9 Marines

Submitted into Contest #148 in response to: Write a story involving a noise complaint. ... view prompt

61 comments

East Asian American Historical Fiction

This story contains themes or mentions of physical violence, gore, or abuse.

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.

May 31, 2022 22:53

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61 comments

J.C. Lovero
12:20 Jun 01, 2022

Hi Alex, I sneaked a read of this story during my work shift yesterday, finally coming around to comment on it now. Such a great story. What I enjoy about your historical fiction stories are the points of view you use and how you create empathy through them. Shoji's POV here was perfect, giving that last letter such a gut punch for the reader. It's funny how we start to learn each other by our style, and if I didn't have the title or author name at the top, I would have known this was an Alex Sultan story all the same. Kudos for that achie...

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Alex Sultan
11:48 Jun 02, 2022

Thank you for reading. I appreciate the kind words as always. While I do plan to write more ww2 stories from an American/British/Canadian/Ally point of view, I'll always think it's important both sides of the story are shown - even if it can come across as controversial. I'm glad you liked it 🙂

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Suma Jayachandar
04:06 Jun 01, 2022

Just beautiful, Alex. Though I'm not a big fan of violence, the depth and grace in your stories keep pulling me back. I liked how you managed to highlight the kindness in a hopeless situation. And that arc of story passing from extreme violence to tender compassion was particularly well done. This is one of my top 5 personal favorites of your impressive collection.

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Alex Sultan
11:44 Jun 02, 2022

Thank you, friend. I'm glad you liked it, and that it's a favourite - your words are always so kind, and I appreciate the comment.

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K. Antonio
02:08 Jun 01, 2022

Personally, I really enjoyed the interpretation of the prompt here. The violence and poor treatment was necessary given the time period, but you balanced that out with Shoji quite nicely. I also like how the story is formatted with the paragraphs being short, making the reading experience less daunting and the scenes seemingly faster. Oh, something cool about this piece was how it referenced previous stories (though that was a nice touch, btw). I feel like even someone who isn't from America/Japan or doesn't really know a lot about histo...

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Alex Sultan
11:51 Jun 02, 2022

Thank you for reading, friend. I'm glad the balance came across - I always aim to show the humanity and inhumanity from both sides. And I didn't notice the references at first to my other stories! It does make sense, now that you pointed it out. Saipan and Zeros. I'd like to think all the ww2 stories I've written so far are connected. Many more to write, too.

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Deidra Lovegren
16:16 Jun 05, 2022

Recommended story as it should be — oh the sheer artistry of your writing. This reminds me of Viktor Frankl’s “Man’s Search for Meaning” and how morality is so personal and subjective. Powerful to recount the sacrifice of those in the Pacific Theater, too… Just taking over island by island and controlling the sea lanes — grueling for all. As Robert E. Lee said: "It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it."

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Alex Sultan
16:46 Jun 05, 2022

Thank you, friend. I appreciate the comment. I plan to write so much more on the Pacific Theatre as well - I'm only getting started - and I'm glad you enjoyed this one. There are many stories to write, from both sides. I've added “Man’s Search for Meaning” to my TBR, too 🙂

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Michał Przywara
20:41 Jun 01, 2022

An engaging story on an ugly topic. I was actually worried Shoji was tricking them, as part of an interrogation tactic or something, but I'm glad it turned out differently. There's not really any room for "happy ending" in a piece like this, so the little high notes, the little kindnesses, are what we hope for. Far as the writing goes, it flowed well and smoothly, despite the heavy subject matter. I'm not a historian but it certainly seems like something that could have happened. What stood out to me the most was "We learn only to hate, ...

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Alex Sultan
12:40 Jun 02, 2022

Thank you for reading, Michal. I appreciate the kind words. It was a heavier story, and I'm glad you liked it - there was only so many ways to do it while following history as accurately as I could. As for weaponized anger, I doubt we'll ever eliminate it. it's a fault in the human condition.

