None of the marines could sleep at night.
If they caught any shut-eye, it wouldn’t be for more than an hour at a time. The guards would poke them with sharpened bamboo sticks. There’d be blood on the straw mats come morning. Or they would wake them up to taunt them, kicking, spitting, and throwing insults in a language the marines couldn’t understand.
They yelled about how Japan would soon win the war, and America would fail.
Shoji walked past another guard on his way to the barracks. It would be his turn to watch over the nine prisoners. Sunlight broke through the barred windows. Floorboards creaked under his boots.
He stepped to the nearest cell—less than a cell, and more like a cage—and kneeled. The marine lying within, bruised, beaten, and dropping weight faster than anyone he’d ever seen, lay curled up in the corner. Bugs crawled over the straw mat he slept on. Shoji reached through the wooden bars with a canteen in hand.
“Here is water,” he said. “You can drink.”
The marine turned. His eyes opened sluggishly. With hesitation, he took the canteen, and tipped the container to his cracked lips, drinking slowly. Savouring every sip—more than the cup per day they were allowed.
He handed the canteen back. “You speak English?” he mumbled.
“I studied,” Shoji said, each word heavy with his accent, “in church school.” He smiled. “My name is Shoji. I am friend. Tomodachi. Friend.” He reached into his pocket for a piece of hard candy and handed it to the marine.
Shoji left the barracks. He refilled his canteen at the well, then returned to offer water to the next American soldier. This one suffered from a bad cough. The next asked if it was a trick. The fourth was younger than the others. Fifth knew a bit of Japanese himself. So on, so on.
On the next day, Shoji brought along a piece of paper. He sat next to a marine and drew a turtle. Below it, he wrote Ka’me. The marine looked at him, then took the pen and wrote, ‘turtle’. Shoji drew a baseball bat, a car, and a book. From one cell to the next, they taught each other their language. Shoji nodded as they pronounced the words in Japanese.
They would never smile, but showing kindness was the best he could do to improve their living conditions.
As the marines lay in their cells one morning, a mob formed outside. A submarine crew, demoralized from the loss of Saipan, rushed onto the island. Shoji watched as at least eighty men picked up rocks and sticks. An officer brandished his sword. One man dragged a struggling marine outside, and they beat him, taking turns kicking his ribs until he could no longer breathe.
A second marine was beaten to his knees, and the sword was pointed to his head. Sunlight reflected off the steel. The officer raised his arms high, cried out, and swung.
The blade got stuck halfway into the marine's neck. “Banzai!” the crew cheered. He let out a dying moan, and another swing left his head rolling across the dirt. A trail of blood followed. “Banzai!” Shoji kept his eyes down. The submarine crew set off in high spirits.
The day became night, dawn becoming dusk. Moonlight broke through the trees overhead. Crickets chirpped in the forest, and a marine in the barracks called for a doctor, over and over. Shoji sat at the camp officer’s desk to complain about the execution.
“It’s what they should expect,” the officer said. “They are enemies of Japan, are they not?”
“Doctor,” the marine called further off. “I need a doctor, please.”
Shoji cleared his throat. “These men…” he started, “would you not expect kindness, had it been you who laid down your arms? They are suffering in our nation's care-”
“These men have surrendered. Their families would be ashamed of them. Do you know why we’ll win this war?” He didn't give Shoji a chance to reply. “It's because the Americans are weak of will when compared to us. They let their fears and emotions control them.”
“Doctor, please,” the marine continued. Loud enough for everyone in the camp to hear. “I need a doctor, I’m begging you. Please.”
The officer exhaled, then picked up a newspaper. “Go and shut that prisoner up,” he said. “Such a bothersome noise.” His eyes darted to a wooden club laid out on the desk. “I want to hear him cry out before he goes quiet.”
Shoji took the club. He walked off, into the barracks. The marines cowered back at the sound of his footsteps. He approached the furthest cell and unlocked it. “Out,” he said. The marine—James—crawled from the wooden cage. He looked up at Shoji with weak, sleepless eyes.
Shoji kneeled beside him. “I’m going to hit ground,” he whispered, “and you cry, okay? They listen.”
James nodded. He moved out of harm's way. Shoji raised his arm, and the club came down hard against the floorboards. Chips of wood flew into the air. The marine cried out. Shoji repeated the action again and again.
Minutes later, he returned with the only extra blanket he could find. He handed it to James through the bars of the cell. His breathing was mere rasps in the silence.
“We were all flight crew,” he said. Shoji sat across from him to listen. “The nine of us. Your Zeros shot us down, and we parachuted. We were supposed to be the lucky ones, you know, surviving. Now I can’t say I’m sure.” James forced a smile, emotionless. “Why is it we’re treated like this?”
“The submarine men were angered they lost battle.”
“No,” James said, shaking his head. “No. Your people. We’re treated like animals. I’m sitting in this cage, being laughed at and poked with sticks. There's no Red Cross to sign up with, I’m not allowed to write home, and my belongings were tossed in the water when I got here. My wallet, with my only picture of my fiancee in it, is gone.” He exhaled. “Why?”
“My people…” Shoji raised a hand to wipe a tear from his eye. “Are very confused. They do not know how the world is. We think we are better than others, but we never talk to others. We learn only to hate, and it is beaten into us until we want to take it out on them.” Shoji held his eyes shut, stopping the flow of tears. “We are not all bad.”
“You’re not,” James said. “Your kindness means everything to me here. All of us.”
Shoji reached forward and took the marine’s hand.
“I am sorry,” he whispered, “that the others are not the same.”
- - -
At sunrise, his call for transfer came through.
Rumour had it of a guard giving prisoners extra rations, and the camp officer narrowed it down to Shoji. It’d be a day before he left for Tokyo, and then the frontlines of Guam—the next island the Americans advanced on. He returned to the barracks for his last shift.
Only six marines remained. Another had passed away overnight, malnourished and ridden with disease. The doctors—operating on Japanese troops—had laughed at Shoji’s request to treat him.
He approached the first cage with six pieces of paper. Shoji kneeled down, then sat. He passed one sheet through the bars and handed the marine a pen. “I leave tomorrow,” Shoji said. “You write letter home now, and I deliver it at post office. I make sure it gets to America. I cannot guarantee your safety here.”
“They’re going to kill us before the war’s over, aren’t they?”
Shoji nodded. The marine sighed, then clicked the pen.
He wrote fast. Shoji took the letter and moved to the next.
They thanked him, some with tears, as they handed back the pieces of paper. Mailing addresses at the top, and rushed, shaky handwriting throughout the pages. Standing outside, out of sight, Shoji flipped through them.
To my brother, one read.
Mom, Dad, I’m sorry, read another.
My darling fiancee - I will not be returning home,
Mother, this will be the last you hear of me,
To my two sons,
He froze as he passed over the last.
Shoji, it read. You give me hope of a better Japan.
The sun set on the horizon. A slow descent, a tranquil reflection on the calm waters ahead. A tear left his eye. The marines would be killed, the camp burnt down, to not leave any trace for the allies. Yet, with the letters, perhaps their souls would rest easy.