Sunday 5 August 2012

Found On A Body: Repost For Charlie Ehlen

Charlie, this is another one from the past you may like.

I ought to explain that this is one of the weirdest stories I've ever written, for a very specific reason. When I sat down to write it, one evening in 2007, I'd intended to write a completely different story (about a young man accused of terrorist connections in an Indian town, as it happens; I wrote that story some weeks later). But, as I sat down to write it, someone standing, as it were, behind my shoulder, began whispering this tale into my ear, and I wrote it in one single, uninterrupted, session. All I had to do was reach up to my  bookshelf for a copy of Field Marshal Slim's Defeat Into Victory for the numbers of the Japanese military formations.

During the Second World War, the Japanese offensive of 1944 had pushed the front line to a couple of hundred kilometres of this town, but I am at a complete loss to account for the reasons for my writing this story at that time. It was, in any case, as if someone else was writing it using me as an instrument. Though I have no belief in a life after death, I could almost imagine it was the ghost of Shoichi Kimura whispering his tale into my ear.



Major R W Caruthers
Headquarters, 17th Division

Captain D F S Humphreys
Intelligence Officer
8th Battalion

Dated: 26th February 1945

Dear Dickie,

I’m sending you the diary I mentioned over the radio-telephone, the one our boys found on the body of one of the Japanese we killed two weeks ago. As far as we can make out, he was a private in the 33rd Division of the 15th Army. The diary, as I told you, has now been translated in the field (your people at HQ would likely be able to do a better job) and I’m sending you the translation along with the original.
   You’ll find the diary is incomplete and it seems from many references that there were prior volumes that have not been found. Some of the pages are also partially burnt, and a great many have been torn away. The first entry dates back to March of last year, and the last to the day he was killed.
   I think, if you’re looking for military intelligence in these pages, you’ll be disappointed. But I suggest – I very strongly suggest – that you read through this diary, Dickie, and after that think about what I suggest at the end should be done with it. My suggestion, I fancy, would carry more weight with you if you read the diary first.
   Oh, by the way, Dickie, our chaps are complaining about the supply of ammo at the company level. It seems as though HQ isn’t sending forward enough. Now I know we humble battalion bods don’t know much about your grand plans, but I think it a jolly poor show if you expect us to fight the war without bullets.
   All right, I can hear you say, leave you alone to read on. So be it. I’ll wait while you read


March 2.  We have now been marching for several days. I do not, of course, know why. We are never told.
   I have now almost recovered from the sore on my leg. It took a great deal of time and a lot of applications of iodine. As I said, I had found the attitude of Medical Attendant Kiyoshi unsympathetic, but I could of course not serve the Emperor adequately if I had a bad leg. At last the sore is beginning to heal.
   Over these last days I have found not the opportunity to open this diary. We have been given no free time. We have been drilling constantly, preparing, cleaning weapons, and mounting guard at all times against enemy guerrilla patrols. It may be that we are going into the attack.
   Today I again passed the spot where I had seen the Kempei Tai kill the Burmese partisans last week. Nothing now remains to show what had happened, of course. But to this day I do not, I confess, understand why the Burmese have turned against us. Like us, they are Asians and we are only liberating them from the white colonial yoke. Why do they not want to understand this?
   Sometimes I wonder if there is something wrong with the way that we are ourselves perceived. I have seen this in the Burmese villages through which I have passed, where the villagers have hidden or run away, so that we may have been moving through ghost towns. Why should they be so afraid of us?     
   I have not asked the question, of course. There are certain questions that must not be asked.
   What a country this is! It is only March and already so hot. I dread the summer.
   Tonight I have sentry duty from nine in the evening. It is the best time, I think, because at that hour one has just rested enough to build one’s strength up again but one has not yet gone to sleep. It is far worse to have to wake and stand guard at midnight.
   Still, I dislike guard duty these days. The Burmese partisans, for all that the Kempei Tai do to them, are no threat really, but there is always the chance of a surprise attack by the British guerrillas. Especially those little men from Nepal with the knives. Everyone hates them very much. Over in the 31st Division’s sector, we hear, they have killed sentries and taken their heads back to Assam.
   We have been ordered to prepare for a route march tomorrow.

