AT HOME IN THE JUNGLE
Every soldier trapped in a foxhole during an artillery barrage faces a stiff test of self-control. Many times I struggled through this ordeal and forced myself to relax when I felt like screaming, jumping out of my foxhole, and dashing madly through the jungle. There were occasions while the shells were bursting around me, when my thoughts wandered back to some incident during my boyhood days. It was these thoughts that kept me from going mad.
On this morning I remembered my first experience with death. I was three years old. It is early morning and I am standing in the kitchen clutching my mama’s hand, certain that the trap door of my underwear is open m back. A burly policeman stands in the room. He holds a pad and a pencil in his hands and he is trying to get information from my mother but there is a problem: His questions are coming out in a heavy Irish brogue and my mama is responding in wild and gesticulating Italian. Tony, my older brother-he is six-is trying unsuccessfully to translate.
A band of thieves had raided our block that night during a rainstorm. Several basements were rifled. At approximately the same time that the hoodlums were engaged in the looting, a patrolman had come around the corner, innocently walking his beat. As he started up the street, a volley of loud shots shattered the stillness of the night and running footsteps echoed through the deep cellars. A light suddenly went on in an upper flat next door, and in quick succession three shots rang out and bullets pierced the illuminated windows. Broken glass shattered to the pavement below and immediately the light was extinguished. A deep ominous silence settled over the neighborhood.
Papa showed more intelligence. He jumped out of bed, drew the curtain slowly aside, and peeked through the window. Directly below him, two men were sneaking through the fence. Papa promptly pulled the curtain tight and hopped back in bed.
The following morning, after many futile attempts to obtain some sort of intelligible statement from Mama, the policeman slowly climbed the stairs to the next floor, muttering and shaking his head. We tried to tell him that Aunt Mary lived upstairs and that she couldn’t speak English either, but he didn’t understand.
My brother Tony went down to the corner and saw the dead patrolman. He was lying on the wet pavement and his feet were pointed toward the door of the saloon.
I remembered Tony’s description of the dead man as I lay in the foxhole.
The Thirty-first Infantry repulsed the Japanese and held its position, at least for the present. We were replaced by Philippine army units and we moved to a bivouac area behind the lines. Instead of a welcoming respite from battle, it proved to be unpleasant, hiding from the enemy and waiting for something to happen.
The bivouac area was located in a heavily wooded area well screened from enemy planes. A beautiful mountain stream flowed through mango and bamboo groves. It was beautiful but deadly! The water was cool and crystal clear, and it looked much like the mountain streams back home in northern California. But it was not like the streams at home. In the mountain streams of Bataan dwelled those tiny microbes that bring on dysentery. And dysentery in the tropics, more often than not, can be fatal.
We were ordered not to touch a drop of water unless it was treated. I was put in charge of chlorinating the drinking water that we kept in a large canvas bag hanging from a tree. Every day we changed the water and added chlorine to make it safe to drink, but unfortunately the chlorine wasn’t always effective.
Enemy planes constantly flew above our jungle hideout but the foliage was so dense we were able to move around without danger of being sighted from the air.
When we first arrived, I had looked around for a safe place to sleep. I chose an irrigation ditch nearby that was about six feet wide. With a machete a Filipino had given me I cut down a couple dozen bamboo poles and placed them across the ditch. I then laid layers of grass over the poles and thus made myself a comfortable accommodation. I slept well the first two nights but on the third morning my bones were aching. I blamed the discomfort on my bed and did some rearranging. On the fourth morning I awoke so stiff I found it difficult to walk. Every bone in my body ached horribly and I had a high temperature. I knew the symptoms. I feared I might have a case of dysentery coming on. I reported to the camp doctor and was informed that I had contacted dengue fever, a disease found in the tropics commonly known as “breakbone fever.” Much like malaria, it’s carried by mosquitos, but it’s not always fatal. Fortunately, the doctor still had medicine which he gave me and in a few days I felt much better.
More than the Japanese, our worst enemy during this period was the anopheles mosquito. Our scenic bivouac area was infested by this mosquito. Though this malaria-carrying insect generally conducts his deadly air raids at night, they may choose to attack during the day as well as night. Without nets we were helpless. We were constantly bitten, from head to toe, and the effects of their bites soon began to take its toll. At first, only a few men were sent back to the hospital area located about twenty kilometers behind the lines. Before long the numbers increased until they reached alarming proportions. Something had to be done and quickly.
Our commanding officer sent a detail to search for another area. I was ordered to go with this group and, after hiking through the jungle, we found a spot similar to the one we were leaving. It too had a mountain stream but seemingly with less mosquitos. I chose my own bedding down area and we then returned and made our report to the C.O. He agreed fully to the change of scene.
To my delight, I found several banana groves in the new area. I devised a method to get the bananas down without chopping down the trees, trees which helped serve as cover. I tied my machete to a long bamboo pole and cut down the bunches of bananas by hacking through the stems, leaving the groves still standing. The bananas were still green so I dug a couple of holes and carefully buried them. I had learned from the Filipinos that this method speeded up their ripening. I felt proud of myself that I was learning a few things about life in the jungle.
Over next few days we moved our outfit and settled into the new area. Then I surprised my friends by digging up the bananas. They had fully ripened. We quickly and ravenously feasted on them with little ceremony. After that I kept a stash of bananas buried in the ground and used them to trade for other items of food. Everyone called me the “King of the Bananas,” and over the next few weeks l ate so many bananas that I became tired of them in spite of still being hungry. I ate banana sandwiches, bananas with rice, bananas with condensed milk. I ate bananas with whatever I could find.