Read The Bone Hunters Online

Authors: Robert J. Mrazek

The Bone Hunters

BOOK: The Bone Hunters


“A taut, original thriller. . . . I couldn't put it down.”

—Ryan Lockwood, author of


“Great writing . . . great history.”

—Nelson DeMille, #1
New York Times
bestselling author of
The Quest

“A priceless novel . . . a must-read book . . . a great tale.”

The Washington Times

“A novel of suspense and intrigue woven into the fabric of . . . history.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“A superb piece of literature, rich in texture and of surpassing literary merit.”

—Robert K. Krick, author of
Stonewall Jackson at Cedar Mountain
Lee's Colonels

“A rattling good adventure story.”

—James M. McPherson, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of
War on the Waters

“A simple tale almost magically rendered.”

The Denver Post

“A rare find: a book that successfully combines mystery, historical drama, and impressive wartime verisimilitude . . . stark, graphic, bloody, and exciting.”

Publishers Weekly

“A fast-paced thriller laced with violence and filled with
unexpected twists that keep the reader guessing to the last page.”

—Rennie Airth, author of
River of Darkness

“A first-rate World War II adventure.”

—Susan Isaacs,
New York Times
bestselling author of
Goldberg Variations

“Tautly gripping, with vividly malevolent characters and some excellent historical color.”

Kirkus Reviews

“[An] exciting thriller.”

—Historical Novel Society

“Full of dark twists and turns, this brooding drama underscores the brutal nature of both the physical and the psychological casualties associated with war.”





Library Journal

“A great book with ‘hold on to your seat' suspense.”

—Donald Miller, author of
Masters of the Air: America's Bombers Who Fought the Air War Against Nazi Germany

“Rendered . . . in vivid clarity.”

—Hugh Ambrose,
New York Times
bestselling author of
The Pacific

“[A] work of cinematic sweep and pace.”

—Richard B. Frank, author of

“Superb historical research and powerful narrative writing.”

—Tami Biddle, professor, U.S. Army War College, and author of
Rhetoric and Reality in Air Warfare


“Strap yourself in as Robert Mrazek takes you on a heroic flight into history.”

—James Bradley, author of
Flags of Our Fathers

“A spectacular achievement.”

—Hon. Charles Wilson of
Charlie Wilson's War

“A remarkably vivid tale . . . [an] epic story.”

—Rick Atkinson, author of
The Guns at Last Light
The Day of Battle

“Destined to become a classic.”

—Alex Kershaw, author of
The Liberator
The Longest Winter

“Fast-paced. . . . [Mrazek] melds a good story with solid and skeptical research.”

The Washington Post

“A must read . . . gripping.”

—Curled Up with a Good Book

“Robert Mrazek has, with a raw, unsparing telling, given grace and life to so many who died so young . . . so gallantly.”

—Frank Deford, author of
Over Time


The Columbus Dispatch

Also by Robert J. Mrazek



Published by New American Library,

an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC

375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014

This book is an original publication of New American Library.

Copyright © Robert Mrazek, 2015

Penguin Random House supports copyright. Copyright fuels creativity, encourages diverse voices, promotes free speech, and creates a vibrant culture. Thank you for buying an authorized edition of this book and for complying with copyright laws by not reproducing, scanning, or distributing any part of it in any form without permission. You are supporting writers and allowing Penguin Random House to continue to publish books for every reader.

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ISBN 978-0-698-14868-0


This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


To Susannah, James, and Ilse Rose


In 1928, an archaeological expedition led by Austrian paleontologist Otto Zdansky unearthed a human fossil specimen at an excavation in Zhoukoudian, China, a prehistoric cave system thirty miles southwest of Peking. Paleontologists later estimated that the fossil had lain buried and undiscovered there for about 780,000 years.

The Peking Man, as the fossil was called, was generally viewed to be the earliest living example of
Homo erectus
, the first man to stand erect and use primitive tools. It was and is considered to be one of the most important fossil discoveries in the history of human evolution.

Concern for the protection and preservation of Peking Man began to mount after the Japanese invaded China in 1937. The fossil was moved from the site of its discovery in Zhoukoudian to the Peking Union Medical College, which had been founded by the American Rockefeller Foundation. At that time, the Japanese army was still respecting the assets of foreign interests in the country.

