By ROBERT C. GORDON
ON THE afternoon of July 7, 1943, with a small group of men from the U.S.S. Helena, I stumbled onto the beach of Vella Lavella Island in the Solomons. We had lost our ship in the Battle of Kula Gulf, fought in the early morning darkness of the day before. She had been torpedoed by Japanese destroyers; and after she went down, those of us who could not be rescued by our own ships had to be left to drift among those contested islands, wondering whether we should first encounter friend or enemy.
Sometime in our second night of drifting and hoping, a current began to carry our raft in the direction of Vella Lavella. We knew nothing about the place except that, being north and west of New Georgia, it should have been occupied by the Japanese. We saw it looming in the darkness, a very ordinary-looking blob of land. The dawn revealed it as a rolling, densely vegetated, lonely spot; and we prepared ourselves for the worst, for in our hungry, oil-soaked, weary condition we were helpless.
Our raft eventually struck coral at two o’clock in the afternoon. Immediately we were surrounded by black natives with broad grins and fuzzy hair, who helped us over the sharp coral onto the sand beach.
Some of them spoke a strange pidgin English. “Japs that way, you go that way,” were the first words I heard. “White ma’, white ma’ that way.” One of these men (there were no women to be seen), Mickey by name, grinned, scratched his belly, and pointed vaguely into the jungle. Then they let us rest under a coconut palm for a while, giving us cans of meat from our own ship, which Providence had allowed to reach the island before us. There were twenty of us, nineteen enlisted men and myself. We were pretty tired, having been on the raft for thirtysix hours, and the meat tasted wonderful, but they soon rounded us up and led us away, single file down the beach.
We followed trustingly enough but we had plenty to think about. Were we the first survivors on the island or were there others? Were Mickey and his friends as honest as they looked? Who was this white man they said they were leading us to?
We walked gingerly. The coral pieces were like sharp stones under our feet. Sooner than I expected, however, we headed into the jungle, and the coral gradually gave way to a thick black ooze. The jungle was dense, the air soon became heavy with the smell of green plant life, and the atmosphere seemed saturated by the moisture all around us. For about a half mile we followed, pausing only once to bathe in a fresh-water stream. Then we began to climb. Some of the men had raw, salt-water sores behind the knees, and they suffered with each step. No one spoke. We just dragged along thinking vague thoughts.
After climbing a hill that seemed to grow steeper with each step, we came to a clearing. Here we saw two fairly large wooden huts, and were encouraged to discover a small party of Helena men who had arrived before us and were obviously safe and recuperating. We soon met the owner of the huts, who turned out to be a grinning Chinese with a passable command of English. One of the huts was his, a one-room affair with a large, very hard bed and some rustic tables. His name was Sam, and we learned from him that this was an outpost of a large copra plantation still technically owned by a Sydney food products firm, and that he, his family, and a few Chinese friends were the only employees of the firm that remained on the island.
“White man go, ‘ceppin’ for the Bish.”
“And who is the Bish?”
“He come soon you see, maybe tomorrow.” He spoke like someone about to spring a pleasant surprise. “He good missionary.”
During our first two days on the island, while other rescued parties kept coming in, we slept most of the time. Fortunately among the first arrivals to the island were some pharmacist’s mates and cooks. The pharmacist’s mates were always by the wounded, and their presence at the camp proved invaluable. Sam provided the cooks with a huge old copper kettle, and they soon had a stew preparing, a strange-looking combination of tapioca roots, tara roots, and miscellaneous roots mixed with a small chopped-up quantity of our old friend, the canned meat.
This stew had a peculiar odor and, we were to discover, a more peculiar taste, resembling hopelessly burned stable corn, but it was food. It roused us from our sleep and attracted us like a magnet. There was a fair share of it for all, and it wasn’t long before most of us, having greedily satisfied our hunger, began to ask questions and investigate our situation. Now that we were fully awake and strengthened by food, the time was ripe for the arrival of the white man, and he came.
Followed by a small group of natives, he walked towards the camp from that part of the jungle which seemed most dense. He was a small man dressed in khaki shirt and shorts. On his head was an old New Zealand campaign hat. At a distance he looked very much like a Boy Scout. He was soon among us, smiling broadly and shaking hands vigorously. His thin, sharp, sun-browned face suggested at once the Anzac and we learned later that his name was Bishop Silvester, that his home was in Auckland, that he was a Methodist.
He was soon talking things over with Lt. Com. John Chew, a small, Scottish-looking, Academy man who had been our assistant gunnery officer. Sam was right. The Bish was a good missionary. His first words were of God. “It was He who watched over you and brought you here, you know.”A true evangelist, he spoke as though he knew something so wonderful that he must let others in on the great secret. The brightness in his eyes, and the enthusiasm and sincerity with which he spoke, impressed all of us. We became quiet and a little solemn. If we had hats, we might have removed them.
But there were other questions in our minds, equal at least in importance to that of who had brought us here. Were there any Japs around? Yes, there was a small garrison miles away at the other end of the island, but they were singularly uninquisitive. I observed one of the natives playfully swinging a nasty-looking version of the double-edged machete, and I felt that we were very lucky to have these men on our side. “You see,” said the Bish, “when the Japs first came here they treated the natives very cruelly, and the native women — er — in their usual cavalier fashion.” On this subject the Bish spoke darkly and meaningfully.
Our next question was inevitable. Was there any means of communication with the outside world? Yes, he had a radio, and the word would soon be sent to Tulagi that a large group of Helena survivors were quietly sitting it out under the nose of the Bougainville Japs, waiting for the U.S. Navy to come up and take them away. We were overjoyed to hear about the radio, and greatly surprised when the Bish later informed us that on another part of Vella Lavella, not far off, was a second group of Helena men, numbering fifty-seven. This raised the total on the island to 161, certainly enough men for the Navy to risk an excursion up the Solomons “Slot” to rescue us.
