January 1, 2005: Headlines: COS - Palau: Writing - Palau: Saipan: Antioch Review: Palau RPCV P.F. Kluge remembers Saipan
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January 1, 2005: Headlines: COS - Palau: Writing - Palau: Saipan: Antioch Review: Palau RPCV P.F. Kluge remembers Saipan
Palau RPCV P.F. Kluge remembers Saipan
Palau RPCV P.F. Kluge remembers Saipan
Jan 1, 2005
by P. F. Kluge
Five hours out of Los Angeles, another seven west of Hawaii- twelve hours of cramped seats and crap food-and now, headed north from Guam, the weariness and claustrophobia depart. I enter a zone of magic, a field of force. The island of Saipan, haunted, handsome, out-of-control Saipan, awaits me, just twenty minutes away. We'll be landing at night but I can picture the place anytime, its beaches and caves, the mountain at its center, the fatal cliffs. Island of dreams and nightmares for me and, even more, for the men I am traveling with, two dozen World War II veterans, some accompanied by wives, a few by sons, and at least one, late actor Lee Marvin, represented by his widow.
The greatest generation, they've been called, here to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the Battle of Saipan.
I first glimpse them at an airport hotel in Los Angeles, men of a certain age, out of place among younger travelers who are watching Lakers duel Pistons and enjoying fajitas and Corona beers at a hotel bar. The old-timers dutifully display their name tags, "Military Historical Tours." For the next fifteen hours, in airport vans and departure lounges, standing in aisles, loitering outside airplane restrooms, I chat and eavesdrop as we travel across time zones and datelines. What I hear at first is random, tentative. How could it be otherwise? One man talks about the discovery of a cache of Japanese saki in the ruins of Saipan' s town of Garapan, another recalls the taste of beer turned skunky in the island's withering heat.
A pilot remembers some buddies who built a jeep out of spare parts, just for the fun of it. When ordered to turn the vehicle in, they drove it to a cliff and pushed it into the same waters where Japanese soldiers and civilians jumped to their deaths months before. Another veteran swears he wants to eat barracuda, yet another-a Kansas farmer-longs to find the place where he was shot. There's a deeper vein of memory, I guess, but what comes first are careful, practiced things they've said before. Memories on command. I wonder when-or if-I will hear memories that show up without permission. Still, I like them.
They are old, there's no getting away from it. I hear talk of macular degeneration's attack on vision, of impending heart surgery, of hip replacements past and planned.
Sixty years ago, death was dispensed on Saipan from ships, aircraft, artillery, tanks, machine guns, flamethrowers, grenades, rifles, pistols, bayonets, swords, bamboo spears, clubs, stones, and fists. Now, for the men sitting in the darkened cabin of this plane, death is subtler, gradual. It assaults their knees and hips, congests their hearts, clouds their eyes, clogs their ears. The battle-their victory-cost more than 3,000 American lives, but that was a fraction of the 70,000 Americans who attacked and took the island. The odds were in their favor then. Not now. Watching them fly halfway around the world after sixty years, seeing them nap, stare at movies, pick at food, I find myself pleased to accompany them on this last long journey.
"Reason for trip," one veteran muses as he reads from a form the stewardess passes out between Guam and Saipan. The Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas wants to know why we are coming. Business or pleasure? Employment? Visit relatives? Reason for trip: a battle that history's neglected. We've had a week of D-Day and Normandy, Saving Private Ryan stuff. But, by bringing Japan in range of B-29s with atomic bombs, the capture of Tinian and Saipan ended World War II. Reason for visit? The veteran checks off "a previous trip." That'll do for him. And for me.
Back in 1967, the Peace Corps announced-half kiddingly-that it was going to "paradise." That was Micronesia, a U.S.-administered United Nations Trusteeship which covered the northern Marianas, including Saipan and Tinian, as well as the distant, scattered, Caroline and Marshall Islands. I didn't ask for paradise. I'd been reading Lawrence Durrell, not James Michener. Picturing labyrinthine cities, spicy, crowded marketplaces, exotic and dangerous liaisons, I specified Turkey and Ethiopia. But the Peace Corps tapped me for paradise. Someone I never met changed my life forever. And saddled me with a mantra that I learned, memorized, recited, and wrote, then and for years to come: "The Trust Territory of Pacific Islands has 2,141 islands with an aggregate land mass half the size of Rhode Island scattered over an area the size of the continental United States.
And a population of 120,000 that could be-possibly- accommodated in the Pasadena Rose Bowl. It has six districts, nine mutually unintelligible languages, and a subsistence economy of fishing and farming as well as the copra trade, scrap metal, and government employment." Sometimes, if my listeners' eyes weren't glazing over, I would add that this was the last post-World War II trusteeship and that America was supposed to offer the people a choice of their future government and political status. Eventually, sort of, somehow, maybe.... Oh, there was no escaping it, I had been sent to a place that not many people cared about, a few pieces of small change jangling around in history's pocket.
But that didn't stop me from falling in love.
The Saipan I came to was no paradise, that was clear. Almost a quarter century had passed since the shooting stopped, but the place was shaped and defined by the great battle. Long after the military walked away from its quonsets, camps, and airfields, the island was haunted. It was like a theater abandoned by actors and audience, a place still littered with costumes and props, ticket stubs and programs. Have you ever, driving around America, gone past an outdoor drive-in theater, the big screen still standing, blank as death, weeds in the parking lot, long half-circular rows of those speakers that look like parking meter poles, and the ruins of a rickety, graffiti-marked projection booth in the middle of it all? That was Saipan.
