world war two

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[Not included in the original Kyushu Diary, this Tuttle column is often reprinted on Chirstmas Eve. We share it this week marking the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.]

I made reference back on the 7th to the Pearl Harbor attack of 1941. For me this date, December 24th, Christmas eve, will always remind me more of that horrible fateful day. Because the destruction from the attack didn’t end on the 7th. One story of loss will stick with me. On December 8th tapping was heard from deep inside the partially sunk battleship West Virginia, where some number of men were trapped deep below deck. On December 24, 1941, the tapping stopped.

The West Virginia is here with us now, along with four of her sister ships from Pearl Harbor’s now infamous ‘Battleship Row.’ The trouble with sinking ships in a harbor, especially Pearl, is that you can’t. It’s too shallow. Big ships settle on the bottom, still half above the surface, and a good harbor has every facility one would want to patch up and re-float the ships. In fact the Nevada, the only big ship to get under way that morning, was deliberately grounded after she took damage so she could be recovered and repaired.

The hit at Pearl was a big one for sure, and permanent for thousands of young servicemen, but for most of the big ships ultimately only temporary. Certainly Japanese planners knew this going in. The U.S. Pacific Fleet was mighty thin for the next year, reduced to hit-and-run harassing strikes with the carriers that by luck weren’t there in Hawaii. But since then, with scores of new and repaired (and upgraded) big ships joining the fleet, it has leapfrogged the worst nightmares of those admirals in Tokyo.

Much has been said about fast aircraft carriers taking over from the battleships of old as kings of the sea. That may well be true on the ocean, where fleets have engaged in air duels well out of gun range many times across the Pacific. But here on dry land, I can certify that the battleship is very much respected, or feared, depending on which side you’re on.

Navy ships sail with bigger guns than any army even attempts to drag along on land. Any place on the Earth within twenty miles of forty foot deep water can be blasted by one ton shells from our newest big ships. Japan is an island nation, and all of her conquests outside of China have been more smaller and smaller islands. All of them are vulnerable to the wrath of naval ordnance over almost all of their surface. Planes could drop bombs of the same size, but low flying planes can be shot down with the smallest of anti-aircraft guns. The only defense against navy guns available to most Japanese garrisons has been to dig and dig and dig, deep down into the rock if they can, and wait to be flushed out by flame throwers once the Army or Marines land under the support of those big old battlewagons.

Here on Kyushu, we found the main beach defenses lined up just exactly beyond the range of most navy guns. At Ariake there were the reverse-slope positions our Navy couldn’t get at until sailing into the bay, and that cost us something. But outside of that, the best tactic the Japanese had was to leave old guns in dummy installations near the shore to soak up shell fire.

The ships that came back from the knock-down at Pearl Harbor were mostly older slower vessels, but they work just fine for work along the shore. Islands don’t move very fast after all. The battleships have been kept very busy. The USS New York just rejoined the fleet after having her guns re-lined. They were worn out from firing so many thousands of big shells at Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

Back to the story of the West Virginia. Re-floating a damaged ship does take some time. She didn’t make it into dry-dock for repairs until June 18, 1942. Before that many attempts were made by divers and search teams to enter the lower compartments and rescue survivors or recover bodies. That is also necessarily slow work. Cutting into a closed compartment will flood it, and possibly many more compartments if the hatches aren’t all closed. Letting a lot of air out and water in can destabilize the whole ship, sending it over and ruining all chances of rescue or recovery.

I have it on good authority, but off the record, that three young men were recovered from the last compartment opened on the West Virginia. By match light they had marked off the days on a calendar through December 23rd. The Navy has decided never to identify them. They will be officially listed as Killed-In-Action, December 7, 1941.

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The days were finally starting to get a little longer. As the gray sky started to lighten we moved out past American front lines, climbing down a ways to cross a short flat. It was open rocky terrain and everyone felt self-conscious in our fashion ensembles of wet dark green.

The company advanced slowly in one double line up to the next hill, across the valley American troops had been watching for so many days. At the base three patrols split off, one to either side and the third moving up to the peak. The patrol I was with advanced cautiously around the right side of the hilltop. Just over the crest we found about a dozen shallow fighting holes. Abandoned shovels, packs, and a few rifles were left there in and around the holes. Also in the holes were three dead bodies.

