5 - The
Island of Death
The next morning, my wife and I walked the beach and I gazed across at
some 5 miles distant. The Australian had told me that cannibalism and head
hunting had died out at the turn of the century, that the islands had been free
of it long before we invaded. I thought back to marines coming aboard ship from
Savo Island Guadalcanal, bringing Jap rifles and other
battle souvenirs to sell to our sailors, who were a ready market. It would have
been to their interest to spice up their war stories.
“No painted native faces and bones through their noses?”
“Yes, on painted faces, when they were working for you as scouts. They would have seen themselves as warriors. Bones through their noses sounds strong. Did you see any?”
“I didn’t get ashore until the fighting was done. Then, our battalion was here for a year. A group of us crossed the island to break the monotony. We traded some trinkets to a chief in one of their villages to get a guide. We met a native who talked with us for a time in pidgin English while his woman stood off, silent, with a huge bundle she was carrying on her head.”
“They can be primitive back in the jungle, away from the coast settlements and plantations. We did hear stories of a few Jap heads being taken, but that would have been done to avenge some insult to the tribe. Mostly, they stay to themselves.”
I decided to take the resort manager’s offer to arrange for a boat trip to Savo. Several other guests had expressed interest. I didn’t want my wife thinking that the
Solomon Islands were
just a newer, cruder version of Hawaii or Guam. Next, she’d be doubting my war stories.
We all got out of the boat and waded through surf at Savo. Ahead of us lay a village, probably the demonstration village where all visitors were taken. It had the same features as the one I had seen on our island crossing, long ago. The men were in loin cloths and the women in grass skirts, bare above the waist. A mother posed for us, smoking a pipe, with four naked children standing at her side, holding her skirt. She did not compare well with the beauty I had seen on Truk. The huts and long meeting house were products of the coconut trees – palm fronds thatching the roofs and sides, palm logs serving as columns. Floors and outside areas were raked or broomed dirt, and rocks lined the walks. Children took several of us by the hand and led us to a nearby beach area where there was a field filled with large eggs. A guide told us that birds, all of one kind, flew there at their nesting time, to lay them. Apparently, the natives always left enough for them to reproduce and lived off the surplus. At the level they lived, with plenty of fish offshore, coconut palms, the eggs, and wild fruits surrounding the village, they needed nothing essential from the outside world, except medical attention. We saw a few people who had obvious needs and one gross example of elephantiasis.
I asked my wife, as we were leaving, if Savo was sufficiently primitive.
“You don’t have to show me any others.”
I explained to her that they had adopted our civilization along the shore plain of Guadalcanal, where it made economic sense, and left the stone-age economy in place, where it didn’t. I added that it was a concept we might have considered as colonizers. She asked, again, when we were leaving for
and the other places I wanted to see in Australia.
On the return trip from Savo, I looked at the mountainous mass of
Guadalcanal and thought again of our trip over it to the
far side of the island.
We had plodded behind our nearly naked, barefooted guide who would have had us running up that narrow trail if we hadn’t restrained him. We pushed away jungle vines and tore leeches from our necks and arms as they dropped on us. It was hot and humid until we passed under a downpour as night came on. When we stopped to make camp, he had made a campfire in the rain, shielding his pile of shavings until his stick rubbing ignited them, patiently building on the small flame until he had a blazing fire in the continuing drizzle.
The next day, we crossed the main crest and came down through more jungle, until we broke out on a beach. We made our way to a cluster of buildings ahead and found a Dutch mission there. The minister invited us to share dinner with him and told us that he had been here through our invasion and the fierce fighting that had followed for five months. Sometimes, they had heard artillery but had seen no Americans or Japanese until our victory. Now, our Army had a small base nearby. It was another example of
uniqueness in the war. He had lived here, his mission at peace and undisturbed,
while one of the war’s fiercest battles had been fought on the other side of
the mountain ridge.
I turned from the approaching
Guadalcanal and surveyed the channel between it and Savo
to our stern. A Jap task force had come through that channel, unobserved by us,
the second night after we had invaded Guadalcanal and .
