Louis lay spread-eagled on the beach, baking in the sun, yet still shivering from a fever that started the first night in the cargo hold of the ocean liner Oryoku Maru. With closed eyes he wished for eternity. Talk about bad luck … three years a prisoner in the Philippines then we’re crammed into the belly of a ship that gets attacked by our guys two days after leaving Manila Bay!
The groans and weak voices of hundreds of American POWs scattered along the beach were often broken by a man’s scream or a hungry bird overhead. The sun pinned Louis to a rough spot of shells and small rocks. But it was his spot. And for the first time since his capture he considered his escape.
His buddy George tapped his knee and Louis opened his eyes as a soldier started barking orders in the distance. A gunshot popped him into a sitting position.
George slapped his arm.
"The Japs just shot someone they figured wasn’t going to make it. Move around. You’ve looked like a dead man for hours."
"I was," Louis moaned. "Just expected it to last longer."
A pair of soldiers moved quickly past the two men searching to destroy the unfit before continuing their journey to the Japanese mainland. Farther down the beach groups of prisoners were being herded toward a large fenced-in area.
After briefly navigating along the west coast of Luzon, the Oryoku Maru now sat a quarter mile from shore listing hard to port. Run aground in Subic Bay, it had been prey to an early morning attack by Navy aircraft from the USS Hornet. A number of POWs in the rear hold had been killed immediately or severely wounded by shrapnel. Others were shot by the Japanese or drowned before reaching shore.
Louis hated the ship even more than the camps. Every experience including the march out of Bataan had served up its own unique dish of horror–the march itself where he saw civilians bayoneted for offering a bit of food to passing soldiers, or an American POW run through the thigh for making a dash for an artesian spring along the road to Camp O’Donnell. The soldier suffered for days before dying from gangrene. In and around the camp there were Herculean tasks to perform and explosions of sadism from their captors. Men died daily from exhaustion, a bullet, or a severe beating. Even so, Louis found that he could still pray.
But in the last forty-eight hours he began cursing God under his breath. In temperatures well over a hundred degrees, he, his two buddies and 500 POW’s from Camp Cabanatuan were driven into the forward cargo hold of the Oryoku Maru, packed shoulder to shoulder front to back. Only a few coveted spaces remained where a man could lie down or lean against the bulkhead. Over 1600 men were crowded into three different holds about the ship.
Breathing had become a problem for Louis who stood at five feet six inches. George and Frank–both six footers–had lifted him for brief periods to gain a better slug of the foul air. Some men had gone crazy in the darkness and heat. One poor soul, mad with thirst, had attacked George, biting his neck for blood. Louis ended the attack with his metal canteen. George later thanked him profusely. Louis said nothing.
"Do you think Frank will make it?" Louis asked, staring at the ocean.
"It’s been a while, but I have faith in Frank," his friend answered weakly. "I’ve been praying, too."
Frank had decided to swim back to the ship and collect supplies, saying they wouldn’t survive the night without food and clothes. Shoeless, each man wore ripped trousers, rope strands for belts, and shredded, filthy T-shirts. They hadn’t eaten anything in more than a day and their canteens had only a few swallows left. And they didn’t expect their captors to be concerned with their immediate needs either, especially with the Japanese looking after the first-class passengers and military personnel who had also sailed out of Manila with the Americans.
"Who would go back to that awful ship?" Louis asked.
"A friend would."
"He’s not coming back. If he hasn’t already drowned the Japs will shoot him when he makes the swim. Christ, they threatened all of us when we first swam to shore."
"They never saw Frank. I watched him swim out."
"Pure luck and you know it," Louis charged. "The sun was in their eyes. Now he’ll be easy pickings. Unless he waits ’til dark."
"He’ll make it. I just know it. There’s something special about him. He’s been there for you and me many times. And you’ve been there for us, too. You saved me, Louis, just days ago–"
"Don’t remind me. I did what had to be done."
"All right, just say a quiet prayer for him."
Louis looked across the sand and rock and started nodding his head. "You’re right. Frank’s special. Must be his mechanic’s blood. The guy’s a real problem solver. I remember him crawling all over a B-17 like some kind of detective. All I ever cared about was being at the controls."
Before the American surrender of Bataan in April 1942, Frank belonged to the 48th Material Squadron that kept the planes flying, whereas George and Louis were pilots from the 27th Bomber Group.
"He’s always been a lot luckier than any of us," Louis added, "like the strip search at the start of the march–they let him keep that gold ring from his parents. Amazing. There it was, hanging from his neck, strung with his dog tags. Yeah, he makes it back I’ll say a big prayer, like at Thanksgiving."
George squinted at the ocean, scanned the waves. "You remember what you had for Thanksgiving when we were among the living?"
"I don’t want to think about food. We can’t even count on fish heads and moldy rice today. Do you see the Japs feeding anyone? I bet they move us soon, probably by train. How many of us do you think they’ll smash inside a boxcar?"
"I can’t think about that. It does no good. We made it this far. The war’s got to be almost over."
Louis lowered his head, saying, "We don’t know what’s going on. All we have is talk, except the business about hard labor in Japan. We can bet on that." He kept looking down. "I don’t want to leave this spot. Let ’em shoot me."
"With your luck you’ll linger for days, all alone. The crabs feasting on you."
George said, "We all look like skinny ninety year olds in lousy shape. But we’re still young. You can make it out of here, all of us can–start families, have great lives someday. When the Japs get meaner it means they’re losing and our guys are closing in."
