cover of The Castaway's War

The Castaway's War
One Man's Battle against Imperial Japan

by Stephen Harding

Da Capo Press
Hardcover
$26.99 / $33.99
ISBN 13: 9780306823404
05/03/2016

Where to buy Last to Die

Excerpt from The Castaway's War

by Stephen Harding

By the time Hugh reached the beach early on the morning of August 4, only a few bodies remained, most of them already drifting out into Kula Gulf, buoyed by their now pointless life jackets.

After carefully scanning for enemy activity, Hugh moved out of the tree line and waded into the shallow water between the beach and the nearest reef. He moved as quickly as he could toward the corpse of a young Japanese soldier that had gotten hung up on a rocky outcropping, the upper torso out of the water and the legs moving in the gentle swell, almost as though the dead man were swimming. In his haste to reach the body, Hugh stepped into a shallow hole in the sandy bottom and lost his footing, pitching forward into the water and badly cutting his hand and ankle.

He struggled upright and, using all the strength he could muster, dragged the corpse off the rock and onto a nearby stretch of sand. Keenly aware of how vulnerable he was, Hugh hurried to claim his spoils. He first pulled away the protective fabric puttees that spiraled up each of the man’s legs from ankle to just below the knee and then unlaced the boots and pulled them off. When both were free Hugh removed the corpse’s socks and shoved them deep into his pockets, then tied the boot laces together and slung the footwear around his neck as he undid the buckle on the man’s equipment belt. In addition to a long bayonet in its scabbard, the belt bore two hand grenades in a woven-leather carrier and a small pouch containing a bar of soap and several circular tins about an inch and a half in diameter.

Hugh hastily hooked the belt around his waist and then rolled the corpse onto its back and pulled off what little remained of its bullet-shredded life jacket so he could go through the small knapsack beneath it. He discovered five tins he took to be rations and pushed them into his pockets with the socks. Finally, certain that he’d recovered everything useful from the dead soldier, Hugh sloshed his way back across the shallow water and into the tree line.

And just in time, as it turned out, for Hugh had barely scurried into the underbrush when a Japanese landing craft rounded the nearby headland. The vessel threaded a narrow passage into the shallow lagoon behind the reef and nosed toward the beach. When its bow grounded on the sand, the forward ramp dropped and five troops emerged. The men seemed fairly relaxed, their mission obviously to locate any further recoverable items from the previous night’s debacle. As Hugh watched, the soldiers spread out, shouldered their rifles, and began a desultory search along the beach. Their casual attitude changed abruptly, however, when one of the men spotted the body that had just moments before been the source of Hugh’s booty. At the direction of the man who was obviously the group leader, three of the soldiers waded out to where the corpse now lay on the small sand spit.

As the men splashed toward their dead comrade, Hugh realized that he’d made a huge tactical error. In his eagerness to obtain whatever spoils the body might offer—especially boots with which to protect his lacerated, aching feet—he hadn’t considered the full implications of his actions. They were quickly brought loudly home to him, however, for as soon as the soldiers saw that the body had been relieved of its footgear and other items, they began shouting excitedly. With a sinking heart, Hugh realized that any possibility of remaining undetected was now irrevocably lost. If the Zero pilots’ report of a Caucasian on Arundel had for any reason not piqued the interest of senior Japanese commanders on Kolombangara, the discovery of the looted body certainly would.

Angry with himself for thinking with his injured feet instead of his head, Hugh momentarily considered using his two newfound hand grenades to eliminate the Japanese squad. From briefings on enemy weapons held aboard Strong before its sinking, he recognized the four-inch-tall, two-inch-wide devices as Type 97 fragmentation grenades. He remembered that to arm the device, the thrower first pulled the safety pin that protruded from the narrow cylindrical percussion cap projecting from the top of the grenade and then struck the cap against any solid object. The blow activated the fuse, and the grenade’s detonation would hurl shrapnel in all directions. Anyone within twenty feet of the explosion would almost certainly be killed, while serious injuries were likely out to forty feet.

Though Hugh knew that his football-throwing skills would allow him to accurately hurl the 1-pound grenades a good thirty to forty yards, he also remembered warnings about the unreliability of the weapons’ fuses. Though set for four and a half seconds, they were said to frequently detonate early, and sometimes not at all. Moreover, the fuses made a clearly audible popping noise when activated and then hissed and smoked for most of the grenade’s time in flight. What finally dissuaded Hugh from tossing the weapons at the enemy troops, however, was the fact that both had been submerged in seawater since the night before, and he seriously doubted that either would explode.

While Hugh was contemplating his attack, the Japanese troops had re-formed on the beach, their rifles now unslung and pointing inland. They seemed hesitant to enter the forest, though, likely unwilling to confront an enemy of unknown number. After a few moments of intense debate, the men reboarded their landing craft—leaving the body of Hugh’s benefactor behind—and quickly motored back into open water. Although relieved by their departure, Hugh was certain that they and many of their comrades would soon be back—and they would definitely be looking for him.

• Excerpt from Chapter 8, “Alone Among Enemies”