Cakewalk Island, 1944

By Burton Shulman

he recon reports all agreed that the little rock they were attacking today, Cay-Ak Island, was barely defended—abandoned, in effect, but for a couple of hundred unfortunates who’d been left behind to die. Plus, Ike’s camera unit was going in third wave: strictly mop-up.

Low-rolling South Pacific swells were catching and releasing fresh morning sunlight. Hump—Lt. Humphrey—told the pilot to drop them near the left perimeter so they’d have a broad view of the other incoming Ducks and, on the other side, an equally broad view of the horizontal mound that rose fifty feet in the air a hundred yards inland, and ran parallel to the beach for half a mile. Reports from the first two waves confirmed that Jap resistance was minimal and would be over when they landed. The unit’s goals today were quality and clarity. The rear-echelon Johnnies—MacArthur’s tacticians—wanted rock-steady footage, fixed compositions they could study so they could tinker with the latest landing tactics. That was probably the operation’s only real value; the island had a small airfield, but no one pretended it was strategically important. Mostly, this was a live-ammo training maneuver to sharpen tactics for the landing everyone was starting to think about all the time—the invasion of Japan. MacArthur himself had taken to calling it “Cakewalk Island.”

“Cakewalk Island: the place to go in the Solomons when you’re…”

…thunder, followed by instant rain, brought Ike back to the moment; one of those Solomon cloudbursts where one second the sky was clear, deep blue and the next you were soaked. He glanced up— why was the sky still blue?—as a second thunderclap followed, this time accompanied by a skyrocketing fountain thirty yards to port. Confused, Ike blinked at the fountain, as a third eruption grabbed him and shook out his body the way a hand might shake out a paper bag.

He heard a scream and another boom, his eyes grew round as bullet holes, and he wet his pants.

Hump was yelling, Ike couldn’t hear what, and everyone was diving. They were still thirty yards off the beach as he hit the water. When he surfaced, the Duck was in a creaky turn and Ike was screaming at nobody, combat sweat popping out like measles. Another concussion threw him back underwater, where the shriek of metal was amplified and unavoidable; Pacific water was so clear that sound waves were visible, forming an envelope around the Duck’s hull as another shell tore it open. The water shook with such violence that it rammed Ike’s face down into the coral as his legs tried to run. When he found footing, his head and torso shot too high over the surface and he threw himself back down. His back was to the island, his face toward the mess that had been his Duck. A sob tried to emerge, but he had to breathe in first as he dragged his legs through the surf, which kept shoving him back.

He pictured himself beating MacArthur to death. Somewhere the old shithead was watching this, chewing his pipe, already working out the excuse; when he’d said “cakewalk,” he hadn’t meant what everyone seemed to think he’d meant. It wasn’t his fault if some crazy Jap officer had chosen third-wave Cay-Ak to commit suicide. They’d conceded the island, they’d abandoned it, plus Japs never did this on third waves, especially not when all they could hope for was a few dead GIs before they died themselves.

Ike was going to die in a cakewalk.

He started to dump his gear so he could move quickly but the impact of another shell rammed his lower back and threw his head forward, knocking out his breath again. This time his face slammed against beach, and he gagged on sand for a few seconds. He was frightened by the ugly, strangled sounds he was making, tried to spit and couldn’t but somehow managed a breath because his body kept moving, flattened itself against the clammy sand, dragged out the IMO camera, and started filming the futile maneuvers of the remaining Ducks. Shells continued to explode as they moved through floating bodies of dead and dying GIs. He’d never really known why they were called “Ducks” until now, seeing them flap around as if the ocean was a barrel of water in a carnival, and their wings had been cut.

The destroyers now started flinging masses of ordnance at the middle of the island, so when Ike turned he saw crazed GIs diving, jumping, rolling back over the mound, fleeing positions they’d secured hours ago, trying to escape the cross of friendly and unfriendly fire. Cay-Ak was an animal shaking GIs off its hide, shrieking with the staccato bursts of nonexistent Jap guns fired by nonexistent Jap infantry, occupying nonexistent Jap positions.

*     *     *     *     *

It took a half hour before there was enough of a lull for Ike to crawl down the beach and form up with the rest of his unit. Somehow they’d all survived.

The shelling heated up again as they hacked foxholes out of the coral and sand. Alternately ducking and digging, Hump wouldn’t shut up about how he’d personally seen the recon, personally read the reports proving there weren’t more than two hundred Japs on this piece of shit. Given a combined U.S. force of ten thousand backed by three destroyers that had thrown down 130mm shells for a week, their fucking situation was impossible.

