Shells rained upon Ramree Island.
Takuro struggled—hands trembling—to load bullets into his rifle. The ammunition slipped between his fingers, hitting the dirt, rolling in the trench. He brought his head down as bombs whistled. They landed close enough to make him jump, dirt spattering his eyes. Shrapnel cut his uniform.
Dazed, reeling, Takuro got to his feet, stumbling. He turned his head. His allies to the right affixed bayonets onto their Arisaka rifles. Banzai! Banzai! Banzai! They charged the British and Indian soldiers face-first. He turned to the left, sluggish, seeing Japanese soldiers decimated by the bombs. Limbs and helmets were scattered across the land, the dirt coated red.
Hands grabbed his shoulders.
“Death before dishonour,” Takuro mumbled. He reached for a grenade. “Long live-”
“We’ll die for the emperor another day!” The soldier’s words carried spit. Bombs shook the earth. “We retreat for now, through the jungle—there are fortifications that need our numbers! General’s orders!”
The shock passed. Takuro nodded and climbed out. His remaining company followed the soldier through the battlefield. Bullets zipped through the air, striking mud. The groaning noise of tank treads sounded further off.
Along with several hundred others, Takuro retreated into the jungles of Ramree. The dense foliage surrounded them. Snakes wrapped themselves around branches, while spiders watched from monstrous webs.
The Japanese forces would march ten miles to the opposite side of the island.
Takuro plunged his boots into water.
- - -
To discover how cruel nature can be, you need only shake the wrong branch.
The swamp water reached his knees. He swatted at one mosquito, and a dozen more swarmed him. Takuro kept his rifle high, the hot fog setting in, heavy enough that he could hardly see the soldier in front of him. It wouldn’t be long until the British ambushed them from the sides.
He doubted he could pull the trigger if it happened.
He couldn’t bring himself to shoot at them before. The fog would help. It’d make the difference in not seeing their faces. He followed behind, legs dragging through the swamp, the water reaching waist height. Soldiers ahead mumbled of hunger—handfuls of rice not enough to sustain them.
A man behind him panted and wheezed. Takuro turned to see a purple blister on the soldier’s arm. It’d swollen, the skin surrounding it a dark red.
The man caught him staring.
“I bumped into a tree a while back,” he whispered. “Didn’t see the snake on it. Eyes forward. I’ll be fine.”
“You need a medic,” Takuro said. “I’ll rush ahead and find-”
“We couldn’t treat our own back there. They won’t help me now.” He reached into his uniform and brought out a sealed letter, the imperial emblem of the rising sun stamped on the corner. He handed it to Takuro.
“Hold this for me, please.”
Less than a half-hour later, the man collapsed into the swamp. Takuro rushed over, reached into the water, but couldn’t see in the murk. Seaweed tangled around his arms. Another soldier pushed at his chest with the stock of their rifle and forced him forward.
“We can’t leave him-”
“Quiet! It’ll be your head if you disobey orders.”
He marched. Mosquitoes picked at his arms, drawing blood from his hands. He’d stopped trying to swat at them. Gunfire boomed ahead. Takuro pointed his rifle to the left, squinting through the fog. This time, he would fire. The first British he saw, with their khaki uniforms, he’d blow their head right off-
“Iriewani!” soldiers called.
Takuro snapped his aim to the water. Saltwater crocodiles. Gunfire rang out, screams, vicious splashing. Silence. The water stilled. The march came to a halt. Takuro wiped the sweat from his brow, keeping his rifle trained low, the sun setting overhead.
“We move!” an officer commanded. He brandished his side sword. “We’ll get nowhere if we stop for the weak!”
It began again. Soldiers at the back of the group—the sick and wounded—cried for help. A soldier pushed Takuro forward, and he tripped into the water. He kept his rifle above his head. His hands trembled. He got to his feet and marched with the rest of the group.
The crocodiles grew restless. Men were crushed in the jaws of the reptiles and torn to shreds. Panicked shots hit friendlies, leaving bleeding corpses in the water. Darkness shrouded the beasts. Takuro gagged as he passed a floating arm in a pool of red.
When it came time to camp, he exhaled in relief. A momentary abatement from the march. They stepped onto solid ground, setting campfires, hunting for anything to eat—whether it be the jungle’s snakes, scorpions, or spiders.
Takuro sat at a campfire with a dozen other soldiers. They shivered in the sudden cold, their boots soaked inside and out. Drinking water ran low. Stomachs growled. Men whispered to each other to distract themselves.
