Martin Mariner flying boat in flight. U.S. Government photo.
A Diversion is a fictional short story that describes an incident where two marines assigned to the security contingent for the Sangley Point Navy Air Station were involved. It happened during the time the United States Marines in Korea were heavily engaged with the enemy in a number of crucial battles. The story describes what some marines far from the battlefields were doing while the war went on in Korea.
Pete and Tony, two PFC Marines, had been part of a base security contingent stationed at the US Navy Air Station Sangley Point in the Philippines for the past five months. Pete and Tony had completed boot camp in San Diego two weeks before the North Korans had invaded South Korea and the Cold War suddenly turned hot. Soon after that the United States Marines hastily putting together the First Provisional Brigade to send to Korea. By the fickle finger of fate Pete and Tony ended up at Sangley Point doing guard duty rather than shipping off to Korea as part of the First Provisional Brigade.
Pete and Tony was an odd pair; Pete a six foot two, blond, blue eyed farm boy from South Dakota and Tony, a ruddy first generation Mexican American who called San Diego California his home town. Both had just turned twenty and full of testosterone. They weren’t friends in boot camp but became close friends after arriving together in the Philippines. For Pete, Tony’s Spanish was a plus because it gave them an in with the mestiza women in Manila.
Pete and Tony followed news about the Marines in Korea who fought battles to hold the Pusan parameter, then led the landings at Inchon and were now in the mountains in North Korea fighting the Chinese.
Pete had mixed fillings about their situation as part of the security at the Sangley Point Air Station. He had enlisted in the marines with a neighbor farm boy, Chris, who ended up in the First Provisional Brigade. He had told Tony that sometimes he wished he was with Chris, fighting in Korea like a real Marine.
“Are you crazy?” Tony wanted to know. “Got maybe the best job in the Marines and you want to be in Korea.”
“Ya, doing things like real marines do.”
“Well real marines do guard duty, drink lots cold beer and get hustled by women in Cavity and Manila” Tony argued. “I like what we’re doing, we get back to the states and they aren’t going to know if you been to Korea or doing guard duty at Sangley Point.”
“Ya, but I’ll know”
“Hey, you’ll get over it.”
“Besides it gets kinda boring,” Pete added, “after a month or two.”
“Better to be bored than shot at.”
A couple of weeks later Pete and Tony had agreed to meet that afternoon in the enlisted men’s club when Pete finished his main gate watch. They decided to go to the patio at the back of the club where they would be in the shade that time of the day and drink a cool frosted mug of San Michaels beer.
The patio projected out over the bay and provided a view of the workings of the sea plane base that was part of the Sangley Point Navy Air Station. Sangley Point also had a runway to handle land based planes. Land based and seaplane patrol planes based in the west coast of the United States rotated in and out of Sangley point on six month tours. There were four other land-based patrol planes parked in a restricted area at Sangley that didn’t rotate. They had their own guards and were involved in some secret activity. Base personnel had started calling the secret outfit the 50-footers because of a rumor that if you got closer than within fifty feet of their area, they would shoot you.
While Pete and Tony drank their beer a lumbering seaplane moved to a takeoff position. They watched the seaplane for a while as it sat in the bay like a half-submerged turtle. Pete said that the navy called it a PBM.
“Bet that thing can’t fly,” Tony surmised.
“We see them flying all the time.”
Tony agreed, “I know.”
The plane finally got itself lined up for takeoff.
Pete and Tony could hear the two engines roar and half submerged plane started moving slowly through the water. It gathered speed and the plane rose up and started planing through the water like a high speed motor boat and the ugly duckling was soon flying.
“I’ll be dammed, it does fly,” Tony admitted.
Two days later a rumor circulated that a PBM had run into a mountain on Bataan Peninsula during a rain storm. A few days later at muster they were asking for volunteers to go up the mountain and pick up the remains. Anyone interested, let your platoon sergeant know.
As soon as muster had finished Pete collard Tony and said he was going to volunteer and wanted to know if Tony wanted to go.
“Are you nuts,” Tony asked. “The remains will have lain in the tropic heat over a week by the time we get there. Don’t think so.”
“It’ll be a break from the old routine.”
“And then some. OK,” Tony replied, “I’m easy, let’s get it out or your system.”
Pete and Tony learned that their platoon sergeant, Sergeant Klowoski would be the senior non-commissioned marine on the crash site team going to Bataan and would be in charge of the marine contingent. He gave the marine contingent the details of their task. “Officer in charge of the operation will be LTCD Richards, the PBM squadron executive officer. Two navy crash site investigators will be part of the team and two navy corpsmen. The corpsmen will help identify victims and put the pieces together. This won’t be a picnic. Six Philippine army soldiers that know the terrain and environment will also come with us. The Philippine soldiers will carry their weapons. Everyone else will carry a sidearm. Don’t expect to run into any Huks, but could run into some aggressive scavengers. We’ll sail on a LCU, Landing Craft Utility, to get close to the site. There’re no roads. It’s estimated we will have to cut through a couple of miles of jungle from the nearest good beaching site. We’ll use the LCU as a command center. There is a lot of room on the LCU but limited accommodations. It can haul tanks and over a hundred men, but it isn’t a hotel. Any questions?”
