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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Vollaro

Canvas City

It rains every night in Canvas City. The soldiers work in the morning and in the late afternoon because it is cooler, but not during the hottest part of the day. The Americans are unaccustomed to the heat and the humidity of the jungle, which looms menacingly behind their camp, an impenetrable steamy morass of greens and purples. Ben writes home that there are no towns in New Guinea, that the country is “a waste.” He says the first few miles of it are tame, but beyond that, it has everything you’d expect to find in a jungle. He adds the story of the two soldiers who see two kangaroos in the jungle. The kangaroos here are smaller than the ones in Australia, he says. The two animals just stood there like statues, like startled deer, until one of the men took a step towards them and they darted back into the jungle canopy and disappeared. “I wish I’d seen that,” he said.

Ben writes this, as so many of the other men do, in a dusk ritual of letter writing that usually begins as dinner ends. They sit together in the mess hall like women in a sewing circle or in chairs in front of their tents or lying face down in their cots with stationary before them and pen in hand. “We all live for mail call,” Ben writes to his wife.

People live back there without a single road big enough for a tank to pass, he writes, the Natives, the “Fuzzy Wuzzies.” “It was all trails,” says one of the Aussies who fought the Japanese here, a hard man with a scar across the middle of his bottom lip who chain smokes and compulsively flicks his thumb with his forefinger as he speaks. “You have to go all the way to Port Moresby to find a sidewalk.” Ben stares into the jagged line of mountain peaks and wonders what that must have been like, fighting the Japs on footpaths and mountain trails, and then after they’d chased the enemy back to this shore, the fight to the death for the bunkers they’d built not far from where the Americans were now encamped. The Aussies were sick with malaria all the time. They couldn’t get enough rations up the mountain trails. The Japanese had it bad too. They were dying of dysentery. When things got really bad for them at the end, they resorted to cannibalism.

It’s like a frontier town, Ben thinks. There are Natives, men and boys barely clad in G Strings with nut brown skin, wide noses, and curly reddish hair, and the Aussies have brought horses with them and stage races for the men to bet on in their off hours. The natives live in houses of bamboo logs or coconut logs with thatched roofs and old canvas, not a nail in any of them. The Native men are sturdy and straight-backed and utterly shameless and they easily swindle GIs out of their money. A mule wanders into the camp one day, and some local would-be GI cowboys try to ride it. Anything for a laugh. The poor beast takes off into the jungle like a P38.

Almost no one enters the jungle. The Army forbids it, except when it gives express permission. Regardless of the Army regs, Americans stick close to the camp, close to the familiar claustrophobia of their canvas city. It was just “the camp” when they first arrived, but then one of the boys from Wichita started calling it Canvas City. There is always work to be found in Canvas City, the men joke. Dig a well. Dig a trench. Pound in more tent stakes to trip over at night.

Ben makes the most of it. This is what you do in the Army, he thinks. No sense bitching about it. Besides, he’s an artist who gets to do art in the Army. That isn’t half bad. He paints signs. He works on the company newspaper with Riemer. And everyone wants art to send back to the states for birthdays and holidays, little portraits, or cute cartoony cards. On the Pacific crossing, he and Riemer had discovered that by teaming up---his artwork and Riemer’s gift for rhyming----they can make money from other GIs or trade their labor for things they need.

Buna Bay. They are finally on dry ground, finally in the war, and some of the rhythms of the ship have carried over to life in the camp. The daily letter writing after dinner continues, habitual now for many of the men. There is the Sgt who Ben doesn’t like and the Corporal assigned to his tent who turns out to be a nice fellow after all. There is Charlie, who sleeps a few cots down from Ben, a one-time professional dancer from New York who is pretty nice in his matters and ways. There is Barney, the Red Cross worker who brings lemonade and donuts to the men. Reimer writes a little poem about her. “Here’s to Barney, she’s OK / When she’s around, oh happy day.”

Some of the boys dug a well so there is water for showers. The water will be pumped up into tanks so that gravity can force it down into shower heads and sinks.

There are signs to paint. Ben works all day in the shop sometimes, the sharp paint and paint thinner smells in his nose even after he showers. Signs for the latrine, for the officers' mess, for the PX, for the Marines’ tents. Signs pointing the way around the little canvas metropolis they have built at the edge of a jungle. A sign to adorn the top of the door in the Catholic Chaplain’s confessional, the letters IHS, which is Latin for the name of Jesus.

Some of the enlisted men get creative and paint their own signs for “Goldbrick’s Haven” and “Dew Drop Inn” but the officers make them take them down. They’re not Army enough.

