Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
I got to talking and laughing with my lovely lady today about old Billy Bennett. Billy was a rascal and a rogue and an erstwhile killer of men and a gentleman, another of those odd folk one finds in the Solomon Islands. Billy was born the same year as my mom, 1920, son of a New Zealand planter and a local Solomon Islands woman. He went to the Methodist school, and managed to stick it out for eight years.
We met Billy because he had the steel shell of what had once been a lovely 32-foot (10m) sailboat propped up by the side of his house on the beach. After driving past it a couple times, we stopped and introduced ourselves. Billy at that time was in his late sixties. He was totally welcoming, inviting us in. I asked about the steel boat in his yard. He said he’d salvaged it. Why? Did we want to buy it? Well … maybe we did. So we started the usual long, drawn-out process of negotiation in a world that is innocent of time.
Billy had lost all of his teeth by then, but he still loved to chew his betel nut. Betel is chewed all over Melanesia. It comes from a kind of palm tree, and it’s chewed with a bit of leaf and lime to release the active ingredients. The leaf used is the leaf of a vine that grows around the betel nut tree. In the islands, the lime is usually powdered coral.
Now, at that time in addition to my day job I was playing keyboards in “Unisound”, the hottest, most sought-after rock band in the Solomon Islands. I was the only gringo in the band, the rest of the guys were all locals, and they all chewed betel nut. Well, I was enough of an oddball already, so I took it up as well to be one of the boys. I actually got quite fond of it. The only downside of betel nut is that it stains your teeth and your mouth bright red, so you look like you’ve just been to a cannibal feast. But then I couldn’t be the only guy in the band who wasn’t a cannibal, that wasn’t on, I was already white, which was bad enough … so I chewed betel, and enjoyed it.
So when Billy broke out the nuts, I asked if I could have one, cracked it open with my teeth, took out the nut, bit off half, put the other half back in the husk for later, rolled up a leaf, licked it, dipped it in the lime, settled back and started to chew … and we were good friends from that moment forwards. I suppose I was one of the few white guys he sat and chewed with, and while he chewed he told his stories … and if you think I have outrageous stories, you didn’t know Billy.
When World War II came to Guadalcanal, Billy was 21. He went out to the Western Solomons and hooked up with the British District Officer for Western Solomons, Donald Kennedy. Kennedy was by Bill’s account a very hard and cruel man, but he played a crucial part in the war. He started out as a “Coastwatcher”, equipped with a radio to warn when the Japanese planes flew over them on their way to attack Guadalcanal. But that wasn’t enough for Kennedy, he wanted to fight. So he gathered a small force of men, just 28 guys, got himself appointed as a Major, and started his own private war against the Japanese … starring the young Mr. William A. Bennett as his Sergeant in charge of the 28 local fighters. Their entire army consisted of one Major, one Sergeant, and 28 privates … what’s not to like?
They started a kind of war that the Japanese had never heard of. They didn’t go into battle to win or lose like either the Japanese or the Americans did. They went in to kill every single swingin’ Japanese in the group they had chosen to attack, to bury them all in hidden places in the jungle, to cover up the graves with branches and leaves, to take their weapons and uniforms and ammunition and every scrap of evidence and gear for their own use, and to disappear silently back into their surroundings … and they set out doing just that.
The Japanese were mystified. A patrol would go missing in the jungle. They’d send out another patrol to investigate the missing patrol, and they couldn’t find the slightest trace the patrol ever existed, nothing … and sometimes the search patrol would vanish completely as well. Here’s Billy’s description, from an interview in Pidgin long after the war, notable for how laconic it is …
Nara smol wan olketa sendem kam tu. Ating sikisfala man. Me go kilim everiwan dae tu. An berem olketa. No eniwan hem save. So stat dea nao olketa Japan stat fo tingting narakaen nao.
The English spelling of the above Pidgin would be:
Another small one [patrol] all-together [they] send’m come too. I think six-fella man. Me go kill’m everyone die too. And bury’m all-together [them]. No anyone him savvy [knew]. So start there now, all-together Japan [the Japanese] start for think-think another kind now.
or in translation:
They later sent another small patrol. I think it had six men. I went and killed them all and buried them. Nobody knew about it. These incidents made the Japanese think that there was a big army hiding in the bush.
He took on six men … “I went and killed them all and buried them” … one hesitates to enquire further, I know I didn’t ask.
