The dark storm clouds poored rain down like an old dog drooling. Moisture was a constant here. The heat as well. And mud. More hot mud than you could ever have imagined, then doubled. It permitted everything, clothes, socks, guns and boots. Keeping things that needed to be clean, clean, was a battle that was just as long and hard as the war itself.
West sat in her tent not sleeping. The tent really didn’t do anything. The moisture was still constant inside and out. Though surprisingly, their was a issue with finding good clean water. Jungles like this were strange, dark, and full of danger. Not just the Japanese, who were fighting ever more desperately.
Their were spiders the size of wrens, scorpions whom were not much smaller, carnivorous or omnivorous mammals whose next meal could be a sleeping soldier, snakes and of course mozzies with malaria, then the dysentery.
The dysentery and malaria had killed even more than the Japanese had, or so she had heard the commander say. The soldiers who got into battle and had been wounded in a fight had almost always got dysentery or malaria or both by the time they got to the field hospital. Those who were really unlucky had wound infection too. Their wasn’t much to be done then, but hope they lived through it. West was lucky. Very lucky. To still be alive.
West knew in a few minutes she would have to go out and be on lookout, so she got her uniform on. First the binder, she had made a quick one out of a flat screen of coconut fibers. Not that she had much in the way of breasts. Only her commander knew she wasn’t “one of the Kokoda boys”. He found out one night in a dark valley about three weeks ago. The bullets were flying. Then she managed to get grazed by one. On her upper thigh.
Wests commander and the field medic fixed the cut quickly and cleanly when the small battle was over. Guns still cocked and ready. Neither had said anything. They fixed her up and moved on. Nothing said at all about what else they hadn’t found cleaning up her wounds.
She was good at what she did. Snipers where rare, good ones even rarer. The number of times she had saved the commander or vice versa was beyond counting. This was a dirty, muddy, horrible place to be upset about something as stupid as gender.
The medical examiner she tried to bribe to get into the service hadn’t even taken her money. He just told her to make sure no one saw her piss, and to take a better male name. She decided West seemed a good option. Solid. Masculine in a subtle but definitely male way, like her parents had wanted a girl and got “him” instead. She still hadn’t really got the hang of he/him pronouns.
Later on when the field medic had got hit by a Japanese sniper in the head, her secret was only known to the commander. She had shot the sniper in return, but that one shot was all it took to kill the medic. When they got to the next major camp they would be replaced by a new one, but for now they made do. Everyone had some field medical training, well enough to help stop someone who wasn’t going to die before they got to the feild hospital.
Occasionally a small group of native Pupyans “fuzzy wussy” would be able to take a stretcher with someone who was wounded. They were life savers.
Anyone who could fight was placed in this war. She knew that. Everyone knew that. The Kakoda trail was a fight for the nation. A fight to make sure Australia survived the horribleness of this world war. Let alone the natives. At the moment though it seemed it was a war that was being lost.
Darwin had been bombed at least three times now. Japanese mini subs as far south as Sydney. Their were rumors the Japanese were starting to plan a full invasion of Australia. The Yanks has just come at just the right moment, as usual late to every big war they don’t start. Most of the Yanks that had come though had been through more wars and seen more combat than any of the ANZACs. Their was even talk of putting a Yank in charge whole of the Australian army. Talk though. Curtain wouldn’t have that. No matter what. At least that’s what everyone was saying when they got a chance.
A breeze made her leg sting. The wound she already checked and knew was clean and thankfully not getting infected. At least for now.
Keeping it clean after a battle or a march was the hardest part. Everything could snag on it. Everything could be a potentially deadly thing. Like this tree, or that mud, this ammunition crate, that spoiled medical kit. Like watching a hawk and then being killed by a Jaguar you never even knew about, the hawk just waiting it’s turn for the scraps.
Looking out into the darkness of the jungle night was about as useful as it was futile. The Japanese could attack at any time on any ridge not occupied by Australia or the small number of native Papyans that had joined the 7th. Every day for the last month the Japanese had got closer to Port Morseby. The few Yanks who had come had all been veterans of battles deeper in the pacific. Most had bad battle wounds or wounds in their minds or body. Or had I already thought that?
Bloody hell it was hot, humid and wet. How could it be just as wet now as it was when it raines?
West doubted that this would be the last night spent watching trees doing whatever it was trees did at night. Looking at the darkness and hoping to Hell it wasn’t staring back. She held a rifle. Just her standard one. Their was no point in holding the sniper in this dark. Its bullets were precious and needed to be kept for the little light that the day brought.
It was a ritual she would go through every time they marched in the light of day. Preying to the death godess that they hit their target. Telling her that she deserved another day of life in the light of the sun. West didn’t know the death godesses name, but every now and again she swore that she saw her on the battlefield. Wearing a dark dress and hood, carrying a old staff with a light on the end. Smiling, notunkindly to those who had been killed. Leading them beyond.
Jungle and darkness. Darkness and jungle. No light. No cigars at night (the light a perfect target) so the others just chewed the few that had. West only had one once and never again. It tasted of tar and wool and reminded her of her father. A horrible man who had managed to bellow every word. Constantly smoking when he wasn’t shearing angry sheep. The wool shed full of flamible oils from the wool, he sensibly waited till the job was done.
