Updated: Jun 8
The best war stories are the ones that read like magical realism
We do not have cinematic war stories in my family. No one has ever stormed the beaches or carried a wounded buddy to safety while under enemy fire. No one has ever thrown himself on a grenade or charged up a hill with cannon balls exploding all around. Our war stories are about jungle rot and long stretches of boredom and a Union soldier whose horse was once shot out from underneath him.
Nevertheless, I heard many war stories while growing up in the 1970s. My grandfather, Ben Quartermaine, was full of them. He served in the Pacific Theatre from 1944-45, after being drafted into the army when he was 34 years old, half blind in one eye and married with an infant daughter at home. This was his second stint in the Army. In the first, ten years earlier, he had tended mules, or something with mules (my uncle once followed up this statement of fact by adding with a laugh, “he hated mules”). He was discharged under murky circumstances after only a year, and in his later years, he would admit, with a little smirk, that he hadn’t been much of a soldier the first time around. Good soldier or not, he was drafted in 1943 and shipped overseas in 1944 on the Matsonia, a big white luxury liner that had been converted into a troop ship by painting the hull gray so it would blend into the ocean horizon, to conceal it from Japanese submarines. The Matsonia was crammed with marines, army nurses, doctors, and navy crewmen. The Prime Minister of Australia was also on board, clandestinely, returning home from an extended trip abroad in support the war effort. After a brief stop in Australia, Ben was shipped North to Bona Bay, New Guinea, and then, a few months later, to an island called Biak, just north of New Guinea and a degree south of the Equator.
By the time I was old enough to carry on a conversation with my grandfather, he had already retired from Continental Motors where he had worked on an assembly line since returning from the war in 1945. He and my grandmother would visit us in New Jersey every summer. I remember him as a thin, stooped man who wore big sweaters with tiny burn marks bored into the sleeves from the ashes that would drop, or occasionally pop, from the pipe that was always slanting down from the corner of his mouth. He was an artist, a painter, and I remember that there was always oil paint staining his fingertips and pressed deep under his fingernails.
My grandfather’s war stories bordered on magical realism, and for this reason, I did not know where to put them at first. By the 1970s, World War II had become a well-rehearsed cultural script with a familiar cast of characters. Iwo Jima, A Walk in the Sun, The Dirty Dozen, The Great Escape, The Bridge Over the River Kwai, Patton—these were the films that shaped my understanding of the war into a grand panoply of fearless, macho, cigar-chomping, staccato-voiced salt-of-the earth GIs who would sacrifice themselves for any tactical advantage over a cartoonishly evil enemy. There were exceptions of course—Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five and Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 were two I eagerly devoured while I was in college in the 1980s—but in three decades, the war had been boiled down to a handful of familiar plot lines and stock characters. My grandfather’s stories did not follow this script. They were from a film I had never seen.
Here’s an example: One night, in the middle of a marathon poker game, a GI stood up and exited the tent to take a piss. After he had been gone for a long time, the other men grew silent and began to glance nervously towards the door. Had he passed out drunk somewhere? Did he go back to his own tent? What could have happened to him? There were Japanese soldiers hiding in the mountains at the center of the island, stragglers who had not surrendered when the Marines captured the island. They sometimes came down from hiding to steal food. No one said anything, but they were all thinking the same thing: what if he had been killed by the enemy?
After a few minutes of uncertainty, they alerted the MPs who went looking for the missing GI. They eventually found him slumped over in the latrine, dead. The MPs said that when they shined a flashlight into the latrine, they could see the tail of an enormous snake disappearing through a hole in the roof.
He had been strangled to death by a python.
A python. Do pythons kill humans, I wondered silently? At 10 years old, a nascent skepticism was beginning to take hold in me.
He told another story about a newly-arrived officer in New Guinea, a Lieutenant, who was driven crazy by the sound of rats scurrying beneath his wooden tent platform. After less than a week in camp, he was heard firing his .45 caliber pistol through the tent platform at the invisible rodents below.
“Driven crazy.” What was that like? I had been raised by sober, temperate, sane people. I had no frame of reference for “crazy.”
He told stories about the Japanese soldiers who did not surrender when the Marines finally captured the airfields, the beaches, and all of the major villages on Biak in August of 1944. Dozens of them were living in the jungle in the interior of the island, cut off from resupply and slowly starving to death. They would sometimes sneak down from the hills to steal food, or to pick through the trash dump on the outskirts of the base.
