The Man Who Could Speak Japanese

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The POW stockade was at Koli Point, and one morning at 0800 hours we set out for it in a convoy, with Colonel Hastings and his private translator leading in a jeep and the rest of us trailing in a green crocodile of DUKW’S , six-by trucks, and various other military vehicles. This was a big day for the colonel; he wanted every officer and staff N.C.O. to remember it. Since Whitey was riding with him, I didn’t see the interpreter during the trip, and I have no way of knowing how he behaved, though I’m sure he retained his poise. Anybody who had the guts to snow his way through those classes on the Morton would be equal to almost any crisis; it was not crises, but day-by-day, round-the-clock testing that had led to our disenchantment with him. When I arrived at Koli, Hastings’jeep was already parked beside the huge barbed-wire coils. The colonel was outside, glaring in wrathfully. The prisoners were squatting miserably on their haunches, and Whitey, dressed in Marine dungarees and a raider cap, was squatting alongside them.

Apparently an exchange of some sort was going on. Obviously the colonel thought so; his eyes darted alertly from Whitey to the Japs, and his right ear was cocked, trying to pick up a thread of sense by using the vocabulary he had learned on the voyage from San Diego. It was, of course, impossible. Whitey was ad-libbing with his brilliant double-talk, which, however Oriental it sounded to us, was utterly devoid of real meaning. What the Nips were saying is a matter of conjecture, since no one there was equipped to understand them. My own belief is that they were replying to Whitey, “We only speak Japanese.” All that can be said with any certainty is that the row’s and their interrogator had reached an impasse. After a long lull in the nonconversation Whitey came out with a hangdog look.

“What’s happening?” the colonel asked anxiously.

“Sir, I goofed,” Whitey said wretchedly.

“What? Why? How?”

With a swooping gesture Whitey swung out his right forefinger and pointed to the Marine Corps emblem printed on the left breast of his dungaree jacket. “I should never have worn this,” he said in his guileless voice. “You see, sir,” he explained, looking directly at Hastings, “they know what the globe-and-fouled-anchor means. They know what the Marine Corps is. They realize that the corps is destroying their emperor and their homeland, and they just won’t answer my questions.”

For a long moment the colonel stared back at Whitey. Then he squared his shoulders, and his pouter-pigeon chest swelled. “Goddam right,” he grated, his voice like a coarse file. He peered contemptuously into the pen and said, “Those sons of bitches are a bunch of bastards.”

With that he strutted back to his jeep and soon, it developed, out of our lives—Whitey’s, mine, and the agth’s. That week the battalion boarded the APA (attack transport) George C. Clymer for Okinawa, where the colonel left us after the first few days of battle. He was relieved of his command on Motobu peninsula after the divisional commander asked him the whereabouts of his first and third battalions and received no satisfactory reply. I happened to be there when the question was raised, and I can still see the look of utter bewilderment on Hastings’ face. He had always been vague about the rest of his regiment; his heart had belonged to our second battalion; he had allowed his lieutenant colonels to run the others, and in the excitement of combat he had neglected to update his situation map. “Inexcusable!” said the general, clearly outraged. “I’m sorry. I regret it,” the colonel croaked brokenly. Later I heard that he had been shunted back to the corps staff, where he was awarded the Bronze Star “for excellence in keeping records during combat.”

Whitey had vanished at about the same time during a sick call. Quite apart from gunshot wounds, there was a pattern of bizarre casualties in the island battles of World War n. Some poor bastard wading toward the beach would stumble off a reef, and with eighty pounds of hardware on his back he would sink like a stone. A BAR man in Easy Company disappeared that way in the early hours of Love Day, as Okinawa’s D -day was quaintly called. Other people went rock happy—”combat fatigue,” it was called. The sergeant major did; he was carried off cackling nonsense even less intelligible than that of Private Dumas. Then there was always some sad clown who, the first night on the beach, would forget that he had to stay in his hole until dawn, or “morning twilight,” because the Japs were ingenious at night infiltrations. We scratched one Fox Company Go-millimeter mortarman at 2 A.M. that April 2; he was up relieving himself over a slit trench when a sentry drilled him through one cheek. (“A good shot in the bull’s eye,” said our callous colonel the following morning, just before he was deprived of his command.) Finally, there were the back cases. Whitey became one of them.

Every salt knew that you could get surveyed if you complained long enough about chronic back pains. Back on the ‘Canal I lost a Philadelphian who had enlisted at the age of twenty-eight—we called him “Pop”—and who, fed up with jungle training, used that excuse to get stateside. Whitey followed his ignoble example. To the disgust of the gungho 81-millimeter mortarmen, he kept insisting that his spine was killing him, and finally the skeptical medical corpsmen sighed and took him away for a check.