"Hundreds of planes!" Sato shouted again, with even more urgency. "Hurry."
The slaves moved toward the air-raid shelters. They were primitive, nothing more than narrow slits dug four feet deep and roofed with logs covered over with a few feet of dirt. There were three main trenches, each about a hundred feet long. On both ends, the structures had tiny crawl-space entrances that admitted one man at a time. Approximately fifty men could fit inside each one, but they had to pack themselves in with their knees tucked under their chins. The prisoners had constructed these crude shelters for their own safety after the American air raids started in October, to avoid more casualties like Stidham. With Sato's reluctant approval, they'd also painted "POW" on the galvanized-metal roof of their barracks.
Sato was behaving strangely today, the prisoners thought, but perhaps he knew something, perhaps a massive air attack was indeed close at hand. All the signs pointed to the imminent arrival of the American forces. The tide of the war was turning fast; everyone knew it. That very morning a Japanese seaplane had spotted a convoy of American destroyers and battleships churning through the Sulu Sea en route to Mindoro, the next large island north of Palawan. If not today, then someday soon Sato and his company of airfield engineers would have to reckon with the arrival of U.S. ground troops, and their work on Palawan would be finished.
Reluctantly, the American prisoners did as they were told, all 150 of them, crawling single file into the dark, poorly ventilated pits. Everyone but Stidham, whose stretcher was conveniently placed beside one of the trench entrances. If the planes came, his buddies would gather his limp form and tuck him into the shelter with everyone else.
They waited and waited but heard not a single American plane, let alone a hundred. They huddled in the stifling dankness of their collective body heat, sweat coursing down their bare chests. The air-raid bell continued to peal. A Navy signalman named C. C. Smith refused to go into his pit. Suddenly the Buzzard set upon him. He raised his saber high so that it gleamed in the midday sun, and with all his strength he brought it blade side down. Smith's head was cleaved in two, the sword finally stopping midway down the neck.
Then, peeking out the ends of the trenches, the men saw several soldiers bursting into the compound. They were carrying five-gallon buckets filled with a liquid. The buckets sloshed messily as the soldiers walked. With a quick jerk of the hands, they flung the contents into the openings of the trenches. By the smell of it on their skin, the Americans instantly recognized what it was--high-octane aviation fuel from the airstrip. Before they could apprehend the full significance of it, other soldiers tossed in lighted bamboo torches. Within seconds, the trenches exploded in flames. The men squirmed over each other and clawed at the dirt as they tried desperately to shrink from the intense heat. They choked back the smoke and the fumes, their nostrils assailed by the smell of singed hair and roasting flesh. They were trapped like termites in their own sealed nest.
Only a few managed to free themselves. Dr. Carl Mango, from Pennsylvania, sprang from his hole, his clothes smoldering. His arms were outstretched as he pleaded--"Show some reason, please God show reason"--but a machine gunner mowed him down.
Another prisoner crawled from his trench, wrested a rifle from the hands of a soldier, and shot him before receiving a mortal stab in the back. A number of men dashed toward the fence and tried to press through it but were quickly riddled with lead, leaving a row of corpses hung from the barbed strands like drying cuttlefish. A few men managed to slip through the razor ribbon and leap from the high cliff, but more soldiers were waiting on the beach to finish them off. Recognizing the futility of escape but wanting to wreak a parting vengeance, one burning prisoner emerged from his trench, wrapped his arms tightly around the first soldier he saw, and didn't let go--a death embrace that succeeded in setting the surprised executioner on fire.
Excerpted from Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides Copyright 2001 by Hampton Sides. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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