The Man Who Could Speak Japanese

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It was months before I learned what happened to him after that, because after the battle began in earnest, my people became extremely active. Okinawa turned out to be the bloodiest engagement of the Pacific war, eclipsing even Iwo. After it was all over, a Presidential citation commended the division “for extraordinary heroism in action against enemy Japanese forces” and for “gallantry in overcoming a fanatic enemy in the face of extraordinary danger,” but all I remember is mud and terror. Years later I learned from reading Samuel Eliot Morison that the 2gth had sustained the heaviest casualties of any regiment in the history of the Marine Corps—2,821 out of some 3,3oo riflemen. My section was cut to pieces. Once the slaughter began, we were used as runners, carrying messages between battalion staff officers, company commanders, and even platoon leaders whose walkie-talkies had conked out. It was exceptionally perilous work. In 1918 someone computed the life expectancy of a German machine gunner on the western front at thirty minutes, and I don’t believe that of a Marine runner along Okinawa’s Machinate line could have been much longer. We were rarely in defilade, usually exposed, and often had to spend long periods lined up in some Jap sniper’s sights. I myself was hit twice. The first time was May 17 on the northern slope of Sugar Loaf Hill. It was only a flesh wound, and I jumped hospital to rejoin the battalion, but on June 5 I was decked again. That one was almost for keeps, a massive chest wound from fourteeninch rocket-mortar shrapnel. For five months I was on and off operating tables on a hospital ship, on Saipan, in Alewa Heights Naval Hospital overlooking Honolulu, in San Francisco, and finally at San Diego’s naval hospital in Balboa Park.

A letter from Jasper—who survived the war to marry a Nisei—reached me in Balboa that October, filling me in on Whitey’s last adventure in the 2Qth. I was wearing a buck sergeant’s stripes by then, or rather they were sewn to the sleeves of my greens, for I was still bedridden. I have a hazy memory of church bells tolling the previous August, and my asking a chief petty officer what it meant, and his answering, “The war’s over,” and my saying “Oh,” just “Oh.” Within a few months the sgth’s people began heading home. Whitey, however, was not among them. His complaint about his back hadn’t deceived the mortarmen, but then, they, like us, had known him. The physicians at the regimental aid station, on an LST offshore, had been seduced by his earnest charm, though the ultimate result was not quite what he had had in mind. The docs put him in a Higgins boat and sent him back to a corps clearing hospital. All badges of rank having been removed before we hit the beach—Nip sharpshooters liked to pick off officers and N.C.O.’S —the hospital’s medical corpsmen had no way of knowing the military status of casualties, so they usually asked them. They asked Whitey, and he repeated his bootcamp lie. He said he was a first lieutenant, reasoning that life would be more comfortable, and the chow more edible, on an officer’s ward.

He was right, but there were special hazards for him there. A captain in the next bunk asked him what his job in the Marine Corps was. “Japanese-language interpreter,” said Whitey. They shot the breeze for a while, and then the captain asked Whitey for a lesson. Ever obliging, our man rattled off a few phrases and jotted down some of his Oriental hieroglyphics on a slip of paper. “Very interesting,” the real officer said slowly. Then he yelled: “Corpsman! Put this man under arrest!” It developed that the captain was one of the first graduates of the Japaneselanguage schools that had been set up after Pearl Harbor. They were arriving in the Pacific too late to do much toward winning the war, but this one had turned up at exactly the right time to nail Whitey. Our confidence man had tried to dupe one mark too many. He was shipped straight back to Portsmouth.

I never saw him again, but I heard from him once. Five years after the war, when my first stories were appearing in national magazines, I received a letter postmarked Hollywood and written in a familiar scrawl. It was on MGM stationery. God knows where he had picked it up, but he certainly hadn’t acquired it legally. Letters from studio executives—for that is what it claimed to be—are typed. They are also spelled correctly and properly phrased. This one was neither. I have never seen a clearer illustration of Whitey’s own aphorism that we have two languages, one we speak and one we write. He was entirely verbal; when he lectured, it was with easy assurance and an impressive vocabulary. On his pilfered MGM stationery he was another hustler. Gone were his casual references to conjugations, modifiers, inflections, and the imperative mood. Not since his stab at journalism on the ‘Canal had he been so incoherent.

His missive ran:

Dear Bill,

Caught your artical in this months Harpers. Real good. Always knew you had it in you.

Look—could you give yours truely a break? Am now doing PR for Sam Goldwyn & Co and am trying to promote to stardom a real cute chick, name of Boobs Slotkin. (Boobs—ha! ha! I gave her the name & when you glim her knockers youll see why.) Give me the word and I’ll shoot you some pix. Some for the public and some for your private eye if you get my meaning—ha! ha!

Sure miss the old gang on the Canal and all the good times we had. I don’t hear from any of them, do you?