It had battlefield beaches, rusting tanks and landing craft, bullet-pocked Japanese buildings, abandoned runways, houses cobbled together out of left-behind wood and scavenged metal. Saipan was one of those rare, dear places where you could confront history without a ticket, a tape-recorded spiel, a forced march through a museum, a sign at the entrance warning of all the things you weren't supposed to do. That was Saipan, all right, scarred, handsome, and sometimes at the right time of day, beautiful. It invited exploring, it conduced to thought. It kept me-it keeps me- coming back, an ex-Peace Corps Volunteer among ex-Marines.
So, reason for visit? "A previous trip."
Night on Saipan greets me like an intimate friend, that heavy, velvety, not-quite-liquid air that wraps itself around me as I step through the terminal. The veterans take their time, wait for luggage. My stuff is hand-carried and I move fast, wanting to be all the way home. That "I have returned" business can be very impressive, I tell myself, a minute before I feel like a fool. As I step through the terminal, first off the plane, I draw cheers and shouted "thank you's." No, I need to protest, I wasn't here in the battle. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer here in the late sixties, I've written about the place in magazines and books, but no...
I'm not one of them. Embarrassed, furtive, I brush aside an interview request: "Peace Corps, not Marine Corps," I confess.
I sit out on the balcony of the Hyatt Hotel. I'm worried. I almost didn't come. An old friend thought I might have something interesting to say. He pressed for my invitation-a plane ticket and a hotel room in exchange for a speech. Others were skeptical: I was not a veteran, not a military historian. What did I have to talk about? "Saipan from Then to Now" became my topic, an account of the island from the end of the war, through years of United States Trusteeship, all the way to its current status as a United States Commonwealth. It's a tricky subject and my problem is that I'll be facing two incompatible audiences.
There are veterans who will want something celebratory. Fair enough. But there'll be others, Saipan residents, who want to know what I make of today's bewildering island. What to do? It's a predicament. Amazing, what you can get yourself into when you care about small places. Still, there's this: from my balcony, with the sliding door open behind me, I straddle two climates, air conditioning at my back, tropical night in front. It's wasteful and delicious. Down below, I survey a honeymoon landscape: irregularly shaped swimming pools set among banks of succulent plants and tropical trees through which young Japanese wander on floodlit paths, heading for a beachside dance pavilion where a band is playing "By the Waters of Babylon," set to an easy- to-danceto cha-cha beat.
That hasn't changed, at least: all dances around here are cha-chas. And they goon forever, turning a potential romantic encounter into apunitive work-out exercise, with one song so quickly followed by another, similar song that it's hard to exit the floor without feeling defeated. Still, there's something rich and plangent about music coming to you through the warm night. Behind the pools and pavilion lies the Philippine Sea, dark and neglected feeling, except for the lights on offshore ships. Three of those ships are almost always there. They're pre-positioned U.S.- charter\ed military supply ships, "beans and bullets" set to sail to trouble spots on a moment's notice.
That's today ' s Saipan, living off continuing U.S. military interest, off Japanese tourists, off a couple of dozen garment factories where foreign workers-Chinese mainly-make clothing marked American-made. There were 11,000 people, mostly local, when I came here in the 1960s; now there are more than 70,000, mostly foreign: garment makers, security guards, barbers and beauticians, hostesses and maids, farmers and hard-hats who have come to do the island's heavy lifting. The Saipanese work mostly for the island government. It's a scrap of America. I wonder what the veterans will make of it. I wonder what I make of it.
It howled irony when I first heard that Saipan's neighbor island of Tinian would become home to a Chinese-financed casino. The casino at the end of the world, that's how I thought of it. A casino on the A-bomb island, the place the Enola Gay called home. Why not Tarawa for high-rollers, why not Pitcairn or St. Helena? Now, on almost the first day of my return, I join the veterans on a casino-operated hydrofoil that shuttles the few miles between Saipan and Tinian. When we arrive, after a welcoming ceremony at the dock, we bundle into a van and head to a Japanese peace monument at the far end of the island.
After lunch at the casino, veterans mingling with indifferent gamblers at buffet tables, we head to the main attraction, the north end of the island, where 8,500-foot airstrips are baking in afternoon heat, surrounded by brushy boondocks that give off the smell of steamed green vegetables. I prefer the runways on moonlit nights, when I have them to myself, and go racing down the runway in a rental car, headlights dimmed, right on the edge of history. Today, the heat is awful, yet veterans step out onto the runways, return to the van, step back out at the pits from which atomic bombs were hoisted aboard the Enola Gay and Bockscar.
This is where the war ended and the atomic age began, and the emptiness of the place is startling: big sky, heat-waved breezes blowing down the endless runway. At last, with lots of time to kill, we find some shade on the tiny, lightly defended beaches where the invasion surprised the Japanese. I can't come here without thinking about the Japanese garrison. What did it feel like to see 500 ships converging on Saipan, to see the bettermanned island go up in smoke, to measure the progress of a losing battle, off the beaches, toward the mountain, then to Suicide and Banzai Cliffs? What was it like for the Japanese on Tinian to know not only that they were doomed but also that their last battle was a sideshow, nine days of fighting that cost about 300 American lives and 8,000 Japanese? For the Americans, it was as close to perfect as a battle can be.
But, as I idle away an afternoon with the victors, I wonder about their doomed opponents. Was their greatness any less than that of the "greatest generation"? If greatness means courage, they surely had it. And loyalty? Yes, to a fault. Willingness to sacrifice for king and country? The numbers speak for themselves. Should we grant them greatness, then? If not, on what grounds do we deny it? And did one side-our side-require a greatness in its opponents? Did they need each other? The way Joe Louis needed Max Schmeling?