Tony asked, “How long is this going to take?”
“Getting ready, the job itself, and then cleaning up is expected to take about a week.”
“Will we be spending nights in the jungle or on the boat?” someone asked.
“Both,” the sergeant replied. “We won’t be returning to the LCU to sleep. If we are at the boat at the end of the day, we’ll sleep there. If we are in the jungle, we’ll sleep there.”
“How do we get the remains out?” someone else asked.
“In body bags carried by two men on a stretcher.”
“Won’t that be kinda heavy, down the mountain?”
“The doctors say most of the body fluids will be gone, animals will most likely have consumed some of the remains, shouldn’t be too heavy.”
Pete began to feel queasy just thinking about it.
The crash site team boarded the LCU on Friday. While they waited to get underway, Pete and Tony visited with Sergeant Klowoski.
“My normal tour for this place is up in three months,” Klowoski said. “The way things are going up north, could be sooner. The First Division is getting pretty beat up in the Chosin Reservoir. Can you imagine fighting when the temperature is minus forty degrees? Jesus. War is hell in decent weather. You can thank your lucky asses you are in the Philippines living the good life.”
The conversation steered Pete’s mind to Chris, his South Dakota buddy. Very likely Chris was in the middle of those hellish conditions. God, Pete thought, boredom is my biggest problem.
After two hours of cruising, the LCU reached the entrance to Manila Bay and passed between the tip of the Bataan Peninsula and Corregidor Island. They cruised along the west coast of the Bataan Peninsula for another two hours until they reached a place near the crash site. They pushed up to the beach and prepared to spend the night on the landing craft. It had started to rain, so the team rigged up a tarpaulin on the back half of the open deck to shelter their sleeping cots.
In the morning Pete, Tony, and the rest of the team headed into the jungle to make their way to the crash site. They were loaded down with everything they would need to live in the jungle while they worked at the site. Their gear included shelters, rain wear, and water and food for three days in addition to eleven body bags, six rolled-up stretchers, and gear to be used for extracting body parts from the wreckage.
The two-tiered jungle consisted of a high canopy which grew above thick, almost impenetrable undergrowth. Five marines at a time were set to work with machetes in half-hour shifts to hack a path through the undergrowth. When a team started a shift, they slipped off their heavy packs and took the machetes from the marines who had the previous shift. Pete, familiar with hard work, had no doubts that he could handle cutting a path through the jungle with a machete. Since age sixteen, he had been throwing around feed sacks weighing a hundred pounds and pitching heavy bundles of grain during threshing season in the hottest part of the South Dakota summer.
After only a short time of chopping the undergrowth, Pete’s T-shirt became soaked with sweat. Every whack of the machete raised a swarm of biting insects. The thickness of the jungle prevented any breeze that might help relieve the stifling heat. Pete and Tony weren’t doing much talking, saving their energy for the work at hand. About halfway through their shift, they came upon some unnatural mounds and holes in their path. “You know what?” Pete said between deep breaths as he worked. “These must be World War II earthworks. The Americans and Filipinos fought the Japanese in this stinking jungle for about three months at the start of the war.”
“You think so?” Tony answered. “Can you imagine fighting in a place like this? Didn’t take long for the jungle to cover it up.”
Pete did the math. “’Bout nine years,” he said.
After finishing their shift the team walked back down the path they had cleared to retrieve their packs. Tony recounted all of the reasons it had been such a mean job, including that they were working on a steep incline.
Pete agreed. “The hills I know go up and down, not up and up. How high you think this hill is?”
“Mountain,” Tony replied. “This is a mountain, not one of those South Dakota hills you’re used to. I think I heard its two thousand feet high. I’ve been on mountains higher than this in Mexico that were a lot easier to climb. No jungle, just rock and sagebrush. The plane crashed about halfway up the side of this mountain.”
Pete speculated that the plane didn’t know where they were. “They should have known they were flying lower than some of the hills around here.”
“Mountains,” Tony corrected. “I heard they had lost an engine and were flying in a rainstorm. I talked to an airman at the EM Club, said a mountain can make a big shadow on radar, looks like water. They could have thought the mountain was the entry to Manila Bay.”
“Could be” Pete acknowledged. “Could have died before they knew they had a problem.”
