Marooned on the Rock
by EDGAR L. JONES
LEVELED to shadeless desolation by bombs and bulldozers, the sweltering sand of Tarawa is hallowed ground. Many an embattled place has flared into brief, exclamatory prominence during six years of mobile warfare; but in the memory of the living, Tarawa remains a symbol of unconquerable will, emotionally equivalent to Dunkirk, Corregidor, El Alamein, Stalingrad, Guadalcanal, and Iwo Jima. For those who stop briefly at Tarawa on the way to and from the Southwest Pacific, the arid atoll is a shrine. For those earthbound sailors, Seabees, and aviation mechanics who have been stationed there a year or more, Tarawa has become, simply and unsentimentally, The Rock.
In four desperate days the Marines reduced 500 pillboxes and an estimated 5000 Japanese to a stinking mass of shattered coconut logs and rotting bodies. On the fifth day the Navy men came ashore to establish the advance air base, to bury the dead, and to rebuild the island.
Today many of these men are still laboring on Tarawa. The battle-numbed Marines who took the island remained only long enough to identify and throw sand over those companions whose bodies they could find. Fresh Marines debarked to man the island’s defenses, and they in turn were relieved by Army garrison troops. The permanent occupants of Tarawa are the men essential to the functioning of a potent Navy air base; extremely young men for the most part, predominantly Middle Western, who in the few brief months since civilian life had become supply clerks, mechanics, cooks, pharmacist mates, crane operators, and signalmen.
Tarawa was their introduction to war — or rather, to the aftermath of war. They waded through the wreckage of amphibious tractors, Higgins boats, shattered guns, and half-submerged tanks which began at the edge of the reef, 600 yards from shore, and thickened into a nearly insurmountable barrier along the beaches. They found the narrow atoll to be a snarl of shredded palms, entangled with the spewn rubble of ammunition dumps and the twisted remnants of trucks and guns. And everywhere the dead lay, more than 5000 bodies in less than one square mile, and all decomposing rapidly under the tropical sun.
The first two weeks on Tarawa were crucial. The capture of the island, which is far within the circle of Japanese inter-island defenses, was a bold stroke, the success of which depended upon how quickly the new base could be made impregnable. Provisions for physical comfort therefore had a low priority among the men as they worked for their common security. Without interrupting the arrival and departure of planes already using the island as a base, the men drained the airstrip, filled in its bomb craters, and enlarged its runways to accommodate more and larger planes. They dredged the reefs for material to build a pier, of paramount importance if sufficient quantities of food, gasoline, ammunition, and heavy equipment were to be brought ashore. They dug defensive positions for their guns, established radio and telephone communications, set up a hospital, and provided for fresh water and electric power. These first essentials of security were rushed into being by men who six months before had been civilians.
Snipers still lurked in hidden places, emerging at night to forage for food, but the dead Japanese, their swollen bodies teeming with maggots, were more dangerous, because they were the potential sources of fly-borne diseases. Once the safety of the island was assured, however, the dead were buried as rapidly as possible. Scores of Japanese putrefying in humid blockhouses were lifted gingerly onto improvised litters and carried away by men wearing gas masks. From their starting point at the populated center of the island, the burial parties worked slowly toward the far ends of the narrow, two-mile atoll. Marine garrison troops stood by to dispose of the snipers who were driven from cover by the advancing men, and thus the living and the dead Japanese were removed from Tarawa in a purifying purge lasting a fortnight.
BY THE middle of December most of the dead were under ground, and most of the living were under canvas. The airstrip had been expanded until it occupied fully half the available ground space, and thousands of men dwelt in everything from pup tents to Quonset huts around it. More than one hundred planes a day roared forth to strike at Japanese targets; and for every plane in the air, there was a small army of men on the ground to load bombs, repair and refuel motors, and patch flak holes.
Day and night the lagoon was turbulent with the wakes of every type of landing craft shuttling continuously between the tumultuous beaches and the scores of cargo vessels standing patiently in the deep waters. So many tons of supplies were heaped upon the tiny island that a rumor spread that the atoll was beginning to sink. And just at this point the Japanese began their belated bombing attacks.
