Sunday, February 14, 2010
Tales From Kwajalein
Years ago, I met a guy who we will call "Tony".
Tony had been hired to travel to a remote Atoll in the Marshall Islands named Kwajalein. At the time, Kwajalein was an open secret; a U.S. military base deeply involved in early tests of the "Star Wars" missile defense system.
Tony was skilled in restaurant management, and the military had hired him as a civilian employee to improve the standards of the officers club at the base.
The island paradise of Kwajalein had been subjected to harsh colonial rule by the Germans, then managed under Japanese civilian control. The relatively peaceful civilian occupation took a turn for the worse during World War Two, and Kwajalein suffered heavy attacks from American forces, eventually becoming an extension of American power in that part of the Pacific.
Tony loved his job improving the officer's club, and bought a small sailboat to explore the islands. Things were ticking along quite well, until "the coffee pot incident". It seems that Tony had been flirting with the wrong girl, another American civilian at the base. Tony was pretty popular at the time, he would hand out candy to the groups of island kids that teased him and followed him around. But another American took exception to his romancing a particular girl. This guy came into the officers club, picked up a hot pot of coffee and threw it on Tony. No serious damage, Tony rubbed himself down with ice and avoided a bad burn. But the other guy had fled outside and there was quite a ruckus. A mob of kids had found out that a man had tried to hurt Tony, and they tracked him down and stoned him to death. Since Tony had no hand in it, nobody was charged and it was Tony's first indication that life was going to be very different on Kwajalein.
Kwajalein was the receiving-end of Reagan's "Star Wars" missile defense program. One of the big events Tony witnessed was when a U.S. missile was launched from California and aimed right at the huge lagoon that the atoll wraps around. He said everyone on the island took lawn chairs and all the Booze they could carry and went down to the lagoon to see the missile come in. At first it just looked like a distant star in the evening light. Then it got closer, and closer, until it crashed into the lagoon right in front of them. He said it was the closest thing he could imagine to seeing the start of a nuclear war.
Civilian employees on Kwajalein were instructed not to visit or get involved with residents of the smaller and more remote islands, a rule that was constantly violated. One time Tony and a friend loaded up cases of raw chicken and flew over to one of those remote islands for a change of pace. They landed on a beach and were warmly greeted by the islanders. As they were unloading the chicken, people started grabbing it and eating it raw. Tony told them it had to be cooked or they might get sick, and a great feast ensued. They partied with their hosts late into the night, and it was time to get some sleep. Their hosts insisted, you guessed it... that they bed down with their daughters.
But the most striking story Tony had was about the old crippled native that literally lived in a large crate on the edge of town. The poor old guy had at one time been a leader of his people, and had now been reduced to begging for food. When Japanese militarism came to Kwajalein, Japanese soldiers broke both of his legs, and thirty years later the once-great man was belittled by mean folk in a dog-eat-dog Pacific Island existance.
Tony and his friends felt sorry for the old chief. One day they went to his crate, gathered him up and carried him down to their small sailboat. They put him up on the bow of the boat and set sail for a tour around the island. Tony choked back tears himself as he described the scene; The old chief had never seen his island by boat since the Japanese had tortured him and broke his legs. As he sat on the bow of the boat, tears rolled down his face. Tears at the changes modern life had brought the island, with the large military base. And tears at the kindness and respect given to him by these American civilians for taking him on the boat.
As descriptive as every story was told, down to exact details, I still wasn't quite sure that everything Tony had told me was true. That is, until he dug out an old relic from his island adventure; a Kwajalein phone book, with his name in it.