THE ONE WHO GRUMBLED
The One Who Grumbled
Copyright 2010 by Jeffery C. Miller
THE ONE WHO GRUMBLED
An electric latch on a cell gate clicked and a buzzer echoed across the cellblock stirring a sleeping old man in the cell. A guard stood at the open gate. “You have a visitor,” he said. The old man had not had a visitor in thirty years.
The bunk at the United States Disciplinary Barracks in Leavenworth Kansas was not very comfortable, but the old man who lay upon it had known nothing else for over fifty years. Some inmates called this prison “the hot house”. The old man’s cell was always cold; he stayed under the covers most of the time. It was all he could do to make it to meals and back three times a day. If it were up to him he would only go to breakfast. He had been at Leavenworth for so long that most of the guards didn’t know why he was there.
He turned back the covers, sat up, and slipped into his shoes. His arthritic hands fumbled with the laces. Finally he stood and shuffled out the gate, followed by the guard. “Do you know who it is?” he asked. “No, they didn’t tell me,” replied the guard. “He looks like a lawyer, or something.”
In the visitation room the old man marveled at the beige cinderblock walls, the cubicles divided by thick plexiglas to separate the free from the incarcerated, and the neat rows of chairs placed against the back wall. It had not changed much in thirty years. The room seemed foreign and dangerous. The guard seated him at a window and handed him the telephone handset. The old man looked at it for a moment then took it from the guard. A young Asian man was seated on the other side of the glass. He picked up his handset and put it to his ear.
“Hello Mr. Holland,” he said. “My name is Kuomo Musaki. I am a lawyer who is interested in your case. May I please ask you some questions concerning your involvement with the Navy during World War II, especially the events that led to your incarceration?” The old man sat silently for a moment, then said, “I suppose that will be fine.”
It was a tough crossword puzzle by most standards, but Lt. Mike Holland filled in the squares as fast as his pencil could write. Today he had duty in the radio room. His job was to record Japanese naval transmissions. So far there had been nothing but static on his headset. He would rather be working on decrypts, but there was no getting around the Navy duty roster.
Japanese Naval fleet code was called JN-25 by the American code breakers at HYPO in Oahu Hawaii. Lt. Holland knew JN-25 as well as anybody in HYPO. He had been there in the early days when JN-25 was still mysterious. Those were exciting times. Now it was 1943 and, unless the Japanese changed their code - which they did occasionally - it was business as usual. For now, the code was cracked, which meant HYPO’s main job, until further notice, was to receive transmissions, decode transmissions, and disseminate the information. He turned the page and started a new crossword.
Again, his pencil danced across the grid filling in blocks. Minutes passed. Holland meditated on word structure and character probabilities. Much of the time he did not need to read the hints. He solved words through the process of elimination and deductive reasoning. His headset hissed white noise. More minutes passed unobserved until, from somewhere distant, like a voice whispering across the room, Holland thought he heard a pattern. His pencil slowed. He realized he had been hearing it for a while, but had not noticed. It was more a feeling than an actual transmission. His subconscious had recognized a series buried deep in the radio noise. He stopped writing and focused on the static from his headset, concentrating intently. Several minutes of normal static passed. Still, he couldn’t shake the feeling that something was there.
The next day Lt. Holland returned to HYPO HQ a half-hour early, as usual. The static was still in his head. It was not unpleasant or overbearing, but it was there. He decided to ignore it. After pouring a cup of coffee, he sat down at his desk and began working on the JN-25 intercepts for the day. He was tired. The static had affected his sleep, and the coffee didn’t seem to be working. His head was cloudy. Consciousness seemed elusive and fleeting, but he stayed awake, latched onto an image, hazy at first, but growing more lucid with each second.
He was under water. His body hovered above the Japanese aircraft carrier Kaga, sunk at the battle for Midway Atoll. Below him he saw a cavernous hole torn into the flight deck of the gigantic warship. Before him the massive wreck stretched into the darkness, and out of sight. He tried to scream, but there was no sound, nor could he move. Water filled his mouth. Salty, like tears. Many voices spoke at once, a loud cacophony in Japanese. Each voice urgently trying to communicate. The boom of a single voice overpowered the others, a command. The voices fell silent.
With the silence came release. It emanated from Kaga, surrounding Holland like a blanket against the frigid waters. Again the voices, this time in unison. “We are not afraid.” The words echoed off the immense flight deck of Kaga and were amplified by the surrounding water. They sounded friendly. Lt. Holland tried to speak. He couldn’t.
He watched as small stingrays- or perhaps butterflies - ascended from the jagged hole on Kaga’s deck. Just a few at first, then many. They glowed yellow and orange and green. Their delicate wings flapped gracefully as they formed a line that extended into the darkness. The first in line broke away and approached Holland. It was a butterfly. It spoke in Japanese.
“I am Iroku Watanabe. My family lives at 2-11-5 Akasake, Minato-Ku, Tokyo 107 (, Japan).” It turned away from Holland and swam pleasingly back into the hole on Kaga’s deck. The next butterfly in line approached. It too recited its name and its parent’s address, then descended into the hole. This went on again and again until the last butterfly had descended into the cavern.
