Short Stories

The Sergeant’s Dilemma

Short Story of a WWII Soldier

By E. G. Kelley

This tale regarding a canister is based on a true story told to me by my dad, Sergeant Horace Gill.  Some characters and events in this telling, other than Sergeant Gill, abide in the author’s imagination.

Through the years, the canister became a vehicle of much contention between my parents.  Dad liked to put money in it and hide it.  

And Mom was good at finding it.


COPYRIGHT 2011 by E. G. Kelley

Novels by E. G. Kelley aka Ellen Kelley:

NO GREATER TREASURE / Historical Romance

LAURA AND THE LUMBERJACK / Contemporary Romance

All rights reserved. No part of this story may be reproduced

or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or

mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage retrieval now known or to be invented, without permission in writing from the author,

except by a reviewer who wishes to quote brief passages in

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Published in the United States by Garden Path Press


Sergeant Gill wove his way through the thick underbrush of rain forest.  Sweat rolled from his brow and down his cheeks in rivulets as salty as his grandmother’s pickle brine.  His cheeks puckered in remembrance of vinegar and dill.

Surely, hell was no hotter than the Zambales Mountains.  They were a soldier’s nightmare…the devil’s own sweathouse.  Twelve miles inland from the coast, the daytime heat soared to 110 degrees in the shade.  That, along with humidity that would rot a redwood, kept his green army fatigues sticking to him like slime to a slug.  Service Company was stationed on the island of Luzon, and if one believed in Satan and the fiery pit he called home, then this place must be nearby. 

“Damn,” he swore under his breath after scraping his knuckle on a rock jutting from the earthen wall beside him.  Instinctively he brought the scratch to his tongue, soothing the wound by sucking on it.   

Gazing at the wall, he saw an opening through the vine covering.  His pulse jerked, and his body stiffened.  He knew the island was scattered with caves such as this–the kind that Japs hid their cannons in.  They laid tracks inside the dugouts so they could quickly run the cannons to the edge of the opening, fire their shots, and then just as quickly retreat into the safety of the earthen chamber.

He repositioned the M-1 Garand strapped on his shoulder, pulled back the lush leaves, and slowly stepped into the darkness of the recess.  He reached into his pocket and came out with a match that he struck by flicking its head on a stubby thumbnail.  

He knew the island swarmed with Japs, and was relieved that there were none inside the cave.  He took a few steps forward and a glistening in the shadows caught his eye.  Warily, he focused on the shiny object–a quart-sized cylinder marked with Japanese lettering down the side.  He moved closer and bent to see a lid that looked as if it would screw off.  He figured the article was something that the Japs put there, and probably had wired it to go off if someone opened it. 

Sergeant Gill picked up the shiny vessel, his fingers itching to unscrew the lid.  Something held him back.  He didn’t know just what it was…but something held him back: the thought of Ruby waiting at home in the states?  Or that he loved life?  Loved the feel of the tropical rain on his face, and yes, even the feel of the sweat dripping onto his nose.  At least he knew he was alive.  And right now that was all that mattered.  That he was still alive while all around him men died, their precious foxholes becoming graves instead of sanctuary.  He’d seen them scream as bullets pounded the earth around them, and seen them blown to bits.  He squeezed his eyelids shut, knowing that what mattered right now at this moment was that he was alive.  And that he just might live to get home to Ruby and his infant son.  

He raised his eyelids and his vision adjusted to the dimness of the cave just as the match flickered and died.  Spellbound, he turned the canister over in his hands, caressing its smoothness as if it were a magic lantern.  This had been a long day and he was suddenly anxious to get back to camp.  He tucked the slick surface under his shirt, and the metallic coolness felt good next to his skin.  He turned and left the cave. 

Later, when Sergeant Gill made his way into camp, the Spaniard who had unofficially joined their squadron, saluted as he crossed the sergeant’s path.  Sergeant Gill smiled inwardly and his lips quirked as he returned the gesture then continued toward his tent.  

Eduardo knew sergeants weren’t saluted, but he never failed to offer the act of respect.  The sergeant could see the man’s eyes light up each time they exchanged glances.  He felt a deep respect for the Spaniard who had taken up with Service Company to help fight the enemy.  But for all his courageous endeavors, the United States government had confiscated his .45 caliber pistol.  He had no weapon, only his undying faith in the soldiers whom he followed faithfully.

