Category KAMIKAZE

The Cost of Sushi Cakes

D

espite the constant behests to forget our past, after two weeks our families were permitted to pay us a brief visit. Only fourteen days since I had said goodbye, and it seemed ages. As the visiting hour approached I began to tremble. So much had happened, home seemed years into the past, a thousand miles away.

At four p. m. I was waiting in the visiting room where a counter separated the trainees as if they were convicts from their families. I watched people enter, observed how each trainee’s eyes lit in recognition. Some of them seemed almost embarrassed, strangely hesitant. The bar hampered them from the intimacies of a normal greeting, and the best they could do was clasp hands.

Twenty minutes passed. . . thirty, and no sign of my own family. I was beginning to fret and fidget. Where were they? What could have possibly happened to them? Didn’t they realize that we had only this one fleeting hour together? Maybe they wouldn’t arrive until too late—if they arrived at all. Soon I was growing angry. If they never got to see me it would serve them right.

On the other hand, maybe they had misunderstood the visiting date. Maybe I had somehow written it down wrong in my letter. Yes, that was probably it. What a hopeless idiot! I cracked my knuckles and

stared bleakly at the floor.

Then, furtively, even superstitiously, I glanced toward the door. There, miraculously, was my father in his gray business suit, its conser­vative shade blending with the two drab, wartime kimono behind him. Mother and Tomika. “Oh, my Yasuo, my Yasuo!” Mother murmured. “We were caught in a terrible traffic jam!” Simultaneously, Tomika was saying something about a bomb crater, but it barely registered. They were here. That was all that mattered.

Now we were clasping hands, looking into each other’s eyes. Mother and Tomika made no effort to disguise their feelings, and their tears glistened conspicuously despite the smiles. For a moment I couldn’t speak because I was struggling to restrain tears of my own, actually biting my lower lip to avoid displaying any weakness, especially before my father.

Father was even wearing one of his rare smiles. In fact, I had never seen it so warm: “How is your new life, my son?” he inquired.

“Oh. . .” I faltered. “it is fine, Father. Very. . . .” I groped for the right words. “Very educational.” But something writhed inside me, and the real words in my mind pounded: “Why do you lie? Tell the truth! Tell of the unbelievable brutality, the awful injustice! Tell him that you can’t stand this place a day longer! Maybe he can do something!”

I knew full well, however, that my father had received similar treatment in the army. Surely he realized what I was going through. The thought spawned feelings of incredulity. How had he managed to survive so well? Survive at all? Father squinted one eye, raising the op­posite brow as though reading each thought. “Do your hancho love you? Are they kind and gentle like your mother and sister?” I groped for an appropriate reply, but he continued. “You look very well. Your face has even filled out a little from all the delicious food—right?”

Truly my face had “filled out”—swollen from being slammed against the barracks and the previous night’s binta. “It’s not from—” I began and caught myself. Father’s eyes held mine, and his head gave an abrupt, little shake of warning. “Are they treating you well, Yasuo?” he demanded.

I forced a pallid smile. “Yes, thank you, Father, quite well.” His

expression remained stern, uncompromising. “I mean very well.”

“Good,” he replied. “There is nothing like military discipline to bring out the best in a man.”

For a few seconds none of us spoke. Then Tomika bent forward, her brow wrinkled, gazing into my face as though it were a mirror. “How did you get all those cuts?” she asked, looking highly distressed.

“Yasuo-chan, your eyes are black!” Mother exclaimed. “You’ve been injured!” It was that appealing tone of concern with which I had be­come so familiar, and again I battled inwardly. The childish part of me took comfort, wanted to be coddled, yet I also felt irritation. “They’ve been cruel to you, absolutely brutal!” She spoke so loudly I flushed and glanced in chagrin at the people nearest us. But they were all absorbed in their own conversations. “And your nose is swollen!”

“Yasuo is all right,” Father said.

“But his eyes” Mother persisted. “His poor, dear—”

“He is perfectly all right!” Father said. This time his tone allowed no opposition.

“It’s nothing, Mother, nothing at all!” My voice cracked embarrass­ingly, partly because it was still changing. “I just. . . I just ran into. . . a tree branch.” I held my hand over my eyes as though shading them from the sun, breathing jerkily in the silence. All the while my mother’s hand pressed mine so warmly I could actually feel her pulse. At that moment I loved her more than at any time in my life, more than any­thing else in the world.

Quietly Father was saying, “My son can take care of himself. A few little bruises are inevitable. They are helping to make a man of him. A

samurai!”

I looked up, massaging the lower half of my face with one hand to keep the muscles from twitching. Then I smiled, nodding. “Hai.” That was all I could say.

“Your sister and I have made some sushi cakes,” Mother said. “Will they permit you to have them?” Both Mother and Tomika had concealed food under the cloth obi about their waists. Their sushi cakes had long been a favorite with me.

“Well, we’re not supposed to,” I answered reluctantly, “but they’ll never know anything about it—if you can just hand it to me without anyone seeing.” Mother and Tomika both looked worried. “Did you bring the shirts and towels?” I asked. Mother nodded and placed a bundle tied in a redfuroshiki on the counter. “Just put the cakes inside,” I urged. “No one will ever find out.”

Reluctantly, very surreptitiously, Mother complied, but ironically, only moments later, there was a commotion. We glanced about startled to see a hancho cuffing one of the trainees. “Beat me! Beat me!” his mother wailed. “It wasn’t my son’s fault! He didn’t ask us to bring him anything – —it’s my fault!” The cuffing wasn’t severe, but it was mortifying to all of us, especially the trainee’s family.

Sunday was the one day in the week when we were supposed to receive decent treatment. This was to have been our brief interlude, this visitors’ day in particular. A fleeting, precious moment in time when all could be serene. The hancho himself was only eighteen or nineteen with a long neck and shiny, arrogant face. He could easily have punished the recruit later. How I hated him, literally would have rejoiced to kill him.

Mother and Tomika, of course, were now greatly alarmed, implor­ing me in hushed, urgent tones to return my contraband the instant it appeared safe to do so. For an instant I wavered. Then my fear gave way to rebellion. “No! Those. . . you and Tomika made them for me, and I’m going to keep them.”

Both Mother and Tomika were still murmuring anxiously, their eyes haunted. “Let him have his sushi,” Father muttered. “They cannot hurt a Kuwahara. Let him keep them.”

The matter was settled, and soon the visiting hour was over, our women again becoming tearful. “Stop that!” Father ordered. Reach­ing across the counter, he clasped my arm. “We shall see you in a short while, once your training is over, hai?”

I nodded. “We get two day’s leave.”

“So, you see?” Father said. “He gets two day’s leave. We will all have a splendid celebration and hear of his experiences. Meanwhile, Yasuo will make the most of his opportunity. He will make us all proud of him.” His gaze coalesced with my own. “Make us proud of you, my son.”

I merely nodded, fearing that my voice might betray me. Seconds later they were leaving. Father strode out of the door without a backward glance. Mother followed, covering her mouth with one hand, but Tomika turned briefly, eyes large and limpid like those of a fawn. She waved and tried to smile, but the smile collapsed piteously. Then they were gone.

Later in the barracks, most of us relaxed on our cots, a privilege ac­corded only on Sunday, and stared at the ceiling. The visit hadn’t elevated our spirits greatly. Nakamura was hunched on the edge of his cot, chin in his hands. Strolling over, I stood eyeing him, but he failed to notice. Reluctant to intrude, I paced slowly about the room, then stopped by his cot once more. “Yai, Nakamura!” I whispered. “You like sushi cakes?”

Grinning faintly, he glanced up. “You have some too?”

I nodded. “Yes, I’ve hidden them under my blankets.”

Still grinning, he patted a spot next to him by the foot of his cot. “Me too.”

Soon we discovered that nearly everyone had received food of one kind or another—cake, candy, or cookies. Oka and Yamamoto had secreted items in their shirts and were becoming a bit boisterous. “We’ll all have a party!” Oka exclaimed. “Tonight after Shoto Rappa!” The thought filled us all with glee, and there was much hearty laughter for the first time in two weeks.

Unfortunately, our happy interlude was short lived. Upon returning from our evening meal, one held in the chow hall on Sundays, we found our beds ransacked. Several of us were whispering nervously when The Pig made an abrupt entrance.

“Oh!” Oka exclaimed. The word had escaped his lips of its own ac­cord.

“Oh?” The Pig raised his eyebrows. “What do you mean, ‘Oh’?” Gently, very disarmingly, he laid a hand on Oka’s shoulder. “Is something wrong? Something missing?”

Oka stiffened. “No, honorable hancho dono.”

“Hmmm. . . well then, I’m afraid I don’t understand.” As usual, he was relishing the situation. “Why, did you say, ‘Oh’?”

Oka stammered incoherently. “Hmmm, very strange—most mysterious.” The Pig stroked hisjowl, and began his usual pacing back and forth. “I simply don’t understand this at all. Could it be that I’m not welcome here? Come now, gentlemen—I sense a strange restraint. What, oh what, is wrong?”

“Nothing is wrong, honorable hancho dono,” Nakamura bravely volunteered.

“Ah so!” Suddenly The Pig whirled, jabbing his finger at the tip of Yamamoto’s nose. “Why, then, is your bed all torn up?” Yamamoto gagged. “Very curious indeed,” The Pig muttered and struck a melo­dramatic stance, one hand on his hip, the other massaging his brow. “I come here. . .” he said slowly, “hoping for a little courtesy and friendship, but instead, what do I get? Not one kind word, only coldness. I merely ask a simple, decent question, yet people barely speak to me.”

He flounced down on my cot, nearly collapsing it, gazing at me with a stricken expression. Then he buried his face in his hands, faking ridiculous sobs. “Kuwahara, what can this all mean?”

I. . . I don’t know, honorable—”

“I’m a stranger in my own family! Children! My children, don’t you even recognize your mother?” Then he reverted to his weeping. An incredible performance, and several of us laughed nervously but knew that it presaged something unpleasant.

And indeed it did. Eventually, tiring of such antics, The Pig in­formed us in a rather bored manner that we would have to be chastised for attempting to fool him. We were herded outside, and our faces were slammed against the barracks. By now most of us had learned to take much of the force with upper rounded area of our foreheads acquiring some fine bumps and bruises in the process, but it helped minimize the number of broken noses and split lips. That particular treatment, however, was only a preliminary.

Afterward, we were forced to crawl around the barracks with our combat boots tied together by the laces and dangling from our necks. In this manner we traveled down the halls to visit the hancho in their various rooms. It was much like certain college initiation ceremonies, I suppose, though a bit more harsh than most. Each man was required to knock on one of the closed doors, entering—still upon his hands and knees, to apologize.

I was one of those to have an audience with The Pig himself. As I entered he was seated under a bright light, no doubt for theatrical ef­fect, legs crossed and an arm hooked over the back of his chair. He was also smoking a large cigar. Sighing and blowing a jet of smoke toward the light bulb above, he inquired, “Aren’t you well enough fed here, Kuwahara?”

“Yes, honorable—”

“Then why did you bring food into your quarters, unhealthy food, in fact, when you knew perfectly well that it was forbidden?”

I had never considered sushi cakes unhealthy, but perhaps he was referring to our group in general. It was scarcely a point for argument under the circumstances, however. “I am sorry, honorable hancho donor Rarely had I felt more contrite. It was abundantly clear now that I had committed a grievous sin.

“Well, Kuwahara—look at me, not at the floor. I am afraid that ‘sorry’ is not adequate.” Meanwhile he kept blowing billows of rancid cigar smoke into my face. When I began to gag from the effects, he asked, “What in the world’s the matter with you? Are you ill? Do I disgust you?”

I fumbled hopelessly for a reply, but he continued. “As I was saying, Kuwahara, we wouldn’t accomplish much at this base—as a matter of fact, we’d actually lose the entire war if every man in the military could break the rules then simply say, ‘I’m sorry.’ Do you understand what I’m getting at? Or have you already forgotten my inspirational lecture last week on the virtues of obedience?”

“Yes, honorable. . . I mean no, honorable hancho dono—I have not forgotten.”

“I devoutly hope so,” he replied, rolling his eyes melodramatically. Under less threatening circumstances, in fact, his response would have seemed ludicrous. “But in view of your temporary lapse of memory, I trust that you will appreciate my need to underscore the problem in this manner.” He studied me thoughtfully, exhaling more cigar smoke. “Be­sides,” he added wearily, “I resent not being invited to the party you were planning after Shoto Rappa. I was a recruit once myself, you know.”

He then kicked me in the face nearly breaking my cheekbone and called out pleasantly, “Next, please!”

“Thank you very much, honorable hancho dono” I mumbled and crawled blindly for the door, face numb, boots swinging.

The Divine Storm

I

t was good flying weather. The seasonal rains had at last subsided leaving the skies a splendid morning glory blue. Within moments we were over the mountains, and more than ever it seemed to me that Japan itself was essentially an endless conglomeration of mountains – great, rolling remnants from the past when islands reared volcanically like stricken monsters, when fires burst from nature’s hidden furnaces to be quenched at last by time and the sea.

We left the ancient shores, the shores of our four islands, the clangor­ous cities and quiet rural villages that were home to more than seventy million people.

Thirty minutes after take off we landed to refuel at Kagoshima on the island of Kyushu— for twelve men, most of them still mere boys chronologically—the final glimpse of their homeland. For twelve men the three-hour flight onward to Okinawa would be all that remained, their last short hours upon the earth. Oka and Yamamoto had departed three weeks ago, gone forever, blazing their way into history and the infinite regions of oblivion. Mere dream figures now, their eyes, their

forms, their voices fading, fading. . . etherizing, echoing ever more faintly into the past.

Minutes from Kagoshima we spotted a flight of B-29’s escorted by Grummans, traveling toward Shikoku. Altering our course slightly, we faded into a skein of wispy cirrus clouds then continued steadily, steadily onward into the day. Far below, rolled the Pacific. . . an immense, ever – wrinkling green, brilliant and dazzling under the sun in places like a billion holiday sparklers.

My mind was teeming with memory now. Home, like my vanished friends, was a poignant fantasy that pulsed and subsided, pulsed and subsided. And always, irresistibly, the face of Toyoko. As the minutes fled I saw her countless times in countless ways. Occasionally merely the face of a phantom tinged with subtle tones of silver and ivy in the shadows, ethereal in the garden moonlight, or softly luminescent be­neath the red-orange glow of a lantern gateway. Sometimes her clear dark eyes flowing with inquiry or sweet appraisal, the inevitable tint of loving mischief, of motherly empathy and amusement.

At times our glances had locked so closely and unwaveringly that I could descry tiny replicas of my own face within her pupils. How often I had found myself entranced by the phenomenal, dance-like fluidity of Toyoko’s movements as her fingers traced the strings of a samisen or lilted back her long and fragrant hair from the nape of her neck. How I cherished the way she walked in her tight kimono—such precise and exquisitely dainty steps, one foot placed directly before the other.

Yet always, there was the great expanding void within me, and increas­ingly, at last to the point of obsession, the words of Nakamura, his fateful augury only a short time earlier in another world: “Today, maybe we will all go down. . . pay our debt to the Emperor.” Once despite all, I shook my head half smiling. Kenji Nakamura! What an irrepressible spirit! Nakamura, the recruit who had first befriended me during those soul-ravaging days of basic when it seemed as though our entrails were being wrenched from our throats with grappling hooks. Nakamura, my loquacious comrade—faith­ful and highly practical in many ways, but who also lived with remarkable abandon.

Even more, increasingly, I thought about Tatsuno. I remembered a day long ago when we had run laughing through the streets of Onomichi swatting at each other with our school caps. How young, how childlike and innocent, back then, two years into the past. Tatsuno, forever my best friend—sometimes playful, a prankster, yet loyal unto death, often introspec­tive, harboring deep and stirring thoughts. “Tatsuno. . . Tatsuno. . . .” I repeated his name many times, shaking my head and fleetingly closing my eyes. . . droning, droning onward, ever more entranced by an unyielding sense of immensity.

Clouds were forming intermittently now just beneath us, whiter than the purest snow, casting shadows of dun and olive on the waters twenty- thousand feet below. Suddenly my radio receiver issued a sharp ream­ing, startling me from my reverie. A blare of static that pained my ear drums. “One hour remaining,” the words crackled. Ahead and slightly below at a fifty-foot diagonal to my right wing tip was our flight leader, Sgt. Motoharu Uno. His head slowly pivoted, constantly surveying our surroundings, and upon catching his glance I held up my gloved fist, responding with a single nod.

Age twenty-six, Uno was one of the old men in our squadron. Squat and sinewy, he had known little except rice farming until the war, but he was highly intelligent with remarkable strength and coordination. Awesome courage. He also possessed uncanny vision and was known by his friends as Washi—Eagle. Soon, if Uno survived what lay beyond, perhaps because of it, he would become an ace.

Ahead the clouds were enlarging, darkening slightly like dirty cotton along their undersides, extinguishing the sun-dazzled expanses below. Our Kamikaze were traveling in sections of three—each a lethal arrow slicing undeviatingly onward toward the enemy. On and on and on. . . the harsh, strangely comforting vibrato of my motor rising and falling, rising and falling, against the gathering afternoon.

Miraculously, time itself had faded like vapor on an immense mir­ror. As we neared our destination the dry-plaster feeling in my mouth increased, a feeling that inevitably occurred at such moments. And, as always, my head began to throb, an aching throughout my upper eye sockets and brow, gradually asserting itself within the base of my skull as well. My gloved hands clenched the controls, and I opened them flexing my fingers. Beneath my leather aviator cap a drop of sweat trickled slyly down my temple. . . then another.

“Too tense, Kuwahara,” I warned, “too taut!” Ironically, the words came with great intensity. Again the finger flexing followed by the mas­saging of the back of my neck and scalp with one hand, the rotating of my head. “Loosen up, Kuwahara, loosen up.” Shoulders rising, rotat­ing along with my head, falling. Swift painful glimpses of my past, my home and family. . . of Toyoko. Toyoko embraced in slumber, Toyoko in her white nightgown with the lacy fringes. Her brow and cheek bones graced with light, lips touched with their faint entrancing dream smile, impossibly far away and long ago now, in some lost dimension.

Strange how so many thoughts, all irrelevant to the question at hand, continued to beset me. Perhaps they were a part of my defense mechanism, sedatives against the rat-like gnawings of fear. Soon, though, very soon, those sedatives would wear off completely.

Long ago it seemed (or was it only moments?) we had passed the tiny islands of Yaku and Togara, and now with Amami dissolving in our wake, we saw the first dim outlines of our fate. Okinawa! An electric shock in my right neck cord, a fierce burning that nearly welled beyond containment. Yes, Okinawa, sprawling there on the ocean’s bosom like an immense and slowly writhing sea monster.

Then came another jolt as Uno waggled his wings. Far off I saw their faint silvery wakes. . . and now. . . the first American ships. Ichi, ni, san, shi. . . . I kept counting. Twenty five in all, and there no larger than cucumber seeds at first, directly in the center of the task force, was our quarry—four aircraft carriers, closely attended by battle ships and a wider perimeter of cruisers and destroyers.

Again Uno waggled his wings, and we began our descent. At ten thousand feet we leveled off, and our twelve Kamikaze forged ahead of us at full power. Now time was suddenly in ruthless acceleration, the ships growing. . . growing. . . growing at a rate that was literally stupefy­ing. Now they were opening fire! A great, spasmodic concatenation of reflex actions from their giant guns, each followed by explosive puffs of black smoke and spouts of dull orange from the ships engulfed in cloud shadow.

So at last the waiting was over. I even welcomed the fear, for with it came the wild rush of adrenaline and sense of inevitability. Whatever our skills might be, however valiantly and cunningly we might perform, we had now entered the portals of Fate, and there was no turning back. Simultaneously, the strange yet familiar voice inside, continued to as­sure me that death happened only to other people. Soon, somehow, it would all be past. I would returned unharmed and make my report as always.

Ahead, the first suicide formation is diving now at forty-five degrees, followed methodically by the next. . . and the next. Tatsuno is leading the final section in an ancient navy aircraft, ready to fall apart long before its last take-off, a Mitsubishi, Type 96. Now the fated twelve are opening their cockpits and their silken scarves are fluttering in the wind, a symbol of their willingness to die for the Emperor, their final acknowledgment of that grand and ultimate honor. Always the wind, the Divine Wind.

The American fleet is less than a mile ahead, and I am sweating profusely, watching, watching, my mind roaring, and the sound within is somehow far greater than that of my Hayabusa. The lead Kamikaze plummets, screaming almost vertically into the flak. He’ll never reach the carriers; that seems certain. Instead, he levels and veers sharply to the right making for a cruiser near the convoy’s perimeter. And for a moment it looks as if he’ll succeed. But no—he’s hit, virtually wrenched apart, all in the fraction of a second. Only a yellow flare remains, rapidly disintegrating. . . fading, fading to ashes, to nothing.

Everything is a blur now—a mixture of motion, sound, and color— the variegated green of the ocean, the stark, hard gray of the ships, the unremitting belches of black as their five-inch rifles fire deadly bursts of shrapnel, periodic flashes of orange from the shadows, and a virtual maze of white-hot red from the tracer bullets leaving their 20 and 40 millimeter anti aircraft guns. . . tracers that seem to arch almost lan­guorously. Two more planes explode simultaneously, but a fourth wails unscathed through the entire barrage, leveling beneath the flak umbrella only twenty feet above the surface. . . .

A hit! He has struck a destroyer directly above its water line. It shud­ders as if assaulted by an immense battering ram, and I actually seem to hear the bellowing explosion, then another and another, above the endless roar of my motor. It’s good! It’s good! The vessel is already in its death throes. Water gushing in through a monstrous hole that has nearly torn it apart, surging and plunging over the bow. As I follow my flight leader, climbing and arching along the battle’s perimeter, the destroyer up-ends, stern black and ominous in a curious state of suspension as though attesting to its own demise. Then, almost instantaneously, it is gone. . . swallowed. . . non-existent.

Already I have lost track of the flights. They have been scattered like dragonflies before a gale. The two trailing formations are knifing downward through the lethal blossoms of flak. Everywhere, incredible violence and confusion. One of our planes is roaring low across the wa­ter, machine guns kicking up countless spouts all around him. Headed straight for a carrier, closing the gap at tremendous speed with less than two hundred yards remaining. Straight in. . . he’ll score a direct hit! My entire body surges with an awful jubilation. But no-no, they stop him, blowing off a wing and most of his tail section. Veering lamely, he collides with the ship’s bow inflicting little damage.

The enemy defense is almost impregnable; only a gnat can penetrate that fire screen. Two more suicides lance at the second carrier, and one disintegrates fairly splattering the water with its remains. The other bursts into flame like a monstrous blow torch, makes a half roll and arches into the ocean upside down.

So far, I am certain, we have sunk only one ship, and already, within mere minutes, we have few aircraft left. Hard to know where they are now, even discern them because of the swelling murkiness of the horizon, but at least two planes have temporarily secluded themselves there—and now, unexpectedly, they materialize a mile to our left. We circle high above, watching. . . . Two planes, an advanced trainer and a Mitsubishi fighter are completing a wide turn, heading swiftly back toward us. I squint, and the realization seizes my innards. That Mit­subishi, it’s Tatsuno! Yes, definitely! Tatsuno was in the last section—our only navy plane.