I tried to imagine these men. I could see them in my mind’s eye—emancipated, like bundles of straw, uniforms in tatters, barefoot, ghostly faces peering out from the shadows that live between tree trunks along the side of the road.
There was a makeshift movie house inside the hospital compound—a sort of amphitheater dug into the side of a hill—and this is where the GIs and hospital staff would go to watch movies on Thursday evenings. Sometimes a handful of the starving Japanese soldiers would creep through the jungle to the edge of the base, close enough to watch the movie through the trees, or at least hear it. One night, before a Charlie Chaplin film was about to start, the GIs began to chant “Charlie Chaplin” over and over. When the chanting finally stopped, they could hear a faint chorus continuing from just above the tree line:
“Charlie Chaplin! Charlie Chaplin!”
* * *
It was not so much the fact of the python that imprinted itself on me. I was not afraid of snakes, and everyone knows that there are snakes in a jungle. It was the role the creature played in his story, the way in which this massive reptile (because at snake that could strangle a man would have to be massive) disrupted the natural order of life and death during wartime, at least as I understood it. All soldiers shared an existential fear of death, of being killed by the enemy. Every script of heroic behavior under fire depended on this fear, even Patton, which illuminated the possibility that soldiers might be paralyzed by fear and therefore cease to function altogether. That a snake could be the instrument of death in such a place filled me with an indescribable terror.
* * *
The way my grandfather told it, life on Biak was a kind of beach vacation in the army. They had hot food every night, regular mail deliveries, a newspaper, the USO, and of course, the nurses. He was proud of the fact that he worked at something he loved in the army. He spent most of his time “doing art”—painting signs and drawing cartoons for the hospital newspaper. After his official duties were finished, he put his talent to use on the black market. Everyone wanted a souvenir to take home from the war, so he would draw custom-made greeting cards and caricatures for the other men to mail home to their wives and girlfriends. He was always striking deals for hard-to-find items like fresh eggs, new oil paints, or parachute silk. As it turns out, sketching and painting were valuable skills on a tropical island full of scared, lonely men who were separated from their families and lovers by thousands of miles.
The stranded Japanese soldiers were a ubiquitous feature of these stories, always in the background, an army of nameless, faceless beings hidden inside the jungle canopy. According to my grandfather, the GIs were possessed with an ever-present fear that these soldiers might rally somehow and then come sweeping out of the hills one day—a surprise attack, Kamikaze style. There were rumors that a Japanese submarine was smuggling food and ammunition onto the island. But there was also a whiff of compassion in these stories, or at least pity for their plight. Occasionally, one or two of these survivors would be captured by guards as they attempted to sneak into the hospital compound to steal food under the cover of darkness. My grandfather described them as stickmen, frail and sunken and covered in sores, like dead men raised from the grave.
On Sundays, Ben would lounge on the beach or hitchhike out to the hospital’s annex on the other side of the island to have dinner with Father Powers, an army chaplain who had been a missionary in China before the war. My grandfather was broadly ecumenical on the subject of religion and not especially devout. He was most fond of the food and fellowship that sometimes followed worship. He could sit for hours, smoking his pipe, drinking coffee, and talking. The food was much better at the annex, he said, because the cooks did not have to feed nearly as many people.
I could picture this scene, because as a boy, I had often witnessed the ease with which my grandfather engaged with strangers. When he visited our family in New Jersey during the summer months, he would set up his easel on the riverbank at the center of our small town, ostensibly to paint the iconic red mill building on the opposite shore, but he would in fact spend most of his time talking to the curious folks who would wander over to see what he was up to. There was something about the way he stood, the way he squinted at that canvas in the sunlight and stabbed at it with his brush, that made people want to be near him. He was clearly a man out of place, yet also completely at ease.
It was on one of his leisurely Sunday afternoon trips to the annex that my grandfather met the man called Tracker.
That morning, Ben hitched a ride at the annex in the usual manner, by jumping into the back of a Jeep that was headed across the island. He once told me a very disturbing story about this road to the annex. The Marines had told him that an American Indian soldier was accidentally shot and killed by a military policeman while he was trying to climb into the back of a troop truck as it pulled away from the base. The soldier, who was out of uniform at the time, was just trying to hitch a ride to the annex but the nervous, trigger-happy MP mistook him for a Japanese soldier and fired his rifle.