Why the Japanese waited at least two weeks before striking back at Tarawa was never known. Whatever their reason, they held off their attacks until the Americans were ready for them. Bombing only at night and in small numbers, they confined their retaliation to nuisance raids.
For the weary men who huddled in former Japanese shelters and waited for the bombs to land, the word “nuisance” was entirely inadequate. For them the nights were sleepless and terror-laden. For a long month there was at least one alert each day, and on eighteen occasions bombs were dropped. Christmas Eve of 1943, marked by five separate raids, was the high point in the Japanese campaign. Although no one would have believed it possible to drop a bomb anywhere on the crowded island without doing serious damage, the sum total of Japanese effectiveness amounted to a few planes put out of action and one man killed. The man disregarded the air-raid warning and remained in his tent.
Whereas their first Christmas on Tarawa was just another day, only worse, the men have a lasting memory of the unexpected pleasantness of their first New Year’s Day. On January 1, the bakery was set up, and instead of hard biscuits there was white bread which tasted, after their long abstinence, like angel cake. As if this alone were not enough of a celebration, the merchant ships in the lagoon sent ashore sufficient turkey and ice cream for every man to begin 1944 with a full stomach.
Buoyed by this one meal of fresh meat, the men went back to their C rations for another two months, until the time came when the cargo vessels had space for meat and eggs among their more precious supplies. Throughout this period, officers and men ate together. They sat cross-legged in the sand, keeping one hand free to ward off flies. When it rained, they got wet or went hungry.
At the end of January, scarcely more than two months after the island was captured, the war began to move away from Tarawa. Men and their equipment were moved to their new bases, five and eight hundred miles further along the road to Tokyo. Even the original Seabees were pulled out, their places taken by a smaller maintenance unit. The fighters and bombers were forwarded to the Marshalls, and eventually to the Marianas. By mid1944, the war was far beyond Tarawa. The island became a ghost base, as hauntingly desolate as those Western American boom towns which flourished briefly and then were forgotten as the ore petered out.
A glance at a map reveals why Tarawa has never been placed on the list of inactive bases. It is a way station on the main airline running from Hawaii to the Solomons and thence to the Philippines. Furthermore, it is close to Nauru and Ocean, two Japanese-held islands which must be kept under daily observation and occasionally bombed. Other islands in the Gilberts have been turned over to their prewar guardians, the British, but it is not difficult to imagine the ensuing uproar on the floor of Congress if battered Tarawa, the island of a thousand American graves, were turned over to anyone. For these reasons the sun-bleached atoll remains a U.S. Navy Air Base, operated mainly by the same men who came ashore on D-plus-four, long months ago.
War correspondents have been regarded warily by the men on Tarawa ever since a photographer representing a national picture magazine did a thorough job of queering them with their women at home. Unable to find anything photogenic about Betio, the island where all the fighting took place, the photographer went to a near-by island, still technically Tarawa Atoll, where there were not only palm trees and scenic vistas, but also bare-breasted natives, a swimming beach, a tennis court, and a small air-evacuation hospital, complete with American nurses. Out of the resultant seven-page spread of pictures depicting present-day life on Tarawa, there was only one scene of Betio, where the bulk of the men live and work.
Although the captions made no mention of the fact, the men shown in the photographs as enjoying tennis and swimming parties were the highestranking officers on the atoll, and they rarely had time for frolicking. For the junior officers and enlisted men, the so-called life on Tarawa was as remote as Santa Monica Beach or Atlantic City.
As soon as the article appeared, the Fleet Post Office at Tarawa was overloaded with indignant letters from wives accusing their husbands of lying about how rough the life on the island was. Girls declared they no longer intended to sit home alone nights if their men were swimming, playing tennis, and cavorting with nurses and native women. Because of censorship regulations, the men could not explain that the tennis court belonged to an Admiral, that they had never so much as seen an American nurse, that their island had neither trees nor a swimming beach, that the Tarawa in the pictures was not their Tarawa at all.
