The Gun in Uncle Bill’s Closet – Short Story by Charlie Chin

By Charlie Chin. Posted on March 10, 2024.

      I was hanging my coat in the hallway the first time I noticed the rifle in Uncle Bill’s closet.  By the 1970s Uncle Bill had retired, limped with a bad knee, and lived alone.  I used to stop by once a month to see how he was doing. The rifle worried me.

     “Uncle Bill, what’s with the rifle?  You been hunting?”  Bill wasn’t really my uncle, but he and my parents all knew each other for years before I was born.  He was such a close friend of my mother and father that they insisted I call him uncle.  He looked up from his newspaper and laughed.

     “No, that rifle is from when I was in the War.”

    “What war?”

    “The big one.  You know WW Two.”

    “I didn’t know you were in the World War.”  He put down the paper and frowned.  He gestured for me to sit down on the couch, and he began,

     “Back at the beginning of the war they set up the draft.  All men over 18 had to be ready to serve the country.   At the time I was 22, I had only arrived here in the USA about 7 years before and worked in Ming’s Restaurant in the Bronx.  I got drafted early.  So did a lot of other Chinese guys who were here.”

     “I thought they didn’t allow Chinese to become naturalized citizens until 1943.”   Bill smiled,

    “When the war was on, they didn’t ‘t care if you were a citizen or not.  I was listed as a resident, that’s all you could be legally back then, but that was enough to be drafted, so, I was eligible.  You see, a lot of the Chinese guys here were Paper Sons, guys who bought papers that said they were the son of a Chinese man who was already here.  That’s why a lot of Chinese folks here have paper names, not their real name but the name on the papers their grandfather or father bought to get them here.”

     “What about us?”  He laughed,

     “No, don’t worry, you’re a Chin.  Everybody in our village has the last name Chin.  Anyway, I got a draft notice.”

      “You mean you got drafted right away?”  He nodded,

     “The government had a system of selection.  If you were the right age, you weren’t married, and you weren’t in a job that was essential to national security, you got drafted.”  He started to warm up to the subject.

     “Most of the Chinese boys who were here claimed to be single, even though they often had a wife back in the village, and they were working in the hand laundries and restaurants, which the government thought wasn’t important for national security.  So, they were listed as A 1 in the government’s book.”  At this point Bill reached into his pocket for a cigarette and a match.  He lit the cigarette, drew a deep lung full of the smoke and continued,

     “I got my notice and it said to report to some army base in New Jersey.  I went down to Whitehall Street, got in the line for the bus to New Jersey, and rode to the Boot Camp.

     They told us to get out of the bus and line up.   I went to the field and looked around.  It was five hundred White guys and me.  Very strange.”

     “There were no other Chinese guys there?”

      “Naw, the war started for Americans in ’41 and there just weren’t that many Chinese guys here.”

     “What about Japanese boys, you know, who were born in the USA?”

     “They were mostly on the West coast; they were farmers in California.  There might have been a few on the East coast, but I didn’t know any.  The government locked those people up in camps and claimed it was to protect them but that was just an excuse.  The Americans never liked the Oriental people, they still don’t, and this was their chance to get them out of California.  Later they made a platoon of the Japanese boys born in America and put them in Europe.  They used them like a rented car.  They made them do the dirty work and take most of the risks.  Anyway,” Uncle Bill stared at the floor as if remembering something.  Grimacing, he shook his head and continued.

      “Anyway, I went through boot camp.  They wake you up at some crazy hour, it’s still dark, and them a lot of marching, crummy food, and rifle practice.  That was the only thing that I liked, the rifle practice.

      I remember standing in parade for inspection when the CO came down the line to inspect the troops.  He saw me, looked at my name tag and said, “Don’t worry Chin, we’re going to make you a Number One cook. “  I took a chance and said, “Pardon me Captain, permission to speak.”  He was annoyed.  “What is it?”  “Sir, I am already a cook in civilian life.  I was hoping to learn a useful skill in the army.”  He looked at me and said, “Sargent put this man in a unit where he can learn a skill usefully in civilian life.”   So, they put me in Artillery.”

    “What was that like?”

    “All they fed us was spam and beans, believe me, to this day I still don’t like canned beans.

     There wasn’t much danger, we were way behind the front and our artillery shells landed miles from where we were.  Nothing interesting happened to me until late 1943.  By then the war in Europe was coming to an end. Everybody knew that Germany was going to lose.  The Germans tried to push back after D-Day, but the Allied forces kept driving towards Berlin.   By the winter and early spring, it was obvious that the Nazis were beaten but the Japanese army was still fighting in the Pacific.

     Just about then a guy came around the camp asking men if they wanted to re-enlist.   I guess they figured you already had the training, so they just asked the guys in the army if they wanted to sign on for another two years.  Well, I was thinking at that time, if I re-enlist, I could arrange to be assigned to the Pacific Theater.  If that happen, maybe I could hitch a ride with transport plane on the weekends and get back to China and go home to the village to visit.  So, I re-enlisted.  The next thing I know, two weeks later, they dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima and the war was over.  So, I was stuck.  I had signed up for another two years and since the war was over in the Pacific, I got assigned to guard patrol duty in occupied Germany.”

