi ?’ ”

Colonel Hastings thought that was hilarious, and once his guffaws had sanctioned the joke, everyone joined in lustily. Everyone, that is, except Whitey. Nursing his elbows and rocking back on his heels, he gave them a small, tight enlisted-man’s smile. Slowly it dawned on the rest of us that he had not understood the operations officer, that his foreign languages did not include French. There was much coughing and shuffling of feet; then the B n-3 said in the subdued voice of one whose joke had been unappreciated, “What I mean is—how you say you want your ashes hauled?”

Now Whitey beamed. He turned to the blackboard and scrawled:

“How do you say it?” shouted the quartermaster.

” ‘ Naka-naka eeda kooda-sai ,’ ” Whitey said slowly. There was a long pause while we all made sure we had that one right. Thirty years later I can read it clearly in my yellowing notes, carefully printed in block capitals.

The colonel stood up, yawned, and prepared to shove off. He was bushed, he said, and he looked it. Doubtless this was his most intense cogitation since the invention of the flytrap. But then, we were all stretching ourselves. Although Marine Corps routine can be exhausting, it is rarely cerebral. The only man there who looked fresh was Whitey. Of course, he already knew Japanese.

The colonel was nothing if not dogged, however, and every day thereafter we assembled on the fantail for more skull sessions. By the end of the second week we were jabbering at each other with reasonable fluency, and the more enterprising platoon leaders were drilling their men in the basic idioms. Hastings, now well into his third notebook, was a bottomless source of questions. (“How do you say ‘Put down your weapon’ and tell him to do that?”) We all felt that the agth had a distinct edge on the other twenty-eight Marine regiments. Even the jaded members of my intelligence section were roused to pride—Jasper, a particularly apt pupil, marvelled at the exquisite nuances of the tongue, at its Oriental precision and delicacy of phrasing—though Zoglin dampened our enthusiasm somewhat by pointing out the unlikelihood that we would ever have an opportunity to use our new skill. Japanese soldiers were notorious for their refusal to surrender. They considered it an honor to die for their emperor and a disgrace to be taken alive; when defeat loomed for them at the end of an island battle, their officers would round them up for a traditional banzai (hurrah) suicide charge, and our people obligingly mowed them down. (Banzai, Whitey explained in response to a question, was spelled)

On the morning of the seventeenth day we climbed topside to find ourselves lying off the ‘Canal, that lush, incredibly green, entirely repulsive island that for most of us had existed only in legend, !vice had a lot to say about its banyan trees and kunai grass, but Whitey continued to be reticent about his recollections of it. Toward the end the journey had been a great strain for him. Of course, he had a lot on his mind. Rising in the night for a trip to the scuttlebutt or the head, I would see him lying awake on his bunk, sweating in his skivvies, preparing the next day’s lecture.

Slinging our 782 gear over our field packs, we scrambled down the cargo nets thrown over the side of the Morton , landed in the waiting Higgins boats, and raced in them toward the shore. There we found that we were to make our training camp on the banks of a river. And there Whitey committed what seemed to be a peculiar blunder. As he looked down on the stream his eyes misted over. “Sweet Jesus,” he said feelingly, picking up a corroded old cartridge case. “I never thought I’d see the Matanikau again.”

Ivice looked at him in disbelief. “The Matanikau !” he said. “What the ∗∗∗∗ are you talking about? This is the Kokumbona . The Matanikau’s four miles to the east!”

Whitey hesitated and wet his lips. It was the first time any of us had seen him shook. Finally he blinked and said, “Man, I must be Asiatic.” He shrugged. “All these goddamned rivers look the same to me.”