Four Gallons


Japanese Type 98 shin-gunto. Source: Wikipedia

This is a true story that I always thought was funny.

Then I looked up the casualty figures.


When I was growing up, my dad had a Japanese katana* hanging over the fireplace. He’d take it down from time to time and pull it from its metal scabbard, the curved steel blade shiny and smooth with gun oil, except near the tip, where there was a dark blemish that no amount of oiling or polishing would remove. Dad told me that my grandfather, who had served in the Navy during WWII, had captured it in the Pacific.

He said the stain was probably blood.

Grandpa had been a Lt. Commander, captaining a destroyer escort, and when we went to visit him, he’d tell, in between pulls from his whiskey and drags from the foul little cigars he chain-smoked, stories of the war. The stories were often long, rambling, and didn’t include any fighting, but it’s not only the combat vets who face PTSD. He was just twenty-seven years old when he’d been placed in charge of 198 officers and men in the largest naval conflict the world has even seen, and the faces of his brother officers who hadn’t made it back came up through the mists of time and alcoholism more often than I could understand at twelve years old.

One day I asked him about the sword.

“Captured it on Saipan,” he said, “We were escorting the gyrenes coming in, and I went in once it was over.” He ordered another drink. “I got onto the beach, and there were these dead Japs just everywhere, so I figured I’d grab myself a couple of souvenirs, but the Marines weren’t having any of it. I suppose…”

He got quiet for a while, staring off into the past, but the arrival of the waiter brought him back around, and he downed half of the fresh drink. “There were a lot of dead Americans on that beach too. Lotta good men died there. So I saw that sword laying right next to a dead Jap, and I was going to take it when this big Marine came up and stopped me. No way he was going to let some Navy officer just grab a prize that his buddies had died for.”

I was too young to imagine the scene, so I just nodded. “But anyway, I wanted that sword, so I pointed out to where my ship was.”

“’You see that ship, sergeant?’ I said. ‘That’s my ship, I’m the captain.’” He lit up another cigar. “’You gotta understand, it was hot there, real hot, and those jarheads had been fighting for ages, so I told him ‘That ship’s got an ice cream maker on board. Whaddya say I give you and your boys four gallons of ice cream in trade for letting us take a couple souvenirs off this beach?’”

He died a few years later, when I was still too young to enlist, and I hope he doesn’t mind that the sword has found its way back into the hands of a Marine, four gallons or not.

*The sword in question is not what one thinks of when the word “katana” is mentioned. It is, as far as I can determine, a Japanese Type 98 Shin-gunto, a mass produced weapon issued to non-commissioned officers as a mark of rank as much as anything else, with no markings that could be used to identify the soldier to whom it originally belonged. Had he ended his war someplace other than the Yasukuni shrine, it would have, like my grandfather’s ship, been returned to the government and melted down for scrap.

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