Then came one of their most audacious acts. They attacked two barges that were getting unloaded on the beach by the Japanese Army laborers, and guarded by a platoon or so of other Army guys with weapons. They went in at night, Billy and the 28 men, accompanied by a couple of US pilots that they had rescued, and killed a total of 82 Japanese soldiers on the spot. Four of the Japanese soldiers got away for the moment … but they didn’t get far in an unknown jungle, they were soon tracked down and killed as well. The local villagers were enlisted, they dragged all eighty-six of the bodies into separate parts of the jungle and buried them and scattered leaves over the graves so there would be no trace. 86 soldiers. Vanished.
It gets better. Then they started up the engines on one of the barges and drove it away and hid it on an island far away. The other barge didn’t have an engine … so they gathered more villagers together and they came out and paddled the big steel barge over the horizon, an exhausting task but most Solomon Islanders know how to paddle … Billy had contacted the villagers at the next island by radio, and each village sent one or more of their big war canoes, and they hooked on and towed the barge, and by daybreak it was far away and hidden from view. Then they cut down mangroves and spread the leaves and limbs over the barges so they couldn’t be found from the air. Meanwhile, everything that the Japanese had brought ashore had been toted away to other locations and hidden, sand was scattered over the bloody spots, all the (valuable) brass cartridge shells were collected by the locals, likely eventually made into fishing lures or the like … everything was policed up spic-and-span.
And so when the Japanese sent a gunboat around to investigate why there was no radio contact with the men they knew had landed and were unloading supplies, and the gunboat dropped off the observers right at the spot where they knew the barges had come ashore, they found no evidence that two large barges full of supplies had been stolen, and eighty-six Japanese soldiers had been killed, right where they were standing … in fact there was not one bit of evidence to show that anyone had ever been there at all, untouched beach stretched in both directions and the jungle revealed nothing … they were totally baffled. How could that happen, a full company of men vanishing?
To make matters worse, shortly after that, Billy and some of his guys attacked and captured a Japanese supply boat with eight men on board. They attacked the boat at sea, armed with Japanese machine guns whose previous owners no longer needed firearms. They then sunk the boat, took the men ashore, and killed them and buried them, no bodies left floating in the ocean to be discovered. The Japanese were going nuts trying to figure out why people kept disappearing. They were disappearing in the jungle, they were disappearing on the beach, they were disappearing on the ocean … the Japanese fired their commander and brought in a new one. It was a brutal, bloody, up-close war. Here’s Billy again:
One time five Japanese soldiers landed where we were on Gatukai [Island]. But I and some of our men went and killed those five Japanese at night with rifle and axes. At that time we only had three .303s and one revolver. Not enough guns so we used axes and knives. Our scouts saw those five Japanese soldiers and came and reported it to us. So I told them, “Look after them. Give them a house and food.” But, at the same time, I followed them. And at night when they were sleeping we went and killed them. After that, we smashed their boat. SOURCE, p. 147
In all, Kennedy’s Army put up a record unmatched in the war. Those 28 men killed 123 Japanese soldiers, took 82 Japanese prisoners-of-war, rescued a number of American pilots and returned them to fight again, and never lost a single man. Not one. That is an astounding feat. Here’s a picture of Billy during the war, the man in the middle:
He let that hang in his usual disconcerting way, conversations sometimes go slow in the tropics. He was an artist, couldn’t be rushed, and we paused while he pounded up some betel nut. The nut is somewhat hard, and needs to be chewed and mixed with the lime to release the active ingredients … but as I said above, Bill didn’t have a tooth in his head when I knew him. So he, or one of his kids, would take the betel and the lime and the leaf, and mash it up into a paste with a mortar and pestle. The mortar was some kind of brass shell from the war, and the pestle was a piece of stainless steel rod with a rounded end, likely from some crashed airplane. He’d pound the ingredients into a pulp and then he was good to go, he could gum his betel nut to death, he didn’t need teeth. So I had another nut myself, rolled up the leaf, stuck it in the lime, chewed for a bit, spat the blood-red betel-nut juice into the warm sand behind his house, and asked him just what his secret weapon might have been.