There's a pillbox on the invasion beach, one of countless such fortifications all through Micronesia, damp, pockmarked places, moldy and garbage-littered within, pissed-in and picked-over. The highestranking member of our group, a retired three-star general, is standing near the pillbox. I ask him how such stolid, ugly structures were attacked. Throw a hand grenade through the firing slot, when you can get close enough, he replies. Or use a flame thrower. Shooting into the mouth of the cave like a fatal French kiss, the napalm tongue burns the men inside or, by sucking out all the air, suffocates them.
And like that, a fort becomes a tomb. And once again, I wonder about the other side, the underdogs, the lost cause, history's villains and Hollywood's as well. Would a gathering of eighty-year-old Germans or Japanese be that much different?
Late-afternoon shadows cross the beach, the killing heat begins to abate, the day turns mellow. I fall into conversation with Hal Olsen. He had a career at Los Alamos, an artist-illustrator for the government. Lots of work, he says, was classified. Back here, he's enjoying a late flush of fame as a nose-cone artist. He's one of the men who painted women on the front of B-29s flying out of Saipan and Tinian, languorous, seductive pin-up girls copied out of calendars and magazines. An odd trade and his work was perishable: he knows of only one example that still exists. But he has memories of bombers with names like Easy Maid and Lucky Lady.
Up-and-Atem. His price was fifty dollars and he remembers standing on oil barrels while he painted, breathing coral dust stirred up by taxiing bombers, getting heckled by passing crews. "The nose-cone paintings were a touch of humanity," he says, "on what were otherwise killing machines."
The crowded, neon nightclub zone behind my hotel is Saipan's Ginza. By day it's dreary. In island humidity and heat, even the newest buildings age quickly. Mold rules. It's hard to say whether something has just been finished or is on the edge of demolition. We're talking about a warren of concrete buildings housing convenience stores, tourist shops, restaurants, night clubs, massage parlors, disco, karaoke, duty-free shopping. Look between the buildings and you see alleys of scrap lumber, ruptured bags of cement, hanging laundry, tangled wiring. But at night, no doubt about it, the place buzzes: teams of bar girls, Filipinas mostly, assemble outside nightclub entrances, dressed in uniform.
It's as if the team in orange-sherbet-colored miniskirts is about to scrimmage against the squad across the street in Aqua-Velva blue. Later, the masseuses come out, and they stay out a lot longer, chatting in chairs set out on the sidewalk, calling to, sometimes running across the street to connect with, passing customers. There are Russian women on the island now too: one place is called "Russian Roulette."
Tourism-about 500,000 visitors a year, mostly Japanese-is big business on Saipan, second only to the garment industry. The tourist era began back in the sixties, with just one oceanfront hotel that we were sure was doomed to fail. But soon there were hotels all up and down the invasion beach, almost all of them Japanese-owned and - patronized. That was the interesting thing: the pattern of tourist development mimicked the World War II battle. First they hit the beaches, then they moved inland to Mount Tagpochau, then north to Suicide and Banzai Cliffs. Hotels were trailed by camp-following, wake-of-battle operations: golf courses and shopping centers and poker machine parlors.
Who could have guessed-what ex-Marine, what ex-Peace Corps Volunteer-that Saipan would become a Japanese Florida? And what about the island's biggest industry, the garment trade, represented by factories and barracks across the island? Sometimes the labels specify the Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas, sometimes it's just made in the U.S.A. Ten years ago, the garment operations were controversial. American labor unions objected, congressmen charged exploitation, TV and print journalists reported on workers living in shipping containers, dissidents shuttled off-island on night flights to Manila.
Conditions have improved since then, I'm told, but the underlying situation continues to perplex. Take the benefits of living under the American flag, combine with influxes of foreign capital and foreign labor, retain control of local government, contact Washington when necessary, put them on hold when convenient, and prosper. It reminds me of Saudi Arabia, enriched by oil, of Nauru, which turned bat shit into gold. Saipan had location, location, location: the route that Colonel Tibbetts took north in the Enola Gay is the same route Japanese and Korean 747s take, coming south.
What an island! What a confederacy of deals: of history and story, a newsreel battleground turned into a film noir. At night, headed to dinner with the veterans at the island's only major American-owned hotel, I pass through a neighborhood of garment factories. I drive carefully-I've been warned-because off-duty garment workers flit back and forth across the streets as if they were in Manila. Which they well might be. They've turned Saipan into Manila at night, with tiny ethnic stores, hole-in-the-wall currency- remittance operations, long-distance phone centers. They've revived agriculture on the island: naked light bulbs dangle over tables full of eggplant, onions, greens, beans, avocados, garlic, melons, okra, corn, soursop, kalamtsi.
There are barbecue stands, smoke coming off pork, fish, chicken. Elsewhere, there are Korean restaurants, Chinese and Filipino, Indian and, a stone's throw from Saipan's Planet Hollywood, a tiny place called Taste of Bengla Desh. There's a lower-East-Side immigrant buzz about Saipan, an accidental Ellis Island, even if most of these workers are fated to leave when their contracts end. Is all this the flush of growth or the phosphorescence of decay? Paradise? Paradise Lost? Paradise leased? If you believe in island communities that are small, tightly woven, deeply rooted, what do you make of Saipan? If you believe in America as a level playing field, an equal-opportunity employer, something that offers the hope of time and work leading to membership and citizenship from the bottom up, how does Saipan measure up? One thing is certain: it's an island like no other.
After the Tinian tour, I have two days before the seminars and speeches I am part of begin. The veterans are being guided around Saipan, retracing the battle, so many Rip Van Winkles, matching memories \of then with the reality of now. I go on my own search, looking for the island that hooked me in the sixties and never quite let go. Much of the island is almost lost to factories, shopping centers, housing developments, some prospering, others shuttered, remnants of the fevered atmosphere that followed the island's becoming a Commonwealth. ("It's not the heat," someone quipped, "it's the cupidity.") Still, even in the midst of what passes for progress, there are pockets of the past.