Headquarters realized that such a gross piece of journalistic misrepresentation could seriously undermine local morale. Mimeographed descriptions of what Tarawa was really like were prepared and issued to the men for their personal use. These were sent, home as a mild counteractive measure, but the damage already had been done. The pictures revealed Tarawa to be a tropical paradise, and pictures do not lie.
These men do not want to be depicted as heroes. They want only to have America understand what it is like to be confined on a small island, to feel left behind in the war, never to see a woman, or a corner drugstore, or a dish of fresh vegetables. The fear of mental stagnation, of growing old, of losing out on marriage and their civilian jobs, is now more real than the fear of bombs and bullets. They want to go home, and yet they are nervous about it. Perhaps they have changed too much to fit into their old lives, to take up where they left off with their women; they have dreamed too long, they want too much — or so they tell themselves. Nevertheless, morale on Tarawa is as high as on any one of a hundred islands in the Pacific. If Americans at home could understand the full meaning of present-day life on just this one atoll, they would realize what their men will want when they return.
THE atoll of Tarawa, seen from the air, seems too small and insignificant to justify its reputation. Betio, the last island in the atoll chain and the one universally referred to as Tarawa, appears from 5000 feet to be only a sandspit, certainly not large enough for a plane to land on. Dropping down to 1000 feet, one can see that the sand in the middle of the island is level and hard-packed, that there actually is an airstrip with tents and Quonset huts along its borders. When the plane swings across the island and throttles down for a landing, it becomes evident that the island is not deserted; there is life along the beach which faces toward the aquamarine lagoon and the rest of the atoll. As soon as the plane stops rolling forward, the hot, moist breath of Tarawa envelops its visitors like the sticky panting of a subway exit in mid-July.
Like Arlington Cemetery or Valley Forge, the island of Betio has a hushed atmosphere of sanctity which never can be wholly disregarded, no matter how long a man remains on Tarawa. I have never known a place which so thoroughly grips my emotions, possibly because Tarawa is not the graveyard of ancient heroes, but of young men of my own generation.
If they were buried row on row in a single formal cemetery, their white crosses might have the impersonal appearance of casualty lists in a newspaper. So many of the Marines on Tarawa, however, still lie where they fell: along the beach, beside the road, in the shadow of a tent, within a short distance of every rusting Japanese gun. On the edge of a ragged hole lies the Marine who tossed the hand grenade into the entrance of the ammunition dump which used to be there. Beside a pillbox are the graves of two other Marines who dove in among the Japanese to save their comrades caught in a cross fire. On the approximate site of a Japanese torpedo shop there are the graves of forty Marines, twenty-four of whom are identified, the rest unknown.
Larger, white-crossed cemeteries also are in evidence — one just beyond the foul line of the baseball diamond, another close to the airstrip, and a third by the gymnasium — but the single graves, appearing everywhere, are the most intimate reminders of the human service rendered to the living. No part of Tarawa is without a white cross, a permanent price tag.
The Japanese Marines believed that it would take a million men six months to capture Tarawa. The Second Division of the United States Marines did the job in four days, killing five Japanese for every one of their own dead. They did it the hard way, the only way. An estimated two out of every five who waded ashore the first day never reached the beach. Where caution would have lost the battle, or prolonged it interminably, the Marines’ willingness to die for each other enabled them to accomplish a feat which still seems to have been impossible. Two months later the new tactics learned at Tarawa made possible the comparatively bloodless invasion of Kwajalein. Probably for those who died that is an adequate epitaph.
As one officer explained it to me: “There’s one thing on this —— island we don’t joke about, and that’s the Marines. Call ‘em sacred, if you want to. We followed them ashore expecting sarcastic remarks about our arriving after the dirty work was done; instead, tired as they were, they smiled and said they’d hate to have our job. Those guys were really heroes; we’re now living in their cemetery, and that’s something you can never forget.”