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00:38 Jun 01, 2022

Alex, this is beautiful. Definitely one of my favourites from you. It reads fluidly and the hopelessness of their situation comes through well. The humanity of Shoji is wonderfully portrayed, and the ending is moving. Think you might have another success on your hands! A thought I had, and a suggestion: that line "Shoji, it read. You give me hope of a better Japan." is such a gut-punch that I wonder if it could stand on its own. I'd argue you don't need to say that the rest of the letter was blank, or that he tucks it into his uniform (both...

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Alex Sultan
12:07 Jun 02, 2022

Thank you for reading - I'm glad you liked the story, and that it's a favourite! Your comment is very kind. I do like the suggestion you brought up. I actually changed it up a bit based on your feedback, but overall kept it the same. I do always think it's great to see how we'd both write it, and I'll keep it in mind for the next story I write. All the best 🙂

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16:49 Jun 10, 2022

Hey, unlucky this week - I'm really surprised this wasn't recognised. This place can be unpredictable at the best of times. I'm sure your next win is right around the corner, anyhow. :)

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Alex Sultan
18:10 Jun 10, 2022

Thank you, friend. This loss was a bit demoralizing - I thought this was one of my best. Might've been too dark for Reedsy. Oh, well. I'm sure I'll write more winners, eventually.

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Ashley Smith
09:18 Jun 18, 2022

I found this story very interesting! You are definitely a very great writer. I was hooked line & sinker from the very beginning all the way to the end.

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Tommie Michele
03:28 Jun 11, 2022

Hey Alex! It's been a while :) Your historical fiction is getting better and better every time I come by and read. The way you choose your POV so intentionally for all of your stories is so incredible and makes for a good read every time--I think you've really found your writing niche in historical fiction. I also wanted to let you know that I won't be on Reedsy nearly as much, since I finally got my website and instagram up and running (links in my bio, if you want to check it out!). I'll still drop by and read your stories every so ofte...

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Alex Sultan
16:23 Jun 15, 2022

Hey friend, I'm so glad you're doing well. I do agree, I think I found a niche with historical/war ficiton. It seems to do well. I plan to write so much more of it as well. I'll definitely check out the website! It's great you started one up, moving forward in the writing world. I'll follow on insta as well. I'm always looking forward to the next story you write 🙂

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Anita Wilson
12:55 Jun 10, 2022

‘Kokoro’- Any human experience can only be truly understood when we remove the division, recognizing that there will always be a connection of heart to mind and soul to spirit - it is one and the same for all. It is the same journey we all make. Most don’t live to want to rise to that level, but Shoji does. Your story has a raw beauty in that it tells of a harsh & bitter-sweet reality too often. Thankyou for sharing - Shinzou

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Alex Sultan
16:20 Jun 15, 2022

Thank you for reading, friend. Your comment is so very kind and insightful. I appreciate the time you took to share your thoughts 🙂

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Riel Rosehill
07:49 Jun 07, 2022

I'm behind with reading... but finally made it here. And damn it Alex, you made me cry! Like, it's 9 AM, I thought I start my day with this story and now I'm sobbing. Excellent work. Seconding J.C., I think I could easily guess that you wrote this even if I didn't see your name on it.

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Alex Sultan
16:26 Jun 15, 2022

I'm glad you liked the story, friend. I'm late to reply, but I really do appreciate the kind words. It's very kind of you. While I'm behind on my reading here, too, I am still looking forward to reading your newest stories, eventually 🙂

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Annalisa D.
16:04 Jun 06, 2022

This was a moving story. I like the overall idea of not all people being one way and someone trying to do the right thing and the best they can against a group of people. It takes a lot of bravery and it's nice to see characters like that highlighted for doing so.

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Alex Sultan
16:20 Jun 15, 2022

Thank you for reading, friend. I always try, with these war stories, to show both sides of the coin - humanity and inhumanity. I'm glad you liked it.

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Tommy Goround
23:30 Jun 05, 2022

If helpful: Monkey Island in Uraga Bay. Dirt pit cages in a cave system. POWs woken by nets with oranges. Internal bleading , no marks. If Shoji is 19...he would act completely different at 20 -- lowering his voice by five octaves and mimicking the other "adults". This change literally happens over-night. "The nail that sticks out will be pounded down." Instead of banzai, try "Genkii, Genkii desuka?" Else, itada-i-ma! (You got it/honey, I'm home), yukuri da ne? ******** Wonderful ending.

