The Man Who Could Speak Japanese

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The rest of us accepted that—this tangled island bewildered us too—but !vice said nothing. Throughout that day I caught him eyeing Whitey strangely from time to time, and the following morning, when I hitched a ride to Lunga Point on a DUKW and crossed the coconut-log bridge spanning the Matanikau, I understood why. The two rivers were entirely different. Compared to the mighty Matanikau, the Kokumbona was a shallow brook. Whitey’s error was inexplicable.

Ivice was the first to entertain doubts about the star of our intelligence section, and I was the second. One evening over a joe-pot I mentioned to the sergeant major that Mrs. Dumas was a movie starlet. The sparrow chirped, “There ain’t no Mrs. Dumas. If there was one, there’d be an allotment for her on the books, and there ain’t none. I keep the books. I know .” Shortly thereafter I saw a pinup of Betty Grable in a slop chute near Henderson Field. I recognized the style immediately: an eight-by-ten glossy print. What Whitey had been passing off as a photograph of his wife was a publicity shot of some Hollywood aspirant. Probably he had never met her. I never learned for sure.

Bit by bit the elaborate structure he had erected so adroitly and so successfully was beginning to come unstuck. Working on the Point Cruz dock, Yates met a port battalion officer who had been an Oakland lawyer before the war and who hooted at the idea of California law defining a boxer’s punch as an assault with a deadly weapon. Then a gunnery sergeant, arriving as a replacement from Pendleton, recognized Whitey and revealed the true reason he had been stripped of rank and sent to prison. While still in boot camp, it turned out, he had been arrested for impersonating an officer in downtown San Diego. Since he hadn’t become a recruit until the fall of 1943, Whitey had been a civilian during the battle for the ‘Canal, !vice was confirmed; our prodigy had never seen the island before he had landed with us. There was another thing: Whitey had told us that he had been a reporter. Journalism was something I knew about—in college I had been an Amherst stringer for the Springfield Republican —and when I started a camp newspaper, I invited him to contribute to it. He tried; he really tried. For days he struggled with a pencil, but when the result came in, it was functionally illiterate, almost incomprehensible. If he had ever been a reporter, the paper hadn’t been published in the English language.

Of course, it might have been a Japanese newspaper. Whitey’s claim to be a linguist was the last of his status symbols, and he clung to it desperately. Looking back, I think his improvisations on the Morton fantail must have been one of the most heroic achievements in the history of confidence men—which, as you may have gathered by now, was Whitey’s true profession. Toward the end of our tour of duty on the ‘Canal he was totally discredited with us and transferred at his own request to the 81-millimeter platoon, where our disregard for him was no stigma, since the 81 millimeter musclemen regarded us as a bunch of eight balls anyway. Yet even then, even after we had become completely disillusioned with him, he remained a figure of wonder among us. We could scarcely believe that an impostor could be clever enough actually to invent a language—phonics, calligraphy, and all. It had looked like Japanese and sounded like Japanese, and during his seventeen days of lecturing on that ship Whitey had carried it all in his head, remembering every variation, every subtlety, every syntactic construction.

Whitey stayed out of jail, and in the sgth, because the one man who never lost confidence in him was Colonel Hastings. The colonel continued to believe, not because he was stupid, but because Whitey staged his greatest show—literally a command performance—for the regimental C.O. I was there, yet to this day I don’t fully understand how he pulled it off. What happened was that the First Marine Division, while securing Peleliu in October of ig44, had bagged five Japanese prisoners. That sort of thing happened from time to time in the Pacific war, usually under freakish circumstances. A Jap was dazed by a shell or otherwise rendered unable to kill himself. Seized by our troops, he was physically restrained from making amends to the emperor. Five months after their capture these failed suicides were ferried to the ‘Canal from the First’s base on the Russell Islands. Clad in loincloths and penned behind maximum-security concertinas of barbed wire, they passively awaited the pleasure of their conquerors. But nobody with jurisdiction knew quite how to dispose of them. Then word of their presence reached the C.O. of the agth. Hastings knew exactly what to do; he announced to their wardens that he would interrogate them through his very own interpreter, Private Harold Dumas. Whitey greeted the news with a ten-thousand-yard stare and utter silence. There was, it seemed, nothing he could say.