This Hugh Paxton Blog series looks at islands that I’ve visited, both joyful and terrible. Today is Pelelieu – a mixture of both!
Seen from the air it is hard to reconcile Pelelieu today with the bald, bomb-wracked coral block desert that claimed the lives of 12,000 men back in the autumn of 1944.
Once more covered in jungle, the Pelelieu of today seems to float against its background of luminous blue-green sea, the archetypal tropical dream island.
As the six-seat Cessna of Paradise Air bumps gently down on the single strip that serves as the island’s air link with the rest of the Palau archipelago, the sense of peaceful paradise, if anything strengthens. The soft thump of island music drifts from the wall-less hut that constitutes the airport waiting room, and birds whistle and hoot from clumps of coconut trees. The air smells rich and vital and warm.
Although there are no taxis on the island, hitching a lift with the Paradise Air rep proves no problem and soon we are rolling a narrow, rutted, concrete road that winds between mangrove swamp and waterlogged taro fields. Apart from chickens that seem to have reverted to the wild and rediscovered the joys of flight, there is no sign of life. Pelelieu simmers sleepily in the heat of noon, serenity itself.
Then I see the two tanks. Huge, rusting, oddly primitive, they squat in thich grass, muzzles trained on the road. These sentries of the past are an incongruous, somehow shocking sight – at least for my newcomer’s eyes.
Emery Wenty, who shares our lift, is amused. “We have a lot of stuff like that here,” he says in the sing song island accent. “I used to have one.”
“One? One what?”
“A tank. I’m not sure what happened to it though.”
Wenty may have lost his tank, but as we pull up to the Pelelieu Sunset Inn, more popularly known as The Wenty House, it becomes immediately apparent that he still has armaments to spare. Beside the vat that contains his pet sea turtle there are enough corroded bombs, bullets and aircraft parts to start a major offensive.
It had to be asked.
“Is all this stuff safe?”
“Sure,” he answers airily. “Usually.”
The next morning, mounted on a bicycle lent by The Wenty House, I set out to find some more explosive devices of my own, and, at the same time, put Pelelieu’s past in some kind of perspective with its present. Pelelieu’s too small to make renting a car worthwhile, even if it were possible, which it isn’t.
But a bicycle is perfect. Particularly if one has a map. Although there are only two villages to speak of, the Japanese laid an extremely convoluted series of roads across the island as part of their ill-fated preparations for war. It is surprisingly easy to get lost.
Few visitors overnight on Pelelieu. Mostly they fly in for a day’s tour of the battlefields – Bloody Nose Ridge, Orange Beach, China Wall and Wildcat Bowl etc. and the various memorials and cemeteries. One can understand their haste.; Palau, after all, has hundreds of islands and a great deal to see. But to my mind, rushing Pelelieu is a mistake. It’s just not that kind of island.
Take the tunnels for instance. As part of their defensive strategy the Japanese 14th Division supplemented Pelelieu’s extensive system of natural caves with almost 500 tunnels and bunkers. Many are still accessible given a little persistence, a torch (flash light), some clothes you don’t mind getting filthy, and plenty of time. Although Pelelieu has many more obvious reminders of its bloody history – the rusting flotilla of amphibious landing craft that rest half in and half out in the reefs and turbulent waters off Orange Beach, for example, or the Japanese cannons above the Horseshoe Defile – it is in the tunnels that one really gets the feel of what happened.
They are both fascinating and horrible.
Slithering in through an observation slit is like entering another world. Whatever the weather outside (and above), in the Japanese tunnels it is always stiflingly humid and hot. Camera lenses steam up almost instantly, T-shirts feel tight and sticky.
Constructed by Korean and Okinawan forced labour, the tunnels were the main reason that the US invasion of Pelelieu took two months to complete.
All organised resistance to the American Marines was over one week after the initial three-day naval bombardment ended, but many Japanese refused to surrender and fought on from their claustrophobic subterranean warrens. Eventually the Americans resorted to sealing cave entrances with concrete of flooding them with gasoline which seeped into the deeps and was then ignited with phosphorous grenades. Rusting oil drums still guard many of the exits.
BLOG ED NOTE: In a soon to be posted Pattern of Islands story I will be describing a visit to Midway Atoll. There I met a retired veteran of the Pacific war and we talked about the gasoline drums.
Quote: “Hugh, I’ll never forget that smell of cooked Jap. Cooked Jap we called it. I loved that smell.”
Back to the plot!
Even the cooking and the concrete were not completely effective. The last group of 26 die-hards surrendered two years and eight months after the war ended. One man held out until the late 1950s when he was apprehended stealing taro from a plantation one moonlit night. The woman who spotted him thought that he was a ghost.
I saw a few ghosts beneath Pelelieu myself. There is still so much down there. Crawling through cramped communication tunnels, dodging the occasional bat or jumping cave cricket, one constantly encounters evidence of violence and occupation. Echoes, the sound of one’s laboured breathing and claustrophobia aside, the effect is profoundly disturbing.
Everything seems so recent. So close.
The black scorchmarks of a flamethrower, a mutilated gas mask, scraps of material (a uniform?) sake bottles, a lunch box, a Japanese officer’s Parker pen, nib still in working condition (I took it out and tried it then went back down and put it back), a live anti-personnel mine with its trip mechanism still intact waiting for the unwary (gave that one a wide berth!), a section of human vertebrae.
BLOG ED NOTE: The vertebrae were probably of American origin. Or may have been pig. For a long time Japanese relatives of the slain visited Pacific islands to recover Japanese bones for reverential reburial or cremation in Japan. Some claimed they could differentiate between Japanese bones and foreign bones. Others (or perhaps the same people) were duped by Filipino entrepreneurs into buying pig bones. Pelelieu saw its fair share of bone collectors but the practise has largely ceased. Back to the plot!
Living in these tunnels, down here, even without the thud of bombs above, must have been hell. In the thin light of my torch I can virtually see the shadows of soldiers past, crouching, crowding in the gloom. Sweating, stinking, clutching guns and photos oft their loved ones, waiting for the gurgle of gasoline…
Outside, tunnels over, in blinding sunshine, the present day takes uneasy repossession of my senses. Later, watching tropic birds wheel above the russet brown of a wreck on the distant barrier reef, the past still feels uncomfortably close.
Then Wenty’s Pohnapei wife works her usual magic in the kitchen. Sauteed tuskfish, tuna soup, Japanese rice wrapped in seaweed – I feel history recede.
Over the obligatory post-prandial chew of betel nut (horrible), Wenty talks about coconut crabs, and how a banana tree shivers before putting out new fruit. As we chat, I relax. I begin to make plans for tomorrow.
Swimming. Yes, I think I’ll go swimming. And then perhaps something peaceful on a beach.