“We could smell them,” he smiled.“I don’t think they put that into the Japanese Army Manual. First of all, they smoked Japanese cigarettes and we smoked cut-up local black leaf tobacco, it’s easy to tell those apart” … and having chopped up and smoked the local tarry black rolled up tobacco leaves that masquerade as cigarette makings in the Solomons, I can testify to that, particularly since the Solomons cigarettes are generally rolled up in notebook paper, which adds its own odor to the gamey mix.
“But even if they didn’t smoke, we could smell them, they had a funny smell, not like our guys. And so we always hunted them upwind,” he added, and as a hunter I knew just what he meant. And as he said it he smiled, an odd, almost carnivorous smile I hadn’t seen before, and I suddenly had a vision of a much, much younger Billy Bennett and a few guys, Melanesian islanders maybe one generation removed from cannibalism, invisible and lethal in the dark, spread out in the forest with one gun and a bunch of axes and knives, shouldering into the breeze, sniffing the signs on the wind, and silently closing in on some poor Japanese bastards who had sent their last letters home to their wives and parents, only one final letter would follow, an official letter … I shivered despite the tropical warmth.
Billy got a bunch of medals during the war, including the British Military Medal, which is not awarded lightly, and an American decoration of some kind as well, and was also awarded the OBE, the Order of the British Empire, after the war. He’d worked for the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Corporation, then retired to his simple concrete house right on the beach a few miles outside the country’s capital, Honiara. We’d sit there, and look over the sun-dappled ocean, and talk story. I eventually did buy that boat from him. We had it loaded onto a lowboy trailer in order to help clear the electrical lines, and bamboo poles to walk the power lines over the boat, one after the other.
That’s me in the white shorts and the white skin. We took the boat to the city wharf and launched it, and had it towed away to a shipyard near Tulagi Island to start rebuilding it.
And yes, that idiot up on deck in the white shorts etc. is me again …
Nothing is simple in the Pacific, of course. About a year later I ran into my friend Reg. He said “I just got back from Tulagi. What the hell are you doing with my boat?” I asked him what boat he was talking about, and he said “Billy Bennett’s old boat”. I said I’d paid Bill Bennett good money for that boat, thank you very much. He said well, so had he … turns out the old reprobate had actually sold that damn boat twice, first to Reg and then to me. He got more out of Reg than out of me, by a factor of about five, but then Billy and I were friends … plus, he’d already been paid once for the boat, so I was pure gravy, plus he knew I’d actually haul the damn thing away. I told Reg that I was sorry, but I bought it in good faith, and that was a year ago, I’d put a bunch of money into the boat since, and this was the first I’d heard about his involvement. I asked when he’d bought it from Billy. He said it was two years before I’d bought it. I guess after two years looking at it sit in his yard, Billy had figured well, I guess Reg doesn’t want it after all, I’ll sell it again … I could only shake my head and laugh. Billy always was a scoundrel and a law unto himself, he never gave Reg back his money, just kept it as two years boat storage fees.
The best trouble that Billy Bennett and I ever got into, though, was Blackmailing the Japanese Ambassador, another South Pacific story good enough to merit capital letters. It happened like this.
Billy was, and had been for years, an active member of the Japan-Solomon Friendship Association. He had been one of the leaders in the slow sad process of the location, disinterment, and repatriation of the hundreds of lost bodies of Japanese soldiers, buried or simply fallen in the jungle. I used to give him grief about it, I said “Damn, Billy, the only reason you’re so good at finding their lost soldiers is you buried them yourself!” He laughed his toothless laugh and held his finger to his lips and said “Shhh, they don’t know that … besides, I didn’t kill all of them!” But of course the Japanese soldiers who came to search for their lost comrades knew exactly who William A. Bennett was, that he was a decorated warrior who had killed many of their soldiers, and because of that they respected him the more for helping retrieve the bodies of their fallen friends from all over the Solomons.
And late one day, as we were sitting on his back porch, chewing betel and drinking beer and looking at the ocean, Billy told me that for his untiring work in that regard, in the name of the Emperor, the Government of Japan was going to give him a Japanese medal to go with his British and American Medals. From memory it was called “The Order of the Golden Peacock” or some such perfectly Japanese name … hang on, let me see if I can find it. … OK, got it, it was called the “Order of the Sacred Treasure”, one of Japan’s high civilian awards, and Billy definitely deserved it. He had worked long and hard after the war to foster a spirit of friendship between Japan and the Solomon Islands, he’d spent hours in the jungle with Japanese ex-soldiers searching for the bodies of their lost brothers-in-arms, and in the process helped engender an enduring friendship between the Solomons and Japan that lasts to this day. The feelings of the war were far behind him, he’d gotten to where he really liked and respected the Japanese, and counted many among his friends.