Putting Eduardo to the back of his mind, Sergeant Gill pulled back the heavy canvas that covered the door of his tent and went inside.  He removed the canister from underneath his shirt, wondering what to do with the damned thing.  He couldn’t leave it lying around for someone else to see.  Things had a way of disappearing in this camp, and he had to go to Manila tomorrow to get a convoy of rifles.  Moving to the trunk beside his bed he placed the canister inside before heading for the mess tent.

Service Company had been on the island for several months now.  They had made their beachhead in September 1944, near Subic Bay.  One of their contacts on Luzon, a Filipino guerilla, had rowed out in a canoe to tell them that the Japs had been driven inland to the mountains.  And when the soldiers had first landed, the Filipinos treated them like gods, but now they were beginning to tire of the soldiers’ air of superiority.  Many of the GI’s mistreated the Filipinos and called them gooks.  

It had been a long war and the natives seemed to be numb to the situation now.  Just as Sergeant Gill wished he could be.  Being numb would be much better than the anxiety that overpowered his body and threatened him every moment.  Relaxation was a thing he wondered if he would ever enjoy again.  Not if the Japs could help it.

  Just yesterday, he had joined Filipino water bearers upstream.  They had pointed behind him and shouted, “Jop!  Jop!”   When he had swung around, and before he raised his rifle to fire, he had seen the desperate, defeated look in the enemy’s eyes.  He had shot and missed, but the man disappeared.  Damn, life was beginning to make less and less sense.  Men who might have been friends in another time and place were hunting each other like animals.  And why?  Because some self-appointed high and mighty emperor had mind control over a whole population of warriors who thought their sole purpose was to die for their country.  My God, he thought, what dedication!  What misguided, dedicated people.  He shook himself mentally as he pictured the devastation that those people had wrought.  His buddies’ bodies blown to pieces like the shrapnel that killed them–their lives stolen in the wink of an eye.  

He prayed to the Almighty that he would get out of that hellhole and see his son before he died.  If he did make it back home, he knew God would have a hand in it.  He found himself standing at the door of the mess tent, his clenched knuckles white from his mind journey.  Relaxing his hands, Sergeant Gill went inside to feast on corned beef hash, known around camp as SOS, or the more appetizing version—Shit-On-a-Shingle.

Next day, leading a convoy to Manila, Sergeant Gill once again contemplated the canister.  The mountainous road was a rugged throughway and he bounced steadily on the seat of the 2.5-ton GMC as they made their way to the largest city on the island.  His mission: to secure six truckloads of rifles and return them safely to camp.

  Riding along toward his destination, Sergeant Gill’s mind rushed like a mountain stream.  How could he safely open the lidded cylinder?  His answer was that there was no safe way to open the container.  Damn, he should just get rid of it, he knew.  But something made him want that canister open.  He had to know what was inside.  It could be a lot of money.  Hell, not likely.  But what if he turned down this opportunity to find something really valuable and denied his family that find?  Man, he had to quit thinking about it and concentrate on getting to Manila.  

Sergeant Gill made the trip and back safely.  And once again, thoughts of his find filled his mind, like a never-ending melody…the canister…the canister…the canister.  Only its melody was monotone like the sound of monks at prayer.  The droning in his ears becoming more ominous, but somehow sweeter.   His fingers took on the bittersweet urgency, itching to open the shiny aluminum container.  He tried to think of every way possible to safely open the object.  There was no “safe” way.  Whatever way he chose would be dangerous.  And he had no hankering to be shipped home in pieces.  

Rain came again, as usual, and Sergeant Gill started for cover to the munitions tent.  His men were taking inventory of the contents before they made their move to another location five miles away.  

He faced a redheaded soldier in charge.  “Private Lawson, how much longer here?”

“We should be completed here in about an hour, Sarge.  What then?”

“When you finish, take some of these rifles to Piper’s unit, then report back to me.”

“Yes, sir.” 

Alone now, Sergeant Gill looked around the tent absentmindedly before deciding to go get the container that had plagued his mind for days.  The mystery seemed to open up to him, and he knew how he was going to open the canister.  While most of the men were away from camp delivering guns, he would do it.  He had to do the operation right away or he might lose his nerve.

Sergeant Gill moved out of the munitions tent toward his own.  His head pounded with excitement.  At last he would know what the damned thing contained.  His son’s face appeared in his mind.  At least he had left his legacy in case something happened to him.  A part of himself.  No one could deny that.  He loved Ruby and Byron, but…he had to do this.  Curiosity ate at him night and day, and relief had to come…one way or the other.  

