Saturday, December 14, 2013

Visit to a Long-ago War

3 - An American Colony

            The woman at the Air Nauru counter told us that Japanese veterans usually visited the battlefields in their old uniforms, and she understood that this group was going on to Guadalcanal. We followed them aboard; there were about 20 of them, and they proceeded to the rear, where they sat in a group. They still wore the same choke collars I remembered, and many stretched their fits in uniforms they first wore when they were younger and leaner. I wondered why there were so many. If they came in groups on these flights regularly, that would add up to a lot of veterans. Yet, on all our invasions, they had fought and died to the end. Out of 20 or 30 thousand defending each of the larger islands of Saipan and Guam, there were the same handful of survivors that there had been in the smaller garrisons on Tarawa and the Marshall Islands.

            The answer came to me as an instant revelation. These were the men of the bypassed islands. Our initial war strategy, followed by both MacArthur and the Navy (and claimed as original by both) had been to seize a key island or beachhead, then leapfrog to the next key, and rely upon the Navy and Army Air Corps to keep surrounding islands or areas isolated. This group might have been in the same island garrison; at some point in the war, they would have known that they were isolated when their supply dropped to what they could get from night-time arrivals of Japanese submarines. Their war would have been even freer from combat than mine and far more monotonous. It would have been like the war of our marines sent to coast artillery battalions on Samoa, the Fijis, New Hebrides, and other island groups held by us. They had spent years of monotony on islands where swaying palm trees lined one side of beaches on atoll-bordered lagoons; they had spent them with others equally bored and homesick. Except for older men who might have seen duty in China, the Japanese would have come to the same scenes as young men and teenagers directly from Japan. Their first knowledge that the war was over would have come from airplanes flying overhead and announcing Japan’s defeat over loud speakers. In contrast to our returning military, they would have returned to a devastated nation.

            I reflected on the host of Americans and Japanese – there must have been millions – who spent years away from home on peaceful islands or behind lines in supply, transport, administration, or simply waiting. It was a waiting war, interrupted by furious naval battles and bloody invasions, fought to the enemy’s extermination. I had watched the film, Mr. Roberts, many times to recapture that sense of waiting. Only after England had been thoroughly manned and stocked for the Normandy invasion did we start receiving the forces and shipments that would permit us to mount the invasions of the Marianas - Saipan and Guam – the large operations that were the key to victory.

            Truk had been the advance base of the IJN, the Imperial Japanese Navy, and most of their invasions to the south, Rabaul, New Britain, and the Solomons had been sent from there. It was as important to the IJN as Pearl Harbor was to the USN: naval command, initial ship repair, naval stores, fleet anchorages: all were to be found there. It consisted of several islands within a lagoon of 30 or more miles diameter. The atoll’s fringing reef made it impregnable – all the island guns and guns from ships at anchor would be trained on the coral reef and its passes in the invasion we had all dreaded to contemplate.

            Even from the air, it looked ominous. As the reef passed under us, the enclosed islands were on the horizon. I could visualize our ships trying to get through the passes and amphibious tanks crawling over the reef, entering the vast lagoon - all subject to targeted shelling from the islands and ships within. We never invaded. It was destroyed as a base from the air, in two days, by our task force that included 8 aircraft carriers, 6 battle ships and hundreds of planes. Over 50 Japanese ships and hundreds of aircraft lay buried beneath us in that huge lagoon. Now encrusted by coral and surrounded by fish, they constituted the world’s top diving spot.

            We landed at Truk’s International Airport, modest but adequate for an island off the main east-west routes across the Pacific. We would find that it was one of the four states which constituted the Federated States of Micronesia. Our taxi drove through the main town of Moen Island – we never knew its name – and we saw a native center where American restaurants and shops were only interruptions of the basic thatched architecture, fronting on dirt streets. The only activity we saw were many old pickup trucks, with hand-painted signs labeling them as taxis. They didn’t look capable of filling the role, since they were filled with young men shouting at any girls they passed. Our cab driver told us that taxis were the main industry of Truk - no one picked coconuts or processed them into copra any more.

             Our driver spent most of an hour navigating what was little more than a winding dirt path through surrounding bush and mangroves, in and out of road puddles, over hills, and along a beach to finally arrive at the Truk Continental Hotel. Coconut palm trees lined the final hundred yards of road, now widened and graded, with lawn covered hotel grounds on either side. The complex of two-story buildings, built above the grounds on wooden piles, occupied a point with nearly 360 degrees of beach and lagoon view. The lagoon had a sea’s horizon, and a rusted Japanese ship loomed up in the tidal area where a desperate captain had managed to beach before sinking. The bedrooms were fine, the grounds were immaculate, and the food was lousy. Instead of ground meat, we had chicken legs and varieties of baloney, since other meat was, for some reason, in short supply. We could order any sea food we liked as long as we accepted scallops. They were tasty at first.