West had learned to use a shear at 4 years old, gun at 6 and was the best shot in her town, then the state, then they told her that shooting was no sport for a young woman. And then the war started. People who knew how to use guns were taken in like weat from the crop. Put to the European and African fronts, put in the war for Europe until it was all Nazi, then Greece and Cyprus, every time with the British in command.
Those poor souls who survived told tales of the bravery of those few Australians who won command when the Brits died. Some of the British were told of as good men, others were known as infamous butchers who would send soldiers to the death while drinking gin and brandy.
The Jungle moves. Every bit seemed to be fluid in its own way. Every leaf, every branch, every creature. You had to have the eyes of a jaguar to spot your quarry. Gun cocked for the whole shift. West didn’t see anything unusual until almost dawn. Something about the movement of a tree down the path to this camp was not quite right. It was moving, like a human. Like a human in camouflage. She let out a call. The call of the darkness. It wasn’t a call anyone but those in camp would be listening for. The call of a native bird. It was all that was needed to get every other man up.
In a few seconds she had crouched, cocked and fired. Then all hell broke loose.
Bullets flew. Like mozzies only bigger and just as deadly. Bushes to the left and right erupted in sparadotic fire. Suddenly a grande fell just inches from West. She instantly threw it back. It exploded mid air, slathering frag over the leaves and ground. A few more shots rang out after, then the noise stopped, as suddenly as it began.
“Keep down, search for more.”
The order barked when the jungle was quite enough. Every battle was like this now. The Japanese had a habit of trying to draw them into a area they had just been then ambushing them from behind. It was a tactic that worked but was now well known. The search was slow and hard but by 8ish there was a certainty that it was just a small patrol, not a full-on raid.
Then the commander gave his morning pep talk.
“Ok listen up, the Japs have better equipment and way better men. ” That was said with him looking at the ground, we knew he meant himself too. “I wish it wasn’t so but we need to be better, with less training, less equipment and less bullets. Take whatever we can use and carry. Today we march up the ridge to the next site. I want every eagle eye not carrying equipment to have their rifles ready. Especially you West. We loose the equipment we have, we have to do this whole bloody march again from the start. You think the wet is bad now? Wait till monsoon starts properly in a fortnight or so. That’s going to be real wet.”
Real wet? Like this wasn’t wet enough already, their was another level of wet? How? How was that possible?
No one really seemed inspired by these little speaches. Just tiredness personified into a reminder that we were all fighting together. A grit that matched the mud. The determination to move on and hope you got home in one peice.
Three days up the trail and no so much as a man, woman or child to be seen or herd. We all knew a small village would be near somewhere. It was on the map. A map drawn by the patrols and air support that already had been. The maps from before the war being almost useless.
As soon as I thought this I spotted something. I whistled the alarm and everything went still. We all crouched. The trees, and the ground was soaked. The mud was thick. The Japanese were just on the other side of the clearing. Doing exactly the same. They had a machine gun.
A brief moment distilled the air. Then the 3 inch motors where fired. Like a dragon being sick, they lobbed a set of motor shells into the middle of the Japanese. Boom. Boom. Boom. Then it was my turn.
Every second after the explosions, another shot. In full control of every bullet. Each a extension of my will to live. Each another prayer to to goddess of death. “Let me live, let them die, I will always prey to you.” Like a mantra under my breath. Each thought and action was taken like a slice of time from the cake of the day.
Reload, shot, shot, shot, reload, shot, shot, shot, and so on until, jam. Thunk. The heat and dirt eventually jammed the guns. It was a common issue in jungle warfare, any warfare. I placed the rifle to the side and got out the pistol I carried for close combat. Lying in place until the all clear was whistled. Slowly, carefully getting up.
Then suddenly the ground was up, the sky was down and it almost swallowed me whole.
“They talk of the luck of the Irish. I wish I had your luck West.” It was the commander’s voice. I was on a flatbed in a wooden hut. I guessed in the town we were supposed to be at by now.
“They hit Darwin again yesterday.”
He said matter-of-factly.
I got up and groaned “ooh they almost hit me too.”
“Don’t know which god you keep west, but put a good word in. I’m off to command the raws on the tallow. I doubt we will meet again. You’re in a commando unit now. The 1/2 told me. The new guy is called Borg. He’s your top monkey now.”
I looked at him.
“You don’t need me anymore?”
“This little exercise was all about getting those mortars here, getting a line. We can defend this line now. We have Haroi out. Big reinforcement comes in tomorrow. Yanks and some of our men from Egypt. Seem old Monty took out all the Nazis in Africa. Italy’s on the verge of bowing out.” My commander always seems to be talking about the war elsewhere as if it was a long time ago.
“How long have I been out?”
“Long time. You well enough to move to Borneo in a few days. Kokoda’s almost over.”
“Oh. Am I not being told to go home?”
“Nope. Borg needs a good sniper. I told him you were the best, unless malaria got you. Thank your god you got lucky.”
“Yeah. I will.” Quitly thanking the goddess of death, maybe I’ll get home someday, but for now I continue to be her soldier.