Chapter 1. One Last Hurrah!
Slowly and silently the submarine surfaced in the middle of a dark and overwhelmingly humid night. Out came six Marine Raiders pulling a rubber boat. In no time they were stealthy paddling to shore. The submarine submerged as soon as the raiders were out of sight. It took them roughly an hour to reach the beach. Sunrise was upon them. The marines rushed to hide their transport in the bushes and started their search. They had landed on Melaatse Beach in the southwest of the island. Lance Corporal Webber led two men North-West bound while Sergeant Floyd took the others South-East. They were to rendezvous at the island eastern-most point and double back to the beach following the jungle trails. This was a search and rescue mission and there was no time to waste. The marines had until sunset to hurry back, clear the treacherous reef and be picked by the submarine. That is, unless they wanted to spend a couple weeks stranded in this island.
The island’s name was Kutukan and it is found in the South Pacific, twenty miles south-west of Vanatinai Island in the Louisiade Archipelago. It is also known as Tenbatsu to the Japanese and as Zǔzhòu to the few Muslim Chinese sailors who long ago were unlucky enough to survive a sea storm just to be stranded in Kutukan.
Kutukan is virtually inaccessible and little more than a spec of volcanic lava and coral between Australia and New Guinea. Only during one or two nights a month, and that only for a few hours, is Melaatse Beach accessible. Not that anyone would ever want to voluntarily visit it. The flora barely provides shelter and food but greatly contributes to a murdering humidity and the ever-present putrid smell of the subtropical forest. The fauna is even worse. A few birds had made this forsaken place their refuge- until the snakes came. And the way the snakes came and unsettled this fragile ecosystem, as usual, was a man-made catastrophe.
During WWII, the U.S. Navy set up a one-man radio observation post for early warning of Japanese increased activity- a possible prelude to the invasion of Australia. Polynesian natives helped Ensign Watson, the naval observer, to get used to Kotukan. They took him from a submarine two miles off of Kutukan to Melaatse Beach just in time. They waited until the next good tide to initiate their return to Vanatinai. They taught Watson how to procure fresh water, fish and edible nuts and how to build a shack that kept dry under the rain and which was practically undistinguishable from the vegetation. Kutukan provided an almost impregnable cover and refuge for the naval observer and for a while his watch was the most boring of duties. Things changed though. Uninvited guests came in his airdrop supply crates-Taipan snakes. After finishing the island’s rodent population the snakes became bird eaters and kept Watson on his toes. For Watson, the snakes were manageable, even edible. But he hated the silence the snakes brought to the island.
Soon Ensign Watson had more serious problems than the aggressive Taipan snakes.
Kutukan lost all of its value by 1943 as the Guadalcanal Campaign came to an end and the threat of a Japanese invasion of Australia vanished. But Kutukan and its immediate area had another number to play in that mortal dance of military intelligence. The Americans had weakened Japanese morale by killing Admiral Yamamoto over Buin in Operation Vengeance. American intelligence had deciphered the Japanese code and prepared an ambush in which Yamamoto’s transport was shot down by an American Lighting squadron. The second time around the American especial services, in an effort to gauge the Japanese decoding abilities, filled the airways with the coded message “Bataan Gang Chief Moving Cartwheel to Louis Lane Base”. It worked out. Japanese intelligence decoded the message and became convinced that MacArthur himself would be in the area of the Louisaide Archipelago. Itching to avenge Yamamoto, Admiral Mineichi Koga, Yamamoto’s replacement as Admiral of the Japanese Combined Fleet, ordered imperial marines and special teams of the Japanese Army’s political officers to set up observation posts throughout the archipelago. Their mission was to wait for any American landing party and to destroy them, but not on the beaches. They had to be allowed to come into the jungle so as not to alert other American landing parties. They hoped that MacArthur himself will be in in one of the landing parties.