            The hotel derived its name from its owner, Continental Airlines, which, apparently, split the Micronesian air travel business with Air Nauru. I doubt that Continental’s revenue from that business or from the hotel was a major factor in their later demise, but it might have helped. Only a handful of sports divers shared the hotel with us, and none were Japanese tourists. They told us that Truk, because of its sunken fleet, was the world’s top diving attraction. We concluded that either we were in the off season, or the world’s sports divers stayed at home and read about Truk. This suspicion was supported by the occupation of the couple at our table. They wrote for a German sports-diving magazine.

            Two days later, we were on a dive boat with the reporting couple and four other scuba divers from Germany, anchored to the projecting mast of a Japanese ship. Its bow barely projected from the water, where it had been beached, and the rest of the ship sloped back from us, the deck and bridge all visible beneath us in the lagoon’s clear water. I sat on the deck gun, two feet under, my head and shoulders clear, and scanned the lagoon. I could see other beached and sunken wrecks scattered about, some near, some beached on other islands. The closest part of the enclosing reef was visible, vanishing from sight as it grew distant. My wife was snorkeling on the surface, looking down at the ship spread beneath her, and the scuba divers were down inside the ship, swimming its ghostly passageways. 

            I reflected on how it would have looked before the attack, when a fleet rode at anchor here. I visualized the men rushing to their gun positions as our first bombers attacked, some diving, others making low runs to launch torpedoes. Nearly a thousand planes would be in the air over the next two days, the Americans out-numbering their enemy by more than two to one. At the end, all the defending planes would be sunk in the lagoon or smoking ruins on their blasted airfields. The main battle fleet had escaped, before the attack, but most of its supply ships, subs, and smaller warships had not. As the waves of our planes continued to sweep in, more and more ships caught fire, heading for any nearby beach in desperation. At the end of our two-day attack, Truk was finished as a naval base, its airfields, shops, depots, and administration facilities destroyed. It could not rebuild, as we had after the Pearl Harbor attack. Our new bases and naval forces in the Marshall Islands to the east gave control of its surrounding area to us. Six months later, after the Marianas sea and land battles, it became another bypassed island, supplied by enemy submarines.

            The scuba divers returned to the boat, with accounts of sitting in a Zero fighter, gliding by coral-covered winches, gun mounts, railings, and ship gear. One had seen a skeleton. We looked down from the boat at the deck stretched below and wondered how many centuries it would remain as a wreck before the coral reclaimed it as a reef. I also wondered why we saw no Japanese here. Possibly, if the war had gone against us, I would not have wanted to visit a Pearl Harbor snorkeled over by Japanese civilians, pointing out our ship and human wreckage. Why, then, were they going to Guadalcanal, their first great defeat, in large groups?

            We would remember these days snorkeling off shore and from a boat over wrecks, sunning on the beach, discussing diving and hotel meals with other tourists in German-accented English, or just taking in the view from our balcony, as the high point of our trip. However, we welcomed the day of departure: Paradise can become monotony, as I had learned in the Pacific islands of 40 years past; also, a diet of scallops, chicken legs, and varieties of baloney had sated us. We traveled back the jungle path, walked into the Internatonal Airport and found a deserted counter. After hitting the little bell several times, a man came out, eating a sandwich.
            “There’s no plane today. It’s been cancelled.”
            “What happened?”
            He shrugged. “Some maintenance problem.”
            “So, when’s the next flight south?”
            “Wednesday. Same time.”
            It did no good to storm and rage. He just worked here. I could call headquarters in Nauru, but this was Saturday and they wouldn’t be open.
            “Not open? What kind of airline – international airline – isn’t open on Saturday?”
            “You can call Operations, but they couldn’t help you with ticketing. We have a flight to Guam on Sunday, but you’d be on the waiting list.”
            The fact that we had come from Guam didn’t bother him. He observed that we would probably find more to do there, and we could still catch next Wednesday’s flight as it started from there. Not trusting my temper, I turned and headed for the door. A U.S. Army sergeant stood nearby, grinning.
            “Maintenance, hell. The President commandeered it.”
            “What President?”
            “The President of Nauru. Air Nauru is his Air Force One.”
            He informed me that the President had put a large party on our plane and flown to a big rugby game in Brisbane . He advised me to take the Sunday flight back to Guam. I decided that it was better than staying here three more days and rescheduled at the counter. The sergeant offered to return us to our hotel, since it was on the road back to his base. We threw our bags into his jeep and were soon bouncing and sliding along the familiar dirt road, now muddy from a recent rain.

            “We keep an eye out for American tourists. You can get really stranded here. It’s not like Toyon Bay or Hawaii.” He waved at the surrounding wilderness.
            “Where do the natives work?”
            “Are you kidding? They’re all on our welfare.”
            “Don’t they pick coconuts?” We had passed a grove, and the palm trees had been heavy with fruit.
            “I guess they did, under the Japs. They used to make copra here. It must be cheaper for us to support them. Gooks aren’t used to much.”

