One terribly cold afternoon in March as I walked through the pines on my way to the Murrays for my Chinese lesson, I seriously thought I might freeze in my tracks before I ever got there. Even with my parka pulled over my head, with only my eyes exposed, I could not keep out the cold. It was so bad Sammy and the other maintenance men couldn’t get the Jeeps nor any of the vehicles in Motor Pool started. To add to my misery, a biting wind blew in from the sea causing the tops of the pines trees above to quiver and moan mournfully. The wind, the cold, the stark bleakness, it all seemed to be a kind of premonition that something terrible was going to happen. When I reached the Murray’s house, I knew my instincts were right. Something was wrong. Little Sally wasn’t at the window. She had gotten into the habit of waiting for my arrival each afternoon, and I could count on seeing the curtains move as she peeked out a window. And when I knocked on the door, she’d open it slightly, quickly dash away, and I’d shout out, “Whoop, who was that?” I would look around and mutter aloud that it must be a ghost. I could then hear her giggling in another room. No curtains moved now; I had to wait several minutes before someone came to open the door. This time it wasn’t Sally. It was the amah. She said nothing and led me to the study and asked that I wait. I sat there for the longest time, wondering what could have gone wrong. It seemed an eternity, like on Okinawa when we heard a “screaming memie” overhead and braced for an explosion. More often than not, they were duds. Those were the worst kind, when nothing happened and you still waited. This was the same. The shell was overhead but when was it going to land?
Finally Mrs. Murray appeared. I could immediately see that she was distraught. She had been crying. “Clara is in the hospital,” she said sadly. She was searching hard to find the right words. “She attempted to take her life last night,” she said in a voice hardly audible.
I didn’t know what to say. Her words came like a powerful poison dropped into a crucible. Clara attempted suicide! I knew that she had been acting strangely and I suspected something was wrong, but I wasn’t sure what it was. But I did reason that it had something to do with the war and the Japanese. Mrs. Murray turned away while she wiped her eyes with a handkerchief. Turning to face me again, she spoke of her husband. “Mr. Murray is taking it very badly,” she said and asked to be excused. I mumbled a few twisted words and quietly left. I didn’t feel the cold this time as I hurried through the pines and went straight to Fox Company headquarters.
“I’m glad you came straight here,” Whittington said with some urgency in his voice when I entered the office. “Lt. Harper, the new exec officer, said he wants to see you. The guy from G2 is with him now.” Before I went into his office, as I stood over the kerosene stove warming myself, Whittington and Stevenson briefed me on Lt. Harper, USMCR. He had just arrived a few days before by ship from Stateside, Officers’ Candidate School in Quantico. “He’s a 2nd lieutenant wonder boy still wet behind the ears,” Stevenson said. Whittington agreed. The regiment had been getting a fresh lot of officers and green troops for replacements, and the old battle-hardened Marines had a difficult time accepting orders from noncombatants wet behind the ears. I gathered after talking to Whittington and Stevenson that this new man, Lt. Thomas P. Harper, was one of them.
I knocked and entered his office. I really didn’t expect to find Falstaff sitting behind the desk but I did. There he was, a fat, flushed-face Marine officer in full green uniform with an expert rifleman’s badge on his chest above the left pocket. He was smoking a cigar, more for effect than for pleasure. I’m sure he wasn’t enjoying it, not like Col. Roston enjoyed his cigars. For a moment, I thought he might get sick as he took a puff. He was fat but I can’t say he was jolly. In fact, he was rather grim and to the point. I wouldn’t have taken him seriously except for the question he fired at me.
“What do you know about Clara Murray?” he barked. I noticed at a glance that he had my record folder on his desk. His question threw me completely off guard. Why did he want to know about Mrs. Murray’s daughter? He didn’t tell me to “rest at ease” but I did anyway. I told him all that I knew, that Clara kept pretty much to herself, and not once had I talked to her directly, and that the Murrays had private matters they kept secret. It was true. I often wondered about the two girls, how they fared in a Japanese prison, but it was never mentioned, and I didn’t ask. “That’s about all I know about her,” I said.
I had forgotten all about the G2 officer that Whittington mentioned until I saw Lt. Harper glance in his direction. He was sitting in a chair to one side. Lt. Harper motioned to him and he stepped up to the deck. I recognized him, Lt. Austin, the baby-face officer from G2 who held the briefing before we first came ashore in Tsingtao.
“Did you know she was dating a Marine from Baker Company?” Lt. Austin asked.
“I knew she was seeing someone from the base here. Mrs. Murray told me, and she was concerned who he was. But I didn’t know him.”
“You say you didn’t know him. You never saw him around?”
The lieutenant was trying to trick me into a trap, like a teacher does in school when she doesn’t believe a student.
“Sir, I didn’t say that. I said I didn’t know him but I saw him once when he came to pick up Mrs. Murray’s daughter in a Jeep.”
“But you do know that the girl is under age,” the lieutenant from G2 spoke up, “and that the sergeant could be charged with rape if the Murrays wanted to press charges.”
Good lord! My heart began to quiver, like the quivering of those trees in the pine forest that I had just walked through. The poor Murrays, all that they had suffered, and now this. My face must have registered my disbelief, and there was still more to come. Lt. Austin continued: “Then you didn’t know she was under age?”
“I never thought about it at all,” I said. The trees stopped quivering. I was being accused of something and wouldn’t let it happen.
I must have been convincing. Lt. Harper got up from his chair, walked around to the front of the desk where I stood and laid a folder down before me on the desk. He opened it and pointed to the heading. It was a dossier on the Murrays.
“Sir, you asked about the sergeant and Mrs. Murray’s daughter. What is it you want me to tell you?”
Lt. Austin came to my defense. He asked Lt. Harper that we all sit at the conference table in the adjoining room. He called for Whittington to join us. When Whittington came in and was seated, he began.
“The sergeant that’s involved with Clara Murray, we are transferring him immediately back to the States. The Murrays can still press charges-the girl is barely eighteen-but that’s not why we are here.”
That’s the way to go, I thought. Transfer the guy and forget about the girl. What agony had she suffered? Obviously, she loved the guy, enough to attempt suicide, but that didn’t matter, not with the Marine Corps reputation at stake. The two officers waited for my response. “You’re packing him off. Why are we here then?” I finally asked, bluntly.
“We are trying to gather evidence against Japanese, for their war crimes, and we want the Murrays to testify.”
I was more confused now than ever. Why did the Murrays have to testify? About what? Lt. Austin could see the puzzled looks on the faces of both Whittington and me. He spread open the Murray file on the table and once again began talking like a college professor.