Most of the several Japanese commando-teams that landed throughout the archipelago were left unmolested so the Japanese would not suspect the intelligence ruse. However, two Japanese cargo planes and their escorts were shot down over Kutukan. And this is when Ensign Watson disappeared. The naval observer missed several pre-arranged radio contacts. Fearing that either his codes or sensitive equipment may fall in Japanese hands a Raiders search and rescue party was dispatched to Kutukan.
The two teams of Marine Raiders reached the Easter-most tip of the island uneventfully. But, on their way back through the jungle they couldn’t shake off the feeling that they were being observed. They would stop and venture through small paths but they couldn’t find a trace of Watson or his equipment. The search party never found him or his radio equipment. There was no trace of Ensign Watson to speak off.
The Raiders that went looking for Watson did not find any signs of the Japanese either. The humid heat and eeriness of the island did not allow for a thorough search. Worse, a marine was bitten by a large, fast moving and highly venomous Taipan snake. The young Marine Raider was already dead when they reached the beach. The intelligence report stated that since it wasn’t the Japanese’s custom to hide, if they had made it to the island, they had either died or had somehow escaped taking Watson with them. He was listed as “presumed killed” though some intelligence officers believed that most likely he had been taken prisoner by Japanese Imperial Marines. At any rate, after mid 1943 the island, completely bypassed, was forgotten. And forgotten would remain until 1986.
With the University of Massachusetts’ DuBois Library towering behind him, Charlie Torres finished his story. His perplexed group of friends stared at him for a while. It was Sarah Jennings, who broke the ice. “Really Charlie? Did you forget to take your anti-nerd prescription? Where did you get all this stuff man?” Shaking his head, Charlie explained that unlike others he paid attention in Dr. Story’s World War II in The Pacific Senior Seminar. And that she should remember because the two of them took that class the previous semester. “Really was I in that class?” joked Sarah. “Yes, I’m pretty sure because I wrote your final paper Sarah.” Sarah continued pulling Charlie’s leg. “Oh, yeah I remember that was the funny professor with a Texas accent, he kinda looks like colonel Sanders.” Charlie agreed, a bit exasperated, “exactly, and just so you know, that was last semester and Professor Story is a WWII vet.”
Sarah knew how to push Charlie’s buttons. “Chill man, I’m just fucking with you.” There was no reason for Charlie to be so upset about Sarah’s comment. But something was bothering him. He responded “You wish!” Sarah, still unaware of Charlie’s mood, responded “no way Jose that fucking joke does not translate into “American.” Faking swagger Charlie responded “Well, it has worked quite well many, many, times, present company included.” Whenever Sarah and Charlie went down this road it was hard for them to stop. She told Charlie “But I was drunk all those times- I would have fucked anyone, your lame joke didn’t do it- alcohol and bad judgment did you a favor.”
Immediately Sarah wished she had not said that. She knew it not to be true. She and Charlie were best friends and inseparable. They had had taken way too many classes together, had visited each other’s families through spring breaks, thanksgiving and Christmas breaks- had done crazy extreme sport after another. They had slept together so many times that the “drunk” or “friends with benefits” line didn’t convince either Sarah or Charlie anymore. She knew she had hurt Charlie. That was another sign of their bond. Nobody else knew that Charlie was hurt but Sarah. He was good at hiding his emotions. Most taught him to be the toughest guy on campus. Sarah knew better.
As usual Charlie hid behind a snarky comeback. “Excuse me pale face, if any one was drunk, it was me. You know one day I will marry an Aztec princess or something like that. White meat is not my thing- unless I’m drunk. But anyway, I told you this story for a reason.”
Dutch, Charlie’s best friend agreed: “Please do tell, I was about to file a refund form for the time lost listening to you two.” Charlie nodded and begun to explain his plan. “Ok, soon we will be all over the country, we will lose touch with one another, get married, families, not you Dutch, dikes can’t marry, so I…” Dutch cut in, “Fuck you Charlie.” Still laughing, Charlie kind of apologized “Sorry Dutch, you know I’ll be your best man if you ever need one.” She knew he meant it.
