December 1975 | Volume 27, Issue 1
In the spring of ig44 the United States Marine Corps formed its last rifle regiment of World War n, the agth Marines, in New River, North Carolina. The first of its three battalions was already overseas, having been built around ex-Raiders and parachutists who had fought on Guadalcanal, Tarawa, and Saipan. Great pains were being taken to make the other two battalions worthy of them. The troops assembling in New River were picked men. Officers and key noncoms had already been tested in battles against the enemy, and though few riflemen in the line companies had been under fire, they tended to be hulking, deepvoiced mesomorphs whose records suggested that they would perform well when they, too, hit the beach. There was, however, one small band of exceptions. These were the nineteen enlisted men comprising the intelligence section of the agth’s second battalion. All nineteen were Officer Candidate washouts. I, also a washout, led them. My rank was Corporal, acting Platoon Sergeant—Acting John.
We were, every one of us, military misfits, college students who in a fever of patriotism had rushed to the Marine Corps’ Officer Candidate School at Quantico, Virginia, and had subsequently been rejected because, for various reasons, we did not conform with the established concept of how officers should look, speak, and act. Chet Przystawski of Colgate, for example, had a build like Charles Atlas but a voice like Lily Pons; when he yelled a command, the effect was that of an eerie shriek. Ace Livick of the University of Virginia had no sense of direction; at Quantico he had flunked map reading. Jerry Collins, a Yale man, was painfully shy. Stan Zoglin, a Cantab, had poor posture. Mack Yates of Ole Miss wore spectacles. Tom Jasper of Brown and I had been insubordinate. I had refused to clean a rifle on the ground that it was already clean, and I suffered the added stigma of being scrawny. I’ve forgotten the order Jasper disobeyed, though I knew that he too had another count against him: he admired the Japanese enormously.
Sy Ivice of Chicago christened us “the Raggedy-Ass Marines.” That was about the size of it. Love had died between us and the Marine Corps. The rest of the battalion amiably addressed us as “Mac”—all enlisted Marines were “Mac” to their officers and to one another—but there was a widespread awareness that we were unsuitably bookish, slack on the drill field, and generally beneath the fastidious stateside standards established in the Corps’ log-year history. If there had been such a thing as a Military Quotient, the spit-and-polish equivalent of an Intelligence Quotient, our M.Q. would have been pegged at about 78. It is fair to add that this rating would have been confined to our parade-ground performance. We were regarded as good combat prospects. All of us, I believe, had qualified on the Parris Island, South Carolina, rifle range as Sharpshooters or Expert Riflemen. It was thought (and, as it proved, rightly so) that we would be useful in battle. Our problem, or rather the problem of our leaders, was that we lacked what the British army calls Quetta manners. We weren’t properly starched and blancoed, weren’t martially prepossessing—weren’t, in a word, good for the agth’s image.
We were rarely given liberty, because our company commander was ashamed to let civilians see us wearing the corps uniform. Shirttails out, buttons missing, fore-and-aft (overseas) caps down around our ears—these were signs that we had lost our drill-field ardor in ocs and were playing our roles of incorrigible eccentrics to the hilt. We looked like caricatures from cartoons in The Leatherneck , the Marine Corps equivalent of Yank , and the only reason our betters allowed us to stay together, setting a bad example to one another and damaging battalion élan, was a provision in the official Table of Organization for an intelligence section and our qualifications for membership in it. Between Quantico and assignment to the agth we had all attended something called intelligence school. Theoretically we were experts in identifying enemy units by searching Jap corpses, recognizing the silhouettes of Zero fighters, reconnoitering behind the lines, etc. It was all rather vague. If we proved useless in these tasks, our commanders knew that we could always be used for odd jobs.
Meanwhile we carried out exhausting training exercises in the Carolina boondocks, inflating rubber boats, getting snarled in bales of communications wire, carrying out simulated patrol missions at night. Whenever it was Livick’s turn to keep the map, we would vanish into the piney woods, subsisting on K and D rations for hours until we were found thrashing around in the bush and led back by a rescue party from the battalion’s 81-millimeter platoon, our longsuffering neighbors in New River’s Tent City. For the most part it was an uneventful time, however. Nothing interesting seemed likely to happen before we were shipped overseas.
Then one morning the battalion adjutant summoned me.
“You will square away to snap in a new man.”
Marine Corps orders were always given this way: “You will scrub bulkheads,” “You will police this area,” “You will hold a field day.” There was only one permissible response.
“Aye, aye, sir,” I said.
“He’s a Japanese-language interpreter,” he said.
“A what ?”
In 1944 virtually no one in the Marine Corps spoke Japanese. Unlike the ETO , where plenty of oi’s were bilingual, Americans were at a severe linguistic disadvantage in the Pacific. It was worsened by the fact that many Japs spoke English; they could eavesdrop on our combat field telephones. As a result by the third year of the war the headquarters company of each Marine battalion carried on its roster a full-blooded Navaho who could communicate over radiophones in his own tongue with the Navahos in other battalions. After the outbreak of the war Washington had set up several crash courses to teach Japanese to bright young Americans, but the first graduates wouldn’t emerge until the spring of ig45.
“We’ll be the only outfit with its own translator,” he said.
“Private Harold Dumas will be coming down from post headquarters at fourteen hundred.”
That was too much. “He’s only a private ?’
“Knock it off!”
“Aye, aye, sir.”
