Hunter Sniper • Chapter 1

The tropical night sky was clear, lit by a waxing moon. A bat swooped across the face of the glowing orb, then another, hunters in the dark.

There was just enough light to give shape and form to individual trees and clumps of spiky kunai grass, but in a way, only half seeing something was worse. The longer you stared at a dark clump of shrub, the more it started to look like a sneaking Japanese soldier.

Listening to the night noises, Deacon Cole gripped his rifle and stared into the darkness. He didn’t grip the rifle out of fear, but out of eagerness. The rifle felt like a living thing in his hands, and some part of him ached to shoot something. He wanted to feel the familiar jolt against his shoulder, the acrid whiff of gunpowder that was the best smell in the world this side of bacon frying. He wanted to feel the sheer power of that rifle and hear the whunk of a bullet hitting home.

Given that the jungle was crawling with the enemy, he reckoned that he’d have his chance soon enough.

He took his hand off the rifle just long enough to touch the bowie knife at his belt, reassuring himself that it was there and sharp as ever.

If the Japanese showed up, he’d be ready for them.

As if the shapes in the darkness weren’t enough of a test of the imagination, it didn’t help anyone’s nerves that the jungle was never silent. Deke reckoned that if the night birds and insects went quiet, you might even hear the plants growing.

A few creatures and night birds stirred in the moonlight, their rustling through the underbrush and the sharp cries of hunters and prey setting the soldiers’ nerves on edge.

Screech! Shreek! Aiieee!

These were primal sounds, echoing the jungle’s cycle of savagery and death, a reminder of what awaited them all in this war.

The question was, What were the soldiers tonight? Hunters or prey?

Deke and the other soldiers were supposed to be the hunters, battle-hardened tough guys, but it was easy enough to sympathize with the prey when they heard the strangled, desperate cries of a dying creature. In this war, Deke reckoned that everybody felt like prey at one time or another.

“I can’t tell if it’s the Japanese sneaking up on us or just some damn bird making a racket,” whispered Philly, off to Deke’s right. The former city boy’s voice was laced with exhaustion and nerves, sounding cracked, hoarse, and dry.

“I hope it is the damn Japanese,” Deke replied, feeling wide awake and alert, his gray-blue eyes glinting in the moonlight as he scanned the darkness. There was no fear in his gaze, but something feral and predatory that searched the jungle with the anticipation of a hunter hoping for his next kill. “I just wish they’d hurry up and get it over with if they’re gonna attack.”

“For Pete’s sake, Deke,” Philly grumbled, a note of disgust in his voice. “Don’t you ever get tired of this damn war?”

“Don’t you worry about me,” he said. “Just keep an eye out for the Japs.”

“Yeah, wouldn’t it be a shame if there weren’t any out there? We might get some sleep for a change.”

Deke didn’t answer, only half listening to Philly. He stared intently through the scope, hoping for any glimpse of movement.

The strange noises made the soldiers uneasy, but it was just possible that their fears were unfounded. Philly had hinted at that possibility. After all, they were now near a section of Leyte Island in the Philippines that was supposed to be more or less secure.

For the last several days, they had forged their way across the interior of Leyte, fighting Japanese patrols whenever they encountered them. Their company had followed a narrow path through the hills and dense jungle. Their purpose had been to reconnoiter the jungle regions as much as it had been to harass the enemy.

Now they were approaching the coastal area of the island’s western shore, near the city of Ormoc, where they hoped to be reunited with the rest of the division. Their mission now was to guard a small airfield and fuel depot that they had stumbled across.

The Japanese had a much larger presence at Ormoc than on the coast itself. They held the port city there and possessed a well-developed airfield, from which they continued to launch raids on the American fleet. However, the Japanese also had small airfields dotting the island, such as the one that Deke’s company now guarded.

