Countless gooney birds stagger across the old coral runways on Eastern Island, disturbed now and then by beached seals, snoring in the sun after the long swim from Alaska.
In the brilliant turquoise and aquamarine shallows offshore, relics of an old war lie rusting. The bombed-out barracks long ago rotted and collapsed. weeds and sand have overcome the bunkers.
Squinting at the horizon to the northwest, you imagine specks in the Pacific sky-Zeroes and Wildcats spinning hihg in the air, flaming by the dozens into the waves. The island itself is aflame, the runways littered with the wrecked carcasses of aircraft caught on the ground. Then, the miracle, Dive bombers from the Enterprisemortally wound the great carriers Akagi, Kaga and Soryu, Soon the forth giant, Hiryu, explodes and heads for the bottom. Yamamoto gives up the fight, swings his armada to the west and slinks back toward Japan. The tide of the war is turned.
On the beach, still squinting into the setting sun, there is another illusion, this one of old songs floating in from home. Jo Stafford is singing, "I Remember You." The ocean is beautiful and calm. It is the summer of '42.
Eastern Island is deserted now except for the gooneys and seals. There are no monuments or shrines.
A couple of times a week a C141 lumbers in from Hickam Field to re-supply the little Navy garrison on Sand Island, just across the channel. Otherwise, there is nothing left from the last good war, and that inspires a thought.
Why not install here a modest plaque that reads:
"Birthplace of the American Establishment."
The thesis is simple, the evidence strong:
Out of these Pacific waters covering one-third of the surface of the earth, out of these islands with strange and half-forgotten names-Tulagi, Vella Lavella, Vona Vona, Kwajalein, Yap, Tarawa, Saipan, Bougainville-and out of Europe, too, came the young American men who were to dominate for decades the principal institutions of American life.
They are the captains of Coca-cola, Weyerhaeuser, Sears, Allied Chemical, J.P. Morgan, Pepsico, Citicorp, Chase Manhattan, First Chicago, Boeing, Lockheed, Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Bank of America, TRW, American Airlines, Anheuser Busch, ITT and dozens more. The labor unions, universities, philanthropic foundations, newspapers, international banks, the Pentagon, the CIA and political bodies of every description came under their control.
They have been the last five presidents of the United States if you count Carter's Naval Academy years. All were young naval officers and all of them (Carter expected) did their time in the Pacific. In Congress even today, half the senators and 45 percent of the representatives are veterans of the war, plus two-thirds of Carter's cabinet. Another number: Of all men between the ages of 50 and 60 in the United states, 83 percent served in World War ii.
Most of them, of course, didn't make it to the mountaintop. They went back to farming and bartending and pumping gas and the Legion hall. Others are wheezing out their days VA hospitals and rooming houses.
nevertheless, it all fits. The war is the tie that binds in the American Establishment, the shared experience ofthe middle-aged American male. Their next common experience will be retirement and death; their average age approaches 60 and already they are going off at the rate of about 300,000 a year. But for now, they remain the Establishment which young journalists and sociologists seek always to discover.
Put up the plaque.
In the summer of '42, long troop trains snaked across the continent collecting farm boys, mechanics store clerks, hillbillies, sharecroppers, street thugs and campus heroes. Before it was over, 16 million had been gathered up.
For most of us it was of us it was going to be adventure. We had never been anywhere. We had only the dimmest notion of what or where the Pacific Ocean might be.
The pay was $52 a month, not bad for the times. The actuarial risks, as it turned out, were slight; 89 out of 100 came home. We were Willie and Joe, Sad Sack and Private Hargrove-irreverent, profane, frequently undisciplined and intensely egalitarian. Sir Laurence Kadoorie, one of the aging taipans of modern hong Kong, has an enduring vision of the American soldier then. When Kadoorie was liberated in 1945 from a Japanese prison camp, GLs gave him a uniform to replace his tattered clothing. He asked them whom he was supposed to salute. They said,"Nobody, buddy."
The war in the Pacific was won in 44 months at a cost of 99,381 American and 1,587,814 Japanese lives. Thatwould be called a good kill ratio today. There were many famous battles commaanded by nany famous men, most of them now in the grave. The nodules on the ocean floor were enriched by 463 warships and 2,444 merchant vessels of a total tonnage of 9,137,881. The number of aircraft destroyed was 64,680. Millions of bombs and shells (and two nuclear weapons) were expended, islands were leveled, legends were born, book written and movies made for the entertainment of later generations.