It looked like the Japanese had moved up to that line the day before, or the previous night, and made a temporary fighting line. There was no fighting so the soldiers there had died of existing injuries. Outwardly they looked bloated, as if they’d been dead for days. A few odd large sores were visible on the head and hands of a couple of them. The private next to me tipped the helmet off one with the point of his bayonet, and clumps of thin dark hair came off with it.

Our senior sergeant growled out a quiet reminder about booby traps, and we left the bodies and materiel there for others to clean up. We advanced slowly through the rocks and leafless brush down the back slope of the hill. Over the next four hundred yards we found six more bodies, soldiers in ragged uniforms, some with whole limbs wrapped in dirty bandages. Most looked like they collapsed while crawling on all fours, away from our lines.

We had gotten ahead of the center patrol, and it was there from our left that one live solider came stumbling toward us. He moved out from behind the dark boulder he’d been leaning on in a staggering half-awake walk. His pathetic form did not carry a gun, and no one fired at him. His uniform was dirty like the others, but straight and neat, topped with a sharply creased brown cap. He had been their commander.

The young officer raised his sword with one wavering arm. One could see from twenty feet away that it was a cheap stamped steel model. The Japanese were mass-producing them for every new officer to make him feel like part of the ‘warrior elite.’ His jaw fell and the sores in this warrior’s cheeks opened to expose the tortured flesh inside his mouth. He attempted to yell but only made a raspy mewl. He was almost upon our left column.

The point man on that side froze, horrified and mesmerized by the almost inhuman apparition. At the last second he raised the butt of his rifle and deflected the sword’s feeble blow. The imitation samurai blade was slowly raised again, and a Thompson barked out a long burst. The second man in the patrol line put his slugs all clean through the officer’s wrecked body. That lifeless body fell at once into a disorganized heap of parts, barely recognizable as a human corpse.

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[The first full day of the nuclear age dawned with American patrols missing and out of communication.]

Forest fires burned through the night, keeping a hazy glow above the northern horizon. Morning recon plane flights say that quarter to whole mile diameter areas were burned out. The bombs made clearings in the trees more thorough than area bombing and shelling could accomplish with thousands of rounds.

Light but steady winds had carried smoke and ash to the northeast. This put it all back over Japanese lines or empty rugged forest. Another reminder went out that fresh water sources from the high central forest, which was most of the supply for our lines, were not to be trusted.

By this morning radio traffic was largely back to normal. A few radios had simply quit working after the blasts, mostly ones that had been set up with units far forward. The battalion I was with was not the only one who had sent scouts forward against orders.

Our own scouting patrol finally made it back, escorted by a larger rescue patrol which had gone out after dark. Word is that they made contact with some Japanese. Both sides surprised the other in the dark and exchanged ineffective fire for almost an hour.

The original patrol had been up on a small ridge, looking out over the plain east of Takachihono-mine, when the first bombs went off. They got down behind the ridge but it was right in line with the last bomb and offered little protection from its flash. Their radio was completely shot.

They reported scattered Japanese activity all over after the bombs.
Positions up on the mountain all came alive ready for an expected rush. The American patrol hid for the day, planning to slip back at night. They would have come back fine without the rescue party.

I got all this second-hand. Both patrols were taken away into quarantine as soon as they got back by members of the 6th Infantry Division. That division did land yesterday, but not as a unit. They broke up into teams which went out to most American front line positions.

Teams of the 6th carried an array of bizarre looking equipment. They had portable radiation detectors, hand held units with shoulder bag batteries. Some machines rolled on two-wheel carts. Another looked like an industrial vacuum cleaner (which it was – it sucked up soil samples to pass through an enclosed analyzer).

Other odd contraptions could only be hauled on dedicated trucks, some of which looked hurriedly improvised. Men of the division tell me some civilian ‘eggheads’ came along. They stayed back near the beach, along with lead-lined gunless tanks which can roll out into the blast areas directly once we get there.

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[Tuttle went looking for anyone who knew about the atomic bombing, or what would happen next. He had a long ways to go.]

