The Tattoo

Copyright © Frank O. Dodge. All rights reserved.


There's no way I can tell this so anyone will believe it. That's why I haven't said anything for the last fifty years, but hell, I'm going to tell it just like it happened, even though the kids will put it down to just another one of Grandpa's sea-stories...

It was early 1942 and I was a young gung-ho from Texas who'd enlisted right after Pearl Harbor. You have to understand that this was quite a while back, and sailors got tattooed. They just did. It was tradition ... or something. I was a sailor, ergo I wanted a tattoo to prove it. I hadn't yet been to sea, but I looked cute in the uniform.

I took boots at the Naval Operating Base in Norfolk (I won't make you blush by telling you what we sailors called Norfolk). After a quick rush-through of the basics I was transferred to the Armed Guard school at Little Creek, for training as a Navy gunner aboard the merchant ships. Upon completion of training (if you could call it that) my unit was sent to the Armed Guard Center in Brooklyn for posting to a ship. In those days New York was a virtual paradise for men in uniform. The citizens couldn't do enough for men in uniform. The citizens couldn't seem to do enough for us, and it was easy to get plastered with next to nothing in your pocket.

It was this open-handed hospitality that put me in the mental state that demanded the aforesaid tattoo. The two mates I'd gone ashore with had wandered off somewhere along the line and, loaded to the Plimsoll Mark with free beer, I was making heavy weather of plowing along a darkened street somewhere in the wilds of Brooklyn.

A dimly lighted sign over a small shop proclaimed SHANGHAI JOE, ARTISTIC TATTOOING. I'd heard the name from some of the pre-war sailors who'd been instructors at Boot Camp. It seemed that Shanghai Joe was known to seafarers from Shanghai to Calcutta the long way 'round. I hove to and dropped anchor. I would have a genuine Shanghai Joe tattoo. In my dim-bulb mind at the moment, that would instantly transform me into an old sea-dog.

I entered a tiny ill-lighted cubicle. The tattooist was a small, wizened, bald Chinese with more wrinkles than Santa Claus has whiskers. The walls were covered with representations of the intricate, beautifully colored designs just waiting to be transferred to my skin.

The bent little Chinese shuffled forward and bobbed his head. "Hey, you-fella sailor-boy. You wantee tattoo, yeh?" I nodded. "Hokay, you-fella sittee heah. Shanghai Joe give you one good tattoo, you betcha."

I sat down at the little table holding the needles and inks. As I eyed the long sharp bamboo splinters that would be used to inject the bright ink under my skin, I was beginning to wonder if I really wanted to go through with this. I had expected an electric needle, resembling something like a fountain pen with a little buzz-motor on top ... like the ones I'd seen in the tattoo parlors in Norfolk ... but Shanghai Joe was an Oriental artist, and used the Chinese technique.

The little fellow seated himself opposite me and motioned for me to take off my jumper and tee-shirt. Still unsure, I did so. The little Oriental laughed whisperingly. "You-fella don' be nervous. Shanghai Joe make you number one, ding-hao tattoo, you betcha. Nice dragon on chest. So real you tink it breathe fire. You-fella go fight Japanese fella. Dragon good joss ... make good luck for you. Mebby make safe, hokay?"

I guess I'd partaken too freely of the New York hospitality, because I don't remember too much of what followed. I remember the little Chinese shaving my chest, and the first painful pricks of the bamboo needles. After that ... I don't know.

Don't let some Old Salt kid you. Getting tattooed hurts. In some cases, with the larger designs, a good deal of bleeding can be expected, and there is a phase of scabbing over and healing.

But ...

For some reason, when I woke next morning in my bunk in the Armed Guard Center dorm, I had forgotten most of the preceding evening. My chest itched a little, that was all. Bailing out of my rack, I headed for the showers.

As I pulled my tee-shirt over my head, the guy at the next washbasin, a Chief Petty Officer, let out a whistle. "Wow, Mac, that's the greatest tattoo I ever saw!" Since he was covered from wrist to shoulder and across the chest with colorful designs, I could take his expertise in the field as valid, but failed to see the connection until I glanced in the mirror.

The dragon on my chest spread its wings to my shoulders and down my upper arms so that as I moved, it seemed to fly. I looked closer. Every tiny scale, every tiny detail, was limned with excruciatingly painstaking artistry. The nostrils flared and you could almost see tendrils of smoke dribbling from them. The eyes, half hooded by lazy lids, seemed to follow me about. They looked alive! The firedrake was positioned over the muscles of my chest in such a way that any movement of mine seemed to be the wyvern's independent motion.

The really strange thing, though, was that there were none of the signs of a fresh tattoo such as I had seen on shipmates. No oozing of plasma. No bleeding. No sign of scab. It was as though I had had it for years.