In late 1941, a request was made to the American ambassador, Nelson T. Johnson, for Peking Man to be sent to the United States until its security could be guaranteed inside China.

After some delay, the request was approved. A few days before the Japanese army entered Peking, the Peking Man fossils were sealed inside airtight glass containers and carefully packed in two wooden crates.

On December 8, 1941 (Chinese time), Japanese
officials arrived at the medical college and demanded the turnover of the Peking Man fossils. The Japanese then ordered medical staff members to open the locked safe in the anatomy building in which the fossils had been stored.

The Peking Man was not there. He remains missing to this day.


Monday, 8 December 1941

Chinwangtao Trunk Road

Quipao, China

It was one of the two darkest nights Corporal Sean Patrick Morrissey could ever remember.

The other one had been during that long winter in the Upper Michigan Peninsula after his stepfather had gotten the job as a watchman for the lumber company and the family had lived in a one-room shack near the Two Hearted River. Sean had been a skinny twelve-year-old back then. Now he was almost eighteen, tall, strapping, and a China marine, riding shotgun in the first truck in the military convoy. Beside him, Gunnery Sergeant James Donald “J.D.” Bradshaw was driving.

“It's going to be a long night, kid,” J.D. said, taking off his felt campaign hat, with its pinched Montana crease, and laying it carefully on the bench seat next to him.

Reaching under the seat, he pulled out a dimpled bottle of Haig & Haig and handed it to Sean. The youngster
took a healthy swig and felt it race like fire down his throat.

J.D. was one of the old breed. Three tours in China since 1928 and he spoke Chinese fluently. At thirty-six, he was old enough to be Sean's father, and his crew cut had faded to pure white.

Over the previous year, he had played that role better than Sean's real father, not to mention the two stepfathers who came after him. J.D.'s homely, acne-scarred face always seemed to be smiling, at least when he was around Sean.

It was J.D.'s example that had made Sean proud to be a China marine, proud of its traditions in this faraway place and proud of the way the marines were respected by just about everyone in the Far East—except the Japanese.

Back at Parris Island, the drill instructors had described the Japanese as little men with buckteeth and Coke bottle eyeglasses whom you could knock over with a soupspoon. J.D. told Sean not to bet on it, not after the way they had whaled on the Chinese army in one battle after another for the past three years. Now the Japanese army was on the move, and everybody else seemed to be on the move too, trying to get away from the Japanese. No one knew where they would strike next.

Sean felt better having the Colt 1911A1 .45-caliber pistol in his hip holster and the Thompson M1928A1 .45-caliber submachine gun sitting snug on his lap. Three spare twenty-shot magazines lay next to him along with a satchel of fragmentation grenades.

A few days earlier, the dependents of the American military officers, diplomatic officials, businessmen, and correspondents had embarked on a train for Shanghai.
Only the embassy guards and a small detachment of marines remained behind in the legation compound.

Captain Theo Allen commanded the marine detachment. With pale blue eyes behind wire-rimmed glasses, he reminded Sean of his mild-looking high school English teacher, but according to J.D., Captain Allen was one of the toughest men in the outfit and an expert in hand-to-hand combat.

That morning the captain had received a cable from Fourth Marine headquarters up north at Camp Holcomb to assemble a small truck convoy and stand by for further orders. Two recently repaired Studebaker trucks were brought to the compound from the depleted motor pool. Captain Allen would lead them in his staff car.

All three vehicles were painted the same flat green with the letters USMC stenciled on the doors in black paint. Canvas roofs lashed to metal struts covered the freight beds of the one-and-a-half-ton trucks.

Late in the afternoon, Captain Allen received his orders and the convoy departed from the legation compound with nine marines aboard. One rode with Captain Allen in the staff car, and the other eight were divided into each truck.

As always, Sean was entranced by the crazy mix of sounds and smells that filled the ancient city. The streets were choked with people and animals, and the air was alive with the chants and clappers of the street musicians, the aroma of spicy foods wafting from street stalls, and the stench of the open sewers that carried along rotting fish and animal dung. Radios blared in Chinese from the open doorways of the shops and eating places.