The gasoline pump is finally working, so the well water can begin moving around the camp’s rickety circulation system. This is big. Running water, the difference between civilization and roughing it. It’s the little things.

Ben is feeling bone tired and proud. Well digger, plumber, carpenter, pipe-fitter. The Army teaches you things and then allows you to be competent at them. He likes that.

The shower isn’t built yet, so they use the one in the MP’s tents. The camp is coming together, one tent, one amenity at a time.

The Colonel stops by to share his knowledge of art and composition. Know-it-all type. Ben listens politely. This is what you learn in the Army, the art of polite listening when officers are around. It’s necessary to strike a tone with them, somewhere between automatic respect and an at-ease informality that isn’t quite Army in the strictest sense of the word. The younger men have difficulty negotiating this stance.

The mess hall is done. The kitchen, the barber shop, the PX. He’s made signs for all of them. All very Army, but the little comforts are most welcome. The men in his unit know that they are lucky. They speak in hushed, reverent tones about the boys sleeping in foxholes right now, about how lucky they are to have running water and a barber in the camp.

At night, the jungle sounds come up close to the tent, the soft peep peep sound of some kind of insects, crickets Ben thinks, punctuated by an occasional squawking sound. Closer, you can hear the sound of men snoring, from close up and from further away, and the rustling of some kind of small animal nearby. Occasionally too, the rustling of men who cannot sleep or the murmur of a soldier talking in his sleep.

In the morning, there is the terrible squawking sound of big parrots feeding in the trees nearby. The camp comes to life with the low rumble of a generator and the sound of a few men talking quietly and water splashing somewhere nearby.

Some of the men drive ten miles out to a place called Palm Beach in two jeeps. Ben goes with them. Sunday afternoon, a narrow crescent of sand and some evidence of combat, a burned-out truck tipped over in the jungle, now shot through with ferns and baby tree trunks. Sandbags piled up in a little wall. Back in the jungle fifty feet or so, part of a thatched hut, partially blackened and a big steel sign with Japanese writing on it, punched through with bullet holes and rusting around the edges. Some of the men drag the sign out onto the beach and prop it up in the sand so they can stand next to it and have their pictures taken. The men laugh and wonder aloud what the characters say.

“Fuck you American GI,” the corporal laughs.

“Get me the hell back to Tokyo,” says another.

Ben walks on the beach alone, shoes off, but shirt still on and his floppy khaki hat. He’s afraid of sunburn, unlike the younger men who throw their bodies carelessly into work and play as if there were no physical limits except for the ones they could smash their shoulders and fists and heads into. He can feel the ten-year age gap between them in these moments.

He watches three GIs with a homemade climbing rig trying to scale a palm tree. One of them first tries to shimmy up the tree, aided by a rope that is strung through the belt loops of his pants and then wrapped around the tree trunk. When that fails, they try repeatedly to hurl another, longer rope into the palm fronds at the top of the tree. First, they attach a rock to the end of the rope to propel it further. Then a boot.

After fifteen minutes of this flailing, the men give up and walk down the beach.

Ben watches them disappear around the bend. The curve of the beach seems familiar to him, but he cannot decide whether this is the same beach he had seen on the cover of Life Magazine last year, in that sad, terrifying photo with three dead GIs strewn out in the sand, the soldier closest to the camera being swallowed up by the sand.

Two native men burst from the jungle at that moment, panting and sweaty. They’ve been running, and they are both slick with sweat. Ben watches one of them hop up onto the slanting trunk of a nearby coconut tree, then climb the trunk in a series of deft, frog-like hops. When he reaches the top, he uses a machete to cut down two coconuts that drop to the beach below. The other man swings his machete twice, slicing the coconuts in two. Within a minute of exiting the jungle, they are drinking coconut milk.


The midday heat is the worst. The men retreat to their tents where there is guaranteed shade. One of the men builds his own private shower outside his tent, a rickety wood and tin contraption over a patch of sloppy red mud from the runoff. The army tries to reign in these bursts of DIY enthusiasm but they can’t quash every one.

The unit down the road challenges the 132nd to a softball game. There is the option of the beach too. There is a guy in their unit who says he played with Dick Jergens and Glen Miller, and who cares if it isn’t true, he can really play.

Betty, his wife, is on the assembly line at Continental Motors now, his old job basically, and he thinks about her at the shop with all the men who didn’t join or weren't drafted. He won’t show it in his letters, but there is a tinge of jealousy, not that he thinks she will step out on him, but just the thought of her in that male domain, so free, laughing the way she does, making them laugh too, the ease of it, the carefree air of it all, while he is here sweating in this cot, smelling the sweat of other men.