He continued toward his tent.  The world seemed to move in slow motion and sounds were distorted.  The shout coming from his left almost went unheeded, but the man’s motion caught his attention and the words slowly drifted to his mind and then to comprehension. 

“Hey!  Sarge!”

Recognition dawned, and he slowed his pace to a stop. “What is it Riley?”

“Hughes loped into camp just now and said he saw a band of Japs headed this way.”

“Damn!  How far?”

“About three miles.”

“Okay, get some men together and I’ll meet you outside my tent.  And Riley!  Get the lead out!”

Adrenalin surged through Sergeant Gill.  Every nerve tensed, ready for his command.  Only the command was slow in coming.  His feet seemed stuck to the ground.  Move man!  Move!  He was saying in his mind.  His feet began to trace the steps to his tent, his thoughts racing.  Another skirmish with the damned Japs!  Was there no end to the killing?

Once started, Sergeant Gill rushed to his tent and retrieved his M-1 Garand.  He attached the bayonet to the muzzle, and then momentarily eyed the trunk where the canister was.  His lips thinned as he realized there was no time now.  It would have to wait.  He abruptly turned and went outside.  The men were already waiting for him, and he gave the command to move out.  Riley had briefed the soldiers on the situation and all that was needed from the Sergeant was official instructions.  That done, the unit moved toward its destination–kill the enemy.

Hours passed before Sergeant Gill’s men made their way into the dark camp.  One soldier, hit hard in the leg, was carried back on a makeshift stretcher.  The others seemed to be mute, but their eyes spoke volumes as each man went his separate way.  Sergeant Gill went silently to his tent, took off his uniform, and dropped to his cot.  He took a smoke from the pack beside him and lit it.  He tried to put the skirmish from his mind as he sought sleep, but blood-drenched bodies haunted him. 

Next morning, the Sergeant awoke with one thought in his head.  The canister.  Today was the day he would open it.  And the task had to be first thing this morning before anything else came up.  

He sat up on the edge of his cot and rubbed his hands through his sandy-colored hair.  He sat there a moment before rising, and then moved toward the washbowl on a dilapidated fruit crate.  He splashed water on his stubbled face and looked in the fragment of mirror hanging from a wire.  The shave would have to wait.  The canister came first today.  Damnit, the thing gnawed at him.  

He moved to where he had dropped his clothing last night and put on the same ones before reaching into the small trunk to retrieve the squatty container.  His mind raced, and he knew just where he would do it.  Once again he placed the cool metal inside his shirt and headed in the direction of the thickest palm tree in the area.  God willing, he would wash and put on clean clothes later.  It was almost as if going without his morning ablutions he showed the Fates that he would return to tend to these matters later.  He had to believe that.  What if?  He instantly put the thought to the back of his mind.  He could do this thing.

Sergeant Gill found the tree he was looking for.  The massive palm stood in a grove just a mile from camp.  He tested its circumference by wrapping his arms around it.  Perfect.  There was just enough room to work with the canister plus a little slack in his embrace.

A tingling warmth overtook his body that had nothing to do with the tropical heat.  He reached into the folds of his shirt and retrieved the object.  With the canister in his left hand, he once more embraced the tree.  His hands steady, he began to slowly unscrew the lid.  It barely gave way and he stopped.  He took a slow, deep breath, and then millimeter-by-millimeter he turned the lid.  Each time he repositioned his hands he silently said a supplication.  The lid jiggled in his fingers suggesting that there was no pressure on the can.  For what that was worth, he continued his quest.  Rough palm bark dug in to his stubbled face, and his fingers stiffened as though they were nothing more than part of the tree, not made of flesh at all.  

Silently questioning how many more threads to turn before the top would be completely off, he continued the agonizing slowness for what seemed like an eternity, until at last the metal lifted in his fingers.  He stood motionless as sweat glued his shirt to his torso.  When he realized that there was not going to be an explosion, he pulled both arms from around the tree and looked into the container.  He knew instantly what its contents were.  The yellow, cylinder-shaped chunk was the Japanese equivalent to TNT.

Sergeant Gill’s lips thinned into a mirthless smile as disappointment fought with relief.  He slowly replaced the lid while the irony of the situation danced all around him.  Hell!  The contents were worthless!  But no one would ever have to know what the price might have been.