The convoy made a long, slow, circuitous route across
the city before the captain's staff car swung left off a crowded thoroughfare and passed through a pair of towering stone gates that flanked the high stone walls of a large compound. Sean saw the words
engraved over the entranceway.

The street noise receded as soon as they were inside. Up ahead of them, an elderly white man was standing outside the main building in a brick-paved courtyard. He was surrounded by a dozen Chinese coolies. It was obvious he had been waiting for them.

Before Captain Allen's car rolled to a stop, the old man began limping toward it with the aid of a long walking stick. He was wearing an old-fashioned tweed suit with a white shirt and a bow tie. Spectacles were perched on the long nose of his horsey face.

When Captain Allen emerged from the Studebaker, the old man began speaking English to him in a singsong voice, as if he was more used to speaking Chinese than English.

“We are ready,” he said. “You must hurry.”

Sean heard a boom of what sounded like distant thunder.

“Long-range Jap artillery,” said J.D. as the noise became a low constant rumble.

That was when Sean saw the two big wooden crates sitting on the brick courtyard behind the first row of coolies. Each was the size of a large refrigerator. One was painted bright Chinese red, and the second was raw teak.

Speaking Chinese, Captain Allen directed the coolies to put one crate in the back of each truck. There were Chinese symbols painted in black on the red one they put in Sean and J.D.'s truck.

Captain Allen gathered the detachment around him.

“I can't tell you what is in those crates, because I don't know,” he said. “Whatever is in there is important and our orders are to see they arrive at Chinwangtao, the seaport next to Camp Holcomb. When we get there, the S.S.
President Harrison
will be waiting for them. It's the last American liner still in China.”

Sean felt a surge of excitement. At seventeen, he had never felt true fear.

“It's about two hundred miles to get there,” the captain added. “We'll drive all night and make just one stop to refuel. Gas cans are lashed in the back of the trucks. You should know that Japanese troops might already have cut the road in several places, so be vigilant at all times.”

When he dismissed them, J.D. taped strips of white surgical tape over the headlights on all three vehicles to reduce their visibility. Captain Allen inspected the two marines in the back of each truck and made sure they were armed with .30-06 Browning Automatic Rifles and a supply of twenty-round magazines.

When they started the engines and prepared to move out, the old man in the tweed suit called out to Captain Allen from the edge of the courtyard. Tears were running down his cheeks.

“Guard them with your lives,” he shouted in his singsong voice.

“Easy for him to say,” said J.D., spitting tobacco juice through the open window as they rolled through the entrance and back onto the main road.

“What do you think is in the crates?” asked Sean.

“Not heavy enough for gold,” said J.D. as he focused on maintaining the fifteen-foot distance between each
vehicle ordered by Captain Allen, “but the red box is the important one.”

“How do you know?” asked Sean.

“The Chinese lettering,” said J.D., and Sean remembered he was fluent in the language.

The darkening sky to the west was still tinted with a reddish glow when they passed through the last gate on the edge of Peking and proceeded east along the trunk highway. The rumble of artillery fire slowly faded as they left the city farther behind.

At first the trunk road had a lightly macadamized surface, with two lanes running in both directions. After twenty miles, the roadway shrank to two lanes and went from macadam to rutted hardpan. The convoy was forced to slow down to thirty miles an hour.

Along the route, they passed thousands of Chinese refugees heading away from Peking in the freezing darkness. A few lucky ones were driving old charcoal-powered trucks and cars. Others rode in oxcarts, their personal goods and furniture piled around them. Sean even saw a rickshaw coolie trudging along in his long padded gown, hauling a family of four behind him.

Most of the refugees were on foot, straggling along in the middle of the road, oblivious of the blaring horns. More than a few lay along the sides, their dead bodies stripped naked.

A bitter Siberian wind began blowing from the north, and the surface of the road became a swirling mass of gray dust. It sent little tornadoes of fine powder through the cracks in the windows and filled their mouths with grit. J.D. passed Sean the bottle of Haig & Haig again.

The refugee traffic began to thin out as they headed
farther east. At one point, they saw a Rolls-Royce stopped along the side of the road, its engine pouring black smoke. A slender and pretty young woman in a blue silk dress was standing next to it, waving frantically for the convoy to stop, her face contorted with fear.

“Maybe we should stop,” said Sean.

