Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Easter on Okinawa


   It had always seemed a little sacrilegious to commence an invasion on Easter morning, the marine sergeant mused as his boots kicked up the dust from the Japanese island road. Then again, war had little respect for anything other than its own timetable and religious holidays were some of the most easily expendable luxuries. 
   The sergeant shifted his M1 carbine onto his opposite shoulder as he quickened his pace along the path. The boom of artillery, the sharp crack of rifle fire and the ever present foul black smoke, as if rising from the very mouth of hell itself, all seemed to warn him to turn and run in the opposite direction. His orders, however, instructed him to do the exact opposite and, as any good soldier would, he continued to rush headlong toward where angels themselves feared to tread. 
   Easter morning of April 1, 1945 seemed an eternity ago when his boots first imprinted on the wet sands of Okinawa. At first, all remained quiet following the beach landings and the American forces had faced little initial resistance. Yet, their anxieties continued to mount as they pushed inland, expecting the surprise attack to happen at any moment. When the attack finally came, it was with a brutality that exceeded anything seen before in the Pacific war; and that statement alone was staggering. The casualties mounted as every inch of the island was purchased at an incredible price. The atrocities mounted, and the end remained elusive. 

   Shielding his eyes from the early afternoon sun, the sergeant was able to make out a flurry of activity on the left side of the road ahead. Drawing closer, he could see a few American medics and clergy apparently busily tending to the mounting casualties. That sight was not uncommon and the sergeant was almost to the point of ignoring the scene altogether for the sake of his own sanity when he noticed that the typical presence of wounded soldiers was absent. In their place were several children, all Japanese and apparently uninjured, at least in the physical sense. The uniqueness and unexpected nature of the scene caused the sergeant to stop momentarily for long enough to allow the dust to settle around his boots. His presence was immediately noted by a corporal who strode up to him but, being deployed in a combat zone, he skipped the customary salute. 

  “Orphans,” the corporal began while motioning toward the children. “Some of them lost their parents after they were forced into combat by the Japanese.”

   The corporal then turned and pointed off into the distance in the direction of the closest beach.

  “But a good number of the rest lost their parents, well at least their mothers, when they jumped off those cliffs.”

   The corporal shook his head in disbelief.

  “The Japanese soldiers pumped them full of stories about how terrible we Americans are. I suppose they believed them,  ‘cause it seems they figured they’d rather die than face torture or worse.”

   The corporal continued to stare off into the distance. 

  “Why would they tell them something like that?”

   As the corporal continued to give his explanation, the sergeant’s attention was caught by one small Japanese boy sitting separately but obediently in the afternoon sun.  He was very small and the sergeant estimated that he could not have been more than three or four years old. His most striking feature, other than his disheveled and muddy appearance, was the trembling of his entire body. There were no tears, and the shaking was certainly not from exposure as the temperature was sultry. The child’s head and eyes looked about in shock, darting from one face to another among strange people speaking a foreign tongue which brought him no comfort as his native language would. Continuing past the corporal, the sergeant stood over the child with his frame blocking the Pacific sun and casting a shadow which shielded the child and the surrounding sand. The helpless eyes peered up at the curious marine. 

   Temporarily postponing the urgency of his orders, the sergeant sat down next to the child and placed his carbine beside him. His steel helmet came next as he slipped it from his head and placed it on his other side, the metal making an abrasive noise as it contacted the earth. The young eyes facing him studied the newly revealed features as the sergeant’s face was suddenly bathed in sunlight. He sat quietly for a moment and studied the diminutive and trembling figure next to him. How similar were the child’s features to the men who now strove to slam their bomb-laden aircraft into the American ships just off shore. How many friends and brothers had the sergeant lost to fanatical defenders who charged with terrifying screams from mouths that were almost identical to the child’s?

   Reaching around for his pack, the sergeant placed it on the ground in front of him and rummaged through it until he found his C-Rations and continued searching until he located the packaged bar whose label read “Hershey’s Tropical Chocolate.” It was not nearly the quality of a traditional Hershey’s chocolate bar from back home, but it had been formulated not to melt in tropical climates and was slightly better than the older D-bar. He then quickly mixed the powdered drink mix from his rations with the water in his canteen, his young companion’s eyes examining his every move. 

   Tearing the wrapper on the bar, the sergeant broke off a piece of the chewy chocolate formulation and offered it with an extended hand to the motionless child. Withdrawing his hand, the sergeant placed the piece of chocolate in his own mouth and allowed a smile to brighten his face as he broke off another piece of chocolate and handed it once again to the child. This time, the child accepted the treat with some hesitation and placed it gingerly in his mouth. The sergeant then offered the canteen, his companion drinking the sweet mix while some dripped from his chin onto his already soiled clothes. 

   So, for a brief moment in time, the two strangers sat and ate the military chocolate and shared a canteen as the world fell apart about them. The shells screamed over their heads before erupting into plumes of earth and fire. The ebony smoke curled up and hissed at them as the sergeant continued to peel back the wrapper. Corsair fighters, in close air support roles, whistled in at low altitude to drop the inferno of napalm while the child enjoyed temporary sweetness in a world where he had known only tragedy. With each morsel of candy, the child’s trembling subsided as the marine hummed a lullaby sung to him by his mother long ago. 

   When the end of the chocolate bar came and the last drop from the canteen had been drained, the sergeant removed his last chocolate bar from his pack and gave it to the child, along with several cans and a spoon from his C-Rations. Reaching out his hand, he placed it gently on the child’s head and brushed the straight, dark hair to the side. Reaching to his side, he lifted his steel helmet and returned it to his head. Rising slowly to his feet, he shouldered his carbine and gazed compassionately into the brown eyes staring up at him, the faintest rim of chocolate surrounding the child’s mouth. With a heaviness of heart, the marine turned to face the inferno roaring in the distance, his boots once again stirring the dust of the Japanese road. 



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