The two of them climb at full throttle then begin their dive, charg­ing toward the convoy’s heart. The trainer, however, is rapidly falling behind, and seconds later he is ripped from the sky by enemy fighters.

His wings are savagely torn away, the entire plane almost rent in half, and he corkscrews insanely downward leaving a silver-gold waterspout in a brilliant patch of sunlight.

Tatsuno is alone now, still unscathed, making a perfect run, better than anything they ever taught us in school. Tatsuno! Tatsuno! Fire spouts along his tail section, but he remains on course. A tanker wallows just ahead like a vast, sullen whale. The orange tatters along Tatuno’s fuselage extend with devilish exultation, and his plane is an all-devour­ing flame. Tatsuno! He’s closing! A hit! A HIT!

An enormous explosion bellows upward, rocking the sky, vomiting thick, black smoke that momentarily seems to swallow the very flames generating it. Then comes a staccato series of smaller bursts, stupendous eruptions of brilliant orange, and one last, mighty blast that seems to shake the sea like canvas in a wind. The tanker is going down along with my dearest friend.

No trace now but the widening shroud of oil.

Our Kamikaze were gone now—all twelve to another world. We had sunk one destroyer and one tanker, wounded a cruiser, also severely damaged a battleship, something I didn’t learn until later. But there was no time then to ponder our success or to mourn our loss. The fighter fifty yards ahead and to my left waggled its wings in warning. My friend Nakamura, and he was jabbing with his finger toward a flight of Grum – man Hellcats swarming in above us at four o’clock.

I had spotted them fleetingly earlier, streaking from the carri – ers—hornets angered at having their nests invaded—then lost sight of them in the melee. Now, fantastically, three Hellcats were on my tail with startling speed and determination, firing savage bursts from only three hundred yards. Two more behind them, slightly lower and about half a mile to the right, were veering my way, maneuvering into firing position.

Lead chewed my stabilizer, sheared off the tip of my rudder, and a fifty-caliber slug pierced the canopy only six inches above my head. Simultaneously I spotted Uno, emerging from a skein of clouds just beyond. He was easing into a tight right curve, and I followed, rotating in a half roll and banking into a radical turn.

Now, within seconds, I had reversed positions with my enemy and I was on his tail, trying desperately to center him in my gun sights.

Momentarily we seemed to be on opposite ends of a teetering balance scale. Then it adjusted, and I was tracking him, blasting away with my nose cannon. . . missing! Angrily I opened up with my machine guns but in my eagerness failed to aim with precision.

Only two Hellcats discernible now, and they flared frantically in opposite directions, my quarry swerving to the right. The other bore strongly to the left only to draw fire from a Hayabusa coming at him head on. Nakamura! The two planes screamed past each other almost collid­ing, the Hellcat taking lead, and I glanced fleetingly over my shoulder to see it casting slender streamers of flame as it distanced against the sun.

Meanwhile my own foe was climbing rapidly, and I roared after him firing a series of short, rapid bursts. Realizing his predicament, the Hell­cat angled off to the left, dropping away, spiraling nose over wing tip, into a shallow dive. I had anticipated him, however, and followed doggedly, opening up again with my guns. This time smoke began to billow from beneath his engine cowling, so thickly, I barely saw the cockpit open as the pilot struggled free and rolled off the wing next to the fuselage. He then plummeted downward like a rock for some distance before pulling his chute, and the canopy popped, blossoming white, drifting against the deep blue of the water.

Only seconds later an enemy plane was attacking me broadside from about two hundred yards. I could see the lethal sparkling of his fifty calibers against a large soot-colored cloud. Then, incredibly, the Hellcat disintegrated in a blinding starburst the color of the sun. One of our Hayabusa was cutting a high, wailing arch along the cloud’s up­per border, etched triumphantly against the dazzling sky beyond. The contrasting light was so intense it hurt my eyes, and I squinted painfully just as the Hayabusa vanished into the mounting darkness ahead. Not, however, before I had glimpsed the pilot’s profile through the glint of sunlight on his goggles, the fierce, determined tightness of his lips.

Uno! I shook my head in admiration and amazement. He had blasted it directly in the fuel tank with his 25 mm cannons. His wartime total now tallied six confirmed kills and at least three or four probables. My own score now stood at three as did Nakamura’s.

“Run for it!” His words crackled in my headphones. “Too many— head for home!” Abruptly now, the enemy was materializing from almost all directions. Everywhere. . . blue wings, white stars and blunt, bel­ligerent snouts—all avidly bent on revenge. My friends were nowhere in sight, and I slammed the throttle to the firewall, roaring north toward home and the secrecy of the clouds. Several Hellcats were still streaking after me, diving head on. Instinctively, I hit the stick pivoting left, and all of them overshot me but one flying higher in the rear.

Torquing radically the opposite direction, I descended in a gar­gantuan, groaning barrel roll, feeling my entire airframe shuddering as the G-force slammed, squeezing the blood from my head and eyes. My enemy followed with fiendish tenacity only a hundred yards or so behind, somehow actually closing the distance. Sledge hammer sounds, and I flinched, feeling my heart lurch. I’d been hit. . . but for the mo­ment no discernible damage, and it was time for even more desperate measures.

Again I rolled, angling now into a steep vertical dive. . . down, down, down. . . the air shrieking past my cockpit, gradually spiraling, spiraling downward, seeming to rotate with the very earth. . . then roll­ing more widely. Ships growing amid the broadening sprawls of smoke, revolving as if the ocean itself had become a vast, cosmic whirlpool. Long hours of suicide practice had honed my skill in such maneuvers, but soon I was in reach of the surface fire again. A battleship along the convoy’s periphery was opening up with his heavy rifles, and the flack was collecting close about me.

I pulled from my dive in a monstrous, shuddering, gut-wrenching groan, barely above the water, feeling as if the flesh would rip from my bones, losing my vision and sense of direction, blacking out, as though my head had been dragged into my shoulders. The tenacious Grumman Hellcat, however, was less fortunate—accidentally blasted apart by his own ships at the very nadir of his descent. Glancing wildly at my waver­ing compass needle and trembling gryo horizon, I somehow reoriented myself and hurtled on north scrambling for altitude.

The American ships were still salvoing at long range while one remaining fighter plane continued to fire at me from several hundred yards away. For an instant I felt a smug sense of triumph. Simultaneously I heard a series of feral pinging noises followed by a clank. My heart squirmed, pounding, and my throat constricted as I waited for the flames, the smoke. . . the explosion. For several agonizing seconds the motor faltered then blessedly caught hold as the Hellcat swiftly drew closer.

Ahead, a short distance to the northwest, the clouds were mounting to awesome heights in gray-black anvils—cumulonimbus, and I headed for them full throttle, blending my will with that of my plane, uniting all our remaining strength in a final bid for emancipation. Faster Ku – wahara, faster. . . holes appearing supernaturally in my right wing. . . more pinging. . . . Then I was engulfed in darkness.

I grinned triumphantly into the gloom, convinced now that I had made it. The enemy had battled ferociously—every thing in his power, everything upon the face of the ocean, everything that he could hurl into the sky. The enemy had failed. Our own forces, on the other hand, had inflicted substantial damage.

Not far ahead, lightning crackled lividly fracturing the walls of darkness which reunited almost instantly with an ominous concussion more powerful than all the guns below combined. Close, very close. But at least, I told myself, the elements were impersonal. Now, though, my cockpit had filled with the odor of burning rubber and super-heated metal, and the anxiety soon returned. No way of knowing how much damage I had sustained earlier, and I was also faced with another prob­lem. Rain was slashing my wings and cockpit, mounting gusts that often left me blindfolded except for the incessant flashes of lightning, each accompanied by a stunning jar as if truck loads of lumber were being dumped against me from every side.

I had encountered storms before but never one like this. Clouds converged about me like a herd of angry elephants, transforming to monstrous proportions and colors from gray to India ink. . . roiling, incessantly roiling, in an ominous maelstrom. The winds and rain lashed savagely, slicing through the jagged holes in my greenhouse.

Again my motor coughed, windmilling, and I held my breath, prac­tically igniting with tension. Yet once again it caught, and the burning smell was abating, probably because of the deluge. Temples throbbing, I squinted painfully, praying for the return of day. Off somewhere lay the afternoon, yet there near the storm’s gullet it was fast approaching midnight. Each flash of lightning spawned crashes of thunder reverber­ating off in stupendous chain reactions, numbing the very atmosphere. My sense of direction was gone, decimated, and with each concussion my compass needle gyrated erratically. My turn and bank indicator was useless, stunned! No matter what awaited me out there in the daylight, I had to escape fast.

But where? Far off to my left was a pallid smear of yellow-gray, and instinctively I headed toward it like a moth to lamplight. The glow was increasing when suddenly the belly of my plane, seemed to collapse. It was like a blow to the sternum, and I clutched in desperation at the controls as my Hayabusa dropped a hundred feet within the next second, prop claw­ing helplessly. The motor rattled as if it would tear loose, and the entire frame vibrated frantically.

Then the pressure subsided, and I was blasted upward, shaken and tumbled hopelessly. Dazed, head spinning, I battled for equilibrium, some semblance of control, yet there was none. Slam my rudder to the left, and I could as easily be hurled to the right. Wrench my elevator upward, and I might be rammed toward the sea.

Instruments battered and dying, my motor steadily becoming more asthmatic, I was desperately tired, both body and soul. Minutes before, I had welcomed the storm, all but laughed in its face. Now I was growing numb, arms nearly paralyzed. Even the inside of my plane was revolving dizzily, my vision so blurred I could no longer even tell whether it was raining or not. Again, time had ceased to exist. Once, strangely, the winds abated, and I found myself drifting in a kind of vacuum, blinking at the blue flashes and hearing the reverberations with strange curiosity. Like an automaton, I was flying with only one purpose—to continue. . . on and on until the great light was born again.

Then the winds came raving back. The flashes illumined a vast cloud with magnificent tones of peach and rose, its countenance forming a diabolical leer as greater darkness ensued. No longer were the elements impersonal. The lightning was not crackling; it was laughing maliciously, and the thunder bellowed, hammering with its fists. The wind, above all, hated me—cursing, buffeting, wrenching, and now I knew that I had been betrayed with the promise of sanctuary to my destruction. Even nature was with the enemy.

An abrupt volcanic eruption of air and cloud confirmed the fact, catch­ing my right wing tip and hurling me in a series of huge, erratic gyrations as agonized groanings burst from the bowels of my aircraft. . . down . . . down an endless cone of blackness to my doom. Death. . . death. . . all very swiftly now. Oblivion.

Yet even then, far off down that final passage, something willed the battered, shuddering entity that had been my fighter back to life, exerted effort against alien controls.

Astoundingly, I was flying level, waves the color of molasses curling at my belly, scudding with froth, and I was once more in command. As from some remote distance, sounds of the motor rose and fell, and my aircraft actually seemed to be skimming the very wave crests. Momentarily I had recollections of my first glider competition, being towed for that first breath-stifling takeoff across the turf at Onomichi High School.

So low now, so very low! The mere, slight tilting of one wing, only a few degrees, and the ocean would have me forever. And why fight it? The great waters had taken my friends, taken Tatsuno, always taken whatever they wanted. Only a few slight ridiculous degrees. . . But my fear had evaporated, giving way to perversity.

Yes, now I would taunt the ocean, making it wait, tantalizing the endless, hypnotic waves, dipping my wing tips boldly. . . but never quite close enough. . . not until the appropriate moment. No doubt they would have me in time but on my own terms—not until I had laughed and humiliated them as the lightning and thunder had laughed and roared, humiliating me.

Suddenly the water flashed green! An instant later it transformed to the color of white-hot slag temporarily blinding me. First by the darkness and now by the light. I squinted painfully, blinking, seeing only strange, amoeboid forms that welled in blend of dark maroon and irregular, ever – melting fringes of saffron. And gradually the pain eased. Gradually, sight was restored. I was in a world of dazzling green and gold. The heavens above and beyond were completely cloudless, supernally blue.

Cautiously, very gradually, I ascended to a thousand feet as my body and mind, my very spirit, relaxed. No ships, no planes, only the endless water and the endless sky as I droned steadily onward alone, the only living soul in the world—lost amid the lonely reaches of sun and sea.

The motor sputtered, and I glanced at my fuel gauge: a mere twenty- five gallons—little time left. Apprehensively, fearing the American ears listening somewhere beyond the horizon, I began to signal. No answer. I waited, holding my breath, tried again. Still no reply. My fighter was winging onward, staunch and true once more. Wonderful creature! How I loved and admired it! But now. . . after everything, to run out of fuel—to expire helplessly like a strong man whose wrists were slashed. What a grand and ridiculous irony!

Hopeless. . . but I had an obligation to do my best. Like my samurai ancestors, I might ultimately die yet never be vanquished. I adjusted the fuel control to its thinnest mixture, cut the propeller cycles down to the minimum—below 1,500 rpm’s. Any less and my plane would stall.

Again I signaled, caught my breath and waited. . . static. . . then a voice! Faint and dry initially, the buzzing of a wasp trapped in a jar, a voice from the regions of the dead. But a voice—an answer! China! “This is Nanking. . . .” I had made connections!

A few degrees to my left and straight ahead was the island of For­mosa, and at last I could discern its outlines—like a mere translucent watermark at first, the faintest lineation on a broad pastel of gray and green. Soon, though, it became more substantial, seeming to rise and fall on its gathering tides like an immense ship—a ship. . . a carrier of colossal dimension unlike all others, one that offered hope. Sanctuary.

My Hayabusa purred steadily onward, constant and true, and once I looked back. Something warned me not to, a profound sense of su­perstition, that even the subtlest glance might welcome the tentacles of fate. Nevertheless, I looked. Somewhere off in that golden afternoon lay Okinawa and the enemy task force. Only twenty-three ships instead of twenty-five. Somewhere drifted the remains of our twelve Kamikaze, the remains of my friend Tatsuno.

And there—hanging slumberous now—far behind, lurked the storm. The Divine Storm had saved me as it had saved my people centuries before.

The Parting of Miyagame

S

evere though it had been, the punishment of the first two weeks was negligible compared to what came later. As our conditioning improved, the daily running regimen increased from two or three to five miles. Eventually we were running over eight miles, and those who fell behind were bludgeoned with rifle butts.

During taiko binta, instead of exchanging fist blows in the face, we now used shoes with hob nails, and the face of every trainee bore lacerations and rips, especially around the comers of the mouth. One man in the adjoining barracks nearly lost an eye. Except for Sundays, the torment was almost incessant.

By the first month’s end many in our group were breaking emotion­ally, beyond remedy. Continual pain, continual humiliation, continual pressure. Endless stress! It could not be endured forever. The two remain­ing months of basic training loomed like centuries. I did not believe it possible that all of us could survive. And I was right.

Early in the second month six men from our original group deserted. They scaled the barbed wire enclosure and fled only to be captured a short while later. One of them remained free for several days, hiding in the mountains, stealing vegetables from the farms by night. Then he was apprehended by the civilian police near his home in Hongo City. In order to verify his identity, they delivered him to his family. What ignominy! “We are sorry,” the police explained, “but this man has betrayed his country, and we have no recourse but to return him to Hiro.” He was then led away in handcuffs.

Deserters from all branches of the military were sent to army stock­ades where they were at the mercy of the vicious MP’s. Reports had reached us, in fact, that prisoners were often tortured to death with no recourse whatever to justice and a fair trial. Stockade authorities simply lied with impunity fabricating reasons for the demise of those they killed. They were rarely questioned.

For all of us, time squirmed by with the speed of an earthworm, but those who didn’t collapse under the ordeal were gradually becoming tougher, hardened in both mind and body. Somehow we made it through the gristmill of the second month. Two thirds of our basic training was behind us now, and that imparted encouragement.

During my weeks at Hiro I had grown a bit and was grimly satisfied, even proud, that I had withstood some of the worst they had to offer. I was one of the best in calisthenics and endurance running, and I con­tinued to excel at glider practice along with my other training classes. I had now acquired several friends who seemed impressed with my former accomplishments as national glider champion, and the news was being spread. No denying, I enjoyed the recognition, and my general outlook was rapidly improving. Then came a shock that left me demoralized for days. One evening, having just polished my boots, I strolled to the latrine. As I approached the door, however, a recruit informed me that it was locked. “Out of order, I guess,” he said and wandered off.

Feeling an urgent need to enter, I seized the door knob, turning it and giving a vigorous shove. “Anybody in there?” I called. No answer. Maybe, I decided, The Snake had locked it simply to create a little more confusion and discomfort. It was definitely the sort of trick he might pull.

I called again. No answer, but the lock was a flimsy one, and my need for relief was quickly increasing. Glancing about to insure that no one was watching, I reared back on one leg and crashed my boot heel against the lock. It creaked and the door shuddered. Once again,

I glanced about, then assaulted the lock even harder. This time it gave, and the door fell open.

I entered hastily, leaving the light off, Almost simultaneously, I col­lided with someone. . . something. “Pardon me,” I mumbled. No answer. Something, a presence, seemed to loom before me in the dark. Backing toward the door, I blurted, “Who is it? What’s wrong?” Someone was there. I had touched someone, felt human flesh. Yet he simply remained there in frozen silence like a madman. Roiling darkness, the stench, the silence. . . all mingled ominously.

Groping for the wall switch, I flipped it on. The light exploded revealing a limp figure, dangling from the rafter by a rope. The rope was knotted around his neck, and he was still swinging slightly from our contact.

This was my first direct encounter with death. The face was purple and bloated, the eyes bulging slightly and egg white with no sign at all of the irises. In my shock I failed to recognize him. Then the realization enveloped me. Miyagame, a recruit I had talked to more than once. Yes, I remembered now. . . always quiet and withdrawn, rather frail. Yes, Miyagame! The one that idiot hancho had cuffed before his family on visitors’ day.

He was still swinging, and I stared in horrified fascination. Stupefied, mesmerized. . . paralyzed in the clutches of a nightmare.

Back and forth. . . back and forth. . . . Then came the panic. Maybe, maybe, by some remote possibility he was still alive. Somewhere in that graying flesh there might be a tiny pulse of life. I was wasting precious time! Stumbling backward, I whirled and rushed into the nearest bar­racks. “Quick, give me your trench knife!” I commanded a startled recruit.

“Nani?” He blinked at me stupidly. “What is it?”

Seizing the knife in its sheath on the pack atop his locker, I shouted, “There’s somebody in the latrine—a dead man! Hanged himself!” The recruit arose from his seat on the cot, looking as though he had accidentally swallowed arsenic. “Come on,” I ordered. “Help me for god’s sake!” Dumbly he followed, and I had the quick impression that he thought I’d gone mad.

Then he saw Miyagame and began to exclaim and mumble inco­herently. “Cut the rope,” I said, and he complied as I hefted the limp body. An instant later the rope was severed, and Miyagame collapsed over my shoulder, staggering me. “Help me lay him down.” The recruit complied.

Feverishly, I turned the body on its stomach, straddled it, and began artificial respiration pressing rhythmically on his back as we had been trained to do. Minutes passed, how long I didn’t know. “You’re wasting your time, Kuwahara—he’s dead and gone,” a voice said. It was The Snake, and a dozen men were clustered about us.

Almost inaudibly someone murmured, “Anyway, he is happy now.”

Swiftly the news spread, and the following day I learned through Nakamura that Miyagame had left a letter addressed to his family, an apology for having dishonored them and begging their forgiveness for “dying ahead of you before my rightful time.” His final words read, “I await you in the next world.”

This was another breaking point for several in our group. Now only the fittest would survive. Miyagame’s suicide had evoked a ter­rible psychological effect. My own special glow of hope, pride, and strength vanished. What good would it do to grow strong, anyway? After basic there would simply be more punishment, more harassment, more humiliation. More and more and more. Then what, provided it ever ended? I would probably die for an Emperor who had never even heard the name Kuwahara, who would never have the faintest inkling of my existence.

My naive conception of heroism soured, putrefied. In its place was the bloated face of Miyagame with its blind, egg-white eyeballs. . . always swinging. Visions began to assert themselves, flashbacks of Miyagama being cuffed before his family, all of them burning with fear and shame. And always, after that, the dark, stinking latrine and the lifeless body. After Shoto Rappa, the inspections and ongoing punishment, I would lie face down on my cot, gripping my mattress, trying to exclude the visions I knew would come.

At times, I would jolt to wakefulness in the night as though falling.

At times I would cry out, bolting upright, staring wildly into the dark. Always the corpse that had once been Miyagame—swinging, swinging. . . always swinging. Tossing, moaning, clutching my mattress as though it were a raft on the waves, I would clamp my eyes desperately, only to embrace the vision more fiercely.

Eventually it began to fade, enshrouded in the mist of time, partly because others had decided to follow our friend. Watanabe, a recruit from my own quarters, went next in the same way. Then others, not only with ropes but also bayonets. One leaped off the water tower, crushing out his life on the asphalt assembly area below. Nine men from our original group of sixty took their own lives during my basic training.

Suicide! It was a way out, perhaps the only answer. Could it hurt any more to hang than to be bludgeoned with a rifle butt? Could it hurt more to impale one’s self on a bayonet than to hug a tree naked, clinging to the cold, rough bark while your back was lashed? Surely the bayo­net, used properly, would be far more swift. Irresistibly, I began to toy with different possibilities, then to plan more seriously. Slashed wrists, I decided, would probably be the best way. Or maybe the jugular vein. Hone my trench knife to a fine razor edge. Then. . . . My obsession with Miyagame was being replaced by an obsession with Kuwahara.

Yet each day I could feel my body toughening, feel the swelling in my biceps, triceps, and deltoids as I performed my push-ups. I could now do one hundred push-ups perfectly. Perfectly, because anything less laid us vulnerable to the whip. I could do twenty perfect pull-ups—sit – ups indefinitely. Each day I felt the growing strength in my legs as we ran. Ten miles a day now, and always I heard my father’s voice calmly commanding me to return a man, a samurai.

No, I could not dishonor my father by taking the easy way out. Not my family, not the illustrious name of Kuwahara. Only two more weeks now, and spring was coming. The sunlight increased, daily, dazzling our eyes as we ran, transforming the distances into tantalizing patches of blue. Tiny lakes and ponds as blue as the sky that evaporated en­chantingly as we drew near. Frustratingly . . . yet I felt that I could run forever. I could keep right on through life, the life that fate or the gods had decreed. Nothing could stop me now until my appointed time.

One week left. The punishment had reached its zenith, but the fittest had survived. We could not be vanquished, and The Pig had attained his grand objective. The end was nigh at hand, and we who had prevailed felt a powerful camaraderie. Nakamura was like a brother—frank, some­times outspoken, courageous, yet also highly empathic. How I admired him. Oka and Yamamoto invariably lifted our spirits. Irrepressible, they always rallied, seeming to take strength from each other, then imparting it to the rest of us, even in the face of disaster. Gokudo—great pranksters, both of them—the ultimate extroverts.

By now, strangely enough, some of the punishment itself had become humorous. Occasionally, when our hancho were in their more mischievous moods, they would put us through routines that were far more ludicrous than painful. One of Sakigawa’s favorites was to have a recruit climb atop his wall locker where he would squat, legs crossed, arms folded like a meditative Buddah. He was then expected to maintain that position while one, sometimes two, hancho shook the locker violently, jarring and teetering it erratically with greater and greater energy. All this to the accompaniment of loud, almost deafening, metallic clanging and rau­cous laughter from everyone present. Sooner or later the hapless recruit would tumble to the floor, and anyone not agile enough by now to light on his feet was offered no pity and spared no scorn.

