Thursday, December 26, 2013

Visit to a Long-ago War

4 - Guadalcanal

            We landed at Nauru International Airport without incident. I had noticed another large group of Japanese veterans on board. They followed us off the airplane and assembled in a small group across from us in the small terminal waiting room. Apparently, they didn’t trust presidential whims any more than we did. We all had sufficient time to catch a taxi and make a quick tour of the eight square-mile island during our layover. I noticed their glancing at me and guessed that they were speculating. I was the same age as most of them; I was not with any group, I wasn’t carrying a brief case or wearing suit, tie, and polished shoes. Could I be a veteran, like them, from the other side?

            One of them left the group and strolled along one wall, studying posters and pictures. Finally,
he stood opposite me, offering a cigarette. I had recently quit, and I refused, thanking him in English. I still carried a lighter, pulled it out, and offered to light his. He nodded, bent his head for the light, inhaled deeply, and asked a question in Japanese. It ended in marine, and I recalled a battlefield shout heard commonly along front lines of the past: “Marine – you die!”

            I tapped my chest, pointed to him and replied: “Yes. I marine in war.”
            He nodded again and spoke a few sentences casually.
            I assumed he was talking about the weather, and replied, in English, that rain was due for the afternoon, but it was certainly clear and sunny now. He replied to that in Japanese, and I, continuing the fantasy, told him that it was often that way in the tropics. After a few more Japanese sentences, he raised his hand in a half-salute, pointed to the lighted cigarette and said “Arigato,” then “Sayonara.” I told him that it was nothing, returned the half-salute, and replied a goodbye.
            “He seemed friendly,” my wife said, watching him return to his group. “Did you understand anything he said?”
            “Three words. I wonder why they’re all going to Guadalcanal.”
            “Maybe, they fought there.”
            “I doubt it. Thousands were shipped in, mostly from Rabaul. Up there, they called it the island of death. No one ever returned from it, except for the ones they were able to get out at the end.”
            Neither of us had offered to shake hands; possibly, it wasn’t their custom. We had acknowledged each other in courtesy and with the sense that we had spent years on these islands during the dark days of war, when an invisible line in the ocean had divided us. On both our maps, the term, “enemy held,” would have defined the islands of the other. 

            Back on the plane, I watched for the first view of an island I had seen many times from our troopship. It had always seemed ominous, part ours and part enemy. At first, our part had been only a few miles of beach, and marines visiting our ship from there would point out the Lunga and Tenaru rivers that held our beach head and the crucial air field in the cleared jungle behind. Then, it all spread before us, Malaita directly below, Florida and Tulagi to the south and west, Ironbottom Sound with a sea floor of sunken ships that rivaled Truk Lagoon, and Guadalcanal straight ahead, across the sound from Tulagi.

            “There they are,” I told my wife. “Jungled mountains rising from the sea. Those aren’t sea-level atolls. Incidentally, I may not have told you, but these natives won’t be like any others you’ve seen.”
            “What do you mean?”
            “All these islands, east to the Fijis, had cannibals until ten years or so before the war. The natives on Malaita were still headhunters, from what we were told. Neither we nor the Japs ever went there.”
            She looked shocked.
            “Why would you bring me to a place like this?”
            “It was our first invasion, where we stopped defending and went on the attack. It was -” I stopped, unable to put my awe of this place in words.
            “Will we be in danger?”
            “Oh, no. The British or Australians started coconut plantations here in the Thirties, I think. Their missionaries probably civilized the natives enough to stop their killing and work the plantations. Some of them worked for us as scouts. They sure looked fierce. Stripes painted on their faces. Bones through their noses.”
            “But is it safe?”
            “We’re probably booked into a small hotel near their general store. The natives stay back in the hills. I went to one of their villages once. It was like the one in the King Kong movie.”

            The plane descended on a curving path, and I recognized Grassy Knoll Ridge, renamed by us to Bloody Ridge. Ahead of us lay Henderson Airfield, the king in the chess game we had fought with the Japanese. I had been told that it was now called the Honiara International Airport. I wondered what travesty of a country we would find here.
            We left the plane and walked across the field toward the terminal, about the size of the one at Nauru. A man detached himself from a waiting group and walked toward us.
            “Mr. and Mrs Eiden?”
            “Yes.” He looked Melanesian: he had the dark skin and coiled, bushy hair I remembered along with the facial features of a Polynesian. However, he was in a business suit and wore a tie, so I decided that he was from South India. They were often dark and could be found anywhere in the British Empire.
            “Joseph Ndebe. I will be your guide.” He gave me his card.
            “Fine. You’re from India, aren’t you?”
            He looked offended.
            “No. I am a Solomon Islander.”           
            “Is that near here?” my wife asked.
            “Lady, you are in the Solomon Islands. We are a country.”
            I felt a sharp dig in my side.
            He told us he would drive us wherever we wanted, but suggested that he drive us to our resort so we could get settled. On the way, we would pass through Honiara, the capital city. We entered an old, but serviceable Buick, and he got behind the steering wheel. As we drove out, my wife spoke again.
            “Is Malaita part of your country?”
            “Of course. It is one of our provinces. My grandmother is from there.”
            He spoke the English of one who learns it as a second language. Every consonant was distinct; none were slurred and no word carried an accent. His diction was so even, it could almost be called sing-song.
            “And does she collect shrunken -” she hesitated, “- things?”
            “No. she mostly works in her garden.”
            I felt another sharp jab,
            We came to a bridge and started to cross, I looked down to a deep ravine and a large river between jungled banks.
            “Stop!”
            He pulled over on the other side of the bridge.
            “That’s the Matanikau, isn’t it?”
            “Yes,” he replied, “that is what we call it.”
            “Some of our first, most desperate battles were fought here,” I told my wife. I saw, in my minds eye, marines working their way down its dark, tangled banks, alert to the unseen enemy watching them, hearing rifle reports and the chatter of machine guns up and down the ravine.
            She and the guide looked down at it. To them, it was just a river.