NOT only does no one on Tarawa today joke about the Marines: the present inhabitants, in my opinion, do not joke about anything. In the four weeks I have been here, I have yet to hear a humorous story. There was nothing funny about the early days on Tarawa; there is nothing funny now. Nowhere else have I encountered such a deadened group of men. Even the Officers’ Club is a sober affair. There is drinking, of course, but no raucous hilarity. The laughter is tired. Perhaps these men buried their levity along with the dead, or else they simply have run out of new stories to tell.
Everything possible has been done to make living on Tarawa a pleasant assignment. When the war moved away, taking with it the original battalion of Seabees, the island still was in a primitive state. With the taking of the Marshalls, however, time and equipment were available for the reconditioning of the island. The manpower mainly was supplied by the newly arrived Seabee maintenance unit, famous locally for previously having taken part in the Hollywood production of The Fighting Seabees. Six months of hard labor resulted, literally, in the island’s being leveled to bedrock and rebuilt.
With the debris scraped away, there was more room for the reduced personnel to spread out. Of shade there was none, since only fifty trees were left standing. Lack of shade, however, was offset partly by the fact that the ocean breezes were no longer obstructed. When blessed with a ten-knot wind, Tarawa was occasionally comfortable. The parched earth and absence of vegetation also resulted in the elimination of all mosquitoes and nearly all the flies. With no standing water left to breed in, the mosquitoes were the first to go, ending the threat of malaria and filariasis.
The flies had multiplied rapidly while corpses were plentiful, food was in the open, smashed coconuts lay everywhere, and the Japanese latrine system, copied from the natives, was still in use. Cases of dysentery and other fly-borne diseases declined soon after the dead were under ground, and were wiped out entirely when the island was cleaned up and indoor facilities were built.
Occasionally someone discovers a scorpion, nicknames it Tojo, and calls all hands to watch it commit harakiri. When the scorpion is encircled by burning gasoline, it curls up its tail and stings itself to death. Of equal interest are the dime-size black and white spiders which can hop twenty-five times their own length. The island champion, before its demise, could be prodded into twenty-inch leaps, always good for a free beer against an open field of challengers. His end was that of many of Tarawa’s insects; the Champ was consumed by a gecko with no appreciation for the sporting things in life. Given free run of the island, the geckos are small, harmless lizards with relentless appetites for ants, flies, and spiders, excluding, of course, the black widow spiders.
The geckos in turn are outclassed by Tarawa’s cockroaches, hardy descendants of a group of New England cockroaches which jumped ship here fifty years ago. One of Tarawa’s cockroaches can cover all but the corners of an ordinary playing card, while six would fill the kitchenette in any average New York apartment. It is claimed locally that any one of them can open a can of Spam with his back legs, but I personally have never seen it done. Early trading ships also left behind brown rats which share their scavenger rights with the land crabs.
The men on Tarawa gladly would trade all the insects on the island for one swarm of bees. Usually taken for granted, a bee is the gardener’s primary handyman. The men would like to grow fresh vegetables to supplement their canned diet, but pollination by hand is a long and uncertain process. Some of the men, using hand pollination, have grown melons, radishes, lettuce, and turnips in small quantities.
With water scarce, large-scale farming in the sandy soil would be impossible, even if there were bees on the island. The chief regret is that more flowers cannot be grown around the graves of the Marines. The men have had their families send seeds of the more durable American perennials, and these have been planted around the three main cemeteries. The individual graves scattered about the island have been decorated with white stones and colored coral.
TARAWA has become one of the most healthful islands in the Pacific. The heat, however, has an unfavorable effect on some men. At a recent inspection, held before nine o’clock in the morning, five men fainted, one of whom fell flat on his face and knocked out a tooth. Nevertheless, the men in the weather station maintain that the average temperature on Tarawa is only 80 degrees, decreasing slightly at night, and that the humidity is no worse than in New York City on an uncomfortable summer’s day. Unconvinced by such scientific data, many unofficial observers have placed thermometers on the ground and reported temperatures as high as 125 and 130 degrees. And as long as the white coral sand reflects 125 degrees’ worth of whitehot glare, the men of Tarawa will continue to find little comfort in the realization that the actual temperature of the air is only 80 degrees.