“Where are you from?” a soldier asked.
Takuro turned. “Hiroshima. There’s a small town named Kaita. That’s where I’m from…” the soldier prompted him to continue. “I ran a shoe store with my older sister. Our father lost his memory, and the responsibility fell to us. It was…” Takuro stared at the fire and smiled. “It was alright. I liked it.”
“I miss it,” Takuro said. He ran a hand through his hair. “Recruiters came to our door. I got sent off here. My sister is out making the boots that we wear.”
“You’ll have to thank her for me,” the man said. “These boots are not breaking apart anytime soon, and we’ve been marching through hell.”
They exchanged names. The man—Shohei, spoke of his time in Nagoya. He’d been a fighter pilot, moved to an infantry division after the bombings on his city left their aircraft limited.
“Believe it or not,” he said, hushing his voice to a whisper, “I used to play the same sport as the Americans. I’ve been to New York.” He smiled. “I played against the Yankees at their own stadiums. They were kind to me, and they hit the ball as hard as the rumours said.”
The fire crackled. Soldiers shook in their sleep.
“Because of it,” Shohei continued, “I can’t bring myself to hate them.”
“It’s our country’s duty,” Takuro said. “We don't have a choice.”
The conversation died out. Shohei turned and laid down, head against the mud. Takuro inched closer to the fire. He reached into his uniform for the letter the soldier had given him earlier in the day—water blotted the imperial emblem in the corner, red ink a blur.
He ran his thumb under the seal.
My dear Itsumi, the letter read.
We spend our mornings and nights digging. My back hurts from shovelling dirt, but these trenches will be our only cover on this island. I spend my time thinking of home. Your letters are a beautiful, yet cruel reminder of all the months and years I’m missing, where I could be with you. Every day I’m out here, I hope, is another day you will be safe.
Remember that I will always love you, Itsumi.
Takuro folded the letter and tucked it into his uniform. He couldn’t wear the mask of imperialism any longer. He pressed his head into his arm, and cried.
- - -
At dawn, the Japanese forces continued the march.
Soldiers walked with their heads down. Morale had dropped low. If retreating from the battle was not enough, the remaining officers argued over their maps, splitting into groups and taking separate paths in the swamp.
The crocodiles did not relent.
They picked off the sick, wounded, and slow—dragged beneath water, drowned, limbs torn off in a frenzy. Days passed. Fatigue took its toll. Any soldiers that fell behind fell prey. Numbers dropped from hundreds to dozens. Takuro awoke again and again to exhausted men being dragged from camp, stuck in the jaws of the saltwater crocodiles, crying for mercy.
The ones they killed tasted like rubber.
Within a week, lost in the jungle, Takuro came down with a fever—some disease transmitted by the mosquitoes.
He balanced himself on his rifle as he walked, boots digging deep into the mud, every step of the jungle looking the same. Thick mangrove trees. Clouded water. The hissing of snakes and croaks of frogs.
Struggling to keep up, Takuro tripped over a tree root. The alert, green eyes of a crocodile opened in the shadows. It rushed out from the foliage. Takuro shouted, stumbled to his feet, and hurried away—but couldn’t find any of his comrades.
He’d been too slow. Abandoned.
The crocodile’s legs patted against the mud, its tail smashing against the ground as it crawled faster and faster. Takuro aimed his rifle and faced the beast. An amber and black hide, scaled from one end to the other, twice the size of him. A jaw of massive, ivory-coloured teeth. Bumps like spikes ran down its back.
Takuro shot. His ears rang. The bullet dug into the crocodile’s scales and failed to slow it down. Takuro cried out, swinging his bayonet from side to side. He jabbed as the crocodile lunged.
It bit at his rifle and broke it in two. The bayonet shattered in its jaws.
Losing his weapon, he staggered, falling.
Gunshots stopped the crocodile in its tracks. A group of British soldiers stepped out of the foliage and trained their firearms on the lone Japanese soldier, encircling him.
“Give the word and I’ll put him down.”
Takuro couldn’t understand the language. He raised his arms above his head.
“Lower your weapons,” another said. “He’s harmless. Give him some water.” One knelt beside him and handed him a canteen. “Do any of you speak Japanese?” They shook their heads. “Alright, standard procedure. Get him out of here.”
They brought him to a boat and sailed off.
A medic took his temperature. Another placed a lukewarm cloth over his forehead. He closed his eyes, shivering, and was thankful for his captors—thankful to be away from the front lines of the war.