by Lawrence F. Farrar
In the summer of 1980, my tech company dispatched me to Okinawa for a few weeks work with one of our defense contractors. They inadvertently put me up in a seedy hotel located on Kakazu Heights. My room was sparsely furnished and poorly lighted. Thumb-sized geckos scampered across the walls.
As I peered down from my window on that first day, the windswept fields below the hotel struck me as uncultivated and desolate. On an island where every parcel of arable land demanded cultivation, the fact puzzled me. When I asked the manager, Mr. Ueda, about this seeming anomaly, he became hesitant and evasive.
Round-faced and shaven-headed, Ueda was a smallish man, who maintained a Chaplinesque mustache. I learned later he’d been a soldier in the great 1945 battle. That and the fact he hailed from mainland Japan left me perplexed; why had he chosen to live in Okinawa?
In due course, things began to come together. This area below our hilltop hotel had been the site of one of many horrendous battles during the 1945 American fight to take Okinawa. Although the official recovery of remains had concluded years before, mainlanders and Okinawans alike still periodically sifted the soil seeking the bones of those who had died in that cataclysmic conflict. Mr. Ueda told me he’d committed himself to assisting those engaged in that task. Bone-collectors regularly patronized his hotel.
I found the whole business of collecting bones unsettling. Staring out across that field from my window, especially at night, launched chills coursing down my spine. I soon ascertained from Ueda, however, that searching the field for any remains they might unearth and bringing them home to mainland Japan had long been a passion for veterans, survivors, family members, and others. They sought to honor and console the spirits of those who had fallen. In the minds of the collectors, the war had not ended. Finding remains constituted unfinished business. Ueda’s exposition made the retrieval activities more understandable.
Still, there also were what at first seemed strange goings-on at a hill-top shrine not far from my hotel. Save for the sound of their shuffling feet, people proceeded silently to and from the shrine along a nearby road. Lanterns flickered in the night, and I could hear what I assumed to be people praying for the war dead. I also discovered that several Okinawan family tombs existed on the side of the hill, not far from our building. Perhaps I was being uncharitable, but, at least for the uninitiated, it proved to be an eerie and unsettling mix.
On occasion, lights in the fields below the hotel captured my attention. I initially assumed them to be associated with Marines from a nearby base conducting night maneuvers. I was damn certain I made out a shadowy column of men marching along the perimeter of the field. I was equally convinced I heard voices and the muffled sound of weapons being fired.
When I checked with Marine Headquarters, however, an empty-faced young captain assured me there had been no maneuvers in the area. He said, “Sir, they say you run into all sorts of things on the island, if you stay here long enough.” He smiled and shrugged his shoulders as if to say, but we know better than that, don’t we?
What did he know?
So, I again spoke to Mr. Ueda. I wondered if, instead of Marine training, these phenomena could be traced to bone collectors carrying on their excavations, even at night.
“Oh, no sir,” Mr. Ueda told me. “They do not work at night. What you see are the spirits of American and Japanese soldiers fighting to capture or defend this hill.”
He spoke with absolute sincerity.
“Really, Mr. Ueda? Really?” I delivered a you’re putting me on look.
“No, sir. Is true. Ghosts.”
Mr. Ueda said Japanese people believed those who died a natural death joined their ancestral spirits. But those who died by violent means had difficulty making the final passage to the spirit world; they were destined to roam the earth. They no longer belonged to the world but were tied to it and reluctant to leave. The collectors provided consolation to the spirits. Even carrying home a bone fragment or a tooth, Ueda said, could help give the spirits peace, help them rest.
Ueda’s explanations seemed inconsistent and hard to follow. Maybe it was his broken English; perhaps my imperfect grasp of local lore. In any case, the whole business troubled me. Could I be the only one?
Soon after my arrival, a work assignment took me to the northern end of the island. I promptly wrapped up the job and intended an immediate return trip, even though a typhoon was bearing down on us. Nonetheless, I opted to drive back to Kakazu Heights. As I set out, gusts of wind already whipped palm trees back and forth, and the soggy air threatened to dump sheets of windshield inundating rain. People with good sense had taken shelter at home, and the military bases had buttoned up. Black clouds roiled through a dirty green sky. Ignoring all the warning signs, with confidence bred of ignorance, I calculated the fifty-mile run should be manageable.
