Interracial-Voice
From the Editor

Death in the Pacific

By Charles Michael Byrd

(Photo by Lynn Goldsmith)

This "From the Editor" represents a departure from my standard operating procedure; even I grow weary of taking after one-droppers with a horsewhip.

I've lifted the following from an unpublished manuscript I finished a few years ago. I dug it out, dusted it off and remembered that this was and still is one of my favorite sections. The novel's protagonist is one Cat Michaels who, believe it or not, was born and raised in the Old Dominion and served in the United States Air Force just like yours truly.

Which parts of "Death in the Pacific" are true? Well, military commanders did dispatch Air Force Security Policemen from Hawaii's Hickam AFB to Wake Island in the early '70s. The purpose was to quell an anticipated revolt by imported Filipino workers. That's all I'm telling :-) Here 'tis.


It was a typically hot Hawaiian afternoon in April 1973. Several of us who were off duty were milling around the rear of the barracks when an NCO came racing as fast as he could from the Law Enforcement desk across the street. There were three components to any Security Police squadron: Security, Law Enforcement and the Honor Guard. The latter's responsibilities included rolling out the red carpet for visiting dignitaries and rolling the deceased into the ground through funeral details; the Honor Guard was chiefly for show, pomp and circumstance. My section, Security, was responsible for safeguarding the flightline and all of its aircraft. Law Enforcement performed a role comparable to that of town police, locking up drunkards, ticketing speeding drivers and monitoring individuals coming in and out of the main and rear gates.

Law Enforcement headquarters was on the other side of and a few yards down from the SP barracks. Whenever any emergency arose that required the mobilization of troops, heretofore on their own time, squadron commanders dispatched an on-duty LE sergeant to round up as many available bodies as possible. If he saw you and recognized your face, there was no escape. One could only hope to hustle out the exit opposite to the one that the duty Sgt. was entering, though there would be others like him to block all avenues of escape -- generally to downtown Honolulu -- until the ruckus blew over.

Sgt. Samuel Landsford was nearly out of breath as he reached the small group of men, most of whom were sitting on or around the barracks stoop, drinking Boone's Farm or Ripple wine mixed with Colt 45 or Schlitz Malt Liquor. (This concoction was a favorite amongst the barracks dwellers; if one truly wanted to feast, however, a bucket of chicken from the colonel, followed by a fat joint of Colombian, along with the mixed beverage would fit the bill.)

"Okay, all you guys, start packing. You're going TDY."

"What the fuck are you talking about, Landsford?" came one particularly harsh reply.

"Pack your goddamned bags, and then haul your asses over to the LE desk. There you will be issued full combat gear for this assignment."

"Oh, Jesus, not again." It was not a sincere supplication to the Son of God but instead an anguished moan directed at the bearer of bad news. (TDY stood for Temporary Duty.) Memories of McChord Air Force Base and the Travis race riots flashed through my mind. "What the hell has happened now, Landsford?"

"Your mission is top secret, Michaels. You'll be told all you need to know once you board the gunship."

This was not sounding good. The gunship was a C-130 Hercules cargo plane that the Pacific Air Command had retrofitted with devastating weaponry and had painted jet black. The propeller plane was ideal, whether transporting cargo or flying in a war mode, for landing in areas with short or virtually nonexistent runways, areas where jets such as the C-141 Starlifter feared to tread.

Flying over the Pacific Ocean to parts unknown while dressed for armed struggle would not convince me to reenlist at the end of my first hitch. Though it had been my good fortune to have dodged the potentially poisoned arrow of the Vietnamese archer, my life and limbs were now at risk for the second time -- on both occasions, possibly while remaining within the friendly confines of the US and its territories.

Marcus' escape from all this was the only bright spot of the day. My "little brother" was probably chasing some local female and getting high on ganja downtown. Funny how, under the present circumstances, that seemed an appealing scenario.

After issuing us the appropriate tools of destruction -- M-60 machine guns, M-16 rifles and ammo, bayonets, grenades and grenade launchers -- squadron personnel spirited the group of thirty of us that Landsford and his crew of enforcers had snared in the barracks out to the flightline on transport vehicles. In addition to being able to carry large numbers of men at a time, these trucks had no windows, thus hiding troop movement from the rest of the base.

It was not until we had boarded the ship and had secured ourselves in makeshift seats, as so much expendable human cargo, that an OIC assistant enlightened us as to our destination: Wake Island.