“Might as well stop for everyone,” said J.D.

Sean pulled out his wallet with the dog-eared photograph of Cathy. She was standing in her father's backyard in Pontiac looking back at him with a shy smile. Cathy had written in November about how proud she was of his promotion to corporal. Her father was a foreman at the Chevy plant and didn't think Sean was worthy of her. He would think differently when Sean got back with his new stripes.

Rain began to fall when they were better than halfway to Camp Holcomb, the heavy downpour turning the dusty hardpan into a rutted mess. Glancing out the rain-streaked window into the darkness, Sean saw a few lights in the distance. They turned out to be a deserted train station along the Peking-Mugden Railway.

They had been driving more than five hours when the staff car slowed down and pulled over to the side of the road. It was nearly midnight. Captain Allen emerged from the passenger side and walked back toward them through the rain.

Sean lowered his window.

“Replenish your canteens while we gas up,” he said, “and turn off your lights.”

J.D. grinned as the captain went past, took another quick swig of the Haig & Haig, and passed the bottle to
Sean. Sean heard the two marines behind them on the freight bed unleashing the gas cans to refill the tank.

A deserted rural village straddled both sides of the road around them in the shadowy darkness. Fenced animal pens rimmed the open spaces between a dozen clay-walled huts. There were no lights in the buildings. The animal pens were empty.

J.D. opened a large paper sack and pulled out a handful of Chinese raisins. Stuffing them in his mouth, he began chewing the fruit. Juice trickled down from the corners of his mouth to his chin.

“You take a leak first,” he said, scanning the buildings, “and check the tires.”

Leaving the satchel of fragmentation grenades on the seat, Sean took the Thompson and stepped down from the cab onto the muddy apron. After circling the truck to make sure the tire pressures were holding, he stopped by the front fender to relieve himself. While one of the two marines in the back poured gas into the tank, the other trained his BAR toward the closest line of huts.

Another marine moved between the trucks, refilling the men's canteens from a five-gallon GI can. Sean watched raindrops dripping off the edge of the brim of his campaign hat.

A dog began to bark. Its cries seemed to be coming from behind one of the buildings on the far side of the road. The dog stopped barking for a few seconds and then began again, more excited now.

Then the dog's cries stopped.

Sean pulled back the bolt on the Thompson and inserted a bullet into the magazine. A few moments later, a
shadowy figure of a man emerged from one of the darkened buildings. The man was swaying a little as he headed toward the captain's staff car. Sean wondered for a moment if he was drunk. He saw that the man was carrying something in his hands. It appeared to be trailing smoke.

“A Jap mine,” shouted J.D. “Hose him down.”

Resting the butt of the Thompson against his arm, Sean pulled the trigger and fired a short burst. The bullets hammered into the man's chest, throwing him backward. Two seconds later, a huge explosion engulfed him and lit up the night.

Sean felt fragments of road gravel peppering his face like hard rain, and the air was filled with the reek of cordite. The driver's-side door of the staff car swung open and the marine driver climbed out, taking cover behind it.

“They're coming,” he shouted, firing at one of the doorways with his .45-caliber pistol.

A Nambu machine gun opened up on them from the roof of one of the buildings. Tracer rounds flashed through the rain and hammered into the staff car and the windshield of their truck.

This is what it's all about,
thought Sean Morrissey. It was really happening to him. Not what he had imagined from comic books or war movies. This was the real thing.

He heard the marines at the back of their truck begin to return fire with their BARs, momentarily silencing the enemy machine gun as more figures emerged from the dark buildings and began moving toward the convoy.

The driver of the captain's staff car started running back toward Sean's truck, ducking and weaving as he came. Muzzle flashes erupted from the ragged line of
Japanese soldiers, and the marine went sprawling face forward. He didn't move again.

Using the hood of the truck for cover, Sean aimed the Thompson and pulled the trigger, this time firing a full magazine. Four enemy soldiers crumpled to the ground.

Replacing the magazine, he began firing in short bursts, three or four rounds at a time, as their return fire smashed the headlight next to his elbow and shattered the cab's windshield.

Another shadowy wave of soldiers emerged from the darkness of the houses. They came on together, running flat-footed with their legs spread wide. Sean saw one of them raise his arm and smack something loudly against his helmet.

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