Occasionally also we were ordered to climb a tree near our barracks. We then had to roost there for ten or fifteen minutes, making high – pitched humming sounds like those of a cicada. This undertaking, like the preceding one was not only amusing to our hancho but also to the rest of us. I remember especially Oka laughing hysterically and slapping his leg while Yamamoto hummed piercingly away in the branches above.

"Ah jo!” The Snake growled, unable to stifle his own laughter, and the cuff was half hearted. “If you like it that much, you’d better try it yourself.” Oka promptly went up the tree like a squirrel, then perched near Yamamoto, wildly trying to out-hum him. It was indeed hilarious, and those unable to contain their laughter were also ordered up the tree. Soon the branches were clustered with recruits, myself included, all emitting the weirdest sound I have ever heard.

And now, as the end drew nigh our punishment diminished. Our initial trial by fire was over, and it was also rumored that the base com­mander wanted us to look hearty and healthy during our coming leave.

Remarkably, The Pig—Hancho Noguchi—whom many of us had sworn to kill, invited the men from the most outstanding barracks to his home in Kure for a sukiyaki dinner! Remarkably also, that barracks was my own! What a weird reversal! The man we had most dreaded, the man who had been largely responsible for our constant fear and misery, for the suicide of nine of our comrades, was now honoring us in his very home. We were respected guests!

Noguchi’s wife was surprisingly young and very lovely—a perfect hostess-and his two children, a boy and girl, ages five and seven, were charming. For nearly two hours we sat there on the tatami around a large, oval table while his wife filled our bowls again and again with her cuisine or replenished our sake cups.

Throughout it all, The Pig chatted pleasantly, occasionally cracking jokes at which we laughed most dutifully. Vainly I strove to comprehend this strange turn of events, the man’s new persona. For once he seemed perfectly genuine, and in none of his conversation could I detect the faintest sarcasm or sinister nuance.

When The Pig spoke of punishment, he addressed us as if we were confidantes who not only empathized but fully concurred. Wiping his mouth politely and sipping his sake, he confided “In one respect it is unfortunate that our trainees must undergo such duress. However—” His sigh seemed one of honest regret. “I myself have no recourse but to obey our commanding officer, while he, in turn, must obey those above him. And so it goes all the way to our Imperial Military Headquarters, to the Daihonei. The very foundation of a successful military operation is obedience, all along the chain of command.”

Pausing, he glanced down obliquely across his cheek bones, thrusting his chin out truculently. “Loyalty! Performance of one’s duty! No matter how formidable the requirement may appear. Even to the forfeiting of life itself. Indeed, the forfeiting of life becomes our grand and ultimate privilege.”

All of us nodded sagely. Then, in a somewhat lighter tone, he re­curred to his earlier reflections regarding chain of command: “The Diahonei becomes unhappy with their commanding officers and rep­rimands them, the commanding officers become unhappy with those under them and do the same. And so it goes, on down to the hancho and non-coms. The hancho take it out on their trainees. . . and what do the poor trainees do, Kuwahara?” Firing an unexpected glance my way, he actually winked! I grinned bemusedly, shaking my head. “The trainee goes home on leave and kicks his dog!” he explained.

The Pig slapped his thigh, laughing uproariously, and the rest of us joined in. His beautiful wife tittered, a sound of enchantment, and glanced down shyly, placing a tiny, exquisite hand to her mouth. “So. . . .” he continued chewing a mouthful of sukiyaki rigorously and swilling in half a cup of sake to wash it down. “So, my friends, obviously punishment is indispensable. Indispensable! It is the oil that makes the machinery work.” Another great mouthful with the chop sticks, another draught of sake. I was beginning to understand, in more ways than one, how The Pig had acquired his name.

“Sad to say, very few are born with the true spirit of Yamato. His eyebrows leapt, eyeballs swelling in mock amazement. “Ah hah! Does that disturb you?” Noguchi continued to devour his food for some time without further comment, and it appeared that he had lost his trend of thought. But not so. “You acquire that spirit! You earn the samurai spirit through much hardship! By responding to that hardship with grand and glorious fortitude, until ultimately you attain. . . .” The dramatic pause this time was most marvelous to behold, extraordinarily impressive.

“Invincibility!”

The word was like a thunder clap, a revelation, and suddenly the blood in my veins had turned to liquid fire. “So now,” he continued very quietly. “Have I been cruel to my shinpei!” Or have I rendered them an inestimable service?” For a long time he stared into the dark, lacquered surface of the table, lips pursed in profound introspection. What he sought there, what he might descry, I did not know.

Then to my utter and ultimate astonishment, I detected a tiny drop of moisture coursing down his cheek. A tear? Could that possibly be so? Or merely a drop of sweat? The night was exceptionally warm and humid. “You must be the judge.” His voice was scarcely audible. “The manner in which you answer that question will determine your future. . . your destiny.”

Noguchi discussed the matter no further that evening. Instead, he spoke of philosophy, poetry, of music. His home was filled with books, also what appeared to be costly paintings, and he expatiated upon a wide variety of subjects with impressive ease and insight. His wife then graciously played the koto, singing in a quivering, haunting, at times exquisitely lyrical, voice that caused my skin to tingle. First, the popular Kojo-no-tsuki then an ancient song I had never heard before.

There in that dimly lit room, the flowers on her kimono seemed to glow with enchantment and mystery, and the shadows on her face and hands had turned to quiet green. Half closing my lids, I watched the curve of her cheek, the delicate nostrils, how her brow vanished in the ebon flow of her hair. By squinting, I could make her hair blend with the darkness, leaving only the face, the moving lips, and line of her neck.

Glancing at the others, I realized that they too were spellbound. I watched the woman’s graceful fingers moving along the koto strings as it lay on the table before her like the coffin of a young child. And by wishing very hard, I could obliterate everyone else in the room. Nogu­chi, my comrades. . . all gone. Now we were alone together, and soon, I would draw close, looking into those liquid eyes. And when the songs had faded, she would slowly gaze at me, her face full of sorrow and im­mense longing, of tender inquiry. Then. . . then, her lips would flow and arch in welcome, barely exposing the white of her teeth. Her hand, her heavenly hand, would reach out across the still-vibrant strings of the koto to touch my own, and the intonations would blend within us.

But now, the music had ended. It was time to go, and we were bow­ing to The Pig, our gracious host, thanking him profusely. . . bowing, bowing. His wife, in turn, was bowing to us, laughing with the shrill, tinkling notes of a little girl, notes that were also ripe and womanly. Her laughter was not of amusement but rather the laughter of graciousness. Again, she acknowledged each of us with a bow as we filed out—each of us exactly the same.

She was unaware of how close I had sat beside her, how she had reached out to me when no one else was there.

The Lonely Place

A

short while later I covered the remaining distance to Formosa, and landed at Taihoku, the main base. Then, with scarcely a moment’s rest, and only a perfunctory inspection of my wounded air­craft, I flew as directed to a smaller base close by near Kiirun. There I remained for nearly two weeks because of insufficient fuel. Yes, conditions were now that desperate. The bases in Formosa consuming their final rations. Barely enough fuel for the suicides who left each day.

Despite my exhaustion, however, my first concern upon landing was my aircraft. During the months, and now especially, I had developed an affection for that ship. My Hayabusa had become a living creature, a loyal and faithful friend I not only understood but also loved. Some­how along the way it had acquired a soul. It had helped me vanquish my enemies and, even when all appeared hopeless, it had persevered, prevailed against the storm.

Parts of the tail assembly and the tip of my right wing had been sheared off, and several bullet holes in the fuselage had left gaps two to three inches in diameter where they exited. The motor itself had stopped lead but amazingly, merely faltered for a time.

In addition, there were two holes through my canopy. One bullet had gashed the dome, and another had pierced the glass only an inch or two above my head. How close, how very close! What a slender, wavering path we tread between life and death!

My plane, in any event, was still functional, seemingly almost invul­nerable, and upon landing at the assigned base I rested beside it for a time in the shade of some palm trees on the airstrip’s edge. Never, even during my most arduous days in basic training, had I been so exhausted. I would make my report in due time when I felt ready, but at the moment I seemed to be dissolving.

Two mechanics were approaching in the distance, and across the concrete runway preparations were underway for the next day’s mission. Obviously, the area had been bombed a short time earlier, and crews were still filling in the remaining craters, packing the dirt down with antiquated steamrollers. Drained now, almost to the point of stupor, I lay back at the jungle’s edge, my head resting upon my folded flight jacket, waiting for the mechanics.

The air was hot and humid, and I was already covered with sweat. What would it be like, I wondered vaguely, to be a mechanic, simply to repair planes instead of flying them? Not so long ago the very thought had filled me with scorn. Lately, though, I had begun to view the mat­ter quite differently. What a simple, pleasant life, freed from the eternal stress and anxiety, the constant gnawing of fear. The chance to live! For a moment I actually resented the two men approaching me. What a luxury—the right to live!

I closed my eyes, and saw the face of Toyoko, the smile and her own eyes filled with that incredible tenderness and compassion. I heard her words: “The war will end! The war will end in time!”

Merely a forlorn hope, or was she on a special wave length, incred­ibly intuitive? Perhaps, all I needed was faith, to be in tune with Toyoko. Had I not only hours ago been miraculously preserved? “Toyoko,” I murmured her name, “Wait for me, Toyoko.”

Suddenly I heard the roar of planes, approaching at tremendous speed, and seconds later the keening of an air raid alarm. Without the slightest additional warning, Hellcats came thundering off the jungle roof, swarming upon us in waves of five. I bolted upright, staring as the two mechanics dashed my way heading for cover. The distant construc­tion crew scattered in every direction, but they were too late. Already the first flights were opening up, spraying the area voraciously with their guns.

I watched as bullets stitched and spattered the concrete, casting up lethal little puffs of dust, overtaking half a dozen fugitives, reducing them to shattered corpses in an instant. Suddenly, aware of my own vulnerabil­ity, I struggled to my feet and staggered blindly into the jungle. Hurling myself to the earth, I lay there panting, peering back in time to see one of the mechanics plunging into the underbrush nearby. The second was less fortunate, trapped in a hail of lead just short of cover, upended and rolled violently for several yards as though hit by a truck.

Four men, including the two driving steam rollers, had escaped the first two waves and were feigning death in the middle of the field, but their ruse was futile. A third wave of Hellcats, bellowing low across the strip, ravaged them unmercifully with their guns. I saw the bodies writhe and roll, one of them half rising to twist and sprawl face down convulsing.

The enemy fighters cavorted about, uncontested, blasting everything in sight, having a marvelous time. Not the slightest protest or most feeble attempt to retaliate. A hanger was flaming now, disgorging billows of brown and black smoke. A line of obsolete Kamikaze planes and several escort fighters were ripped to shards, some exploding and burning.

Finally, their ammunition spent, the enemy planes circled, arching above the flames and through the rising smoke, climbing triumphantly into the blue, sunlight exploding and scintillating like immense blow torches from their windshields.

Furtively, I crept from the undergrowth to inspect my Hayabusa, but it had escaped detection there in the shadow of the jungle. Then, weary beyond all measure, so weary the destruction on every hand scarcely registered, I wandered across the field to make my report. Who I would report to or where, I didn’t know. Perhaps there was no headquarters left.

Tomorrow there would probably be more attacks, more deaths, more aircraft demolished. But now I wanted only one thing—to report in and be assigned a place to sleep—anywhere. Eventually, I discovered the orderly room, still in tact, and half an hour later, dead on my feet, I collapsed on a dirty cot against a wall between two rusty lockers. Nearby some men were playing cards at a table, laughing boisterously at times as if the war had never come. The room was thick with cigarette smoke, blue swirls so dense I could scarcely discern their faces. It didn’t matter. The entire base still reeked with smoke. Nothing mattered.

How long since I had seen her? Days? Weeks? Surely not that very morning. Tatsuno? I saw his gray and faded countenance, the enigmatic smile. . . his Mitsubishi knifing downward… the wounded ship, wallowing and swallowed in the waves. The leering giants of the storm. But where was Nakamura? Who knew? Gone forever perhaps. . . the feeling in his bones. Uno and Kimura and the rest of our escorts. Gone?

I sighed, flung my forearm across my brow, dreamed deliriously, mind and soul resonating with sound and violence, swirling irresistibly on the vast and drifting panoply of the ocean, horizon upon horizon, always the beyond and the beyond and the beyond.

Once I surfaced upon the rim of some immeasurable significance, moaning and mumbling incoherently, pleading for the answer. I remem­ber emerging, bathed in the stifling dampness, my body fairly steaming, and hearing a voice: “Take it easy, fighter pilot. Just relax.” Someone was wiping my face and arms with a damp cloth. “Just relax.” Now he was actually fanning me with a towel, and I drifted off again, this time into blessed emptiness.

For two weeks I remained at that remote spot as an instructor for their Kamikaze. What a unique and dire assignment, actually teaching men how to die. The rationale behind it all, the great and mysterious “Why”, I left to others. No longer could I find a respectable answer. It would require the ultimate miracle of miracles to reverse the fortunes of war now, a miracle beyond the most fantastic imagination. The handwriting was upon the wall, and the wall was crumbling rapidly. We were merely dying for the sake of dying.

Honor? What honor? Why? Increasingly now, images returned of my friend Shiro Nomoto, there in the white hospital bed, his leg gone, seeing the face of his mother, and hearing her words: “Listen to me, my sons. . . there is nothing honorable in dying for a lost cause.”

But daily the condemned men left to perform their own execution. An­other and another. . . and another. . . . I bade them my pathetic farewells, watched them rise above the burning concrete, above the dark and secret jungle, circling the field and waggling their wings in a last sayonara.

Two hours after their departure, signal men at the base would listen for the high, long-drawn beeping noise swelling their eustachian tubes and piercing their ear drums—signals that the attack was underway. Then, often in less than a minute, like scissors cutting a taut cord, the sound would end. Silence. . . oblivion. Sayonara, you loyal hopeless sons of Nihon. Mere memories now.

I did not learn what had become of our other escorts, my com­panions at Okinawa, for several days. Uno was the only one who had returned to Oita. Nakamura and Kimura had vanished, and I had also been reported missing in action initially. Uno had seen me plunging toward the convoy, Hellcats close behind, and had assumed the worst. Appropriately, for the worst had only seemed reasonable. There was still a remote possibility that Nakamura and Kimura had escaped as I had, perhaps landing on some island along the Ryuku chain extending southwest below Kyushu. But very doubtful.

Nakamura. At my last glimpse of him, he was gunning down the enemy, but something beyond mere assumption told me that he was gone now, gone like the true samurai. Yes, truly, gone. My sorrow? It was only an ongoing numbness. Perhaps some day the numbness would subside, blossoming into the black flower of pain.

So all my friends had entered the unknown now, and I waited alone in the sultry afternoons of Formosa, watching daily as our Kamikaze de­parted, some of them pilots younger than I with little training or skill. Death hovered in the very atmosphere, in the odor of smoke, gasoline, and oil that never fully dissipated, in the coppery smell of newly flow­ing blood. Or was it only there within my brain cells? No matter, it was always present.

Always there, even on those afternoons as I wandered an empty beach, sometimes swam in the ocean, wondering if the tide might take me out beyond the point of no return. Drowning itself seemed a mild and uneventful death these days, almost pleasurable. At times I sat upon the shore, letting the tide glide up about my feet, fading in its endless and fizzing, miniscule bubbles, each bubble transient like life itself. But always, the odor of death.

Unending thoughts of Toyoko. In all likelihood she thought I was dead now, or perhaps she had checked with the base and discovered that I was still alive. Again, maybe she had decided I was indeed far too young, that it would be better to end things. After all, nearly seven years separated us in terms of age. Perhaps she had returned to her lieutenant in Fukuoka and worked things out. How strange to think that we had known each other only a few short weeks, that we had known each other at all. It was only part of the fond and foolish dream, a mirage lost far behind in the ocean.

The day before my departure eight suicides racketed into the sky, wheeling broadly, dipping their wings, and headed out. Then, strangely, one of them circled back, angling it seemed for a landing. For a moment I thought he was experiencing engine trouble, but I was wrong. “He’ll never make it!” a voice cried. “Coming in too steep! Too fast!”

“Heading for the hangar!” someone else yelled. “Do something!”

“Do what? I shouted angrily.

“Fire engines!” Another shout.

An instant later I hit the concrete as the plane ripped into the hangar in a deafening, brain-numbing explosion, erupting in a huge, red-orange fireball. In mere seconds the entire hangar was a ablaze, belching smoke black as the pit and vanquishing the sun. Sirens wailed. Men scrambled, shouting and swearing. Within only two or three minutes a fire truck was on hand, spraying the flames with a long, arching stream of water, but it was like trying to extinguish a bonfire with a squirt gun. The entire effort, in fact, seemed almost farcical.

I watched calmly, disdainful of their clumsy efforts, but suddenly the adjoining hangar erupted as well in a whole series of explosions, and the fire crew staggered back, stumbling over themselves, over the hose which, freed from their grasp, lashed about like a wounded python, spraying everything in sight, knocking men from their feet, even as they struggled to arise.

Fantastically, the detonations continued—fireball after fireball, fiendish in their brilliance and ferocity, and already the smoke was so intense the day had become night. Thousands of gallons, almost all that was left of our fuel reserves were going, and now our remaining fighters. Never yet had I seen or heard anything like it, and for some reason I was feeling a remarkable sense of exhilaration, literal jubilation!

The fire and smoke gradually subsided a bit but persisted for nearly two hours, and when at length the sun reappeared, it looked wan and surrealistic, the color of tarnished silver.

Afterward, a note was discovered which the dead pilot had left in a sealed envelope with one of his companions as he departed, instructing him to read it an hour later. Penned that morning, it contained some terse observations regarding Japan’s hopeless plight and the futility of war. The conclusion read as follows:

“My fellow comrades, by the time you read these words I will be gone. Please do not judge me harshly or in anger. What is done is done for good reason. Perhaps someday our leaders and people everywhere will come to understand the insanity of war. For now, I pray that my own miserable efforts will enable others here to live. Our country’s sur­render is at the doors, and by the time you read these words there will be fewer planes for men to waste their lives in and far less fuel for any who remain.”

Fortunately or unfortunately (I will never be sure), my Hayabusa had been repaired and fueled before the grand destruction, parked, hidden with several others to escape enemy detection within a fringe of trees and undergrowth near the spot where I had originally landed. The following morning I winged off over the jungle, leaving that wretched, lonely place forever.

Brief Reunion

S

o now, at last, my basic training was over. On the one hand it seemed that time had evaporated, as though I had only arrived a few days ago. On the other, in light of all that had happened, it seemed that I had been at Hiro for a great while, an entire year at least.

More importantly, one way or another, I had done it. They had not broken me. At times they had come close, admittedly, but somehow I had clung on through worse trials than I could have previously imag­ined. I had prevailed.

On the morning our leave commenced, Hiro’s Commanding Officer assembled us on the parade ground for a brief graduation address. He spoke quite generously of our accomplishments, what we had learned and why. We had been drilled daily in the basics of combat, and we were no longer the timid, whimpering juveniles of the first few weeks. We could withstand pain, and now we could not be defeated in battle without great difficulty. It was, he admitted, unfortunate that some had died, but those deaths had served a good purpose, all been part of the grand design to toughen the rest of us. Those deaths had also helped us to realize that the weakest were always the most expendable.

A light mist was lacing the base that morning, but as our commander spoke, it dispersed, revealing the rising sun. The rising sun! Surely it was an omen. Our commander was a small man, but vigilant and intense, like a finely honed razor, and his entire bearing reflected confidence and power. Each gesture was unique, memorable, emphatic.

We watched as the sun gathered about him, gleaming from the eagle insignias upon the visor of his cap and upon his lapels. When he had finished, fifty basic trainees chanted the main precepts of the Imperial Rescript without error. As our words poured forth I could hear the throb of planes in the distance—the two sounds merging and expanding, a symbol of our new-found strength. Suddenly I was part of something grand, something of immense and indescribable significance. There in the rising sun, I knew that the Imperial Way would not fail. I knew that it was destined to encompass the earth.

So now, it was over. I was returning to Onomichi on my two-day leave before flying school. My family and several friends were gathered at the train station for the long-awaited welcome. “Toshifumi will be here this evening to see you!” Tomika babbled joyfully.

“Toshifumi? All the way from Tokyo, just to see me?” I ex­claimed.

“Well, perhaps your brother will at least say hello to the rest of us,” Father said. That was the closest he ever came to levity, and we all laughed heartily. Life at that moment was too good to be real. Two whole days, blessed days, with my family, my relatives, my friends. And upon my return to Hiro, it would not be as a green and helpless shinpei. I would be prepared.

Our home had never looked so beautiful. It was nearing the end of April, and the cherry trees in our back yard were blossoming—ev – erywhere throughout the entire area, tiny celestial explosions of white blossoms. The garden walls were wreathed in multi-colored azaleas, and the fields were turning bright green. It was difficult to believe that we were at war, under attack, and that soon I would be a participant.

Upon entering the house, I visited briefly with my family, talked in general, rather evasively, about life at Hiro. Then I headed for the bath. Minutes later I was seated on a short-legged stool in theyudono vigorously

soaping myself when Tomika called to me outside the door. “Brother,” her voice chimed, “Do you want to have your back washed?”

“Yes!” I called. It seemed more fitting than ever that a woman should wash my back now. After all, I had become a man. I hunched over, hugging my knees as she entered, exposing only my rounded back. What occurred next was totally unexpected.

Tomika gasped, crying out. “Yasuo, what have they done to your back?” I had momentarily forgotten about the lash marks, but it was good to have her make something of the matter.

“Oh, that’s nothing at all. Those are merely reminders of a little game we learned,” I replied.

Unfortunately, my words were not to be passed off so lightly, and I had not anticipated their full effect. Concern, certainly, but my sister softly traced her fingers over the wounds then burst into tears. “My brother, my own little brother!” she wept.

“Tomika, I’m all right,” I insisted. “Stop crying, it’s all right!” The weeping continued. “Stop, I can barely even feel them. I hardly even flinched when they—” The wrong words, and I had cut them off too late. Tears flowing down her cheeks, Tomika stumbled into the adjoin­ing alcove and cast herself onto the tatami wailing.

Hearing the commotion, Mother rushed into the room with an expression of great alarm. “What’s wrong?” she exclaimed.

“It’s nothing Mother,” I replied, almost angrily. “Just a few sores on my back.” Mother cautioned Tomika to be silent, peered in at me in shocked silence. Upon entering, she began soaping my back very gently. Then she scooped a little water from the steaming bath with the wooden dipper and cautiously poured a small amount on one shoulder.

“Atsui?” she asked.

“Hai” I admitted, “a little hot,” and caught my breath as the water trickled down my back into the drain. The scars were still very new and tender, a blend of pink and gray-blue, the color of earthworms.

Gently mother laid a scented towel over my back, pouring the water through it with even greater care. “All right? Better?”

“Hai!” I nodded, “much better. It was a procedure she had followed many times before when I was a child, and it brought me great comfort.