I’d made a flawed choice. As I squelched my way south, rain pummeled the car and devoured the beams of my headlights. The road hid from me, as if imposing punishment for my foolishness. Wind gusts tried to push me off course. With no idea of where I was, I barely crept along. Not surprisingly, I hadn’t seen another vehicle for twenty minutes, and an overwhelming drowsiness enveloped me. Fearing I might nod off, I decided to pull over to the side of the road and grab a bit of sleep.
My recollection is unclear, but it must have been at that moment, through the murk, I spotted vague yellow lights. I assumed them to be from a bar or restaurant. Whatever sort of establishment it might be, I needed to stop. The place offered a safe haven, and I drove into the parking lot. Awash in splashing water, the lot stood deserted. Any customers had no doubt long since headed for home. Squinting through the downpour, I made out a sputtering neon sign: Vinnie’s Roadside.
I scrambled through the rain, pushed open a set of double doors, and stepped inside. In the muted amber light, I could not determine if the place was open for business. As I brushed away rain drops from my sleeves and shoulders, it seemed the dampness of the storm had permeated the building’s interior. And a vague smell of disinfectant, like that in a hospital, laced the air. A scrim of something unknown encircled the place, something palpable enough to make me hesitate.
As my eyes adjusted, I could see a bartender behind the bar. I also made out two elderly men slouched at the end of the bar. A third man sat at a shadowed corner table. They all wore civilian clothing.
The ambience unwelcoming, I felt uncomfortable. Perhaps this was predictable, since I was both wet and tired. Although I’d found refuge from the storm, I experienced an unexplained compulsion to turn back. I dismissed the feeling and claimed a seat halfway up the bar.
The bartender took his time in coming to take my order. An unsmiling and washed out-looking white guy with avian eyes, he struck me as one of those ex-GIs you often found in places like this. Derelicts and left-behinds, they’d stayed on after their service ended and now scraped out a living on the fringes of the military community. I suspect working as a bartender or in some similar employment provided a comfortable milieu for such people. This person would never be going back to the States.
Hands on the bar, he leaned forward in front of me. “What’ll it be?”
“I really need a cup of coffee, but is that . . .?
“No coffee. This ain’t no restaurant.”
When I hesitated, he drummed his fingers on the counter.
“Okay. I’ll have a beer and a bag of those chips.”
“We’re going to close soon,” the bartender said. “Storm’s gonna hit full force any time now.”
“Yeah. I understand. Just came down from up north. It’s tough driving.”
I can only describe Vinnie’s as a guttering place. The grimy bar cried out for a wipe-down. The floor longed for a mop and a broom. The mirror behind the bar, so badly smeared I could not see my reflection, demanded cleaning. The beer arrived with no label and was both tepid and tasteless.
The bartender nodded to the two elderly customers from the end of the bar as they drifted past us. Expressionless, their mood dreary, they said not a word and went out into the rain. I’d sensed an aura of indescribable heaviness about them. To my mortal eyes, they seemed almost like residents of purgatory.
Watching them leave, I knew I, too, should also be on my way; indeed, the storm could only get worse. Yet, I lingered, apprehension tempered by curiosity.
“Who is the guy in the corner?” I asked the bartender. In the vague light, I could barely make out his shadowed form.
“Him? He only comes in once in a while. Usually late in the evening. He’s like me. Served his time and stayed here on the Rock. We just call him the Sergeant Major.”
When I turned my head in the man’s direction, he raised his hand and beckoned for me to join him.
Again, I felt I should be on my way. But, as if someone had gripped my shoulder and drawn me toward him, I experienced an urge to hear what the fellow might have to say. I stepped away from the bar.
“You’re wasting your time,” the bartender said. “You’ll probably think he’s looney. Lots of war stories.”
“Well, I’m curious.”
“Don’t say I didn’t tell you. Anyway, I’m closing up in in twenty minutes.”
I made my way to the corner table.
The Sergeant Major gestured for me to sit down.
I pulled up a wooden chair. “Kind of dark in here,” I said. It took a moment to discern his features.
