The Sisters and the Seabees


IN A palm-shrouded, forgotten corner of the Gilbert Islands I have just met three Catholic nuns, survivors of Japanese occupation, who daily say grateful prayers for the U. S. Navy Seabees. To these three Sisters, isolated for many years in a native mission, the Seabees are gum-chewing Galahads, saints on bulldozers, laughing, souvenir-crazy, benevolent Yanks, who brought them the twentieth century, complete with refrigeration.

The three Sisters are the only white women on Apamama, a sleepy tropical island almost exactly on the equator. On some maps the twenty-mile atoll is spelled Abemama, but on most maps it is not spelled at all. Unlike Tarawa, Apamama is a richly verdant atoll, one of the few which satisfy an American’s dreams of a South Sea paradise. On it a thousand Micronesian natives live effortlessly on coconuts and fish.

Until the Japanese occupied Apamama in 1942, the island slumbered in a timeless setting. Four times a year a trading schooner stopped briefly to exchange tobacco and brightly colored cloth for copra, the natives’ one cash crop. The missionaries attended to the natives’ educational and spiritual needs, which were few. Save for Robert Louis Stevenson, who stayed six months on the island before moving on to Samoa, no white visitors ever remained long on Apamama. Therefore t he Japanese, with a garrison force of fewer than two hundred men, had no trouble in establishing the New Order, which at best only amounted to bullying a few natives into digging defensive positions for guns.

The Japanese found no favor with the native women, and were even less popular with the males, whose drinking of fermented coconut toddy they tried to curtail. By November, 1943, when our Marines took over, the Japanese garrison had dwindled to twenty-five men who ran a radio and weather station. While the bulk of the American invasion forces were battling for Tarawa, a small group of Marines landed by submarine on near-by Apamama, where they killed one Japanese and shoveled dirt into the hole where the remaining twentyfour conveniently had committed suicide. Excluding one native child with rather obvious Japanese features, no trace exists today of the New Order on Apamama.

Although the Japanese occupation did nothing to disturb the lethargy of life on Apamama, if was a different story when the Seabees swarmed ashore on the heels of the Marines. With bulldozers, road-graders, and steam rollers, the Seabees whacked a broad swath through the coconut trees and laid down a coral-packed airstrip. They dredged the reefs for sufficient sand to extend a stout pier into the deep water, erected a city of Quonset huts and tents, constructed machine shops and control towers, and introduced the mystifying game of baseball.

The natives were aghast, their sensibilities shattered by such a display of energy in their enervating climate. Stimulated, however, by the fact that a dollar was a dollar and an easy one at that, they quickly caught the working fever and began the mass production of baskets, grass skirts, miniature outrigger canoes, and other trinkets dear to the hearts and pocket books of Americans. In fact, they made their handicraft extremely dear, exacted heavy tolls for doing laundry, swapped the mats off their floors for tobacco and knives, did odd jobs for clothing, and adopted a system of American currency which invalidated anything smaller than a tive-dollar bill.

Several weeks passed before the Seabees had time to investigate the Society of the Sacred Heart, the Catholic Mission situated for many years on a remote tip of Apamama. Except at low tide the Mission was cut off from the main portion of the island, and the first Seabees to go across the reef were awed by their discovery of the three white Sisters and their old French priest, who lifted his mosquito netting and waved from the bed where he had lain ill for more than a year.

To the Seabees, the Mission was out of this world, a fragment of yesterday which they could appreciate but never understand. The graying clapboard church, standing in a landscaped clearing, created a spiritual atmosphere in sharp contrast to their own warring world. The barnlike schoolhouse with its ancient wooden benches was a throwback to Tom Brown and David Copperfield. Why the three Sisters, Australians by birth, had devoted their lives to the indolent, uncaring natives the Seabees did not know, but they instinctively realized that the Sisters were lonely white women who lacked nearly every essential of physical comfort. The word spread, and on succeeding Sundays the Seabees came in laughing, jostling jeep-loads, all bearing gifts.

As the Sisters themselves point out, the Japanese had not actually mistreated them or molested the Mission. But they were continually sneaking about, hoping to find fresh food and wine, scouring the underbrush for supposedly downed American flyers, and prying into every corner after a hidden radio set. So the three Sisters had buried their sacramental wine, hidden their few chickens in the bushes, chased prowling Japanese out of their church, and lived like the natives on coconuts, pandanus, fish, and crabs. The last trading schooner had stopped at Apamama late in 1941, and for two years the Sisters had to carry on their missionary work without benefit of fresh provisions, without medical supplies, without mail or any news from the Allied world. The old French priest, their spiritual leader, was slowly dying, and the presence of their Japanese conquerors had seemed like an unending nightmare.

