At long last, the war seemed to have receded like the tide as the fight for Guam slowly came to its bloody end. It didn’t mean that the Japs were completely licked. Holdouts sheltered in the mountainous forests. From time to time, bands of Japanese troops still ambushed or harassed the soldiers.
But for the moment, the men of Patrol Easy weren’t concerned about a few stray Japanese soldiers. They had been designated Patrol Easy during their reconnaissance of Guam, and the name had stuck.
Now, for once, they were truly living up to that name. The men lay sprawled on the beach, enjoying some long overdue R and R. Although the war was far from over, with a large swath of the Pacific still in Japanese control, it had taken a respite in this corner of the world, and the men were taking whatever R&R they could.
“You know how I can tell this ain’t the Jersey Shore?” Philly asked. “Not a girl in sight, that’s how. There was this one time, I met a girl on the boardwalk named Wanda—”
“The other three times you’ve told this story, her name was Betty,” Deke interrupted.
Philly just shook his head, like he often did when he was buying himself some time to make something up. Deke had been around him long enough to know Philly’s tricks. “Sure, there was that time with Betty, under the boardwalk in Atlantic City,” Philly said. “Maybe three or four times, come to think of it. But I’m talking about Wanda now. Wanda was a whole different situation, let me tell you.”
Deacon “Deke” Cole just shook his head and tuned Philly out, which was easy to do. That damn city boy—Philly was short for “Philadelphia”—never shut his mouth. Then again, Deke couldn’t help but smile at Philly’s stories. There was something comforting about hearing Philly talk, like listening to a familiar radio program.
Deke looked around at the sun-washed beach, which was still a strange sight for him, about as different from the mountains where he had grown up as one could get. He missed those mountains, with their brooding, rocky faces and crisp autumn woods. On this Pacific island, the damn sand got into everything and the air dripped with humidity.
Still, they were able to enjoy a few hours on the beach because the fighting on the island of Guam had subsided, except for pockets of resistance deep in the jungle-covered hills, where a few diehard Japanese didn’t have the sense to give up. You had to hand it to those Jap troops—they were nothing if not fanatical. They would much make a last-ditch banzai attack or even starve to death, all in an effort to die for the Emperor rather than give themselves up. Lieutenant Steele had explained that the Japanese saw their Emperor as a god, not to be questioned, but only obeyed. He might be a living, breathing man, but Emperor Hirohito was the heart and soul of Japan.
Deke could understand the determination of the Japanese to fight to the death, even respect it. As a stubborn young man from the Southern hills, he knew what it meant to have your back against the wall and keep fighting. In a sense, he should have been dead a long time ago and he had the scars to prove it. Deke was a natural-born fighter.
But even if he respected the enemy, he sure as hell didn’t like the enemy. The Japs had killed too many Americans for that, starting with their sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. They had killed Americans on Guadalcanal, sent thousands of sailors to their deaths in Ironbottom Sound, and killed thousands more on Guam. One of those dead had been Ben Hemphill, shot by a sneaking Jap sniper within minutes of landing on the beach. Deke had taken Ben’s death bitterly. They had gone through training together and Deke had promised himself that he would look out for Ben.
Deke had failed, and something in him had snapped. In a blind rage, he had bayoneted the Jap sniper until the body had more holes in it than a rusty bucket. Even that son of a bitch Sergeant Hawley had been taken aback by the sight of that.
The way Deke figured it, if the Japs were so eager to die for their Emperor, he was glad to help. He sure had helped that sniper down the road to Kingdom Come, or wherever it was that dead Japs thought they ended up.
Nobody knew for sure how many Japs were hiding out and refused to give up. Lieutenant Steele had passed along that it was anywhere from several hundred to maybe even a few thousand.
Some of these enemy troops managed to organize occasional raids on the beach head, but those amounted to little more than suicide missions. Otherwise, the island was firmly in US control.
One of the more comical incidents involving these Japanese holdouts had taken place a few days ago, when a makeshift outdoor movie theater had been erected. In the tropical darkness near the beach, the troops sat on logs or on the ground, swatting mosquitos and smoking cigarettes, watching a movie shown on a bedsheet. The movie had been Stage Door Canteen, and right in the middle of a scene with Guy Lombardo performing, someone had noticed strange laughter. Hell, the Japanese even laughed different. To their surprise, they found a diminutive Jap soldier who had sneaked into their midst to enjoy the movie. He smiled and put his hands up. The shocked GIs had given him a cigarette and escorted him to the prisoner stockade. Apparently, Hollywood had won him over.