It struck our cruiser group screening the invasion beach then turned north to
our second screening force north of Savo and, in the action, sank three of our
cruisers plus an Australian. It was a disaster that could have been worse, had
its admiral then attacked our force of troop transports and supply ships,
rendered defenseless by the loss. It was bad enough to force us to stop all our
unloading - with half the marine division’s ammunition, food, and supplies
still on board – and prepare for departure. Before leaving, we sent boats
through the attack areas, picking up survivors and floating corpses from the
sunken ships. Sharks had also taken a toll. Tulagi Islands
We, on board our fleeing ships, would never forget the memories of that day: flag-draped bodies chuting from our deck into the sea - the peaks of the Solomons disappearing over the horizon – the knowledge that our victorious invasion had been followed by another naval battle won by the enemy. Crowning all this was the knowledge that the Japs now controlled the waters around
Guadalcanal; our marines would fight alone with whatever
they had on the island against an enemy able to increase its forces there at
will. More than a month would go by before we could assemble enough naval
strength to bring in another marine regiment.
The next morning , our guide, Joseph, picked us up for our scheduled tour of the battlefields. Again, we drove through
crossed the Matanikau, drove on toward the airfield, then turned inland past
its west end. Grassy Knoll, renamed
Bloody Ridge, ascended from the inland side of the airfield and formed its
natural defense, running between the rivers at each end, it’s mountain-facing
side dropping sharply to the jungle behind. A well-maintained road took us to
the top, and Joseph pointed to the handsome pavilion with a memorial wall, some
thirty feet high, at its end.
“Who built it? The Marines?”
“No. The Japanese. Your memorial is over there.”
I walked over to a rough-formed concrete pylon, possibly two feet square at the base, tapering to a point at its top, a little taller than I.
“This is ours?” I read a short account to the effect that the First Marine Division fought the crucial battle of the campaign here. It looked like the letters had been etched into the concrete with a beer-can opener. I then walked to the Japanese memorial and read a better written account, in two languages, on a bronze plaque, that told of a terrible battle that had been waged by brave men from two nations. I walked along the ridge, looking down at the jungle canopy below.
They had swarmed up from there all along the line of this ridge. The defending marines had only the forces originally landed – there had been no naval support since the disaster off
– and men normally
in the rear, including cooks and headquarters personnel, were on the line. Waves
of Japanese came against it and the pivotal area between its end and the Savo
over the next two nights and a day. If they had made a major breakthrough
anywhere, they could have rolled up the front, and we would have faced another Lunga River Bataan. Instead, we retained our hold on the island, and
the remnants of two Japanese regiments retreated into the jungle behind, facing
further loss to hunger, disease, and loss of direction.
“We win the battle, and they get to put up the big monument.”
“Is it not more a matter of who cares the most? Until two years ago, you had no monument.”
“Oh? What happened then?”
“You had the battle’s 50-year anniversary. When your veterans, who had come, saw what the Japanese had done, they put up this. It was all their group could afford.”
I had already noticed that Joseph had never used “we” in describing the battle sites. His view was that the British had not been able to hold these islands against the Japanese, so the Americans had come. Now, they were free of all of them. If Americans or Japanese wanted to visit these places, he was happy to drive them. The places of their battles meant money for him and for his people, nothing more.
We left then for the
, the third side of
our original beach head. We were again on the grass plain that covered most of
the island’s north shore and passed a complex of metal buildings with a silo
and a sign in front identifying it as a copra plant. Ilu
“You’re picking your coconut palms then?”
“Of course. All the coconut plantations send product here.”
I could see that it must have seemed a silly question to him, just as it would have seemed equally silly to a Trukese if I had asked him why they didn’t pick their coconuts.
We came to a beach and small river that looked more like a stagnant lagoon extending inland with jungle banks. The battle fought here was mistakenly named for the Tenaru, which is actually a large river a mile or two east. The First Marines had held the line of the Ilu, protecting the eastern approach to the airfield and our beach head. The Ichiki Detachment had stormed that line from the east side of the river, charging across in one banzai attack after another, from midnight through the early hours of August 21. At daybreak, most of the detachment lay dead, piled up in front of marine machine guns, along the river bank, and on the beach. The night action was featured in a movie, in which a blinded marine fired his machine gun, directed by a fellow marine, badly wounded but able to see. A picture of the dead, scattered over the beach and washed over by tidal sand, was shown on a Life Magazine cover of that time. The marines counterattacked the next morning and, by the afternoon, had surrounded and killed all but a few who escaped or were taken prisoner. Over 800 bodies were counted out of a battalion of 900.