So him getting the award was a very big deal. Billy had grown very close to the Japanese who’d come to carry away their dearest bones from that awful war, and in turn they felt the same about him because he helped them whenever he could. So we opened another beer and we drank to him, and to the Order of the Sacred Treasure, and wondered what made the treasure so dang sacred, and watched the evening darken. Billy said he didn’t need another damn medal though, he already had medals, what good were medals?
I asked him, if he didn’t need medals, what did he need? He said he’d been trying to get piped water into his village for a while, so people didn’t have to walk for water. Sure, it would benefit him as well, he didn’t deny that, but it would also benefit the whole village. He didn’t have enough money to do it, the whole village didn’t, it was not just poor, it was Solomons poor.
So I was half drunk by that time, I said OK, well, we’ll just blackmail the Japanese Ambassador into giving you guys a piped water system. And when he asked what I was babbling about, I explained to him the devious plan that had somehow sprung full-blown into my brain when he presented the problem.
In my life I’d worked a reasonable amount overseas as a consultant for the US Government, employed by the US Peace Corps and USAID. In the process, I’ve met a bunch of Ambassadors. They’re a curious breed. The American ones are the worst, because the US Ambassadorships are often given as political payoffs to big donors, so you get some real doozies. One time, in a tiny country I won’t name, I ate at a small Chinese restaurant with a bunch of people including the American Ambassador and his wife. After dinner, she stole her chopsticks. Blew my mind. My jaw dropped. I saw her stuff them into her purse under the table, I couldn’t believe my eyes. I checked, yep, her chopsticks were no longer on the table, I hadn’t imagined it. I was sooo happy no one else noticed, my mates would have given me grief for weeks, I hung my head in shame for my country. Jeez, to the Chinese restauranteurs in that banana republic, she and her husband were a living God and Goddess, a real actual Ambassador and Lady Ambassador had eaten in their humble restaurant, they’d have given her matched chopsticks for twelve if she’d asked and been thankful for the honor, and instead …
Other countries tend to use professionals for their Ambassadors. But they all have one thing in common. As far as they are concerned, they, the Ambassador, they personally, are their home country’s local God and Manifest Deity in that country. And none of them likes the home country officials to think that they are falling down on the job.
In addition, I figured that since the Japanese were all so … well, Japanese, into protocol and hierarchy and status and the like, that this just would make the blackmail scheme even easier.
So Billy and I sat down and cooked up a letter for the Japanese Ambassador. I regret that I didn’t save a copy, it was a work of art and it had a lot of Billy in it. After it was done, we looked at it, but it looked too good. Billy suggested that we should sprinkle in some misspellings, to make it look more authentic, so we did that. We didn’t have a typewriter, so I printed it on my 1987 Macintosh, but using a typewriter font, no one had heard of that in ’87, so it looked perfectly typewritten. Now, here was the master stroke.
We didn’t address it to the Ambassador, oh, no, not at all. And we didn’t address it to the Japanese Government, or to the people that handle the civilian awards, or even to the people that give out Japanese foreign aid for providing piped water to the developing world.
Instead, we addressed it to the Japanese Emperor himself. I went down to the library and looked up his “style”, as royal personages term their form they want the plebeians to use when addressing them. From memory again that was “His Majesty, the Heavenly Sovereign” plus some other flowery stuff, so we put all that fancy language in there in the letter
Then I asked Billy to put it in the nicest envelope he could find, and we put “TO HIS MAJESTY THE EMPEROR OF JAPAN” plus the flowery stuff on the outside of the envelope, with the Emperor’s name in real big capitals, easy to read from a block away, and put some stamps on the letter, but we didn’t put any address for the Emperor, and then Billy asked for an appointment with the Ambassador.
So Billy got his appointment. We had wasted a bunch of beer and betel on imagining what might happen during the appointment, we discussed how it might go down and what Billy would do, how to play it, and then it was showtime. He went to see the Ambassador. I’d have loved to be a fly on the wall. This was maybe three weeks before they were going to have the official ceremony where the Ambassador was to pin the medal on Billy’s T-shirt … at least that’s all I’d ever seen Bill wear, T-shirt, shorts, flip-flops, toothless grin, and bright red betel-stained gums were his daily ensemble.
