A Better World, by T. Fox Dunham
“Captain. Go in. Mop up Bingo Island.”
“You’re shitting me, Sir,” I said. “How could the Japanese Imperial Navy slip a transport into the Solomons? Did they get tired of dying on Okinawa?”
General Waverly poured me a shot glass of scotch. I held the glass in my hand, fighting to keep it still.
“They’re slippery bastards. Probably some Hail Mary maneuver. They’re getting desperate. We’re one island away from Hokkaido Island, from marching onto the Emperor’s palace. They know they’re licked. Their culture just won’t let them lay down their Samurai swords. Not before they’re all dead and they take us with them.”
Something about his good eye threw me. I’d known Jack Waverly since the day I was born, a friend to my old man. He’d lost his right eye during an air raid in Italy before being transferred to the Pacific theater. Now when he talked, his left eye twitched. His skin bore an ashy gray.
“What’s really going on, Sir? There can’t be anything more than a bunch of corpses rotting in the sun. MacArthur bypassed that island, cut it off. The enemy starved. And I doubt we took the time to bury the dead.”
“Some must have survived, eating bugs and grass soup.” When he patted my shoulder, I nearly resigned my commission. I should have. “I know you’re supposed to be on leave, resting up after the news about your brother. I’m asking you to swallow it down and choke on the bitter.”
I stood up and set the drink on his desk.
“We’ll send ‘em to hell, Sir.”
“Transport leaves from Manila at 0500. And Captain. You’re under orders to keep this to yourself. Morale, you know. A lot of our boys dying on Okinawa. Dying for nothing.”
I slipped the mission briefing under my arm, fixed my hat, and walked away from his office. I spied him picking up my shot glass and throwing back the scotch. He poured another.
* * *
From the transport we watched American B-25s make sweeping bombing runs over Bingo Island, softening up the defenses for our landing. Several bombers swept over low, and my company tensed up, bracing ourselves for the explosions, the shockwaves and dirt fog that wafts out from the beach over the bay. The sun rose over the ocean, and somewhere far away they were burying Bob. The mortician charged me for a lead-lined coffin, but some Lieutenant out at that camp, Los Alamos, where Bob was doing secret research told me they’d pick up the tab. I set my mind to the task ahead. The planes dropped their load, but the island never croaked, didn’t pop. We listened to the steady choir of waves rushing on the beach.
“Ready,” I yelled to my company. We sailed to the beach alone, not one tin can to guard our landing. The navy must have needed every destroyer for the battle on Okinawa. Now those boys knew hell. I grabbed my BAR, popped in a clip. I made sure I had extra ammo in my belt. I checked my canteen. I shoved gum into my pockets. My company loaded their M-1s. I didn’t know them, looked green. Sergeant Garcia shook his head. The scar down his cheek had healed into a groove hardened by scar tissue like a canyon.
“Sending us here on this fairy tale mission with a bunch of virgins,” he said. “Any idea what’s in the brass’ heads?”
“Above my pay grade,” I said.
The landing craft approached the beach. We ducked down, and the hatch fell. Water rushed in over our boots. I kissed my Saint Christopher’s medal and led the march, chopping through the waves. The sand ground under my boots. We rushed the beach, guns pointed, waiting for the swarm of hot lead and shrapnel. We took the beach standing up then strolled about, looking over the palm trees that lined the sand.
“Bullshit,” Sergeant Garcia said. “Command has us out here chasing our asses.”
We scanned the beach. Even though we couldn’t find any sign of the enemy, I still had the men do it by the book. We checked out a fishing shack on the beach with a rotting dock and rowboat. Crabs picked at the corpse of a dog leaning against the hut.
“Smell that?” Garcia asked.
“Sweet. Rotting. It’s the dog.”
He sipped from his canteen and nipped on some crackers from a ration’s pack. “I’ve been whiffing it since we landed. Whole island smells of roadkill.”
“They never buried the dead, just left them to rot.”
I ordered the company to push into the jungle, to secure the island. I kept them jumping. I didn’t expect to find any of the enemy, but something didn’t feel right. We’d push uphill, check the jungle for any resistance, then we’d radio for pickup.