            Honiara was a surprise. Much larger than the island town in Truk, it featured two-story buildings and a wide, main street with sidewalks. I had been concerned about where we could cash traveler’s checks. I saw a bank ahead, and told Joseph to stop. Inside, I saw the usual assemblage of teller cages and loan officer desks. Natives were operating the adding machines and registers, talking to customers, and walking about with files and documents. A native teller cashed my travelers check, moving quickly and speaking the same unaccented English as Joseph had.
           
            Back in the car, I turned to my wife.
            “Natives are doing the work! I didn’t realize, at first. They’re all in suits.”
            “Natives?” Joseph asked.
            “Solomon Islanders,”
            “Of course. Did you expect to see foreigners?”
           
            The main street was full of pedestrians, as you would expect on a weekday in any town, but they were all natives, except for an occasional white or oriental. There were no pickups labeled as taxis by hand-painted signs, nor did I see idlers standing about. Although I could not agree with Joseph’s assertion that it was a city, it was certainly a handsome town, adequate for its purpose as capital and business center. All of it had been built since the war. We were soon out of town and headed north. Joseph stopped and said he wanted to check the tires; the road ahead was rocky in spots. My wife turned to me after he went back.

            “Why did you scare me with all that talk? I was expecting to hear war drums.”
            “I don’t get it. They were savages when I was here in ’43. Let’s see – 20 years ago; he’s not more that 22 or 23 – that would give him time for an education. But where would he, and all the rest we saw, have gotten that? There was nothing here but our military camps and their villages, mostly back in the jungle.”
            “He resents you using the word “native.”                                                                              
            “I gathered that. I’ll be more careful – he’s not that far out of savagery.”

            The paved road ended, and we were soon plodding on, navigating potholes, our speed reduced to a crawl. However, it was a better road than the one in Truk. Our SeaBees had left to the island an engineered, embanked, and graded road with gradual curves. Either they or the British had replaced our original coconut-tree-log bridges. It ran along the island’s coastal plain through coconut plantations and fields of grass that stretched up to foothills and mountain. The heavy jungle was up there and along the ravines where the rivers cut their way to the sea. Ahead, I saw the rusted hulk of the Jap troopship that had been beached to save its crew and troops after our bombers had hit it. Many of them died, but a large number escaped to join the enemy force spread across the plain and into the hills. I could now recognize the old Guadalcanal. We passed small groups of natives, the women dressed in shapeless dresses and the men in loin cloths. They were friendly and waved to us. My wife’s face showed worry again.

            I pointed out to sea. Florida and Tulagi Islands were dim shapes on the horizon. “That’s where the biggest ship battle the world has ever seen was fought. The naval Battle of Guadalcanal.”
            My wife had worked at the Bremerton Navy Yard during the war, and she recalled the carriers that had come limping in from huge air-sea battles.
            “There were no carriers in this one. Battlewagons, cruisers, and destroyers slugged it out, ship to ship, and subs circled the edges. We saw the prelude.”

            It had been mid-November; we had already brought in a marine regiment in September, another in October, and we had just unloaded an army regiment. On land, control had shifted to our side. A line of Jap torpedo bombers appeared, low on the horizon and running along our flank, readying to turn and launch torpedoes. Our entire task force opened fire, and lines of tracer bullets crisscrossed the sky. I fired a 40 mm Oerlikon, and I could see its tracers joined with many others, locked on a bomber that caught fire just as my gun jammed. By the time we cleared the jam, all the bombers were destroyed, and we were safe from that run. All ships stopped cargo unloading then and were soon headed out. The last of the Solomons had dropped from site when we got word that a large enemy battle fleet had left Rabaul and was now coming down the Slot, so named by us, a strait between the Solomons with long islands on either side, running from northwest to southeast.
            We heard conflicting reports for the next two days: we were winning or they were; battlewagons and cruisers from either side were passing each other and firing at point blank range, unable to see clearly in the gun smoke of battle, The survivors, being faster than our oilers, troop and cargo ships, passed our convoy one night and were docked or at anchor ahead of us as we entered the Navy’s anchorage in the New Hebrides Islands. We passed by them stretched in a long line and saw that the rumors we had heard had not been the usual scuttlebutt. The Helena had a huge hole in its side which we saw was matched by another on the other side, both from an enemy shell that had passed through the ship without exploding. We could see through the ship to the jungled shore beyond. Other ships were blackened form explosions and extinguished fires. We were told of others sunk or limping back across the Pacific to Pearl or the shipyards on our mainland.
            When I described it to my wife, she asked why divers didn’t come here – to Iron Bottom Sound – if there were so many sunken ships.
            “Too deep. That’s not a lagoon out there. Most of those ships are down a thousand feet or more. All you can get to here are a few troop transports that their captains were able to beach. Some day, I suppose they’ll send down submersibles and get pictures. There’s a battle fleet under all that water.” 

