A Naga tracker led the way, with Tom and his troops scrambling behind, trying to keep up. Suddenly the tracker’s gaze turned sharply towards his right and pointed to some bushes. In the still murky grey of morning, Tom saw only a shadow. Quickening his pace, Chetri moved past Tom towards the tracker and raised his rifle to take aim. But the shadow moved so quickly, so quietly, that before he could bolt a bullet into the chamber of his 303, the form vanished from the sights of his gun. Chetri lowered his gun and turned towards the tracker.
“Angami, ke asile?”
Unable to follow the conversation, Tom enquired, “Did you ask him what it was?”
“Yes, Saahab. But he doesn’t know.”
“Was it an animal?”
“Looked like it, Saahab.”
“Well, we are not here to hunt animals.” Tom whispered his stern reproach. “We must not fire another bullet until we are at the enemy position. Is that understood?”
“Yes, Saahab.” Chetri reluctantly dangled his rifle back over his shoulder.
With every metre they hauled themselves up the unrelenting mountain, the six Gorkhas, Chetri and his five regular men, already pumped with adrenalin, were infused with more as the prospect of their Japanese encounter approached. They had heard about the fierce fighting qualities of the Japanese soldiers. Yet it was still hearsay without proof. They were thrilled that soon they would be able to put the rumours to test.
Tom, on the other hand, left breathless by the climb was too exhausted to think of anything else. He was glad that Chetri and his regular soldiers overtook him the moment their guide indicated that they had almost reached their target. It was Gurkha protocol to never let the Captain come in harm’s way. Hence they formed a six-man wall in front of him.
Tom ordered the other six fresh soldiers in Chetri’s section to cover the flanks. Those six were happy to be behind everyone else. Now that the prospect of firing a gun at another human seemed a reality, their collective thought was to question why they volunteered to be soldiers.
The hands of two of those six men were accustomed to carrying files inside the garrison’s administrative office. Another’s hands were used to steering the wheel of a car. Another was used to wielding shoe polishes and brushes to shine the garrison officers’ shoes. The hands of the remaining two soldiers, till the day before, had brandished whips to keep the garrison’s beasts of burden in line.
Up above the thirteen men, behind the thicket, now well out of view, a form moved straight up the hill; effortlessly balanced on two legs. As it sensed the presence of life beyond the wild steamy mountain vegetation, it looked up and at once bent on all fours, merging with the thick undergrowth, moving quietly and as efficiently as a serpent gliding through luscious green grass.
Through the rusty light of the morning sun, on the crest of the mountain the beast’s eyes made out the unmistakable signs of a cave. It was too uniform to be natural. Silently, it climbed towards the cave, drowned in the undergrowth, and as it reached the clearing in front, slid to a side.
Inside the man-made bunker, ten Japanese soldiers lay in wait, ready for Tom and his men. Their eyes and gun barrels were fixed on the hill’s incline rising to greet them. As expected, the misfired 303 bullet had alerted them to the enemy’s approach. And yet none of them had any inkling of the form blending into the darkness of the bunker, as silent as a trailing shadow.
Soon Angami, the Naga tracker in Tom’s patrol party, pointed their attention towards the peak of the mountain, a spot of fresh brown amid the green and grey – the unmistakable sign of a freshly dug bunker. His job done, Angami turned back, dissolving into the bushes.
Expert guides were rare. He was much more valuable to guide soldiers through these unseen paths than join the fight and become a casualty of war. Chetri looked towards Tom who now gave the signal to break up. The six Gorkhas, the mountain lions of Tom’s company, steadily climbed towards their target.
Chetri was to encircle the enemy bunker along with his five men; two of them, along with him, would approach the trench from the right, the remaining three from the left. Tom and the six novice soldiers took positions to give the Gorkhas covering fire.
They fanned out and closed the distance; through the leafy vegetation Chetri spotted the ribbed barrel of a Type 96 light machine gun protruding like an arrow, marking the enemy’s position amidst the wilderness.
Instinctively ducking under the carpet of green, Chetri gestured to his men to do the same. Expecting bullets to zip over them like buzzing bees, Chetri and his men lay flat; anxious index fingers wrapped tightly around 303 rifle triggers. Consequence of reprisal and discipline prevented their index fingers from squeezing the triggers. The Gorkhas were so still that not a leaf moved unnecessarily because of their presence.
So as to avoid sounds reaching the Japanese ears, Chetri shifted his rifle to his right and kept his left hand free to communicate with his men through gestures. He kept his head to the ground and counted till ten. Once he was sure the Japanese intruders weren’t aware of their presence, he gave the order to move. At the signal of their subedar, the five Gorkhas sprung to their feet, bodies bent low, and made their way up, trapping the bunker from both sides.
Tom ordered the remaining six soldiers to ready their rifles and checked his own Sten gun to provide whatever covering fire they could. Tom noticed a soldier didn’t have his rifle on the ready. It was the same soldier who had earlier in the climb mistakenly fired his gun. It was still strung to his back. Tom gestured to him to take the rifle on to his hands and take aim. The soldier shook his head in refusal. Tom waved him over. The soldier came on all fours.
“What’s the matter, soldier?” Tom whispered.
“Then why don’t you have your rifle ready?”
“But Saahab, Subedarji told me not to touch my gun.”
“You fool!” Tom burst out, then immediately lowered his head and voice, “That was for then. Now you listen to me, Soldier.”
The soldier returned to his position, rifle in hand, confusion in his head.
Excerpted with permission from Second World War Sandwich, Digonta Bordoloi, Pan Books.