“Way I like it,” he said, without further explanation.
Like the two men who’d left, he seemed old, very old. His gray-white hair was cropped short against his skull and framed a leathery, surfeited face. He had dark, deep-set eyes, which he fixed on me as if I were some sort of a curiosity.
He wore a long-sleeved khaki shirt, buttoned to the very top. Scrawny wrists protruded from his shirt cuffs. Resting on the table, his hands drew my attention. The fingers were thin, bony, and the back of his hands wrinkled, with prominent veins.
“You a first timer?” he said. He had a husky, almost rasping, voice.
Uncertain of his meaning, I said, “Yes. I haven’t been in here before.”
“I mean here on the island. Look too young to know all that went on. The battle. You know. The battle.”
I smiled inwardly. I’d been warned.
“Well, I’ve read some books and talked to some . . .”
“But you weren’t in it.” He waved his hand dismissively.
“No, sir. I wasn’t in it.”
“I was in it. You’ve got no idea what it was like. No idea.”
“I understand it was terrible. Heavy casualties.”
“Not even close, sonny. Ain’t no words for it. None.”
I noticed his empty glass. “Could I get you a beer,” I said.
He ignored my question. “Japs was up on them ridge lines. Had us in their field of fire. We’d go charging up. They’d come charging back. Nothing there for anybody but a filthy death.”
“I can’t imagine what it was like.”
“No. I expect you can’t. Noise. Noise that tore at your ears. Machine guns cackling away. Mortars whooping. Artillery shells whining. Thought you might die just from the noise.”
As he recalled it all, I wasn’t certain he even knew I was there.
“It got worse day after day. Rained a lot,” he said. “You’d jump in a shell hole and find out you was sharing it with parts of dead soldiers. Couldn’t tell if they was ours or theirs; maybe both. All mingled together and rotting in the mud. Can’t forget the stench. Got all over you.”
His gory account repelled me. Still, I sat transfixed as he narrated detail after detail of the fighting, much of which, it turned out, involved efforts to seize the top of Kakazu Heights, the very place I was staying. He’d clearly told the story many times. Nonetheless, he seemed to relive the experience, as if for the first time.
When he finished, he leaned back, and sat quietly, as if relieved to have unburdened himself.
“An amazing story,” I said. “Thanks for sharing it.” I suppose it sounded like a dorky response.
He nodded. “Too many folks ignorant about what went on here. Needs telling.”
“What brings you out on a night like this?” I asked.
“Here on TDY. Always come out when there’s a typhoon coming.”
His answer puzzled me. “TDY? I don’t understand.”
“Temporary duty. With a special unit. We help the teams looking for remains uncovered by the storm. We were here. Know the field.” He paused. “We owe it to our buddies.” Almost as an afterthought, he said, “A lot of them didn’t make it.”
I know I looked incredulous. His explanation sounded like something I had heard about the Japanese bone collectors. “I thought our government finished its recovery years ago,” I said.
“Lots of things people don’t know, Sonny. Still searching from time to time. We don’t actually collect the remains. Just sort of guide others to them. I figure you’ll learn all about it later on.”
This was getting weirder by the minute. The bartender had nailed it.
“We owe it to our buddies,” he said again. “Can’t let them be forgotten.”
“Don’t mean to be rude,” I said, “but aren’t you pretty, well, pretty senior to be on a government assignment?”
He bit off his words. “Look, Sonny. I told you this was a special detail.”
I nodded. But what he was saying didn’t make sense.
I needed to use the restroom. When I returned, I had plenty of questions that needed answers. But the Sergeant-Major had disappeared. And the bartender had vanished as well.
On my way to the exit, I called out. But I elicited no response.
The lights on the establishment’s roof had been extinguished, and the parking lot lay smothered in wet blackness. The rain pounded down and blew sideways as I maneuvered on to the highway. I remember nothing of the remainder of my journey that night.
Seized with weariness, when I reached my hotel room, I stumbled to my bed and, fully-clothed, collapsed into an exhausted sleep. I’d barely made it. Outside, the typhoon capered across the Ryukyu Islands and slammed them hard. The wind groaned and bayed, as if in a world gone mad. It stomped on us for the better part of two days. Mostly, I slept or sat in a chair reading, waiting for the storm to pass.