Battalion command was set up in a tent a half mile back from the bluff top camp. Inside two men worked radios through every frequency in the current book, and got nothing but wild static. A few officers were talking over a map table, wrapped up in tense conversation.

A decision of some sort was made, and some of them left. I approached the table and engaged the senior man. Lieutenant Colonel Ken Olson commanded the battalion. “If you’re wondering, no, I don’t have the slightest idea what happened or what we’re supposed to do. And yes, I’m furious that they would blind side us like this.”

I looked over the marks on the largest map. “This is about where each bomb went off,” he explained, “each atomic bomb. We know that much, but only from what anybody can read in a science magazine.” A two mile diameter circle was drawn around each spot, which might be the effective kill zone of each bomb, but that was their marginally educated guess.

“Here’s my current problem.” Colonel Olson laid out a local map. “We have a patrol out there. They were supposed to observe this road, camp overnight and scoot right back.” He outlined the path out and back. “Someone thought they saw Japs moving out there. I approved the scouting operation, despite the pullback order. I can’t stand being both blind and chained down back here.”

He wasn’t sure what they were going to do about it, but the other officers had gone out to gather up the best equipment they thought might help and assemble a team to go find the missing men. I was about to leave when another courier came in. I’m not sure how difficult it is to drive a jeep in hood and mask and gloves, but that fellow had been doing it all day.

The colonel got four carbon-copies of a typewritten instruction sheet to pass out to his companies. It provided little new information and reinforced previous instructions: We should have seen six atom bombs go off, near listed landmarks (if one didn’t go off as planned we were to steer well clear). Blowing smoke might be dangerous if it came our way. Fresh water supplies should be topped off immediately and not refilled from anything downstream of the blast areas. Any Japanese soldiers which might either attack or surrender should be treated like lepers and not directly contacted.

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[Witnesses to history, Tuttle and the soldiers around him didn’t know what the first use of nuclear weapons would mean, for them or anyone else.]

I stole a glance around and saw that everyone, to a man, was watching the unusual bomb run with me.

They say it was 9:12 am local time when the first bomber released its load and triggered the others to follow suit immediately after. Some men say they saw all five bombs in the air. I for one caught only a glimpse of the first giant steel ball just after it was released. I watched that pair of B-29s turn and dive steeply, right toward my vantage point. The other pairs pulled the same maneuver, leaving in whichever different direction would keep them best clear of the coming blasts. The first pair passed back overhead still diving, engines ripping madly at the air to pull the bombers away from danger. The high flying sentries continued to orbit over the area, a little to the south.

I was eyeballing the two laggards, which had passed the first pair on their way out. A great flash lit them up, brighter than a clear noon sun. Instinctively, though against instructions, I turned north toward the source of the light. In close succession, above the hills and trees in between, another four flashes lit up across the horizon. Each was similar to how the blast from a big navy 16 inch shell lights up the night, but this was in broad daylight.

An ethereal dome formed and spread out around each blast site, visible only by its effects. Cloud layers alternately formed or vanished as the dome passed. Walls of dust and smoke pushed out along the ground around each blast, quickly visible over the near faces of the mountains north of us. A flattened ball of burning air raised up over each of the sites I could see, shedding and re-swallowing smoky clouds as it roiled up through the hole each bomb had made in the atmosphere.

I remembered the late pair of bombers and picked them up again roughly over Karakuni-dake. The laden one had released its bomb and they had turned together to the east. Due north of my location they caught the first blast wave. Both planes suddenly jumped forward and up, while banked into a right turn. With their full profile facing the shock, they were hopelessly damaged instantly. Closer observers say one plane lost most of the right wing before being sucked directly into its partner. Debris rained over the 11th Airborne Division’s former staging area.
The last bomb detonated high over Takachihono-mine, barely two miles from the former front lines of the 40th Infantry Division.

I wrote some time ago about an ‘earthquake’ from artillery bombardment. I thought it was modest hyperbole, but it was not remotely close. Today a real earthquake moved the ground under our feet starting a few minutes after the first bombs went off. A great crack from each explosion was heard, followed by continued crackling that took some time to soften into an echoing rumble. Some men thought they felt the wind shift for a moment.