Consider, for instance, Aslito, the Japanese precursor of today's busy international airport, where I meet an old friend, Jerry Facey, for an early morning walk. On this island, if you want to do anything physical, you get up at dawn. So we meet at six in the air cargo area, within sight of the main terminal and control tower. There are Japanese pillboxes and a few larger buildings in easy view: even the most casual tourist cannot miss them. But much more is waiting in the boondocks around the airport, buried in unwelcoming thickets of the brushy tangan-tangan plant that was seeded by air after the battle, to replace burned-off, never-to-be-replanted sugar cane fields.
Quickly breaking a sweat, Facey and I walk down a maze of overgrown runways and bomber parking places ("hard stands") left by the Americans. Peeling back the layers of time, we turn into the tangan- tangan and find the ruins of a Japanese hospital: tiled floor, concrete sinks and cisterns, wards and waiting rooms. Elsewhere, there's an administration building, a power plant, an ammunition revetment: a Japanese colonial city, built to endure, handsome in its ruins. No one visits here by accident. And there are places like this all over the island, waiting for anyone who cares enough to find them.
Facey and I hop in his truck, drive down an axle-busting road, rocky and eroded, tangan-tangan leaning toward us from either side, branches swiping at our windows. We make our way toward Japanese artillery batteries facing toward Tinian, on Naftan point. They repose like Mayan ruins, tenanted by wasps and lizards. There's little reason for local people to come here, less for tourists: Hermes scarves, not rusted helmets, are today's souvenirs of Saipan. It's safe to say that no more than a dozen people have been here since the war, and equally few will come in the next twenty years. Later, I go off on my own, headed toward Mount Tagpochau.
On the road that cuts around the back side of the island, away from the invasion beaches, I find not houses but mansions, mini-Taras, some built by tax-avoiding American businessmen, others by Saipanese enriched by land leases. Still, the old ragged cliffs are here, the pocket beaches and blow holes, the windy fields of sawgrass, occasional breadfruit trees, ramshackle farms and pastureland, the island I remember. Battered in war, brutalized in peace, but still here. Next I drive north to Marpi, the wildest and emptiest part of the island. In my Peace Corps days, the place was off-limits; it was littered with unexpended live ammunition originally intended for the land invasion of Japan.
The Saipanese used to sneak into the area at night, harvesting scrap metal, bronze and copper fittings off live ammunition that sometimes exploded; hands and lives were lost. Later, Marpi attracted scavengers of another kind, Japanese bone- hunting missions retrieving remains of the war dead. They built a huge pyre on an old fighter strip down below Suicide Cliff. I saw rows upon rows of leg and arm bones, neatly piled like campfire logs, larger bones at the bottom, smaller on top and-at the very top- a row of skulls. Mission after mission came to the island and some people hinted that local guides were baiting caves with bones obtained from other places.
After a while, the missions stopped. Saipanese worried that Japanese were intruding on local burial sites and there was a macabre rumor that someone got caught smuggling firearms in crates of remains headed to Japan from Saipan. Even if you passed up ammunition and bones, Marpi was a great place to wander. It had a rocky shoreline, shell-pocked cliffs, countless caves littered with mess kits, saki bottles, rubber boots, cooking pots. Many caves had been blasted shut with Japanese inside; with time, they were opening and you could crawl, if you wanted, into what amounted to a crypt. On Suicide and Banzai Cliffs, at the end of the battle, Japanese, Koreans, Okinawans, soldiers and civilians, men, women, and children enacted the largest mass suicide in history, at least until Reverend Jim Jones raised a Kool-Aid toast in Jonestown, Guyana.
I've seen the Saipan jumpers in black-and- white newsreels, women leaping off cliffs into the sea, taking their children with them, even as Japanese-speakers with the American troops implored them to surrender. And, just this week, I heard something I can't get out of my mind: some people, I'm told, walked backwards off the cliffs, not wanting to know which step would be their last. That's an interesting choice. Here's another one: you could jump off Suicide Cliff, hundreds of feet high, landing on hard ground down below. But my choice, I guess, would be Banzai Cliff, a shorter fall into a turbulent rocky ocean, crashing waves, likely sharks and-what comes back to me now, when I revisit and sit awhile- the bluest possible sea, green-blue around rocks, light blue near the surface, and deep blue, cobalt blue, when it declines into the Marianas Trench, which is the deepest ocean anywhere.
In late afternoon, I find the road up to Saipan's peak, Mount Tagpochau. Halfway up, I come to the place where I worked as a Peace Corps Volunteer. "Mount Olympus," it was nicknamed back then, and it had a peculiar history. After World War II, all the islands we captured from the Japanese were made a United Nations Trusteeship. At first, the Navy administered the place. Then, in the early fifties, the U.S. Department of Interior took over. But not on Saipan, not for long. In no time, Saipan was returned to the Navy, almost certainly because it was the headquarters of an ultra-secret outfit called the Naval Technical Training Unit, or NTTU; "the secret place" was its local nickname, Mt.
Tagpochau its home. For ten years, Saipan was off-limits to visitors and "the secret place" was off-limits to the United Nations Visiting Missions, who never glimpsed what was happening on the hill. What, then, were they up to? What I heard, when I arrived in 1967, was that they had been training Nationalist Chinese and also a darker-skinned group, possibly Indonesians, in infiltration, sabotage, and such. The NTTU students came in by the planeload, late at night, were shuttled through the gates in buses with blacked-out windows. This was a school that had no registrar, no alumni, no class reunions, no institutional memory.