Groans, gasps and shocked disbelief filled the cargo hold as we learned of a potentially dangerous strike by the island's Filipino workers, people brought in from the Philippines by the American government to perform the low-level work that no American who lived there wanted to do. Most of the assembled throng thought this an absurd practical joke. Who had ever heard of Wake Island? Of those who had, who knew that American civilians were living there? Of those who knew that, who cared didley-squat about Filipino laborers who were threatening a strike? Obviously, Uncle Sam cared greatly.

My mind brought forth images of our McChord group nearly having to fight racist imbeciles at California's Travis Air Force Base, being saved at the last second by a cessation in hostilities. Would a similar saving grace be in the cards before we had to engage a faction of the yellow Asian horde?

As the crow flies, and an ambitious one at that, Wake Island lies twenty-three hundred miles west of Honolulu. It is three square miles of rock and sand, an unincorporated US territory of about sixteen hundred people, mostly foolhardy Americans, retired military types generally, who prefer living on a rock in the middle of nowhere and the Filipino workers.

The mission's leaders timed the eight hour flight so that the gunship would arrive on Wake under the cover of darkness. We quickly exited the aircraft and awaiting buses transported us to what was the command post for this operation -- the island's sole mess hall.

It was difficult for me to remember having seen a more desolate, barren and sparsely populated place -- save, conceivably, West Virginia. Where were the people? Where were the buildings? Most important, where were those ungrateful, near-mutinous Filipino savages who, even as the plane had touched down, were probably plotting to wreak havoc and mayhem on defenseless US citizens? Surely the would-be insurgents were aware of America's resolve to go to war over the murder, rape, assault or insulting of one of its own. Didn't the Filipinos understand and fear the sheer firepower of an elite fighting group like the 15th SP squadron? Something smelled fishy about this entire episode.

At operations, the group ate while being brought up to speed on the situation.

"Men," began Captain William Dazzler, the Officer In Charge of this little outing, who reportedly volunteered -- some say begged -- to head the mission, "approximately two hundred Filipino hired-hands are threatening a strike at twelve hundred hours tomorrow unless the American government acquiesces to their demands for a one-hundred percent pay increase."

"Give it to the motherfuckers," an anonymous voice suggested from the rear of the room.

"We will not and don't interrupt me again, or you'll all cut your meal short and won't receive dessert. Now, intelligence reports indicate that these Filipino scum are being heavily influenced by and may have even been armed by Communist guerrillas operating out of the Republic of the Philippines. In addition to trying to overthrow the duly elected government of that great Filipino patriot, Ferdinand Marcos, these yellow commie bastards are also seeking to sow seeds of discontent anywhere their own kind live or work in the United States."

"Uh, Capt. Dazzler, sir?"

"Yes, Michaels. What is it?"

"Well, sir, unless I missed something in school, Wake Island is not a part of the US."

"A very astute point, Michaels, however, this rock has been in our possession since that glorious day of July 4, 1898, and we're not about to give it to any goddamned commie gooks -- Vietnamese or Filipino. That, gentlemen, is our mission, to protect the island by kicking some natural ass if the shit gets too funky."

Dazzler actually impressed a few of us with his ability to interject bits and pieces of jive into his rousing pep rally. Though the Captain's complexion was a tad darker than the average WASP, he most likely wasn't a mulatto. Perhaps the good Captain merely felt the soul brothers in the group needed street obscenities to motivate them.

"We even have to keep a close watch out for these yellow fuckers who served this food tonight. But don't worry about the grub, boys, we made one of them taste everything back there in that kitchen, and if it didn't kill him, it won't kill you."

It quickly became time for me to tune out Dazzler's ceaseless harangue, turning instead to a more important matter than Communist guerrillas -- the plate of food in front of me. The meal consisted of chicken fried steak, mashed potatoes with creamed peas on top, hot rolls and iced tea. The chow hall at Hickam never came close to matching a menu like this. Halfway through the meal, I concluded that, commies or no, these Filipinos were excellent cooks and that I should give my compliments to the chef. Maybe he'd even give me seconds.

The Captain had finally run out of gas and was now eating heartily. I finished my meal, and the desire to go back to the kitchen to indeed search for those seconds overwhelmed me. Pushing open the double doors that led from the eating area into the kitchen, I nearly knocked over one of the cooks who had been standing nearby, attempting to hear what the angry Americans were saying.

"What were you doing so close to the door, man?" My eyes alertly scanned the kitchen for other Filipinos and for more food.

"I was listening to hear what you guys were up to. What are you people doing here with all that fire power?"

"To keep subversive thugs like you in line," was my smiling reply, hoping it might put the inquisitive fellow at ease. The middle aged Filipino was short, of medium build and had a look of anxiety and fear.

