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I wish I could tell you about the South Pacific. The way it actually was. The endless ocean. The infinite specks of coral we called islands. Coconut palms nodding gracefully toward the ocean. Reefs upon which waves broke into spray, and inner lagoons, lovely beyond description. I wish I could tell you about the sweating jungle, the full moon rising behind the volcanoes, and the waiting. The waiting. The timeless, repetitive waiting.
But whenever I start to talk about the South Pacific, people intervene. I try to tell somebody what the steaming Hebrides were like and first thing you know I’m telling about the old Tonkinese woman who used to sell human heads. As souvenirs. For fifty dollars!
Or somebody asks me, “What was Guadalcanal actually like?” And before I can describe that godforsaken backwash of the world, I’m rambling on about the Remittance Man, who lived among the Japs and sent us radio news of their movements. That is, he sent the news until one day.
The people intervene. The old savage who wanted more than anything else in the world to jump from an airplane and float down to earth in a parachute. “Alla same big fella bird!” he used to shout, ecstatically, until one day we took him up and shoved him out. Ever afterward he walked in silence among the black men, a soul apart, like one who had discovered things best hidden from humanity.
Or I get started on the mad commander who used to get up at two o’clock in the morning and scuff barefooted over the floors of his new hut. “Carpenter! Carpenter!” he would shout into the jungle night. “There’s a rough spot over here!” And some drowsy enlisted man would shuffle from his sweating bunk and appear with sanding blocks. “See if you can get those splinters out, son,” the commander would say softly.
Take the other night up in Detroit. Some of us were waiting for a train. The air in the saloon was heavy. For more than an hour a major told us about his experiences with Patton in Africa, in Sicily, and in France. He used great phrases such as “vast deployment to the east,” “four crushing days into Palermo,” “a sweeping thrust toward the open land south of Paris,” “a gigantic pincers movement toward the heart of Von Rundstedst’s position.”
When he had won the war, he turned to me and asked, “What was it like in the Pacific?” I started to reply as honestly as I could. But somehow or other I got mixed up with that kid I knew on a rock out there. Twenty-seven months on one rock. Heat itch all the time. Half a dozen trees. Got involved in the bootlegging scandal. Helped repair a ship bound for the landing at Kuralei. And then he got a cablegram from home.
“Why, hell!” the major snorted. “Seems all he did was sit on his ass and wait.”
“That’s exactly it!” I cried, happy to find at last someone who knew what I was talking about.
“That’s a hell of a way to fight a war!” he grunted in disgust, and within the moment we had crossed the Rhine and were coursing the golden tanks down the autobahnen.
But our war was waiting. You rotted on New Caledonia waiting for Guadalcanal. Then you sweated twenty pounds away in Guadal waiting for Bougainville. There were battles, of course. But they were flaming things of the bitter moment. A blinding flash at Tulagi. A day of horror at Tarawa. An evening of terror on Kuralei. Then you relaxed and waited. And pretty soon you hated the man next to you, and you dreaded the look of a coconut tree.
I served in the South Pacific during the bitter days of ’41 through ’43. I was only a paper-work sailor, traveling from island to island, but I did get to know some of the men who actually directed the battles. There was Old Bull Halsey who had the guts to grunt out, when we were taking a pasting, “We’ll be in Tokyo by Christmas!” None of us believed him, but we felt better that we were led by men like him.
I also knew Admiral McCain in a very minor way. He was an ugly old aviator. One day he flew over Santo and pointed down at that island wilderness and said, “That’s where we’ll build our base.” And the base was built there, and millions of dollars were spent there, and everyone agrees that Santo was the best base the Navy ever built in the region. I was always mighty proud of McCain, for he was in aviation, too.
Then there was little Aubrey Fitch who fought his planes in all the battles and banged away until the Japs just had to stop coming. I knew him later. I saw Vandegrift, of the Marines, who made the landing at Guadal, and bulldog General Patch who cleaned up that island and then went on to take Southern France.
Seeing these men in their dirty clothes after long hours of work knocked out any ideas I had of heroes. None of them was ever a hero to me. It was somewhat like my introduction to Admiral Millard Kester, who led the great strike at Kuralei. I was in the head at Efate, a sort of French pissoir, when I heard a great swearing in one of the improvised booths. Out came a rear admiral with the zipper of his pants caught in his underwear. “Goddamned things. I never wanted to buy them anyway. Sold me a bill of goods.”
I laughed at his predicament. “Don’t stand there gawking. Get someone who can fix these zippers,” he snapped, only he had a lot of adjectives before the infuriating zippers. I went into the bar.
“Anybody in here fix a zipper?” I asked, and a chief machinist said he thought he could, but he was drunk and all he did was to rip the admiral’s underwear, which made me laugh again. And finally my laughing made Admiral Kester so mad that he tore off both his pants and his underwear and ripped the cloth out of the offending zipper and threw it away. Even then the zipper wouldn’t work.
So there he was in just a khaki shirt, swearing. But finally we got a machinist who wasn’t drunk, and the zipper was fixed. Then Admiral Kester put his pants back on and went into the bar. Fortunately for me, he didn’t know my name then.
There were the men from the lesser ranks. Luther Billis, with doves tattooed on his breasts. And good Dr. Benoway, a worried, friendly man. Tony Fry, of course, was known by everybody in the area after his brush with Admiral Kester. The old man saw Fry’s TBF with twelve beer bottles painted on the side.
“What in hell are those beer bottles for, Fry?” the admiral asked.
“Well, sir. This is an old job. I use it to ferry beer in,” Tony replied without batting an eyelash. “Been on twelve missions, sir!”
“Take those goddam beer bottles off,” the admiral ordered. Tony kept the old TBF, of course, and continued to haul beer in it. He was a really lovely guy.
They will live a long time, these men of the South Pacific. They had an American quality. They, like their victories, will be remembered as long as our generation lives. After that, like the men of the Confederacy, they will become strangers. Longer and longer shadows will obscure them, until their Guadalcanal sounds distant on the ear like Shiloh and Valley Forge.