We tripped over the vines, moving into the fathoms of green fronds, over the exposed roots. What had my brother been working on? Every time I made inquiries, I got cold warnings to stop. My mother wrote me and told me some of Hoover’s boys had come around asking who I was talking to. I wrote my dad, and he told me it was a tragedy and my brother’s work would win the war. He’d taught physics at Berkeley, and in his censored letters, he talked a lot about some guy, Oppenheimer. He sounded like a wizard. They were building something there in the desert in New Mexico, something terrible. We were fighting for the darkness, for a future dominated by terrible weapons, a world of Gods and Monsters, like from the old Frankenstein movie.
We moved through a clearing, a field of flowers. Hardly a breeze blew over the glade. Caves ripped open the rocky hills to the north. I tripped over gear: old rifles, cartridges, boxes, helmets, boots. I slipped in a puddle of ooze. It stank sweet. Birds filled the clearing, pecking at the soiled grass.
“Dios mío!” Garcia said. “No bodies. Where are the bodies? Something ate ‘em up.”
One of the lads kicked a stainless steel canister at the edge of the clearing. Its parachute silk spread out over the trees, flapping in the light breeze. They must have dropped it from the bombers. A valve on the side had released, and the air around it reeked of bitter chemicals.
“Leave it be,” I ordered. “Some kind of gas weapon.” But it couldn’t be. Gas had been outlawed by the Geneva Convention, though the Japanese didn’t abide by its accords. Still, we didn’t use gas. Not even the Nazis did, at least on enemy soldiers.
* * *
We made camp on a plateau further uphill. We feasted that night on C-rations and didn’t see much. The whole mission was a major fuck-up. They sent us out here to feed mosquitoes while our boys died on Okinawa—the dress rehearsal for the invasion of mainland Japan. They’d never surrender, not unless we had something to shock them out of their cultural chains. The whole population would die for their emperor. We weren’t much better, demanding unconditional surrender to satiate our honor, to avenge for Pearl Harbor. In twenty years, who would care?
I drifted off to sleep against my pack, thinking of my brother. I wondered if he felt anything when he died. Garcia poked me awake.
“Captain. We got something. Looks like Command was right.”
The reek of hot rotting flesh burned my eyes from downhill. I grabbed my BAR and ordered the men into a defensive position around the camp. We didn’t see the enemy, but we heard them. Usually they moved silent as ants, but they must have been sick ‘cause they moaned, groaned like they were sick, maybe starving.
“Should we invite them to surrender?” one of the men asked.
We opened fire on the line of shadows stumbling towards camp. My BAR ripped open, and I fed it another clip, slowing my fire. Some of the shadows stopped, others stumbled but kept moving. The men unloaded their rifles into the night. In the combustion light of the gunpowder, I caught glimpses of the enemy. Their burned skin hardened, and black pools oozed up from under their flesh. Some of them had gaping wounds, and clumps of blood dropped like rotten crabapples. I spotted what had been an officer, still clutching his sword but dragging it behind him in the dirt. He missed his left eye.
“Dios mío!” Garcia said.
“Is it plague?” I yelled over the gunfire. We sprayed bullets into the mob, but relentlessly they surged forward, stumbling into camp. I unloaded into one of their guts, but all it did was knock it back. It fell upon one of the men, clawing at his chest, gouging down his cheeks. The young man grappled him, struggling against his arms while it raked. Finally, it lunged forward and bit a chunk out of the soldier’s neck. Warm blood sprayed the camp from his artery, staining my shirt. He gurgled, trying to yell, his throat in its teeth. Two more of them broke into camp and jumped a few privates.
“The seventh seal,” Garcia said. “They broke the seal. God forgive us.”
“Sergeant,” I yelled. “We need to pull back.”
The enemy stirred into a frenzy, mobbing on the camp. The men laid covering fire, which only hindered the enemy, slowing them.
“Move your ass,” I yelled at the Sergeant. “Pray on your own time. Your ass belongs to me.”
We retreated down the hillside, running blind into the jungle. We’d abandoned most of our equipment on the hill, including extra ammo and rations. Mosquitoes swarmed on us, and I worried about leaving the quinine up on the hill.
“They didn’t even use their guns. They ate Bubba. Jesus Christ. I shot that son of a bitch six times, and he chewed him up like an Easter ham.”