"What's your name?"

"Charlie Benigno."

"Charlie!?"

"Yes, GI, my mother is Malay, which is what the majority of our people are. My father was a white American, and it was from him that I took my first name."

"The Man does have a propensity for randomly dropping his load and then continuing about his business doesn't he?"

"Sarcasm drips from your lips, GI. What is the source of your unhappiness?"

"It's a long story."

"Will you at least tell me your name, GI?"

"Cat Michaels."

"Cat!?"

"That's a long story, too, and I don't feel like explaining. Say, can I get seconds on that chicken fried steak, Charlie?"

"Yes, Cat. You know, in the Philippines we eat cats."

"Yeah, well, just don't get any funny ideas about this one, Mister Charlie."

He served me seconds and asked me to sit for a few minutes at a small table next to the sink.

"I ask you again, Cat. What the hell are you guys doing here, scaring all of our people half to death? Did you not think we knew of your nighttime arrival?"

"Charlie, there are reports that you folks are going on strike for a one-hundred percent increase in wages," (It was hard saying all this with big chunks of food crammed in my mouth) "and that Filipino Communists are behind the whole thing, trying to stir up trouble on US property by arming your group."

"That is patently absurd! We are only asking for such an increase because we are working for little or nothing now. Cat, we leave our homeland and our loved ones, come here for a minimum of six months, receive abuse by these arrogant Americans who think we are their slaves, and we have no right to demand a pay raise?"

"Well, if the pay is so low, why don't you simply go back to the PI and stay there?"

"Because on the Philippine Islands, or PI as you Americans like to call them, things are even worse under the dictator Marcos. At home, we have had martial law imposed since last September, and three months ago Marcos proclaimed a new constitution with himself as president."

"Doesn't he have any opposition over there?"

"No, Cat. All opposition has been suppressed, plus the high population growth rate has made the poverty and unemployment worse."

"But, why the hell did Marcos impose martial law in the first place, Charlie?"

"Because there has been an increase in riots by radical youth groups and terrorism by Communist guerrillas over the past three years. These people have been protesting, often violently, treaties which allow the US to retain military bases on our soil."

"But, what I still don't see is the connection between leftists on the PI and you guys here on Wake."

"There is no connection. Marcos has the US government convinced that any semblance of an insurrection, real or imagined, is Communist inspired, and since the US wants to do everything it can to keep Marcos in power, to safeguard those bases, it doesn't hesitate to show force on tiny Wake."

"Except that, in this case, it's like using a hammer to kill a roach, eh, Charlie?"

"Your squad's show of force is overwhelming and unnecessary, Cat. Let's hope no one on your side has an itchy trigger finger. You know, we don't wish to battle the Americans. To the contrary, we would like to make Wake Island a positive working environment for our people. It's true that we would make less money back home than here, and some people say that we should shut up and be happy to have a job and be away from Marcos. But, Cat, it's also about human dignity. If we don't receive as much as we're demanding, and we probably won't, we still hope to get some meaningful increase and a certain amount of respect to boot. The fact that my father was a white American means nothing. These people treat me like trash."

"That's because most Americans are afflicted with Jim Crowitis."

"Huh?"

"It's a racist belief that suggests a mixed-race person should automatically be classified according to the minority parent. Think of it as an effort to maintain the supposed purity of the white race and white blood. In your case, Charlie, to too many Americans, you're just a yella gook. I know about these things. I'm part ofay, colored and Indian."

"Ofay?"

"Uh, that's what the colored sometimes call white folk."

"Ah, so that is it. You are, as the British say, a half-caste, Cat, and that is the source of your derision. Yet, why do you divulge this to me now? Earlier, you refused to discuss it, dismissing it as a long story."

"Well, the only people I'm truly comfortable around are other mixedbreeds. I tend to be more relaxed, less inhibited in conversation and feel closer to the other person. I know what you're going through, Charlie. In a sense, your struggle is mine, though we live oceans and civilizations apart."

"I appreciate those sentiments, Cat, and deeply respect you personally -- even if your group didn't come in the name of peace. I will see to it myself that you are the first GI to receive the good news concerning our demands, if there is any."

"If the news is positive, Charlie, come see me and I'll buy you the stiffest drink on this fucking rock."

"Deal!"