This first major battle between the marines and the enemy was almost a pattern for the deadly battles that would follow. It was safer to kill an enemy wounded than to help him; he could be holding a grenade to kill both he and his rescuer. He showed his skill at night fighting, but he continued his crazed, sometimes sake-fueled, banzai charges to the war’s end.
I noticed a crowd gathered, farther down the beach, and noticed that there were several veterans among them, still in the uniforms they had worn on the plane. Some of the civilians looked to be in their early 80’s, old enough to be their parents. I looked at Joseph.
“They’re all Japanese.”
“Yes, he replied.
I learned from him and from others, later, that Japanese groups had been coming here for many years. After our post-war occupation had ended, after they had rebuilt their bombed cities and returned to some semblance of normalcy, parents, wives, and others had time to wonder about all the young men who never returned from the islands. As bad as it had been for our wartime families to receive the final telegrams, it had been worse for the Japanese. When they lost an island, their troops would make final, banzai charges, and its commander would commit a ritual suicide. There was no one to send the data that would produce telegrams. As the Americans tightened the noose around
Japan, families would lose all
touch with the islands their ships could no longer reach, and their only sure
knowledge came when men were brought home, after the surrender, from the
Those who could afford it, in this later time, made their way to the various islands of death for further inquiry. What they found deeply shocked them. What, to us, was a necessity of war was, to them, an atrocity. The hundreds of corpses left after a banzai charge in the equatorial or, at best, tropical heat of these islands could not be left very long before putrefaction began. The first mass burial probably took place here, at the site of the first banzai attacks. 800 corpses were grouped in piles where the night’s main attacks and the next day’s counterattack had occurred. I could visualize Seabees, with their bulldozers, detached from grading the airfield to blading out a huge burial pit near the battle area, then pushing the corpses, in a large, rolling berm of dirt, into the pit. I had seen it done on
Guam, nearly two years later,
when the process had become a common, post-battle operation. It had sickened me
when I saw it done to enemy corpses. How would I have felt if I were a parent
or a widow to know that a loved one’s body had been so treated?
Further, I was told that, in the Shinto religion, a corpse must be buried intact or its spirit will wander, forever lost in some shadow land. Since I wasn’t told this by a Shinto priest or even a follower, I can’t vouch for the statement’s accuracy. I don’t know how it would square with their common use of cremation in burials. However, something about our mass burial sites had brought this large group here from
and such a visit was a regular, recurring event. A group or its leader would
seek out an island native and inquire about battlefields or any areas where
such a mass burial had occurred. From personal knowledge or what had been told
to him, the native would lead them to a spot. Repeated excavations there and
nearby would eventually uncover a mass of skeletons.
I was looking at the final result of that tedious, laborious, and expensive process. Skeletons had been laid out and re-assembled as necessary. If bones were missing, they would be drawn from the pile so that each corpse could be blessed or pronounced whole by the priest, then buried individually with proper rites. Since I was looking from a distance, the above is a mix of my observation and what I was told.
What impressed me deeply was not the ceremony or its details. I saw the patience of the elderly, the looks of stoic endurance, what appeared to me as their sense of acceptance about what was being done. I also saw the support they were receiving from younger people about my age, in the uniforms I had seen on the plane, and I concluded that many of these men had to be from the bypassed, enemy-held islands of the Pacific War.