By now Tomika had regained her composure, but her cheeks still glistened. “I’m sorry,” she murmured. “It was just that—”

“I understand,” Mother intoned. “Everything’s going to be all right. Just be very careful, getting into the bath, Yasuo. It may be too much for those tender, sore areas.” A tear sparkled in her own eye. Shortly thereafter they left me to my bath. “Just be very careful getting in,” Mother repeated.

Cleansed and rinsed, restored to complete privacy for the first time since I had departed that winter, I eased into the waiting cauldron. I gasped as the water accosted my first lash mark. The scar seemed to writhe and cry out with a life of its own, almost renewing the pain of its origin. But, after all, I told myself, I had learned to withstand much worse trials, and I refused to be denied my bath. It was something I had dreamed of almost every night after our punishment was over.

Grimacing, and gritting my teeth, I lowered myself with utmost care, inch by inch, lash by lash, feeling the pain renew itself then dissipate. Eventually, after several minutes, I was in up to my neck, the pain ebb­ing, replaced by pleasure. . . bliss, euphoria. Langorous. . . exhausted beyond measure, I entered my own little nirvana.

Half an hour later, I emerged, barely able to drag myself from the water, lying there for a time, half in half out, as the cold floor restored reality. Weakly, I dried myself, donned myyukata and slippers and shuf­fled up the stairs to my room. For a moment I gazed from my window at the mountains. My eyelids closed as I kneeled there, clinging to the window ledge. I blinked, seeing a great gyrating flight of starlings, light glittering along their wings. Or was it merely dancing spots, a visual aberration, or hallucination?

No matter. My family and friends were gathering, and there was so much to say and do. So little time. But not now, for I was barely able to crawl beneath the futon, barely able to feel its caressing warmth, its infinite softness and lightness. Sleep was a dark and slowly whirling vortex that carried me irresistibly downward.

When I revived, the sun was beginning its descent, infusing my room with gold For a while I lay there blinking, yawned and stretched. The gold welled, achingly beautiful, and unexpectedly, without the slightest forewarning, I began to sob.

An instant later I heard my door glide partly open on its rollers. No mistaking Tomika’s excited whispers, but who was with her? Someone. Wiping my eyes against the futon, I bolted upright. And there he was, handsome and smiling, his hand on Tomika’s shoulder, a mischievous glint in his eye. “Toshifumi!” I cried. “You came! All the way from Tokyo!” I greatly hoped that he could not detect the moisture in my eyes.

Grinning more broadly, he squatted beside me and roughed my head. “Hello, hage channuf he said, referring to my ragged, close-cropped hair. “So now. . .” He was eyeing me quizzically, “You’ve changed. You’re almost a man.”

The word “almost” hurt, even made me a trifle angry, but I beamed back. “I hope so,” I said. Toshifumi again, after two whole years. He was not the same person who had so often grappled and cavorted with our brother Shigeru before the war. Now, dignified and handsome with a hawk-like profile, he looked more like father than ever. There was even a faint white streak in his hair—rare for a Japanese his age.

Following a brief visit, he went downstairs, leaving me to dress. An hour or so later my uncle and aunt arrived from Innoshima. My return was becoming quite an event, and despite the scarcity of food, Mother and Tomika had prepared a feast with all my favorite delicacies.

How touched I was by their devotion. Again, I struggled to restrain the tears. Never before had I felt such emotional fragility. In 1944, food was heavily rationed, and Mother and Tomika had walked two or three miles into the country the day before my return to obtain whole, polished rice from a farmer—a precious commodity which he refused to relinquish for mere money. Instead, Tomika had given him one of the beautiful and costly kimono which was to have been a part of her dowry. Then they had trudged all the way home, carrying the bags of rice on their backs.

An exceptional act of devotion, and I thanked them most earnestly. When I mentioned Tomika’s sacrifice she smiled and replied. “It is noth­ing, nothing at all. Anyway, by the time a man takes me for his wife I will have accumulated dozens of kimono”

“Oh come now!” Toshifumi chuckled, trapping a small pickle with his chop sticks and popping it into his mouth. ‘There are plenty of men

who would be elated to have you. Just wait!”

Tomika smiled wistfully, and her gaze fled to her lap. “I am wait­ing,” she said, “and I am already twenty-six years old.”

“Tomika shall have a husband in due course,” Father declared and proceeded with his food. “When we find one worthy—one of proper sta­tion.” He chewed methodically, sipped his tea. “But I refuse to consider that fawning. . . ah, what’s his name? For one thing, his gestures are effeminate in the extreme. I find them highly exasperating. Furthermore, his voice—”

“Must you humiliate your daughter before our relatives?” Mother chided. Her words reflected much courage, but before Father could reply, Tomika arose, hiding her burning face, making swift little steps toward the door.

“Tomika, come back here!” Father commanded. “I merely speak the truth—don’t be so touchy.”

After a moment Tomika returned and sat staring at her plate.

This was hardly the mood I had hoped for, and for the first time I actually felt vexed with my father. It was not my place to speak out, however, so I changed the subject. “By the way, where is Reiko?” I inquired.

“Oh, we had to let her go,” Mother answered quietly. She smiled at my aunt and uncle a bit ruefully. “Well, I mean it just seemed an extravagance with the war going on and on like this. . . and only the three of us at home now.”

“Yasuo,” my uncle said, “why don’t you share some of your experi­ences at Hiro with us? How did you like your training?”

I hesitated. “My training. . . .” I groped for words.

“My training was. . . challenging—highly educational.” Something of an understatement, of course, and everyone laughed as though we all shared an amusing secret.

Afterward, while our women attended to work in the kitchen and their own private concerns, the rest of us talked further of my training, of the war, the military experiences of my father and uncle, of Toshifumi’s dental practice in Tokyo.

That evening when my relatives had departed I received a visit from Tatsuno. During our separation he had sent me two letters, neither of

which I had answered. Obviously, there had been little opportunity for such things, but I certainly could have sent him a brief note. Somehow, though, each time I considered doing so something had stopped me. Probably it stemmed from my feeling that Tatsuno, despite his courage, was too sensitive for such an environment. He seemed too much like poor Miyagame, the recruit who had hanged himself in the latrine.

Nevertheless, he would soon be there and would have already arrived had he not torn the ligaments in his arm during a glider training mishap at school. Consequently, I felt obliged to offer him some advice. “It will be very hard,” I confessed, but remember that the first two months are the toughest, so start getting in condition right now. The stronger you are the easier it will be.”

“Hai!” he exclaimed and nodded vigorously.

“Seriously,” I said, “it will make a big difference. As soon as your arm’s better, start doing push-ups. Do them about five times a day and build up to at least fifty each set. And how’s your endurance? If you can double-time three or four miles when you go in, that will help a lot too.” I then stressed the importance of being respectful to his hancho and avoiding actions that would attract unnecessary attention.

“Remember not to make any noise no matter what when they hit you in the rear with a ball bat, or you’ll just get more. And don’t move. Just cling onto the rail and grit your teeth. And when they start to slam your face against the wall, just tilt your head forward a little. Not so it’s noticeable, though, or they’ll do it again twice as hard. “Just do it a little,” I persisted. That way you’ll get a bump on your forehead, but it won’t mangle your nose and mouth very much. And another thing. . . tell everybody in your barracks to write home and warn their families not to bring them special treats when they come to visit. If even one recruit gets something and tries to hide it, believe me, your hancho will find out, and there will be serious trouble.”

I decided to avoid the details, for suddenly Tatsuno’s face was gray. “I’m sorry,” I said, and felt guilty. On the other hand, I’d have felt far more guilty had I failed to prepare him in some measure. “You’ll get through it all right,” I assured him, trying hard to believe my own words. “Just take it one day at a time.” I shrugged. “After all, what about me? Don’t I look all right?”

“You look terrific,” he said. His tone sounded slightly envious. “But your face has quite a few sores and scars.”

“A few,” I admitted, “but I’m perfectly all right, and if I can make it through and come out this well, so can you. Besides, when we’re flying those fighter planes we’ll be tough as sumo wrestlers.”

Tatsuno laughed. “But not as big and fat.”

“Right—lean and hard, muscles from our toes to our nose! Seriously, we’ll be ready for anything.”

Tatsuno’s smile became mournful, the expression in his eyes un­certain. “Yasuo,” he said, “remember how we used to dream of flying together—fighter pilots, in the same squadron?”

“Of course,” I said, “and we will.”

Tatsuno shook his head. “I doubt it. You’re already too far ahead of me.”

“Well, we might not end up in the same squadron,” I admitted, “but we’ll both be flying—that’s what matters most.”

Again he shook his head. “Yasuo,” he said, “I’m afraid. I really wonder whether I can make it through that first three months.”

“You’ll make it,” I insisted. “Don’t you think I was afraid at first. Everybody is; I don’t care who. And three months seems like a long time in the beginning, but now I can’t believe where it’s gone. “You’ll make it through as well or better than I did. Then before you know it, you’ll be in fighter school.”

“It sounds good,” he said.

“It is good,” I persisted. “Besides, we’ve always been a winning team, haven’t we? We’ll be flying together yet, Tatsu-kun, I can feel it.”

“I hope so,” he said. “Well, I’d better let you get back to your family.” He gave me a pat on the shoulder and I clasped his forearm. “Thanks for coming, tomodachi.” I said. “You’re my best friend ever.”

“Arigato,” he said, “the same to you,” and started down the stairs. “See you later.”

“Right,” I nodded. “In the morning. I’ll be coming by the school.”

The sudden attention of family, relatives and friends was most grati­fying, and I was fast becoming a hero. During my first day at home I had uttered all the patriotic platitudes that were expected. I had felt a powerful surge of determination and courage, and I was viewing the hell of basic in a different light.

Later that night, having talked again at length with Father and To- shifumi, I went to my room tingling with pride and elation. From my open window, I gazed at the rising moon. It hung there in the sky as it had the night of my first departure—evanescent and faintly glowing like a thin, silver bracelet. As I lay back and drifted off to sleep, Hiro seemed very remote, strangely unreal. For the moment I was totally at peace.

The following morning my school friends greeted me as though I had already performed deeds of great valor. Daily before classes a general assembly was held in the auditorium. During my visit, however, the announcements were dispensed with, and I was asked to address the students. The thought of speaking extemporaneously was frighten­ing, but several insistent teachers ushered me forward amid much loud cheering and laughter.

To my surprise, I spoke rather easily for about ten minutes. I never mentioned The Pig, taiko binta, the deserters, or suicides. One simply did not refer to such things in public. Instead, I described the rigors of combat training, of the great conditioning, and talked of the classwork. I spoke of our divine heritage as sons and daughters of Nippon, of our future, and of the obligation of all able-bodied young men to serve their country. Closing, I bowed to a rousing ovation.

Our weathered old principal Hori-kacho then addressed us briefly in his familiar, quavering voice as follows: “This school is honored and proud to have helped mold such outstanding citizens. We will follow Yasuo Kuwahara’s future accomplishments with constant interest, and we will all rejoice as he continues to discharge his sacred obligation to our Emperor and to the glorious nation of Nippon. May all of you here today note with care his stellar example and follow in his path.”

I left Onomichi High School unaware that my next and only return would be under very different circumstances.

The remainder of that day I visited a few friends, one of whom was soon to enter the marines. Then I spent the final hours with my family, and we spoke for some time about my brother Shigeru. No word from him for weeks, and our concern was increasing. As a captain in the counter-intelligence in Java, he could reveal little regarding his work. A few months earlier, however, one of his rare messages indicated that he was well but also concluded as follows: “If you should not hear from me again, I will await your visit to the Yasukuni Jinja”—the national shrine for Japan’s military dead.

Shortly after supper we saw Toshifumi off on his train for Tokyo. My leave had vanished with inconceivable speed. I had barely found time to relax and breathe normally, and now it was over. Just before midnight I bid Tomika and Mother sayonara—for the third time in three months. Even though I was returning with greater confidence, the anxiety was mounting again, and I concluded that farewells never become much easier.

Father accompanied me to the station where, to my amazement, a crowd of some two hundred and fifty students were awaiting me, a brass band playing. Shouts arose at our approach, and a cordon of friends pressed in to clasp my hand and offer their best wishes. Father had never looked more proud.

I was also presented with gifts including the school pendant and sev­eral autographed flags of Japan. Some of those students had actually cut their own fingers and signed their names with blood in a token of eternal friendship. I was to wear these mementos as scarves into battle, and now only minutes remained.

“Well,” I said and glanced at the train nervously. “Maybe I’d better. .

“Yasuo!” someone called. It was Tatsuno, there on the crowd’s fringe, wriggling toward me. In a moment we were clasping each other like brothers. “I’ll be seeing you soon, Tatsuno-kun,” I said. “Don’t forget what I told you.”

“Speech, Kuwahara, speech!” someone bellowed, and several oth­ers chimed in.

“I gave my speech already,” I told them. “This morning!”

“Yes, but we need one now!” The band was playing “Light of The Firefly”—a bit blatantly and off key, but it brought back a tide of memories, and my eyes began to smart. Watching their smiling faces, I mumbled, “I hope many of you will follow me. Until then—sayonara”

The conductor’s voice was a plaintive, nasal twang, sounding de­parture amid the flurry of goodbyes from my friends. Moments later the train was click-clacking toward Hiro, gaining momentum, and I was still hearing my father’s parting admonition: “In all things be sure to conduct yourself with honor, my son. Remember now that your life is no longer your own. If you should ever fall into dishonor, do not return to bring unhappiness and shame upon us. Live proudly, fight gloriously. Should you die. . . I will have a grave prepared.” Gripping my hand fiercely and gazing into my eyes, he inquired, “Do you know my heart?”

As the train tunneled onward into the night I watched my own re­flection in the window— a transparent ghost of myself through which I could see the receding lights of town. Suddenly I felt a profound need to remember everything, to lodge somewhere in my mind and heart a picture of the past. Family, friends, places. . . the ocean on a wintry day, fishermen with their nets, the sunlight and lofting winds of Mt. Ikoma, greening rice fields, the moon balanced upon our trellis, and the smell of azaleas. All that and much more—a poignant need to store it all away in some special place, safe from the ravages of war and the erosion of time.

Lighter than a Feather

I

t was the last of June, 1945, when I landed again at Oita. I had flown back through China, crossing over the East China Sea to avoid American fighters.

Frantic to see Toyoko, I rushed to the orderly room to report in. How would she react upon seeing me? Had she discovered that I was still alive? Perhaps, but Oita had merely received an official communication regarding my survival, one that might not be revealed to anyone outside the base. Furthermore, as I had discovered a day or two earlier, none of my personal letters to her or to my family had ever left Formosa. The mail in that area was largely inoperative.

The desk sergeant glanced up indifferently when I entered as though I had never left the base. “You’re to report to the commanding officer immediately, Kuwahara,” he said.

I stared at him. “Immediately?”

“Yes, immediately!”

Dumbfounded, I turned and shuffled out the door. My excitement had changed to dread, but there was nothing to do except clean up and change as quickly as possible.

There in the barracks countless thoughts surged through my mind. I had supposed that Uno’s report two weeks ago was sufficient. What more could I tell Captain Tsubaki than he had already learned? Soon I was striding across the base at an ever increasing pace. What could he want? Not even giving me time to catch my breath? Didn’t the man have any idea what I’d been through? That I had just flown all the way from Formosa?

Upon entering Tsubaki’s office, I found him deeply preoccupied with a great pile of paper work, and for a moment he failed to acknowledge my presence. Nevertheless, I reported crisply in the prescribed manner and held my salute.

Seconds later the Captain looked up, gazing at me a bit oddly as though we had never met before. Then, peremptorily, he returned my salute, barely fanning his eyebrow and turned back his papers. “Be seated, Kuwahara,” he said. Eventually he regarded me again, and this time his expression was somewhat different, intensely searching, unnerving. Where, I wondered, had I seen that look before?

“How are conditions in Formosa?” he inquired. Momentarily I was tongue tied, wondering what he expected.

“You mean, Honorable Captain. . .” I mumbled.

“Planes, ammunition, fuel. . . morale! What’s going on there?”

For a second or two I struggled with the urge to be evasive, then decided on bluntness. ‘There is little left of anything,” I said. “Anywhere. Kochi, the base where I was stationed this past two weeks, is dying. Day before yesterday, in fact. . . .” I hesitated.

“What? In fact, what?”

“One of our Kamikaze turned back and dived into the main hangar. The one next to it was full of fuel, and both of them went up along with about twenty fighters.”

“Remarkable,” Tsubaki mused. “But why? Did anyone ever find out?”

“Yes, Honorable Captain. He left a message insisting that we had already lost the war and that he hoped his death would save the lives of others.”

“Remarkable,” Tsubaki repeated, “quite remarkable.” Leaning back, arms folded, he perused the upper walls and part of the ceiling as though searching for an answer. “Rather ironic as well, wouldn’t you say?” I stared at him uncertainly, and he shrugged, holding out his hands. “A Kamikaze, attacking his own military. Isn’t that a bit ironic?”

“Yes, Honorable Captain,” I answered. “I understand what you are saying.”

“So what is your view of the situation?” he asked. “Of the war itself.”

The question shocked me, and for a second or two, I merely looked at him, feeling my throat working. “I am a mere corporal, Honorable Captain,” I finally replied.

“That does not matter!” he insisted, almost angrily. “You have been there at the heart of it. What is your honest, objective view of the war?”

For a moment I faltered, groping for words. “The enemy is triumph­ing, honorable Captain,” I said, and for an awful moment feared I might actually begin crying. Crying in the presence of my commanding officer! Literally a humiliation worse than death. “Everywhere.” I stared hard at the floor, feeling my eyes sting. “Okinawa. . . Formosa. . . everywhere! Soon the enemy will be at our shores, fire bombs from the B-29’s descend­ing upon every city, as they have before upon Tokyo and other places.” I felt the swelling in my throat, the choking sensation. “Nothing remains but the dying.”

The captain made no reply. No sound but the distant droning of mo­tors—omnipresent yet steadily fading, fading more each day it seemed. Etherizing.

“So what is it like out there over Okinawa?” I glanced up. Tsubaki was gazing through the window toward the ocean. Again, I struggled for a reply. “Indescribable I suppose,” he said quietly.

“Yes, Honorable Captain—indescribable.”

“You lost your best friend in that last attack,” Tsubaki observed, and again I felt surprise. Until then I had no idea that he was even aware of my relationship with Tatsuno.

“Yes, honorable Captain. Two of my best friends—Nakamura also I’m afraid.”

Yoshiro Tsubaki nodded, pursing his lips, inhaling deeply. Still the distant gaze, his eyes reflecting the afternoon light, filled with a faint but steady burn­ing. “Mere boys.” He shook his head. “Out there in the sky. . . planes falling apart, and all that fire coming up.”

I waited, merely waited. What was there to say?

“And the enemy? Do you hate the enemy with a burning passion? Long for his annihilation?”

“Sometimes I hate the enemy, Captain,” I replied cautiously. “Some­times. . . .”

“Yes?” Tsubaki’s face welled with perception.

“Sometimes I hate—”

“Our leaders in Tokyo?”

I took a deep breath, feeling my entire body quiver. “Yes!” My voice cracked. “I hate them for what they have done to this nation, for their eternal lies to our people! The Daihonei! Even after the bombs have fallen upon their very heads, their voices will swell up from the ground like sewer gas. ‘All is well, oh people of Japan! Fear not, gullible, stupid people ofJapan! This is all a part of the glorious plan!’” I buried my face in my hands, forcing back the sobs. “Whose plan?” Simultaneously, I was dimly aware that I had spoken rank heresy, words that might well justify a general court martial, even execution. But what did it matter?

At last I glanced up, biting my lower lip. I could feel my own face hardening with hopeless anger. But Tsubaki was again gazing out the window, and his countenance seemed to have aged, grown more haggard with each passing minute. “Mere boys and all that fire coming up,” he repeated. “And I have to send them.”

I waited, felt the growing sense of expectation, inevitability. “Cor­poral Kuwahara. . . .”

“Yes, Honorable Captain.”

“You have seen a lot of war this past year. Much sorrow, much death and destruction. Experienced more than a million other men will experience, in a million years.” I waited. Tsubaki sighed. “Of course, we could have sent you long ago, but you have an excellent record. You have been of great value to your country.”

“Thank you, Honorable Captain,” I said, scarcely able to hear my own words. “It is only a small and humble effort.”

“No!” Tsubaki insisted. “It is far more than that.” The sound of motors was expanding now. “But, at last the time has come.” I nodded, head bowed. The motors ever louder, the locust-like ringing in my ears suddenly exploding in volume. “I would change it, if I could, Corporal Kuwahara. Believe me, I would change the entire world. But I am only the commander of a doomed squadron—what little remains. Now, however, the end has come. For everyone left.”

My hands were shaking. The muscles were twitching in my arms and legs, my heart lurching. I closed my eyes, waiting, and the words came. “Are you prepared?”

As though listening to a recording, I heard my own reply, virtually inaudible through all the roaring and ringing. “Yes, honorable Captain. I am honored to be deemed worthy. I wish to go as soon as possible.” Again Tsubaki sighed. “That is commendable. You will return to Hiro within the hour.” Within the hour! Incredible! “Your orders will come within a week or two.”

“Hiro?” I glanced at him in surprise.

“Yes. Part of it has been restored.” Tsubaki stood, unwilling now to look at me, and I also arose. The room was slowly churning. I was very dizzy. “Sayonara, Corporal Kuwahara.”

“Sayonara, Honorable Captain.”

Seconds later I was headed for my quarters to pack my belongings. The military never allowed a man to stay in one spot very long; never a place he could call home. Always juggling men around like spare parts. I passed the barracks where Nakamura had lived, then further on, the one for Tatsuno. Stayed but not stayed, lived but not lived, gone yet not gone. They could not be gone; they had to be somewhere, like the wind. Yet only their belongings remained and had probably been sent to their families by now.

Then a disconcerting thought struck me. What had become of Tatsuno’s little finger? He had entrusted it to my care, and somehow amid all the chaos I had almost forgotten about it. Dismayed, I altered my course, heading for my Hayabusa. Simultaneously, visions of Toyoko surfaced in my mind for the hundredth time—alternately bright and vibrant, then like wraiths fading within the mist. My eyes blurred, and I clenched my teeth. All these stupid tears, this craven bawling. I was compromising myself badly, failing to be a man. My time had come at last, only a matter of days. Then no more worries.” I trudged blindly on­ward, my soul grayer than the concrete. But why should I be any different than the rest? I wondered. Why should Kuwahara be exempted when thousands of others were called upon to make the great sacrifice? Why Tatsuno and Nakamura. . . Oka and Yamamoto, but not Kuwahara? I was expendable like all the rest. In the end, were we not all expendable? All of mankind? It was only a matter of time for everyone.

“Be resolved that honor is heavier than the mountains, while death is lighter than a feather.” Yes, lighter than a feather, and that I would cling to. Ahead was my Hayabusa, waiting stoically. My salvation, my companion in death. Waiting so steadfastly, so patiently. . . so faithfully. In moments, we would ascend skyward together once more and return to Hiro, our source of origin. Because aircraft were now so scarce, we would probably remain together as always. Companions unto the end. The thought gave me a little comfort.

Upon nearing my plane, I encountered a bomber pilot named Taka- hashi whom I had known casually at Hiro. He had just finished going over his aircraft with two of our mechanics. I waved and he grinned. “Checking it out?” I called.

