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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

MILES AND MILES OF CROCODILES

On February 19th, 1945, more than one thousand Japanese soldiers retreated into the fetid swamps of Ramree Island, off the coast of Burma. Days later, only twenty were found alive. It remains the deadliest crocodile attack on record. In the passage that first piqued my interest in the incident, British marine (and naturalist) Bruce Wright wrote:

“That night of the 19 February 1945 was the most horrible that any member of the M.L. [marine launch] crews ever experienced. The scattered rifle shots in the pitch black swamp punctured by the screams of wounded men crushed in the jaws of huge reptiles, and the blurred worrying sound of spinning crocodiles made a cacophony of hell that has rarely been duplicated on earth. At dawn the vultures arrived to clean up what the crocodiles had left...Of about 1,000 Japanese soldiers that entered the swamps of Ramree, only about 20 were found alive.”

That compelling testimony has been hotly disputed over the years. Ramree natives maintain such an attack never took place, while others attribute the high number of casualties to enemy fire, disease, scorpions, and various other perils indigenous to the island. But in many Indo-Pacific regions, saltwater crocodiles are feared even more than sharks. Indeed, they eat sharks! And they do, on occasion, attack people. Ramree Island is itself not far from the Burmese coast. It stands to reason that such a large number of crocodiles, when disturbed and confronted with a widespread smell of blood, would react with deadly force. And further, crocodiles like to feed at night. The Japanese troops spent three nights in the swamp. There is therefore much circumstantial evidence in support of Wright's account. Exactly how many men were killed by crocodiles, rather by than the myriad other perils, can never be known. But Wright's testimony has endured, in all its nightmarish glory.

So, how to adapt these horrific true events into a story that people would find compelling, and not nausea-inducing? Not an easy task. Crocodile attacks are unimaginably vicious. And war—equally so. So I decided to shift the focus to two men, one a musician in civilian life, the other an owner of a men’s fashion store, and reveal how they came to rely on each other through the unspeakable events. It became a tale of friendship and survival.

Privates Nakadai and Kodi were never meant to be soldiers. As for many young Japanese men, Imperial duty was foisted upon them under pain of death. Nakadai is a musician without music. Kodi’s love of fashion and cleanliness is buried under layers of black swamp mud. But something clicks when they’re together, and each substitutes the other’s dwindling humanity. It is the strongest kind of friendship there is—a life-or-death bond between ordinary men in extraordinary times.

To delve the reader headlong into the swamps of Ramree, I decided to tell the story in first person present tense. It added so much immediacy that I was literally breathless after writing certain passages. I also gave each chapter a musical title, reflecting the memory of home kindled between the two friends.

Here are two brief excerpts:



1. PRELUDE

Lance-Corporal Hokuto Mayazuki has always been one of the luckiest soldiers in the Japanese Imperial Army. The scars of no less than six shrapnel cuts and bullet wounds tattoo the left side of his neck, all the way from ear to shoulder. So many miraculous escapes over a three-year tour of duty in the Pacific. Yet he will be among the first to die this evening—according to the medical officer—though not from any wound. Today is February 19th, 1945, and he is succumbing to a strange, horrid fever. If one so tough can fall easily, I tell myself, what chance have any of us, retreating into these deadly marshlands of Ramree Island?

It is 16:45 and the British forces have outflanked us. Word spreads throughout our battalion that there is no escape. The mangrove swamp—a thick, stifling, fetid place of only damp reprieve—suddenly provides our only protection. And it is here, in the coming hours, that from the jaws of our defeat, Nature will try to snatch us for Herself. There are a hundred unseen ways for a man to die. We can never give in and time must therefore be the grind of the blade, that by our own hand we draw death—an honourable death. What end waits for me, I wonder? My name is Shigeatsu Nakadai. I do not want this sunset to be my last.

The water I pour onto my neck to drown a dozen large ants is drinking water. I curse the decision. From here on, saltwater is all we’ll find. When my canteen runs dry, I’ll start to die of thirst. The thought occurs to me to pilfer some of Mayazuki’s—he’s almost dead anyway—but the reasoning proves double-edged. What if he contracted his disease from that water? Is it worth the risk? Thirst or fever: in prolonging life by one means, might I not simply protract death by another? I decide to leave him his flask and take his can opener instead.

We’ve been rushing for hours. Our battery stronghold is now miles to our rear. Colonel Ojihoru is a determined man, but determined to do what? If we are not permitted to surrender, and there is no way through the British lines, what is his hurry? Suicide now or suicide later, it seems academic. Stoicism is my only refuge. It’s as much a performance as those I give each night in my dreams—in the orchestra of Chadwick Hall in Canberra, where I play the clarinet—except this performance is to myself. Of all the ways to leave this swamp, suicide is the most impossible, at least to me. I’m quite sure that when the time comes to die with honour, I’ll cry in front of the whole regiment. Will I be the only one?

4. VARIATIONS ON A THEME

I try to conjure a memory of before the war—something, anything to distract me—but draw a blank every time. I purse my lips to whistle a familiar tune, but nothing comes out. I shut my eyes tight and roll them inward until they ache and release a heavy pulse. The screams and shots and calls for surrender are still there. Kodi and Sobiku are still there. I imagine the reed of a clarinet between my lips and the long, sustained breath given to making sweetly aching music. But nothing comes out. No tune, no melody, no woodwind to soothe the mangroves. Just the damp, cold harmonics of the night. I’m lost without music, and there is no music on Ramree.

Sunset on Ramree was released on July 7th at Eternal Press as an eBook, priced $3.95.

www.eternalpress.ca/sunsetonramree.html

The paperback version will be available next week from Amazon.

And finally, here are a few facts I learned about saltwater crocodiles:

*The largest and deadliest reptile on the planet, the saltwater crocodile lives in northern Australia, eastern India, and southeast Asia.

*Its average life span in the wild almost equals that of a human male (70 years).

*Its average length is almost three times that of a human male (17 ft).

*'Salties' (as they're referred to in Australia) occasionally reach a length of 23 ft and a weight of 1,200 kg.

*They are extremely good swimmers and have been spotted quite far out to sea.

*The female crocodile lays up to 60 eggs at a time, though only a very small number will reach adulthood.

*The saltwater or estuary croc cruises through the water at around 2-3 mph, but can sprint-swim at speeds of up to 18 mph.

*On land, its explosive acceleration can almost match a human runner, though only in very short bursts.

*It will generally bask for much of the day and feed at night.

*It is what is known as an apex predator, as its natural position is top of the food chain.

*It rarely attacks humans, mostly because the saltwater crocodile is fiercely territorial, and we have learned to avoid its domain. In regions where human precautions are poor, however, reports of fatal croc attacks are far more common.

*The controversial mass crocodile attack on Ramree Island, 1945, remains the deadliest recorded attack by wildlife on humans.

Robert Appleton writes in a variety of genres, mainly science fiction and historical. Among his recent sci-fi releases at Eternal Press are Grandiloquence, Café at the Edge of Outer Space, and the thrilling Eleven-Hour Fall survival trilogy. He also writes the imaginative Esther May Morrow series as Arthur Everest. A keen footballer and kayaker, he currently lives in the hills of Lancashire, England.

Catch up with him at his website:

http://www.robertappleton.co.uk

and his author blog:

http://robertbappleton.blogspot.com

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