An explosion from the Oryoku Maru made both men snap their heads towards the ship. No visible destruction was apparent, only a plume of smoke from the stern. There had been several explosions since Frank left. George’s voice shook as he continued:
"And they’ve been really mean lately. Louis, I can feel the change–you can too. I let myself dream about all the ways our guys must be kicking their asses right now. And soon, we’re going to get back to our units…shake off the rust and climb into the cockpit of some new bomber. Do our part. Can you imagine the planes they’re flying?"
"Yeah, heard them early this morning strafing and bombing the ship. Christ Almighty, George, they killed a bunch of our guys!"
"There were no Red Cross markings on that ship. Our guys had no idea we were there."
Louis bit his bottom lip hard and tasted blood. "At least the Japs got it too–and their damn boat." He turned from the sea and eyed his friend–"Confession," he raised his right hand–"I dreamt about flying not long ago. Held the brakes, full throttle. Took off from some deep pit in hell."
"You take your buddies with you?"
A smile made Louis’ face crease with sadness. "You bet. You were my navigator and Frank had to prop us before jumping in."
Louis looked across the beach at the men in small groups, many naked, some in huddles as if around a fire; others alone, lying face down or in fetal positions waiting for the end. In the distance a Japanese soldier kept kicking a man who didn’t respond. The lack of response made the soldier kick him harder. Perhaps he was angry with the man for looking peaceful in death, out of reach of his tormentor.
Louis said, "You and Frank held me up so I could breathe on that Godforsaken ship. If we’re separated after tomorrow I’m finished. I don’t have your strength. I’m not leaving this beach."
"You have family, even a girlfriend back home," George said, plopping down on the sand, followed by Louis.
"I stopped thinking about them a long time ago. You’re my family. If I lose my friends and get packed into some train or another boat, I’ll be one of the crazies in five minutes. I’ll die a madman in the dark. At least here I die by the water under the sun."
George said nothing. Hunched over, he turned over a smooth shell in his palm several times, studying its design. Maybe he was done with the bellyaching.
"You’re right, Louis. We might get separated and never see each other again. What can I say? I’m too weak to stop you from running up to a guard and grabbing his rifle…or surprising one of ’em with that famous roundhouse of yours. The thing is, I’m worried they’d wrestle you down, poke out your eyes, and still put you on the next boat or train before you get your wish."
Slowly, Louis stood up and looked around. No soldiers were nearby. He stared at the crippled ship and almost yelled for Frank. He wanted his friend back. George tapped his leg with a bony hand to sit down when Louis noticed for the first time the beauty of the waves striking the sand.
"George, you know in high school, my friends and I talked about exploring the world–like this place, a tropical paradise." He tried to laugh but choked instead. "Goodness sake, look at that water. A scientist or poet could describe it for hours."
George looked at the water, too, saying, "Sure, one studies it and the other finds the right words."
"I don’t have the right words."
Louis couldn’t render a beautiful phrase for the scene before him, nonetheless, he devoured the water’s timeless rhythm and unnamable colors. He kept looking.
"I see something."
"No, something strange, like a stick or a sword. The waves make it hard to see."
George was now standing.
Louis pointed and shook his finger at the water.
"Do some sharks have long spikes on their back?"
"They have a big fin," George said, looking hard across the waves. "Hey, those are sticks. I count four."
"Debris from the ship?"
"Most likely."
Both men shielded their eyes trying to make sense of several poles rising from the water.
"Damn," George said, "that’s Frank!"
"He’s pushing something!" Louis looked up and down the beach for soldiers who might have spotted their friend as well. "Let’s get down there. They can have my sorry ass. They’re not getting Frank."
As Frank swam closer, the two men saw him pushing an upside down table with a bulky tarp in the middle.
They ran into the surf and helped Frank drag their treasure back to their spot on the beach. Before opening it, both Louis and George were kissing Frank and laughing. Other men not far away watched in silence. No soldiers took notice.
"Jesus, you were gone for hours," George said.
"Yeah, took a while," Frank said calmly, as if mentioning a grocery stop before getting home.
"I had a real spell," Louis blurted. "Wanted to die right here."
Without a word, George and Frank smiled in sympathy and Frank gestured for Louis to do the honors. With trembling hands, Louis untied the large tarp and found food, clothing and blankets.
As the men rifled through the canned goods and clean pants and T-shirts, Frank shrugged and said little when questioned about his adventure. But once Louis and George opened cans of peaches and pears, the questions ceased.
Well into their feast the men abruptly stopped and started another round of hugs and kisses. A few others stopped by to see what all the excitement was about.
"Can’t feed everyone on the beach," George said to the newcomers. "So let’s all sit down, be quiet, and enjoy this."
Frank passed out the food and a can opener to the men and pushed the clothes toward his friends.
Louis said, "Hey, let’s stop a moment. I’ve got a prayer to make." He picked up a can of sweet potatoes from their cache. "Today, God brought Frank back to us and Frank brought us this." He held the sweet potato can higher and bowed his head, a moment of Thanksgiving.
"So many times we could have died, any of us, yet you Dear God, bestowed life on us. If I die tomorrow or five minutes from now I understand goodness. The goodness of a friend…and your goodness and unending grace. These things I’m grateful for and will never forget."
They dug into cans of potatoes, beans, even some meat and fish. In silence they ate. Finally, Louis spoke up.
"Frank, it sure took you a long time. My brain’s working again and I figured you had to be gone for at least four hours."
Frank’s smile turned to embarrassment. He was a darker red than the twilight sky.
"I was making good progress when I spotted a tub of vanilla ice cream in the commissary. No way was I going to let that ice cream go. Sorry, fellas, it was already starting to melt. So I sat down and ate the whole thing."
The laughter that followed alerted several soldiers. They made their way toward the small group of men who continued to laugh and talk.
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K-Rations by Jill Mayfield
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