I went to see Billy the evening after the appointment, eager for the news. He told me that at first it had gone pretty much as we had planned. At the start he’d talked to the Ambassador, nothing serious, Japanese don’t like you to just blurt out stuff at the start. He knew the Ambassador, of course, through his work returning the remains of the soldiers, so they asked after each other’s families and discussed unimportant current events as they sipped cups of the obligatory tea.
Then, when the time was ripe, Billy said he lowered his voice and confided in the Ambassador that he needed his help. Ambassadors love to hear that, some of them only for the pleasure of turning you down, but most want to be of assistance, it reinforces their power, it shows they are the man, the one who can work miracles. The Ambassador asked what he could do for his good friend and the good friend of Japan, Billy Bennett.
Billy pulled out the envelope, and he carefully set it on the table with the address facing the Ambassador, big and bold, like we’d discussed. It said “The Emperor of Japan”, plus what were likely all the wrong styles, in large block capitals, and it had stamps … but no address.
Billy said that just as he and I had discussed, when the Ambassador saw that the letter was addressed to the Emperor, his eyes got a bit wider, and he got all serious. But like we’d schemed, Bill didn’t give him the envelope right away. Instead, he held it and kind of played and toyed with it, and said he had a problem. The Ambassador asked what the problem was.
Billy said that he didn’t know, and he’d asked around but nobody seemed to know, the actual mailing address of the Emperor of Japan.
And Billy said that since the Emperor was giving him a medal, and since Billy had a problem, he wanted to send a letter in return, and ask the Emperor for help with the problem he had. But Billy didn’t know the Emperor’s address. So naturally, he thought of his good friend the Ambassador, who was sure to know the correct address of the Emperor of Japan if anyone did. He held up the letter, stamps and all, to illustrate the problem.
Now, any man hates to be passed over in the chain of command. Complaints are supposed to go from the corporal to the sergeant to the lieutenant to the captain and on up the line. Same in a business, nobody likes someone going over their head and talking directly to the boss’s boss.
And an Ambassador is even worse, because he’s the absolute king in his own kingdom, nobody above him in sight, and so he thinks every single thing imaginable should pass through him. He has to keep his fingers on the pulse of the country, he has to know what’s going on before anyone else, he needs to be the man with the inside information first before anyone else gets it.
And for a Japanese Ambassador, with his strict sense of proprieties and hierarchy, to get passed over all the way to the top, to the celestial court of the Emperor of Japan himself, that was totally unthinkable. He sat and looked at the good friend of Japan, and wondered, what was in that damn letter?
But it didn’t matter what it was, it was dangerous to the Ambassador. That letter contained things that Emperor or his retinue would hear of, things going on in the Solomons that he, the Ambassador, was perhaps unaware of, and then they might get in touch with him, and ask him about things they knew about and he didn’t … oh, no, no, that was not possible, by then the Ambassador was sweating bullets, that assuredly was not going to happen, not while he was Ambassador. He had to stop that letter and solve that damn problem before the Emperor’s court got wind of it, or at least read the letter first before they got it, and limit the damage, send a cable before the letter arrived, something, anything …
So wisely, the Ambassador fought for time and information. He told Billy that he would be more than happy to assist him with the Emperor’s address, but by any chance was there some way that the Ambassador himself might be able to help Japan’s good friend Mr. Billy Bennett with the matters in the letter? Billy told me that the Ambassador almost reached for the letter at that point, but stopped himself in time … we cracked another beer to that one, it would have been impolite of the Ambassador, plus very bad negotiating tactics to reveal that he wanted it so badly.
But Billy said he still didn’t give him the letter. He told the Ambassador it was a difficult problem, one he’d been working on for years, other people had failed, he wasn’t sure if the Ambassador was up to the task … oh, Billy could weave a spell when he chose to, he’d been on the radio for years, he could speak flawless Oxford English whenever he wanted … and the idea that Billy’s letter to the Emperor might say the Ambassador wasn’t up to some task made the Ambassador’s knees weaken—his diplomatic record up ’til now had been perfect, flawless, and now this! He had to get hold of that letter.