Unless it rains, the evenings are ideally comfortable. It rains frequently and without warning, however, in short, frantic bursts, as though determined to wash Tarawa back into the sea. In five minutes the island becomes a continuous puddle of water, and then it is fair weather again. The men bail out their jeeps, patch the holes in the airstrip, hang their bedding to dry, and wait for the next downpour.
The enlisted men on Tarawa live in large screened-in tents which have double flaps for insulation against the heat of the sun. The tents have wooden floors and are built on stilts, a foot above the ground, to keep out dampness and discourage the crawling life on the island. Messing facilities are in a large Quonset hut, open at the sides, where the food is served cafeteria style. Except for the total absence of fresh vegetables, fruits, and milk, the food is excellent. Fresh meat usually is available for one meal a day, and storage eggs are used alternately with flapjacks for breakfast. Most of the vegetables are of the canned variety, rather than dehydrated, and occasionally a ship brings in real potatoes.
The enlisted men have several day rooms where they can read, listen to the radio, play ping-pong, and, on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, drink two bottles of beer apiece. Coca-Cola similarly is rationed, and whiskey is forbidden. A pint of liquor received through the mail in a loaf of bread or disguised as Listerine or hair tonic sells for twenty dollars, while fifty dollars is the minimum which a crew member of a transport plane expects to receive for the quart of low-grade whiskey he has bought in Honolulu for six dollars.
Instead of tents, the officers have fales, sometimes spelled “falles,” and always pronounced “follies.”Much cooler but less insect-proof than a tent, a fale is a grass shack of native origin. The Seabees built the wooden framework for the fales, and then the Gilbertese natives thatched the sides and low-hanging roofs with the long, spiny leaves of the pandanus tree. The food in the Officers’ Mess is the same as that eaten by the enlisted men, except that the officers maintain a two-hundred-dollar mess fund which is used to buy meat and fresh produce from merchant ships stopping at the island.
Most of the enlisted men with whom I have talked do not resent the fact that the officers have extra privileges. To them a softer bed and an added portion of meat do not make the island less confining; they have all necessary physical comforts.
What the men dislike is the boredom, the narrow limitations of the atoll, the absence of any near-by civilization to visit. They know the officers must share with them the same tedious existence; therefore it does not matter too much whether they sleep in a tent or in a fale. Only when an occasional Army or Navy nurse spends a few hours on Tarawa and is spirited away to the Officers’ Club do the enlisted men feel particularly underprivileged.
The life is regimented more by environment than by military regulations. The men are not subjected to one tenth of the military discipline imposed upon them in camps at home. Clothes are optional, quarters may be arranged in accordance with individual tastes, and there are few occasions for saluting. The town of Tarawa has a small upper class and even a middle class, if one considers the Chief Petty Officers, who have a club of their own.
The administration is in the hands of the personnel assigned to the NAB (Naval Air Base). The island is their responsibility. They handle all the supplies, cook and serve the meals, perform multitudinous paper work, and operate the refrigerators, warehouses, hospital, laundry, store, and barber shop. From the control tower on the airstrip they regulate the arrival and departure of planes, and at night they handle the searchlights and guide the landing of heavy transports.
These men are sailors who never have been on a ship, except to come to Tarawa via Pearl Harbor. Many of them, especially the officers, chose the Navy because they wanted to keep on the move, see new places, enjoy life on the ocean. They have been nowhere except Tarawa. For the first six months they were busy, exceptionally so. Now they are in the backwash of the war.
