From Chicken Soup for the Veteran's Soul

Lord of the Chinese Flies

In the summer of 1952, we were in Prisoner Camp 5 located in Pyoktong, North Korea. The peace talks were progressing pretty well, and things were going a little better in the camp.

One morning, we noticed a Chinese guard over in the corner with a flyswatter. We watched him swat a fly, pick it up and put it in a little envelope. Pretty soon, he swatted another fly and put that in the envelope. The guards were always doing strange things, so we didn’t pay much attention to him.

But the next day, we saw another guard swatting flies and doing the same thing. Now our curiosity got the best of us, so we asked one of the camp instructors what they were doing. He told us that they had launched a fly-killing project: They were going to make China the most fly-free country in the world. He told us it was the duty of citizens, soldiers, students—of everyone—to participate.

It sounded like their starling-killing campaign of a few years earlier. When the starlings were eating all the grain in the fields, they killed all the starlings, only to find out that the insects began eating all the grain. They didn’t seem to have learned much from that.

Okay, so now they were going to kill flies. Why, we asked the instructor, were they saving the dead flies? He told us that as an incentive, people were awarded points for the number of flies they turned in. They were working to accumulate enough points to receive a Mao Tse-tung Badge from the camp commander.

One of our GIs popped up and asked if the POWs could collect flies. The instructor told us that he would think about it.

A few days later at the morning formation, it was announced that anyone of us who would like to participate in this campaign could volunteer by raising our hands. Those who raised their hands would be issued a flyswatter. He also announced that as an incentive to kill flies, they would give out a factory-made cigarette for every two hundred flies turned in.

Everyone raised their hand. And by the next day, everybody was swatting flies and saving them. The Chinese kept their word, and we started to get real cigarettes in exchange for flies. It wasn’t an easy job, though. It was difficult to kill two hundred flies; you could swat for an entire day and have less than fifty.

Some of us, including me, began playing poker for flies. “I’ll call your four flies and raise you three.” This game went on until we noticed the flies were getting worn out being pushed around the table. Then, one very enterprising soldier raised the stakes.

Recently we had been issued new socks. We really didn’t need them, as we had been without them for so long. This soldier took his sock and slowly unraveled it into a long string, and he then made a very finely woven net. He was very talented, designing a net that looked like a minnow trap—where the fish get in through a small opening but can’t find their way out.

He took that out to the slit trench latrine and set it over one of the holes. On the first day, he caught over five hundred flies. We doubted that the Chinese could honor their commitment under the circumstances, but to our surprise, they did. They paid him off with cigarettes.

Immediately, everyone was trying to make a fly trap, which created some unusual problems. One day I almost got into a fight. When I went out to use the latrine, all six holes were covered with various types of fly traps. I picked up one, put it aside and sat down. Instantly a man came over and asked me, what did I think I was doing. I told him it was obvious what I was doing. He told me to use one of the other holes and move somebody else’s trap.

By this time, we were turning in so many flies that every night we could look up on the hill and see the Chinese nurses up at headquarters, holding chopsticks, counting flies and keeping records.

Apparently, the administrative work became so much that it was announced that they would no longer count flies, they would weigh them. They secured a very fine scale, like a jeweler’s scale, and weighed two hundred flies to set the quota. They cheated a bit, but what could we do? Whatever our reward, it was better than nothing.

Then they stopped collecting them from us on the day they were caught, but instead waited till the next day, as flies that are saved overnight tend to dry out and don’t weigh nearly as much as a fresh fly. This caused a real dilemma. How were we going to keep the weight on the flies overnight? A lot of things were tried, some worked and some didn’t. To retain the moisture level, most of the fellows took a little piece of cloth, wet it and laid it over the dead flies until just before collection.

There was one system that worked unfailingly—and then some. One of my friends, who was called “Sake” because that was all he drank when he was in Tokyo, had become a real expert at swatting flies. He would swat the blue-green flies, the big ones. He was an artist, for he would hit them just right so they would roll over dead; he didn’t squash them. I asked him what he was doing with them, and he said, “Chik, come over to my hut tonight, and I will show you something special.”

I went over that night, and he was there, bent over a little bench with his flies. He had a small, flat, sharp piece of metal in one hand. He told me that while he was on a work detail down at the riverbank, he had found a couple of toothpaste tubes—the old kind that were made of lead foil. While I watched, he used the piece of metal as a tool, cutting a thin strip of the lead foil from the tube, rolling it up and inserting it inside the fly. The Chinese never did find out why his flies weighed so much.

After that, I stopped calling him Sake. He’d undoubtedly earned his new title: Lord of the Chinese Flies.

Akira B. Chikami

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