Except for this: every now and then, someone I knew on Saipan would tell me about a chance meeting with another American and-what a coincidence-they had a stay in Saipan in common: lovely place, no? But then, when the question arose, why were you on Saipan, when were you on Saipan, a curtain came down, the conversation ended. When I came to Saipan, all that was left of the NTTU were their houses and offices, an amazing California community, transplanted and tucked away on a hill overlooking the Pacific. The Trust Territory government had inherited the NTTU headquarters and what had been a hush-hush installation with the high commissioner- in 1967, a Hawaiian public-relations man named Bill Norwood-living in the highest house.
His subordinates, American and Micronesian, spread out below in dozens of rambling, airy concrete houses, typhoon-proof, with suburban driveways, well-barbered lawns, and a view that went miles and miles out into the Philippine Sea. It was an absurdity, a place-out-of-place, the setting for a comic opera or a Doonesbury cartoon, but Capitol Hill was nonetheless a kind of high-water mark of the American power that fought its way ashore on the Invasion beaches. It was bridge parties and cocktails and patios and good roads and a breezy hilltop at the end of the world. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer.
I lived in a series of tinroofed, wood- framed places with holes in the roof and the floor. That was where I belonged, they told me, on the level of the people. But the people I was living with looked up at this mini-America and decided they wanted Capitol Hill or something like it, maybe something better. And didn't that decision complete the conquest of Saipan? Now the governor of the U.S. Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas lives in the high commissioner's residence and the island is all-American. Happy endings all around, I suppose. But about a third of the houses on Capitol Hill are lived in, some of the rest limp along as minor government offices, and the rest are abandoned, boarded up, driveways cracked and littered with debris, lawns gone to weeds, and the whole place feels sad.
Next: two shrines. One is the Shrine of Lourdes, an inland cave where a number of islanders took shelter during the battle. They were lucky. Hundreds of other Saipanese perished. Tomorrow they will dedicate a monument to dead islanders: their names, engraved on a wall at the American Memorial Park, will be read aloud, one by one. There's a rumor that having long-gone relatives formally remembered acquired some cachet and people submitted the names of almost anyone who died on Saipan during the war, almost doubling the previous estimate: more than 900 names in all. In the end, though, people feel it doesn't hurt to err on the side of generosity.
My Saipan shrine is Hamilton's Bar. On an island where nightlife is dominated by hot lights and loud music, by disco, karaoke, hostesses and masseuses, Hamilton's is one last link to the glorious nights of beer and bullshit I remember. All the other places are gone, those ramshackle places along Beach Road-Josie's, Saipa\na, Apollo 11, Saipan Inn-where jukeboxes sent sad country-western tunes into the night and once you entered you were in for the duration, all the way until closing time, and there was no way of knowing how you'd get home. Peace Corps Volunteers weren't supposed to use cars. Never mind.
In those days it was fun being stranded at a strange place at two in the morning, walking or waiting around or jumping in the back of a pick-up truck, headed out to a late-night restaurant for noodle soup or a nearby beach for more beer. It was all magic, back then. Saipan was still an island and you could tell yourself that no harm could come to you.
Hamilton's is the last place that feels that way. Its revered founder, Wilbur Hamilton, is buried outside but his presence hovers within. Each night, at nine p.m., the regulars-some Saipanese, some American-raise a glass in his memory. Hamilton was a Navy man, a country boy, with a profane disregard for politicians, Peace Corps Volunteers, hustlers and geeks of all kinds, a hard-drinking, harmonica-playing bartender and bullshitter with a million stories and a good heart. He would have reveled in the conversation that goes on in his bar, war stories, con games, local politics, all garnished by mockery and humor.
It's the sort of thing you can hear in other bars, if you're lucky. But at Hamilton's the talk always returns to Saipan, its characters and deals, its endless redefinition of itself: an island cuffed around by history, occupied by genocidal Spaniards, by firm but fair Germans, by hardworking Japanese colonists, by Americans who didn't know what to do with the place but didn ' t let it go until, at last, the Saipanese decided they didn't want to let go of America. There's a kind of hurly- burly free masonry of Saipan, among the drinkers who've stayed for years and people like me, a recidivist visitor.
And, late at night, this brings me to a question I put to two long-time residents. "You two," I begin, "came here when I did-what, thirty years ago?-and fell in love with the place. And stayed. I didn' t stay. But I keep coming back. So the question is, if we came here now, came as the young men we used to be, would we fall in love with Saipan again? Today's Saipan?"
There's a pause, not a long one, but enough for me to wish that Wilbur Hamilton could answer, too. His vote might carry the day. Fair enough. It's his place. His picture's on the wall, along with John Wayne' s, his sayings printed on T-shirts, his widow sitting in a kitchen that turns out the same meal I relished thirty years ago: sashimi appetizer, followed by chicken-fried steaks, washed down with beer and tequila shooters-the perfect meal. But the answer from the rest of us, when it comes, is No: we would not fall in love again here. And what came to me before returns with renewed force. Saipan isn't an island anymore.
Forget island images from literature, film, television: islands of Gilligan, Treasure, Fantasy, Shipwreck, Devils, Swiss Family Robinson, Shakespeare's Tempest, Doctors Moreau and No. They're irrelevant. Forget supposed island styles, languorous, easy-going, long memories and short working days, a small world where everyone knows or sort of knows everyone else. Forget the conventional island adjectives: remote, self-sufficient, isolated, insular. On Saipan, they no longer apply.
"A Grateful Island Remembers" is the theme of the sixtieth- anniversary celebration, and on the Monday after my arrival back on Saipan the "History Alive" seminars begin. Part of me has been dreading this. It's been fun roaming the island, surprising old friends; I have more of them than I realized. And island reunions are peculiar. Since you've already come and gone, there's an assumption that, the odds are, you won't be back; the world's full of other places, bigger and more important places by all conventional measures. So when you come across people here, or they come across you, there's surprise, even shock, something approaching time warp.