            We came to Cape Esperance, the northern point where the last Japs had been evacuated, to find a beautifully landscaped resort called Tambia Village, its buildings professionally built to authentic Solomon Island themes. By now, my authority on the these islands was no longer credible to my wife. She accepted my war stories as possible and my picture of native culture as fantasy. That evening, at dinner, a troupe of natives in grass skirts and painted faces put on a war dance, swinging their war clubs fiercely. She laughed and clapped as she had when watching such dances by native Hawaiians in Maui. It was only a show.

            We were seated with an Australian couple for dinner. He showed great interest when I told him I had been here during the war and was revisiting battle sites. He was a few years older and had been in North Africa and Italy during the war.
            “You Yanks cut quite a figure during the war. When your marine division came to Australia, after they’d beaten the Nips here, my little sister saw them parade in Melbourne. She went bonkers, wound up marrying one.”
            “I heard that most of you over there resented us.”
            “Those who got Dear John letters certainly did, and we got a raft of them. However, I had no attachments, and the girl I later met and married – she’s sitting next to me here – didn’t like Yanks. She said they were too cheeky.”
            She smiled. “I no longer feel that way.”
            “Actually, we probably resented the British more. They refused to send us home to fight. You Yanks were all that stood between our families and the Nips.”

            We saw a group of Japanese tourists who had two tables to themselves across the dining room. I began to suspect that they might not be clustered together entirely from choice. They were not popular with the natives in these islands their country had occupied so brutally during the war - nor with Australian and New Zealand tourists who remembered the dread they had felt, with their men half a world away, as the enemy drew near – nor with Americans who had fought or sent their sons to fight: all remembered a past hostility.

            He had worked for the British and Australian governments as well as for international trade groups. As a consequence, he had traveled to most of the Pacific Islands. He had been to Truk as well as to other parts of Micronesia.
            “You Yanks have a lot to learn about running colonies.”
            I had been feeling the same way but didn’t like to hear it from an Australian.
            “For instance?”
            “Don’t take this wrongly. We’re on the same side, but we’ve been doing it longer. Colonies built our empire. Now, we’re all countries in a commonwealth.”
            “We were one of your empire’s colonies. We didn’t like it. We only took on Micronesia because we had to. We didn’t want to have to retake them if the Soviet Union moved in and the Cold War got hot.”
            “Yes, I know that. Is there any reason why you keep them from sustaining themselves? You might as well have them on the dole.”
            “We call it welfare, but I agree with you on that. Truk was a surprise to me.”
            “We helped the Solomons and New Guinea become nations, as well as others. We had to give them a lot of instruction, turn things over to them that our colonial managers had handled. It took a lot of patience. We told them: do it this way. They tried and got it wrong. We showed them again – they did it wrong again. We kept at it until they oet it right.”
            “So, how are we different?”
            He laughed. “You show them once, then shove them aside when they fail and tell them to get out of the way - ‘I can do it quicker myself” – thereby missing the whole point. You took over the government because you could do it better. It’s not about efficiency. Any teacher could tell you that.”
            “Maybe, we should give all the islands back to the Japanese.”
            “Too late. You’ve made nations out of them. Your Peace Corps is part of the problem.”
             “I thought they showed them how to do things themselves – to move into the modern world. They work for free.”
            “Granted, they’ve done wonders. They’ve showed them how to use and fix outboard motors, and that’s certainly made their fishing more productive. They have also described to them the wonders of America, then downplayed it as mercenary. They want the natives to stay as they are in their tropical, stress-free paradise; they only need to bring in a few improvements from the outside world.”
            “The natives don’t see it that way?”
            “Right you are. Why should they work for 25 cents an hour picking coconuts if they can somehow get to America – or somehow bring the wonders of America to Truk?”
            He thought for a moment.
            “I don’t think the Japanese would take your part of Micronesia back, even if they could. I know we wouldn’t. Only you Americans can afford it. The Soviet Union has one basket case in Cuba. They wouldn’t want another.”


Jack Eiden


Next Posting –  Island of Death




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