By the time the team took a noon break, they were more than half the distance to the crash site. The party opened C-rations for lunch but had little time to relax. After half an hour, Sergeant Klowoski put the next team of trail-breakers to work. “We need to get to the site in time to set up camp before dark,” he said. “Tomorrow we’ll get started on the job we’re here to do.” That afternoon the usual tropical shower developed, and the men donned rain gear and kept going. They arrived at the site of the crash in the early evening. The plane had flown straight into a mountainside that inclined about forty-five degrees so the area of impact was relatively small. The navy investigators established a perimeter around the site and the team set up camp just outside the perimeter.
The investigators spoke to the team members who would be removing the bodies, described the plans for the following day. The investigators would first do a walk-around with the marines and navy medics to find the downed airmen’s bodies and identify things the investigators didn’t want to be disturbed during the bodies’ removal. During the walk-around, the marines would hack down any foliage that might impede the work. The walk-around would take most of the following morning.
It had grown dark by the time the team ate their C-rations, and many of them turned in early. It had been a long day, and the following day would be no exception.
The marines and medics spent the next morning walking the crash site with the investigators to flag all of the visible bodies and body parts. It was not a pleasant experience for Pete. He had seen dead people before: a cousin who died young of leukemia, his grandmother on his mother’s side. They were laid out in fancy coffins, dressed in their best, looked like they were sleeping. These bodies didn’t look anything like that. He had tried to prepare himself for what he expected to be a difficult experience, but reality overpowered his imagination. The crash had occurred almost a week before, and the bodies were infested with maggots and insects and had been mutilated by feeding animals. An appalling odor pervaded the site.
At lunch time, Pete couldn’t eat. He lay in his hot pup tent and tried to prepare himself for the afternoon ahead. After the mid-day break, the medics and marines split into two teams. They donned face masks, rubber gloves, and aprons and went to work. Each five-man team worked with a body until they were satisfied they had identified the crewman and had bagged the body and all of its parts. Pete and Tony were on the same team. The first body they worked on had been torn apart at the torso. There were dog tags identifying the upper torso, and the medics identified a lower torso with a missing leg to go with it. A partially eaten leg was linked to the one-legged torso by shoes on the two feet which matched in size, type, and amount of wear.
Pete found the actual bagging of the bodies didn’t bother him as much as the walk-around had that morning. The initial shock must have prepared him for what had to be done in the afternoon. By evening, eleven body bags were laid out along one side of the crash site. The next morning, the marines and medics teamed up to carry six of the bodies to the LCU. Each pair of men would carry a body on a stretcher two miles down the jungle path the team had cut two days earlier. Pete and Tony found the two-man carry possible though difficult. Ten-minute breaks every half hour made the task bearable. The route that had taken a day to cover when they were cutting the path to the crash site took only two and a half hours to navigate when they were carrying out the crewmen’s bodies. After reaching the LCU and placing the bodies below deck, the marines returned to the crash site and picked up the last five body bags. When these had been placed aboard the LCU, the marines returned a third time to collect any gear they had left at the campsite. The navy crash investigators, who had spent the day at the crash site, returned to the LCU with the marines on the last trip.
It had become dark by the time the LCU backed off the beach and started the four-hour trip back to Sangley Point. Pete and Tony relaxed and rested their aching muscles as the landing craft pushed its way through a calm sea. Pete, although tired after the day of taxing physical effort, felt satisfied. He tried to communicate his feelings to Tony. “I think we did something important the last few days,” he said.
“What’s that?” Tony asked.
“Well, you know. We identified and retrieved the remains. The families will get the remains, have a decent funeral. That’s important.”
“I suppose,” Tony replied. “I wonder if the families will see the mutilated, decaying flesh we picked up. More than one marine lost their cookies picking them up.”
“So you think we should just leave them up there?” Pete asked.
“I’m sure the dead airmen wouldn’t care one way or the other. If the families saw what we picked up, maybe just covering them up for sanitary reasons would be preferable. We confirmed that they died, that’s good, but beyond that, I guess I don’t understand the need to haul the remains back to Tim Buck Too or wherever.”
Pete didn’t buy it. “That seems immoral, against Marine tradition.”
“The wounded, sure,” Tony replied. “The dead, what’s the point?”
“You’re a real hard ass.”
“I just don’t get too excited about human remains, but haveta admit it hasn’t been boring.”
“We agree on that,” Pete replied.
“And better than being shot at” Tony added.
They dropped the subject and talked about getting together with a couple of mestiza sisters living in Manila the following weekend.
Alfred Wellnitz Published Book and Short Story Information at:
Copyright © 2016 by Alfred Wellnitz
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This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, names, incidents, organizations, and dialogue in this short story are either the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.
The views expressed in this work are solely those of the author.