Sunday, December 1, 2013

Visit to a Long-ago War

1 - Guam - A Truckload of Shoes

            I closed my business in 1983. Construction contracting is a very cyclical business, and the settlement of a long strike had introduced an operating change which would affect mine heavily. I decided to quit while ahead and do some of the things I had planned to do at a later retirement. Among them was a visit to some islands in the South Pacific, which I had first seen as a young marine, only a year out of high school, and to the island of Guam, in the Central Pacific, which I had seen as part of an invasion. I wanted to see how D-Day shores looked, no longer swept by explosions from naval shells and dive bombers, no longer crowded by boats disgorging marines for charges through the surf and across the beach to whatever cover they could find. I wanted to see again the exotic beauties of lands no longer shielding an unseen enemy in their green jungles. Finally, I wanted to see them as a tourist, no longer enduring long periods of monotony between visions of beauty or terror. My wife agreed to accompany me with reluctance, since she knew these places only from the savage tales I had told her, but with acceptance, since we would face any hardships remaining from the war together.


            My travel agent told me that getting to Guam would be easy, since it was on the way of going to Tokyo, the Philippines, or other North Pacific destinations. My South Pacific islands were on the way of going to Australia or New Zealand. However, my trip from Guam to Guadalcanal was not on the way to anywhere, since people never went to the South Pacific from the North Pacific. Finally, she found that Air Nauru made such a flight. Nauru is an eight square-mile island near the Equator but far from anywhere else. I wondered how such a small island could host an airfield, let alone an airline, but it seemed like a minor detail at the time.

            We left from the LAX International Terminal at midnight, and the trip plus Hawaii layover took over 12 hours. However, we were traveling the same way the Earth spins, so it was still morning when we arrived at Agaña, the capitol of Guam. We had also gained a day crossing the International Dateline, so we entered our hotel confused and sleepy. The only thing we noticed crossing the lobby to the elevator was the large number of Japanese milling about. We awoke in the afternoon, still groggy from jet lag and confused about time and date. The elevator was crowded with young Japanese, obviously vacationing, vivacious, chattering in their own language and ignoring us as young Americans would have ignored a pair of elderly Japanese tourists, vacationing in California. But Guam is American, we told ourselves, they’re the foreigners. We found our answer to that a short distance from our high-rise hotel.

            We came to a shooting gallery and entered. I hadn’t done any target shooting for some time, and it would be a diversion. I heard some shots, saw a curtain at the end of the counter, and headed for it.
“Hold it,” someone spoke. “You have to pay.”
            “Just to draw the curtain?”
“Why would you want to draw it if you don’t want to shoot? Besides, our customers are entitled to privacy.”

            This seemed strange, and I was mulling it over when a short, stocky Japanese came striding out, grinning from ear to ear, with two six-shooters strapped to his waist and wearing a huge Stetson that came down to his eyes. He divested himself of his equipment at the counter, and strode out. I turned to the man at the counter.
            “What do you charge for letting him play John Wayne?”
            “Our fee is $35,” he replied stiffly. “For your information, owning a gun is illegal in Japan. Most of the time, we have tourists lined up to do what he did.”

            I congratulated him on having such a fine business, and we left. $35 bought a lot more in 1983 than it does now, and I didn’t need to shoot that badly. Outside, I turned to my wife.
            “That guy was American. He couldn’t have sucked up to that Jap more if they still owned the island and he was a POW.”

            We picked up a rental car and drove into what could be called downtown Agaña. The signs of a small American city were everywhere – Coca-Cola signs, billboards, neon lights, theater marquees – all in English and all working. I recalled the last time I had been here. Similar signs could be seen, but they had been smashed or in the street, and no building was standing, only the ruins of what had been American shops and stores. I had walked through the only American town destroyed in World War II and had reflected that we were the only major power in the war who had suffered so lightly. Ironically, we were the ones who had destroyed it. The Japs had taken Guam originally from a small marine detachment. When we returned nearly three years later, we had assaulted Agaña by naval gunfire and bombers, then threw the Third Marine Division against it to take it, block by block, from a large, defending enemy force.

            We stopped for dinner at a Denny’s restaurant, and I again noticed the preponderance of Japanese patrons.
            “We’re only two hours from Japan,” the waitress explained. “They can get here in less time that it takes you to fly from California to Hawaii.”

            That didn’t make it any easier for me. When we left the restaurant, I tried to orient myself to the streets I had walked during the war.

            Our artillery battalion had landed behind the brigade which would later become the 6th Marine division. An army regiment had landed on our right; the brigade had turned northeast to join up with the 3rd Division near Agaña, and we had followed. After a week, the city had been taken and a line formed across the island facing northeast against the main enemy force. Our artillery battalion had then marched north to take a new position on the outskirts of Agańa. Ahead of us was a truck carrying a load of shoes. It stopped, and we stopped. Two men jumped out and ran to a body lying off to the side. One held its hands, the other its feet, and they swung it up over the side of the flat bed so that it fell, face down on top with feet pointed to the rear. We realized that we had been following a Graves Registration unit, picking up marines killed in the recent battle. What we had seen as shoes were corpses, piled one on top of the other.

