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For two days we zigzagged north and west up from Hollandia, making a snaking column one hundred miles long. The sea was heavy with us, frothing in our wakes. Two fleets of warships plowed the watersaircraft carriers, battleships, cruisers, destroyers, oilers, cargo ships, personnel carriers, minesweepers, landing craftseven hundred of them belching their smoke and churning their screws, heading unknowingly into perhaps the greatest naval battle of all time. Two hundred thousand soldiers waited puking and nervous in the holds and on the decks of the transport ships, ready to be offloaded and thrown against enemy positions in yet another steaming jungle. At night they cleaned their weapons, said their prayers, and wrote letters home. We were heading for Leyte.
I had embarked as the junior member of General MacArthur's staff on the cruiser USS Nashville. Our journey filled me with an almost superstitious dread. I did not like warships and in fact had enlisted in the army to be away from them. They too-often sank, and when they did they brought their sailors with them, making cold, steel, barnacled coffins deep in the yeasty surges of the still-volcanic, ever-erupting Pacific. For those of us who had not aspired to military careers, such unhappy conclusions had been the subject of much conversation in the uncertain days that followed Pearl Harbor. Viewing our choices, the war boiled down to different ways of dying. Would it be worse to sink and drown, or to fall like a shot quail from the air, or merely to crumple into the sweet grass from a bullet or artillery round?
In January 1942 I had weighed these options and finally acquiesced to facing death in the dirt. Luckily for me, the army took note of my ability to speak passing Japanese. Starved for such talent, they had sent me to language school instead of infantry training. I was then shipped immediately to the Pacific, where I spent five months as an interrogator-translator and then was ordered to MacArthur's staff. I was a good staff officer, something of a natural diplomat, enthusiastically obedient and always thorough. A recent top college athlete, I carried myself with a rugged self-confidence that seemed to accentuate my obeisance. MacArthur and his top generals had grown to like and trust me completely.
But behind my smiling facade was a profound sense of unworthiness. Every morning as I reported to the General's headquarters for my day's orders, I reminded myself that if it had not been for this stroke of luck by which I had learned to speak Japanese, my war would have been more predictable and far more dangerous. Indeed, my younger brother had taken the more traditional family route, his eight years of school and dumbifying Arkansas dialect ensuring him a role as an infantry private. As with my father and his father before him, he had turned into a brave and competent soldier. And he had died in June 1944, in a little town I had never heard of, during the invasion of France.
No, I was not born to this. I had never even seen a city until the age of fourteen, when one bleak rainwinter morning my mother awakened and announced to us that my dead father had come to her in a dream and told her that we should leave Arkansas and go to California. The corn shucks in my makeshift mattress rustled under me as I rubbed my eyes awake, watching her busily pack four cotton bags. It was obvious, watching her lined and furious face, that Daddy had meant for us to leave that very day.
My father's grave lay in a small cemetery just above a thickly wooded cow pasture, marked only by a favorite rock. We visited it together before we departed. Mother said a prayer for all of us and then promised Daddy that she wouldn't leave him buried in this lonesome field, that she would move him to California once things got better. He had been dead less than a year and I could still feel his presence, warm as a woolen sweater and filled with a knowing kindness that had irreplaceably disappeared from my life when they lowered his pine coffin into the hole.
As I stood over his grave for perhaps the last time, my father seemed alive again. Two hundred yards in front of me a thin herd of cattle grazed on winter grass. Off in the distance a squirrel gun went off, bagging someone's lucky supper. I tried to listen to his voice. I thought I heard him tell me that he had made a big mistake by staying in this cruel backwater place, that if he had only left instead of fighting its ugly reality, he would never have been laid into an early grave. I looked at the plain jagged rock of a tombstone that would not long remember him and I decided that he had told Mother the same thing in her dream the night before.
