TONGA, FIJI, TULAGI, ESPIRITO SANTO
July 10, 1942 - August 1942
he monotony of life aboard a troop ship was relieved when we arrived at the Friendly Islands, Tonga Tabu. This was my first sight of the South Seas... and Tonga lived up to my expectations. Our transport was anchored offshore but we were close enough to see waving palms and the natives on the beach. The swabbies and Marines drew lots to determine schedules for the groups to go ashore for a three hour "liberty". I pulled an afternoon trip on the third, and last, day.
At the time of our visit, Tonga was the last remaining absolute monarchy in the world. I wonder if this is
still true? According to scuttlebutt, the Tonganese queen was a 300 pound, seven-foot giantess. She was
considerably less than that, but she was a big, imposing person. I saw her as she rode by in the back seat of
an open Model T Ford equipped with a fancy, tasseled umbrella and four husky young attendants trotting
alongside. She was impressive and regal... the only real queen that I've ever seen.
Aside from this royal procession, my most vivid memory is the young hustlers: "Hey! Boy! Push-push in the
bush, my sista, two dolla." These enterprising youngsters were fast learners. The first few groups ashore had
royally screwed up, throwing money around like --what else -- drunken sailors. When the enterprising lads
discovered that the men from the big ships would spend real money for what they had always considered
free natural delights, they became instant entrepreneurs. This is a sobering thought about the benefits of
I resolutely maintained my chastity, but the natives offered many other temptations. These islands were aptly
named the Friendly Islands. We had some trouble trying to pretend to like ground taro root, but had no
problems with the fresh fruit or a potent drink made from fermented coconut juice. They were delightful
people. I hope they've been able to maintain their way of life and haven't succumbed to the mindless pursuit
of "progress" with its great achievements: nuclear bombs, radioactive fallout, AIDS, pollution, bigotry,
avarice, greed, ... I think of Tonga and Espiritu Santo as what Eden may have been like before Adam and
Eve and the snake screwed everything up.
Many Marines and sailors returned to the ship loaded down with grass skirts, shell necklaces, carved "ivory
nuts"... I never did succumb to souvenir collecting. Now, sometimes, I think it would be great to have a
trove of native art works, Samurai swords, Rising Sun flags, etc., but I watched my buddies gradually
discard all their hoarded treasures as we slowly worked our way around the Pacific. I often wonder how any
of these souvenirs, often collected at great personal risk, ever made it back home. I did manage to retain a
25mm Jap carbine and a compass. Now, fifty years later, I have no idea where either of them can be found.
They are in this house somewhere, basking in obscurity... and there's some irony here. I spent much energy
and used great ingenuity to protect these treasures, finally bringing them back to Montana. Now I can't
figure out why this stuff seemed important to me at the time. The compass is stuffed in a drawer somewhere.
It's still functional, but I have never used it. The carbine is likely gathering dust in the back of a
We stayed at Tonga for three days and then headed out to sea again. By now, the holds reeked with the
heady stench of sweaty, unwashed bodies. Even drinking water was rationed so we all eagerly looked
forward to the one allotted fresh water shower per week. Actually these shouldn't have been called showers.
Ten men were lined up to make a slow trip past a languidly dripping shower head, stand aside to lather up,
and then allowed another pass at the water. You usually couldn't manage to get all the soap rinsed off but it
really didn't matter. For a few days you smelled better. Unlimited hot, fresh water became another item
added to the growing list of wonderful things which we used to take for granted... cold milk, clean socks,
cool nights, hot buttered toast. We were all building our personal lists. Occasionally we were allowed salt
water showers. These didn't do any good at all. The dirt and sweat just congealed and we could scrape the
crud off in soggy chunks. When your skin dried, it felt as if you were encased in a brittle mold. Most of us
preferred to stink rather than shatter.
Bunks were three by six foot shelves stacked four deep; there was barely room between the tiers to turn
over. It's impossible for me to visualize what the ship might have been like when it was the pride of the
President Lines Luxury Fleet. There was damn little evidence of luxury in those stifling quarters. Eternal
poker games were in progress on the open spaces above the hatches. When it was storming or during
"general quarters" we had to stay below deck, where we sat around in the crowded hold sleeping, writing
letters, reading, playing cards... doing anything to ward off homesickness.
