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A war story

By Brian Doyle

March 28, 2014


 

I told you about the guy in our unit who was a roaring alcoholic, said my late friend Donald to me once, referring to their Army boat battalion unit in the Pacific during the Second World War. Donald ran a little two-man attack boat, in a squadron of such lean armed arrows, and Blue had caused endless problems by siphoning alcohol from compasses, and being drunk on missions, and stealing beer and whiskey from other units, and etc.

But one time Blue was useful, said Donald. We discovered that he was buying all the fermented stuff the locals could manufacture in the jungle. We confiscated cases of it, stored in containers left by Japanese soldiers. For a while our lieutenant figured he would just divvy it up among the guys and we would have a quiet party some night when we were not on the prowl. But then he had a great idea; we would use it to knock over an enemy post that was giving us fits. This was a little nest of snipers set up at exactly the right place to give us trouble when we came out in force in the boats, but we didn’t have a safe way to get in there and overwhelm them. They were a real problem. So the lieutenant conspires with the locals to sell the fermented stuff to the enemy for half-price. This was brilliant because if you tried to give it to them for nothing, they would be suspicious, and if you tried to get a high price they might just shoot the locals and take it. The lieutenant was a bright guy who later became a very successful businessman in Chicago. It’s interesting to go over all the guys in my unit and say what happened to them later, like the guy who became a famous boxer, or the guy who became a chef, but that’s a story for another time. Anyway, the lieutenant’s plan worked, and the snipers got so loaded, they all passed out. We slipped in real quiet and picked them up and turned them in as prisoners to the Australians and got paid in ammunition and fruit. A couple of our guys just wanted to kill the snipers and get it over with right there, but the lieutenant said no for two reasons: one, we could get fruit and ammunition in exchange, both of which we really needed, and two, the fact that these guys just suddenly vanished, leaving no traces and no blood, would wig out the enemy, and anything we could do to make them nervous was a plus. Bright guy, the lieutenant. He was just a kid too. We were all kids pretty much—hell, I was only 19 when this was happening—but he was always a step ahead of everybody, figuring the angles. There are a lot of great stories about him, but I’ll tell you those some other time.

Brian Doyle is the editor of Portland magazine and the author of numerous books, most recently the novel The Plover.

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