An elaborate shrug. “Right! But who knows why? Haven’t dropped a bomb in the past month.” Then he regarded me more seriously. “Tak­ing off?”

I nodded. “Hai, in about an hour—back to Hiro.” For a second I paused, reflecting. “Still going to the Tokiwaya?”

“Right!” He held up his thumb, grinning. “Good duty!”

“You remember that girl I’ve been going with? Toyoko Akimoto?”

The grin widened. “Hai! Who doesn’t?”

I hesitated. “Well, she thinks I’m. . . .” Suddenly I was feeling foolish, humiliated. “She probably doesn’t know I made it back from Okinawa.

He watched me expectantly. “You want me to tell her anything?”

For a moment I wavered, riddled with indecision. What could he tell her? That I was scheduled to die? No, I’d have to decide what to do once I was back at Hiro. Maybe get her a message some way, or maybe just. . .

. He was watching me curiously, waiting. “Tell her I’m still alive—that they shipped me back to Hiro the minute I got here.” Again, I hesitated. “Tell her I’ll contact her before long, if they’ll let me.”

Takahashi nodded, his face turning sober, and tossed me a half wave, half salute. “All right, Yasbei! Good luck!”

I smiled. He had called me “Yasbei”—probably the only person left who would ever honor me that way. “Thanks, Takahashi,” I answered. “Same to you. Be sure to tell her.”

“Right—definitely. I’ll be sure to.”

What I wanted to say was, “Tell her that I miss her desperately, that I love her beyond belief.” But that would have to come later if it ever came at all.

A minute or two afterward I climbed into my fighter. Yes, to my relief, Tatsuno’s finger was still there wrapped in a handkerchief beneath the control panel, blackened and shriveled, beginning to smell of decay, but I would see at all costs that it reached his family.

Slowly I left the cockpit, sliding languidly off the wing, and planted my feet on the concrete runway. Simultaneously, a strange thing hap­pened. A tiny gray feather came lilting and tumbling toward me across the concrete, probably from one of the numerous pigeons that frequented the area. It caught in a rough spot almost at my feet, quivering impulsively in the breeze as though blessed with a life of its own.

For a time I watched, wondering how far it might journey. To what distant place? Suddenly, on impulse, I stooped and picked it up. Ah, Yasbei, Yasbei! How crazy you are! Crazy, yes, but I put the feather in my pocket.

The Praying Mantis

F

lying school, as I had anticipated, was much better than basic training, although the punishment and arduous conditioning continued. We had formed friendships and were hardened both physi­cally and mentally. I was elated to discover that all the survivors from our original group were assigned to another four-section barracks together. Each section housed fifteen men as before, but our quarters were somewhat better, and we lived on a separate part of the base near the pilots.

Although most of our airmen were not much older than the rest of us, we regarded them as a proud, audacious lot and with a certain awe. Daily we watched their flight performances with excitement and admiration. They were the ultimate warriors, the eagles who, above all others, would lead us to victory.

We were now designated the Fourth Squadron, and the first stage of our six-month course involved an intensive study of aeronautics. We also began learning to parachute. We did not begin flying, however, for three months, and then only in a small biplane called the Akatombo (Red Dragonfly) with cockpits for both the instructor and student.

Unfortunately our new hancho were just as harsh and cruel as The Pig and his cohorts had been. Rentaro Namoto, our first sergeant and flight instructor, was called The Praying Mantis because of his lean, insectivorous appearance and vicious nature. Unlike that of The Pig, his personality had few dimensions. He rarely joked or laughed and was by very nature, it seemed, unlikable. Nevertheless, he possessed remarkable skill and cunning. Nearly six feet tall, with a supple whip­like body, Sergeant Namoto was the coldest, most calculating man I had ever encountered. When he inflicted punishment it was devoid of all outward emotion, every movement methodical and precise like that of a robot.

During most of our basic training we had been utterly bewildered and terrified. The sudden insecurity of being wrenched from our fami­lies, the fear of the unknown, the softness of our minds and bodies, the constant pain, anxiety, and humiliation had made life an almost-inces – sant nightmare.

Now, however, we were undergoing a metamorphosis. Very sur­reptitiously at first, we began striking back at our tyrants. Few crimes are greater in the military, especially the Japanese military, than dis­obedience, or outright defiance in particular. Such things automatically incurred severe retribution if not destruction. Open disobedience or defiance, in fact, had terrible implications and not only meant that one was insulting his immediate superiors but also his commanding officer, the Diahonei in Tokyo—indeed, ultimately even the Emperor himself.

Subtle misdeeds, on the other hand, were viewed somewhat differ­ently, perhaps because they were more consistent with the covert and cunning elements of our general makeup. Although never acknowledged openly, our chicanery with The Mantis developed into a kind of game which ultimately he always managed to win.

Our first efforts in that regard occurred one day before evening chow, just after we had been required to perform the “low crawl”, wriggling along on our bellies, across three hundred yards of hot airstrip. As the KP was carrying Namoto’s evening meal to his quarters, Oka called out softly, “yai, Furuhashi, wait up! We have some special seasoning for our leader’s rice!”

“What?” Furuhashi glanced back nervously. “Hey, you’d better not do anything,” he protested as we approached. “Look now, don’t do that. Hey, don’t—don’t”! Do you want to get us all killed?”

“He’ll never know a thing,” Nakamura insisted, “if you’d just stop squealing like a stuck pig for a minute.” By now, all of us were taking turns vigorously massaging and scratching our scalps over the steaming bowl of rice. Despite the KP’s terrified protests we managed to deposit a large quantity of dandruff in the bowl. “Now,” Nakamura patted his forlorn shoulder, “mix the seasoning in well. This is our special gift to The Mantis because we all love him so dearly.” Reluctantly, the KP went on his way, shaking his head and muttering a few appropriate curses.

Secluding ourselves, we watched him enter The Mantis’ room. A few seconds later he returned empty handed. “Is he eating his rice like a good boy?” I asked.

“Yes, yes, yes!” the KP muttered and stalked back toward the chow

hall.

“Hey, does he really like it?” Oka called from the barracks doorway. “Did he kiss your lovely little hand?”

“Go screw yourself!” the KP growled.

Truly, this was a splendid way of retaliating. It didn’t matter to us that The Mantis was unaware of his humiliation. The important fact existed that he was being humiliated. His ignorance of such indignity only made it better. That way also there would be no reprisal, or so we hoped.

Our first rice seasoning escapade had been so successful, in fact, that we determined to follow the same procedure regularly. Almost every evening we seasoned Namoto’s supper in like manner, and before long Oka ingeniously suggested that we mix in a little of our excrement for variety. Yamamoto agreed but maintained that we try urine first since, presumably, it would be less detectable. We were seriously considering those recommendations when something unexpected happened.

Moriyama, another KP, became especially nervous one evening when nearly a dozen of us approached him for the standard dandruff application. “All of you can’t put your dandruff in the rice,” he moaned.

“The Mantis will notice it. Why don’t we forget about the whole thing for a while? This is really getting dangerous, and you’re pressing your luck.”

“Oh yes,” Nakamura said, “since it’s your turn at KP, why don’t we just forget about it for a while. We’ll all be taking our turn, so don’t be a spineless jelly fish.”

“I’m no more jelly fish than you are,” Moriyama countered angrily. “I’m just not as stupid.” Eventually, however, after much cajolery, he capitulated. “But come on now,” he whined, “not all of you—you’ll flood the bowl over.”

“No, no, we need everybody,” Oka declared. “Some of us are running low on dandruff.” This to the accompaniment of much half-smothered laughter, and the first man proceeded to make his offering. “Next!” he said briskly, and I stepped forward, each of the others following suit.

“Now mix it in, Moriyama,” I advised, “if you don’t our friend will know.”

“Mix it with what?” he asked. “I’ve got to hurry or he’ll be coming out here to see what’s happening.”

“Use your fingers, naturally,” someone said.

Reluctantly, Moriyama began to probe with his fingers. “God, this is hot!” he complained.

“Brave samurai,” Yamamoto said, “be a brave, brave samurai.”

Again Moriyama complied. “Now, what do I wipe them with?”

“Just lick them off,” Yamamoto said, “That’s the quickest way.”

Again, he complied, or at least began to. Suddenly, he stopped, fingers only an inch from his extended tongue as though frozen, and again we shook with strangled laughter. Moriyama appeared to be on the verge of vomiting. “Bakayaro!” he cursed then went his way like a man expecting the firing squad.

With the door to Namoto’s room slightly ajar, we listened intently, pressing close to the wall just outside. Moriyama had apparently turned to leave when The Mantis spoke, his words resonating harshly. “Kindly wait one minute, my friend.”

“Yes, honorable honcho-donO’ Moriyama quavered.

A long silence then ensued, but finally the dreaded voice spoke again: “This rice—it stinks. What makes it so putrid and oily? It stinks like hell! Where did you get it, from the latrine?”

“Let’s get out of here!” someone warned, “before it’s too late.” A mo­ment later we heard a crash and then what sounded like a blow, perhaps a terrific boot in the rear.

“Quick, outside!” I hissed as Moriyama stumbled out the door, the remains of Namoto’s feast plastering the back of his head, dribbling down his neck and face.

“We’re in for it now!” Moriyama gasped. “He’ll skin us all alive.”

This time no one argued. Instead, we fled to our barracks and waited out the night in great anxiety. To our growing astonishment, however, nothing happened until the following morning. Namoto’s response, in fact, was far less virulent than we had anticipated though certainly more ingenious.

It was reveille formation, and we stood stiffly at attention, perhaps even holding our breath, as The Mantis surveyed us all thoughtfully. A flight of fighter planes was circling overhead, coming in to land a short distance off. “It appears. . . .” He spoke in loud, high-pitched tones, penetrating the sound of their motors. “It appears. . . .” Again his words were obliterated as the first fighter arched by with a ferocious roar and began its final descent. “Eyes straight ahead!” The plane landed with a lurch and screech of rubber. “Doesn’t know how to handle it very well, does he?”

For a moment it seemed as though he were simply talking to himself. “As I was saying,” he continued, “it appears that some of you men have become concerned about my health.” Another pause while the next plane headed in. “You have been supplementing my diet. Maybe you think I too skinny—na?” He paused, eyeing us calculatingly. “In any case, even though I am doing well, I want you to know that I appreciate your kindness. Of course, it is only natural to love your instructors. When I was a trainee, we loved our instructors. We were concerned about their health just as you are “

Oka made a strange little noise like a spurt of air from a valve. “Shhh!” I hissed.

The Mantis appeared to take no notice. “However, you may put your minds at ease. We instructors are well fed, and there is no need for concern. As a matter of fact last night, when our KP brought my dinner, I wasn’t even hungry. I actually gave it all back to him.” I glanced at Oka and Yamamoto from the corners of my eyes and realized that they were struggling desperately to avoid laughing. “Terribly sloppy eater, though.” They both wheezed, and I began to pray that they would be able to contain themselves. “So!” He raised a rapier-like forefinger. To demonstrate my appreciation for your kindness, I wish to propose a toast, Hancho Kitamura! Hancho Mukai!” Two hancho hastened among us distributing sake cups, and we watched in growing amazement as they proceeded to fill them from a gigantic blue bottle. “Be at ease!” Namoto instructed. “Wonderful Awamore sake all the way from Okinawa!”

We were all dumbfounded. Could this possibly be an actual salute to our cleverness? Our ingenuity? “Dozo, fine,” The Mantis observed. “So now I propose a toast to all of you, to the men of the Fourth Squadron. Kampai!”

“Kampai—bottoms up!” we cried in unison. “To the men of the Fourth Squadron!” We downed our drinks as one, and it took a few moments for us to realize what had happened. Each man’s mouth had turned dark blue. The awful-tasting elixir was ink.

For a while we played no more tricks. Tatsuno had arrived at Hiro and was undergoing the hell of early basic, living in the same barracks that I had. Fortunately, he had known quite clearly what to expect and had prepared himself as well as possible, but on our rare encounters I continued to offer advice.

One night I was quietly conversing with Tatsuno outside his quarters when The Pig passed us carrying two of his beloved ball bats. For a mo­ment I didn’t think he had noticed me, but upon leaning his bats against the wall, he turned back and remarked, “Ah so?” The mighty Kuwahara has returned.” Then he glanced at Tatsuno. “You see how attached these men become to their first home away from home? They can’t stay away—right, Kuwahara?” He actually gave my shoulder a friendly pat as he entered the barracks.

“Hai, honorable hancho-dono!” I called. I no longer hated The Pig and even felt a minor thrill at being recognized and worthy of his attention.

“Looks as if we’re going to get some more of the fighting spirit,” Tatsuno observed wryly. “I’d better go in.”

“No, stay outside a minute,” I said. “If he herds them out now there won’t even be a roll call. It’s not even eight o’clock, and he won’t notice whether you’re missing.” Tatsuno was understandably fearful, but I sug­gested that he follow me behind some shrubbery a short distance away. “If they start calling the roll,” I advised, “we can hear them. You can just walk up and get into the rear of the formation.”

Still dubious, he relaxed a bit, and we strolled back to sit down behind the bushes. Moments later, to our surprise, The Pig emerged from the barracks and headed for his quarters. “There goes the strangest man I have ever known,” I said. We remained there conversing until nearly time for Shoto Rappa, then parted. “Maybe they won’t even harass you tonight,” I added.

“I hope so,” Tatsuno replied. “I hope The Mantas and his friends won’t harass you.” That was the last we saw of each other for some time.

My first three months of flight school raced by far more rapidly than basic training, largely because I was learning to fly. At last, at last, I was actually training in a power-driven aircraft. I will never forget those first days in the Akatombo, and I took to the new trainers as readily as I had to the gliders. I had studied aeronautics zealously, and at times The Mantis or one of the other instructors warned me against being too eager. So thoroughly had I familiarized myself with the instrument panel, the entire flight operation, I secretly felt that I could take off and land unassisted my first time in the cockpit.

During my hours in the air, watching the earth transform volup­tuously beneath me, I felt an exhilaration and power that dispelled all the unpleasant and painful associations of the past. Fear, unhappiness, and frustration all receded earthward as I became at one with the sky. Nothing could harm me in that new and magic domain. It was mine, and I belonged there.

Our hours on the ground were a vivid contrast. Steadily, relent­lessly, The Mantis and his cohorts poured on the punishment. Because it took more to break us, he gave more, and the anger and bitterness were mounting. Several men threatened to kill him, and someone even managed to procure poison, planning to place it in his food. Nakamura considered the idea quite amusing, insisting that since our dandruff had failed to kill him, nothing could. Fortunately for all of us, those in favor of it were finally dissuaded after much heated argument.

The Mantis had a large whip which he cracked at the slightest provocation. He handled it with admirable finesse, and with little exer­tion often inflicted excruciating pain. One day after several of us had received a lashing we gathered behind an empty warehouse to concoct more retaliation. Everyone knew by now that The Mantis went to town each night where he drank heavily and often caroused with prostitutes. It was said that he could consume alcohol endlessly and still only become mildly intoxicated. Furthermore, according to one of the fighter pilots, he was a satyr supreme who performed incredible sexual feats, whose fire was never quenched. All this, of course, seemed to contradict our image of that fish-cold, metal-eyed individual with whom we had to cope each day.

Every evening Namoto left for town at seven or eight o’clock. Then, about midnight he returned, weaving his way along the hall and crunching on down the short flight of stairs to his room at the end of the barracks.

Thus originated our plan, and we awaited its realization one night with much interest. As midnight approached we were poised tensely in our own quarters listening for the sound of his arrival. An hour passed, and we drifted in and out of sleep, assuming at last that he would not return until morning.

Eventually, though, the door banged, and footsteps echoed down the hall followed shortly by a resounding crash. Every man in the bar­racks was undoubtedly wide awake, tense and listening but also highly gratified. The taut rope we had stretched across the stairway only a few inches above the floor had done its job.

The next morning The Mantis appeared at formation with a ban­dage across his nose. Never cracking a smile as usual, he paced back and forth before us, hands clasped behind his back, trailing his whip like a great rat tail. At length he faced the formation and spoke. “I am pleased to note that some of you are such practical jokers. A good sense of humor is often very refreshing.” All of the Fourth Squadron knew by then what had happened.

“So today,” he continued, and the words were rather adenoidal be­cause of his swollen nose, “I have prepared a little joke of my own—just to show you I am not thoughtless and unappreciative. This afternoon when the day is pleasant and warm you will wear your flying suits.” He paused for a moment, allowing the prospect to register. “Quite humor – ous—wouldn’t you agree?”

We awaited the afternoon with mounting apprehension, but dur­ing the morning Namoto and his assistants scarcely laid a hand on us. Clearly, it was the lull before the storm. Then, at last, the fated time arrived, and, true to his word, The Mantis had us don all of our fly­ing accoutrements: our feather-lined suits, boots, leather helmets and scarves-even our parachute packs!

Heat waves were shimmering on the airstrip as we commenced our usual hour of calisthenics, the weather extremely hot and humid. For the first few minutes our flying suits served as protection from the sun. One or two of the men even suggested that we should always wear fly­ing suits, but I was highly skeptical. Already the first few drops of sweat had formed under my arms and begun trickling down my side. The heat was building from within and had no means of escape. “In about five minutes you’ll find out how crazy you are,” I informed one of the more optimistic.

“Oh come on now, Kuwahara,” he retorted, “don’t always be such a pessimist.”

We were doing push ups side by side, and I grunted, “You’ll be changing your mind before its over, my friend.”

“No I won’t!”

“Fool!”

“Boob!”

Never before had anyone intimated that I was a boob. Unreason­ably furious, I got to my feet. “Stand up, shinpei!” I said, “and we’ll see who the boob is.”

Obligingly, he arose, grinning impudently, and I struck with all my strength, staggering him, but also losing my balance. We fell in a tangle among the other men, grappling awkwardly. There were curses, our comrades grabbing and separating us. Nakamura had hold of my arms. “Ease up!” he urged. “Do you want to get killed?”

By then, however, The Mantis was lashing away at us, though with only moderate effect because of our thick flying suits. As we stood, pant­ing, I was still seething with anger, literally trembling, but I also realized my stupidity. Already burning inside, I continued to pant, my throat dust-dry. Sweat was seeping from my forehead into my eyes, blurring the backs of the men before me. I was quivering uncontrollably now and my legs felt hollow. I refused to look at Tanaka, the man I had fought.

At the conclusion of our calisthenics fifteen minutes later we were virtually broiling in our suits, and that was only the beginning. Now it was time for our daily running.

We moved out like elephants in our heavy clothing under a blazing sun, and once I removed one of my gloves to test the heat of my flying suit. Its hot leather almost scorched my hand, and we lumbered steadily forward down the vast concrete expanse of our air field. Meanwhile, The Mantis pedaled comfortably along beside us on his bicycle dressed in nothing but his light-weight fatigues. The land of concrete seemed to stretch interminably, and at length I began to reflect upon the declaration of our commanding officer at the end of basic training: “The Imperial Way is a long way, never-ending. The Imperial Way will never end.”

“Long,” the words came, “long. . . long. . . .” repeating themselves regularly with every other stride. Yet now I could see only a short distance through my sweat-filled eyes. The Japanese way of life was destined to fill the earth as we were often told. Perhaps that was why it had to be such a long, hard way. Minute after minute our boots clumped rhythmically forward. Long. . . long. . . long. . . .

Intermittently my vision cleared, but why had I ever imagined that there was an end to the air field? And what direction were we going? I had no idea. On and on we went, boots clumping steadily, and gradu­ally it seemed that there were fewer men behind me. Ahead someone staggered and hit the concrete rolling. The runway was rocking now. Thirty seconds later another man grabbed his stomach, staggered and went down. As I passed his inert form, it seemed a bit as though he were sinking, sinking like a leaky boat into a flat gray sea.

Another man was going down now, tripping the one behind him. They too seemed to be vanishing, sinking inexorably into the concrete. Their bodies, I told myself, would become a part of it, and years hence when men broke up this strip to build a new one they would find the remnants, mere hollow statues. But even then I would still be running beneath the inferno of the sun, onward and onward into infinity.

On the other hand, perhaps I too would ultimately become a statue. If I were a statue with the rest I could be at peace. There in our family shrine I would know the inestimable bliss of nothingness. There in the cool of evening under the trees among the flowers, the cicadas singing, and Tomika would come quietly each day to cool the hard stone of my being with her tears. She would whisper, “My brother, my dearest brother.”

I never felt the airstrip rising to meet me. Tepid liquid from a can­teen sloshed against my face, and I saw the spokes of a bicycle wheel whirling by.

Battle with the Giants

H

iro! Hiro again. I had been away only two months, but it might as well have been two years. What was time? Something I would never comprehend. I merely knew that nothing was more relent­less. Nothing was as relentless as time or as constant as change. And Hiro had indeed changed drastically.

Despite efforts at reconstruction, the base was badly ravaged. The main hangar and several of the barracks were charred ruins. Part of the airfield had been bombed so heavily, it was for the present beyond repair. Tumbled patches of concrete, craters six to eight feet deep. Even the water tower was gone, the tower from which one of our trainees had leapt to his death in days gone by. Where Hiro obtained its water now I did not know.

The barracks from my fighter training was gone, burned to ashes, but the one from basic remained, and after reporting to the orderly room

I paid it a visit. Empty now. Wandering its length, I realized that time was relative, even to the dust. The dust of centuries lay upon the empty bed springs, upon the lockers, and across the floor.

Few things are more empty, more lonely than a moribund military installation. Yet now, ironically, I felt twinges of nostalgia. Nostalgia for the trials of basic training? Ridiculous, yet in a way I even missed The Pig and his henchman The Snake. Standing there alone, I wondered what had become of them.

No signs of basic training whatever now, so perhaps they had been assigned elsewhere. Perhaps they had been killed in the bombing. The thought afforded no satisfaction, only more emptiness.

I walked the length of the barracks very slowly, staring down at my feet, each step leaving its imprint in the dust. Where had all that dust come from? Glancing about, I saw a dozen shattered windows and im­mediately had my answer. Great clouds of it from all the bombing. The entire base was covered with it.

Approaching the rear door, I spotted two ball bats leaning there to my left in the corner of the room. I shook my head, felt my lips forming a wan smile. Of course, of course! The wonderful ball bats! Hefting one, I felt its smoothness, blew away the dust and gave a violent, echo­ing sneeze. But no one was there to hear, only the pervasive quality of absence. Through watering eyes I read the familiar inscription: “Yamato damashii Seishinbo”—a ball bat for instilling the fighting spirit, the spirit of Yamato.

So there was little to do now but wait, merely exist while the days expired. A few of our fighter pilots were filtering back to the base now, most of whom I had known in passing at Oita, all like myself awaiting the final word. In consequence, we were placed on alert, restricted to the base, and time languished in the mounting heat of July, stifling us in its vapor.

In the midst of it all, I returned to the abandoned barracks, sat down on the back steps, and wrote a letter.

“Dear Toyoko: . . .”

For a long time, I sat there, my pen suspended as though the very ink were full of indecision.

“I am still among the living, waiting for my orders—orders that may come any day, any hour. Yet even so. . . .” Again I hesitated fraught with uncertainty. “I still cling to your words the last time we were together. Remember? You said that the war would end in time. You said that something strange and unexpected would happen. What that might be, I have no idea and don’t suppose you do either. Perhaps no one does.