We meet and it's easy to talk about old times on an island so drastically transformed. Lots of things are better than they used to be-housing, shopping, eating, medical care. And I have to be careful, careful, because I knew them when they were underdogs and now they are overlords, and Americans as well. Step carefully, I tell myself, avoid sounding like too many visitors, mourning the loss of simpler, poorer times. That's the worst kind of condescension: you're living in paradise, take it from me, don't change a thing, small is beautiful and the simple life is best. Still, there's no escaping a sense of loss and puzzlement.
People are better off than ever, better than their old partners in the Trust Territory and much better than most Pacific Islands which, once you get past the beaches and the palm trees, are poor and troubled places. But the people I meet are worried about the money that's come in from outside, the waves of workers, worried about prosperity and vulnerability. So we talk about an island that's gone, a time that's past: it's what we have in common. And now, as the "History Alive" seminars kick off, I'm plunged into the past, part of an ultimate reunion-Americans who came in across the reef, under fire, returning to the island they liberated.
"Liberated," as it turns out, might not be the right word. That is one of the first messages to arrive, as proceedings begin in the Hyatt's Sand Castle Room, a lounge-showroom that usually hosts a Las Vegas-type show, Siegfried-and-Royish, with tigers and chorus girls. Sitting at dining tables or on soft, curving banquettes are about eighty people, some local, some visitors. The first thing we hear, from Dirk Ballendorf, a former Peace Corps director, now a professor at the University of Guam, is about the nature of pre-war Saipan, and about the liberation that wasn't quite as advertised. The Japanese ousted the Germans in 1914, he points out, and had been on Saipan for thirty years.
They didn't occupy a hostile country, they inherited a colony. The Saipanese were dominated, marginalized, but not enslaved. Outnumbered by Japanese, Okinawan, and Korean settlers brought in to fish, farm, and run the sugar industry, they were a generation or two from being absorbed into the Japanese empire. The war interrupted one process of assimilation and began another.
If it wasn't quite a liberation, it was a battle, a slaughter. That becomes clear in the afternoon, when we get a reading of two Japanese journals that were found in the battlefield. It's haunting stuff, if you care about the ones on the other side. A civilian describes his first sight of 500 ships offshore: "vessels, vessels and more vessels. Hundreds of military ships and the shadows in the setting sun covered the waters of Tanapag." A medic witnesses suicides and requested beheadings at the end of the battle and goes to his death regretting "that I have nothing to report when my life is fluttering away like a flower petal to become part of the soil."
A "Veterans Campfire" is scheduled for the evening after the first day of seminars. I don't want to go. The Battle for Saipan has enveloped me for several days and I am starting to chafe. There have been parades, interviews, speeches, a U.S.O. show, a Catholic mass, battlefield tours, and fireworks, and this thing tonight has the whiff of summer camp about it. Besides, when I arrive it's raining, but not quite hard enough for me to escape. I see two tents, one with a bunch of veterans sitting on bleachers, the other with spectators in folding chairs. Between, there's a campfire that, I guess, is supposed to invite storytelling.
I've got my doubts. In a minute, I'm off to Hamilton's. But then, to my surprise, something interesting begins. People begin to talk, people who've been carrying things inside them for years, just waiting for a chance to testify on Saipan, in front of an audience of strangers. Sure, it starts slowly, with accounts of saki, a pet monkey, a chance meeting with a hometown buddy: stuff out of Beetle Bailey and Sergeant Bilko. But then, it changes. He's not clear whether it happened on Saipan or Tarawa, but one man recalls a wall, it doesn't matter where, a wall with Americans on one side and Japanese on the other.
An officer invites him to go first over the wall. He declines, says he'd be happy to be led into the battle. It sounds good-humored, the kind of banter you'd hear in a movie. The officer goes over the wall, a second officer follows, then a private. The speaker's turn comes. On the other side, his three predecessors lie dead. And, hearing this, I know I'll be late to Hamilton's. A Marine wounded on Saipan recalls waking up on a hospital ship. There were nurses and ice cream. And he was crying about being out of the battle, the beginning of a guilt he would carry, he says, for the rest of his life.
Now, a woman arises from the other side of the campfire, my side, where spectators and locals sit. It turns out to be a Saipanese woman who offers a harrowing account of moving between lines, under fire, most of her ten-member family dying one by one, and the speaker fearing "that we would be buried by a tank that ran over us and no one would know where we died." Another woman, one year old during the battle, recalls what she was told: that an American named Rafael brought her milk. She's been searching records for years, trying to locate her Rafael. Now it's an American woman's turn; she's been sitting among the veterans, and when she speaks her voice is on the edge of breaking.
She pauses here and there to pull herself together. Her husband, recently dead, was Robert North, a Stanford political scientist, a specialist in the quantitative analysis of war, when it breaks out, seemingly inevitable, when itisavoided. "He thought of Saipan as the defining moment of his life," his wife says. "Bob always told me that after the Battle of Saipan, everyday was a bonus for hi\m, everyday...." But the campfire belongs, I think, to an ex-Marine from Philadelphia, a dapper, well-adjusted fellow, the last man I'd expect to speak here. Well, he stipulates, he's not the sort of man who is haunted by war, the way some veterans are.
