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Surprisingly little is known about what really happened to the Japanese troops lost in the Ramree swamps between February 19th and 22nd, 1945. Natives of the island refute claims of a mass crocodile attack, yet Ramree does indeed boast a large number of saltwater crocodiles.
Learn more about saltwater crocodiles here!
British-Indian forces attacked the Japanese-held island on February 19th. Its geographical significance in the Bay of Bengal, and particularly its airstrip, made Ramree an important prize during the War in the Pacific. British marine launch crews, after a quiet landing, encountered fierce resistance inland. The Japanese finally retreated into a dense, sixteen-kilometre marshland. British-Indian regiments in the east cut off this escape. Many already wounded by bullets, the Japanese troops struggled through mangrove thickets, deep mud, disease, hunger, thirst, swarms of mosquitoes, and scorpions.
And then there were the crocodiles.
This infamous testimony by British marine (and naturalist) Bruce Wright tells:
“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.”
According to an official press release in The Times, London--1948, the majority of Japanese casualties were the result of intensive combat. Yet the report also mentions the appalling conditions in the swamp, and the fact that so few--around twenty prisoners--were taken.
In many Indo-Pacific regions, saltwater crocodiles are feared even more than sharks. 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.
Learn more about saltwater crocodiles here!
***EPIC Award Winner 2011 -- Best Historical Fiction***
February 19th, 1945...
Over 1,000 Japanese soldiers retreated into the fetid mangrove swamps of
Inspired by true events during WW2, Sunset on Ramree follows young musician-turned-soldier Shigeatsu Nakadai and his best friend, Kodi, as they head ever deeper into danger. Will friendship be enough to keep them alive in the deadliest place on Earth?
Scroll down to read Chapter One...
SUNSET ON RAMREE
Best Historical Fiction
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 toleave 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?
Colonel Ojihoru never hesitates. Though he’s knee-deep in swamp water, his feet remain on firm ground. That is his constitution. Lieutenants Katsumoto and Tanaka both salute as he points them, respectively, to the northeast and southeast corners of our retreat. As far as I can tell, we’re trekking east. I catch up to Katsumoto as he clambers over a fallen tree in the water. He is my friend. Ever since he learned of my civilian profession, he’s expressed a desire to hear me play the clarinet. I have surmised he is a well-educated, cultured man, both by his eloquence and his even-handed approach to leadership. Unlike Ojihoru, Katsumoto is liked as well as respected by the men.
“Sir, is it true we’re surrounded on all sides?” I ask.
“Hmm…would you like the long version, Nakadai, or the short?”
“The easiest to swallow, sir.”
“Very well,” he replies matter-of-factly. “There are British troops to our rear, and we think a British-Indian contingent may have landed to the east. Reaching General Ushui now seems unlikely. All we have right now is this swamp, and no intention of surrendering. Keep your wits about you, Nakadai; this place can kill a man on a whim when he isn’t in the middle of a war. My advice is to pick someone you trust, stay close, and watch out for one another. Oh, and steer clear of the deeper water.”
“I will, sir. Thank you.”
With that, he pats me on the shoulder and wades out into the swamp. I think about reminding him of his own advice—to stay away from deep water—but he has no alternative. There is no way round. A dozen or so mosquitoes emerge from a nearby bush. They plague Katsumoto until he disappears from view. I see endless greens and browns suffocating our route, and no sign of life save one or two of our number creeping nervously through the water. Their eyes hardly look up. What’s lurking beneath the surface? I hurry back to dry land, back to my friends on whom I count to keep me safe.
“Where’s the lieutenant gone?” asks Kodi, picking weeds from the sole of his boot. He’s a stickler for cleanliness, and always likes to know exactly what’s happening. I’m with him on the latter.
“Not sure,” I reply. “Ojihoru pointed him to the northeast, and he went out on his own. The water’s deep out there.”
“It’s not just deep water we have to watch, it’s any water,” adds Sobiku, the youngest married man in the platoon. “You all know what infests these islands, and you all know how they hunt. We’re getting near the middle of this goddamn swamp. Tonight, take it from me; we’re all in harm’s way.”
“Yeah? Tell us something we don’t all know,” retorts Kodi.
“How about this?” the youngster continues. “I know someone who’s getting out…tonight…and I’m going with him.”
Kodi and I stare hard at Sobiku. The three of us are rookies; we’ve often shared our distaste for Colonel Ojihoru’s fanaticism. But this is the first time any of us have mentioned deserting.
“Forget it,” I say—my knee-jerk reaction, and a prudent one. “You’ll not make it, and Ojihoru wouldn’t hesitate to execute half the battalion if he found them trying.”
Kodi nods. “He’s right. There is that danger, but…”
“Go on,” I say.
Two soldiers with determined expressions jog by. We pause until they pass.
“What’s the alternative?” asks Kodi, now speaking in a raspy whisper. “The lad’s got a point. We’re not going to last long just waiting to die. We’ve heard the rumours—that Ojihoru wants us here to the bitter end. Now, there’s no escape for the battalion, but there might be for a few of us…on our own. You’re not telling me there’s a man here who hasn’t considered it. I mean come on, there are times for an honourable sacrifice and there are times for using logic. I’m feeling pretty fucking logical right now.”
“Agreed,” says Sobiku with a deep, determined frown.
I look closely into their eyes for signs of weakness, of doubt. Nothing. The two of them have a ticket to fly tonight—non-refundable and one way. If they are captured by our troops, they will be executed. If they are seen by the enemy, they may be shot. If they are captured by the enemy, they might not see home for years. My mind jumps headlong into the dilemma that tightens around all our necks. I know that if I stay with Ojihoru, the last thing I hold tight will be either the handle of a knife buried in my gut or a live grenade against my chest. All other perils, while imminent, are preferable.
It’s like Kodi says—time to be logical.
My stomach wrings tight. I stare hard at young Sobiku. “Okay, let’s go see your man.”
Just then, a chubby radio operator named Konoshi approaches us.
“Thought you should know, Nakadai,” he says. “Mayazuki died a few minutes ago.”
“What do you mean?” I reply, puzzled. “The medic said he had hours left; he said the fever would last into the evening.”
“Yeah, it probably would have, if the fever was all that killed him. We found one of these behind his ear.” He holds up a small, black scorpion by the tail. “The sting must’ve stopped his heart while he was weak with the fever. Talk about shit luck.”
Konoshi places the critter in a metal container the size of a shoebox. There are half a dozen more scorpions inside. He stabs a hole through the bottom with his knife, and then lobs it into the water, and we watch it sink. I think it a waste of a perfectly good metal container.
Tanaka slips two letters into his pocket—two posthumous letters home?
“Who was the other one?” I ask.
He clears his throat and walks away. “A friend of mine—Hanto,” he says with his back to us.
Young Sobiku whispers, “Shit.”
“What is it?” I ask.
Kodi interrupts the silence after a swig of water. “That was the man, wasn’t it—Hanto—the man you were telling us about.”
I watch Kodi screw the top back on his metal canteen and place it inside his rucksack. He’s always so precise. Streaks of sunlight cook the swamp to our right. The order comes for us to resume our trek. Sobiku’s man might be dead but the impending decision squeezes my every thought and muscle as I walk. A chance at freedom suddenly seems more terrifying than anything Ojihoru has in store for me, yet I cling to Kodi’s logic like a tree clings to its roots in a hurricane. Meanwhile croaks, chirrups, and swaying foliage never let me forget where I am, where any of us are—in harm’s way.
* * *