“In any event, it must come soon or I will be gone along with nearly everyone remaining here.” My hand began to tremble, the words be­coming wavery. “But always remember, Toyoko. . . .” My throat was tightening badly as though I had swallowed a handful of the dust all around me. My eyes watered, and my body shook with a strange, shud­dering gasp.

“That whatever happens, I will always love you. I will always be here somewhere, like the wind among the lanterns.” For a long time I wept silently, making no effort to control my shaking. The final words were badly scrawled, and the page was becoming damp.

“Perhaps some night I will come to ring the chimes on your balcony. I pray that you will remember me when you hear them ringing, and when you hear waves along the shore. Most of all, I pray that you are safe and well. I pray for your eternal happiness.”

That afternoon, I mailed the letter, not knowing whether it would ever leave the base post office—or if so, whether mail was even being delivered at Oita. Yet somehow, in some slight way, putting those words on paper helped.

And somehow, also, those final days squirmed by. Each bleak hour expired, leaving its faint and fetid aftermath, dissolving at times in the fiery breath of an occasional air battle.

We almost welcomed them now—anything to relieve the curse of waiting, and we fought with great abandon, caring little whether we lived or died. Life assumes a different perspective when only a little remains, yet ironically, our very daring seemed to preserve us. Two of us downed an enemy fighter in a surprise attack near Kure one day, then fled almost before the Americans knew what had happened. As our victim plummeted toward the bay, I decided that my only answer was to hurl fear to the winds.

Do not be afraid—there is nothing to lose! It gave one a special magic. Strike the enemy hard and fast before he strikes you. Then van­ish. Yes, now that there was no hope, it was easy to attack fearlessly. I knew how to use the clouds and the sun; they were my friends. The enemy could send a thousand planes—no matter. We would somehow be there, a dwindling few, to slash at their tails and send them on their way to hell.

A week passed. . . two weeks. . . incredibly, nearly a month. It was now almost August, and I was still awaiting my summons—day by day, hour by hour, minute by minute. How does one exist under such circum­stances? He exists because he exists. There is no alternative but death, by one’s own hand or otherwise. Throughout it all, however, was the faint, pale hope that the war would end. It seemed increasingly obvious that the sun was setting. No longer was the Nippon Empire The Land of The Rising Sun. And still, as well, I clung to Toyoko’s promise: “The war will end! The war will end in time!”

What a bizarre kind of race, my own doom running neck and neck with the doom of my country. What endless feelings of ambivalence. And yet. . . again increasingly I reflected upon the words of Namoto’s mother: “Listen to me, my sons. . . there is no honor in dying for a lost cause.” Nor was there any advantage. What, in practical reality, could be accomplished now, even if every last remaining one of us, by some absurd quirk of fate, sank an enemy ship? They were limitless, impla­cable. More and more now, my bitterness toward our obstinate, idiotic leaders in Tokyo transcended my hatred for the enemy.

Nevertheless, we fought on.

Near the end of July we learned that a force of B-29’s was flying southwest of Osaka, probably slated to pummel that city, then split, striking Matsue and Okayama. Only four of us—a Lieutenant Shoji Mattu, sergeant, another corporal and I—were sent forth to meet them above Okayama. A pitiful few, another telling evidence that Japan was breathing her death rattles. Even so, we had covenanted together just before takeoff. Today we would send one of those thunderous Super­fortresses to its death.

Having calculated the time of our encounter with the 29’s, I did some additional planning. Our flight would carry us over Onomichi, my very home. Why not stage a brief aerobatic performance for the students at Onomichi High School—perhaps even for my own family and neighbors? It seemed a fine idea, and my three companions were all enthusiastic.

Shortly before take-off I sat down to write a brief message, merely a few words of devotion to my family. Merely a few words, because I had only seconds and didn’t know what to say. What could I tell them? That I would soon be receiving my final orders? No, no sense in it. None at all. They would find out soon enough. Still, I had to leave them something. It was apparent from their letters, that most of my own were not being delivered, nor had I received much word from them in some time.

After pondering the matter briefly, I scribbled down a few words, telling them that I was again at Hiro, that I was “well”, that I hoped and prayed they were. Simultaneously I almost wondered whether my family still existed, whether they ever had. The aura of unreality was steadily growing more powerful. Lately, in fact, there had been disqui­eting moments when I could no longer conjure up their images. I was literally forgetting what they looked like.

I rolled the message up and placed it in a metal tube to which I had attached a long white streamer. It was essential that the descent be clearly visible, that someone find it and make the delivery according to the enclosed instructions.

Minutes after leaving the landing field, I was gazing down upon familiar territory—the shipyards, the shore line where the fishermen dwelt, the main buildings of town, those that remained. Many of them had been demolished, but the radio station was still standing along, as I had devoutly hoped, with my high school. My own home neighbor­hood, secluded within the Senkoji Mountains, still appeared to be in tact as well.

A group of students on the school athletic field gazed up as we began our descent. Plummeting down, my companions close behind, I could see their upturned faces. Seconds later, however, I glanced back, steeply climbing, and was astonished to see them scattering for cover.

Shaking my head, I grinned, even laughed. Green kids!

The lieutenant’s voice crackled over my intercom. “Don’t even know their own planes!”

“Act like they’ve never even seen them before,” I fired back, then grew more serious. Very probably they had not seen any, not for a long time. Soon, though, they emerged from hiding and were beginning to wave. I could see their faces clearly, practically hear their cries. With only seconds to spare, we plunged at them, spiraling crazily, pulling out at treetop level, rocking the buildings with our thunder. On our third and final pass we arched over the field, banking hard to avoid the encircling mountains. Students had flooded from every exit and were waving joyfully. Angling, low I released my message, saw it fluttering earthward.

People were even appearing from some of the houses now, but as I passed over my own there was no sign of life, and in seconds the city was falling behind. . . fading. . . gone. What a peculiar sensation. Everything, my home included, had looked so different from the air. Once more Onomichi was only a fond illusion. I had not returned home after all.

Soaring onward toward our special rendezvous, I wondered what would become of my people, those innocent young girls? How many of them, of our women, would the enemy use according to its whims? A vanquished nation is a plundered nation, spared no cruelty or humilia­tion. Well, regardless of what might come, today the enemy would feel our sting.

Not long afterward we neared Okayama, and soon, exactly as calcu­lated, the B-29’s appeared—only six of them, but ominous nonetheless, forging their way eastward at fifteen thousand feet, flanked by a dozen Hellcats. The 29’s were indeed awesome, considerably larger and more formidable than the 17’s we had encountered earlier in the war. Six of them, lethal leviathans trailing vapor against a purple sky.

Our lieutenant signaled, and I felt my mouth tighten, the upper lip puffing with air, as we climbed and circled to their rear. At the moment our enemy was apparently unaware of us. The Japanese Army Air Force, once a formidable power, was now only a mockery, and the 29’s lumbered ponderously onward. Relentlessly! Utterly remorseless. The Americans simply kept coming and coming, more and more and more, ever growing in numbers and size.

Only when we plummeted downward from the sun were they aware of us. Lining up the rear Fortress in my range finder, I began firing, and it swiftly retaliated with a vicious barrage of its own. Others were opening fire as well, and the Hellcats swarmed into action, intent on living up to their name.

Roaring downward behind our lieutenant, I saw the tracers racing toward and past us, all in an instant, all very near. . . saw them strik­ing home. The lieutenant’s plane seemed to shudder momentarily like someone taking a savage body blow. Then, casting off streamers of smoke and flame, it persisted. Portions of the fuselage were ripping apart, but miraculously he continued, slicing directly through the tail section of the lead bomber and exploding.

Helplessly maimed, the B-29 spiraled downward in monstrous and moaning, ever-widening gyrations, its severed tail dropping vertically after the blackened and fading remains of Shoji Matta.

Almost simultaneously, I levered back on the stick, pulling out of my dive at more than five G’s, wavering, nearly tearing my wings off. For several seconds the blood drained from my head, and by the time I had recovered, the remaining bombers had surged onward, fanning and swerving to avoid the fate of their leader.

So suddenly, both our lieutenant and the B-29—gone! Incredulous, I followed the rapidly vanishing enemy, gradually climbing as I gained on them. The huge bombers were remarkably swift, and it required two or three minutes for me to close the gap. As I moved in on the trailing bomber it began to zigzag erratically, opening up with its tail guns, and the Hellcats were circling ravenously, coming at me from almost every direction.

I was only two hundred yards above the elusive 29 now and about that far behind. Time for the attack, and I angled into a steep dive, charging at him full bore, pivoting on my axis, aileron rolling down at well over four hundred miles an hour. The 29’s turret guns, both front and rear, were opening up now. I had completed my final roll—too late to worry about being elusive—air speed approaching five hundred, fir­ing attenuated bursts directly at its nose area.

Now the enemy was looming, larger than life, disgorging a withering barrage, graphing the air all about me with the sinister red lines. But I was flying as never before, undeterred, and the monster veered off even more sharply, undoubtedly expecting to be rammed. I watched my own tracers arch, seeming to curve, stitching their seam backward along his wing and fuselage. Making contact! The B-29 was coughing smoke, and I felt a diabolical surge of elation. Triumph! Revenge!

Now it was rapidly losing altitude, but still deadly. As I screamed past its massive rudder, the tail guns were ripping away without compromise, the hot lead ravaging my wings and fuselage. Yes, the familiar, ominous sledge hammer sounds, and a Hellcat was firing away at me from the rear. Two others were charging in from the side.

Pulling out radically, I hit the stick and rudder pedal, swerving left and climbing. Only one of the Grummans was still with me at this point. Trail­ing the others, he had anticipated me. I was circling hard, still bidding for altitude, and upon completing a full 360 degrees, I glanced back over my shoulder. The enemy was still there, slightly above, determined to cut inside my arc. . . banking so closely that I could distinctly see the pilot. The sun was glinting on his goggles, his white teeth bared in a triumphant grin.

A confident American, an expression I will never forget, for suddenly I was terribly afraid, afraid as never before, my veins filling with ice crystals. Not so much fear for myself actually as for another reason. Somehow that expression, that mere single glimpse, symbolized the hopelessness of our plight as nothing else ever had.

The contest was over, and I dropped away radically, barrel rolling. . . plunging straight downward for thousands of feet as I had done the month before over Okinawa. Two of the enemy, apparently pursuing my comrades, fanned off startled as I thundered by, missing one of them by only a few yards.

Down, down, down, spinning. . . at last dropping straight. Pulling out perilously near the earth, fighting off the blackness. Escape once more, and I was gunning homeward at full throttle. Momentarily, despite all, I rejoiced in our good fortune. In addition to the 29 destroyed by our lieutenant, a second had also gone down. How I wanted to claim that monster for my own, to see it hit the water! Undoubtedly, it was the bomber with which I had done battle. I had not witnessed its actual de­mise, however, nor had others been on hand to verify what occurred.

Later I learned that a B-29 had crashed near Okayama, its crew bailing out over the inland sea.

Full Reparation

W

e devised no further schemes for some time. Namoto’s practi­cal joke had left an impressive impact. Several men had been hospitalized afterward, in fact, from heat prostration. Nevertheless, his savagery continued almost unabated, and again someone managed to obtain poison. Again heated arguments. “I don’t care what they do to me,” the would-be assassin had muttered. “At least that rotten devil will get what’s coming to him. And he’ll never hurt anyone again.”

“Yes, but what will happen then?” someone else challenged. “Not just to you but to all of us—the whole squadron?” After a day or two the poison was poured down the toilet.

Barely a week later I underwent my first unpleasant experience in the air because of a far less deadly alternative. Our rancor against The Mantis had reached another crest, and we were contemplating more games. Certainly our relationship with that strange person was bizarre, to say the least—indeed, even incredible. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to explain the perverse spirit that enticed us to continue in the face of such retaliation. The term “sado-masochism” seems most appropriate here, however, for in striking back against Rentaro Namoto we inevitably emerged on the losing end.

That latter in mind, we decided our next attack should at least be more subtle than, say, tripping him down the stairs. “How about a good, strong laxative in his food?” Nakamura said, “enough to make him shit his pants, shit enough to fertilize a whole rice paddy?”

“He already does that with his mouth,” Moriyama said.

“Sleeping pills!” Oka exclaimed. “Why not sleeping pills? He’d never make morning formation. Then he’d be in big trouble—they might even demote him to private, even throw him out.”

Tanaka, the man with whom I had fought earlier, laughed boister­ously. “Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Rentaro Namoto a shinpei. We’d give him such a bad time he’d go over the fence the first week.”

I shook my head. “No. No matter what else you say about him, The Mantis is tough. He would never break.”

“Aaa,” Tanaka sneered, “he’d bawl for his mother the first day. He’d go hang himself.” I stared at him in disbelief, fighting down the anger. The feeling had been festering ever since our scrap on the airstrip. One thing I could always count on with Tanaka—we would rarely agree on anything. And always, that impudent grin. I could imagine smashing his stupid face in, changing it so that even his mother wouldn’t recognize him—except for one thing. The grin would still be there.

“All right, shinpei” I said, “go ahead and get the sleeping pills. We’ll see who’s right.”

“All right, shinpei’ He gave an exaggerated bow. “I will since every­body knows you don’t have the guts for it.”

“Oh, really?” I snapped. “Well, at least I’ve got enough to take you on. That doesn’t call for any guts at all, in fact.” At that point we would have come to blows a second time if our friends had not prevailed upon us to calm down.

Despite our animosity, I found myself eagerly awaiting the results of Tanaka’s efforts. Unfortunately, he was never able to procure the neces­sary pills. How anybody had managed to obtain poison, in fact, was a mystery most of us never unraveled.

Gradually another plan took form which everyone involved re­sponded to with enthusiasm, and it also included the men from another barracks. “We’ll fix your hancho if you’ll help us fix ours,” Nakamura advised them. “What we need right now are the needles from every man’s sewing kit in your barracks. We’ll trade you our own in a day or two.” At first there was great reluctance, but eventually we prevailed because of the plan’s uniqueness and apparently minimal risk.

Shortly after ten one night while The Mantis was enjoying himself in town, four of us sneaked into his room and turned down the covers on his bed. Next we inserted the needles heads downward into his mattress so that the points barely projected above the surface. Then we carefully re-made the bed, having stretched the undersheet so taut that nothing was visible beneath it, and returned to our quarters.

There we sat on our cots in the dark, whispering and laughing. “I hope he has sweet dreams,” someone said.

“Their holy men sleep that way in India,” Yamamoto said. “We can’t have them outdoing us.” We were all brimming with mirth and hilarity, partly, no doubt, because of our anxiety.

“Hey, hey, look at me,” Oka called. “I’m Namoto—I’m lover boy!” Staggering down the dark aisle, he yawned and stretched blissfully. “Good night, my children. Pleasant dreams,” he murmured and slowly lay back on his cot. We watched closely in the dim light as Oka’s eyes closed then suddenly popped open, his mouth forming a silent, agonized scream. Legs and arms flailing, he catapulted to his feet and began leap­ing about wildly, yelping and clutching at his rear.

An amusing performance, one that nearly broke us into convulsions. Then Yamamoto and Nakamura launched their own versions, and by now everyone in our section was awake, listening. “What this time?” someone groaned.

“Oh, Oka and Kuwahara and those othergokudo,” Moriyama replied. “More of their stupid tricks, getting the whole squadron into trouble again.” It was now after eleven, and eventually we went to sleep.

Following morning chow all the men from our barracks were sum­moned to Namoto’s office in the orderly room. For a moment he sat there, contemplating the ceiling, idly drumming his fingers on the chair arms and trying to decide, it appeared, whether we were actually worthy of his attention. Projecting from the top of the table in front of him in four neat, silver rows were sixty needles.

Eventually he plucked one of them up and sighted at a spot on the wall with it, closing one eye. “Well?” he said. No reply. “We never thought of this one when I was in pilot school. Very clever. Yes in­deed—very clever!” Suddenly his chair slammed upright. Regarding us balefully and shaking his head, he said, “And, of course, you don’t know a thing about these, do you?” Stiffening, he pointed at Nakamura. “You, pimple face!” Nakamura’s acne had worsened considerably of late for some reason. “Let’s have an answer!”

Nakamura swallowed, struggled to reply, and failed.

“Splendid! A nice, direct answer. It seems rather strange, though, my fine pimple face, that you manifest no surprise, no lack of understanding. Apparently you know what I’m referring to—correct?”

Nakamura swallowed again. “No,” he managed at last. “I mean, no honorable hancho-dono.”

“Hmmm. . . .” The Mantis mused. “Not a very convincing liar, is he?” He plucked another needle from table. “So all right!” Rising abruptly, he commenced pacing the room. Once he paused before Moriyama, staring at him through cold, remorseless eyes. Even his eyes were mantis-like. “No, no. . . you wouldn’t know, would you? Too stupid.” Casually he flipped Moriyama’s nose so hard his eyes watered. Then we were dismissed.

As we filed out, however, he called, “Just one minor detail, friends. Every single man in this squadron will bring his sewing kit to morning formation. See that the other sections are informed.”

Upon discovering that all our kits contained the requisite needle, The Mantis appeared impassive. He merely complimented us upon our strategy, adding that he had prepared a special token of appreciation. Then we were dismissed.

The morning passed rather tranquilly. Even our physical training was uneventful. Then came our flying lessons, and The Mantis unveiled his plan. “A short time ago,” he observed, “some of you apparently became rather warm while wearing your flying suits. Worked up a slight sweat. Even became a bit weary—correct?” He nodded slowly, steadily, confirming his own words. “Well, that may have been somewhat unkind, now that I think about it. So today, just to show you what a grand fellow I am, we will forego the hot suits during flying practice. How does that strike you?”

Minutes later as I climbed into the rear cockpit of an Akatombo, the instructor before me turned, and I realized that it was our old nemesis from basic training. Sakigawa, alias The Snake. “Greetings, Kuwahara.” His grin was both mischievous and empathic. As I began to fasten my safety belt, he shook his head. “No safety belts allowed, Kuwahara—Namoto’s orders.”

“No seat belt?” I was shocked.

“Afraid not,” he replied, “sorry.” Another surprise. The Snake actu­ally sounded as if he meant it, as if perhaps he even liked me!

We took off, climbing rapidly. At about five thousand feet The Snake glanced back at me. The sunlight glinted on his goggles, and his eyes appeared to be mere slits. “Hang on tight!”

Already the chill air was buffeting me through the open cockpit.

“Don’t let go!” Seizing the dead controls, I watched and felt the world turn upside down-felt it rushing toward us. We were forming a lazy loop, and I pulled my chin against my chest, thrusting my knees upward beneath the control panel. Black spots clotted my vision, and we began our first descent, pulling out, slicing into a cloud bank. I had almost tumbled from the cockpit!

The spots faded slightly, but already we were heading into another loop. Terrified, I grasped my seat straps, and felt the sky wrench at me like the hands of a giant, tearing at the corners of my mouth, at my clenched eyelids, roaring ferociously within my ears. Desperately, I tightened every muscle, grimacing, striving to resist the tearing, freezing wind.

For a time, I did not know whether we had leveled out or not, liter­ally which side was up. As I struggled to regain my breath, we nosed over into sharp, downward spiral By now my forehead was freezing, my stomach churning savagely. I had never known such overwhelming nausea. The vomit erupted from my throat, even my nostrils, spraying about the cockpit, sheening off into the air.

My vision blurred, and I struggled desperately to keep from faint­ing. At last, though, we were preparing to land. The black spots were slowly fading, but I was so numb from the cold Sakigawa had to assist me from the cockpit.

All of the men in our squadron underwent the same experience that day, and for several minutes afterward most of us were unable to stand.

Our facial muscles were so cold it was impossible to speak. We were so devastated, in fact, that The Mantis half apologized. “After all, men,” he piously intoned, “this is the Imperial Army Air Force. You must ac­custom yourselves to things like this or end up as miserable failures. The mind and spirit must learn to prevail over the body!”

Unfortunately, that was not the only unpleasant occurrence in the Akatombo, not by any means. Only a week or so later, I underwent a far worse one, something so amazing that to this day I cannot fully explain it. Moreover, the consequences were far more traumatic than any I had yet encountered.

Six of us were flying formation at about ten thousand feet, The Mantis in the lead, when his voice buzzed over the intercom,

“Today we will find out just how well you have learned your ma­neuvers. We will now play follow the leader.” Second in formation, I followed behind as he made a wide bank right, angled into a dive and began to loop up and back the opposite direction. I followed him all the way with relative ease, pulling out close on his tail. Then, for some strange reason, instead of slowing, I accelerated.

Sensing our proximity, The Mantis veered and began climbing, but I followed precariously near. It was an odd sensation, one wherein I seemed to be under the control of some perverse force beyond myself, as though suddenly I had been hypnotized. The Mantis performed a half loop, righting himself at the apex, and by now he was ranting into my ear phones. “Get off my tail, you madman! You stupid idiot! Drop back!”

Already the rest of our flight was trailing at some distance. The Mantis angled into a steep dive, and I followed as though attached by a cable. Had he been piloting a faster, more maneuverable craft I could not have stayed with him. But his attempts to escape in the trainer were futile. Twisting, rolling, climbing, circling. . . all to no avail. It was impossible to shake me, and with each passing second the thought of crashing into him, snuffing out his miserable life in mid-air, became more appealing—overwhelmingly. Simultaneously, I was terrified be­yond measure.

Cutting in a tight left circle, The Mantis bawled, “Turn right! Turn right!” The order, meant nothing. It had no more meaning than the quacking of a duck or the braying of a jackass. Instead, I turned left, cutting inside his arc, and we missed colliding by only a few feet.

Desperately, The Mantis headed full throttle for the mountains above Fukugawa, and soon we were roaring between their shoulders, winnowing insanely down a long ragged valley. A bearded ridge loomed before us, and I pulled back on the stick as The Mantis climbed fran­tically— almost too late! His wing nicked off the tip of a pine. Still I followed, the victim of a terrifying yet relentless compulsion, and we continued to climb as one. Now we were ascending above the first peak, circling. Some extraordinary power beyond comprehension seemed to have virtually fused our two aircraft together.

Seconds later, something utterly unexpected happened, something incredible. Uttering a final, frantic oath, The Mantis bailed out! I watched in wonderment as his parachute billowed like a huge silken mushroom, snapping the plummeting figure beneath it into slow motion. Angling gently away on the morning breeze, it gradually grew smaller, and soon the figure beneath it was no larger than a doll. Then it was gone, vanishing into the folds of a distant valley. Moments after that, something flashed against the mountainside beyond. Namoto’s Akatombo had come to rest.

By now my head was roaring, my body like a swarm of bees. Perhaps I would have simply crashed somewhere, resolving it all forever, except for the warning voice buzzing against my ear drums. “Kuwahara! Go back, go back! Remember your family, remember the Emperor! You have an obligation!” It was The Snake, circling just above.

The entire episode, like the fragments of a bad dream, had lasted only a few minutes. Somehow I joined the main formation as sanity re­turned along with feelings of terrible dread. Minutes later I was landing with the others at Hiro, and approximately two hours after that I was summoned before the Commanding Officer. By now our frolic over the mountains of Fukugawa had attracted much attention.