The Japanese had a smart strategy, because the scattered airfields were hard to find and target from the air. As it turned out, a Japanese Zero didn’t need much of an airstrip to take off and land. Although the Zero was no longer a match for newer, more advanced American fighters, the aircraft was well suited to this jungle environment.

The nimble Zero had been the top dog in the early days of the war, back when the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. Those were the planes that had sunk the ships at anchor and killed thousands of sailors, Deke’s own cousin Jasper among them.

Incredibly, the Zero was built from canvas and wood, more a product of craftsmanship than mass production, in that a single team often worked to complete one entire aircraft at a time. This approach and the materials used now seemed an antiquated concept, but in the early days of the war the lightness of the Zero gave it the advantage of speed and maneuverability.

Since then, American aircraft had outpaced Japan’s in terms of firepower and speed, but the Japanese planes remained a threat, especially now that the Japanese had resorted to turning their planes into airborne bombs and flying them directly into ships, something that they called kamikaze—a Japanese term that roughly translated to “divine wind.”

The presence of these small airfields helped explain how Japanese planes still managed to take to the sky and harass the American fleet just offshore. No matter how many enemy aircraft the Hellcats managed to shoot down, there always seemed to be more.

Just a few days ago the airfield and fuel had belonged to the Japanese. Not anymore.

The question was, Would the Japanese try to take it back tonight?

Deke and the other soldiers waited to find out.

Each errant noise from the dark jungle surrounding them might very well be indicating a new threat from the Japanese, the sounds of the animals and insects masking the noise of the approaching enemy.

The moonlight was just bright enough to give Deke’s dirty, stained uniform a dappled appearance, mixing light and shadow, like a jaguar’s coat. The condition of his uniform testified to the fact that he had experienced more than a few fights. Even in the dim light, some of the stains looked suspiciously like dried blood—or worse.

“Just keep your eyes open,” Deke eventually whispered in response to Philly. “For all we know, there might be a whole company of Japanese out there, waiting for us to let our guard down.”

“Yeah, yeah, and it might just be a couple of pigs rooting around.”

Farther down the line, a rifle cracked. The stab of the muzzle flash pierced the night. If there were any Japanese in the forest, they now knew exactly where the US line was located.

“What the hell are you shooting at?” a sergeant demanded.

“I thought I saw something, Sarge,” a soldier stammered in response. Deke didn’t recognize the soldier’s voice.

“You didn’t see nothin’. I’ve been starin’ at this jungle the same as you,” the sergeant said. “There’s nothing to shoot at. Knock it off, Kowalski. If there are any Japanese out there, you just drew them a map of our position.”

Deke thought that you couldn’t blame the soldier for shooting at nothing. The moonlit night and jungle cacophony had set everyone on edge.

The American line settled back into uneasy silence. Some nights were like this, Deke reflected. Everybody was jumpy, figuring that something was going to happen. It was like a pot on the stove that was about to boil over. He kept his rifle fitted against his shoulder and his finger on the trigger, just in case.

Back on Guam, they had once opened fire on what had sounded like a Japanese patrol sneaking up on their foxholes. In the morning, they’d discovered that they had slaughtered a small herd of goats. They had felt foolish about it, but better safe than sorry.

They hadn’t seen many goats on Leyte, but there seemed to be an abundance of wild pigs in the forests here, providing a regular source of pork chops for the locals.

Watching the dark forest, Deke didn’t reply to Philly. The sniper was so alert, eagerly scanning for a target, that there was no doubt that he had more in common with the hunters in the dark night than with the prey. Sometimes Deke felt like his rifle was hungry and he needed to feed it with dead Japanese. When he thought about it, he realized that it wasn’t the rifle that was yearning to kill.

He had come a long way from the mountain farm boy that he’d been. He supposed that they had all come a long way.

Deke remembered that, as a very young boy, he had been reluctant to walk out to the barn at night, afraid of what might be out there. Staring at the dark jungle, that boyhood fear seemed laughable now. There hadn’t been anything in the dark to worry about back then—at least not until the bear had come down from the mountain. He touched the left side of his face and felt the deep scars left by that encounter.

