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In the story Milne Bay, Sheila anxiously awaits news from Colin who is now fighting in New Guinea. At the military hospital in Tamworth, Sheila meets a soldier with malaria who fought on the Kokoda Trail Campaign.
Read episode #13 without commentary
Sheila lived for Colin’s letters.
For the next few months, he waited with the Eighteenth at a base in north Queensland. A letter arrived every week, and when she read them, she could hear his voice, the steadiness of his tone, his confidence, and humor. He inserted bits of everyday life. His battalion had adopted a dog, a collie. They called her Ginger. No one knew where she came from. One of the guys taught her to play fetch, and now they couldn’t get her to stop. She’d play for hours, wearing out one soldier after another.
They lived in barracks and ate in a mess hall. The food tasted great and was plentiful, and Colin feared he would gain weight.
“Be forewarned,” he said. “When I come home, none of my clothes will fit. I’ll have to buy everything new.”
He never speculated on where they’d go next, or when. She prayed he would remain in Australia for the duration. Let the army find another unit to send.
The headlines made everyone nervous. The Japanese were invincible. They made rapid advances in the Dutch East Indies. The Americans surrendered at Bataan in the Philippines, and General MacArthur retreated to Australia.
But in May, the US Navy battled the Japanese to a standstill in the Coral Sea. More good news came in June with the Battle of Midway north of the equator. In a single day, the Japanese lost four aircraft carriers, a crucial blow to their ambitions. Some claimed the battle spelled a turning point, but the Japanese continued to advance.
In July, they landed on the far coast of New Guinea and moved south across the Kokoda Track toward Port Moresby. If they took the port and airfields, they could easily bomb Australia. Everyone understood the strategic importance of New Guinea, and in August, the Eighteenth Brigade, along with many other units, shipped out to defend the island.
Of course, Colin had said nothing about a pending departure in his last letter. She read about it in the newspaper.
The battle news was dreadful, with hundreds of deaths and many more wounded. The casualties began to arrive in Tamworth by train—soldiers who had fought on the Kokoda Track in the early days of the campaign. In addition to combat wounds, many others had contracted malaria.
She learned the Eighteenth was fighting an invasion force at Milne Bay on the southern tip of New Guinea. At first, she read the Japanese had taken the airport, but that story proved false with time. At the edge of the landing strip, the Japanese had met the Australians, who beat them back. Over the next week, vague stories continued to hit the papers. The ambulance drivers pored over a map of Milne Bay and tried to correlate the news with points on the ground.
Then solid word came. The Aussies had won a great victory, proving the allies could defeat the Japanese on land as well as at sea. Despite the good news, she remained anxious, for no word had come from Colin in over a month.
Although Milne Bay was won, the fighting raged on the Kokoda Track, and patients arrived every day. When not on duty, she often visited soldiers in the wards. The patients would tell her of their families and girlfriends back home.
She kept an eye out for anyone from Colin’s unit. One day she and an orderly named Fiona picked up a soldier from the Eighteenth. His arm had been shattered, and he slept fitfully, his face the color of campfire ash. Seeping blood stained his bandage at the elbow.
The nurse from the train had parched lips and dry skin. With sunken eyes, she implored Sheila. “Drive as carefully as you can. He’s in pain. The train ride opened the wound. I tried to fix the bandage, but he needs a surgeon.”
While they loaded him, the door swung to nudge his stretcher, and he moaned.
“I’m sorry,” said Sheila, her heart sinking, but he was still unconscious.
“Come on,” said Fiona, “let’s get him inside.”
On the way to the hospital, she drove slowly, but the ambulance bumped over rough spots in the road, and the soldier moaned again.
That night she went to the hospital to check on him. She found him on a second-floor ward. Someone had turned off the overheads, and the only light in the large room came from the hallway doors. The beds were lined up side by side under open windows. A soft rain fell, and the drops sounded peaceful as they plopped on the leaves of the trees outside.
She had to lean close to read the nametags at the foot of each bed. Most of the soldiers were asleep, including the man from Colin’s unit. She had expected as much, but made the trip anyway on the off chance he couldn’t sleep.
The next man shivered. A sour odor emanated from his bed. He lay turned to the side with his hands clutching his belly. Sweat lined his brow, and he turned his head one way and then the other, as if desperate to escape his dream.
She stepped closer, and her shadow crossed the man’s face. She reached to wake him from the nightmare.
He shrieked, “No no no!” and his legs kicked at the sheets. His back twisted and he struggled to get away. He wound up bunched at the top, grasping the bed railing, scrawny thin.
“It’s all right,” she said. “I won’t hurt you.”
His chest heaved. His pajama top was soaked with sweat, and his eyes darted to her hands as if searching for danger. He looked at the beds to the left and right.
“Who are you?”
“My name is Sheila. I’m an ambulance driver, and I came to visit a soldier.”
“Why?” He glanced at her hands again.
“He’s from my husband’s unit. I came to see if he had any news.”
His heaving settled to a slower rhythm. He swallowed and said, “What unit?”
“Were you in Milne Bay?”
“No. Kokoda Track. I spent three weeks fighting before . . . malaria.”
“Shall I get the nurse for you?”
“What for? She gives me water to drink. I throw it up. It doesn’t accomplish anything, and I’m tired.” He inched down the bed until his legs lay flat again, but he continued to sit upright against the head railing. “I’m lucky,” he said. “I don’t have to face them anymore.”
“The Japanese. I hope I never see another.” His eyes crossed the room as if still not certain of his safety. “I wish they’d keep the lights on in here.”
She stepped next to the bed and touched his arm again, hoping to calm him.