Only four of my company made it down the hill. We heard their cries in the night, but they soon silenced. And then the howling called through the jungles.
“It is judgment day,” Garcia said. “I have no faith. I should have let them take me. They walk for Jesús. They are soldiers of the Lord.
“Would a God let this happen? This war? It’s an empty sky, Sergeant.”
They stumbled down the hillside, locked onto us like bloodhounds. They had our scent, and the flesh of the men didn’t satiate. We had to get off the island. I looked around. Our radio man wasn’t with us, probably still up the hill with his gear.
“It is men like you who led me from my faith,” Garcia said. “And liquor. And fast women, women with curves and fat thighs. My mother was so ashamed. I buried my mother in a pine box.”
The Imperial Japanese soldiers lurched forward, some falling in the grass. They got up and kept coming. One snapped his leg on a branch, and the bone pierced his thigh through his uniform. He didn’t notice any pain. Only the dead knew no pain, and I envied them for it.
“We need to get to the beach,” I said. I turned to run, and one the walkers jumped me. I wrestled with the body. It snapped its teeth at me, cracking like a whip. One of the soldiers grabbed him and pulled him off of me, and it turned on the boy. It bit a chunk from his shoulder and chewed on the fabric and flesh. “Sergeant. We’ve got to go, now.”
Garcia made the Sign of the Cross, set down his rifle, then he walked into the arms of two Japanese walkers. They grabbed each arm. One gnawed his shoulder, and the other walker dove into his stomach. Garcia prayed as they devoured him, but he lost his faith and screamed. I ran to into the wood towards the beach and turned back to see him. I raised my BAR and shot him in the head. He dropped to his knees then toppled over. The rest of the pack fed on him.
A walker in the dark leapt and bit my hand, and I knocked him back with the butt of my BAR. I ran through the wood, making it to the beach and got to that rotting rowboat. I pushed off and rowed from Bingo Island. Until the dawn, I heard their moaning, the longing, moving over the water like a choir.
* * *
General Douglas MacArthur sat at his desk, cap on, sunglasses covering his empty eyes. He chewed on a long corncob pipe. General Waverly stood in the corner of his office and poured drinks.
“You sure you’re alright, son?” MacArthur asked.
“In the green,” I lied. The bite on my hand throbbed. I’d stolen a slug of morphine from the medic’s kit and hoped it would keep me coherent until I turned. I dried the sweat from my neck with a rag. It wouldn’t be long now. I could feel the cold creeping up from my arm into my chest, my neck.
“Hell of a thing,” MacArthur said. “Now I want to know everything you saw, every detail.”
I filled in the General. He nodded, chewing on that pipe.
“You’ve served your country, Captain. I’m going to put you in for a citation.”
“Skip the medal, Sir,” I said. “But I’d like something else.”
My mouth watered. I could smell the general’s warm flesh like a roast on Sunday. I gripped the chair, holding myself back.
“The truth? You can’t judge men in war. We’re facing a determined enemy, and if we don’t come up with new weapons to break his resolve, he’ll kill himself and take a lot of American boys with him. Nazi scientists first developed the weapon. Rumor is they found it up North in the Arctic. Some kind of disease going back to Neanderthals. Bingo Island was a test.”
“Those canisters were dropped on the Japanese dead? Brought them back somehow?”
He nodded. He lit his pipe.
“Your men died to make a better world, a better future. Their sacrifice will be honored.”
“Sir. You know what you are?”
Before he responded, my thoughts, my rational mind, everything that made me human sucked down a black hole. My humanity evacuated. Only the hunger remained.
“A son of a bitch.”
In my last aware moment, I felt my body, now just a mechanism, leap from the chair. General Waverly jumped to stop me. Then I felt no more.
T. Fox Dunham resides outside of Philadelphia PA—author and historian. He’s published in over 150 international journals and anthologies, and his first novella, New World, will be published by May December Publisher. He’s a cancer survivor. When he’s not writing, he’s catching trout with a black lure or play D&D with his mates. His friends call him fox, being his totem animal, and his motto is: Wrecking civilization one story at a time. Blog: http://tfoxdunham.blogspot.com/. http://www.facebook.com/tfoxdunham & Twitter: @TFoxDunham