Then and later, the recollection of my drive through the typhoon repeatedly traversed the landscape of my mind. As it did so, I struggled to decipher what was real and what might have been imagined. Much of what had transpired that night remained a blur and trying to recall the details carried me out of myself.
In any case, I elected not to share the story with colleagues, particularly that portion dealing with the Sergeant Major. I could imagine the raised eyebrows such a telling would elicit.
Six weeks later, I again had occasion to drive to the north end of the island on business. It turned out to be a pleasant day, with radiant sunshine and the azure skies and ocean waters of the sort the Okinawan people rightfully boasted about. On impulse, I decided to stop at Vinnie’s Roadside. Warm beer and stale chips notwithstanding, the place afforded a convenient location to take a break. Moreover, despite my efforts to dismiss recollections of the earlier visit, I was curious. I wondered if I might run into the Sergeant Major, a truly strange fellow. Like a melting shadow, a satisfactory recollection of our meeting evaded me. Who was he really?
This time when I pulled in, cars packed the parking area. In the bright light of day, the place appeared less tacky than I remembered it. Apparently, Vinnie’s had undergone a renovation. Fresh white paint had done wonders for the dark exterior I recalled. And, a red neon sign had replaced the feeble yellow one that guided me in the night of the typhoon.
Inside, scarfing up sandwiches and downing Budweisers, a roistering crowd of servicemen, base workers, and Okinawan girls occupied spots at the bar and at half a dozen tables. A smog of smoke fueled by Camels and Luckies filled the room. Air conditioners hummed. Country and western tunes wailed from an orange and green jukebox.
I clambered up onto a bar stool and scanned the room. No sign of the Sergeant Major.
A bartender, a big white guy in a Hawaiian shirt asked, “What’s your pleasure?”
I surveyed the menu he handed me. “Looks like you’ve really expanded the bill of fare since I was last in,” I said.
He sent me a quizzical look. “When were you here?”
“During the last typhoon. Six or seven weeks ago.”
“I guess you’re pulling my leg. We’ve only been open a couple of weeks. We sure haven’t changed the bill of fare.”
“Well, it was night, and…”
“You must have us mixed up with some other place. Anyway, what’ll you have?” The bartender chuckled in a derisive way.
“No. This is Vinnie’s. I’m sure it was here.”
“Fact is this was an old wreck of a building. Closed for years. We kept the name. That’s about it.”
“You got another bartender?”
“Just Mr. Nagasue down there.”
“Well, when we’re busy, Harvey Schmidt pitches in. He’s the manager.”
None of this added up. A surge of trepidation rippled through me.
“You ever have a customer people call the Sergeant Major. Old guy.”
No. Probably retired.”
“Not that I know of. But, like I said, we just opened.”
I ordered a burger and a cold beer. But my stomach churned, and I could finish neither. What was going on?
I placed some money on the counter and got up to leave. By chance, a framed group photo behind the bar caught my eye. Eight or ten men in combat gear, lost in the black and white stream of time. A hand-lettered sign topped the faded photo: KIA. Heroes. April 1945.
“Who are those men?” I said.
“Well, Vinnie, the guy had this place after the war, had been in the battle. I guess they’re some of his buddies who got killed. Found it in a backroom We hung it up. Tradition. You know.”
He reached up, took the picture down, and handed it to me. “Can’t imagine you’d know any of these guys. Way before your time.”
“Yeah before my time.” I studied the photo hard. Identifications had been penned on the back. The first man in the picture was Sergeant Major John Dotson. Killed May 3, 1945. There was no doubt. My feelings pirouetted.
“The one I asked about. The Sergeant Major.”
“No kidding. And I’m the Emperor of Japan.” The bartender smirked and walked away.
He didn’t believe me. Nobody would believe me. But it was him.
Lawrence F. Farrar is a former American diplomat with multiple postings in Japan, Europe, and Washington, DC. His short stories have appeared seventy-five times or so in literary magazines. His work often involves a protagonist encountering the customs and morals of a foreign society.