“I killed Japanese,” he said, his lips snarling. “We killed hundreds of them. They killed hundreds of us.” He shook his head. “They hid in caves in the cliffs, and their guns cut us to pieces. We had to root them out.”
“Shush,” she said. “You don’t have to relive it every day.”
He stared at the foot of his bed and let out a long sigh.
“They’re just like us. They bleed like us. They scream.” His face grew resolved, as if he had an obligation to go on, as if she was his confessor. “I stabbed one in the gut with my bayonet, and he cried like a baby, his hands full of blood. I stabbed him again to be sure and left him there, moved on to the next bunch.”
Her knees felt weak. She grabbed the side of the bed to keep from falling.
“I wonder about him sometimes. He was done fighting, no danger to anyone. If I hadn’t stabbed him a second time, would he have lived?”
“Don’t think like that.”
His eyes scanned the features of her face. “You’re worried about your husband.”
“How long have you been married?”
“No. We’ve known each other for years.”
“Everyone says the lads fought brilliantly in Milne Bay. I imagine they’ll give them a little break, but then . . .”
“They’ll move the Eighteenth back into action. It’s going to take a lot of men to get the Japanese off New Guinea. They can’t win, but they keep fighting anyway. There are thousands of them, and they won’t give up. We’ll have to kill every one.”
She bit her lip and fought back the tears.
“I’m sorry,” he said, “but no one is coming home anytime soon . . . unless it’s like me.”
She walked beside the gulley on the north side of camp. Lights from the main building danced on the creek’s surface, and the water gurgled around boulders. She rubbed her arms to keep away the chill.
Was Colin safe? She hadn’t heard a word for weeks. Did he have to fight like the soldier with malaria? Hand to hand? Would he stab another man? Would another man stab him? No. Don’t think that way. He was smart. He was cautious.
No matter how she tried, she could not get warm. The rain had let up for a while, but now it began to drizzle. She turned to go back, and someone turned off the spotlights, casting the creek and the trail into darkness. She stopped to give her eyes time to adjust.
For a moment, she lost her bearings and grew dizzy. She thought of the people who lived on New Guinea. The war had turned their lives upside down. Would they ever again feel safe at night? Did they peer into shadows for danger? She shivered. Something moved in the darkness, a shape behind a tree. Light glinted off a metal surface.
“Who is that?” she said. “Who’s there?”
No one answered. Had she imagined it?
She ran toward the main building. On the way, she glanced back, but saw nothing. When she got to the entrance, she stopped and searched the grounds. No one had followed her.
Back at her barracks, an envelope lay on her bunk. A telegram? Her heart dropped. They sent bad news in telegrams.
No, it was a letter from Colin.
My dearest Sheila,
By now you must have heard of our adventure in Milne Bay. I’m fine, but I don’t mind saying things were scary for a few days. We will win the war. Of that, everyone is certain, but we have more work to do first.
It feels a bit like Tobruk here, lots of waiting. But instead of dust, we have mud, and instead of flies, we have mosquitos. It’s hard to believe such a small bug can lay low big men, but I’ve seen it happen many times now. They tell us to wear long sleeves. Most of my mates ignore that advice because it’s hot and sticky, but I wear mine for as long as I can stand it, and I guard my netting almost as carefully as my wedding ring.
If you should see Hazel before I do, please tell her I’ve come across some brilliant recipes. They make a dish here called mumu that includes pork, sweet potatoes, greens, and coconut milk, all wrapped in banana leaves and cooked with hot rocks. My mouth’s watering now.
Here is a short list of what I miss the most. I miss tickling the back of your neck and running my fingers through your hair. I miss the taste of your lips.
I will always love you.
She leaned back, closed her eyes, and tried to relive each moment of their honeymoon, as she often did when her fears kept her awake at night. She would replay each scene of each day from the moment they arose until they went to sleep. She tried to remember their exact words, what they did, and the meals they shared. The process relaxed her brain. When they got to the beach, they paddled on their surfboards beyond the break. They sat astride the boards. The waves gently rocked them, and they smiled at each other.
The next morning, I rise early and sit on the bench to watch the river. I think about the sadness of the war stories, and I am comforted to know that wars always end. One party or the other—sometimes both—grows weary and makes a motion for peace. If only we could sue for peace before the death and destruction.
A curious sight appears on the other side of the river—a windsurfer. I have never seen a windsurfer this high on the Delaware; the current is too fast and the river too narrow. But the wind blows hard today, and the surfer is good. The sail leans hard against the wind, and the board skims across the surface. The water rushes to the sides, and it seems to me as if the surfer is flying. It’s a young woman, about Julie’s age when we first met. Her wet hair flails behind her. Her arms and legs and stomach muscles are taut, straining against the force of the wind. I stand, walk to the edge of the bank, and try to catch a glimpse of her face. She’s grinning, her eyes squinting at the force of the air. She’s close now, almost to the bank. I fear she will crash, and I open my mouth to shout, but then her hands adjust, and her feet move on the board. The board halts abruptly, the woman flips the sail over her head, and in moments she’s flying back across the river.
Who is she? A bold spirit accepting an impossible challenge? Only winds this high could create conditions for windsurfing on the Delaware. My throat grows tight, and my arms tingle. For a moment, watching the surfer sail away, I sense Julie’s spirit behind me. She reaches around to hold me, to caress my chest.
And then the moment is gone.
END OF EPISODE 13
About the Storyteller
Pat lives in Austin. He likes to cook dinner with his wife, listen to any kind of good music, and take long walks in beautiful places.
Pat is the author of four Joe Robbins novels and a college crime story titled Only Yes Means Yes. You can find Pat’s work on Amazon under his author name Patrick Kelly. Learn more about Pat’s writing at his website:
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