Dutch had come to the group because she was doing the Air Force Reserve Officers Training Course. She and Charlie bonded over the fact that they were both different. Dutch was a lesbian, a closeted lesbian when she joined the AFROCT. But military training, which was rather easy for her, gave her the confidence to come out of the closet to a few people during her sophomore year. Charlie was first, then her parents. They didn’t like it and kick her out of the house. That is not much of a problem for a college student until say parents don’t pay your tuition. So Dutch worked at the Spoke for tips, applied to fellowships and got one. Still, it wasn’t enough. She moved into Charlie’s couch permanently. They both shared a few girls but there was no friction between them.
Charlie cared about Dutch as much as he did for Sarah, maybe even more. Dutch was like his sister. In the AFROTC they were both minorities. Him, a Latino first generation finishing high school, and, going to college from a bona fide working class background. She, first in her family to volunteer for military service in a Quaker family with a strong record of conscientious objection to war, and a lesbian to put the cherry on top. They didn’t click at first but slowly gravitated to each other and became really close. They were both first at many things. And they were survivors. That made them more than friends.
Charlie continued explaining his idea. He wanted his friends to join him for a final celebration, even skip commencement, go to that fucking island and live there on their own for two weeks. Dutch was not convinced, not because she did not like adventure but because that sounded rather expensive and she had learned to be thrifty. “Hey what’s wrong with Jell-O-shots and a 3 day binge here is Western Mass.” Charlie would not have it. He went over and over again about how this could be the last time they all got to hang out together and that it needed to count.
Sarah mentioned that she saw no reason not to drink and experiment with mushrooms while on the island, so she was excited about it. “The best of both worlds” she called it. Ironically it was Dan who broke the impasse. “I can certainly use the inspiration for my short stories- you know, make the transition from literature nerd to actually making money selling some stories.” Charlie could barely control his laugh as he said: “Come on guys if Dan is OK with going to a deserted island and being on our own for two weeks everyone should be on board.” Dan was not sure he liked Charlie’s tone, “Hey what the fuck is that supposed to be?” Dutch joined Charlie; “Dan you are not the toughest macho. It may be all that creative writing and weird foreign movies you watch but you are not exactly camping material. That’s what he means.” Dan wasn’t having it; “They are called “films” my semiliterate friend.” Amy, as usual, came to Dan’s rescue, “Come on guys leave him alone, he may be a wimp, and I may be fat, but we will take you on and kick you asses. We are going to do this.”
That settled the question. Everyone agreed to go. Sarah, a serious planner- and a bit of a control freak, wanted to know how to get there. Charlie proceeded to explain: “Professor Story knows people in New Guinea- you know he was a naval officer in the area. He doesn’t know we are planning to go. I kept all my questions hypothetical. He told me early July is the best time to reach Kutukan. He figured that the best nights to access the island or to leave it were about 2 weeks apart. Roughly the 2nd to the 5th and the 16th to 17th according to his farmer’s almanac and his knowledge of the area.”
Dutch was perplexed, “Dude that is a fucking small window. What if we miss it and get stranded?” Calmly Charlie said, “We can always call for help using the boat’s radio, Australian or New Zealand coast guards will come. Come on, is 1986 not WWII- Now there has got be a million ways to get there. We got a month to get ready. And who is telling Melanie and Rick?”
Dutch immediately said she would not. She and Rick, another waiter at the Spoke, had liked Melanie since they both met her at the bar. Rick won, “officially”. But that didn’t stop Melanie from making out with Dutch a few times- just to pretend that she was drunk and did not remember anything the next day.
Amy agreed to tell them and asked to invite the new addition to the group, the “other” Dan. He has just started to hang out with them in their last semester of college. Amy liked him, a lot. But she wasn’t sure he liked her back. As a matter of fact, no one knew much about him. He laughed when others laughed, drank when other drank and did not seem to have much of a personality. But if Amy wanted him to come, he would come.
Charlie said he had to go and gave them some instructions. “Ok, it is settled we have to leave for New Guinea on June 30. So please get ready, here is a list of what you will need for the trip. Do not be late. This will be fun.”