The Mantis was already there, having been retrieved by one of our military vehicles soon after his parachute landing. He appeared to be uninjured except for a two or three scratches on his face and neck, ap­parently the result of tree branches. His eyes stared through me, bleak and frozen with hatred as I entered the office of our commanding officer, Captain Yoshiro Tsubaki.

“Be seated, Kuwahara,” the Captain said courteously. I sat, feeling a bit like someone on the electric chair, but our commander seemed completely unperturbed. “Now. . . .” he began, closing a large, black loose-leaf binder and pushing it to one side of his desk. “I wish to de­termine as precisely as possible what actually happened out there over Fukugawa this afternoon.” He frowned slightly and pursed his lips. “And above all, why. We will hear from you first, Namoto.”

The Mantis shot me an oblique glare. “Honorable Commanding Officer, I must tell you that this man is completely insane!” Tsubaki’s eyebrows arched quizzically. “An absolute lunatic.” The eyebrows arched still more. “During a routine flight practice, he disobeyed every order he was given and did everything in his power to ram me. Had I not bailed out, we would both be dead. He—”

“Exactly how long did he pursue you?” Tsubaki interjected. Did I detect I faint purr of irony? It was impossible to be certain.

“For several minutes, Honorable Commanding Officer. In fact, he—”

“An inexperienced trainee, and you were unable to elude him? Namoto’s features constricted. “The Akatombo does not possess the requisite speed and maneuverability, Honorable—”

“Yes, but even so. . . .” Namoto glowered, anger and humiliation seeming to exude from his very pores. The Captain stroked his jaw, frowning thoughtfully. “Curious. . . very curious. Many strange things have occurred since I arrived at Hiro, but never, never anything like this.”

Opening the drawer to his left, he extracted a pad of lined, yellow paper then plucked up a pencil as though to take some notes. Instead, however, he merely twirled it a time or two between his fingers and began tapping it on the desk top. “Of course, we have lost a hancho or two from time to time.” The Mantis stiffened, staring into the wall.

Still tapping the pencil, Mikami shot me a searching glance. “So what do you have to say about this, Kuwahara?”

I struggled to speak yet hadn’t the slightest idea how to reply. The words stuck in my throat, and after a moment the Captain merely gave a slight nod as though seeking to liberate them. “I do not know, Honorable Commanding Officer,” I stammered. My throat was painfully dry like that of someone languishing in a wasteland, my voice an embarrassing croak. “I. . . I, cannot explain.”

“Was it your intention to kill this man?”

I swallowed. “No, Honorable Commanding Officer. I just—”

“So what possessed you?” Tsubaki leaned forward on his elbows exploring my eyes intently with his own as though, perhaps, that would permit him to examine my brain. “Were you trying to retaliate in that manner?”

“No, Honorable Commanding Officer.” That was my second lie. “So desu ka!” The words hissed softly between his teeth.

“Were you. . . .” He bobbed his head a little from side to side, cast­ing a reflective glance about the ceiling. “Were you trying to show off for the others? Impress your fellow trainees?”

“No, I—”

“Honorable Commanding Officer!” The Mantis snapped, correcting me, but our inquisitor silenced him with an impatient wave of the hand. “So. . . hmmm, and when did you decide to do this thing?”

I swallowed again. My throat was dryer than ever. “I didn’t. I mean, I don’t know, Honorable Commanding Officer. I just followed—as he instructed us to. I—I just followed him.”

“So des. But weren’t you following a little too close for comfort? Ob­viously Sergeant Namoto thought so. He was so uncomfortable that he promptly bailed out permitting one of our perfectly good training planes to crash and burn.” Namoto’s jaw muscles tightened. His nostrils nar­rowed.

“I am extremely sorry, Honorable Commanding Officer,” I said and realized how foolish I sounded, how utterly senseless the entire absurd episode must seem to anyone of sound mind. Yet there was nothing more to say. The Mantis had commanded us to play follow the leader. I had followed.

For some time Tsubaki sat there, fingers locked, absorbed in thought. Once he massaged his brow. Once he shook his head and swore softly. Our commanding officer was a small man, one who would pass unnoticed even on the streets of Onomichi. But the military environment seemed to draw forth the largeness of his personality, his spirit. As on the day of his oration at the end of basic training, I could sense the big man dominating a smaller man’s body.

“Do you know what I wanted to be back in my college days?” he said suddenly. We both glanced at him startled. “I wanted to be. . . as a mat­ter of fact, I was determined to be. . . a psychiatrist. However. . . .” He reached in his shirt pocket for a cigarette, struck a match on the sole of his shoe, and lighted up. For a moment he puffed introspectively, squinting and expelling the smoke in rich blue swirls. “You know how these things go. Costs a lot of okane to become a doctor.”

Another puff, exhaling and jetting the smoke through his nostrils. Squinting almost painfully now. “Perhaps, private, you are like I was. My mother was a widow, and she worked like a slave to buy me a bicycle.” His expression was nostalgic. “I was—oh, not more than ten. Never even knew my father. But anyway, my older brother taught me how to ride.” He smiled faintly. “At least, he tried. Let’s put it that way.”

He shifted, leaning back in his chair, arms folded. “My brother already had a bicycle; Stole it, as I recall.” For some reason the thought struck us all as quite humorous, and Tsubaki even laughed a little. “Any­way, he was going to teach me the right way. ‘Follow me!’ That’s what he kept saying. ‘Just do what I do.’ I hardly even knew how to balance the damn thing, but that didn’t matter. I had to follow him.”

Another puff. “So. . .” He pursed his lips, frowning pleasantly, ab­sorbed in the distant past. “We were going along this narrow, little road out in the country, and I was beginning to get the hang of it. But every time I’d ask a question, my brother would just repeat himself. ‘Follow me—do everything I do.’ Before long, though, I started following too closely, and my front wheel must have hit a rock, because it rammed me into his rear wheel, and we both went down. Right into a newly dunged rice paddy!”

Suddenly all three of us were laughing—three comrades. That was the only time I ever heard The Mantis laugh, and it was like the caw­ing of a raven.

“Just do everything I do”! We were about ostracized from the com­munity for a while after that.” Our captain shook his head and wiped his eyes, but it was impossible to tell whether the tears were from laugh­ter or cigarette smoke. Perhaps both. “Silly damned brother. ‘Just do everything I do!’” Then he grew more serious. “Dead and gone now. Killed a long time ago during the war in China.”

There the conversation ended, and I was sent to the guardhouse to “reflect upon the consequences of your actions” or words to that effect. Certainly the commanding officer had treated me with astonishing consideration, but The Mantis wasted no time in seeking to balance the scales. Quietly he ushered me into my private prison, closing the door behind him.

“Maybe that stupid commander doesn’t intend that you should pay for this,” he muttered. For an instant my shock at his disrespect to Captain Tsubaki outweighed my fear regarding what lay ahead. Then I saw the club. “But believe me, you shall. For this indignity, you shall be repaid in full!” Reflexively, I ducked and flung up my arm to ward off the blow, but it came too fast, too hard. There was an explosion in my brain, and I seemed to hear the sound of wood against my skull—hear it with my entire body. Then I was swallowed into a great, swirling, black hole. No pain. Nothing.

Gradually I became aware of sensations, but for a time I was no particular person, merely a glimmer of something in an area of unfeel­ing. No sensation, except for the cold and dampness. Eventually words formed in my mind. “What am I doing in the ocean?” It occurred to me that I was dead. When you are dead they bury you beneath the earth, but somehow you keep sinking, sinking until you reach the ocean. You lie there quietly at the bottom of the ocean where it doesn’t hurt, beneath all harm. None, if you lie quietly with serenity and acceptance. But, of course, it is dark there and cold, very cold.

Yet something puzzled me. . . the sense of hardness. I was lying face down, carefully working my hands and fingers outward across the surface maintaining me. A floor—concrete. A concrete floor. Then, vaguely I began to remember. For a time I could not recall who I was, but I had angered someone, humiliated someone, incurred his animosity. I could feel the mounting hatred, growing powerful and virulent like the stench of a rotting carcass.

Who or what was the source, and how did it happen? Slowly my brain began to clear, echoing the last words I had heard: “For this indignity you shall be repaid in full.” The floor was not only cold and hard, it was also damp, and the taste of sea water lay on my tongue, sea water with a faint coppery flavor. Then I touched my face, feeling a sticky oozing sensation. It was beginning to throb, and the throbbing was expanding into my head. Above my left ear was a large swelling, half welt, half lump. My face was also very bruised and sore. It was impossible to determine how long I had lain there. Minutes or hours, I could not tell.

I touched my face again, felt the stickiness, and looked at my finger tips. They were smeared with blood, blood that looked as black as tar in the dim light. Now I remembered almost everything, but Namoto had struck me on the side of my head. Why the blood on my face? Perhaps I had scraped it as my body hit the concrete.

Painfully, I sat up, staring at an oblong square of light on the floor at my feet. The light was sectioned, and my gaze ascended slowly toward its source, the barred window. Struggling to arise, I hobbled to it and peered out.

Hiro was quiet, except for the remote, faintly strident voice of a han – cho marching recruits in the distance. Evening now. Again, I explored my face and decided from its extreme tenderness and the extent of the bruising that The Mantis had also used his feet. The guardhouse was merely a small empty room—no table, no cot, no chair, not even a straw tatami to lie upon.

For several minutes I simply stood there, gripping the bars, and looking out as the shadows of night extended. Not much to see except for an expanse of hard, yellow clay and an unlighted barracks. Soon my legs began to sag, and I eased myself to the floor, back scraping down the wall to keep from falling. Then I worked my way into the corner, drawing my knees up to rest my head and arms on them.

A clicking at the door startled me. It opened slightly as a guard leaned inside to place something on the floor. “Here’s your chow and a blanket,” he said. The door clanged shut. Suddenly I was very hungry, ravenous. Only rice, pickles, and water, but I gulped it all down in seconds like an animal, smearing my nose and chin. My face throbbed savagely, yet it didn’t matter. Some rice had fallen on the floor, but I pinched it up,

devouring it to the last kernel. Then I licked the bowl and my fingers.

The light pattern was brightening on the floor now, extending. Spreading my thin blanket, I lay on its outer edge and slowly, in great pain, rolled up in it. By rolling tight I could have two layers over and under me. A cold fall night was filtering through the bars, and for a time I shivered helplessly. Gradually, though, I became warmer and lay there, feeling the breath ease in and out of my mouth and nostrils. Somehow, by concentrating on each soft inhalation and exhalation, I could ease my misery.

Anyway, I had humiliated The Mantis irreparably I told myself. I had not only stayed with him but out flown him. Ironically, although I had insisted earlier that it could never be done, I myself had broken his steel nerve and vindicated the entire squadron. In a way, I was glad that he had treated me so viciously. Maybe he would consider that enough, and possibly the morrow would set me free. Eventually, I fell asleep.

My hopes, however, were in vain. My sojourn in the guard house proved to be the worst experience of my entire training. All the next day I waited, longing for release, but only two incidents lessened the emptiness of those hours. Once I was permitted to visit the latrine in the building nearby, and that evening I received another bowl of rice and pickles. This time I ate more slowly, carefully savoring each morsel. I tried to remind myself that food was unimportant, that one’s attitude was actually what counted. After all, hadn’t the early samurai been able to forego any food for days? When food was unavailable, they would sit calmly, picking their teeth, pretending to have just completed a sumptu­ous repast.

Completing my own sumptuous repast, I rolled up once more in my blanket, hoping to sleep until the morning. Hoping, in fact, that perhaps I could sleep most of the remaining time away. After about two hours of fitful dozing, though, I arose and began pacing about my cell. The floor had not grown any softer, nor had my special rolling-up technique kept the cold from gradually penetrating.

My shoulder blades and hip bones were becoming sore. One can only relax on concrete for so long. The left side of my head continued to ache viciously from the club blow, and my eyes were still black from The Mantis’ feet. Even though I could not see myself, I could tell from the painfully swollen tissue that he had kicked my face more than once. I decided that at least the punishment was probably over, that release would come soon.

The afternoon had vanished, and evening was thickening when someone called my name. “Kuwahara!” I awakened, startled, wondering if I had merely been dreaming. Several times during the day, words had sounded in my own mind. “Kuwahara! Hey, come over to the window!” No mistake this time. Undoubtedly, I decided, my friends were concerned about me. Maybe they had even brought some food.

“Gripping the bars, I peered out into the gathering darkness. A crick­et was chanting faintly, muted by the cold. “I’m here—who is it?”

“Are you all right? Let’s see your face. Is it getting any better?” The words filled me with hope.

Pressing my swollen visage part way through the bars, I whispered, “Nakamura? Who is it?”

“It is I!” a fiendish voice snarled, and something cracked, searing my face like a blow torch. Screaming, I staggered back against the wall. The Mantis had been crouching there with his whip. As I slumped to the floor, he hissed, “Why carry on so, young bastard? I was only checking to make sure that your face is all right.”

The lash mark traveled from my mouth upward across my cheek and the lower corner of one eye. The eye was watering profusely, and after several long minutes of agony I worked my way back to my blanket and draped it about my shoulders. Awkwardly, I rolled back up in it once more, leaving one hand free to gently stroke and pat the injured area. Each time I stopped it began to smart and burn insanely.

Thus I continued, deep into the night, dozing fitfully, trying over and over to will away the pain. At about four a. m. it began to dimin­ish a bit, and at last I slept more peacefully. Eventually I awakened to discover that the window had turned from gray to blue, and I arose to begin pacing about my cell. Off on the air strip motors were revving—a wonderful sound that made my skin tingle. Then a dismaying thought struck me. If I remained in the guardhouse much longer, my chances for making fighter school would be eliminated. My head began to teem with sickening possibilities, and at that moment the door grated open.

It was my friend, The Mantis. “Come over here!” he ordered. “Turn around!” So, another whipping. Well, I had received plenty of those before. Bitterly, I complied, telling myself that it was at least a break in the monotony, but I was no more prepared for what followed than I had been for my lash to the face that previous evening.

The first blow slammed me to my hands and knees. The second flattened me on the floor. The Mantis was using a length of wet rope about an inch and a half in diameter.

Time and again that day the same punishment was repeated. Heavy, braided rope with harsh, prickly strands, freshly soaked in water to in­crease its weight and solidity. One lash usually flung me down, and if it failed to knock me unconscious, I fainted from pain anyway. Again and again and again. . . waiting from one lashing to the next, quivering and moaning, swearing, pleading to the god who had forgotten me. When the guard opened the door for my daily trip to the latrine, I smothered a cry. When my supper came, I cowered in the corner, trembling. For several minutes after the guard’s departure I continued to shake, gnaw­ing on my knuckles. The rope treatment had been coming about every two hours.

Somehow the third day blurred into the fourth, and early that morn­ing rational thought returned. I began to wonder how The Mantis would react if the tables were turned. Could I make him cringe, and grovel, plead for mercy? Well, I had accomplished the unimaginable only a short time earlier, forcing him to abandon his plane.

Nevertheless, his reaction seemed exceptionally atypical. To my knowledge that was the only time anyone had shattered his cold and calculating demeanor, his unyielding self control. Even my current punishment, though fraught with vengeance, was administered with machine-like aloofness.

Once I recalled our survival training in the mountains near Hiro. The Mantis had kept us without sleep for nearly four days, without food for two. I remembered the picture vividly: grim recruits surrounding him with loaded pistols, determined to take his life regardless of the cost. But the man had displayed no emotion whatsoever, not even the faint­est trace of uneasiness. He had merely eyed them coldly and remarked, “Why do that? You’ll only get into serious trouble—trouble that will make this seem like a school picnic.” Gradually they had wavered and

backed down. “After all,” he had added, “you have been learning how to eat and sleep ever since you were born. Now you must learn how not to eat and sleep.”

And this was the man I had managed to humiliate! Namoto not only hated me but, as I was beginning to realize, he felt morally obligated to “repay me in full.” True, he was a sadist of the first order, but my punishment would have been severe regardless. It is the moral duty of a Japanese to repay an injustice as well as a favor.

Eventually my thoughts returned to fighter school. It was still my grandest goal. Indeed, it mattered more than ever now. For a while I could not recall how many days had passed. Maybe I could still qualify. That was all that mattered. I scarcely even thought of home.

Then the flash of optimism was gone. The door lurched open with an ominous clank, but by now I had lost all control. “Kill me!” I shouted. My voice was like the sound of a wood rasp. “Kill me and get it over with!”

Slowly he approached, rope in hand. “Get up, Kuwahara!”

“No!” I shouted, “No-you can’t make me!”

“Get up!”

Instead, I cursed him: “Konchikusyo! Bakayaro! Gaki!”

He loomed over me, cobra-like, rope readied. “All right, if you want it on the floor—” I thrashed out, kicking his shins, and The Mantis staggered backward, cursing me with every foul word he could think of, and he knew more than I did.

So again! Again, I had shattered his calm, and he hated me more than ever for it. I tried to roll away as the rope lashed across my neck, nearly breaking it. Then it came again and again, like repeated strikes of lightning. I could even feel its livid yellow color. Again the black hole yawned, consuming me.

Some time later the door opened once more. I stared vacantly.

“Get up!”

“No,” I barely croaked. The arm raised, the rope descending rav­enously, and there it was once more—the black hole. The wonderful, blessed, great, dark hole. Oblivion.

By afternoon I lay thinking about the hole. It was very good, my only hope now, yet it could hold me only so long. Inevitably, I would drift to

the surface. Occasionally, when the light began to expand I would swim back down toward the depths, but each time my stay was shorter. That hole and the dark corner of the cell shared a mutual relationship. Why did I always have to return? Why couldn’t I stay down? Why? Why?

Then it came to me with exciting certainty: I could stay down forever!

A sense of triumph, near elation, filled my soul. Idly I began drag­ging myself about the room, feeble and crippled like an old man, but that didn’t matter. I was looking for something that would work—my metal rice bowl perhaps. Possibly I could crush it to create a jagged edge. I bent down, groaning, and picked it up. Or grind it on the cement floor until the edge was knife sharp.

Propping the bowl sidewise against the wall, I tried several times to stomp on it without success. Plane motors were grumbling in the sky now, a continual crisscross of sound. Glancing at the barred window, I saw a dragonfly. Slowly, miserably, I limped my way toward it, toward the light. The insect’s wings shimmered silver, making a strange brittle sound as it danced off into the day.

Gripping the bars, I peered out, hoping to trace its flight but to no avail. It had vanished. The window ledge was shoulder high, indented about six inches to the bars, and suddenly I had my answer. Yes, a perfect ledge! Men had done it that way before —a bench, table, a railing. . . a ledge” A ledge like this one would be ideal. Simply thrust my tongue out, clamp it between my teeth, lock my hands atop my head. . . then slam my chin against the ledge—hard, with all my strength. That way my tongue would be bitten off and I would bleed to death. Yes, more than one man had died that way at Hiro. How simple! How wonderful!

Fingers interlaced, I locked my hands upon my head, testing the idea carefully, very slowly, to determine the exact angle of impact between my chin and the ledge. It would be absolutely essential to do it correctly, not botch the job and simply mangle my tongue. Otherwise, I might survive to speak nothing but gibberish. Definitely not the time for a mistake. Thrusting my tongue out still further, I clamped it tighter attempting to assess the level of pain. No doubt it would be very painful, agonizingly so. That was the only problem. Nevertheless, I would bleed copiously, and it probably wouldn’t last long.

Again, I performed my special test, chewing tentatively. A tongue was a strange thing, really, a highly incongruous organ. For some reason it didn’t seem consistent in any way with the rest of my anatomy. Strangely, as well, I was not especially afraid, not nearly as much as I might have imagined. Instead, my body was slowly burning, simmering in a kind of sympathetic vibration to the fading drone of motors.

Then the dragonfly returned and balanced delicately upon the outer ledge as though bearing a message. What was it I had learned in school biology? Something about how a caged dragonfly, without food, would eventually begin eating its tail, never ceasing until it had devoured nearly half its own body. Surely, therefore, I could do a small thing like biting off the tip of my tongue.

What immense, almond-shaped eyes it had! I had never realized that eyes could look like that. I stared in fascination at the shimmering, blue body—at the transparent filament wings. Why did it have four instead of two? I pushed my finger toward it and the dragonfly flared upward and sidewise, balanced upon the air and vanished.

Blankly I stared into space. Then I glanced down at my hands, watched them open and close of their own accord. My hands were shaped like my mother’s; that was what she had always said. The nails had those same half-moons. Once more, this time with a devout sense of finality, I locked my hands over my head, and felt my hair. It was dirty hair, matted with blood, sweat, and grime. But it was mine. It was important, my own special hair. I held a palm against my forehead and stroked my fingers down very carefully over my nose and mouth. They were battered and swollen, but they were mine, my own nose and mouth, and they were unique. The plane motors were suddenly growing louder, louder than I had ever heard them.

Well, I would wait for just a little while. Yes, I would kill myself, but I would wait for just a little while. Slowly, agonizingly, knees sagging, I slumped to the floor and began to cry.

Hiroshima

I

t was August 1, 1945, and I had returned from a reconnais­sance flight near Matsue to learn that someone had paid me a visit. “Some woman was here to see you, Kuwahara,” the desk sergeant said.

My heart surged, beating rapidly. Toyoko?

“Your sister,” the clerk added. Well then, my sister. Wonderful! Surely I wanted to see her as well.

“Unfortunately, we couldn’t allow her to stay,” the desk sergeant continued, “As you know, we can’t have any civilians on the base now.” I barely nodded. “She left you these,” he said.

Thanking him, I hurried to my barracks, carrying the envelope and tiny parcel. Sitting on my cot, I opened the note and began reading: “Yasuo-chan, we received your message and were overjoyed to hear from you—the first word in many weeks. We did not know what had become of you. But now, to learn that you are near us once more—that

makes us feel so much better, even though we cannot see you.

“How proud we are, Yasuo! We know that you are bringing great honor to the Emperor, your country, and your family. I love you for this, my brother, for your courage, but always, even more for what you have been to me, what we have been to each other. I speak now, as well, for our entire family. Wherever you may go, whatever you may be doing, our love journeys with you.

“Each day I pray for you at our shrine and always in my heart. Your Sister, Tomika.”

Over and over, I read those words, consumed by emotion. An im­mense longing swept over me like a tide. If only I could have seen her—for a single, fleeting second! Just one more time! Then the tide ebbed. No, better not to have seen her at all, not to see any of them. Better that way. At last I opened the little parcel. For a long time I sat there bowed, star­ing at her gift, feeling its softness against my palm, gazing at its lustrous darkness. Tomika had left me a lock of her hair.

A torpid August first merged with August second. Over a month since my meeting with Captain Tsubaki. A month, and still waiting! Incredible! Why didn’t the word come? Why? What were they waiting for? And now the paradox loomed even more strangely. As each day brought me closer to death it might also draw me farther away. It was a race between the death of our nation and the death of Yasuo Kuwahara.

The night of August third, I tossed feverishly, beset by endless night­mares. Death was no longer my greatest fear. Waiting itself was worse. No hope now. Desperate though our country had become, I decided that its surrender might still take months. The waiting, waiting, the abominable waiting! The strangling noose of uncertainty, growing ever tighter!

Once I awakened, muttering incoherently, my entire body slick with sweat, my hair not only damp but even wet with it. If my orders didn’t come soon, I might take the easy way out after all. A sharp knife, a quick slice across the jugular vein. “There is nothing honorable in dying for a lost cause,” the words came. “There is nothing. . . .” I almost choked.

