Whilst British forces were retreating down the Malay peninsula, U.S. forces were retreating down the Bataan peninsula on the Philippine island of Luzon. The defenders were already on half rations by mid January and debilitated by the jungle conditions but they were putting up a fierce defence against superior numbers, without the weapons to match the Japanese artillery and tanks. It was another fighting withdrawal against an enemy that were prepared to throw wave after wave of their troops into suicidal ‘Banzai’ attacks. There was no peace even when an orderly withdrawal was possible, the Japanese were constantly pressing down on them, even at night:
‘Take it easy,’ said Lauro; ‘it’s just the fire-cracker gag.’
I settled back on the ground. I hadn’t recognized the Japanese firecracker trick, although we heard plenty about it. It was one of the many stunts the enemy were using in their attempt to break down the morale of the boys in the lines. Their planes circled overhead all night long scattering bombs hit and miss over Bataan. Their pistol-shots rang all night in the forest. They had a device for hurling long strings of firecrackers over the trees and on to our front lines.
They hoped the boy in the fox-hole, hearing them, would think he was surrounded and shoot back, thereby making himself a target for the enemy.
I listened, my body tense. The cicadas had stopped humming. Then I heard a drawn-out human sigh. It was like the last intake of a man that is dying. Only it sounded inhuman and monstrous, because it came from everywhere and nowhere; as if the trees were in anguish. Then silence-then groans from the forests, and later, a scream.
The sounds were nerve-wracking. But I was on a river bank surrounded by men I knew, who were listening with me. I was not alone, weak with hunger and sleeplessness, in a fox-hole in the dead of night. Lauro spoke to me again in a whisper. He explained that these sounds were being broadcast from Japanese sound trucks on the very front of their lines.
Out of the night came a woman’s voice, sweet and persuasive. In sentimental words it announced the dedication of a programme to ‘the brave and gallant defenders of Bataan’. Songs followed, quavering through the forest. They were selected to arouse nostalgia to breaking-point in a boy facing death and longing for home. Home, Sweet Home, Old Folks at Home-this was the kind of song the Japanese broadcast in the dead of night, alternating heartbreak with horror.