The other veteran group on Tarawa is the Combat Air Service Unit, composed of the men who repair and refuel planes, load bombs, rig parachutes, and take care of special aircraft equipment, such as radios, altimeters, and compasses. While a few of the men are only wartime mechanics, many of the CASU personnel are professional Navy craftsmen, skilled at overhauling planes. During the Marshalls campaign they labored day and night. As fast as the pilots brought in their chewed-up bombers, the CASU crews went to work patching them up. But today, as they point out, they merely are running a filling station for transient aircraft. With their long experience and proved ability, these men hoped for a while that they would be transferred to a new combat area. Now, soured by apathy, they are waiting only for the moment when they can go home.
The present Seabees are the ones who arrived four months after the invasion to rebuild the island. They are older and more experienced than most of the other men on Tarawa; in civilian life they were electricians, plumbers, and construction foremen, and they volunteered for the Navy to do the same type of work. The Seabees made Tarawa livable, and are keeping it that way.
The weathermen still have a job to do. Daily they must chart the high and low pressure areas whether anyone uses the information or not. Upon the weather depends all air travel to and from the war zone, and the weathermen have the satisfaction of knowing that because of them, more will be understood after the war about flying conditions in the Pacific than ever before.
The day laborers on Tarawa are the Micronesian natives, organized by the British into a semi-military labor corps. Known to the Americans as “Gooks” or the “Limey Seabees,” they empty the garbage, dig ditches, clean the officers’ fales, and help to unload ships. The Gooks are cheerfully indolent and are skilled, within the limits of their meager vocabulary, at giving the expected answers. When asked if the Japanese didn’t give them a dirty deal, the Gooks say yes. When asked if the Japanese didn’t treat them fairly well, the Gooks say yes.
On Tarawa the Gooks are the island’s most ardent supporters of American cowboy pictures. Most of them draw the British equivalent of ten dollars a month, plus food and lodging, while the noncommissioned officers receive slightly more. They double their pay by selling Americans the baskets, pocketbooks, and mats that their wives make.
SINCE Ocean Island is still in the hands of the Japanese, a large fale on Tarawa is the present government seat for the British Resident Commissioner of the Gilbert and Ellice Crown Colony, which includes islands and atolls scattered over nearly 2000 square miles and inhabited by an estimated 35,000 Gilbertese. With the exception of Japanese-held Ocean and Nauru, which produced one tenth of the world’s supply of phosphate before the war, the Gilbert, Ellice, and Phoenix Islands are a British liability. Through royalties received from the phosphate mines and from a small tax on copra exports, the British in peacetime obtained an income of $310,520 from the entire island group, or $10,000 less than the cost of running the Colony.
As is always the case when American troops are associated with the British and have no understanding of the intricacies involved in their relationship, many Americans on Tarawa are convinced that they are being exploited by the British. Rumors have become facts, and suspicions the gospel truth. Otherwise intelligent officers and enlisted men have assured me that the British are charging the United States fifty to one hundred thousand dollars a year for the use of Tarawa. It is an accepted fact even in the Officers’ Mess that the British demand five dollars for every coconut tree the Americans destroy, and common gossip that the British collect fifty dollars per month per Gook for the work done by the native labor corps, when everyone knows that the British make them work for nothing.
Such malicious statements have no material effect upon the friendship which exists between the Americans and the four British officers on Tarawa, but these rumors and many others like them already have spread from neighbor to neighbor in the United States, been printed as fact in papers and magazines, and become as potent a factor as Nazi propaganda in undermining Anglo-American relationships.
Given the opportunity, the British could satisfy every last man on Tarawa that American generosity is not being exploited. The British do not charge rent for Tarawa, any more than they charge rent for the use of England by the United States Eighth Air Force. They do not receive payment for the services of their labor corps, any more than for their tank corps or infantry divisions. It is the British, not the Americans, who have to restore the property of the natives, rehabilitate their villages, replant their coconut trees. Even the fact that the Resident Commissioner lives in one of Tarawa’s choicest fales and bewilders his American guests with a formal array of silverware is easily explained. The British members of the Colonial Service expect to be on Tarawa, or on some similar island, for the rest of their lives. They might just as well live comfortably.
Such things could be made intelligible to the American people, but the British, with their traditional reticence, have remained silent, and few Americans have stepped forth to take their part.