Chinese American soldiers in Germany during World War II.

     “Was that dangerous?”  Uncle snuffed out the cigarette butt in the ashtray and lit another one.

     “Not really, after the war Germany was in bad shape.  The buildings were rubble, people had nothing to eat, and they were frightened about the future.  I got assigned to do guard patrol with the German troops that had surrendered.  It wasn’t too bad.  Of course, you had to always have a side arm on you.  Some Germans who weren’t happy about having American soldiers in their country, but mostly the locals were not in a mood to fight anymore.  I guarded German soldiers who were assigned to go out and clear the roads and the rubble from the bombed-out buildings.   It was an easy duty.  They didn’t run away because there was no place to run away to.  Every day we marched out to clear the roads or move the rubble of bombed outbuildings.  If we passed a farmer’s field that might still have some radishes or potatoes growing there, they would ask permission to go into the field and dig up some potatoes to stuff into their pockets.  You see they were defeated and starving.  And then soon the local girls started coming around to fraternize with the USA troops. “

    “The White girls?  How did that go over?”

     “Most of the German people didn’t know there were Chinese guys in the USA.  I wore a USA uniform, so they assumed I was from Hawaii or maybe an Indian from Oklahoma.  You could meet a pretty, young German girl at a makeshift bar, have a couple of drinks. Go back to her place, sleep with her and the next morning when you came down from her bedroom, her parents would be making you breakfast.  Of course, you were expected to give them something.  I used to give Helga, the girl I was seeing, a little money and sometimes cigarettes or chocolate from the PX.    The whole family was very grateful.   Anything was valuable like nylon stockings or American chewing gum.  These things could be traded on the Black Market for food, medicine, and other things.  It was tough times for them, very tough.  Sometimes I used to feel sorry for them but on the other hand, America didn’t start the war.”  Uncle Bill fell silent again, remembering things he hadn’t thought of in a while.   He shook his head for a second and then sat up.

A German city immediately after the end of WWII.

    “Guys in the army were always swapping swag and war trophies.  I had found a Hitler Youth dagger in the rubble of a bombed building.  They were collectors’ items.  So, I traded it with guy I knew in the company for a Mauser rifle, the one you see in the closet.   Well, I went back to the barracks, and I was on my bunk looking it over.  I pointed it towards the ceiling and pulled the trigger and a round went off.  I didn’t know it was loaded.  The shot went through the ceiling up to the next floor.  Right above me was the CO’s office.  He came running down and shouted,

    “Who fired a round of live ammunition in the barracks?”  I didn’t want to get the other guys in the company in trouble, so I confessed that I did.   He was pissed.  He had me put in the brig for six months.  When I got out, my tour of duty was over.  I was giving my gear, the rifle, and sent back to the States. “

    The Helga story sparked a question.

    “Uncle Bill how come you never got married?”  He stared at me for a long time.

     “I was married.”  He took a deep breath and whispered,

     “Ask your mother about it.”  The next weekend I was at my parent’s place for dinner.

    “Mom, I saw Uncle Bill last week, and I was wondering if he had married.”  Mom glanced at dad, and Dad nodded as if to say it was O.K. now.  Mom confessed.

    ‘Your Uncle Bill used to date my sister before the war.”

   “You mean Aunt Mae?”  She nodded yes.

    “Your Uncle Bill and Aunt Mae used to be very much in love.  Before the war they wanted to get married, but Uncle Bill was not an American Citizen.  At that time the American law said if she married a Chinese national Aunt Mae would lose her citizenship.   Uncle Bill paid a lot of money for some false papers that said he had been born in San Francisco hoping that would help.  Then it got worse, somebody told Mae that just three days before he had left for America, Uncle Bill’s father arranged for Bill to be married to a 15-year-old girl he had never met.  They used to do that back in the village to ensure that the boy would always send money back home.

      Aunt Mae was heartbroken.  When Uncle Bill came to see her in our family apartment in Chinatown, she demanded to know what Bill was going to do.  He said his Chinese wife didn’t matter because he didn’t know her.   Aunt Mae became furious, went out the door and ran down the stairs.  At the base of the stairs was Steve Low.  He was just coming up the stairs to the apartment and was planning to ask your Aunt Mae to marry him.  He did, she said yes, and that’s why you have two cousins on that side of the family.”

    Many years later, by chance, I ran into Uncle Bill in the street.  There was a Chinese woman with him whom I had never met.  She didn’t speak English.  He introduced her as his wife.  Both were quite elderly by then, cheated out of a normal happy life with children and grandchildren by circumstances and American immigration laws.

###

 Author’s Bio:  Charlie Chin is an author, singer/songwriter, and master storyteller. He served as the Community Education Director at the Museum of Chinese in America in New York City and as Artist-in-Residence at the Chinese Historical Society of America in San Francisco. He is the author of several children’s books, including China’s Bravest Girl (1992) and Clever Bird (1996).

 

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.