Men began to talk over the sounds, some of them excitedly whooping, some asking what it meant. The company captain had already gathered his officers and they were pointing at the burning mountains and marking up their maps.

Each explosion had been capped by a flattened ball or rolling donut of smoke and fire which rose steadily over a perfect column of hot smoke and steam. The ball shape stayed together until almost out of sight high in the sky. By then a great haze had spread over the entire horizon. Fires raged around each blast zone. A slight wind carried the smoke to the northeast, away from us and mostly across all the Japanese lines.

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[A day after being ordered to pull back, Tuttle and his unit found fighting and all supporting operations were at a complete halt.]

I had completely forgotten what silence sounds like. In the last two months the sounds of combat had been a steady constant. The intensity varied only between loud and ear-splitting. From any position one heard artillery shells either being fired or exploding on impact – or both. Engines of trucks and aircraft filled the air between every echo of every distant rifle crack.

This morning I heard a bird. All of the mechanical noises were temporarily muted. Sounds of combat were not heard anywhere on Kyushu in those few hours. Lastly I noticed that there weren’t even any distant aircraft engines.

Without fail since before X-day American fighter planes had been flying long figure eights high over a line well to the north. Even in bad weather at least a few planes did combat air patrol up there, to detect and impede any Japanese air attack. Their constant drone was the last steady lullaby for sleeping soldiers on the quietest nights before today.

A second bird answered the first. I listened to their conversation as my current camp woke up. The sounds of clanging canteen cups were eventually joined by the first mechanical sound of the day. A jeep, driven fast and hard, stopped at the edge of our camp. It gave instructions to the nearest man and sped off again.

“If something big happens, don’t look at it! Stay low, keep ready, and wait for instructions. Pass it on!” Some men wondered aloud what it meant. Some asked why it wasn’t simply radioed out. Those who had gas masks double checked them. Many moved their foxholes to spots with a better view of the Jap lines.

A little before nine am the fighter planes came back, in force. Three broad waves came in from the south, at three different altitudes. They continued many miles north, to at least their old regular patrol line, then turned east or west out to sea. The lowest group took some anti-aircraft fire, at least one plane going down deep in the Japanese held forest.

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[Just as a new offensive was gaining traction, Tuttle and everyone else was shocked at being ordered to pull back.]

A shock wave greater than that from any explosive shell ripped through American lines just after noon. All forward units, everywhere on Kyushu, got orders to pull up and move back to the previous good fighting line, not less than one half mile back – immediately.

The move had to be completed by nightfall. Also, every man was to check the state of his gas mask. Officers were to plan inspections of masks by no later than 9 am the next morning.
Whatever sort of uncomfortable shell-wracked muddy crap holes those men were in, they had fought for them. They were offended at the idea of pulling back. They did so anyway, but complained loudly to the wind, which should have turned red at the profanity it heard.

Field kitchens served men where they could before packing up, but some simply dumped a whole hot meal. Junior staff officers scrambled to figure out where people were, or were going to be, or simply to find room for everyone when units suddenly wound up on top of each other.

Still, the men assumed there was some marginally rational reason for the order (despite all previous experience with Army orders). Suppositions started with some use of chemical shells by the Japanese elsewhere on Kyushu, to wild stories of plague infested rats being loosed by the OSS.

I fell in with a heavy weapons platoon, making instant friends by offering to haul two cans of machine gun rounds. Once back to roughly where they would wind up, everyone sat down waiting for final orders from the battalion. Their commander, Utahan Lieutenant Levi Pace, took stock of the gas mask situation. Of 47 men active in the unit, ten had a mask with them. Six of those had a good filter canister.

A gas mask was on the fingers of every soldier on the morning of the initial landing. No one knew what to expect of Japanese tactics when Americans first invaded their homeland. Two months later, after zero need for them, most gas masks had been ‘misplaced’ as men lightened their combat load. The changeable filter canisters could be hollowed out to make cooking vessels or many other handy things.

The lieutenant tasked three men with running, as fast as they could, back to division depots for more masks. They were too late. Rear units had been there first, leaving only what supply men kept in reserve for barter. As night fell the platoon counted a lucky thirteen working gas masks, and had IOUs to fill with several division quartermasters.