The Bish was proud of his natives. “You will receive nothing but kindness from them,” he said. As if to prove this, the native boys built a large lean-to to accommodate the overflow from the huts. It was a beautiful piece of work done with strong leaves and thin strips of thread-like fiber from an island vine. It was in this shelter that the Bish held his first service.
He was the last of a large missionary group that had once maintained stations on all the surrounding islands. He had not been home in ten years. We were slowly beginning to realize the extent of this man’s unselfish devotion to his God. His service under the shelter was memorable. We were all I here, Mr. Chew, our commanding officer on the island, having informed us that “any man who’s been through this affair and doesn’t go to church is going to have me to reckon with.” We went willingly enough, however. The Bish stood under the lean-to, and we all sat around him. He gave us a friendly smile as we gathered, much like any parson surveying his Sunday morning congregation before beginning the service. He then pulled out a good-sized Bible from his pocket and began to read. The words were familiar.
“O give thanks unto the Lord; for he is good: for his mercy endureth forever.” Then he translated the text into the Vella Lavella tongue for the benefit of the natives, who were sitting together on a near-by log, looking very much like a choir.
There was a prayer. The Bish expressed his gratitude that he had such an opportunity to serve us. He prayed for victory and peace. His manner was that of an old servant talking to his master, and the roughest of us were moved by the tremendous sincerity of this man. Then came the hymn, “Stand Up for Jesus.”
The Bish led off bravely in a high, nasal voice, and we followed along. But our singing was a faltering whisper beside that of the natives. Sometime in the past he had taught them to sing parts, and the unfailing musicianship of the black man had made them respond like robust angels. There was a mixture of tongues. Some of the natives, who had forgotten the words, sang in no tongue at all, just let the tones flow out like a mighty chorus of brass instruments; others sang along in their own surprisingly musical dialect; the rest sang English words.
“Stand up, stand up, for Jesus! The trumpet call obey!” The strong voices, resounding through the jungle, sounded rich and magnificent.
The Bish’s sermon was beautifully quiet and simple. There was a closing hymn, and once again the leaves vibrated in response to the voices of the black men. I remember in particular one fine-featured old patriarch with a high, noble brow and a stern chin framed by a tremendous while heard. He looked like a Supreme Court justice or a native Jove.
There remained the benediction. “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious unto you.” The afternoon sun sent hazy ribbons of light through the great trees, and there was a mighty hush. “The Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace,” and it was as if the world had paused in its frenzy to hear this man’s softly spoken “Amen.”
From somewhere Sam produced two old rifles and a few clips of ammunition. Major Kelly, in charge of the Marine group, organized a watch. With these two weapons, which from rust and disuse were about as efficient as muskets, plus a number of battered 45-caliber pistols, he set up a permanent sentry guard based on the best Marine doctrine concerning the defense of a camp on hilltop. This arrangement gave us a feeling of added security, though we don’t know to this day whether the guns would have fired or whether the cartridges contained powder or red pepper.
One day a report came in that a Japanese landing barge had found its way to the beach with a small number of passengers. Major Kelly’s sentries increased their vigilance, but the test of arms fortunately never came off. The Japanese walked the beach a little but never ventured inland. They must have felt rather lonely on this island that was supposedly theirs.
Meanwhile the Bish came every day to report on the progress of his radio negotiations with our Tulagi base. He held his service every afternoon, and we continued our devout attendance. The lean-to was his cathedral, and he made it a holy place.
But we received from him something more than the food of the spirit, for on one of his afternoon visits we were amazed to see him come smiling out of the jungle, leading his ever present native bodyguard, who were in turn carrying a huge cloth bag full of meat — real fresh beef. They had killed a cow on one of Vella Lavella’s few grazing plots and carried its meat on their backs to us through nearly five miles of the bush. The cooks pounced upon it instantly and soon had it in the kettle. It was like manna.
Most important of all, the natives maintained their continuous patrol. The forlorn little group of Japs, who had beached their landing barge, were not left unobserved for a second. They must have known that theirs was an unhappy position, for every night we heard the frantic sputtering of their engine as they vainly endeavored to free their boat.
We were on the island seven days in all. The Bish’s message to Tulagi drew a quick response, and an order was issued to all available destroyers in the vicinity. They were gathered in one large force, to which was added two API) marine transports. The word was flashed back to us that we were to be rescued at 2.00 A.M., July 16.
We lived as before, but with renewed hope. We ate our stew, slept a lot, went to the Bish’s services, and continued to marvel at him and his achievements with the natives, whom he had made into real, unselfish Christians. All this time we were also trying to persuade him to leave the island with us, but with no success.
Finally, with the appointed hour almost upon us, we gathered the men together, made stretchers for the wounded, and organized for the long walk back to the beach. On the night of July 15 we left the camp, but that afternoon, before we went, we all gathered around the Bish and stood dumb while Mr. Chew tried to express what was in our hearts.
After a final round of handshaking, during which we all begged him for the last time to come with us, a small covering force was sent ahead under Ma|or Kelly to scout for any last-minute difficulties along the path; and with the coming of darkness, a long file of men began to move out of the camp. Sam, his father, and the rest of the Chinese on the island were to leave Vella Lavella with us. They brought up the rear of the procession and provided the only anxious moment of the evening when a newborn Chinese baby gave a lusty howl just as their group came in sight of the beach.
The final wait seemed the longest, but eventually the cove, which had been selected for our rendezvous, was echoing the powerful roar of incoming Higgins boats. The operation was a success, and everyone was delivered off the island without a slip. Within an hour we were on our way to Tulagi and safety.
But we left the Bish behind. “Someone must stay on, you know.”That was what he had said.