Every now and then, they heard a distant burst of fire or the whump of a mortar. But those sounds were too far off to worry about. Philly had finished up his story about Wanda, which wasn’t any more believable than the one that he’d told about Betty. The only thing they knew for certain was that they were all a long, long way from New Jersey.
“Anybody got any canned peaches left?” Yoshio wanted to know. “I’ve got cigarettes to trade.”
“I’ll take those cigarettes off your hands, kid,” Philly said. “They might stunt your growth.”
“You can have them for a can of peaches.”
Yoshio tossed over a pack of smokes and caught the canned peaches that flew in his direction. Eagerly, he went to work on the can using his combat knife, punching a hole in the top so that he could drink the sweet syrup.
He passed the can around because Yoshio was generous that way. Deke took a drink, along with Rodeo and Alphabet. Deke savored that hit of the sweet juice, enjoying the luxury of peaches canned on the other side of the ocean.
None of them were friends—or not exactly. That was the army for you, throwing men together from all sorts of places and walks of life, guys who wouldn’t normally give each other the time of day. Deke was just a dumb hick. Philly was a wise ass from Philadelphia. Yoshio was a Nisei, a Japanese-American who could speak the language of the enemy and served as an interpreter—if and when there were any Japanese prisoners.
No, Deke thought. They were not friends. They were something more. They were family. You couldn’t choose your family, either, but you would do anything to protect your family. That was the kind of loyalty that Deke understood.
Despite their differences, they knew each other better than brothers, at least to the extent that they could count on one another in a fight. They might not know each other’s religion or what their favorite baseball team was, but they knew that Yoshio could dig a foxhole like nobody’s business, that Rodeo and Alphabet kept their cool when the lead was flying, and that despite all his bluster and baloney, you wouldn’t find a man braver than Philly. As for Deke, they knew he could hit anything he could see with his Springfield rifle. He could be a mean son of a bitch, ornery and sullen, and he wouldn’t tell anyone how he’d gotten his scars, but he was their son of a bitch.
They were missing one man out of their original sniper squad. Ingram was dead, killed by the Japanese marksman that they had nicknamed the Samurai Sniper. Rumor had it that Private Egan would soon be leaving. He was a war dog handler assigned to them for their scouting mission into the jungles of Guam, before the last big push against the Japanese. His dog, Whoa Nelly, had been killed while saving his life near Yigo. It was only a matter of time before the army figured out what to do with him and he was reassigned.
Then there was Lieutenant Steele. He sat apart from the other men on the beach, smoking a cigarette. He looked tired, his thoughts a million miles away.
They had all left their weapons nearby to go for a swim, with Deke and Lieutenant Steele being the exceptions. Both men kept their weapons between their knees, muzzles up, butts in the sand. Deke held a Springfield sniper rifle with a telescopic sight, while the lieutenant had a shotgun between his knees.
Unlike the others, Deke wasn’t watching the ocean. Instead, his gaze never left the line of jungle that began far up the beach. That was Deke for you, always switched on and never relaxed. So far, it was a quality that was helping to keep him alive out here.
“I’m going for a swim,” Philly announced.
“Shark bait,” said Pawelczyk, whose nickname was Alphabet—for good reason, considering that his Polish surname seemed to include most of it.
“What do you care? You can’t swim, anyhow.”
“It ain’t swimming if you’re only knee deep, which is as far out as I ever plan to go in the water. But you go on ahead and feed the sharks.”
“Nah, I’m too stringy for sharks. Anyhow, I hear it’s dumb Polacks that they really like to eat. Like caviar for sharks, you know?”
“Aw, do me a favor and duck your head under for a while. Like maybe an hour.”
Philly laughed and shucked off his pants. Like a lot of soldiers, he no longer bothered with the hot, cumbersome army-issued boxers and wore nothing under the button-fly fatigues when in the field, giving rise to the term “going commando.” He ran down to the ocean and threw himself into the waves. Left behind on the hot beach, Alphabet and Rodeo found the sight of Philly cavorting in the surf too much to bear, so they shucked off their own fatigues and joined him in the cool ocean waves.
Yoshio and Eagan looked at each, shrugged, and ran down to dump their clothes at the water’s edge. Pretty soon, all of them were splashing and generally fooling around in the waves, shouting their fool heads off. It was a reminder that in reality, they were all barely more than kids.