A noncom wasn’t supposed to question higher wisdom, but clearly there was something odd here. Back in our pyramidal tent I passed the word among my people, whose astonishment matched mine. Their first reaction was that I was snowing them, but within an hour the dope was confirmed by the sergeant major, a bright little sparrow of a man named John Guard. Guard had some intriguing details, including an explanation for the translator’s low rank. Until very recently—two days ago, in fact—Harold Dumas had been locked up in Portsmouth naval prison. The nature of his offense was unknown to Guard, but the sergeant major knew where Dumas was believed to have learned Japanese. He was a native of California; his neighbors had been Issei (first-generation Japanese-Americans) and Nisei (children of Issei).
The fact that the newcomer was a Californian is important to an understanding of what happened later. The Marine Corps maintained a rigid geographical segregation. Every man enlisting east of the Mississippi was sent to boot camp at Parris Island and shipped to New River after his recruit training. West of the Mississippi, boots went to the San Diego base and, once they had qualified, to nearby Camp Pendleton. Virtually none of us in Tent City knew anything about life on the West Coast. We had never seen a giant redwood, or the Grand Canyon, or Hollywood. We had never even met anyone from California until Harold Dumas arrived that afternoon at two o’clock.
He made a great entrance. He was wearing a salty barracks (visored) cap, a field scarf (necktie) so bleached that it was almost white, heavily starched khakis, and high-top dress shoes. The shoes were especially impressive. The Marine Corps had stopped issuing high-tops after Pearl Harbor, and they were therefore a great status symbol, signifying membership in the elite prewar Old Corps. Dumas was the only post-Pearl Marine I ever knew who had them, but then, he was unusual in lots of ways.
Prepossessing is the word that best describes him, though it is really inadequate. The moment he strode into Tent City with his elbows swinging wide, every eye was on him. Six foot two, with a magnificent physique, he carried himself like Randolph Scott in To the Shores of Tripoli , the movie that had conned thousands of Marines into joining up. His face was freckled, his eyes were sky-blue, his expression was wholly without guile; he was a man you trusted instinctively, whose every word you believed, for whose reputation you would fight, and whose friend you longed to be. When he removed the barracks cap, he was a towhead; and even before we had met—before that firm, hearty handclasp that characterized all his greetings—he was known to us simply as “Whitey.”
“The name’s Dumas,” he said in a rich, manly baritone, looking straight at you with an expression that, in those days before Madison Avenue had corrupted the word, could only be called sincere. Sincerity emanated from him; so did an air of achievement. Whitey was in his midtwenties, a few years older than the rest of us, and it developed that he had used his time well. No one could call him a braggart—he was in fact conspicuously modest—but over the next few weeks particulars about his background slipped out naturally in normal conversation. He had been a newspaperman and a professional boxer. The fact that he had made money in the ring had been his undoing, accounting for his imprisonment; he had slugged a bully in a San Francisco bar, and under California law, he explained, a blow by a professional fighter was regarded as assault with a deadly weapon. If it hadn’t been for his knowledge of Japanese, which he had disclosed to the authorities in Portsmouth, he would still be in the dreary exercise yard there.
“Isn’t it typical of the Marine Corps to keep him a private?” Yates said scornfully. “In the Army he’d be at least a major.”
The more we saw of Whitey, the more we admired him. He was everything we wanted to be. He even had a sexy wife, a Paramount starlet. After much coaxing he was persuaded to produce a picture of her, an eight-by-ten glossy print of a beaming blonde in a bathing suit; it was signed “With all my love—Laverne.” Even more impressive, Whitey, unlike most of us, was a combat veteran. He had been a machine gunner in the ist Marines during the early days on Guadalcanal. This was a matter of special interest to Sy !vice, who had landed on the ‘Canal later with the ad Marines. Sy wanted to reminisce about those days with Whitey, but Whitey politely declined. He had lost two of his best buddies in the hre fight along the Tenaru River, he told us, and he didn’t want to talk about it.
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.
“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?’ ”
” ‘ 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 .’ ”
“ ‘ Moodi fang baki kim tuki dim fai ?’ That’s a question: ‘Where is your commander?’ ”
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 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.”
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.
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.
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:
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?
Let me know about Boobs. This is a real good deal and I can put you next to her roommate whose no dog either next time your in this neck of the woods. Brunette 37-24-30 and hot pants. A real athalete in the sack. You won’t regret it believe me.
Your old ∗∗∗∗∗∗∗ buddy,
Harold V. Dumas
Chief of Public Relations
P.S. Dont write to me at the office as this is kind of personal. Just sent it to me care of General Delivery L.A. and it will get to me Okay.
I never replied, but I found the note strangely moving. Whitey had climbed the Parnassus of his calling, and evidently he had now slid back down all the way. He was pathetic on paper, and his assessment of the kind of material that interested Harper’s was unbelievable. (How on earth had he even seen the magazine?) He had entered the shadows; for all I know, he never emerged again. It is of course quite possible that he staged a stunning caper under another name—as G. Gordon Liddy, say—yet somehow I doubt it. His big sting with us had a one-shot air about it, like the flight of an exotic bird that dazzles for a single season and is never seen again. But on the Morton ’s fantail, and outside that POW stockade at KoIi Point, he had been magnificent. And to this day I feel a tingling at the base of my scalp when I think of that towheaded prisoner in his Portsmouth cell dreaming up what must have been the most imaginative con of the war, saying in that straightforward voice, “Guard, I want to speak to the C.O. ,” and then, “Sir, I know I deserve to be here, but my country is threatened and I want to do my share. I can really help in an unusual way, sir. You see, I speak Japanese.”