When Ben arrived at the annex, the chaplain was sitting with an infantry captain who he introduced as an Army Intelligence officer. Chaplain Powers explaining that this man’s job in the army was to periodically travel into the island’s mountainous jungle interior with a group of natives to hunt the Japanese soldiers who had not yet surrendered. It was unclear to me whether “Tracker” was a bonafide nickname, the kind that military people easily adopt for themselves or others, or a name that my grandfather had given him after the fact, but I do remember clearly the explanation Ben gave for the origins of the name: Tracker could follow a trail through the jungle like a bloodhound, and he had an uncanny instinct for hunting men.
As I recall, his story about meeting Tracker was long and involved, with details about the Captain and the Chaplain that I have long since forgotten, but one image from his recollection of that conversation in the annex dining hall has seared itself into my long-term memory: at one point in the conversation, my grandfather accidentally knocked his coffee cup to the floor, and when he bent down to pick it up, he could clearly see under the table, a string of human ears tied to Tracker’s belt.
They looked like dried apricots, my grandfather said.
The first time I heard this story, I responded with disbelief. How could this be true? Why would an American soldier collect human ears? By the time I was fourteen years old, I had seen around fifty war films on television, but I had never seen anything like that. In war films, American GIs were always presented as tough but honorable men. The Japanese and the Germans were the savages. Never the Americans.
I had other questions. What was the priest doing during this episode? Surely he had seen the ears as well? How could a priest just sit there, drinking coffee and swapping stories with a man wearing desiccated human flesh hanging from his uniform?
For that matter, how could my grandfather?
* * *
There is in fact such a thing as a Biak Python. How do I know this? When I first heard Ben’s war stories in the 70s, the evidence required to verify any of the details was secreted away in hundreds of physical repositories—in libraries, on rolls of microfiche neatly tucked into small white boxes, in the photo albums and collections of private letters from GIs held by thousands of American families—but in my lifetime, I have watched as this evidence is raptured up into the never-ending now where it floats always in easy reach, just a keyword search away. In this new reality, I can finally confirm or deny his stories. I can play detective, much in the same way that millions of Americans are amateur sleuths poking into their familial origins, digging up marriage and death records newly digitized and uploaded to the Internet or signing up for Ancestory.com to learn what others have found. World War II is becoming monumentalized, transformed into an ocean of documents, as all wars are at the final passing of the generation that fought in them. But this is not a war that will be frozen into libraries and museums. No, its fate is to be resurrected through trillions of key word searches, reconstructed in the minds of grandchildren and great grandchildren, not a memory that is shared or memorialized but instead one that must be assembled one soldier at a time, like a complex puzzle.
Acringe in the spirit of this new world, I typed the words “python” and “Biak” into Google and discovered the existence of such a snake. It is a variety of green tree python found primarily on the island of Biak. Coveted among snake enthusiasts and collectors for its phosphorescent green color, this snake is for sale on hundreds of websites. They range in length from 4 to 6 feet and they sell for between $300 to $750. This snake feeds on small rodents and almost certainly would not and could not kill a man.
* * *
Here’s how I know that the Tracker story is at least plausible: The trophy-taking by American soldiers in the South Pacific is now well documented. On Guadalcanal in 1942, some American soldiers used pliers to rip out the teeth from the mouths of dying Japanese soldiers; they were looking for teeth with gold fillings. On Peleliu, one Marine wrote in his memoirs about witnessing another Marine extracting gold teeth from a wounded soldier by cutting the victim’s cheeks and then kneeling on his chin to force the jaws open. Marines heading to the front joked about making necklaces from these teeth, or pickling the ears of dead Japanese soldiers. Some soldiers cooked and scraped the skulls of Japanese soldiers to turn them into souvenirs. The practice was widespread enough to prompt a crackdown by both the army and the navy.
Famous American aviator Charles Lindbergh wrote about these atrocities. In his journals, he explains that a soldier told him he had seen dead Japanese soldiers with their ears and noses cut off.
He wrote, “Our boys cut them off to show their friends in fun, or to dry and take back to the States when they go.” In 1943, Yank magazine published a cartoon of the parents of a soldier receiving a pair of “Jap ears” mailed home by their son from the South Pacific.
There was a black market for these body parts in the Pacific Theatre. On the island of Mindanao in the Philippines, not far from Biak, Filipino partisan fighters received payment from the Americans: one bullet and 20 centavos for each pair of severed ears.
