. . . . .
The men who ambushed our patrol in the Loh Shan Mountains were guerrillas, not Mao Tse-tung’s regulars. They called themselves freedom fighters, but in reality they didn’t quite know who they wanted to be free from, the Kuomintang or the Nationalists. We thought of them as nothing more than bandits, the worst kind, lawless to themselves, a ragged, malicious band of renegades on the loose, charging across the face of China ahead of the Red Army. Their dress was a hodgepodge of mufti-bits and pieces of uniforms from a half dozen armies. Some wore Marine Corps field jackets and a few had helmet liners; two. men had regulation boondockers. One man had a Japanese peaked cap that he wore rakishly to one side. But mostly they had Nationalist uniforms, quilted coats and canvas shoes. Their weapons were as diverse as their clothing, from old Springfields to Japanese 7-mm bolt-action rifles. The leader wore a Mongolian piss cutter and a long sleeveless goatskin coat, and in spite of his arms being bare he didn’t seem to mind the cold. He barked orders in Mandarin Chinese, but it was a plains dialect spoken in the remote northern regions of the Gobi. I had heard it before by students in the language school. His men, more than a dozen, began prodding us with their rifles, pushing the barrels into our sides, their fingers on the triggers. They lined us up, made us kneel down until our foreheads touched the ground. I was the third in line.
One single thought ran through my mind-I was going to die. We wonder about death, how we will face it when the time comes. We all feel it won’t happen to us, only to the next guy. Then when we know it’s coming, and we are rendered helpless to do anything about it, we become overtaken with anger. It’s not as Hollywood portrays death on the silver screen.
I had witnessed death at its worst on Okinawa. Dying men didn’t utter final words to their buddies, asking them to tell their wives and sweethearts back home that they loved them. They cursed the Japs, calling them every four-letter word they could use. They cursed their enemy to their last breaths. But in death even the most gallant, even the bravest man, is betrayed by the look in his eyes. This is when you want to reach out to him, when all you can do is touch him. It was seeing the look in Hecklinger’s eyes, an empty, glassy gaze and yet so full of meaning, that now haunted me. Did he know at the time that death was overtaking him? Did he believe it was happening to him? Did he ever think about his own death when he worked in the funeral parlor in Oklahoma City, when he was surrounded by death? Did he ever think about it when he lay in the arms of that Chinese whore in that dark alley in Tsingtao? Maybe it happened suddenly, and he didn’t have time to think about it. It was different with the three of us. Except for these renegades who were about to kill us, who would know what happened? We would simply disappear, vanish, never to return home; they would put on our gravestones-MISSING. Nothing else.
The leader was standing in front of Sgt. Granger. My thoughts now became bizarre. There I was, about to be shot, and running through my mind was the old Marine Corps saying: “Ten thousand gobs lay down their swabs to fight one sick marine. Ten thousand more stood up and swore, twas the damnedest fight they’d ever seen.”
They lay down their swabs; I would rather have faced ten thousand gobs than a dozen ruthless bandits. Lord help me! What a way to die. Events that now happened came in a blur.
The man in charge stood in front of Sgt. Granger. I could not see him, with my head in the dust, but I knew his voice. He began shouting in Mandarin. “How many soldiers are you? How many more?” Sgt. Granger didn’t answer. How could he? He had no idea what the man wanted to know, and I was in no position to answer for him. I was sure if any one of us made a sudden move we would be shot on the spot. Did it matter if we were going to die anyway? But there was always that one chance that we wouldn’t die. Was it chance, or was it hope? In a rage the man gave the command to take the sergeant and shoot him. “Ten thousand gobs lay down their swabs.” I could hear them dragging Sgt. Granger away. What had we talked about only a few hours ago, that there is no guarantee we won’t get killed in war. Did he really mean what he said, that’s it’s better to die doing what is right than doing what is wrong? Why does he have to die at all? Their leader now stood in front of the driver, and shouted the same questions at him. When he got no reply, he repeated the same order-shoot him. Moments later two shots rang out.
Their leader now stood in front of me. He put his pistol under my chin and raised my head up to where I was looking directly into his face. Good gawd, he was only a kid, not much older than me. “How many soldiers are you?” be screamed. He never expected me to answer in Chinese.
“Only three of us,” I replied. “We came for the children.”
“Children! Children!” he stammered. He was taken aback for a moment. “You speak Chinese,” he continued. “Why do you speak Chinese?” He lowered his pistol.