Where were the Jap savages we had hated? We and they had been educated and raised in modern, industrialized nations. If they had been made savage, in the military, what had changed them back? They had returned to a nearly destroyed urban landscape to rejoin the civilian population that rebuilt their nation’s cities and industries and, in the process, they had created the world’s second largest economy. Savages could not have done that. I realized then that most of the Japanese civilians we had seen on
been younger than the veterans I was seeing here, many young enough to be their
children. They had been like young, successful people anywhere, happy to be on
vacation and absorbed in each other. How could they be related to the men who
perpetrated the Rape of Nanking, the Bataan Death March, the prison camp
tortures and cruelties noted in too many accounts to be ignored – or to
mindless robots who charged, en masse, into a line of enemy machine guns, mortars,
We left for
Brisbane the next morning - my wife looking
ahead to Australia
while I continued to puzzle these contradictions.
I won’t write of
Australia and New Zealand as it would only be a travelogue of
cities and country sides as friendly and attractive as any to be found in America. Detailed
descriptions of travel there are plentiful. There was no physical evidence of
the war – one went to a museum for that. We did sit next to a younger couple in
a Melbourne night club, and they remembered
seeing the First Marine Division parade downtown after its arrival from Guadalcanal. I realized, from their conversation, that
they had seen the island as their front line against invasion. Although the war
never reached them, it came very close.
On the long plane ride home from
I had more time to think about the war, then 40 years past. I had read many
articles on it as a civilian, during those years, and I compared what I had
read with what I had learned on my recent visit. Further thought had led to
further questions and contradictions.
The enemy’s tactics had ranged from stupid through arrogant to brilliant. We had suffered many defeats at sea before the U. S. Navy successfully countered the I. J. Navy’s night fighting tactics. Similarly, the most effective enemy ground attacks had been made at night. Their banzai charges, whether at day or night, were incredibly stupid or based on an unfounded assumption of their invincibility. The Japanese war strategy ranged from rash to improbable. The attack on
Pearl Harbor was supposed to destroy our Pacific Fleet
and convince us, whom they considered to be a divided, ineffective people, that
we should not consider any further opposition to them. After Midway and
Guadalcanal convinced them, instead, of our tenacity, and their intelligence
told them of our vastly greater war production, they then switched to a
strategy based on one final, twilight-of-the-gods naval battle that would
destroy a rebuilt, much more powerful Pacific Fleet. The subsequent Marianas
Turkey Shoot and Leyte Gulf naval battles not only demolished that strategy;
they rendered the IJN ineffective as a naval shield for Japan
How could a nation, with the capacity to rebuild itself so successfully from catastrophic defeat, have followed a war policy so foolish as to guarantee that defeat?
I couldn’t answer that question on the flight home; nor could I reconcile the wartime Jap savage with the postwar Japanese reality. Every Jap we saw as savage had had a sweetheart, wife, or parents. Many of our veterans brought home proof of that in billfolds stripped from enemy corpses. Was that Jap, then, the product of his nation’s boot-camp brainwashing? If so, how different were we? There were marines who did more than seek souvenirs after a battle. There were those who knocked teeth out of corpses with their rifle butts to get the gold fillings. That action would be considered an atrocity in any nation’s war manual, and fellow marines, who did not participate, often justified the act by citing the enemy’s savagery. However, admitting that action as an atrocity against the dead does not justify far greater atrocities by the Japs against the living.
I have read an account of the terrifying experiences of a young Japanese girl and her mother during the fire-bombing air raids on
Tokyo. More people died in those raids than
at Hiroshima. I
have also read a statement by General Curtis LeMay, commanding the 20th
Air Force at the time, supposing that had we lost the war, he would have been
tried as a war criminal. Those raids plus the atomic bombing of two Japanese
cities have to be considered in any account of the war’s atrocities. Yet, who
can now say what we didn’t need to do to bring the Japanese people and
their Emperor to the surrender point? We have General MacArthur’s estimate of a
million deaths had we proceeded with the invasion of Japan. If we consider their custom
of fighting to the death on each island and the fact of the cliff suicides by
Japanese civilians at Saipan, the deaths from
an invasion could have been in the tens of millions.
My visit to a long-ago war ends here with my questions and the contradictions unanswered. Thirty years have passed since that visit, and I think I have the glimmering of an understanding of what put the Japanese people on the road to national disaster and why their military forces waged war in calculated savagery.
They did what any human culture would have done that had been developed under similar circumstances and conditions.
The perceptions and arguments that led to this understanding will be on my next posting: The Road to Empire.