He doesn' t awaken at night, sweating and screaming. But he can still see those people jumping off Suicide Cliff. "I remember the way they floated down ... with no movement. .. not even the movement that a falling feather makes. They just drifted through the air. Children and parents. That's not a nightmare. It's a horrible memory, though-"
Memory. It's been dogging me, along with its close companions, time and age. I drive this island and at every turn memory stands there, like a hitchhiker. On a new island, among new businesses, new deals, new fortunes, I shuttle back and forth between places and people I remember, that remember me. And if it's that way for me, what about the veterans? They're a tiny majority on the island, ghosts-in-the-making. Granted, this is their week, and their hosts have done everything that might be expected, down to the commemorative medals that'll be awarded tonight. But look in the hotel lobbies and it's golfers and shoppers from Japan and, increasingly, China who come to Saipan now.
We-I and the veterans and the Saipanese who care enough to come to the seminars-are Saipan then. But today, in our carpeted, upholstered, air-conditioned campground, I hear a story that gives me goosebumps.
"I am delighted, deliriously delighted," the speaker begins, "to be here today. I am delighted to be anywhere, sixty years later." The crowd laughs appreciatively. What the casualties of war amounted to is nothing, compared to the toll of dead, wounded, and missing in action in recent years. The speaker is retired Lieutenant General Lawrence Snowden, a Marine officer on Saipan. He's sharply dressed, well organized, no-nonsense. I talked to him briefly on Tinian, when he explained what flamethrowers did to men in bunkers: burn or suffocate. Now he delivers a brisk, crisp account of the Battle of Saipan.
"The soldier's view of war," he grants, "is narrow and shallow." Snowden gives a larger perspective on a brutal battle that went well, a coordinated application of naval gunfire, aerial bombing, and overwhelming forces hitting the invasion beaches. As he tells it, there was no question of who would win, only at what cost. The goosebumps come at the end. He's been asked to discuss personal experiences, Snowden says, and this is something soldiers avoid. "They don't think that non-veterans have the background to understand." Still, he tries to oblige. He talks of advancing through sugar cane fields, green and dense or black and sooty.
He recalls swarms of flies, "green and black, ugly and vicious" that hitched a ride on a forkful of food as it went into Marines' mouths. There's another round of sympathetic laughter and I sense that Snowden could stop now; perhaps he wonders if he should, if he's said enough. But he proceeds and the result is unforgettable.
"We were moving through the edges of Chalan Kanoa," he says, "and we came into a clearing and there were fifteen or twenty people I took to be native islanders, Chamorros-and all of them were dead. Except for a baby, a year old, maybe, crying, clinging to its mother's arm." Snowden lifted the baby into his arms, summoned a Chamorro-speaker from behind the lines. And just then telling the part of the story, Snowden breaks up, ambushed by emotions back then, ambushed now. The nature of war overwhelmed him; he says he thought of his own son, back home, whom he might never see again. He wept. He weeps.
"A baby in my arms," he says. "I held her tight. It all welled up." He stops and collects himself. "This woman ... I don't know ... she'd be sixty or sixty-one years old now," Snowden resumes. "And I'd love to hold her in my arms again." Another pause. "That was the sort of emotional experience I'm not supposed to have had," he concludes. "But I did."
Nearly ninety, nearly deaf, Enola Gay pilot Paul Tibbetts is Saipan's star attraction. Under bruiser-colored skies, hundreds of people converge on the American Memorial Park, sitting patiently through introductory oratory from ten different agencies. I can't count the number of times a politician or military representative tells us that "freedom isn't free." Nature itself protests: just as Commonwealth Governor Juan Babauta stands up to speak, the skies open up with one of those sudden storms that occur only in the tropics. It rains, hard, harder, hardest, and just when you think things are at the worst, the rain storm ratchets up another notch.
People at the edge of the tent move further inside but then sudden cascades come off the sagging tent and I am sitting and sharing an umbrella with an old friend, giggling like a kid. But when the storm eases, Paul Tibbetts's turn comes. I interviewed Tibbetts years ago, when a television movie was made about his mission to Hiroshima. I knew that he was a polite, measured, considerate man who went out of his way to disappoint some people's expectations. No, he did not hate Japanese, he did not love war, and he suffered no doubt, guilt, or regret about the role that history assigned him. He didn't agonize then and he doesn't now.
A standing ovation greets him, a white-haired gent in a blue shirt. Camera flashes light up the podium, coming from all directions. Folksy and good-humored, Tibbetts teases the politicians and brass who preceded him, "reciting their pedigrees." And then, as I later learn, he discards his prepared text and embarks on a speech that begins with his service in Europe. It's quirky, detailed, rambling, and slow. After nearly half an hour, he is still stateside, in the early stages of preparing the A-bomb mission. By my estimate, he is another twenty minutes away from Tinian, fifteen more from Hiroshima.
And I suspect his intention is never to get there, never to deliver the sort of heart-felt soliloquy the audience awaits. At last-and it's a mercy- I see someone approach from the sidelines and slip a note into Tibbetts's hand. "I've got five minutes left," Tibbetts announces. And, though some in the audience would listen to him for another hour, Tibbetts complies. "We got the job done," he concludes, "and that's all there is to say."
How to treat this island, that compels and appalls? Battlefield island, Commonwealth island, on the edge of American power, on the edge of the Pacific, straddling spheres of influence, dodgy and opportunistic. I'm the last speaker, I close the show. Do I mention that the Commonwealth agreement was a deal worked out between Saipan's Washington lawyers and Washington's Washington lawyers? That it amounted to American citizenship, home delivered, halfway around the world? How will the vets feel if I tell them that no matter what they gave of themselves on Saipan, they cannot buy land here? Saipanese retiring on generous government pensions purchase homes in the United States, but the veterans, gratefully remembered as they are, remain outsiders.
