Nielsen peeked around the corner and saw the barge coming. He decided he was insufficiently hidden, so he broke off from the group and crouched behind a bush close by. From where he was secreted, he could watch the barge approaching. The Japanese were whispering among themselves and excitedly pointing out crannies that looked promising. One of the seven Americans, a marine from Mississippi named J. O. Warren, wasn't leaning back quite far enough. The Japanese saw his foot protruding from a rock and immediately shot it. Warren dropped in agony from his wound. In what seemed to be a sacrificial act intended to help his comrades, Warren hurled himself out in the open so as not to tip off the whereabouts of the other six. He was immediately shot and killed. The barge passed on.
I left that area and started down the beach. About fifty yards ahead I ran into more Japanese. Suddenly I realized I was surrounded. They were up above me and also coming in from both sides. I was trapped. So I jumped in the sea. I swam underwater as far as I could. When I came up there were twenty Japanese firing at me, both from the cliff and from the beach. Shots were hitting all around me. One shot hit me in the armpit and grazed my ribs. Another hit me in the left thigh, then another one hit me right along the right side of my head, grazing my temple. I think it knocked me out temporarily. For a short period I was numb in the water, and I nearly drowned. Then I found a large coconut husk bobbing around in the bay and used it to shield my head as I swam.
They kept shooting at Nielsen from the beach. He decided to swim back toward the shore so they'd think he'd given up and was coming in. He hoped they'd momentarily let up on their fire, and they did. Nielsen then angled slightly and swam parallel to the coastline for about a hundred yards. The Japanese followed him down the beach, patiently tracking alongside him, step for stroke. Occasionally they pinged a shot or two in his direction, but mostly they just kept a close eye on him.
I came down to a place along the shore where there were a lot of trees and bushes in the water. I knew they were following me, so I went toward shore and splashed to make a little noise. I wanted them to think I was finally coming in. Then I abruptly turned around and went out just as quiet as possible and started swimming across the bay. They never shot at me again. Probably it was too dark for them to see me. I swam most of the night. I couldn't see the other side of the bay but I knew it was about five miles. About halfway out I ran into a strong current. It seemed like I was there for a couple hours making no headway. Finally I reached the opposite shore and crawled on my hands and knees up on the rocks. I was in a mangrove swamp. I was too weak to stand up. It was about 4 a.m. I'd been swimming for nearly nine hours.
Washed up on the far shores of Puerto Princesa Bay, Nielsen was a pitiful sight--naked, nursing two bullet wounds, his skin crosshatched with lacerations. He rested for a few hours and then stumbled half delirious through the swamp until he encountered a Filipino who was walking along a path, wielding a bolo knife. In his current state, Nielsen was suspicious of anyone carrying a knife. The Filipino seemed wary of Nielsen's hideous castaway appearance but was not especially frightened. "I couldn't imagine how he could be so cool," Nielsen said. At first Nielsen worried that the man was a Japanese sympathizer, but then the Filipino offered him water. Nielsen asked the man to take down a letter. "I think I am the only one alive from the Palawan prison camp," he said. "I want you to write to the War Department to tell them about the Japanese massacre of the Americans at Puerto Princesa." Without uttering a word in reaction, the Filipino began to walk away from Nielsen. Then he abruptly turned around and said cryptically, "You have friends here."
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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