The Japanese might actually be out there, like dozens of bears in the dark, with bayonets and rifles instead of claws and teeth. If they weren’t there now, then it would be the next night, or the night after that. When it came to a Japanese night attack, experience indicated that it was only a matter of time.

Deke shook his head, clearing his mind, never taking his eyes off the trees. What he needed was sleep. They all did.

Nobody had slept soundly for several nights, mainly because the Japanese were well known for their nighttime attacks. Unlike their American opponents, they had trained to fight at night and take advantage of the cover provided by darkness. These tactics gave them an advantage against the increasingly superior numbers and firepower of US forces. Also, the US had mostly gained control of the skies over the Philippines, which meant that larger Japanese troop movements could be targeted by US planes during the daylight hours.

Truth be told, the greatest advantage for the Japanese and their nighttime attacks was likely the psychological advantage. Even if the Japanese were nowhere in the vicinity, the slightest sound in the darkness resulted in sleepless hours for the American forces hunkered down in their foxholes.

Deke and Philly were attached to  C Company, led by Captain Merrick, a unit fighting its way across the Leyte Peninsula. The idea was to search and destroy any Japanese units that might be using the rugged jungle interior as cover.

The two of them had been among the forces that landed on Red Beach near the town of Palo, just before General Douglas MacArthur had waded ashore. With the fall of strongholds such as Hill 522, much of that coastal area was now under US control.

There was still a lot of fighting to do. In its infinite military wisdom, the army had decided that the snipers of Patrol Easy should be split up, with Deke, Philly, and Yoshio journeying across the mountainous jungle interior of the peninsula. The goal was to link up with US forces that had traveled by sea to capture Ormoc on the west coast of Leyte. The rest of Patrol Easy—Lieutenant Steele, Rodeo, Alphabet, Egan with his war dog, Thor—had been sent by ship to Ormoc.

Ormoc was a well-defended Japanese holdout on Leyte. It didn’t mean that the Japanese had given up or completely lost the fight. They still fought savagely in units of diminishing size, refusing to surrender. It was beginning to seem as if Leyte would firmly be in US hands only when the last Japanese soldier was dead.

So far the trek across the peninsula had not been easy. They had confronted a Japanese unit that blocked their path and had managed to break through in a desperate fight across a jungle ridge. In that fight Deke had managed to outwit a deadly Japanese sniper named Ikeda. It had been a near thing, but Deke had seen to it that Ikeda had gone to meet his ancestors.

He still wasn’t sure that the fight had been entirely fair, but Deke was learning that when it came to war in the Pacific, there wasn’t any such thing as a fair fight. In the end, he was just glad that the Japanese sniper was dead, and Deke wasn’t.

Deke had lived to fight another day—just barely.

“What’s that?” Yoshio asked. Yoshio Shimizu served as their Nisei interpreter, a Japanese American who had opted to show his patriotism by enlisting, despite the fact that his family and many members of his community were now living in an internment camp.

Deke wasn’t sure that he would have been as willing to fight for a government that had essentially imprisoned his family, but he understood better than most the need to prove oneself.

Like many who first encountered Yoshio and his distinctly Asian features, Deke and Philly had met their new squad member with some suspicion. That had been back on Guam. When they looked at Yoshio now, all they saw was a fellow soldier they could count on in a fight.

The only one of their little band who was missing was Danilo, a tough Filipino guerrilla who had been assigned—or possibly volunteered—as their guide through the jungle. He had slipped away to visit family in the area. It was a reminder that while the US forces and the Japanese battled over the Philippines, they were merely interlopers here. For men like Danilo, this was home.

Among the three present on the perimeter at the edge of the jungle clearing, Yoshio’s ears remained the sharpest. The rest were all starting to go a little deaf from the gunfire, Deke in particular. It was an occupational hazard for a soldier.