I finished my second meal and quickly dropped any serious consideration of asking Charlie for thirds. We both noted the late hour and wished each other a good evening. Most of our group had already left the dining area to turn in. The troops could rest tonight; they were merely on standby. Tomorrow, however, would be a big day. The government would either meet or ignore the workers' demands, and there would either be tranquillity or bloodshed -- the latter only if Dazzler's intelligence reports were accurate, which we all seriously doubted.

Mostly everybody knew that Dazzler didn't know his asshole from a hole in the ground, yet no one would put it past him to create a difficult confrontation on Wake, then take credit for defusing it -- especially if it meant receiving an early promotion to Major.

The ensuing morning brought intermittent rain showers to the island as Hickam's finest awoke early to begin preparing for whatever came next. We had bunked in housing that dated back to the second world war. It was rustic but clean, which is all that mattered. We marched in formation to the chow hall for breakfast and, when completed, went back to the barracks-like building to await further developments.

There was a tension in the air that shouldn't be, or at least so I thought. If only the other guys had been privy to my conversation with Charlie. Instead, the rest of the mobilized contingent had visions of fire-fights dancing in their heads.

The morning hours passed slowly. A seeming eternity passed before the clock struck twelve. Most of the young airmen kept themselves busy playing cards, writing letters or keeping a wary eye on Captain Dazzler. He appeared on edge, as if fearing the worst. Of course, the worst for him would be the best for everyone else -- a quick and safe resolution to the problem.

After the events of that day, some would testify that they saw the Captain take one or more swigs from a flask that he pulled from the inside pocket of the jacket underneath his flak vest.

Washington would be sending word as to whether or not Tricky Dick, or whichever low-level State Department underling was handling this, would end the standoff and grant the pay increases, despite Marcos and the threat of Communism. The news would go first to the head of the local ruling board, Wake's version of a town council, and he would simultaneously relay it to the Filipino workers and to the sequestered GIs. We would only leave the barracks with serious intent if the workers reacted adversely to a negative decision.

Noon came and went with no word. After another hour, you could slice the strain of the moment with the proverbial knife. Dazzler ordered the squad outside, ostensibly to get some fresh air, which was not a bad idea. He was also the last one out. More than one of us noticed the Captain zipping back his jacket as he wiped his mouth with the sleeve. We wondered whether Dazzler was as scared as we were or whether he was just a common lush.

A half hour later, an approaching jeep kicking up dust as it bounced along the dirt road leading to the barracks diverted the men's attention from Dazzler's glazed eyes. When the vehicle closed to within fifty yards, it was possible for me to make out the faces of two unknown Filipinos and one other that had befriended me in the chow hall the night before. The vehicle came to a halt in front of me, to the right of the main body of the squad. As one of the jeep's occupants jumped out and commenced sprinting in my direction, my eyes glimpsed one of the two unfamiliar Filipinos lighting a huge cherry bomb and throwing it away from the building. The young man was clearly ecstatic, effecting a remarkably Nixonesque "V" for victory pose with his arms. He even needed a shave.

A huge smile crossed my face in anticipation of the good news that my multiethnic friend would apparently give me. The individual running and skipping towards me had a grin that stretched from ear to ear, not the look and demeanor of a man denied justice by a distant foreign government.

In an instant, the tremendous boom of the firecracker startled everyone; it even shook Dazzler from his intoxicated reverie. One of the other airmen shouted "NO, CAPTAIN, NO!" My head jerked. What was going down!? The familiar report of a .38 revolver, its flash of light, a cry of human anguish and the thud of a body hitting the ground all assailed my senses nearly simultaneously. Whirling back around, it was my misfortune to be a personal witness to the consequences of drunken hatred and bigotry. Charlie Benigno lay dead at my feet.

Later, at his court-martial for the murder, Dazzler admitted to being drunk and to being the bastard offspring of a white mother and a Filipino father. The Captain's military mom had served in the PI in the late '40s and had a brief affair with a local resident. Dazzler's parents never married. In fact, his mother reportedly suffered physical abuse at the hands of her lover. The man had gone into a rage upon learning of the pregnancy. His mistaken notion that she wanted him to support her and the child on his low Filipino salary was too much to bear. One day, after knocking the pregnant woman out cold, he blew his brains out.

Try as she might to prevent William from hearing the story, he found out anyway and harbored bitterness in his heart toward his father and all Filipinos until the end -- bitterness because of the beatings that his father had heaped upon his mother and bitterness at having been left fatherless. Aided by the alcohol, the seething hatred came to a boil that dark day in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. On that day, two men, who had more in common than they would ever know, ceased to live -- one actually and one for all intents and purposes. Dazzler received a life sentence at Fort Leavenworth.

I chose not to reenlist.

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