There are the Red Cross women who sometimes show up. He never sees Native women in the camp, only the men and boys, and he understands this perfectly for some reason. Why would the women come anywhere near this place?

Everyone is coming to him for V-Mail cards now, even the co-commander, who orders 20 of them at a Florrin each, two shillings for each sketch. Two pounds for 20 drawings, and the orders keep coming in from officers and enlisted men alike. Who says art doesn't pay?

It certainly doesn't pay to lay in his cot and think. He can easily slip into the blues that way. The key is to keep busy, keep your mind active with little projects.

It is both strange and wonderful to see how the camp sprawls out, a microcosm of civilization, with many of the basic amenities of civilization too. For example, there is “the bowl,” a boxing ring built between two hills with seats terraced up both sides and in the middle, the ring. The bowl seats 1,000 men and there are 15 bouts per night, each one 3½ minutes in length. When the sun sets, the electric lights come up. The fights go on into the night.

There is the old mission church, pre-dating the American and Australian presence, a building completely weaved from thatch, the way the Natives build their houses and lodges. The size of a country church.

Ben is hard at work most days. Every tent needs a number and the numbers must be painted on a sign, which then must be nailed to a post near the tent.

And Jack Benny is here, so the rumor goes, somewhere in New Guinea.

For Ben, the Army is a mental game. Do what the Army says, keep your cool. Follow the program. This is his mantra every day, the thing he says to the younger men, who often complain about Army life and Army regs and Army food.

There is a theater now, a simple affair. A screen and a projector in the open air. Everyone brings their own seats. They will be installing seats soon. Ben writes home “When you think about it, we have done very well in our housekeeping till we get to a hospital.”

One of the movies is called “China,” and there is a scene in it with a baby getting a bath, and Ben is thinking about his infant daughter, AJ again.

Commerce continues unabated. Ben makes ten sketches for the CO and pockets one pound.

So many of the men–gamble, dice, cards, horses, fights.

Somewhere nearby, Perry Como’s voice soars over the tent roofs, sonorous and sweet, held aloft by the soft tinkle of piano and strings. “I love you truly, truly dear / life with its sorrow, life with its tear,” and Ben is thinking about AJ again, who now has her eighth tooth coming in and will soon have the entire set. His fist balls and his eyes moisten. I have to be here when she’s at her cutest age. The things I’m missing. The things I’ll never get back.

They dig a little trench around their tent. A few days earlier, it had rained and there was a little lake pooled in the center of the tent. The corporal's shoes floated into the next tent. Lesson learned. Always dig the trench.

Tonight, finally, Jack Benny arrives in camp for a standing-room-only performance, with Carroll Landis, and World’s best mouth organ player.


Ben has his own tent for work now. Things are looking up. His own paint shop, finally. He counts his wages, four pounds, one shilling and a pence. Thirteen American dollars.

July 20, 1944, Alice Jane is a year old. Ben starts his letter before chow, then spends the morning building a warehouse for 500 cases of beer. Cigarettes are .50 cents a carton.

There are the complainers, the men who cannot occupy their minds. They act like they are the only people in the South Pacific, the only ones far from home and missing their families.

Ben builds himself a desk out of a few boards and a base. On one corner, he places a picture of himself and Betty, and on the other, AJ.

Soon, there are electric lights in the camp, strung up along the walkways, wires weaving off into every tent. No more gas lights or candles.

Ben misses church again. He writes home about it. They have a chapel now, a lean-to with log benches, but when the altar candles are lit and the priest puts on his robes, it feels like a real church, he thinks.

Another movie: “Action in Arabia.”

Ben walks to the edge of camp on a Friday afternoon and finds himself standing in the place where a group of native men is building a warehouse of some kind. The Australian police captain is standing off in the distance, smoking a cigarette, but the men work with a seriousness that he has not seen in the Australians or the Americans–they make purposeful movements, nothing wasted. He has seen two native men easily lift more logs than four GIs could manage. They are happy and contented people, Ben thinks. The sun is sinking below the mountains and the boss blows a whistle. The men line up military-style and march off into the jungle.

He wanders along the footpath they have taken for just a few hundred feet, curious. There are no other GIs around, no one to stop him from going further. Maybe he’ll see a kangaroo like the other boys had, or some kind of interesting parrot that he can sketch from memory or turn into a watercolor.

He sees the helmet then, tipped over in the bush and mostly hidden by a big green leaf. At first, Ben thinks it might be a bowl, but as soon as he touches it, he knows what it is. There is a moment where he almost drops it, but his curiosity compels him.

It is unmistakably a Japanese infantry helmet.

This one is rusting, with a star in the front and two bullet holes punched into one side.

Whoever he was, he thought, he must have gotten it quick.


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