THE nightly movies on Tarawa are a two-hour escape into another world. I had never realized that Hollywood produced so many fourth-rate movies. For every Kismet or Arsenic and Old Lace there are half a dozen low-grade Westerns, musicals, and comedies. The occasional newsreels are at least six months old.
But no matter how terrible the picture is, all the men go, because for two hours they can forget Tarawa; for two hours they can see a white woman, a change of scenery, a new face. Most of the time they sit quietly, becoming unprintably bitter only when IV-F’s masquerading in uniforms make patriotic speeches in the midst of fantastic battle scenes.
In the distant past when Tarawa was an important base, there were USO shows. Bob Hope picked up athlete’s foot on Tarawa, while Jerry Colonna had a tooth pulled by the local dental officer. This week the outdoor stage was pulled down, indicating to the men their present status in the war effort. The Red Cross also closed its Tarawa branch some time ago, further reducing the sources of outside entertainment. The radio reception on the island is poor, with Tokyo Rose slightly more audible than Command Performance.
Church is a popular institution, with fully 25 per cent of the island population attending on those Sundays when there is both a Catholic and Protestant service. The library has an excellent selection of books, but the men are tired of reading. For every thirty men on the island, there is only one book a day taken from the Library. According to the librarian, the men read a great deal more when they had more work to do.
Sports offer the greatest outlet for pent-up energy and emotions, despite the prevailing temperature. The eight teams in the soft-ball league have just completed a hotly contested season, with the Seabees emerging as the undisputed island champions. Basketball and badminton are played both outdoors and in a large Quonset hut used as a gymnasium. There are numerous volleyball courts, and one boxing ring. On the ocean side of the island the Seabees dug a swimming pool which is used by a few. Athletic competition recently has been stimulated by the announcement that early in 1945 the champion baseball, basketball, boxing, and volleyball teams from each of the Gilbert and Marshall Islands will be flown to a central island for the final playoffs. Goaded by the opportunity to visit a new island, the men have turned their sports program into a second battle of Tarawa.
A momentary flicker of life returns to Tarawa when the time comes to bomb Nauru once again. Since there is no justification for invading the island, the Americans keep it neutralized with bombs. I went along on one of these bombing missions and found it as routine as a training flight. The Japanese still manage to put up a barrage, but there is evidence that their ammunition is running low.
Thus life on The Rock goes on its petty way. When a man acts peculiarly or makes absentminded mistakes, his colleagues say that he is getting rock-happy. As a form of anxiety neurosis in reverse, being rock-happy is the equivalent of the pre-war “slaphappy,” or the pre-First-War expression, “balmy.” On Alcatraz, which is also known as The Rock by its inmates, the strange-acting individual would be called stir-crazy.
Whatever name it goes under, it is a word for men who have been in one place too long, who have led a sterile, womanless life, who have become too restless to read, whose powers of concentration have weakened, who forget familiar names, put salt in their coffee instead of sugar, and laugh nervously and foolishly at silly things that are not funny. Few men on Tarawa actually have become psychoneurotics, and few will. There is nothing really wrong with any of them, except their American inability to adjust themselves to living in a rut.
In their fales and tents they have legal abstracts, correspondence courses in technical subjects, prescribed textbooks, and serious literature, all representative of their pre-war life as craftsmen, professional men, scholars. They want to keep pace with their former world, but it is too much effort under present conditions. Feeling useless on Tarawa and unnecessary in the war effort, they hate themselves for wasting what daily seems more and more to be the most precious years of their lives.
Today they are deadened, stagnant, and apathetic; many of them have lost their girls, and a few their wives; in their opinion they have been in solitary confinement for more than a year. Yet once they are back in the United States and find a few of the things they have been doing without, once they feel sure that their life on The Rock was not spent in vain, once they are confident that civilians understand that they also served who only stood the heat, the flies, the brackish water showers, the unrefreshing diet, and the shadeless coral sand, then the Tarawanians will return to normal.