The Wikipedia article about the Battle of Biak says, correctly, that the Marines invaded Biak on May 27 and finally won the battle on August 17, but description of the aftermath of this battle is fuzzy. The article says, “The Japanese fought to annihilation,” and that 4,000 Japanese were never found, MIA or presumed dead. It’s as if they simply vanished from the earth, stepping through a portal to another dimension with the door closing forever behind them.
The truth is much more difficult to stomach.
In his diary, Japanese officer Tadakazu Yoshioka relates the story told by another Japanese soldier who had been captured on Biak. After the Marines took the beaches, airstrips, and towns, the soldiers who did not surrender were left to starve. Discipline broke down. The sick were killed. Those who could not keep up were stabbed to death with sabers or bayonets. Some died of fever. Others from starvation.
“Graves were opened in the night and the bodies of the malaria victims were exhumed,” he writes. “The human flesh was dried and carried along as rations. Some, while seeking food, were killed by the enemy, some by the natives. Even the innocent are deceived and killed. The strong are those who kill men and eat their flesh.”
Lt. Kariya, another Japanese soldier who was stranded on Biak, kept a diary written on the labels ripped from cans of plum tomatoes and condensed milk his men had stolen from the Americans. The journal begins around August 30, 1944 and runs to the end of December of that year. In it, he shares his hope for a Japanese counterattack and eventual victory over the Americans.
He seems like a sensitive soul. On the back of a label for Del Monte sliced peaches he wrote a beautiful poem called “White Butterfly” that begins: “Butterfly, why are you so silent? / Just about the time the sun rises up the valley.”
Earlier, he had written this on the label from a can of Mission Peak Fruit Cocktail:
Beauty is something that gives everyone a pleasant feeling. The beauty of Nature touches the hearts of millions of people. Now, let us mix the beauty of human nature and the wonders of nature. If you feel beauty and appreciate it, then you are still a man. However, until our friendly forces come, I shall have to cut off all beauty, nature and otherwise. Can there be such a miserable thing as this? The sun is bright and shining everywhere. I must not wonder further.
Elsewhere in this makeshift journal, he wrote, “I sneaked secretly into the enemy position to steal their rations. This happened one evening when the moon was shining brightly.”
When he was visiting a liberated concentration camp in the summer of 1945, Charles Lindbergh was reminded of the trip he had taken to Biak a year earlier. “Where was it I had felt like that before?” he mused. “The South Pacific? Yes: those rotting Japanese bodies in the Biak caves; the load of garbage dumped on dead soldiers in a bomb crater; the green skulls set up to decorate a ready room and tents.” Lindbergh was criticized for making this comparison. How dare he equate the Nazi reign of terror with the actions of American soldiers in combat?
But I understand what Lindbergh was saying. How can you not but feel sympathy for the hundreds of Japanese soldiers, abandoned to die by their own government, slowly starving to death, resorting to cannibalism, and hunted like animals by men who would desecrate their bodies and leave them to rot in the jungle after they had been killed? How can you not feel ashamed to learn that American soldiers boiled the heads of decapitated enemy soldiers so they could send the skulls home as war souvenirs? How can a thinking, feeling, civilized person peer into the oven of a Nazi concentration camp and not see in it the ashes of all the other humans who have died of mass murder?
* * *
Here is another fact about snakes that I recently learned from the Internet: The reticulated python, which can grow in excess of 20 feet long, will occasionally kill and eat humans. In early 2017, an Indonesian farmer was swallowed whole by a 23-foot-long python on the Island of Sulawesi. In 1990, a python almost that long was found on Biak.
Which is more terrifying, I wonder: to be a boy picturing in his mind’s eye the tail of a killer python slithering through a hole in the ceiling of a latrine or to be a middle-aged man staring at a photograph on the Internet of a giant dead python with men standing around preparing to cut open the human-sized bulge in the snake’s midriff?
* * *
I remember another story from the annex. One Sunday, my grandfather stayed late to talk to the chaplain. After the sun set, and while they were standing outside of the mess hall, they had a clear view down the hill to the beach, which by that hour was bathed in moonlight. They watched three rail-thin figures creep out of the trees and stand on the rocky beach, less than a hundred feet distant, silhouetted against the moon. These men stood for a minute staring out over the ocean before they walked back into the dark thicket again.
Many years have passed since I was a boy, and my grandfather is dead almost forty years now, but I still often try to conjure that scene in my mind. I like to imagine that Lt. Kariya was one of those men on the beach that night. I picture the painter and the poet, a stone’s throw away from each other in the dark, momentarily caught up in the strange beauty of that night, both of them happy to be alive and with no real malice in their hearts.