Only Deke and Lieutenant Steele were left sitting on the beach, both a ways apart, looking on. It was clear that neither one of them intended to go for a swim. Steele was an officer, after all. As for Deke, he just hated the damn ocean. The sight of all that water just wasn’t natural. Give him hills and mountains any day, but not the sea.
They had been cavorting in the waves for maybe five minutes when a rifle shot cut right through the sound of their laughter with an angry crack. A bullet struck the water, raising a white welt on the surface of the blue Pacific, quickly followed by another.
Patrol Easy had been caught out in the open, most of them just about as defenseless as they could be.
“Sniper!” Yoshio shouted, then dove underwater.
A bullet plucked the water where his head had been an instant before. The Jap sniper’s aim was improving.
Deke was already on his belly, elbows dug into the sand, rifle to his shoulder, looking for a target. A bullet zipped overhead, so close that it left a metallic taste in Deke’s mouth. He worked his hips even harder than he had ground them into that hooker back during shore leave on Oahu, trying to sink a fraction of an inch deeper into the sand. The boys in the water were doing their best to stay ducked under, but every time they came up for air, a bullet struck nearby.
He didn’t put his eye to the rifle scope yet, but scanned the line of jungle scrub that began beyond the beach. Most of the taller trees were ragged or their trunks were snapped off as if they had been caught in a typhoon, but it hadn’t been a storm but the results of heavy shelling from the cruisers and destroyers assembled off the island in the warm waters of the Philippine Sea. Lower down, the scrub was thick enough to hide any number of Japanese snipers. The Jap would definitely be armed with an Arisaka, a rifle that made up for its lack of sheer firepower with its stealth—its lighter cartridge made the shooter’s location tricky to pinpoint. Its lighter load didn’t make it any less deadly, just quieter.
Plus, Deke was already going a little deaf from all the damn shelling. After a few weeks of combat, Deke’s eye was practiced enough to search for any bit of movement or the glint of the sun off the glass of a scope or the gleam of a rifle barrel. It didn’t help that the heat rising off the sand made the view flicker and shimmer. The Jap sniper could have been anywhere—and nowhere.
Nearby, Lieutenant Steele was doing much the same thing, although his shotgun was next to useless at this range.
That single sniper had them pinned down good.
But that wasn’t the worst of it. Like a bully kicking sand, a long burst of machine-gun fire churned up the sand near Deke’s head. Another burst made the tropical water near the swimmers seem to boil. The sniper wasn’t alone. The Japs also had a machine gun trained on the beach. Things had just gone from bad to worse.
“Cover me,” the lieutenant shouted. An instant later, he was up and running, his boots kicking gouts of sand across the beach. He was heading for the tree line.
Deke watched the crazy bastard charging at the Japs. He fired at nothing, hoping against hope that it would make the enemy soldiers keep their heads down long enough for Steele to make it to cover.
Steele juked left, then right, moving fast. He was the oldest man on the beach by far, but he was in good shape. Either that, or the fear of being stitched by the machine gun had given wings to his feet. Another burst kicked up sand all around him, but Steele kept going.
Deke fired at where he thought the machine gun was hidden, once again praying for luck. Then Steele reached the jungle’s edge off to the left and disappeared from sight. One moment he had been there, and the next he was gone. Where the hell is he going?
Deke turned his attention back to finding the sniper. Some part of himself thought, hell, this is a lot better than splashing around in the ocean. He pushed the thought from his mind and scanned the jungle’s edge for any sign of the enemy marksman. The man was well-hidden.
But he couldn’t hide forever. Deke held still, hoping for any sign that would give the sniper away.
The machine gun was still chattering away, alternating between bursts near Deke’s position and the men in the water. Another gout of seawater erupted whenever one of the men raised his head too long.
Although the men had initially been splashing in the surf, they had been forced to move into deeper water where they could duck under and have at least a fighting chance of staying out of the enemy’s sights. But it wasn’t easy going. They swam out even further, closer to where the big ocean swells broke against the edge of the coral reef. There was no way they could go beyond that point where the waves churned in a rush of powerful fury. Still, some of the men were in over their heads.
“Help! Help!” he heard Alphabet shouting. “I can’t swim!”
“Get your feet under you!” Philly shouted back at him. It was easier said than done, with the tide tugging out to sea and bullets coming at them from the other direction. To make things worse, the coral shelf was sharp and unforgiving, cutting their bare feet.