            Back at the hotel, my wife said she would spend the afternoon reading, on the balcony. The sergeant had offered to pick us up to have supper with him at his base. I decided to look for some evidence of native industry or communal living. So far on our trip, natives dressed or were housed similarly, if more plainly, to our life style. In a briefing session, prior to our trip, we had been told that women tourists should not wear shorts or short skirts in these islands since bared legs were considered to be sexually enticing by the natives. My wife had resented having to wear slacks – she refused to wear a long dress – as she had expected to lie on beaches and acquire a tan. Her resentment had increased when we were told that native women often wore long skirts with nothing above the waist. How could bared breasts be less provocative than bared legs?

             Since the hotel was the last development south of the main town and airport, I walked down the beach, past its grounds and point, in the logical direction of native villages. After a time, I saw thatched huts standing in clearings, then came to one about a hundred feet to my left. An older woman, dressed in a shapeless dress that covered her from shoulder to ankles, was hanging washed clothes on a line. The other woman, probably her daughter, wore a grass skirt, also to her ankles, but was gloriously free of cover above her waist. I stopped and assumed the pose I would have used in an art museum, had I been studying Gauguin portraits of young, similarly clad Tahitian maidens. Her breasts were as rounded and attractive as any of them. She was passing wet clothes to the older woman, and her movements added to their appeal. She glanced at me once, glanced again, then showed confusion and ran back into the hut.
            I continued down the beach, pondering. Had I been an ugly American?  Suppose that a male Trukese strolled an American beach viewing an expanse of young, bared, American-girl legs. Would anyone object? Possibly, if he had stopped and fastened his gaze on one pair. That had probably been my overstep, I decided. However, the analogy might not apply. I had not strolled a beach full of bared breasts.

            Farther down the beach, a group of people were gathered in a coconut grove. As I drew near, I saw they were Americans. One of them waved me over.

            “You here for the picnic?”
            “No. I’m a tourist. We’re staying at the Continental.”
            “You can still join us. We’ve got plenty of food.”
            “Thanks. I just ate, Where are all of you from?”
            “Oh, we live here. We’re the government of Truk.”

            He identified himself as the Attorney General, then pointed to others in the grove, giving them titles that corresponded with names of departments in our various state governments. I looked around, saw more people deeper in the grove, and decided that there were more than a hundred people here. They obviously followed equal opportunity regulations closely. The man I talked with was black, others looked to be of all our various ethnic divisions and in proper proportions, except for one important exception.

            “I don’t see any Trukese.”
            “They’re on the elected side.” He grinned. “They pass laws about world peace and banning nuclear weapons. We do all the work.”
            “And the Trukese people?”
            “They can’t do anything.”

            The sergeant’s base was a small Signal Corps installation. The other men there welcomed us and gave us a tour of their radio room, showed us their huge saucer-antennas, and demonstrated how they communicated with other islands. I remembered life on our camp on Guadalcanal – we were probably a diversion from their every-day monotony. We stayed for dinner and ate our first good meal since our arrival on Truk. On the ride back to the hotel, the sergeant told us of the other nations that were being carved out of the Micronesian trust territory, an ocean area as large as the United States containing hundreds of islands, none as big as Guam, that we had administered since the war. He noted that one nation covered the Northern Marianas and another was forming for Palau. I wondered if we were subsidizing all of them.

* *

            We managed to get the last two seats on the Air Nauru flight and arrived back in Guam, where we had to go through customs as coming from a foreign nation. We spent the following three days revisiting old scenes and restaurants. When we re-embarked for Guadalcanal, we stayed on the plane at Truk. Who knew when the President might divert it for a joy ride?

            We would have a two-hour layover at Nauru, and I was curious to see this eight-square-mile island, over 200 miles from its closest neighbor. It was covered with untold centuries of bird droppings, possibly because it was so far from any nesting options. It had only been independent 15 years, but its assumption of the right to process this guano into phosphate had made them the richest people on earth, on a per-capita basis. No one worked and they brought their servants in from Tarawa, one of the Pacific War battlegrounds, and other Kiribati islands. From this wealth, they had also established their seven-airplane airline to otherwise un-served islands, using their own airfield as its hub and decreasing their land area somewhat in its creation.

            I scanned the ocean horizon below us, but I didn’t pickup the small green-edged pimple in that vastness of blue until we had began our descent. I wondered what would happen to this wealthy people when they depleted their only resource. I can now report, from 30 years later, that they are nearly bankrupt – an entire nation will soon be looking for a job. They have tried their own forms of quantitative easing: offshore banking, tax-haven bank accounts, and diplomatic recognition. They worked the last most profitably by shifting it from Taiwan to Beijing and back, picking up foreign aid grants with each shift. Their history certainly proves that a nation should never run out of bird shit.

Jack Eiden

Next Posting – Guadalcanal


  1. Informative, but more important, hilarious.

    1. fmc , , . Glad you liked it. If you'd like to know more about Nauru, type in the name on any search site. It's history is more hilarious than anything I could write.