Finally, grudgingly, Billy let himself be persuaded, he handed the envelope to the Ambassador. He took out his glasses, and opened and read it, making every attempt to appear relaxed and casual.
As I said, this is not the actual letter, it had more mis-spellings and was more loopy in a Billy kind of way, but this is the gist of what it said, a poor reconstruction from memory. We’d labored over it, edited and re-worded until it was perfect, but this was the essence of it:
Your Honorable Majestic of Most Imperial Highnesses:
My name is Billy Bennett, and I am made proud and humble to having been awarded the Order of the Sacred Treasure by Your Majestic Imperialness for my work to bring together the people of the Solomons and Japan. And to heal the wounds of the awful war.
I cannot tell you how much thanks I give each daily to both the Japanese Government and to your Majestic and to the Japanese people for this honourable, and how much it means to me. We, who fought so hardly and bravely and killings against each other, are now friends.
However, while I have happiness of your high recognition, and I give thanks, I already have medals and honours. What my people and I truly need is water. For our village. So I would like to humbly asking the assistance of the great and generous Japanese Government in regarding the life-giving gift of piped water for my village.
In the past I have repeated appealing to the local representatives of your great country of Japan who have spending time here in the Solomons, and they could not helping me, and to some Japanese servicemen who come to looking for their dead, but they have not helping, and the cost is beyond us, it is a poor country.
Your humble servant,
The Ambassador read it, and when he did he seemed at least somewhat relieved. No secret spy plots at least. But it certainly reflected very poorly on his performance to have it presented like that, no way he could ever let that letter go to the Emperor.
And that part of the letter about how “In the past I have repeated appealing to the local representatives of your great country of Japan who have spending time here in the Solomons, and they could not helping me”, of course that didn’t refer to him, he’d never heard of this damn water system, it must have been the bumbling of the previous Japanese Ambassadors, but the Emperor’s court didn’t know that. Dear heavens, what was he to do?
But Japanese Ambassadors are nothing if not consummate professionals, not a flicker of this internal turmoil made it to his face. Then the Ambassador composed himself, and said he could only read English slowly so he needed time to read the letter carefully. And as he pretended to re-read and study the letter, he used that time to come up with a plan. Billy said all the time he was reading, his face didn’t reveal a one single thing.
When he looked up from the letter, he saw Billy sitting there as we’d planned, already with his hand extended for the return of the precious letter … and boxed in, and very unwillingly, the Ambassador was forced by eternal Japanese politeness to hand the letter, very slowly, back to Billy, who equally slowly returned it to the envelope, and smiled, and waited. And so the Ambassador began his diplomatic fight for possession of the damning letter.
The Ambassador started by saying that he thought the Emperor would be very pleased with Billy’s honesty and his acknowledgement of the honor of the Order of the Sacred Treasure, and with his forthright plea for assistance for his village.
And he said that although of course he, the Ambassador, couldn’t possibly dream of speaking for such an august person as the Emperor, after all, no one knew the Emperor’s mind, still the Ambassador thought it was an excellent idea, and he was certain that something could be worked out … in fact, the Ambassador said, he personally would make every effort to make sure they got their water. He didn’t promise a damn thing of course, he was an Ambassador and the best that they can ever do is “make every effort”. But it was his best.
Then, Billy told me, the Ambassador grew very serious, and lowered his voice, and told Billy he still was quite worried about one thing. He paused, and waited for Billy to ask what he was worried about, and when Billy kindly obliged him, he said was concerned that sending such an important letter by regular old mail, anything might happen to it, it might get lost, it might get all smashed up, and look ratty when it was presented to the Emperor, wouldn’t want that … but wait, just then, by an amazing coincidence you know what?
The Ambassador had just had an inspired thought!
His eyes lit up, and he told his good friend and the good friend of Japan Billy Bennett the idea that had just that instant come to him—that he, the Ambassador, could just pop Billy’s letter directly into the regular Diplomatic Pouch heading straight to Japan, and the diplomatic people in Japan could make sure it went right directly to his Majesty the Emperor himself, no problem, they did that all the time, if Billy would just give him the letter, he would see that the letter went through the proper channels right to His Imperial Whatever himself … and this time, he actually reached out his hand for the letter.