Another shell exploded and Ike threw himself on his face, pressed as flat as he could under the hail of coral that pummeled his back, as his legs tried to jam his head deeper into the sand than the sand itself would allow.

*     *     *     *     *

For ten miserable days the Japanese maintained numerically impossible dominance of every part of Cay-Ak except the beach. The big guns that recon said they didn’t have established a cross-fire zone that made it suicidal to break the vertical plane of the half-mile mound. MacArthur must have been having trouble diverting ships from other operations because after the first day, the destroyers’ ordnance stopped cold. Ike wasn’t alone in assuming this had something to do with trying not to admit the enormity of his stupidity. How do you demand backup for a cakewalk?

Day eleven, the general’s voice crackled over Armed Forces Radio, psychotically reassuring them that “Mopping-up operations on Cay-Ak are in their final stages.”

Day twelve, word came that a forward patrol had finally figured things out: Running lengthwise under the middle of the island was a previously undetected chain of coral caves. Speculation was that when the Jap supply ships pulled out weeks before, they hadn’t left behind a “token” defensive force—closer to a full division, which was now dug into the caves with a full complement of heavy artillery. So the Japs had lured in waves one and two, then opened up on wave three—a good strategy if you thought you could win, mass murder/suicide if you knew you couldn’t. Since no Jap ships had been detected headed back to Cay-Ak—they couldn’t.

 

When you took a piss, you were shot at. When you crawled between foxholes, you were shot at. When you scratched your ass, you were shot at. HQ raised the estimate of enemy troops from “under five hundred” to “under ten thousand” so quietly, the first number could have been a typo.

Misery floated among the men like mustard gas.

Day thirteen, artillery spotters delivered the first reliable coordinates to a group of redeployed destroyers, which launched a fresh bombardment, this one directly at the caves. Shell after shell screamed overhead for a week, dwarfing the intensity of anything Ike had previously experienced. The noise hardly paused, amplified each morning by aerial bombardment, sometimes loud enough to push Ike to tears. When everything finally stopped, the silence was almost worse. Then came the order: Move toward the caves.

Recon had found more than one opening; the Japs had planned escape routes. Infantry sealed off all but one, set up a perimeter of night-lights around it, and cut down every Jap who tried to run. This attrition continued for a week until the big artillery was close enough to aim directly into the caves. That bombardment went on for yet another week.

Next came the flamethrowers. Ike filmed streams of jellied gasoline bursting into flaming light in the cave’s blackness. When occasional return fire hit a gas tank, it blew up and killed the operator instantly—who was replaced so quickly, there was hardly a pause. Long ago, Ike and his buddies had made it standard practice not to learn any of their names.

The battle was now a slaughter—and Ike was all for it. Jap willingness to suffer starvation, heat, thirst, and terror had always seemed insane, but suicide on this order terrified him, infuriated him. He hated these Japs far more than if they were only trying to kill him. Everyone said Japs were more concerned about avoiding a nasty afterlife than clinging to their current one—that surrender was disgrace. But after being bombed and starved, and now trapped in suffocating heat and darkness without the possibility of escape, why didn’t they surrender?

Because.

Without a surrender, everyone in Ike’s camera unit was now in almost as much danger as the nameless flamethrowers.

*     *     *     *     *

Twenty-one days after the landing, Hump slid into Ike’s foxhole and delivered the news.

“We’re up.”

Ike was checking over his camera and smoking perhaps his thirty-fifth cigarette of the morning.

“For what?” He made sure the cigarette bobbed in his mouth as he spoke, to remind himself he was tough.

“Anyone who’s alive is surrendering. We got to film it.” Hump scratched a bloody insect bite on his neck. “Then we go in.”

Ike had to breathe a few times before speaking. “Into the caves.” Of course MacFuckingArthur wanted this. Still, he couldn’t believe it.

“They want proof. We need to shoot the dead people so the general has proof that this was recon’s fault, not his.”

Ike laughed without smiling. His hands shook. The tough-guy image of himself he’d been clinging to after two years of on-and-off combat—Sgt. Grizzled Combat Veteran—collapsed. He wanted to bury his face in his mother’s apron.

“Ike, it’s just bodies. We’ll have infantry with us. I’m on Leica, you’re on IMO. They’re delaying the surrender till we get there. Dougie wants pictures. We gotta move.”

