Comforting Letters from Home
. . . . .
We kept our heads low and worked our way slowly between the pilings. It was black with only glints of light that reflected on the rippled water. Sewers from the houses above emptied into the water and the stench was terrible. It was eerie; each dark shadow was a menace and a threat. I noticed the lieutenant kept his hand on his .45. We pulled ourselves along, from one piling to the next without the boy needing to scull. The pilings were crusted with barnacles and covered with slime. The boy knew where to go. He guided us through the maze with certainty. Overhead beneath some of the buildings were trapdoors, and a few had ladders that dropped down to water level. The ladders too were covered with barnacles and slime. We worked our way around one set of pilings, ever so cautiously, when suddenly, only a few yards ahead, we heard muffled voices and the sound of wood banging against the pilings. Someone was getting into a boat. We no longer hesitated but quickly pushed ahead, and at the same time the lieutenant shouted for whomever it was to halt. The voices in the dark turned into shouts, and then an engine coughed, once, twice, and finally sparked to life. In the next instant we could hear the roar as the boat shot off into the darkness, pounding and banging recklessly into the pilings as it went. Once out into the clearing and away from the buildings the sound grew faint and was soon gone.
We worked our way to the ladder where the suspects had made their hasty exit. The trapdoor was open. The lieutenant gave the signal and stepped back as we scurried up the ladder, our weapons drawn.
The room was dimly lit and in disarray. Drawers had been emptied, clothes were scattered everywhere and the door to the walkway that led to the street was still locked. It was then that we saw Cuzzo. He was lying in a heap under a pile of rice sacks. My heart went out for poor Cuzzo. We thought he was dead and expected to find him in a pool of blood, but he was alive. The lieutenant shook him, and then slapped his face a couple of times. He moaned and opened his eyes, but they were unseeing eyes. He had been drugged.
MPs from the outside, hearing the commotion, pounded on the door and we let them in. An officer from G-2 appeared and said we were to touch nothing, and then he gave orders to his men to begin a search. We stood Cuzzo up on his feet, and with a man on each side of him we led him out the door and down the walkway to an awaiting Shore Patrol paddy wagon. He was taken to SP headquarters for custody. Two days passed before I saw him again, and that was when he returned to the brig. Ping Ping had engineered his escape, and after she directed him to the waterfront and got from him what she wanted, she and her brothers drugged him and made good their escape. By now they were probably swallowed up in Shanghai’s underworld, three very rich people, and Cuzzo faced a sentence of 20 years. It was about a month later when I was on MP duty that I learned he bad been transferred back to the States.
Mail from back home was always welcome, even when it brought bad news. “What do you expect?” Cpl. Marsden said when one of the guys got a letter about all the trikes going on in America. “The war’s over. Don’t expect any parades when you get back, for there ain’t gonna be any.”
I wondered about this. I remember precisely when we left San Diego with the 55th draft. There was a band playing John Philip Sousa’s marches like you have never heard them before, and hundreds of people were gathered there on the docks, waving and shouting, some crying, all wishing us well. I recall in particular a very attractive young lady in tight black slacks, high heels, and a low cut black blouse. I remembered everything about her. She was beaming and throwing kisses lo those of us who were lining the railing, and she called out that she would be there waiting for every single one of us to return. I never forgot that lady, and even though I knew her vow could not be kept, I still half expected that she might be there.
Cpl. Marsden was not as optimistic. I remember when we were bogged down on the southern end of Okinawa, and said something that got us all thinking. He said if they could have put a grandstand around Iwo Jima, where people could watch wholesale slaughter taking place, they could have made a fortune selling tickets to the public for a thousand dollars apiece, providing people had the assurance they wouldn’t get hurt.
“Like in the movies,” someone said.
“No, stupid, you’re not listening, not like the movies,” he replied. “They want to see it alive, when it’s happening, just like in the Roman coliseum. Human nature hasn’t changed.”
Sometimes my mother’s letters weren’t much better. She became active in some sort of women’s league and kept me informed on current events. The war had made women free from the bondage of men, she said. They had discovered they didn’t need men. She wrote to tell me that Mrs. D. Leigh Colvin, President of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, was outraged when she heard that Shirley Temple would be taking a drink in her next picture. The guys went into a rage when I told them about the Little Princess. Shirley Temple was the sweetheart of every Marine in the Pacific Theater. And now she was grown up. Why in the hell couldn’t she drink? We also started thinking, when we got back to American, many of us would be under age and not be allowed to drink in bars. The age limit in most states was 21. We had fought in the war, some guys like Whittington and Marsden from the first campaign, and we had all served a couple of years in China, but we were too young to drink. We’d have to sit on a park bench with Shirley Temple.
We all got a kick out of hearing that Margaret Truman, the President’s daughter, spent her summer taking voice lessons in Missouri. Although she had been offered radio and concert work, she had her sights aimed at a career in opera. Upon hearing tills, Terry and Chandler went around singing a duet from Don Giovanni. They weren’t bad.
My father wasn’t much of a writer but he did his very best to keep me well informed. His news about Ben Hogan got every Marine wild with envy. The world famous golfer was the sport’s top money winner for the year. No one could imagine making the amount of money that he did. Everyone got to joking about taking up golf when they got out.
The bad news was that 4-1/2 million workers went on strike, crippling the coal, auto, electric and steel industries. After 113 days, the strike at General Motors was resolved when workers settled for an 18-1/2¢ hourly wage hike. Not bad. Which one of us China Marines wanted to start making cars?
China duty was getting to be pretty good duty, especially in Tsingtao. We had the latest movies, some even before they were shown in America. My sister wrote and said the public was anxiously waiting for the opening of “The Best Years of Our Lives,” and I wrote back that we had already seen it. The new rage was detective Philip Marlowe, played by Humphrey Bogart. He gets involved with a wealthy woman, Lauren Bacall, and her headstrong younger sister in “The Big Sleep.” Although the film was made in 1944, it was held back for general release until after the war ended.
My father claimed the biggest thing on radio was Parks Johnson, host of the popular program Vox Pop. But my father was even more enthusiastic about a new medium they called television. “Television is the thing of the future,” he wrote.
The dancehalls around town picked up on the latest hit tunes. Marines and sailors swooned with their taxi dancer girl friends to the words and tunes of “Give Me Five Minutes More” and “The Girl That I Marry.” When they wanted to get sentimental the bands played “How Are Things in Glocca, Morra” and for happy tunes it was “They Say It’s Wonderful” and “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” It was amazing how the girls could mimic the words. When the bands struck the first note of any popular song, they could all sing out in unison the words to the song. It was a fun time. But ask them what the words meant and they didn’t have the slightest clue.