I was ensnared in the great net from which there was no escape. One way or another, I would die. But die the easy way to escape the hard way? After all the struggle, end my life through cowardice? Humiliation and dishonor? Yes, humiliation and dishonor, to myself and to my family, if not for our government for which I had now lost all respect. I shook my head, sighing, moaning. No, not the easy way—not the coward’s way.

Wait, Kuwahara. Wait, barely existing from one moment to the next. Grit your teeth. Clench your fists. Swear. . . Pray to God. Curse him if you have to, but wait. Do not bring dishonor. Keep me sane, keep me in the skies, striking at the enemy. . . until the word comes! Yes, fighting is the best solution now—my only salvation.

August fourth, I found myself praying many times that day, much of it virtually senseless, often utterly contradictory. I knew where a sharp knife was, waiting patiently without compromise. God send me an enemy plane. Don ‘t make me wait. Do not leave me here!

At four in the morning, August fifth, I sat bolt upright, tearing myself from the ragged fracture of another nightmare. My mattress was again saturated with sweat, and I arose shakily to begin pacing the floor. I was seeing it all from a different perspective again. What did it matter how I died, just so I got it over with? My family? I didn’t have a family. My entire past was a dream. Life itself the constant nightmare, inescapable, awake or asleep.

The wooden floor was hard and a bit slivery as I crossed it and exited through the back door. Cooler outside, the base silent and corpse like, slowly wreathing in darkness and the first bilious gleams of dawn. In a few minutes I would go get the knife, kneel there beside the barracks—dark and cool. Enter the waning darkness, the coolness, before they escaped, flee with them forever. No, no ridiculous. Not after so long a struggle. For a moment I cursed the entire world, but nothing would send me out a coward. I would have that one, cold triumph.

Now… go back in and lie down on your soggy mattress. Got to sleep before the feel­ing changes again. You’ll make it to the end, Yasbei… somehow. Think about anything else. . . about Toyoko. No, no, better not. Toyoko makes you remember that final night together. Then think of Tatsuno—Nakamura too. You were not a true friend, Kuwahara. Yes, guilt, a rancid taste on the tongue—that only one thing can dispel. Think of someone else. Tyyoko. No, not Toyoko, not.. . Think of your sister, your mother. Ah, ah yes.. . you can see their faces once more, hear their blessed voices.

An hour before reveille, I sank into a feverish sleep, a state of near coma.

And that day. . . I received my written orders. On August eighth, I would take off for the final time. At last, at last, I truly knew! A great and leaden door had swung open revealing my destiny. Okinawa. . . waiting there amid the endless waters and the swirling vapors of time. Three days. Somehow, some way, I would cling to the melting rim of existence three more days.

The following morning I would be granted a two-day pass. Such was the Japanese Military’s magnanimity to its fated sons. At first I had decided not to use that pass. I had reflected upon the matter lengthily, well beforehand, in fact, convinced that it would be better never to see my family or friends again, told myself that in effect I had died already. I had banished the idea from my mind.

Almost.

Early that next morning, August sixth, I burst into the orderly room with a frantic change of heart. “My pass! Do you have a two-day pass for me?”

The desk sergeant was owlish, slightly grizzled, wearing thick-lensed reading glasses. For a moment he regarded me strangely. “You were supposed to have signed for it last night, Corporal.”

“I couldn’t last night,” I said struggling hard to contain myself, “Just give me the pass—I’ll sign for it now.”

“Well. . . all right,” he replied, still stupidly reluctant. “Ummm, let’s see. . . .” Fumbling his way through the file with infuriating clumsiness. “Ummmm. . . let’s see: Ito. . . Kimura. . . Hai, Kuwahara! Go ahead, but date it August fifth, or, it will be my ass! No, not there, damn it! Right here, under Kimura’s.”

For a moment I had scarcely known what I was doing. It was almost as if I had never learned to write. “Arigato, Sergeant—thank you.” With trembling hands I scrawled my signature, destination, time of departure, time of return, then fled.

Minutes later I had obtained a ride in the back of an army truck headed for Hiroshima. It would not take long to reach my home from there. Home, my place of origin, the people to whom I belonged. I should have known the pull would be too great, inexorable, like the gravitational force of the moon upon the tides. How foolish I had been.

The truck rumbled erratically forward, jolting and clattering over the pitted road, nearly jarring my teeth loose at times, but I didn’t mind. I was gazing at the darkening green of the rice fields, the narrow canals, the lush, green vegetation of the mountains, the interplay of sunlight and retreating shadow, and the burgeoning blue of the sky. Suddenly there was a remarkable enchantment about my entire surroundings—a beauty I had almost forgotten.

Nostalgia welled with the advancing light, and now I was remember­ing experiences from my boyhood: a family visit to the shrines of Kyoto, a secluded lake miraculously high in the mountains somewhere, taking turns with my brothers looking through a pay telescope at scenes far distant. . . two fishermen in a row boat a mile away, unaware of our gaze as they baited their hooks then commenced eating their lunch. A bright river of memory flowing through my mind with scenes of enchantment at every turn, but most of all home.

Unexpectedly I was strangely happy. Miraculously, it suddenly seemed that the next two days would somehow be exempt from the manacles of fate just ahead. A golden island that would glow through­out the expanses of eternity. The forty-eight hours would pass, but the island would remain, and death would merely be a transition, a process of purification wherein the good, the just, the truly happy would abide. Yes in the last analysis, death would indeed be lighter than a feather.

Perhaps God, or Buddah, or fate. . . someone or something. . . who or whatever placed us in this strange estate called mortality would accomplish it. “Make it acceptable to me,” I murmured, “please make it all right.” The words repeated themselves over and over, resonating throughout my being, and I leaned forward, elbows on my knees, hands clasping my head.

That way I could feel every rock and depression in the road, but it was working. Someone or something was listening. I continued to repeat the words but more calmly now, and my soul was relaxing as though a clean breeze were drifting through. I glanced up. Yes, a cleansing breeze, literally. The rice was billowing in soft green waves. And yes, the happi­ness had not deserted me. Two golden days, and that was everything.

I left the truck on the outskirts of Hiroshima at about 7:30 a. m., and a few minutes later boarded a streetcar. Impulsively, only moments earlier, I had decided to visit briefly with a friend there in the Second General Army Hospital before going on to Onomichi. Leaving the streetcar, I heard it move off along the tracks, emitting a lonely tootle in the distance. For an instant I gazed about, filled with a sudden need to consume, somehow digest and metabolize my entire surroundings.

The sky was still clear except for a muted overcast in the west as I walked along Shiratori Street toward the hospital. Already it was growing sultry, and even at that hour small bands of children were skittering about the streets, blessedly unaware that their world was falling apart. “Ohayo gozaimasu!” A man passed by, carrying a briefcase, and I returned his good morning. Grocers and magazine vendors had opened the shutters to their flimsy huts, but there was little within them of interest.

Once, on impulse, though, I stopped to purchase an orange. I could feel its roundness as I continued along the street, the gratifying texture of its skin, even the pores, in my hand. What a marvelous creation, how remarkably designed! By chance alone? If so, why the consistency in oranges everywhere, the order of their growth? The pliable, rubbery skin, so easily removable yet so remarkably protective? Why the delight­ful, incredibly sweet, easily separable sections, perfectly constituted to delight the palate and enhance one’s health? The skin glowed entranc­ingly, joyfully. My mouth watered, but I would wait, cherishing it until the proper time. A reward, a gift to myself. For what, I did not know. Perhaps for having simply survived so long, so miraculously.

Along my way, an old woman called to me. Her face was a mosaic of wrinkles and lines as though it had been frozen and shattered. Eyeing her curiously, I turned back, and she reached for me with a trembling hand. For a moment I gazed into her withered face, into eyes still bright and alert. “I want to know the truth, young man,” she rasped. “What has become of our aircraft? Why are they no longer up there?” She hunched before me, shriveled, blinking and stoic, probably anticipating the worst, even wanting it.

Gently I laid my hand upon her shoulder, and gazed at the pavement. I wished greatly that I could go somewhere with that ancient obasan. Conversation would be unnecessary, only her presence. That, perhaps, and a cup of tea. “Old mother,” I said, “there are few planes left. Before long it will all be over, and we won’t have to hide from the bombs any more.” Her claw closed upon my hand almost painfully, and I began to leave. Then I turned back for a moment. “Here, take this,” I said and handed her the orange.

Minutes later I heard air raid sirens—a small concern, since two American planes had already passed over while I was on the street car. The lone B-29 above did not seem threatening for some reason, merely patronizing. If I were up there now in my Hayabusa I would dive at it from the eye of the sun, all guns blazing, pumping them out from my cannons. But the old woman was right. No Japanese planes in sight. The sky was empty except for that single, stolid, lumbering monster, coursing the heavens with total impunity.

I continued to watch it occasionally, however, as I went along my way. There was something disconcerting in its very placidness, about the persistent smugness of its droning. So casual, so presumptuous. Soon a tiny white speck separated from its silver belly, and the plane moved off, picking up speed. No larger than a marble at first, the object increased to the size of a baseball, then seemed to change in form, becoming a large mushroom. A parachute, carrying a strange, dark object, tapered like a shark but blunt at one end as though the head had been chopped off. Yes. I heard the speculations of others watching with me.

“What are they up to now?”

“More of their stupid pamphlets?”

“Yes, more propaganda-more of the same old thing. Don’t pay it any—”

All other mutterings were obliterated, along with everything else. Suddenly a monstrous multi-colored flash bulb went off directly in my face. Something like concentrated heat lightning stifled me, transform­ing my lungs into vacuums. So fast, it might have been a mere figment of the imagination.

Yet simultaneously I threw up my hands, vainly striving to protect my face from the ferocious burning. A mighty blast furnace had just been opened upon the world.

Within the next moment there came a cataclysm which no one will ever describe adequately. It was neither a roar, a boom, nor a blast. Rather, it was a combination of all those qualities with something else added—the fantastic power of earthquakes, avalanches, and erupting volcanoes. For one fantastic, overwhelming moment nature had un­leashed its wrath, and the world had ruptured in a mighty convulsion.

All this within only seconds, and I was slammed to the earth as though struck by a charging rhino. Sudden darkness, all light extinguished like the flicking of a switch. . . pressure, an agonized, choking gasp. . . my body seared with pain. Then relief, utter vacancy. I did not exist. Never had.

Minutes. . . hours. . . days? Impossible to tell, but somewhere within the depths of nothingness, there came a sound. A rumbling that somehow, in defiance of natural law, restored my spirit in the depths of the void. At the time, however, these things were only dim awareness—the aware­ness perhaps of a worm stirring in the winter soil or an insect within its cocoon.

Another rumbling. . . then another, and the sense of awareness expanded. Carts. . . the rumbling of carts! But why? What had hap­pened? Where was I? Gradually my sense of personality acquired clearer dimension. I was Yasuo Kuwahara, Corporal. Kuwahara. . . on my way somewhere. On my way home?

Going home to say goodbye.

Yes, recollection returning. But what had happened? An earthquake? No, a strange and impossible explosion. A bomb perhaps, a bomb of colossal force utterly beyond the realm of experience. There within the darkness I saw again the white and welling mushroom—drifting on the retina of memory, steadily transforming now, becoming a gigantic jel­lyfish—something dark and sullen, inexpressibly grotesque, attached to its tendrils.

But I was Yasuo—Yasuo Kuwahara, still alive, though helpless, scarcely able to move. Buried alive! The realization riddled me with horror, greater fear than I had yet known, but eventually I worked one arm free from the rubble embracing it, feeling the skin of my hand rip on something jagged. My eyes, nose, ears, even my mouth, were clogged with dirt, and for several minutes I choked and spat, blinking frantically, then stopped suddenly from pain as the grit rasped my eyeballs.

For a long time I simply lay there, gasping and groaning. My eyes were watering copiously, but eventually they cleared enough that I could detect a tiny scratch of light overhead. It seemed now that I could hear more sounds above as well, people treading about—once another rumbling noise.

Again, it died, and I was filled with terror. Buried alive. I began to writhe, groping about with my free hand and encountering the jagged board that had ripped it earlier. “Help! Help me!” I forced out the words with all my strength, but they sounded like the croaks of a frog. Again and again I called out, gradually with greater volume, also growing pain in my throat and chest.

The pressure from my waist down was also increasing, becoming unbearable. The numbness was creeping upward, entering my torso. Hours seemed to elapse, and occasionally there were more noises over­head. At times I would call out, then go down in a swoon. It was that whirlpool again that I had discovered months before during my beatings from the Mantis.

Once I surfaced, and for the moment my thoughts were lucid. A huge and terrible bomb, yes. The Americans had dropped a new bomb unlike any the world had ever known. Yes, that had to be it.

During my flights to Okinawa some weeks earlier I had heard occa­sional radio messages from the enemy in Saipan, warning us to surrender or suffer catastrophic consequences. Was this the ultimate realization?

What an ironic situation in any event. A suicide pilot, a noble, glori­ous Kamikaze, dying inside the earth only a short distance from his home! For an instant I almost laughed. What an ignominious way to die! On the other hand. . . why did it matter? Perhaps all of Japan was gone. Had a B-29 circled over every major city, releasing a parachute with a bomb? What a thought. No more Japan! Everything gone, in ruins. No, no, impossible.

More noise above, giving me a start. Dust had sifted through the scratch of light overhead. For a moment it widened then shrank to a mere bird’s eye. More dust. The eye closed, and I yelled. Feeling as though my lungs might tear loose, I shouted again and again. No answer. Sobbing for air and groaning, I made a last feeble bid for help.

Seconds later the eye blinked once more and became a yawning mouth. “I hear you,” a voice came. “Be patient—we’re removing the rubble.” Wonderful words, yet there in my helplessness, I wondered again whether I was now a complete cripple. The numbness in my body was increasing. How long had I been there? Days? Would I be liberated only to die moments later? Or to be hopelessly paralyzed?

The sounds above increased. At length, unbelievably, the weight was lifting, darkness changed to a blinding light. “Are you all right?” a voice inquired. “Easy, easy—better not move. Better not. . . .” But I was moving, getting to my hands and knees. Moving! Struggling to rise. . . somehow regaining my feet! But dizzy, overwhelmingly dizzy.

The world teetered in a blur. What a weird, swirling vision! Voices, insistently, warning, comforting, making no sense, and I toppled back­ward, the blood draining from my head, much as though I were com­pleting a power dive in my fighter plane. Legs collapsing. “Easy—easy!” Hands and arms, capturing me, breaking my fall. “We’ve got you. . . it’s all right. Just lie back for a minute.” I gazed up at them in vacuous wonderment. My benefactors were all clad in white!

“You’ll be all right,” a voice said. “Just stay right here until you regain your strength. We have to go now.”

The thought filled me with panic. “No, wait! Don’t go!”

“We must,” the voice drifted. “Hiroshima is in ruins—everyone dead or dying.” The figures were dissolving like ghosts.

“No, don’t leave me!” I pleaded and broke into a strange, dry crying, but the crying hurt so much I ceased, groping for rationality. Eventually I got to my hands and knees and struggled to my feet again, still so dizzy I wondered if my ear canals had ruptured.

Days later I learned that my benefactors, the figures in white, were patients from the army hospital who had dived beneath their beds when the explosion occurred, barely escaping destruction themselves. I also learned that I had been buried for approximately six hours.

Gradually, my vision cleared, revealing a spectacle exceeding my most horrifying nightmares—so hideous, my already queasy stomach erupted, and I fell to my knees, retching. Minutes later I was still on all fours, hoping that I had merely been the victim of some gargantuan hallucination. But no, it was all there, far more horrible, in fact, than I had initially realized.

Many have sought to describe Hiroshima following the nuclear holocaust on that fateful day, August 6, 1945, an immense wound in the heart of history that has never fully healed, merely become a throbbing mass of scar tissue. No one has ever succeeded nor will they, for what occurred there was beyond the realm of human experience.

Certain broad pictures remain, however, scorched forever within my memory. . . pictures of a great city reduced to a fiery rubble pit in which approximately 140,000 people had died with an equal number wounded. Some of the former had literally been vaporized or burned to a crisp, and all of it within a few ticks of a watch.

Again, I stood, still swaying, staring dementedly, and now I felt moisture. A black rain was settling from a black sky. Again, lapses of memory. Again, for a time, I could not recall when I had come to this place or why. All about me for miles, the landscape had been virtually leveled, yet it was steadily astir with life and death, like the amorphous agitations in a swamp, steadily becoming more appalling as my vision cleared.

Shiratori Street, I gradually realized, was buried under houses and buildings, folded and smashed like trampled boxes—much of it charred and blackened, portions aflame, periodically flaring up savagely. Bodies were scattered everywhere, some charred and inert, some barely mobile. In the distance, a few of the sturdiest buildings still stood, gray-black and skeletal, a number listing precariously, ready to collapse. Fire and smoke everywhere, rapidly expanding, and at times the smoke drifted my way, blindingly, chokingly.

Groggily I gazed skyward. The sun had been annihilated along with everything else. Despite the hour, night was closing in. I glanced down at the debris nearby and realized that fate had actually worked in my favor. The house under which I was buried had also partially shielded me from the blast. In addition, I had apparently fallen at the base of a large watering trough located against the back wall of the house. The trough, in turn, had helped protect me from the collapsing debris.

Sand, mortar, and litter had nearly filled the trough, forcing it to overflow, and apparently the remaining water had completely evapo­rated. The awful heat wave had turned nearby grass and other vegetation to ashes, actually melted much of it.

Examining myself more thoroughly now, I discovered a large bruise on the back of my head, lacerations across the side of my face and neck. Both eyes were badly swollen, flowing with tears, and still smarted. My clothing was torn and filthy, with a large rip over my knee. The knee throbbed, sticky with blood and dirt.

Eventually I hobbled away aimlessly, reeling at times like a drunk and within a short distance encountered a pile of bodies, possibly ten or twelve of them. Several were still alive, struggling feebly to extricate themselves. A blackened form rolled from the heap, and a head emerged. The face was singed beef, and its single bloodshot eye blinked at me. The nose was gone, the mouth a lopsided hole.

“Here, here—let me help you,” I said, and began dragging free some of the corpses. Tugging at a charred arm, I fell backward. The flesh from the elbow down had sloughed off in my hands like that of a roasted goose. Gorge rising, I continued my task, freeing a man already more dead than alive. One or two people assisted, but others merely stared as though stupefied.

The entire landscape seemed to wreathe with moans and wails, mounting at times to a kind of bedlam. I limped onward, still direction­less, and within seconds I chanced upon a man pinned beneath a beam. Several people were grunting and prying with timbers, struggling to extricate him. Then, as they dragged him free, he emitted an agonized scream and died, blood gushing from his bowels. Hip to ankle, he had been mangled, but the beam’s pressure had prevented external bleed­ing.

Bewildered, I wandered on while all about me people were dying, moving aimlessly like half-frozen insects, some clasping their heads other parts of their bodies. Many were naked, and a few—mostly women – sought vainly to cover themselves. Others seemed totally oblivious to their personal nudity. My own clothes were, in fact, more tattered than I had originally realized. One sleeve was missing from my jacket, and one trouser leg, a mere scorched crust, virtually crumbled apart as I brushed against pile ofjagged boards.

I reeled onward, a wild, staring animal, bereft of my sanity. Oddly, however, a second part of me, a kind of alter ego, seemed to be monitor­ing my responses, somehow detached, from a different perspective. At times, it seemed, that I could actually stand back a bit to observe the strange, haggard creature that I had become, that others were observ­ing. Observing, however, with utter indifference for the great majority were in far worse condition than I.

A short distance ahead someone called feebly, a woman sprawled upon the pavement as though hurled from the sky. Her body was roasted, blackened, and blistered beyond recognition. Her hair had been reduced to charcoal, and patches of her skin and flesh were peeling off.

One side of her throat was scathed and laid open, yet cauterized by the blast, and I could actually see the blood vessels, weakly pulsating with tortured life. Her lips writhed, struggling to form words, but her vocal cords were also dying. Kneeling beside her, I bent low, listening, heard only the dry, hissing buzz of her breath. Then I understood. “Kill me. Please kill me.”

Transfixed, I stared at her, my own mouth gaping. The light in those eyes was fading, and suddenly my entire body racked with an immense moan. Clasping my hands to my face, I arose and stumbled off. Innumerable forms lay all about me, some writhing and in their death throes, many afflicted with that same hideous skin condition. Like blackened lepers, they were falling apart. Others, simply wandered in collective confusion.

Slowly, feeble as an old man, I struggled on throughout the rubble pit that was once Hiroshima for an hour or more, trying at times to be of aid to the wounded and dying but usually with complete futility. Eventually I found myself before the remains of the Yamanaka Girls’ High School. Before classwork that morning approximately four hun­dred girls had assembled in rows on the outer grounds to receive their daily announcements. The blast had cut them down like an enormous scythe, stripping off everything but their belts. Watches, rings and buckles had been embedded in their blackened flesh by the fearsome heat. The school pendants worn about their necks were burned into the sternums between their breasts.

Parents and other family members were examining the bodies. Mothers and sisters were moaning and wailing unlike anything I have ever heard. Some had apparently identified their own, but the efforts in general were futile because most of the girls’ faces had been charred beyond recognition. Teeth projected in ghastly grins, and the odor of their bodies cloyed in my nostrils like the reek of manure and decaying fish. Again, I doubled over, holding my stomach and retching, but noth­ing emerged except for streamers of mucous and saliva flowing from my nostrils and lips, dripping from my chin.

As I turned to leave, a man and woman were huddled before a body, peering into the remains of its face with awful intensity. Many were clinging to each other and weeping as though nothing was left in the universe.

Eventually I spotted an army truck ahead winnowing its way through an expanse of smoldering rubble. “Wait!” I shouted, “wait!” but my voice was the cawing of a crow. The truck lumbered onward, two or three men in the back gaping at me stupidly. “Wait!” The cry tore at my lungs agonizingly, and I stumbled, falling. They could not distinguish me from a civilian, and for a moment I simply sprawled there, face down in the dirt and ashes.

Soon, another truck came grinding my way, and for a time I thought it might run over me. No matter—a blessing, in fact. Nevertheless, by mere instinct, I raised my hand feebly as it rumbled past. Then, a short distance beyond, it halted and began to back up. For the third time that day, I rose from the earth and, surprised at my own strength, began to run. My energy deserted me as I reached the tail gate, however, and I was dragged aboard like the survivor of a ship wreck.

Beyond all feeling now, I stared vacantly at the landscape as it fell behind. Fires still rampaged in many places, smoke stifling the entire area and menacing the sky. We crossed the Ota River upon a bridge mi­raculously still in tact though precariously near collapse. A human carpet thronged those shores in throbbing blotches. Thousands were sprawled and slowly convulsing along the banks like poisoned lemmings.

Countless numbers wallowed in the shallows, trying to cool them­selves. Many had died that way, some from their wounds, others from drowning—bobbing corpses, dozens washing down stream on the current. Mothers, fathers, aged and infant. . . the bomb had not been guilty of discrimination.

Gradually the city fell behind in a ruddy, grit-filled haze, abrading the eyes and nostrils at times like tear gas. Eventually we were passing fields, still green, relatively unchanged, except that the shadows were now lengthening from the west instead of the east.