Furious, Ike threw canisters of film into his sack. He felt the eyes of his buddies on him, the ones who weren’t going. It was like being picked at by vultures: He knew how glad they were that they weren’t him, but he didn’t hold it against them; he’d feel the same. Ten thousand dead—maybe with a few still breathing who hadn’t surrendered because they were still really angry.

*     *     *     *     *

The ones who did surrender—there were maybe a hundred—had big heads, big bellies, and stick limbs. The bodies were barely alive and the eyes lacked light. It looked as if the only things still undecided were the exact circumstances of their deaths. Some clung to bits of white cloth—ludicrous symbols of surrender—stumbling with eyes half closed against the white sun, after weeks of darkness, banging blindly into the coral as infantry studied them for signs of booby traps.

Hump was right; it was just bodies.

What was ten thousand minus a hundred?

 

At the cave mouth the air was humid but breathable; thirty steps in, a wall of stench smacked into Ike so suddenly that he vomited. He turned to run but Hump was right there, also vomiting but not running. Ike swiveled back; he wasn’t going to be the one who ran.

“Sooner we’re in, sooner we’re out,” Hump said, and threw up again. Ike hit his shutter and heard Hump do the same.

It was a system of coral caves with huge ceilings, pools of rank seawater in places, and other places where the white floor was smooth and dry. Ike had shot plenty of bodies, but this was different. They were everywhere, in every pose. A few were more or less intact; most were in the process of falling apart. Nearest the opening, the flamethrowers had left charred meat. Further in it became clear that when the pace of dying accelerated, it overwhelmed the Japs’ ability or will to do anything with the dead. They lay where they fell. Every stage of human decomposition was on display, from older bleached skeletons picked clean, to recent corpses, bloated and wet, covered with the bugs who did the picking. Once, an itch on Ike’s leg caused him to shake his body wildly, sure that one had run up his pants.

He felt increasingly…odd—not that it made sense anymore, differentiating between odd and not-odd, but this was new; he felt as if something was draining from him, something he might have called “will.”

For instance: he had a crazy desire to sit down. He had enough presence of mind to wonder what the fuck was wrong, but that didn’t change what he felt. In search of solidity he looked for Hump, but it was dark in this part of the cave; he was flooded with vertigo and almost fell. He lowered the IMO. A surge of some kind of physical terror burst through his body and left him shaking again. He located Hump now, just twenty feet to his right, but it didn’t calm him. He wanted to tell him what was happening, but when he moved his mouth, nothing came.

“Orders are go deep,” Hump insisted. He spat, and spat again. “Faster we’re in, faster we’re out.” Why did he keep repeating himself? Ike again tried to say that something was wrong, again couldn’t. He tried pleading with his eyes, but Hump wasn’t looking. With nothing else to do, he lifted the IMO and resumed shooting.

Riflemen moved alongside. They’d tied handkerchiefs over their noses and mouths; they looked like desperadoes. Their job was to find signs of life and extinguish them. No one spoke; the only sounds were bursts of gunfire, boots, dripping water, intermittent vomiting, and the cameras, echoing through the caves.

The bombardment had opened a few holes in the roof, letting in pockets of breathable air along with weird ambient light. Concentrating on inhaling in one such pocket, Ike stepped on an arm; it cracked so loudly, the sound exploded through the cave and his brain. A GI called to him and pointed. Turning, he saw a fire pit with charred driftwood and bones. The bones were human. He saw other fire pits.

It took a few seconds to realize that the Japanese had been eating their dead.

The stench they’d been breathing included airborne bits of that too. Ike started hacking out saliva and mucus, took a slug from his canteen he couldn’t swallow, could only use to rinse and spit out, though that didn’t get rid of the taste. His muscles were so tense that his whole body ached; moving was getting harder.

At one point he almost threw down the IMO, but caught himself. He’d gradually learned to trust his combat sanity because Hump did; hearing the click of Hump’s shutter, seeing the flash of his light, he wanted to cry. Hump depended on him; Ike couldn’t do this to him.

In the ridiculous heat he shivered.

Maybe if he kept his eyes inside the viewfinder. Sweat splashed from his chin into pools of the foulest water there ever was. Tears, too, and tears were absurd, walking around acres of dead Japs whose kinds of death proved they deserved to be dead. Emotions he had no names for surged and retreated like surf. After two years in this shit, why was this fucking place snapping him like a rubber band? The bodies stank but couldn’t hurt him; they were just dead. So why was he fighting not to scream, not to throw the fucking IMO, not to fall, not to stop breathing, not to be dead himself?