March 8. Today we crossed a shallow river and have been told we are now inside India. We are moving along tracks through the hills; it is impossible to tell one of these hills from another.             Everything is covered with a tangle of vegetation, trees I am not familiar with. It is very hot.
   I know, of course, that it is for the Emperor that we are here and it is for him that we fight. But, sometimes, I confess, I wonder why the Emperor would want us to fight for him in such a country. It is very hot and very humid and for all of me I cannot tell why we are here.
   Today, as we stopped on the crest of a nameless hillock and set up temporary positions, I looked around me and I remembered our village back on Hokkaido. Just as this hill, the hill above our village also falls steeply away to the west and there is the same sort of little stream at the bottom; but where the Shinto shrine would stand is a great gnarled tree and instead of the houses set on the slopes, among cherry trees, looking colourful and happy, there are only rocks, more tall trees, and heat and mosquitoes.
   I remember sitting at the steps of the shrine when old Takeshita-san, the priest, had come up and just stood there looking at me. I had stood up hurriedly, but he had only smiled and come up and stood next to me, and put his hand on my shoulder, and talked of the cherry blossoms on the trees. I had been nervous then, because everyone knew Takeshita-san was the best-read man in the village and the wisest, even if among the poorest. I wish I remembered more clearly what he had talked about. I am, I confess, feeling very acutely homesick today.
   It is difficult to write for the sweat dripping into my eyes and falling on the page. The ideograms are getting blurred.
   I hate this place.

March 14. We have spent the previous days advancing up tracks, moving slowly, and bypassing bodies of enemy troops which we could not see. It is evident, though, that we shall soon be in action.
   I do not know how I shall react in combat. Most of my fellow soldiers have seen combat before; some of them have fought since the days of the battle for Singapore in 1942. It is only I and the other new replacements who have never seen fighting before. I try not to think of it.
   The last letter I received from home was six weeks ago; I cannot expect to receive another till the end of this campaign.
   Just as the sore on my leg healed, another sore has opened up on my neck below the right ear where I cut myself shaving.

22 March. I am sitting on a log and writing this as we wait to be told next what to do. In the middle distance I can hear our artillery shells falling on the enemy’s positions. As they land, the earth trembles and sometimes leaves and twigs and pieces of bark fall off the branches. We have eaten on the move. It has been days that we have had a proper hot meal.
   Last night we were in combat for the first time. I do not remember too much of it. All I recall is being very frightened before it began. It is not something that I can ever admit to anyone else, of course, not even to my honourable parents or to Little Sister, but it is true nevertheless. I was terrified. I went off into the jungle and eased my bowels, and after that I felt a little better. It is true what the veterans told us. It is better not to think. The imaginative man it is who suffers.
   I can recall running through darkness with bright flashes of gunfire all around me, rifle at the ready and bayonet fixed. Sometimes, when we all kneeled and opened fire, I too kneeled and opened fire, but I know not at whom. I just pulled the trigger, worked the bolt, and fired into the darkness before we ran on again. That is all I remember.
   I am afraid that I shall never be much of a hero.

27 March. All day yesterday we fought, hand to hand in the end when we got close to the enemy. I used my bayonet as I had been taught. It is something I do not wish to write about. I do not remember it very well. I was too frightened.
   I remember some things about the day.
   I remember seeing a body blown up by mortars into the trees. It was almost unrecognisable as a human being, and utterly impossible to tell whether it was one of ours or theirs.
   I remember, as we launched a frontal charge, Warrant Officer Tanaka was running beside me, pistol in hand and waving us on, when a bullet shot off his head. He was still running when his body fell over on me, bounced off my shoulder, and fell down. His blood soaked my uniform. It is still crusted over my collar and pocket flaps.
   I remember a dark, moustached Indian face that convulsed in shock and pain as someone drove a bayonet into his chest. Was it I? I don’t know and, when I look into myself, I do not want to know.
   I remember, as we struggled over that damned earth, the sight of a long grey-green snake gliding away through the trees. It was so beautiful I wish we could have all stopped fighting in order to look at it. While we fought and killed, it continued on its way, unconcerned at our fates.
And, last of all, I remember the water – the blessed, lovely water – that we found and drank down later, after the enemy had withdrawn.
   This is only the beginning, the veterans tell us. Only the beginning! I scarcely want to imagine what comes later.