            After we had positioned our howitzers and set up our new camp, I was off-duty and decided to see what we had done to the city.  After passing rubble for several streets, I walked to the back of a building’s ruins and came upon two marines missed by the men in the truck. They were about my age, one my height and the other shorter. They had been lying here several days – the front was now well north of the city – and their bodies and faces had swollen inside their clothing until the fabric was torn and buttons strained. Maggots swarmed into and out of their opened mouths, and the putrifying stench was heavy. They looked fat, but I could tell that alive, they had been lean. I had watched naval shellings and dive bombings from a ship on three previous D-Days, but this was my first view of what came after the battle. Had there been no Pearl Harbor, these two, no older than I, could have been sitting at a soda counter in the States, arguing over who had the courage to approach that pretty girl sitting at the end of the counter.

            My wife interrupted my thoughts, asking where I wanted to go next.
            “I can’t recognize anything. It’s like I’ve never been here.”
            “Did you expect them to leave it the way it was?”

            I suggested we walk a few blocks north. I was sure that I’d recognize the large vacant lot or square where the Sea Bee had been operating his Cat in that bygone time.

            He had scraped out a pit some 6 foot deep and made a long berm along the edges with the excavated dirt. Several hundred Jap corpses had been laid out between the berm and the pit edge. He moved his bulldozer behind the berm and, starting at one end, began pushing the berm back into the pit. As it moved forward, some of the bodies slid into the pit, others were rolled into the turning berm, and the mass of dirt and bodies spread, before his pushing blade, into the pit. He knew his trade: he never made contact with machine and bodies; he managed to keep dirt between them. He would not have to bother with scraping blood, flesh, or organs from his treads after he finished. After his first pass, the pit was half full, and the bodies had disappeared except for scattered arms and legs protruding above the filled ground. He now moved with less care, filling the pit and making repeated passes to compact the ground. Another Sea Bee made circling passes with a water truck, spraying the ground to aid the compaction. I knew that the weight of these heavy machines was tearing bodies apart, particularly the more decomposed ones, under all that dirt.

            We had come to a large vacant area which appeared to have never held a building.
            “It could have been here. Several hundred Jap bodies could be under us.”
            I explained to her how we had buried the enemy dead.
            “Why didn’t you bury them individually, like our marine dead?”
            “Too many. When they made those banzai charges, they’d leave hundreds of dead behind. This isn’t the equator, but we’re deep in the tropics. You can feel the heat. We had to get the dead underground. Every day produced more battles and more dead somewhere along the front.”
            “Still . . .”
            “Even the way we did it, there was that putrid death stench over the whole island. Flies were everywhere. They’d have done it to us. War is hell.”
            We drove back to the hotel, and I wondered why I had wanted to return here.

* *

            The next day we went to Agat, where the marine brigade had made its landing. It was on the other side of the Orote Peninsula from the 3rd Marine division’s assault. Landing our forces on either side of this peninsula had given us control of Guam’s only harbor as well as our former navy base and airfield. I assumed that its importance to the invasion would have ensured some kind of remembrance, and I was right. The U.S. government had walled off the entire beach and established a national park, as I recall. Inside the entrance gate was a museum, and we entered. They had some interesting exhibits and enlarged photos of the landing, and I moved along, studying them, until I reached a bulletin board. There, centered on the board and printed in large letters, was an account of the “unfortunate” war between the United States and Japan. Both sides had been at fault: the United States had stopped all shipments of its scrap iron which Japan had needed to prosecute its war with China, and Japan had offended the United States by unspecified actions. Had wiser heads prevailed, the terrible war would not have had to have been fought.