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[His second hospital stay over, Tuttle was back on the job.]

It felt good to get back to the front again. I was there with my boys. Yes, they were my boys, just as much as they were Sergeant Elliot’s boys, or their mothers’ sons, or their nation’s best men. Three days of physical rest had afforded me a mental reset worth more than the physiological recovery.

I woke up later than usual, well after other men were stirring. I was ready to see this thing through, more ready than I was even at the first landing. To paraphrase Miyamoto Musashi, ‘The only blow which matters is the last.’ I didn’t plan to miss it.

Steady rain muted the sounds of war, but distant artificial thunder reassured me that it continued, and both sides were still determined. At my leisure this morning I went to look for a ride forward. I hooked up with an ambulance this time, not minding the dark red stains under the rear door.

The truck, painted dark green despite the prominent white and red crosses on all sides, carried me up a progressively worsening series of roads until we got to the very front units of the 40th Infantry Division.

The division’s 108th Infantry Regiment was about two miles north of Miyakonojo. It had fought its way there, clearing out deep rows of twisting hills. The hills were hundreds of feet tall, but they looked like stubble on the chin of the great mountain mass another mile to the northwest. The compound mountain, including Takachihono-mine and Karakuni-dake, lofted multiple peaks which all topped 4000 feet.

American units had lined up in a semicircle south of the great mountain, about a mile out from the base. They all had fought to get there, through rough terrain and resistance which took advantage of it. They all were punished with artillery fire from the mountain on a regular basis, especially if they tried to move through any of the flat areas which surrounded it. Heavy smoke screens laid over the mountains at times covered American movements, but also obscured the Japanese positions.

Another arc of good roads and developed towns circles the mountain to the north, lying in a broad flat valley. North of them the land rises abruptly into a dense rugged forest, full of beautiful waterfalls and invisible firing positions.

The men I found in the 108th Infantry were preoccupied with digging, rain or not, to make their home livable under the bombardment. To their right was the whole 11th Airborne Division, ready to swing around the great mountain on those good roads to the north. Beyond that other divisions were preparing to drive into that high forest. A mirror image of those maneuvers would happen to the west of Karakuni-dake.

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[Tuttle wound up back in a sick bed, but had a kindred spirit for a ward mate.]

I had to give in and admit it – I was sick. Whatever I had caught which put me on a hospital ship a couple weeks ago never quite went away. I had shied away from tough living since then, never feeling quite up to it, but finally the bug caught up with me again.

Field hospitals were very busy this time, and they wanted to send me far back, even off the island again. This time I begged to stay close to the front. They compromised by shuttling me eastward over to where the land based facilities weren’t so busy with broken fighting men.

It was a jarring ride, even though our engineers have improved roads in the center of the island appreciably. A splitting headache, dry cough, and rumbling gut can turn the smoothest road into rough seas. I woke up miserable this morning on what I’m sure a healthy man would consider a comfortable bed, in the 40th Infantry Division primary hospital.

My roommate was feeling much better than I was. He had been there two days before me and was well over the bug that had laid him down. Master Sergeant Harold Elliot whiled away much of the afternoon telling me stories from Dodge City, Kansas. I wondered how a patch of table-flat farm land could hold many good stories, but Sergeant Elliot was good teller of tales. I didn’t mind his monologue one bit.

Finally he asked, “Don’t you ever get sick of it? Tired of writing the same story every time?” He hit a nerve. It was exactly what I’d been brooding over for days.

After every pitched battle I had to come up with a new way to say, ‘Things were destroyed. Men are dead.’ I had been at it for years. It seemed important, telling people what an awful spectacle I had seen. But somehow I still had to entertain them. I had to keep readers from becoming as numb as me and turning away from it all.

Sergeant Elliot perked up and leaned over closer at my account. “That’s exactly what I mean! I wanted to hear it from a civilian.” He confessed to me as a new found kindred spirit. “Honestly, there’s no solid reason for me to be laid up back here. I’ve been a lot sicker than this and stayed out on the line with my boys.”

He sat back against the metal headboard again and looked around the room, as if to make sure it was still just the two of us. “I’m just tired, sick and tired of it all.

