A Gift from Kaake*
(Continued from SKCGS Blog, December 7, 2020)
Then I heard our inadequate anti-aircraft go into action. A figure leaped over the edge of the depression and slid down almost against me. In the split second that I glimpsed him against the sky, I recognized him as one of the kids of our outfit. I called my name and he answered, giving his own.
“Listen, Hearn,” I said, “Doctor Land was on that Higgins boat with us coming in. I talked to him a little. You’ve got to get him and bring him here or this person will die.”
“The Hell I will,” growled Hearn: “I’m gonna stay right here in this hole.” I was about to curse him but I stopped myself before the words came. I hit him from another angle.
“Hearn,” I said, “I have often heard that this business of war was quick to separate the men from the boys. Your mother back in Kansas still thinks of you as her little boy, but deep down inside her heart she knows that she has a man out here fighting for her. If you are not too scared you will notice that the first wave of boys have started to build a causeway out across the reef and there is a drag line outfit out here. This hole is right in from the end of the causeway. Now get going and get back here with the Doc.
Hearn cried a little, then he was gone and again I was alone holding in my hand the slender thread of life of a person unknown to me.
Our lone 90-MM connected and an enemy plane came down into the sea close offshore in a long streak of flame. In this weird illumination I became conscious of a third person present. I had not heard him come but there he stood in the light of the exploding plane. He bent over as if to take the woman from me, but hesitated when I spoke rather sharply. Then I relaxed a little and tried to explain the situation. Apparently the native sensed the meaning of things and understood something of the English language for he squatted motionless on his heels and together we waited without further speech.
After what seemed like a long, long time, Hearn came back with the doctor and a corpsman, just as the all-clear sounded. Several electric torches helped the doctor with his examination. The medical men knew their business. My job was done. While they worked I was fascinated by something else. Something that I had neither the light nor the free attention to see before.
|Sketch by Arthur "Pete" Boye|
The native man hovered closely over the smoothly working medical team. Squatting on the sand I looked up into his dark face and saw a record of all the intensity of human emotion that one mortal might be subjected to in a few short minutes or hours and still retain a semblance of a balanced mentality.
I read a story of the machinery of destruction. Machinery invented by civilized men and loosed suddenly upon a gentle primitive people. Fear of the unknown from which there was no place to run. But these were lesser fears to those I saw in his eyes, for the eyes were only for the wounded woman on the sand. There was no doubt that she was his wife and his eyes had such a look of love and devotion yet glazed with the panic of fear of losing her. Suddenly I felt like a peeping tom looking upon something pure and personal between two devoted people, and I looked away.
The doctor was speaking to me.
That was our doctor. A regular guy, never too busy to toss a word of appreciation to a fellow, even at a time like that.
A life is savedThe first days on the island were ones of confusion. We were working like mad to clear the jungle and build an airfield. At the same time we gradually set up a camp, moving from our soggy pup tents to regular field tents set over platforms a couple of feet above the ground. The enemy bombers raided us nightly and we had lost much sleep, shivering with fear in our foxholes. Construction details worked straight twelve hour shifts, keeping the job rolling around the clock.
I was assigned to the guard. Our duty was four hours on and eight off. This gave me some free time during the daylight, and while doing a little local sightseeing a week or so after we landed, I again encountered the native man, who had been in the bomb crater with me a few nights before.
“Wife get well. I wish to thank you.”
There was something likeable about the fellow. I had a better chance to study him now and saw before me a fine looking man, youthfully mature. Dread and terror had held him in their grasp at our first meeting, but now I looked into a face that reflected character and definiteness of purpose. I felt a little sorry for him, struggling to find words to thank me. I really do not know why I did what I did then. Americans are always giving things to people less fortunate than themselves. I unbuckled my belt and slipped free the sheath of the hand-made knife on which I had spent so many hours.
“Look,” I said, “my name is Pete, I like you. Let us be friends. I wish to bring you this gift.”
A surprised and pleased expression showed on his face as he slid the keen blade from its cover, then replaced it.
“Kaake is your friend,” he said slowly, apparently searching for words, “you have give him a life, you have give a gift. May Kaake some day bring such gifts to you."
I saw Kaake occasionally after that. He brought me some choice sea shells from the reef, and a finally woven basket. They made swell souvenirs to send home from a land where there were no shops. Once, when I was exploring the jungle myself, he appeared as if from nowhere, bearing two coconuts. He opened them deftly and we sat and sipped at the milk they held. I noticed that the knife which I had given him was carried almost concealed in the strands of his grass skirt.
“Pete not come in the trees alone.” He advised me. “some Japanese hide here.”
|Sketch by Arthur "Pete" Boye|
We destroyed the native village to make room for the bomber strip that had to be built across the widest part of the island. The natives built themselves a new group of huts further down the atoll. We bridged the narrow channel that separated us from the next island and used the one for bomb storage. It was marked, “Out of Bounds” for military personnel other than work parties. I didn’t care. I slipped over one day and was the guest of Kaake, his wife and their two small children. I sat on a grass mat and ate little cakes of roasted fish and chunks of coconut meat from a big green leaf, and really enjoyed the hospitality of the visit.
We maintained the security watch on the camp, but relaxed somewhat from the first tensions, fearing mostly the nightly bombing raids. Then, one night the mate standing the watch across the camp from me was quietly stabbed to death. We organized a patrol, beat the surrounding jungle and found nothing. We were a little more wide awake on our night watches for awhile.
|Sketch by Arthur "Pete" Boye|
Our field took shape, was used first by fighters and small dive bombers, then came the medium bombers and finally the heavies. We fought the enemy from the air, we fought the fever, the dysentery, the torrential rains and finally as the tide of the battle turned in our favor by our ability to strike back, we fought the boredom.
Rain squalls would come in from the sea with a roar like that of an express train. On the guard posts when we heard one coming we would button our ponchos about our necks, sit down on some chunk of coral a few inches above the common level of the ground, tuck the edges of our ponchos under us. With our heads bent forward so that our helmets protected our faces, we would sit through the wind-driven, screaming, lashing downpour. The rains would seldom last more than five or ten minutes and then would stop as abruptly as they had begun.
One of them hit us one morning in the dark hour that just precedes the dawn. I sat it out as usual along the fringe of brush that separated the camp from the beach. It was daylight when Gerd came to relieve me, accompanied by Kleimer, the corporal of the guard. Our guard posting was typically Seabee, most informal. As each man was relieved, he found his own way back to his quarters. My post was the last to change and when Kleimer and I took a short cut through the fringe of the undergrowth we were startled to find the body of a man. He lay not twenty feet back of where I had sat out the squall. A little man dressed in the tattered remnants of what had been the uniform of an Imperial Japanese Marine. At his outstretched fingertips lay a superbly made oriental dagger. Kleimer, an inveterate souvenir hunter, was not slow in getting possession of it. I removed another knife from the dead man’s throat and dropped it into the pocket of my jacket.
“Well,” said Kleimer, “we’ll have to report this, but at least we have a souvenir apiece out of it.”
“Yeh, Kleimer,” I replied, “so we have.”
But I did not tell Kleimer that the knife in my pocket was the workmanship of my own hands and that it had just been given to me by a very dear friend; a friend who presented the material gift together with a human life, and the life that he had just given to me was my own.
*KAAKE pronounced as if Kaw-kee.
|Arthur "Pete" Boye, Honolulu, 1944|