I had never seen even a picture that was as beautiful as the California coast. The morning after our bus arrived in Santa Monica I stood on the vast pier and smelled the salt air and the seafood cooking and watched the lazy pace of people walking and fishing, and I looked back toward the bluffs at the waves breaking over the sand and then the rows of lofty palm trees that disappeared northward toward Malibu and I will admit I cried. It had been beyond my capacity even to imagine such beauty and contentment. I was ragged and longhaired and laughed at but I felt my father's warmth surround me, and I vowed that I would never let my mother leave.
There were schools. I was smart. And just as important, at least for me, I discovered that I had a knack for carrying this nearly weightless leather object called a football and knocking people over when they tried to bring me to the ground. Mother objected fiercely, arguing that I should be working, but I found it to be great fun. Three years later she was stunned beyond amazement to find that top universities throughout the state were vying for the right to pay my way through college, asking only that I continue to show up in the afternoons after classes and play for a while with the other boys and on the weekends do the same before large crowds.
I chose the University of Southern California because it was near Mother and I could still help her on the weekends. She found work in a defense plant, and after mobilization worked twelve-hour shifts as a riveter, her small size ideal for climbing into the narrow nose sections of military aircraft. My brother was studying to become an electrician, knowing he would soon be called into the army.
Life was good in California, and the coming war only helped us.
Just off the campus, on a side street near Exposition Park, a Japanese family ran a grocery store, specializing in fresh fruits and vegetables brought in from the valley by other Asian immigrants. I was nineteen, in my second year at Southern Cal, when I first saw Kozuko. She was standing in front of her father's store, arranging a sidewalk display of fruits and vegetables. She was wearing a full white apron, tied tight around her tiny waist. A red bandanna pulled her hair away from her face and clutched it long and flowing down the center of her back. Her face was downturned, frowning from some inner debate. She went about her work with such a proud and careful delicacy that she might have been placing lush, exotic flowers into a grand vase. But when she looked up and saw me, she smiled.
I was enormously shy, still conscious of my full-voweled Arkansas accent and my unvarnished social etiquette. Southern Cal had actually increased this shyness, despite my quick notoriety on the football field. It was a high-tuition, sophisticated school, and I was not yet sufficiently facile to turn my ragged journey into a party joke. I finally smiled back. I had no reason to talk to her other than my awkward appreciation of her beauty, but I finally mumbled that I wanted to learn to speak Japanese. She told me she wanted to speak better English. We agreed to teach each other. And within two weeks, over the objections of both our parents, we were inseparable.
We fell together naturally, more as playmates than lovers, both outsiders, immigrants from different kinds of remoteness. And as I struggled to please her, Kozuko opened up for me a fascination with Asia and its many cultures. On the weekends in Santa Monica she and I would look out into the vast, emptying darkness of the Pacific, practicing Japanese and talking of the intricate culture that defined her parents' homeland. I began reading constantly, at times deep into Asian history and at others following the trail of Japan's ongoing military conquests.
And then Pearl Harbor was attacked. Kozuko and her family were sent to camps in Texas. I reported to the army. Japan became the hated enemy. Indeed, its army and its rulers were vicious, unyielding, cruel to those they conquered. But I never lost my fascination for its ancient greatness, and I could never hate the Japanese as a people after I had known the sweetness of Kozuko and seen the strength of her family.
I knew that the campaign for the Philippines would be long and bloody. After two years in the Pacific I was already mind-weary, ready to leave the army. And so as we proceeded toward Leyte I invented my own little escapes. As the Nashville sliced and turned through the gleaming royal blue waters I spent my free hours standing alone on its holy stoned wooden main deck, under the long tubes of the eight-inch guns so that I could not see them, and pretending I did not hear the boatswain's pipings as I peered out into the incessant waves. In those moments I imagined I was a tourist, on a luxury liner headed not to the France where my little brother had just died but to the old and glorious Paris where he somehow might still be alive.
I could not deceive the sea, though. It was all Pacific Asia, surging and playing, rocking the giant warship like a toy, entertaining us with escorts of flying fish and swirling, multicolored giant eels. Behind us were the festering, swampy jungles of New Guinea, where MacArthur had feinted, prodded, bombed, enveloped, and eventually bypassed a frustrated multitude of Japanese soldiers whose greatest desire had been to die for the emperor but who now were useless to the war. He was at his military best in those battles, cutting off the enemy from their sea lanes, dwindling their supplies rather than crushing them with the brutal, costly frontal assaults that Nimitz and the Marines were using in the central Pacific. He had left the enemy, as he put it, "dying on the vine."