Holland looked down at the hole in Kaga’s deck. Warm light glowed from it and radiated from each of the portholes along Kaga’s smooth bulkhead, and from the broken windows of the island that jutted up near the stern of Kaga’s flight deck. The dark water that had previously obscured much of Kaga was illuminated. For the first time he could see the entire ship, immense, and beautiful.
Then the lights vanished. He sensed the butterflies had gone. All was still and silent except for a grumble from a single voice. He could not understand what it said, but there was no mistaking the hatred that propelled it. Kaga faded into darkness.
In the decrypting room, Lt. Holland laid down his pencil. On the steno pad in front of him were the names and addresses of eight hundred fourteen Japanese sailors and officers.
On the days that followed, Lt. Holland stopped at the Oahu public library each evening on his way back to the barracks. There, he seated himself at a small table, far away from prying eyes, and wrote in Japanese. He began at the top of his list.
Mr. and Mrs. Watanabe,
I am Michael Holland, a member of the U.S. Navy. This is not an official letter. I send it at great personal risk. Your son, Iroku, is no longer alive in the way that you and I are alive. Nevertheless, he has asked me to tell you that he is at peace and in communion with his ancestors. He wishes you to be happy for him, and for yourselves. I do not understand why I have been entrusted with this knowledge, but I know without doubt that it is true. Please find comfort in Iroku’s words.
Each letter was different, some very short, others quite long, but Holland knew that the words he penned were not his. They belonged to the young men who died on Kaga. He was certain they would bring comfort to the parents and friends, wives and loved one’s, of Kaga’s sailors.
It took Holland one month to
A week later Lt. Holland sat at his desk in Decrypting. The static was gone from his head. He sealed a packet containing the day’s decrypts that he had completed, then carried it over to the duty officer Lieutenant Commander Clyde Burger, a good officer and friend.
“How’s it going Clyde?” He asked as he handed over the packet.
“Not bad, Mike.” Burger stopped working and looked up at Holland. “You’re done already?” he asked.
“All finished,” replied Holland. “Unless you have something else for me to do.”
“No. I’m just not used to seeing you leave this early. Normally we have to kick you out.” Burger smiled. Holland smiled back and scratched his head.
“Yeah, I’m not feeling so good today. Didn’t sleep well. I think I’ll try to get some shut eye.”
“Anything I can do?” asked Clyde.
“No, I’m fine, really. I need to stop hitting the coffee so hard before lights out, that’s all.”
“Okay Mike, get some rest.”
Holland walked out of the decrypting room and down the hallway toward the white French doors that exited HYPO HQ. He couldn’t pinpoint what was wrong. It had to do with guilt, but for what? For Michael Holland, code breaking had always been a pure pursuit, incorruptible and immune to degeneration. It was innocent. After all, a solved puzzle was merely a solved puzzle. There had never been any consequences to consider. At least, not until recently. The sinking of Kaga was a direct result of HYPO intelligence. Lately, every time he decoded a JN-25 message he envisioned consequences. Each time he submitted a new packet of decoded intercepts he could not help wondering how many American and Japanese lives would be placed in danger by its contents.
He hitched a ride with an M.P. who was heading in the direction of his barracks. As they passed through downtown Oahu Holland saw something. He asked the M.P. to stop. He got out of the jeep, and thanked him for the ride.
A war poster hung in the window of a tailor’s shop. Holland had seen many of these. They never held much interest for him. Most were advertisements for war bonds. This one wasn’t. It looked hand drawn. In it, a sky view of a Japanese aircraft carrier, much like Kaga, was depicted. It sat on the surface of the ocean far off in the distance. In the close foreground, approaching the viewer at great speed, was an A6M Zero, a Japanese fighter plane. What caught Holland’s attention was neither the carrier nor the airplane, but the pilot.
From the cockpit of the airplane a leather helmeted man glared back at Michael through a glass canopy. His eyes smoldering, his face grimaced with determination, angry, unrestrained, monstrous, like that of a rabid dog preparing to bite. At the bottom of the poster a caption read: “America Sleeps”. Holland remembered the hateful grumbling voice he had heard emanating from Kaga. “If this pilot could speak,” He thought, “that grumble would be his voice.”
He turned from the poster and walked slowly back to his barracks. Along the way he considered the pilot’s hatred, the grumble from Kaga. A reason took form in his mind, a reason to fight, to participate in the killing. He found a justified cause to rally behind, an unassailable argument to continue his work at HYPO. He would fight the Japanese because of their hate.
The fluorescent lights of the visitation room made the old man’s pale skin look sickly. Kuomo Musaki sat quietly as Holland recovered from a fit of coughing. “This place is cold.” Said Holland. “There is always a draft.”
Musaki nodded, glanced down at the briefcase he had brought with him, then looked back at Holland.
“You hardened your heart,” said Musaki. “Why?”
The question seemed to anger Holland. He glared through the glass. A few moments passed, and it appeared to Musaki that he was not going to answer. Musaki was about to change the subject when Holland spoke.
“I had a job to do.” Said Holland.
“I see.” Replied Musaki. “Yet, you risked everything to help those people, those families. They were your enemy, but you treated them with kindness.”