Some inspired soul came up with the idea of a battalion beauty contest. I was leading in the "handsomest
feet" division until someone spotted my spur and I was disqualified. This devastated me. After my cruel
dismissal from contention in the foot division, I sulked and refused to subject any other cherished parts of
my anatomy to scorn and derision. But the next night our section chief dragged me off my bunk and lined me
up with five other contestants in the below-the-belt division. I won the "biggest balls" title. Until this
award, I hadn't thought my equipment was particularly remarkable. This was a proud honor, but not
something that I can often brag about or interject into casual conversations. I was the temporary hero of "G"
Battery since I had won the second-most desired title. I can't remember who won the "deepest belly button"
or the "hairiest chest" awards. Every piece of male anatomy was scrutinized, measured and made the subject of ribald discussion. There were many bitter protests and demands for rematches. In retrospect, this all seems quite dumb and juvenile, but it kept a bunch of scared, lonely boys occupied. It helped us forget for a few hours the real possibility that any second, a Jap submarine might launch a torpedo and blow us up. The
Marines planned to challenge the swabbies for "all-ship" titles but before we could organize the
championship matches, our puny little convoy joined another task force and we had much more serious
things to concern us.
After a stop at Nuku'alofa, we headed west, and two days later our ships anchored off Koro, a small island
in the Fijis, where we joined a much larger convoy transporting the First Marine Division. It was obvious
that something big was about to happen. For three days we made practice landings on a small island in the
channel. Here is where I fist encountered an expression which became the standard : SNAFU:
"Situation Normal, All Fucked Up". Signals got mixed up; it took too long to get the troops into the landing
craft; the Higgins boats got stuck on coral reefs. One assault group even landed on the wrong island. If a
poor rehearsal meant a good show, our invasion was assured great success.
Near the end of July we left the Fijis and lost sight of land again. Now ships surrounded us on all sides, to all
horizons. It was comforting to know that the Japs hadn't managed to sink our entire fleet. By now we had
rejected the idea that our destination was Alaska. Guesses included the Philippines, Wake Island, even
Singapore. Finally the dope came down. We were to assault and recapture the Solomon Islands. No one had
ever heard of the archipelago before and the briefings didn't paint a particularly rosy picture: mosquitos,
cannibals, and Japs.
Malaria was a constant threat in the South Pacific so we were given daily doses of quinine and atabrine.
Atabrine was a tiny little yellow pill, easy to swallow, but it made our eyeballs and skin turn yellow and
caused nausea. I was happy when the supply ran out. Then we got quinine in capsules. We were given the
pills as we passed down the chow line. When the corpsmen ran out of capsules, the wrapped each dose in a
square of toilet paper. No one was allowed to pass down the line until they were assured that you had
swallowed your little packet. We all got pretty proficient at holding the evil medicine under our tongues and
spitting it out as soon as we passed by. Of course, all those soggy wads of tissue mashed on the deck tipped
off the medics. They came up with a fiendish, foolproof way to make us take our medicine. The awful
tasting quinine was dissolved in a big stock pot. A corpsman was stationed at the head of the chow line and
before anyone was allowed to proceed through the line he had to swallow a spoonful. You couldn't stop
eating forever, so eventually you had to give in. After a swig of the vile stuff, taste buds were numb.
Everything tasted wretched. We sure weren't being fed gourmet meals at the time, and a quinine cocktail
didn't help much.
I salute the cooks who were doing their best with Vienna sausage, powdered eggs, dehydrated potatoes, and
Kadoga figs. These figs were slimy yellowish globes full of gritty seeds. They tasted a lot like good old
Fletcher's Castoria and had somewhat the same effect. We called them monkey balls. There should
have been a congressional investigation into the fig fiasco. Someone had obviously got stuck with the entire
worldwide crop of figs and managed to unload them on the War Department. I don't seem them on grocery
shelves these days so I guess we ate them to extinction.
Our convoy now numbered almost one hundred ships, thirty transports with 19,000 Marines aboard, and
twice that many warships: destroyers, cruisers, one battleship -- the North Carolina, and our three
remaining carriers, the Saratoga, the Wasp, and the Enterprise.