James R. Benn
I know a hall whose doors face North on the Strand of Corpses far from the sun, poison drips from lights in the roof; that building is woven of backs of snakes. There heavy streams must be waded through by breakers of pledges and murderers.
I typed the date under my name: Lieutenant William Boyle, August 6, 1942. I pulled the sheets out of the typewriter, separated out the carbon paper, and made two neat stacks. My official report. Everything that had happened during the last few weeks reduced to a neat summary: part confessional, part U.S. Army standard issue after action report. Most of it was even true.
I looked out the window near my desk. August. The only real evidence of that was the calendar on the wall. Outside the sky was gray, people carrying umbrellas and walking with that hurried step you put on when it’s chilly and you press your arms to your sides for extra warmth. August in London, inside the U.S. Army headquarters in Grosvenor Square, and it was cold. Lonely, too. Things had changed since I first walked in here back in June. A lot of things.
I reached for a red folder stamped “TOP SECRET.” It was filled with photos, orders, and maps, all marked with notations referred to in my report. One copy went in there. The folder would be taken by a clerk and filed away under lock and key. I doubted anyone would ever read it. The carbon copy would go to my boss, who would read it and then burn it. Top Secret. I looked out the window some more. People came and went. In and out of buildings, hurrying across the small park at the center of the square. There’s a war on, after all.
There’s a lot that’s not in the report. Some of it is unofficial, personal stuff. The things that set everything in motion aren’t set down. Events that took place years ago, before America was in the war and while I was wearing a blue uniform instead of khaki.
I can tell you the whole story, secrets and all, right from the beginning. Not the army version, which probably sounds more like a police report than it needs to, but the real McCoy.
But before I start explaining, maybe I should tell you how I ended up here, at U.S. Army HQ in London. I didn’t get here by choice, that’s for damn sure.
Over the North Atlantic
I wanted to die. No, actually I didn’t want to die. Or live. I just didn’t care. Dying would have been better than puking my guts out again in a bucket. Which wouldn’t have been so bad if the bucket hadn’t been inside a freezing Flying Fortress halfway between Iceland and England, trying to ride out a North Atlantic storm. And if there hadn’t been a war going on, and I hadn’t been headed right for it.
I wanted to reach for the bucket again but the floor dropped out from under me as the Fortress was pounded by powerful, howling storm winds that seemed to scream at the fuselage, clawing at the plane’s skin for a way inside. Canvas-covered crates bounced on each other, held down by knotted ropes and the weight of what they carried. I worried about being crushed to death before I ever got to England, a crate of beans or grenades or whatever was important enough to rate air transport ending my military career. The waist gunner openings were closed up. Only a small Perspex window let in what little light there was among the gray clouds at twenty thousand feet. The noise from the storm and the four straining engines pounded in my head like a jackhammer orchestra. I prayed for the plane to steady itself and held on to the hard metal seat for dear life. All I could think about was the fact that, just two days before, I was fat, dumb, and happy, just about to graduate from Officer Candidate School, and ready to enjoy the delights of life as a staff officer at the War Department in Washington, D.C. I was all set. The fix was in. Now I was in a fix.
I never wanted to be in the army. I was happy as a cop on the beat in Boston, just like my dad and my uncles, and seldom even left South Boston, where the Boyle family lived and worked. I had been on the job for three years, and my dad and his brothers and their pals watched out for me. That’s how it works. The rich folks on Beacon Hill look out for their own and the Irish in Southie look out for theirs. I guess it’s like that all over the world, but I really don’t know. Or care. That’s the world’s problem.
My problem was that I had just made detective three days before Pearl Harbor. It was unusual for a kid in his early twenties to make the grade. The test they gave was pretty hard. While I can usually figure things out sooner or later, I’m no scholar. I would’ve had a hard time, but a few of the sheets from the test sort of found their way into my locker a couple of days before the exam. I managed to pass. My uncle Dan is on the promotions board, so with a little back-scratching with his buddies over a few pints of Guinness, I was in. That’s just the way it works. I’m not saying I’m proud of it, but it doesn’t mean I’m not a good cop either. It’s not a bad system, actually. The other guys know me and know they can depend on me. I’m not some stranger who got the job just because he’s smart enough to answer a bunch of questions on his own. That doesn’t mean squat when you need your partner to back you up. Three years walking the beat in Chinatown and around the harbor had taught me a lot, not to mention everything Dad tried to drum into my head. He’s a homicide detective, and he always made sure I got assigned to a crime scene when they needed some extra bluecoats for crowd control or knocking on doors. I worked a lot of overtime, saw a lot of dead bodies, and listened to Dad talk me through his routine. Sometimes it was obvious who the killer was, like after a knife fight between drunks. Other times, it wasn’t. Watching Dad figure things out was like watching an artist paint a picture. He used to say an investigation was a lot like art, just a blank canvas and a whole lot of different colors in little jars. All the clues were there, just like a painting was already in those little jars of paint. But you had to mix them together and put them on the canvas right, so it all made sense. Well, the only thing I can paint is a house, and sometimes I couldn’t see how Dad figured things out, even when he explained it all to me. But he would always go through it with me afterward, hoping some of it would stick.
Anyway, I was pretty disappointed to hear about Pearl Harbor. It was tough for those guys out there, but it also meant the draft board was going to come after me. The Boston PD had more cops than deferments, and we younger guys knew what was coming. I didn’t like it much, but it looked like Uncle Sam was going to ship me off to fight the Japs. Everybody was all worked up over the Japs, but it seemed to me that I had enough problems with the Chinese gangs down in Chinatown without taking on the rest of the Orient.
I thought maybe the military police would be a good choice, to stay in the game sort of. Dad nixed that idea right away. He’d hated the MPs he’d run into in France during the First World War and said no son of his would ever earn his keep busting poor enlisted men over a drink or the ladies. OK, that was that.
Uncle Dan didn’t want me to go at all. He and Dad went off to war in 1917 with their older brother, Frank. Frank got killed his first day at the front. It broke Grandma’s heart and I think Dad and Uncle Dan’s, too. I never really knew how hard it had hit them until one night over drinks at Kirby’s Bar, right after New Year’s, just a month after Pearl Harbor. I could tell they were working up to tell me something. It took a couple of Bushmills Irish whiskeys before they got around to it.
“If somebody comes after the Boyles, then it’s personal, and we all back each other up,” my dad started. “You know that, Billy. But this war, it’s no good for us. The Boyles have finally made it here. No one ever helped us,