Wednesday, February 22, 2012


I spent a year on the island of Okinawa, in the South China Sea, in the late ‘60’s. Having been fascinated by WWII in the Pacific, I spent a lot of time exploring the island, looking for signs of the battle. The fight for the southern 1/3 of the island was a hideous, savage slugging match that killed nearly 100,000 people. The fight for the northern 2/3 of it was more of a guerrilla action – fought by squads and platoons in ambushes and surprise attacks. The terrain in the north is very rough and beautiful.

One day, a couple of pards and I rented a car and went touristing up north. The battlefield maps I had were of minimal use on the modern landscape, but offered at least a starting point. On this day, we drove up a pretty decent dirt road that wound and twisted over gnarled, white coral hogbacks and down into jungle-choked ravines that hadn’t seen the sun since before The Flood. At one point, the road went up a flat-bottomed ravine with steep ridges on either side. It ran straight for about 300 yards to the foot of a cliff, where it turned sharply to the left.

I knew this place! A platoon of Marines had been ambushed here by Japanese on that cliff and in the caves in its face. The Japanese had been driven off or killed by a Marine Sherman tank. The Japanese held ground that was 50 feet above the Marines, who were penned in the bowling alley-like ravine. It had been a heck of a scrap until the tank turned the tide.

We parked and walked along the road toward the cliff, looking for artifacts. We found a few bullet jackets, and Red found a piece of a mandible. I wanted to get to the top of the cliff, and into those caves! There were three of them, blank, skull-eyes in the white coral face. From the road, we could see the divots taken from the coral by the tank’s main gun, and the thought of what might be in those caves gave me palpitations! (My friends were there mostly to enjoy my foolishness.)

It took an hour to hike around to the top of the bluff, where we found some shell fragments and more bullet jackets. I rappelled over the edge and into the first cave. The cave closed sharply to a crack that I couldn’t crawl through. I shined my flashlight in it, but could see only the coral walls. I backed out and swing on my rope to the second cave. It was a little bigger, and I found a half-dozen .50 caliber bullets in it, smashed and twisted from impact with the rocks. Any man in that cave would have been in a veritable blender with those things bouncing around. I swung to the third cave.

As I stepped into the cave mouth, I realized that there were no spider webs across it, as there had been with the others. This one was much larger – high enough for me to stand erect. The floor was very smooth, and dropped gently down for about 10 feet. There were no bullets or shell fragments in the cave – not even the sherds of blasted coral that had covered the floors of the others. At the rear of this entry hall, the cave made a right turn. My flashlight led the way down and around the bend, where I stopped, frozen, almost unable to breathe.

Before me was a small room, about eight feet square, with a six-foot ceiling. The walls to my left and right were coral, but the back wall was of clay. Carved from the clay was a bench seat, big enough for one man to sit on with a few inches to spare. On that bench, near left end – where a right-handed man might have placed it – was a teacup. It was a very plain little cup – elegantly curved, exquisitely finished and glazed, with a deep blue geometric figure on one side. It sat in perfect, tranquil repose, like a perfect stone in a perfect Japanese sand garden. Perfect.

I stared at it for I don’t know how long, then slowly crossed the room, carefully examining where I would place each foot; some of these caves were still mined, and men had died in them recently. In the clay and dirt of the floor I saw footprints – prints of the split-toed boots so many Japanese soldiers wore. Immediately in front of the bench were footprints facing away, where he had placed his feet as he sat, and there, in the compliant surface of the bench, was the print of a man’s trousers. In awe, I looked from the floor to the bench and back, and again, and noticed the print of the buttplate of an Arisaka rifle – the standard Japanese infantry rifle. This man had sat here in the dark with his rifle at his left knee, his teacup in his right hand, and… what? Did he have a cup of tea? What was he thinking of?

In too many such places have I found myself in the company of too many men and women who chose not to be seen for me to think that only we mortals walk about, and in that place I felt him, and knew he was there as surely as I knew my friends were above me. He was gentle, but very strong and quick. He did not mind my being there, but had I not been so humbly awed and respectful, it would have been different, and I would not have enjoyed my stay.

After perhaps 10 minutes or more I stepped closer to the bench and knelt. I thought for an instant about sitting on it, but the very thought was shocking, and I could not have taken his place. I found my hand reaching for the teacup, almost against my will, and picking it up. He stirred, but did not object. I took the towel from my pack, wrapped the cup in it, and placed it ever so gently back in my pack. Still kneeling before him, I traced the print of his rifle butt, then of his boots, then lay my hand flat where he had sat. Had I possessed the spiritual acumen to pray in those days, I’d have offered up my soul in one. But I didn’t, so after another minute or two I stood, turned, careful to not make twisting prints in the floor, and slipped out of his room.

To my astonishment, the sun still shone at the mouth of the cave. There was one more revelation before me.

I called to my friends that I would rappel to the bottom of the cliff and look around there. When I was down, they cast off the rope and started their hike to the road. Eyes cast down, I carefully toed aside the creeping vines that covered the bottom of the ditch. I found shell fragments and bullets aplenty, but nothing remarkable. I looked up at the cliff to orient myself on the caves, and saw that I was directly in front of the third. I looked down and there, almost between my feet, was a very smooth, round object of about a four-inch radius. About two inches of it protruded from the earth. It was one of the most prized battlefield artifacts – a Japanese helmet!

It was badly rusted, but not as much as one might think, given the rainy climate. I used a knife to carefully move the dirt away from the helmet until I could see the rolled hem on the bottom edge, then pushed my fingers down along the surface and curled my fingertips carefully around the edge, and lifted. The paper-thin steel creaked and popped as the stress of its own weight bent and bowed it. Up it came, out of its crypt. Crypt? I thought. Odd choice of words.

And then I looked into his eyes.

There was no name on any of this, and no way I could know his name, but it was him, I know it as surely as I sit here. His skull. It was stuck to the helmet, and came out with it, and when I tipped the helmet in lifting it, he looked up at me. Straight in my eyes. I didn’t scream or flinch or drop his head. I just sat, frozen again, and stared. It must have been a half-hour later that I heard my friends big-footing and chatting on the road.

With tears streaming down my face, I turned his helmet down and slipped it as gently as I could back into the place whence it had come. I scraped the soil back around it and gently tamped it in place. Then I lay my hand on his helmet for a moment and the only thing I could think to say was, “I’m sorry. Thank you for teaching me. You have earned this ground. I leave it to you.” I stood, saluted, and walked away.

As my friends came up to me and asked if I’d found anything, I felt a strong urge to return the cup to his cave, but I fought it off. I will always wish I’d done it.

That night, after I’d shown the cup to the guys in my barracks, one of them stole it, and I never saw it again.

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