29 March. We are waiting in reserve near a swamp. Off in the distance we can see some bamboo huts that the locals have evacuated. My ear sore is now very painful; and there is neither the time nor the opportunity to get it dressed with iodine. With all the combat wounds, in any case, Medical Attendant Kiyoshi has more important things to worry about than a sore ear.
   I made the acquaintance of Corporal Sato. He is unquestionably the most courageous individual I have ever met, but, I fear, the most brutal as well. He boasts about bayoneting Thai and Burmese civilians and talks about how he literally worked British prisoners to death in Malaya on the railway when he was attached to a camp last year. He is very proud of this. Not an individual I want to know, but unfortunately he seems to have fixed on me as his preferred audience, and I have no choice but to listen, because he is after all my superior officer.
   We are to move off tomorrow morning in the direction of…
(several pages are missing here, apparently torn away)

 …still falling back, and we have been leaving guns and mortars behind us. I could never have believed it had I not seen it myself. We have been exhorted so many times that all we have belongs to the Emperor, but here we are throwing away the Emperor’s equipment behind us as we retreat. For of course this is a retreat. The enemy follows at our heels.
   It has been a year now since the day I last saw my honourable parents, on my last leave before I left the homeland. I have not heard from them in months. There are a few rumours that the cities of the homeland are being bombed by the Americans. Even if the rumours are true, our little village should be all right. No one would want to bomb that, surely?
   We are now far back inside Burma. This is evident from the villages we pass through, with their pagodas and kinthis. The inhabitants hide from us. The few we see give us frightened looks and melt away.
   We are wet all the time. The rain is sometimes heavy, sometimes as light as a mist, and even when it stops the trees keep dripping water all through the day on us until it begins to rain again. What a country.
   We are badly short of food. Even when we have food, there is never time to cook it. Sometimes we chew raw rice as we go, and that is if we are lucky. It has been two days since we have eaten anything but raw rice grains; it has been that long since we rested. It is only now that we wait for an hour in this little village to catch our breath before moving on again. I am writing in this diary, for the first time in a fortnight, so as to keep my mind off my hunger and to stay awake, because I am so weary that were I to fall asleep I should not be able to wake up again.
   We are all ravaged by disease. There are no medicines, and there are no medical attendants to administer them. My ear is throbbing with pain, but that is the least of my worries. Some of us are shivering with malaria; all of us have diarrhoea, and pass a vile fluid that wrenches our bowels, little as we put in them. Our skin is tight over our bones. As we go, we throw away whatever we cannot carry. It is dreadful. 
   More and more I wonder for whom I am writing these words. Will anyone ever read them? Will he who reads them be able to make anything out of them? I am almost convinced that, just as our equipment is rusting and corroding in this damned rain, these pages will begin rotting and fall apart in my hands. Perhaps that will be for the best.
   We are beginning to move on again. The word is that we shall move over to the banks of the Irrawaddy river.
   My friend Murofoshi is sleeping where he sat down and I cannot wake him. Corporal Sato orders me to leave him behind.

(at least five more pages are missing here.)

…and cooked it over a charcoal fire and ate it.

1 November.  Today is my birthday, the second I have spent away from home. Last year at this time I had just arrived in Burma, still a green soldier with little by way of knowledge and experience, carrying around with me books of classical poetry and a sketch pad. It is amazing to me now that I should ever have been so raw, so na├»ve. I have no idea where I lost the poetry and where I lost the sketch book. If I still had them, I should have thrown them away. There is no room for poetry in war.
   Who was it wrote that haiku I still remember?
Night, and a doorway left ajar
In the bright moonbeams
For you promised your spirit would come to me, love
In my dreams!
   It is not really surprising that I do not remember who wrote it. I have had a lot to think about, more than I can and at the same time retain memories of poems written centuries ago.
   These days I am too tired to remember most of my dreams, and when they come they are not dreams one would want to remember, full of blood and screams and pain. I do, however, recall last night’s dream. I was back home in the village, watching a white butterfly flap around the cherry blossoms. Nowadays when I think of the village the first thing I remember are the cherry blossoms. There was a gentle breeze and the butterfly was white and beautiful. When I woke I had tears drying on my cheeks.
   We are getting reinforcements. Some are old soldiers who were stationed in Malaya and the Dutch East Indies, but many are new recruits who are almost untrained. When I see them I feel my heart lurch. I was like that a year ago, and now look at me!