Do I mention that? Do I include this? Maybe not. Meanwhile I listen to an old Saipanese friend, an insurance man, Dave Sablan, begin the last day's seminar. Sablan' s done well over the years. Cocky and self-assured, he introduces a pair of pretty Filipina employees who'll make sure his slides pop up on screen on cue. Saipan was "infested" with Japanese just before the invasion he says: the garrison was swollen with crews off sunken supply ships, often unarmed. Sablan and his family hid in a cave near Mount Tagpochau. They'd been told that the Americans were monsters, tall, cruel, lethal. When they eventually were enticed out of their hiding place, their first Marine was four feet eight inches tall, skinny, red-haired, maybe 120 pounds.
And he was wearing a crucifix. Suddenly, Sablan loses it, covering his face with his hands, swiping at tears. "That's when they had us," he said, "when we saw the crucifix." He's followed by Teddy Draper, a Navajo code talker who recalls running through an alley of blasted bodies in Iwo Jima. Then, for the last time, we break for lunch. Then, around two, just as the crowd is nodding off into a post-prandial siesta, my time will come. But there's something powerful about being last. When I'm done, we all leave this room that I've gotten used to and go out into daylight and heat, a hotel lobby full of luggage and golf bags and people who don't care about what brought us here.
We leave and go in separate directions, never to reconvene. And we leave soon: my flight is tomorrow, at 4:30 in the morning. I wish it were not so soon. I could talk myself into staying a while. It's easy to be scathing about Saipan. There's a website operated by someone anonymous called saipansucks.com, a catch-basin of expatriate complaints. Recently it's been running a contest for an island slogan. The idea is you take "Welcome to Saipan" and add a phrase. Submissions so far include Welcome to Saipan: the Mexico of the Pacific; You Get What You Pay For; We Avenge World War II One Japanese Tourist at a Time; America's Biggest Welfare Client; The Other West Virginia; Where Every Non-Local Is a Doormat; Where America Ends.
These disappointments don't come out of nowhere, but my feelings about Saipan are mixed and tangled. So is my speech. I will go out, get them to laugh and cry, knock a little, boost a little, celebrate and damn. And remember. That's the most important thing. To remember and to be remembered. The veterans know that and more: that when people die, they die; when they're forgotten, they die forever. And this island, with its self-sacrificing and self- dealing, is a place that resonates memory. More important than anything else I say today, every mixed review, close call, up or down, is memory. Some of that's in my speech, near the end.
"In a forgetting time, attention span s\hortening, reaction time lengthening, memory is the most important thing, morally imperative. People need to remember as they grow old; so do nations." Having memories, making memories, on an island with a history. I'll take this place over all the sandy beaches, the palmy atolls, the carefree islands in the world. Saying some hard things but nothing so hard that it would foreclose my coming back here.
And I'll close with something from Siegfried Sassoon, a poem set in the trenches of World War I, not the beachheads of World War II. But it will serve the veterans as well. And me, until my next trip.
Copyright Antioch Review, Incorporated Winter 2005
When this story was posted in January 2005, this was on the front page of PCOL:
| Ask Not|
As our country prepares for the inauguration of a President, we remember one of the greatest speeches of the 20th century and how his words inspired us. "And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you--ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man."
| Latest: RPCVs and Peace Corps provide aid |
Peace Corps made an appeal last week to all Thailand RPCV's to consider serving again through the Crisis Corps and more than 30 RPCVs have responded so far. RPCVs: Read what an RPCV-led NGO is doing about the crisis an how one RPCV is headed for Sri Lanka to help a nation he grew to love. Question: Is Crisis Corps going to send RPCVs to India, Indonesia and nine other countries that need help?
| The World's Broken Promise to our Children|
Former Director Carol Bellamy, now head of Unicef, says that the appalling conditions endured today by half the world's children speak to a broken promise. Too many governments are doing worse than neglecting children -- they are making deliberate, informed choices that hurt children. Read her op-ed and Unicef's report on the State of the World's Children 2005.
| Our debt to Bill Moyers|
Former Peace Corps Deputy Director Bill Moyers leaves PBS next week to begin writing his memoir of Lyndon Baines Johnson. Read what Moyers says about journalism under fire, the value of a free press, and the yearning for democracy. "We have got to nurture the spirit of independent journalism in this country," he warns, "or we'll not save capitalism from its own excesses, and we'll not save democracy from its own inertia."
| Is Gaddi Leaving?|
Rumors are swirling that Peace Corps Director Vasquez may be leaving the administration. We think Director Vasquez has been doing a good job and if he decides to stay to the end of the administration, he could possibly have the same sort of impact as a Loret Ruppe Miller. If Vasquez has decided to leave, then Bob Taft, Peter McPherson, Chris Shays, or Jody Olsen would be good candidates to run the agency. Latest: For the record, Peace Corps has no comment on the rumors.
| The Birth of the Peace Corps|
UMBC's Shriver Center and the Maryland Returned Volunteers hosted Scott Stossel, biographer of Sargent Shriver, who spoke on the Birth of the Peace Corps. This is the second annual Peace Corps History series - last year's speaker was Peace Corps Director Jack Vaughn.
Read the stories and leave your comments.
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Story Source: Antioch Review
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By Scott Foreman (18.104.22.168) on Friday, October 10, 2008 - 9:33 pm: Edit Post|
I first stepped foot on Saipan almost 42 years ago today. I was the first one trained in Key West and part of Micro 1 to touch the ground but some gal working for Jerry Fite got credit as the first Volunteer on Saipan. I was there from 1966 to 1968 and helped train some of our replacements on Rota before I went back to Hawaii and eventually back to Illinois. I married Connie Guerrero while I was there...the prettiest girl on the island. Some of my fellow Volunteers were David Drake, Jack Colburn, Denise Shipp, Marion Stave, Dennis ? and some others I barely recall. It was a great experience and I'm glad I was there.