Then the Seabees came. They did not sneak into the Mission grounds, as the Japanese had done; nor did they stand and look about quietly, minding their own business, as the Sisters’ British countrymen would probably have done. From the commanding officer to the unrated seaman, the Seabees adopted the Sisters as their personal charges, stocked the Mission with canned rations, passed along books and newspapers, shared their candy from home, and made sure that the bedridden priest had the best of medical care. They displayed pictures of their wives, requested countless souvenirs, talked about their girls with candid optimism, and asked a thousand personal questions.

Unless one has actually seen the expression on the faces of the three Sisters as they discuss the Seabees, it is difficult to appreciate how much the Seabees mean to them. Reared in seclusion and piously dedicated to assisting the natives, the three Sisters were no longer young women. One had spent twenty-two years in native missions, and the other two almost as many. The few men they ever before had known treated them deferentially, as nuns. They had never met anyone from the United States,

I asked the Sisters how it seemed suddenly to have so many Americans around all at once. They smiled and admitted that they were alarmed at first, because they did not know how to take the Seabees. The Yanks, they said, were never disrespectful, and yet they managed to incorporate the Sisters in their American way of living with an alacrity which left the Sisters gasping. They were swept into a new world of laughing banter, bewildering candor, and casual generosity. Before long the Sisters were swapping jest for jest, flying about the island in jeeps, and enjoying their unexpected but never unexciting life as the Sisters of the Seabees.

The Seabees knew that soon they would move from Apamama to a new base closer to Japan, where fresh supplies and a more hazardous reconstruction job would await them. So, with plenty of equipment on hand, they set out to modernize the Mission. In the church, schoolhouse, and living quarters of the Sisters and the priest, the Seabees replaced the flickering candles with electric lights. They taught a native how to operate the small portable electric generator which they left behind with an ample supply of fuel.

Unwilling to see the frail Sisters carrying cumbersome buckets of water from a well, they presented them with an electric pump, salvaged from 1 lie Japanese. The wiring and plumbing they did on their time off. Apologizing for not being able to furnish them with an electric washing machine, the Seabees gave the Sisters a kerosene refrigerator, an unheard-of luxury for tropical-islanders. For the first time the grateful women were able to have icecold water and to keep their provisions fresh. The Seabees even taught them how to make ice cream from canned milk and powdered fruit extracts. As a final good-will gesture, the Seabees brought the whole world within range of the isolated Sisters by producing a radio powerful enough to pick up music and news from America, Australia, and New Zealand.

The tiny church, when I saw it, had its altar bedecked with hundreds of delicate paper flowers. When I marveled at the flowers, one of the Sisters explained that, the natives had made them from colored paper sent from the States. Real flowers are scarce on Apamama because of the absence of bees. So a Seabee had written to his mother that the Sisters needed colored paper, and had given her the name of the Mission and of the nearest Naval Air Transport unit. The delicate Madonna standing behind the altar rail had come from a similar source. Long after the Seabees had left, the statue arrived in a package postmarked Chicago.

The Sisters were wearing ankle-length blue and white habits which reminded me of the uniforms worn by nurse’s aides at home. Wondering where they were able to get the material, I found that the answer, once again, was the Seabees. One of the men from a field hospital brought them some white sheets and then had his mother send blue dye from America. The Sisters’ special delight was their habits reserved for Sunday best — handmade from the silk of a slightly damaged parachute.

They showed me their Seabee Library, as they called it. On the left side of a large bookcase were their own religious books and publications in faded paper bindings; on the right were at least two hundred new books in bright, covers. Shirer’s Berlin Diary was there, and Pringle’s Life of Theodore Roosevelt; Villa Gather was well represented, and so was Agatha ( hristie. In sharp contrast to the Thoughts for Reflection on the left was a mystery novel entitled Murder in a Nunnery on the Seabee side. And there were large stacks of magazines.

More than a year has passed since the first Seabees discovered the Mission and the three Sisters. The war has left Apamama two thousand miles behind the front. At irregular intervals small interisland boats of the British Crown Colony stop at the atoll to leave food and mail, and patrol planes circle the island to make sure everything is in order.

For the three Sisters life is much more abundant than during their pre-Seabee days. If you visit them, they proudly exhibit their electric generator, purring complacently under a plaited grass canopy, and lead you into the presence of their cherished Madonna, and, on special occasions, take a bottle of wine from their precious refrigerator so that you can drink a toast with the old French priest, who now is in better health and looking forward to his transfer to a cooler climate.

When their shyness has worn away, they will ask you to sign their guest book below the names of more than three hundred Seabees. If you want to feel a warming wave of pride in your countrymen, ask about those Seabees, what they were like, whether or not they were mostly of the same religion as the Sisters. Without hesitation and as a sort of benediction, t he three Sisters will assure you that their Seabees were of no particular race, creed, or color — they were “just plain Yanks,” for whose safety the Sisters pray daily as they follow the news over their powerful Seabee radio.