If he was going crazy, it wasn’t what he’d expected—there was no release. He knew exactly where he was—a stinking hole with ten thousand bodies. The problem was that accepting such knowledge wasn’t possible. So where were the goddamned hallucinations? Why did he have to know what was going on and just not be able to stand it? He just wanted to shed all this, to molt it. That it existed, that he was inside it taking pictures, he couldn’t accept.

Maybe his number was up. His will went on pulsing out, an arterial wound draining the ability to do anything. You could fall down, he heard something say; Hump will hear the splash, and if you scream loud enough, it might get you out. He tried but got the timing wrong, tried just after he’d breathed out, so he couldn’t scream or breathe either, until a strange gasp turned into a strangled breath.

Even breathing was now complicated.

Another wave of vertigo caused him to breathe in more deeply, after which he gagged and spat again. Why had he forgotten how to breathe? He wasn’t an infant! And why could he only think now of his dead mother—not his stepmother but the one he didn’t remember, the one from old nightmares?

Part of his mind started talking shit—this was as good a place as any to die; there never really was an “outside” anyway. All your life you were looking at things through a window or maybe a doorway you secretly knew you could never cross. And because you could never cross, you’d eventually end up in a grave, except now you realized you’d been in a grave all the time. Wasn’t every place only a farm for cemeteries, where the fully dead outnumbered the merely dying? The purpose of life was to make bodies to fill graves.

No one here was “killed in action.” Whatever words you used to describe this should be invented or you shouldn’t use any.

Another part of him reminded him he was going crazy; with immense weariness he resumed moving, shooting, reloading, shooting.

Everyone said Japs worshiped the dead. So why would they do this, especially knowing they’d soon be dead too? A crazy pain ricocheted inside his head and left an aftershock. His hands shook as he opened the canteen and forced himself to swallow a salt pill. Sitting heavily on a coral shelf, he thought about how every bit of that shelf, every bit of the cave above the waterline, in fact, was dead too. Long before the war this was a tomb–for billions of tiny coral skeletons. Now his living bones sat on their dead ones, amid thousands of new dead ones, laid out like a carpet for as far he could see.

He closed his eyes but ghastly images sprang up, and he opened them quickly. He’d seen guys go nuts, seen medics tackle them and jab in needles full of morphine, dragging them off to field hospitals where they lay staring. A time or two he’d been close himself. He couldn’t do that now, not in this place, not with Hump in here with him, counting on him.

So he tried again. This time he decided to focus only on hands—no arms, legs, heads, or torsos, only hands. He’d study them. Some were all bone, white as coral; others had bits of flesh. Many seemed to be grasping at something. What? He shook sweat from his eyes.

Him?

He judged the distance to the cave’s mouth as about a hundred yards. Closer than he’d thought, but that made no difference. No way would he re-cross those hands—bone hands, purple hands, oozing hands, red meat hands. They’d let him in but they wouldn’t let him out. Now that they’d touched him he was infected. His head throbbed, as if one of the dead Japs had just rammed a bayonet through the back of his skull and out his eye.

There was sunlight back at the cave mouth. So what. Sunlight, darkness, sunlight, darkness. It never stuck. All bullshit.

He put the camera on another shelf and sat down again. Hump was probably gone, probably left him alone. Something would happen to him after the sun was gone. He was sure of it.

“Out.”

Hump said it hoarsely.

Ike shook his head but Hump pulled him to his feet and shoved him forward to get him going. They stumbled toward the mouth, stepping on all the things Ike could not step on.

“This is the bottom, Ike; there’s nothing worse.” Ike wanted to laugh.

Who was Hump kidding?

___

Twenty years ago, Andrea Barrett called Burton Shulman’s first collection of short stories, Safe House, “lean and beautifully written… A strong and unusual debut.” The book was well reviewed by Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and other publications. Charles Baxter said, “It takes nerve to write stories like these-nerve, intelligence, and heart.”

Burton earned his MFA from Warren Wilson College. After the birth of the first of his two daughters, he worked for twelve years as a corporate vice president, mostly for Thomson Reuters and Standard & Poor’s, before shifting to a consulting position that allows for more time to write. When he’s not writing, he plays and composes songs for guitar, and studies secular Buddhism.


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