We howled in laughter when Billy recounted that lovely move in the game. Billy and I hadn’t seen that one coming at all, it was too much to hope for, the Ambassador had proven himself a master diplomat and a worthy opponent. In normal circumstances what he’d just done was the perfect winning diplomatic chess move … but he didn’t see the game being played inside the game. However, it was still a professional stroke, beyond what we’d expected, he’d played the Diplomatic Pouch Card, we hadn’t even thought of that card at all. Well done, Mr. Ambassador!
I asked Billy what he had done in response, and he didn’t disappoint. He said “I thanked him kindly for the offer, and started to put the letter in his outstretched hand, and he seemed much happier … but then I pulled the letter back, and went on to say that actually, I didn’t want to bother him to go through all those fancy Diplomatic channels, and the Emperor and Japan had already done so much for me already, giving me the medal and all, so if the Ambassador would just give me the address I’d go pop it in the mail, he could see it was already stamped, no need for him to concern himself”, and he said he’d held up the letter again to display the stamps … awesome.
“I just wanted to see his face when I said it”, Bill went on with his infectious, toothless grin, “hey, I was gonna give it to him all along after he’d played the Diplomatic Pouch Card, I just didn’t want to seem eager, it had to be his idea”. I was lost in admiration, his eyes sparkled, I could see how he’d slid through the war unscathed. Well, not unscathed, he still had horrible burn scars on his legs and stomach from the war, but that’s another story … he grinned, pushed some more mashed up betel nut into his cheek and continued.
“Of course, when I pulled the letter back, his eyes started darting around the room, and he immediately said oh, it’d be no trouble at all, really, consider it done, favor from the Japanese people don’cha know, the Diplomatic Pouch was clearly the spot for such important correspondence, water for my village was number one on his list, no chance it’d get lost in the Pouch, he was falling over himself, so I let him persuade me to send it through the proper diplomatic channels.” Our laughter rolled out over the night-time ocean behind his house, both of us thinking of the Ambassador finally getting his sweaty hands on that precious letter.
“How long d’ya reckon it took after you’d left the office before that damn letter went missing?”, I asked. He laughed, said it was probably through the shredder and in the Diplomatic burn bag before he was out of the building.
So, the game was well and truly afoot, or at least so we thought. We figured the Ambassador would get back to Billy pretty quickly, just to prevent the off-chance that Billy might take it into his head to write another letter to the Emperor if nothing happened … but then nothing happened. Nobody asking questions around the village about the water supply. No sign of the Japanese Ambassador or any of his minions. As the day of the big award ceremony finally approached, we sadly concluded that he might have just blown us off. Easy to do when you’re an Ambassador, it’s simple to say no, or just ignore a request, you’re the local king of the heap.
So without any further word from the Ambassador, the magic day dawned. I went to the medal presentation ceremony. I was in the back, I could see Billy in the front row. Billy wore a suit, a neatly pressed white shirt, tie, and his immaculately polished shoes. He was every bit the modern man. The Ambassador made a very nice speech, thanking Billy for the work he’d done and the humanity he’d shown. It was quite moving, the Ambassdor produced the medal, Billy stood up from where he’d been sitting and he walked straight forwards, with his back to the crowd, and the Ambassador pinned the medal of the Order of the Sacred Treasure on Billy’s suit. Everyone clapped.
And after the pinning of the medal, the Ambassador stepped back to the microphone and, ever the showman as all good Ambassadors are, he took advantage of the cameras and local media covering the event and said he was pleased to announce that in addition, as a special sign of recognition of great value and humanitarian nature of Mr. Bennett’s work, the Japanese Government was proud to be sending a team of people to design and build a piped water system for Mr. Bennett’s home village … people cheered and clapped.
Billy turned around, smiling shyly, and for the first time he faced the crowd. He basked in the adulation, and deservedly so, it was his moment. After a while, his eyes wandered over to over to where I was sitting near the back. He’d had his back to me throughout the ceremony, and when he saw me he gave me a big disconcerting smile. I gasped, I hardly recognized him. He was wearing a set of damn false teeth, and they were whiter than white! I’d never seen him with his teeth in before, they gave his whole face a totally different look. I gave him the high sign, “V” for victory, and he gave me a clandestine thumbs up, with an almost maniacally toothy grin.