“I helped no one!” Said Holland.
“So you say.”
“So I know!” Holland took a deep breath and sat back in his chair. “Listen son, I had an episode. I snapped. Things went wrong in my head! That’s why I’m in here. Get it?”
Musaki nodded. “Forgive me. I didn’t mean to upset you. Please continue.”
Weeks had passed since Lt. Holland had seen the war poster. He had forgotten about it, and Kaga, and the Japanese sailors. Something bigger had come along. The Japanese Navy had changed their JN-25 code. Lt. Holland was back in his element. He worked hard, and was soon put in charge of a small command responsible for deciphering five digit code groups called “Groups As Transmitted” or GATs by the Navy code breakers.
Chalk dust fell as Holland scrawled sets of numbers on a blackboard. He turned to face three officers and two enlisted men who sat quietly at their desks taking notes. “This is JN-40,” he said. “The new Japanese Naval Code. Can anybody tell me how it differs from JN-25?” One of the enlisted men raised his hand. Holland pointed at him, but was interrupted when the classroom door banged open. Lieutenant Commander Joseph Rochefort, the man in charge of HYPO cryptographers, entered the room followed by three military policemen.
“You’re under arrest Holland,” said Rochefort. The military policemen advanced on Holland. Two of them grabbed his arms while the third handcuffed his hands behind his back. They led him out the door and down the hallway. Lieutenant Commander Rochefort closed the door and walked to the front of the classroom. He studied Holland’s scribbling on the chalkboard for a moment, then he turned to the class and said: “Where were we, gentlemen?”
In the Navy brig at Oahu, Holland sat quietly and listened. “It doesn’t look good for you, Holland.” Said a clean-cut naval officer sitting across the cell from him. “Naval Intelligence captured your Argentinean smuggler. He spilled the beans on you. A court-martial is going to happen, so you’ve got nothing to lose. Why don’t you come clean? What was in the sea bag?”
Holland had already told the story at least ten times to several different officers during the night. He had not slept at all. He knew his story was crazy. If he were in their shoes he wouldn’t have believed it either. So, he did not blame them for being skeptical. Nevertheless, he had no reason to lie. He repeated his story again for the officer. When Holland finished his retelling, the questioner stood up. He looked sickened, like he had eaten rotten meat. “Suit yourself,” he said, then walked out of the cell. The door clanged behind him.
The next two years were a blur in Michael Holland’s memory. He was transferred from one Navy brig to the next. At each stop he retold his story over and over. It never changed. He never embellished or retracted any of it. The Navy questioners could find no holes in his story except for the fact that it was impossible. They began to suspect insanity. This led to a whole new regimen of questioning. Now instead of a naval officer grilling him twice a week, it was a head shrinker. This yielded no better results.
Finally, two years after his arrest, the Navy decided that they had better things to do. The United States Navy held a formal tribunal for Lieutenant Michael Holland. It took only three days for him to be sentenced to life in prison for espionage and other crimes against the United States of America.
“That was 1945.” Said Holland. “They sent me to a high security VA mental ward in Florida. Soon after that the war was over. I stayed at the VA until 1950, then they sent me here. This place is better. They mostly leave me alone. Don’t know how I’ve lived as long as I have. Good constitution I guess.” Kuomo Musaki smiled. “Thank you for sharing your story Mr. Holland.”
“So, what’s it t
“Excuse me?” Replied Musaki.
“Why do you want to know about me? I’m sure they have everything I just told you in a file somewhere, probably a lot more. You’re not writing a book, because you didn’t take any notes. So, what’s your story?”
Musaki looked down at his briefcase, then back up at Holland. “Before I tell you why I am here, I should tell you that you are free to go.” He said.
Holland studied Musaki for a long time, then asked: “Free to go where?”
“You are no longer a prisoner.” Said Musaki. Holland’s eyes widened. He began to hang up the handset, changed his mind, then put it back to his ear. “What kind of gag is this?” He demanded.
“It is no gag.” Said Musaki. “I have arranged it with the Judge Advocate General. Your sentence has been shortened to time served.”
Holland covered the transmitter of the handset with one hand so Musaki could not hear. Musaki watched him through the glass. Holland waved to the guard. The guard approached and bent over the old man. Holland said something to the guard and Musaki saw the guard nod his head, and smile. The guard straightened, patted Holland on the shoulder, then returned to his position by the door.
There was a long silence. Holland sat quietly staring at the handset in his lap. Finally, he raised it to his ear. “Why?” he asked.
“Because,” said Musaki, “I need your help.” Holland winced, then said: “My help? Look at me, young man. I’ve been in prison for nearly sixty years. I’m old. I can’t even help myself.”
“The pilot.” Said Musaki.
“Huh?” grunted Holland. “What pilot?”
“My grandfather, he was a pilot on Kaga. He died when his ship was sunk near Midway Atoll. In my dreams he has spoken to me”
“So.” Said Holland.
“He was the one who grumbled,” said Musaki. Holland rolled his eyes, then looked back at the young man. “For chrisakes boy!” he said. “I was delusional when I heard that voice! It never happened.”