17 November. Some of the older soldiers, Corporal Sato among them, are getting on my nerves. They… (a hole is burnt through the page here, as if something burning had fallen on it) … talking about having intimate relations with the Korean women at the comfort houses. They do not respect women at all and refer to them in the most vulgar terms. When they do that all I have to do is close my eyes and I remember Keiko Shiraishi. I recall her walking through the village and sitting with her friends at the side of the lake and waving at the Navy dive bombers as they flew over; I was sitting on the other side of the lake and trying to pretend I was not looking at her. If the war had not taken me I should certainly have been a student at the University in the city by now; and once my studies had been complete, if Keiko Shiraishi had not yet been pledged to anyone, I would have asked my honourable parents to contact the matchmakers for her. People like Sato would have jeered at a suggestion like that, because Keiko Shiraishi, beautiful as she is, is also part Chinese. They would ask why I wanted to marry a worm. I have no patience with such people. Why cannot they realise that a woman is a woman, and that if one loves it does not matter who the beloved’s grandparents were?

14 January. I have been through experiences so harrowing that it is only now, several days later, that I have been able to write of them. We were ordered to form up and attack the enemy, to force them to delay their advance long enough for our forces to withdraw to the ridge. We knew it was an order that would result in our destruction, but there was no help for it. I have by this time managed to control my damned imagination, which had plagued me so much a year ago, so I was not paralytic with worry, but unlike the newcomers I know something about combat. Also, unlike people like Sato I am not a brave person, so I have neither the courage born of foolhardiness nor that born of ignorance.
   We made our way through the endless jungle paths in the darkness to where the enemy could clearly be heard. They were making no great secret of their positions, but they are now so strong that secrecy is probably neither necessary for them nor possible. They have a great many tanks, tanks so big and heavily armoured that our tanks cannot make a dent on them.  Their planes fly over our heads all day and night, and it is only because of the jungle that we can hide from their guns and bombs. And we cannot even concentrate in numbers at any position because it attracts the attention of their artillery.
   There was a shallow stream between us and their forward pickets. They had neither armour nor artillery at this point, and we hoped they had not that many soldiers either. Captain Ozawa led the attack, waving his sword. Bayonets fixed, we plunged across the stream, slipping on the stones in the darkness, unable to see the enemy but exposed to his sight. For an instant nothing happened, and we thought we could take them by surprise. Then suddenly the night seemed to turn into day as white flares exploded in the sky above us. We were utterly helpless, caught out in the middle of the water with nowhere to hide. Enemy machine guns began firing instantly; they were sweeping back and forth across the stream. It was terrible. I saw Captain Ozawa fall almost at once, then Corporal Sato, who was right before me, tumbled face down into the water. People were falling to the left and right. If we stayed where we were, we would die. If we advanced into the waiting guns, we would die. If we tried to retreat, we would die. I felt my feet freeze in place. All the fear I had ever had flooded into me at that instant; I felt my urine flow down my leg; I literally could not move for what seemed forever. I still do not know why I was not hit. Bullets were flying so close to me I could feel the wind they made. Some of our men were still moving forward and I saw some actually make the opposite bank. Grenades began exploding there and I do not know whose grenades they were. The machine guns either fell silent or shifted their focus, and then the flares went out. Suddenly I could move again. What did I do? I turned round and waded back to the other bank, past the floating bodies of my comrades, until I was out of the water and I could get back into the protection of the forest. I met a few more who had done the same. We found each other under the trees and we did not talk. We did not look into each others’ eyes for fear of what we would find there.
   When we made our way back to the division, we were attached to another unit, one that was withdrawing. No one asked us why we survived, which made it worst of all.
   I do not, I must say it, believe in the war any more. But I find it strange and sad that I must face the fact that I am a coward to myself.

26 January. We are falling back and taking up a new…
(the rest of this page is burnt away and the next two pages are too badly singed to make out anything useful.)