“I was a student in the Northern Capital,” I replied.
He then asked my name. I gave him my Chinese name. “Wo de be mingzi shi Hsi Huan Loh,” I said-“My humble name is Hsi Huan Loh.” He pondered over this and again asked about the children. I explained about the nuns and the orphans.
A calm seemed to settle over him. The scale was tipping in my favor. It was clear that be didn’t quite know what to do with me, and yet he must have thought with my speaking Chinese I might be helpful to him later on. I was his trophy. He began mulling over the situation with his men. They began arguing, all trying to speak at once. I tried but I couldn’t make out what they were saying. I could see in my mind Hecklinger again. I saw his body before me, those eyes, his arms reaching out. The blood everywhere, blood turned black. I imagined him dying the agonizing death that he did, and would this be my fate too? “Twas the damnedest fight they’d ever seen.” I could grab a weapon from one of my captors. They would probably kill me anyway. I was no hero. This would just make the end quick. No suffering. Suddenly the leader turned and walked up to me, and stopped less than a yard away. He withdrew his pistol. It was too late. Why did I wait? He pulled back the hammer, and said, “You will come with us.” He pointed the weapon skyward and pulled the trigger. The shot rang out and reverberated through the canyon walls. It was a signal. While we waited, the leader ordered his men to get a length of rope, and then he did the most surprising thing. He offered me a cigarette, one from the pack he had taken from Hecklinger. I refused, said I didn’t smoke, but never did I want a cigarette more than at that moment. The men came with the rope and tied my hands behind my back. At this point the weapons carrier came rumbling up the road. They pushed me into the back seat and men took positions on either side of me. The leader walked slowly around the vehicle, admiring his prize. The trace of a smile crossed his face but he quickly wiped it away; he then pushed the man behind the driver’s wheel out of the way. He took over.
At his command, his men rushed to climb aboard the weapons carrier and the Jeep parked nearby. They suddenly became kids, scrambling to find room, shoving, laughing, shouting, pulling at one another. We soon looked like two overloaded Chinese buses, with men hanging from the sides of the vehicles, sitting on the hoods and standing on the front and rear bumpers. The leader sat behind the wheel, grinding the gears trying to find first, which made me doubt that he had ever driven before. He finally found the gear, let out the clutch and with a jerk we took off like a shot down the mountain road. Bumps, holes, rocks in the road, landslides, nothing mattered. I was sure at every bump, at every turn, we would loose a couple of men but they miraculously-like flies on flypaper-hung on. We were so crowded I was unable to see any of the road ahead.
I had no idea what my captors intended to do with me, nor, did they I suspected. After several hours of breakneck speed thundering down the road we came to the village that had given our patrol a hard time two days before. Without slowing our speed, we shot straight through the gate, but suddenly, in our own cloud of dust, we skidded to a stop after turning sideways and nearly rolling over. I had trouble extracting myself from bodies jammed all around me, and I could not see what caused the abrupt stop. The men began to disembark, and there, blocking the street was an armored car. Standing directly in front of the vehicle, legs apart, his hands on his hips, was an officer. With my hands still tied, I had to raise my knee to wipe the dust from my eyes on my pants leg to see. I thought at first the soldier was an officer of Chiang K’ai-shek’s Nationalist Army. I then saw the red stars on his collar and another on the brim of his hat. Judging by the braid on his shoulder epaulettes he was a ranking officer. On both sides of the vehicle were other soldiers, with red stars on their uniforms. They were communist troops of Mao Tse-tung’s Eighth Route Army.
Our freedom fighter leader, with his men following close behind, approached the officer. He saluted and then with a wide sweep of his arm, he pointed to the two vehicles he and his men had captured. He called his men to bring me from the weapons carrier, and when I stumbled out, he proudly pointed to me. I could hear him telling the officers there were many others, but they were all dead. He and his men had defeated the enemy.
The people of the village began to gather. They were the same people our patrol had encountered two days before, but their mood was not the same. They were jubilant now, their faces beaming with smiles and happy grins. They carried tiny red flags and waved them above their heads. They had obviously known the Red Army was on the march, and that was the reason they treated us as they did. Now when they saw me, still in uniform, they began sneering and shouting. The officer in charge raised his arms and they fell silent.
He then began interrogating the rebel leader. For five minutes the rebel leader ranted on. He was humble and bowed every minute or two. He pointed to the hills, to the two vehicles, and then to me. His men nodded in agreement to everything that he said.