Personally, I could get out there and fight forever, out on the line. In fact I was sure this was a job you just do until you get killed, no exceptions. But since they gave me those fifth and sixth stripes,” he pointed at his hanging service jacket, “all I do is feed good men into this… into that machine out there. It adds them up, spits some back out, and nobody knows how it decides.”

“And so what? So goddamned what?? These mountains, they don’t care. They’ll be here long after all of us. The ocean? It could swallow us all and not notice. Even the cities we think we destroyed, they’ll all come back. They won’t care one whit that their old people are dead, and if the new people are a slightly different color.”

The old master sergeant about had me convinced to resign, to give up and buy a struggling grape orchard somewhere. Since I didn’t have enough saved up to do that I continued the argument. We talked until well past the second lights out scolding from the floor nurse.

There was never a doubt that the sergeant would return to ‘his boys.’ He was part of the best chance they had to accomplish something, however indifferent the mountain might be to it, and to get back home alive. It mattered because they mattered.

We were people. Ultimately all we could worry about was people . The ambivalence of the birds we would have to live with, however many of us lived to hear them sing again back home.

I was suddenly impatient to leave my sick bed again. It felt like me getting out to witness things would help them along, just a little bit faster.

Yesterday a sand snake crawled by just outside my tent door, and for the first time in my life I looked upon a snake not with a creeping phobia but with a sudden and surprising feeling of compassion. Somehow I pitied him, because he was a snake instead of man. And I don’t know why I felt that way, for I pity for all men too, because they are men.

– Ernie Pyle, June, 1943

Ernie Pyle with front line dog

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[Tuttle rode forward with a group of reporters to see the American line finally be joined continuously across Kyushu.]

1st Lieutenant Millard Wells drove his own jeep, which he succeeded in filling with three reporters. I rode in back with Bob Bellaire of Collier’s. John Elliot sat up front as the Australian representative.

It took some time to get back near corps HQ, continue southeast on a good secure (and freshly rebuilt) road, and finally get up to the front lines near Kagoshima Bay.

We turned the drive into an hour long press conference. Lieutenant Wells shared what he could about the larger situation. Fifth corps had top priority on everything for the current breakout – ammo, air support, even toilet paper stocks were advanced to keep the divisions ‘moving.’

What Lieutenant Wells had gathered us to see was the planned meeting of American units at the north end of Kagoshima Bay. Once connected there, the American front would finally be one unbroken line all the way across Kyushu.

He described the shore there as dense with small cities. They were well situated as a hub for commerce, closer to inland parts of Kyushu than any of the larger ports. Industrial development of the coast was sparse, but in aggregate it was something worth taking.
Intelligence suggested the area was still well populated with people. The lieutenant didn’t know why, but it was another reason we had not and would not thoroughly bomb and shell the area before moving in.

We drove right to the water’s edge north of Kagoshima city. Lieutenant Wells pointed northeast across the bay. “That flat land runs north all the way into the next really big mountain [Karakuni-dake]. The 12th Cav already tried to get across once and got lit up by big artillery. Then them and the 158th [Regimental Combat Team] got shelled at random all night after pulling back.”

I asked the lieutenant if there was anything we were going to do about the long range artillery before they moved out again. He hesitated a moment then answered without looking away from the road ahead, “Not really. Heavy bombers will carpet the mountains, but they did that twice already.”

This morning found me situated with forward observers for the heavy mortars of the 322nd Infantry Regiment. We were staked out on a small hill, hurriedly cleared of brush, looking down into one of the coastal towns on the north end of Kagoshima Bay.

Behind us was a similar town, one held by American forces for many days. That town had experienced tough urban fighting, followed by heavy artillery fire from the recently pacified Sakura-jima. It was less than a ghost town. Its few charred remaining buildings offered no outline of the former city streets. Paths cleared by American engineers went straight through, with no thought to the original map.

The town ahead was pristine. One could imagine people getting up for work that morning, and children running off to school along the quiet safe streets. In fact, a keen eye could pick out heat and faint smoke from cooking fires down below. I didn’t think they had made enough breakfast for the ten thousand guests they were about to get.

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