            I read the first paragraph and ripped it off the board. I saw a park ranger at a nearby counter and slammed the account on the counter before him.
            “Who wrote this piece of crap?”
            He was about my age, and didn’t seem bothered by my hostility.
            “You were probably on the landing.”
            “That’s right.”
            His smile was tolerant.
            “For every one of you of you veterans, we get a thousand Japanese tourists.”
            “So?”
            “So, they like that version better. I’m sure you’d agree that it was a terrible war for them, far worse than it was for us.”
            “Did the idiot who wrote this know about Pearl Harbor?”
            “He did. What American doesn’t?”
            “He could have mentioned that if they hadn’t made that sneak attack, the terrible war wouldn’t have happened.”
            He studied me for a moment.
            “Did you see many natives during the battle?”
            “No. Afterwards, we saw groups, drifting in from the jungle.”
            “What did they look like?”
            “Like natives anywhere, barefoot, native dressed. They called themselves Chamorro.”
            “You can still find some living like that, mostly on the south side of the island. Not too many on this side. This is no longer a South Seas island with a small U.S. Navy base.”
            “What is it now?”
            “It has a huge Navy Base and an Air Force Base that covers a big part of the north end. The B1 bombers that hit Vietnam flew from there. We have a lot of servicemen here, and the bases employ a lot of civilians, Chamorro and mainlanders. There’ve been a lot of intermarriages since the war. Many of our students have gone on to college in the States, then returned here. These people are as American as you are.”
            “So, why do they put up with this pack of lies?”
            “They don’t come here. How often do you go to your local museum?”
            “Still - aren’t they patriotic?”
            “Liberation Day is their biggest holiday. They remember how bad it was under the occupation, and they’ve told their kids. They also know how prosperous they are now, compared to before the war. You staying at Tumon Bay?”
            “Yes.”
            “Do you think the locals could support all that development? You’ve seen the high-rise hotels there, all the people on the beaches and snorkeling in the lagoon?”  
            “Yeah, my wife and I were skin-diving there this morning.”
            “You were probably the only Americans there.”
            “What did the natives do before the war?”
            “Climbed trees and picked coconuts, I imagine. Kept small farm plots, like most of the Micronesians. I wasn’t here.”
            “They could do that now. They don’t have to serve Jap tourists.”
            “It’s better than climbing palm trees.”
            I thought of all the shops in Tumon Bay and how they seemed to flow along the highway and merge with shops and businesses going into Agańa. None of them were hurting for business.
            “So, it’s all economic?”
            “Tell you what. You get thousands of American tourists to fly past Hawaii and come here every year, we’ll put whatever they like on that bulletin board.”
            “I’ve had friends fly all the way to Hong Kong.”
            “Right. Also, to Tokyo and Singapore. But not to Guam.”

            Outside, I looked down the long beautiful beach framed by palm trees on one side and surf on the other, the ocean beyond bare of any warships, charging boats, or diving planes. It was a picture of peace and could have been any South Seas beach. My wife asked if I wanted to walk there.
            “No. I wouldn’t recognize anything. Let’s go on to Cocos Island.”  
            We had heard of it as an out-of-the-way resort off the south end of Guam. Maybe, the Japanese tourists wouldn’t have heard of it. We drove south for several miles along the coast and then inland, with jungle on either side of the road. Guam’s jungle was more bush than trees, but we would catch occasional glimpses of the ocean, and it was a pleasant drive. Finally, we saw the end of the island and a sign reading Cocos Island. It was a mile or two offshore, and we were taken over by a speedboat. We walked the beach and looked out over a blue-green lagoon to the encircling reef. People were snorkeling, sailing, paddling, sunning themselves on the beach, doing all the things people do in far-away places. It was all breath-taking beautiful, and they were all Japanese.

            We entered the resort and found its main building, a one-story lounge-restaurant with a South-Seas facade, fringed with palm fronds and local plants. It could be compared to a west-coast Maui resort in the same way that Tumon Bay could be compared to Waikiki Beach. The lounge area was composed of large round tables seating eight people each, as I recall, and the waiter escorted us to the only one not filled. A couple from Indiana were its only occupants, and we joined them. All the remaining tables held Japanese tourists.   

            “Don’t you feel lonely here?”
            “You noticed it too? Where do they all come from?”
            We discussed the nearness of Tokyo and wondered why they didn’t all go to the next Marianas island, Saipan, which had been Japanese before the war. We knew that many of the Japanese civilians there had committed suicide, after our invasion, deluded by their military about what our forces would do to them. So, were the present inhabitants mostly the native Chamorro people? Since it was now part of a trust territory, administered by us under a UN mandate, we decided that our investment there was probably minimal. Guam had been ours since the war with Spain, and all our Defense Department buildup and investment was here where there could be no argument about who was in charge, That would have brought growth and prosperity, and the tourist development here, at Tumon Bay, and elsewhere on the island, would have built on that.
            “Makes you wonder who won the war.”
            “That’s what I was thinking. I don’t know why we stopped here.”
            “I was here during the invasion. That’s my excuse.”

            We had almost decided we weren’t going to get served; the waiters were all too busy with the Japanese tourists, then one appeared at our table.
            “Folks, would you mind if we moved you to another table?”
            “We’re fine, here. We would like some service,”
            He looked around, then bent closer and lowered his voice,
            “Actually, I’ve been requested to move you.”
            “By whom?”
            “Well, you can see where we get the bulk of our business. They feel more comfortable among their own. We have a nice table out on the terrace.”
            I looked around. None of them looked our way; they were all too busy chatting among themselves, flirting, laughing, doing what the young do everywhere. We were probably a damper on their fun. I turned back to the waiter,
            “No. My wife and I are not moving; we’re leaving.”

            Outside, we walked to the boat dock, and I turned to my wife.
            “Can you believe that?”
            “Well, you were both a bit loud.”
            “How else could we hear each other over the noise in there?”
            “Your voice carries. I suppose some of them understand English.”



Next Posting: The Ravine

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