IN THE PHILIPPINE JUNGLE, he ran with the panicked zeal of a hunted animal. Sloshed through rice paddies, splashed across muddy drainage canals, and threaded his way through leaves the size and thickness of B-17 props. His lungs heaved. His uniform, bleached nearly white by the sun since he’d first plunged into the Luzon jungle nearly a year before, matted to his skin with a seal of sweat. His legs bled; the bamboo hedges had shredded his pants.
It was the morning of March 15, 1943. Clay Conner Jr. fell to his knees, hidden in chest-high cogon grass. From inside, the malaria gnawed at his spleen; he shivered despite the morning’s growing heat. Amid his delirium, he heard a vehicle and the crunch of more boots. Machine-gun fire chattered, playing ominous percussion to his panting. His stomach lurched. He vomited.
When surprised by the raid in the barrio of Lara in Tarlac Province, Conner and three other American soldiers had run straight into a camouflaged cluster of Japanese soldiers, dropping a handful with pistol fire, then bolted for a bamboo thicket. There, they had discarded their musette bags, knowing the baggage would only hinder any hopes of escape. Conner was about to pluck from the bag Junko, the silly but sentimental stuffed monkey he’d known all twenty-four years of his life, when bullets shredded bamboo stalks around him. The four men scattered. There was no time to save Junko.
With Japanese troops entrenched to the north, the men headed east. Moments later, Conner saw Bob Mailheau and Eddie Keith pinned down in a ditch some fifty yards away. Its banks were coated in mud and the two were trying desperately to claw themselves out but getting no traction. Conner raced back, unloaded half a magazine of fire from his .45-caliber pistol at the Japanese gunners, reached down and helped the two out. Mortar rounds exploded. Shots peppered their feet. “I’m hit!” someone yelled. “I’m hit!”
It was Frank Gyovai (GUH-Vay), the last member of the rag-tag foursome and Conner’s closest pal, the “gentle giant” who had carried the disease-racked Conner on his back the night before because Clay could not walk. Conner saw Gyovai get up and start running. He figured Frank must be all right and so began running, too. A mile. Two. Finally, after four miles, he dropped in exhaustion when finding the cover of the white-tasseled cogon grass. Now on his own, it was a question of endurance, of wills, of resolve: Conner’s and the enemy’s.
His pistol, Conner figured, had a single bullet left in it. Based on the glut of soldiers he’d seen as they left Lara and on the volleys of fire he’d heard since, he figured the enemy had dozens of men—perhaps scores of men—with rifles, machine guns, and mortars. What’s more, they had a seemingly inexhaustible bent to flush out, kill, and otherwise humiliate their American enemies. Why else would they have gone to the trouble to do what they did next: set the field on fire to flush him out. All this for one enemy soldier. One.
Conner instinctively crawled to the field’s middle, where he’d seen a small stream and knew the grass was greener and less likely to burn. He lay still the rest of the day, even when smoke drifted over him and tempted him to cough. The sun filtered through the grass to sear his already leathery skin. When darkness fell, he slipped through the scorched grass and found the coolness of a canal partly full of water; he heard Japanese soldiers on the bank above. Someday, he vowed, if he survived this ambush, he would return to Lara and get revenge on the Filipino mayor who had betrayed him and his men by tipping off the Japanese.
Before sunrise, he made his way into a cane field to hide during the day, unsure which was worse: the threat of being killed by the Japanese or hours of being driven nuts by mosquitoes and flies that dove on him like crazed kamikazes.
The fever beckoned him to stay still but Conner knew he must keep moving. Before light on the third day, he repositioned himself in the muddy upper banks of a creek that wound through the field. Around him, reeds stretched skyward. Suddenly, voices. Japanese soldiers. And, worse, the ominous rumble of a half track, its front wheels matting down the grass, its caterpillar tracks clanking through the mud with an occasional metal-on-metal squeak. In back, soldiers scanned the grasses for the enemy, one occasionally tossing a gas-soaked torch into the fields. The Japanese were still trying to burn him out.
He looked around. There was nowhere to run without being seen. And nowhere to —wait. He remembered the lone bullet in the pistol’s chamber; perhaps he should just end it the way Japanese soldiers sometimes ended it when their only other choice was surrender. Conner began digging frantically into the mud like a man digging his own grave. Given what the Japanese sometimes did with bodies of Americans, why would he want to be found?
The patrol closed in. The day got lighter. Conner’s mind flashed to stories he’d heard about U.S. soldiers being killed and their heads hacked off and hung from marketplace palms to trumpet Japanese superiority. Not for him. No such humiliation for a recent college grad who had a mom and pop and girl waiting for him back home.
No, he would end this game with no help from anyone else, particularly the guys who’d already claimed far too many of his buddies. Beyond, more cogon grass whooshed into flames. Conner stuffed his Bulova watch into his pocket. He wiggled into the body-sized trench like a human clam and began dragging mud over himself, holstered gun on his leg. Moments later, the half track lumbered toward the spot where he lay. Right next to the spot. Finally, well beyond the spot.
Then, as if suspicious, the patrol returned. The half track and its men moved slowly one way, then the other, almost as if they knew. The soldiers talked to each other in staccato bursts. Torched more grass. Smoked more cigarettes. And waited—as if to prove that their resolve was stronger than Conner’s.
Finally, at about 5 p.m., the soldiers left. Darkness descended. The area grew quiet. That’s when it happened: a single reed in the bog twitched slightly. Beneath it, the sun-baked mud quivered just a touch: a crease here, a crack there. Moments later, the man breathing through that reed, Clay Conner Jr. lifted his darkened head as if a charcoal mummy coming slowly to life.
Everything under control.