That should have been sufficient to leave a clear mark out here, to occupy Friends of the Earth for years to come.
But it isn't so.
Nature and man have just about erase In most of the Pacific, the old war is as remote now as in Harvard Square. A few antiquities are left for the tourists. Japanese search parties show up now and then, seeking and often finding the bones of sons, fathers and brothers. The human relics of the American dead turn up occasionally, uncovered in beach excavations or in the wreckage of planes buried in jungles and rain forests. These relics are sent back to Pier 36 in Honolulu, where a military identification unit ordinarily manages to put names on them. Their problem is finding next of kin to claim the packages.
It was naive of me to think it would be otherwise. It has been an awfully long time ago. Beyond that, there is the Pacific. It encompasses 64 million square miles, an area exceeding the whole land surface of the globe, even if you count Africa twice and throw in Antarctica. Its mean depth is 14,050 feet; in the Marianas trench the depth reaches 36,198 feet. This ocean will accomodate easily whatever man disposes-a few hundred vessels, A few thousand aircraft. The coral renews itself. Winds and sand have healed the craters. The tropical growth in the jungle has the limits of infinity in blotting out the scars of yesterday. Human life is the same. The perceived problem is no longer death in war, but population control.
In his last oration at West Point, Douglas MacArhtur paid his farewell to war:
"My days of old have vanished, tone and tint; they have gone glimmering through the dreams of things that were. . .I listen vainly, but with thirsty ear, for the witching melody of faint bugles blowing reveille, of far drums beating the long roll. In my dreams I hear again the crash of guns, the rattle of musketry, the strange mournful mutter of the battlefied."
That's all that's left out here-old dreams. Our landing beaches at Guam and Saipan swarm with Japanese honeymooners and tourists, seeking, among other things, American Pornography at inflated prices. Luxury hotels and office buildings overlook the reefs and shallows that once were filled with landing craft and LVTs and suspended bodies in GI green. Kwajalein, now a missile testing site, replicates the suburban idea with a Macy's, golf course, swimming pools, ranch houses, flower gardens and lawns. The massive blockhouses at Tarawa have been converted into barrooms and squash courts. Iwo Jima is not the same. Except on the beaches, the black sands have been covered over with a heavy growth of plants and trees that serve as a wildlife preserve for goats and pheasants. It is green island now. Enterprising young Coast Guardsmen found the soil hospitable to marijuana and did a thriving business in "Iwo Gold" until a recent crackdown by higher authority.
Tokyo, just 34 years ago, was a burned-out hulk with more than 3 million homeless. Nagasaki was leveled by an atomic bomb. There are no traces left of that holocaust except for a memorial popular with pigeons and tourists. Tokyo, in many ways, has become a caricature of Dallas, Houston and Wall Street. Singapore and Hong Kong are the same, producing millionaries and skyscrappers on a scale not even Babitt would have imagined. An American lawyer in Hong Kong suffers from the shock of the commercial culture: "Lawyers here are making a million and half a year. And you know what the taxes are? Fifteen percent. It makes you sick. Or jealous."
In this atmosphere, World War II like the wars in Korea and Vietnam, seems little more than a passing blip on the time machine.
One reason is that there are new wars to consider, both external and domestic. Indochina is littered with fresh corpses. Guerrillas, dissidents and bandits fight in Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, Loas and Indonesia. Stone Age tribes war with blunt arrows and bamboo spears in the New Guinea highlands. Teenaged gangs fight over turf in the Marshalls. Drunks fight in barrooms in Turk. American Marines and Chamorros brawl over women in the strip joints of Guam.
New tales of the South Pacific are being written about the money chase, Chicago-style politics, bloated bureaucracies, rampant alcoholism, suicide among the young, and cultural imperialism.
Against these new realities, the mournful mutter of old battlefields is an irrelevancy. CAPTION: Picture 1, The airstrip on Midway. ;Picture 2, A Japanese bunker on Saipan Photos by Richard Harwood-The Washington Post; Illustration, no caption; Picture 3, no caption; Picture 4, A gooney bird on the runway during the Japanese bombing of Midwayin 1942.