11 February.  A long time ago, when I began my time in the military, I began writing this diary. I intended it to be a record of my military service, from beginning to end. In spite of everything, I have kept my promise to myself. I began writing it on the day I was inducted and today, the last day of my military service, I am still writing it.
   This is a matter of small pride, of course, and it is of such small scraps of pride that our lives are made. Now that my life is in its final hours, I can look back and afford such philosophy.
I may be a coward, an inadequate soldier, but I made a promise to myself and I kept it. How many can say the same?
   Now that it no longer matters, let me write what I think.
   I do not believe in the Emperor any more, I do not believe in his divinity, and I do not believe that by continuing with this war, we are serving either him or Nippon. Of course we do not know what is going on elsewhere in the war. For all we know we might be winning on every front but this. But on this front we are nothing if not defeated, the war is meaningless, and I can no longer conceal this from myself.
   However, there are different faces of war, and there is one face which is between a man and himself. This is the war that he faces to prove to himself that his time on earth has had some meaning.
   This is the only war that is left to me to fight.
   So many are dead. Kanamori is dead of malaria on the retreat from Imphal. Did the fact that he died of disease make his death any more absurd than that of Kondo, who died in a Banzai charge against entrenched Indian riflemen? Sato, bully and fornicator and hero, dead in the water, is he any more heroic than Murofoshi whom I had to abandon on the retreat and of whose fate I know nothing? 
   All I can do now is make my death of some meaning to myself, since it can never have a meaning for anyone else.
   For these are my last hours. We have been staked out here to die.
   There are five of us, and, like other small rearguard groups, we are ordered to hold up the enemy advance as long as possible to aid the final withdrawal across the river. We will fight to the death.
   I do not know these other four men, the men I shall die together with. None of them are from among those who, like me, fled from the river last month. I do not wish to know them. These are my last hours, they are my private property. No one has a right to share them, not my honourable parents, not Little Sister, not Keiko whom I might have married. No one, not even the army, has a lien on my last hours on this earth. For perhaps the first time in my life, I have something to myself that is entirely mine.
   I sit with my back against the wall of the slit trench and write in my diary for the last time, and I listen to the others talk of how the sacrifice of their lives is worth it if it will avert defeat for a single day. I listen to them talk of how their lives belong to the Emperor, and I do not contradict them. I let them face the coming hours their own way.
   It will not be long now. The sun is dipping towards the western horizon, and with the sun to their backs, the enemy will surely come soon. I think I can hear them now. 
   I shall sell my life as dearly as I can.

   Well, Dickie, what did you think of it? I’m sure that with your ready intelligence you’ll have grasped the point I want to make; that the earlier you destroy this diary, and suppress its contents, the better. Except for the bit right at the end where he says he no longer has any belief in the Emperor, this diary is dynamite. It makes the Japs look human, and that’s the last thing we want at this juncture, don’t we?
   I must say I think the man was crazy, writing in his diary while waiting for us to blow him up. Mad, like the rest of them. But that is not what most people would think if they read it.
                                                                                               With regards,

PS. I met old Colour Sergeant Major Farquhar last night. He’s been sent over to help arrange logistics. He remembered me and asked to be remembered to you. He says he can still recall making you do punishment laps round the obstacle course in basic training.

Copyright Biswapriya Purkayastha 2007/12


  1. Talk about feeling displaced. I'm not sure whether the message to "Charlie" at the start was intended to be "real" or not, but it added TWO more layers of distance to the story.

    So you had the writer of the blog being dictated this story by an unseen force, and it's a story that is a letter from one person to another written by a soldier on a piece of paper that has been partly blotted out.

    That is disorienting.

    The story is damn good, but the narration layers are absolutely fantastic!

  2. really am speechless Bill
    gripping and heartbreaking ... Bravo

  3. Bill,,
    What can I say except, WOW!
    A truly amazing story sir. I do not know if you have ever seen war personally, but you capture much of what an individual soldier feels about combat.
    I have been back in the USA for nearly 41 years now. That is 41 years since my time in the Vietnam war (mess that never should have been in truth). There are some things I saw that I have never talked about, nor do I think I ever will tell any one about. Some incidents are too vile and disgusting to tell to anybody ever. Others may not feel the same way as I do, and I respect their right to their own opinions. Still, I do not see myself ever discussing some things that took place in the Vietnam war and my tour there.
    One thing you left out of your story, but might be difficult to add, is the humor that the combat troops have. Yes, there IS humor in war, although one might be correct to call it "black" humor. Very, very black/dark sort of humor. Even when I was still in the war zone, my friends and I knew that our "humor" would not be understood by the people back in the US. We figured that we'd be locked in the nut house if we ever mentioned some of what passed as humor in that damn war. Yes, it was even sick at times. One takes ones' humor when and where one finds it.
    I am not trying to "justify" any behavior(s) in any way. Just my personal observations.
    I am constantly amazed by how you are able as a writer to take on the persona of your main character(s). Not only do you succeed in being the voice of a foreigner, but as a female and even in one amazing story, a whale! You ARE a very talented writer sir.
    May you live a long and happy life, and p,lease keep writing.
    Thank you for your time reading this reply.


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