Yoshio glanced toward the dark jungle sky, listening.

Deke couldn’t hear anything at first. “What is it?”

Yoshio pointed upward. “Planes.”

From high above, the sound of aircraft reached Deke’s ears. This was a little unusual because, by and large, planes from the US did not fly at night during World War II. This wasn’t some lone plane either. There were a lot of aircraft up there.

“I hear it too,” Philly said. “Too high up for us to worry about, anyhow.”

But Deke wasn’t so sure. The sound of the planes seemed to grow louder, almost hovering overhead. Finally, several large transport planes came into sight, silhouetted against the starlight. To their amazement, parachutes began to bloom in the sky, drifting down like pale jellyfish toward the tropical forest.

“I sure as hell hope those are our guys,” Philly said, sounding doubtful.

“Nobody told us about any parachute drop,” Deke replied.

That wasn’t unusual. In typical army fashion, the left hand often didn’t know what the right hand was doing. But the US already had thousands of men landed. Why would they need to drop paratroopers?

The answer came like a gut punch.

Before the paratroopers had even touched down, they had opened fire at targets on the ground. A grenade exploded nearby, dropped out of the sky. These were surely Japanese paratroopers, as incredible as that seemed.

“Take cover!” somebody shouted.

But Deke was already up and out of the foxhole, running toward where most of the parachutes seemed to be coming down.

“Dammit, where the hell are you going?” Philly swore again, then ran after him. Yoshio had no choice but to follow.

Out in the open, Deke took a knee and swung the rifle up. The scope of his Springfield sniper rifle gathered the light, and he quickly scanned the sky until he spotted the dark figure of a Japanese soldier in his jump harness, dangling beneath the parachute that had blossomed like a night-blooming flower.

Deke put his crosshairs on the silhouette and squeezed the trigger. The Japanese paratrooper hung limply. Deke’s bullet had found its mark. Quickly, he searched the sky for another target, acquired it, and ensured that another paratrooper was going to be dead on arrival.

However, the paratroopers were not defenseless. The winking muzzle flashes from above indicated that they were shooting back. A bullet snapped the air not far from Deke’s head, and he flinched, feeling his spine quiver. Hearing a bullet fired at you wasn’t something he’d ever get used to.

“Like shooting fish in a barrel!” Philly shouted happily. He wasn’t half the shot Deke was, but that didn’t stop him from firing again and again at the descending paratroopers. The night breeze must have shifted, because the parachutes were suddenly carried directly over Company C’s position.

“Shoot the bastards!” Captain Merrick shouted, as if his men needed any encouragement. “Shoot them down!”

Behind Deke, the rest of C Company had opened fire. Their semiautomatic M1 rifles had a much faster rate of fire than the Springfield sniper rifles. Even Private Frazier joined in with his Browning Automatic Rifle, stitching the sky with deadly bursts.

On the ground, the Americans opened fire with everything they had. A distant artillery piece had even been brought into play. The shells scattered the low-flying enemy transport planes but passed harmlessly through the descending parachutes. It must have been terrifying to be coming down in a parachute and hear the scream of an artillery round go past. The Japanese who made it to the ground would be plenty rattled.

Another grenade exploded and someone screamed. In the dark it was impossible to see the grenades coming down. There wasn’t any warning or any way to dodge what you couldn’t see. Still another grenade went off, so close that Deke was temporarily blinded. He blinked and blinked to clear his vision, glad that he hadn’t been hit by any shrapnel. The Japanese grenades were nothing to mess around with, being every bit as deadly as the American version.

The parachutes did not linger overhead. They soon disappeared beyond the treetops as the Japanese touched down. None landed in the field containing C Company, but they must have landed in another clearing. Deke could hear more shooting in the distance, but he couldn’t tell whether it was the Japanese or the US forces.

“Come on,” Deke shouted, and ran in the direction of where the greatest number of parachutes were raining down.

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