If the Japs didn’t shoot them, it sounded as if at least some of Patrol Easy might drown. Deke stared even more intently into the shadowy jungle’s edge. Where the hell are you?
Finally, he saw the smallest movement. It might have been dismissed as a bird flitting through the brush, or a flicker of a leaf in the breeze, but Deke caught sight of the outline of a helmet, bent over a rifle sight.
He lowered his eye to his own rifle scope and put the crosshairs just where he had seen the motion. Had he only imagined the glimpse of the helmet? He saw only a patch of jungle now through the scope. Still, he squeezed the trigger and the rifle bucked against his shoulder.
Through the scope, he saw something sag and realized it was the Jap sniper’s body, sagging under its own dead weight. One down, one nest of machine gunners to go.
As if they had read his mind, the Japs let loose another burst that churned even closer to his head. Sand flew into his face, grated into his eyes, momentarily blinding him. Son of a bitch! How was he even supposed to shoot back?
An instant later, he heard the deep boom of Lieutenant Steele’s shotgun. Then another boom. The machine gun fell silent.
One thing for sure—the Japs wouldn’t be bothering them anymore.
Swiping at the sand and sweat stinging his eyes, Deke still managed to see a figure emerge from the jungle’s edge. It was Lieutenant Steele, carrying his shotgun cradled in the crook of his elbow, not seeming to have a care in the world, like maybe he was returning from a pheasant hunt. Deke couldn’t help but grin.
Now that the shooting had stopped, the rest of the men made their way back in from the sea. Alphabet had to be half-dragged, half-carried out of the ocean by Philly and Rodeo. He sputtered and coughed up water.
But that didn’t stop him from managing to stammer, “Goddamn sneaky Japs! I can’t wait to kill every last one of ‘em!”
The others nodded. It was pretty much how they all felt.
Rodeo pointed. “Hey, look! Someone’s coming.”
A Jeep had appeared, racing toward them across the beach, sticking close to the waterline where the sand was more compacted. Every now and then, the driver had to yank the wheel sharply to stay ahead of a wave.
“Ain’t it just like the cavalry to show up too late.”
“Maybe they’ll give us a ride back to HQ.
“Don’t get your hopes up.”
As it turned out, the Jeep wasn’t there to help them fight the Japanese or give them a ride. An officious looking young staff officer looked them up and down.
“Are you men swimming? What the hell! Don’t you know there’s a war on? There must be a thousand Japs still hidden in the jungle.”
“Don’t worry, now there’s a few less.”
But the officer wasn’t interested in the tale of their firefight. In fact, from the look on his face, it didn’t even seem like he believed any of it. He had come with orders for Lieutenant Steele. “The colonel wants to see you. That is, if you’re not too busy swimming and working on your tans.”
“Yes, sir. Any chance of getting a ride back?”
“Sorry, no room. You’ll have to walk.” With that, the officer gave a nod to the driver, the Jeep lurched through the sand in a slow semi-circle, giving a clear glimpse of the empty back seat, and then began racing back toward HQ in the distance.
“Friendly guy,” Philly said.
“Never mind that. Let’s move out.” Lieutenant Steele started to walk away, but then paused to stare at Philly. “Philly, put some clothes on. The army has a reputation to uphold, son. If any Marines see that short limb of yours, we’ll never hear the end of it.”
“It’s the cold water,” Philly grumped, tugging on his fatigues.
Yoshio and Egan looked around, but the tide had carried off their fatigues.
Still laughing, Steele tugged off his shirt and tossed it to Egan. “Wrap that around you, for God’s sake. Somebody give Yoshio a shirt.”
Nearby, Yoshio was starting to shiver as the sun dipped behind a cloud.
Deke sighed. “You are a sorry sight, Yoshio,” he said. Since he was the only one left with dry clothing to spare, he took off his shirt and tossed it to Yoshio. With his shirt off, the angry red scars raking down his torso were clearly visible against his pale Scotch-Irish skin. They were old scars, not from something that had happened to him in the Pacific. Philly stared and opened his mouth to comment, but for once, he seemed to think better of it.
“Thanks, Deke,” Yoshio said, wrapping the fatigues around his middle.
“What a bunch. Anyhow, let’s go.” Steele said, nodding in the direction of the disappearing Jeep. “It sounds to me as if the war’s not over yet and somebody found a job for us to do.”
Thank you for reading. You can order Rising Sniper here.