And written all over his face was the warm, encompassing triumph of an old warrior who has successfully played one final and wonderfully humanitarian and broadly beneficial trick on the hated Japanese he’d grown to love so well, the satisfied look of a man who for one last, oh-so-sweet time had enriched his beloved people with Japanese goods at Japanese expense as he’d done so many times during the war. I looked at him, he looked back at me, we both knew what he’d accomplished.
And he was the very image of the returned champion of old, accepting the well-deserved hosannas, and peeping out of his eyes I caught a glimpse of the saucy, bold youth, that most-favored, daring, audacious child of Fortune who had repeatedly led his men into battle, and vanquished the enemy, and who had returned time after time, bearing home Japanese weapons and goods for his people to use, and enjoyed the triumphant shouts just as he had done once again that very day, without ever losing one single man. I was overjoyed for him, my heart overflowed for him in his moment of triumphant victory … but my goodness, those false teeth, they had to go, that brilliant white smile was terribly unsettling.
Billy’s village had piped water within a few months. I never saw him wear his teeth again.
William A. (“Billy”) Bennett, Military Medal, Order of the British Empire, Order of the Sacred Treasure, bona-fide hero and a good friend to many, sleeps in a grave on his beach, a lovely spot looking out over the warm ocean, right beside the house where he and I used to sit and drink and chew betel and laugh about how he’d blackmailed the Japanese Ambassador. I know, because I was honored to be one of the men who carried him to his long rest. For the wake, he was laid out in his living room on the table, all the shades drawn, in his one and only good suit, the one he wore when he got the Order of the Sacred Treasure. Just seeing that damn suit again brought up the tears and the laughter of that day. All of his medals and honors were on display in the room, with bunches and bunches of flowers. There’s no embalmer in Honiara, so the formalities didn’t last too long—there’s a good reason for flowers at tropical funerals. His jaw, missing his false teeth, was tied up with a neat cloth. The people of the Solomons are very poor. His teeth would become the prized possession of some ancient relative, worn on public occasions.
In that late afternoon, the sea behind his house was flat calm, not a breath of wind or a hint of wave. His people lifted him off the kitchen table, wordlessly, tenderly.
Gently, they placed him in the wooden box a local carpenter had made, not really a coffin, just a nice box.
Gently, they folded the white bedsheet that served for a shroud around and over him.
There was a whole crazy menagerie of people all around outside his house, his children and grandchildren, comrades from the war, some old Japanese guys whose unit he’d probably fought against, Government officials, relatives of all kinds, people of all colors, the high-born and the low, inlaws and outlaws, he was a one-time killer and a full-time reprobate, and all of us loved him dearly. The road along the beach was lined with cars in both directions.
The wooden lid was set on top of the box. I was weeping without surcease, tears discoloring the front of my one and only good suit. The holes to fasten the lid down had already been drilled. The screws squeaked loudly as they turned in the hard tropical lumber, removable fastenings for what could never be undone.
A woman spread a cloth over the top of the box, a bold tropical pattern.
The six of us picked up the box. His body seemed almost weightless, so much lighter than the force and gravitas he had carried throughout his life. We started for the door.
A regular house door isn’t made for people carrying a casket. You have to trade off pallbearers to clear the door jamb, it’s slow and lacks dignity. Eventually we reformed outside of the house, in that peculiar golden light of the late tropical afternoon. I blinked in the brilliance after the dark house, and looked out across a dead flat sea.
The grave was already dug. We carried the old soldier to his well-deserved rest with a slow, measured step, alongside the house where his grandchildren played, within a stone’s throw of the ocean that had been his lifelong companion. Someone had set a couple of oars across his grave. Women wept silently by the emptiness. We set the box down carefully and gently on the oars, as if not wishing to disturb his rest. Someone removed the pretty cloth from the top, and then we passed the ropes under the box.
After they read the short prayer, dust unto dust, we lifted the box again by the ropes. It seemed so light, I longed to believe that my dear friend wasn’t inside. They pulled out the oars and we lowered him hand over hand to the bottom. One of the ropes got stuck under the box when we pulled them out, and a corner of the box lifted and then fell a bit with a soft sandy thump when the rope came free. I winced for Billy without thinking. The dusk wind blew up suddenly, riffling the ocean surface. I coiled up and stowed the rope, old sailors habit.
Then I stuck a shovel in the waiting pile of sand, and began the long slow sad task of filling in the hole in my heart.
… from Willis’s upcoming autobiography, entitled “Retire Early … and Often” …