The heavily tattooed old Chief examined the design closely. "Mac," he said, "where'd you get that? The only guy I've ever seen who could come anywhere near work like that was an old Chink called Shanghai Joe in Hong Kong a few years ago."

"That's who did it. Last night. He's got a shop in Brooklyn now."

The Chief gave me a funny stare. "Couldn't happen, Mac. Old Shanghai Joe died five years ago."

I shivered. "Maybe his brother?"

"Didn't have one. What makes you think it was Shanghai Joe?"

"He said he was. Little wrinkled-up bald-headed guy ... called me 'you fella sailor-boy'."

The Chief's head jerked up. "You sure about that?"

"Yeah, why?"

He hesitated. "I taught him that ...."

"How do you know Shanghai Joe's dead"?

"Hell, Mac, half the dam' Asiatic Fleet went to his funeral." The Chief extended his arm and pointed to a faded but still beautiful butterfly. "That's Shanghai Joe, Hong Kong, 1935."

Indicating another, a finely detailed dancing girl. "That's 1937 ... three weeks before the old guy died. He's dead alright. Poor old sod. The Japs gave him a hard time before he made it to Hong Kong. I don't know if you remember the photos in Life Magazine a few years back ... early thirties ... when the Nips invaded China ...."

"I remember." I shuddered. "Who could forget those pictures of rows of Chinese on their knees, with their hands tied behind them, while some Jap officer chopped off their heads with a Samurai sword?"

The Chief nodded. "Yeah, those. Old Shanghai Joe barely escaped getting his noggin lopped off. He wasn't too fond of the Japanese. But the old boy's dead now."

I stared at him. "Then who put this on me?"

"Dam' if I know ...."

Old Shanghai Joe ... or whoever ... had made one little mistake. He'd said I would be fighting 'Japanese fella', but the merchantman I was stationed on carried me to England and the Mediterranean over the next two years.

In 1944 I was transferred to the Amphibious Forces, and it was back to Little Creek which was now the Amphibious Training School.

October of that year found me aboard an LSM ... a Landing Ship, Medium ... in the Philippines, ready to run up on Japanese-held beaches, and land Marines and soldiers to retake the islands. Now I would be fighting 'Japanese fella'.

The morning we sailed into Lingayen Gulf to make Luzon my first combat landing, my chest began to itch uncomfortably, as though the dragon were stirring restlessly. I didn't have time to give it much thought, as the sky was full of diving Japanese planes, and we were receiving some medium-to-heavy machine gun and mortar fire from the beach.

Several waves of LCVP's ... small landing boats ... had already put troops and vehicles ashore, and they were meeting some resistance. We could see Marines lying on their bellies, firing toward the jungle. Two alligators (amphibious tanks) lumbered back and forth, machine guns and light cannon-fire giving support.

We dropped our stern anchor about two hundred yards offshore (to be used in retracting from the beach), and ran our bow up on the sand. We opened the bow doors and dropped the ramp. Our contingent of Marines prepared to debark, when a horde of Japanese boiled out of the trees, firing, and yelling, "Banzai!"

Heavily outnumbered, our troops, who had barely gained a foothold, stood to be overwhelmed and wiped out.

My General Quarters (battle) station was Mount 21 ... the forward 20-millimeter on the starboard side. I was gunner, Jack Watson was loader, and Pete Hughs talker. I swung the muzzle shoreward and closed the firing key. The heavy anti-aircraft machine gun began to chatter, and I could see the explosive shells taking down some of the charging Japanese, but our counterfire was pitifully inadequate, and the enemy troops were closing rapidly. I cursed a steady stream of invective as my magazine emptied, and I waited for Jack to replace it. In those few seconds I could see that we were about to be overrun before we could retract.

Jack Watson was still trying to reload when I felt a ... pulling ... on my chest ... a very eerie sensation ....

Now here's the part nobody's going to believe...

I felt as though the skin of my chest were being pulled through the gun to which I was strapped. And out of the muzzle ... a dragon... flowed like a stream of smoke. It swelled, and expanded until it loomed over the beach, solidifying. Then it swooped upon the charging Japanese, fire gushing from nostrils and mouth. The enemy soldiers fell, smoking and burning to a crisp in the roiling flames....

More and more LSM's and LST's, LCM's and LCVP's, poured troops ashore, and they charged the jungle over the smoldering bodies of the Japanese. When the beach had cleared, and the fighting moved inland, we looked at one another, my shipmates asking each other where the guy with the flame-thrower had come from. I opened my mouth to tell them ... what?

That I'd seen a dragon?

That I had heard the whispery laugh of an old Chinese close to my ear?


No flame-thrower men had been landed. And I never could explain where the tattoo on my chest had gone..

* * * * *

Return to Main Page