The correspondents liked to write that a lot of soldiers hated MacArthur for his arrogance and showmanship, and in truth he was at times unbearable. But a multitude of them would not have been alive to feel these resentments had he not planned and directed their battles with such undeniable genius.
Ahead of us was fresh grist for all the passions MacArthur had conjured, and some new ones as well. The sprawling islands of the Philippines were indeed a military challenge, defended by four hundred thousand Japanese soldiers. But much more than that, they were MacArthur's great obsession. No place in the world, not even in America, so claimed MacArthur's emotions. He had begun his military career here, more than forty years before. His father had served here before him. He had spent another tour here as a general officer, between marriages and before he became army chief of staff. He had been rescued from the anonymity of early military retirement by becoming field marshal of the Philippines in 1936 when his regular army career was over. He had met his present wife on a ship as he headed to that assignment and had married her here. His son had been born here. His mother had died here. He had a singular place among the people of these islands, large and small, and he had promised them personally that he would return.
And there was something else. By now we knew the war had turned, that it would be won, if not in months, then soon, someday, inevitably. When that day came, we who had been reluctant but dutiful soldiers would go thankfully home. But what would our General do? Some, including Franklin D. Roosevelt in his darker moments, thought MacArthur might run for president, but we knew instinctively that he could never endure the indignities of true democracy. He had not even set foot in the United States since 1937. Some odd and unpredictable karma awaited him, a future that would be set in motion on the coming beaches. This was his true moment, the eve not of his retirement but of his enthronement, the day he had dreamed of during nearly three years of wandering through his own personal wilderness.
But he had to do much more than win a military campaign. He could not be truly great unless he was without enduring stain, and the Philippines had stained him deeply. He had suffered his most humiliating moment right here in the land that had always fed his greatest hungers.
Sometimes we were his stooges, at others we played the whore, but one could not rationalize, sympathize, or euphemize away the simple fact that he had been defeated by the Japanese in 1942. Not simply beaten but routed. Washington might be blamed, but MacArthur had not been ready either, despite four years of preparation. His air force had been bombed into uselessness on the ground twelve hours after the debacle at Pearl Harbor, the pilots and ground crews improperly forewarned, at first unable to believe that the attacking formations were Japanese and that they were in reality at war. His armies had been pushed back inches at a time down the Bataan Peninsula and then onto the rocks and caves of Corregidor. He himself had escaped the humiliation of capture, torture, and imprisonment that had been visited on his soldiers only by fleeing on a small PT boat to a faraway airstrip, where a plane carried him and his wife and child to Australia.
He had been defeated. And worse, he had abandoned his men under fire, in their most desperate moments.
But from Australia he had planned and implemented his personal and military revenge. He had taken it out a campaign at a time, his soldiers leapfrogging from one jungle battle to another, ever northward, always aiming at the Philippines. Because for a general who viewed himself as the greatest mind that had ever lived, the only retribution could be found not simply in victory but in an unholy excess of genius. And finally on these beaches and in the ensuing months the Japanese would taste and feel that kind of retribution in its full and flowery fury. With the move from Hollandia to Leyte, he was determined to leap from mere fame to a historic place no general had ever dreamed of.
For who was Napoleon but some poodle with hemorrhoids who wasted an army in the frozen tundra of the steppes? And who was Caesar, who in the end had pampered himself with such vanity that he could not control his own murderous staff? And who, particularly, was Yamashita, this bump in the road in front of MacArthur's charge toward immortality, this so-called Tiger of Malaya who had humiliated Percival in Singapore and then sent British prisoners of war parading through all the streets of conquered Asia to show the weakness of the soldiers of the West?
Who, indeed. This was MacArthur, cold and brilliant and in control, knocking on the door of greatness.