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Kelsey H
05:48 Jun 05, 2022

Such a well written and sad story, I love how it highlighted the human capacity for compassion and bravery as well as cruelty. I really enjoyed the historical aspect too, especially being shown from the side of a Japanese soldier.

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Alex Sultan
15:18 Jun 05, 2022

Thank you for reading, Kelsey. I appreciate the kind words.

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Bruce Friedman
00:32 Jun 05, 2022

Wonderful, as always Alex. You are a master of the form of writing. One question. You write: "A submarine crew, demoralized from the loss of Saipan, rushed onto the island." Does this mean that the prison was on a island? --Bruce

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Alex Sultan
15:15 Jun 05, 2022

Thank you for reading, Bruce. I appreciate the comment. Yes - the prison I wrote in the story, while fictional, was on an island. During WW2, from what I've researched/read, Imperial Japan had some island prisons where they'd treat prisoners however they saw fit. I hope you are well.

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Bruce Friedman
20:41 Jun 05, 2022

Alex, it might be helpful to prove the name of this island. You mention Saipan and I took this for a time to mean that the island on which the prison was on was also Saipan. However, this did not make sense. Thanks.

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Andi Hyland
22:01 Jun 04, 2022

Kindness shown during the brutality of war. Well-written and not what I expected. Thank you.

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Alex Sultan
15:10 Jun 05, 2022

Thank you for reading, Andi. I appreciate the kind words.

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Katy Borobia
20:44 Jun 04, 2022

I greatly admire your ability to write short historical fiction! I tried it for the first time this week, and it's very difficult. I love WW2 fiction as well as East Asian culture, so you are likely to become a favorite author of mine :) Well done.

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Alex Sultan
16:11 Jun 05, 2022

Thank you for reading, friend. I appreciate the comment - WW2 and the Pacific Theatre is something I've researched a lot on, and plan to write a lot more on. I'm glad you like it!

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Beth Jackson
18:43 Jun 04, 2022

I love your work, Alex. You have a way of bringing historical fiction so vividly to life. You tell stories that are important and relevant in such an engaging way. This piece was lovely, great pacing and tension, the part where Shoji and the marines shared their languages was beautiful. Thank you for sharing. :-)

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Alex Sultan
16:00 Jun 05, 2022

Thank you for reading, Beth. I appreciate the comment - it is very kind of you. I do plan to write so much more historical fiction, and your words are inspiring. I hope you are well!

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Desiree Haros
17:51 Jun 04, 2022

You have made me into one of your newest followers!. It was a magnificent story, to say the least. My mother was a baby when the Japanese invaded their hometown in the Philippines and beheaded her uncles. She talks about how her parents took them into the mountains for safety. I appreciate a different point of view because I do believe there were pieces of goodness during this horrific time in history.

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Alex Sultan
15:05 Jun 05, 2022

Thank you for reading, friend. I appreciate the comment. I have read about the Philippines campagin in WW2 - the crimes comitted by the Japanese were terrible. I'm glad your mother lived to talk about it. It was a dark period of Japan's history, but I'd always like to hope in those times some people kept their humanity.

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Keya Jadav
05:21 Jun 03, 2022

It's not good the way it wrenches your heart. I was speechless throughout and still am. I agree with the fact how captives are treated and tortured by their holders and I love how you've presented such brutality with the edge of kindness. Cruelty and Humanity both in a single piece - clearly a winner. This is probably the best and heartbreaking story of yours I've read. The ending was just...perfect.

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Alex Sultan
15:09 Jun 05, 2022

Thank you for reading, friend. I appreciate the comment. Balancing humanity/inhumanity can be tricky with these stories, and I'm glad it came through in the writing. Here is to hoping it does well in the competition this week.

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Bradon L
23:43 Jun 02, 2022

Wow, this was fantastic! It was equal parts captivating and sobering. I tip my hat to you!

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Alex Sultan
14:59 Jun 05, 2022

Thank you for reading, Bradon. I appreciate the kind words.

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