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Tacoma, Washington, United States

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Tongatabu and Bora Bora

There were fifty-odd passengers on the SEA WITCH and we were a very mixed bag indeed.  Sailors such as Hook and me being transferred back to advanced schools were less than a dozen.  The balance of the passenger list included misfits and foul-ups from Carlson’s Second Marine Raiders that had taken Guadalcanal (some of who had been court-martialed and some who were awaiting court-martial), a mixture of Marines and Army combat fatigue cases, and one young Marine who had made it to the South Pacific only to be found regularly sleeping with his fellow Marines.  He talked openly of the trunks of dresses he had stowed at his mother’s and the life he intended to lead when he got out of the service.  It was something I found foreign and unsettling.
That afternoon we Naval personnel were mustered on the fantail by a young lieutenant junior grade, the officer in charge of the Navy gun crews that manned the few guns on the armed transport.  He informed us that we would be considered temporary ship’s company and would be assigned duties.  In other words, we would work our way to San Francisco.

Both Hook and I were first class petty officers.  We were at first indignant when the JG informed us that we would be on mess cooking duty.  Since the ship had but a small civilian crew, troops in transit had to furnish their own galley crews.  Like the little French waiter in Noumea, however, we shrugged and said, “c’est la guerre”—it is war—and reported to the galley where we were handed white aprons.  Hook was assigned to the steam table and I was assigned to help the bakers—I sliced their crusty bread at the head of the chow line.
Actually, the light duty we had in the mess hall helped to break the monotony of the voyage home.  The SEA WITCH, like the old TIPPECANOE, wallowed along at a sedate 12 to 14 knots and the tip was estimated to take more than two weeks.  We had more leisure time than we wanted to lounge on the deck and watch for flying fish or to sit for almost endless hours in our bunk compartment playing “coon can” (a Navy versing of gin rummy).  The threat of Japanese submarines had eased and we travelled without convoy.
In the end our voyage on the SEA WITCH actually took three weeks because we made two stops enroute to pick up salvage materials to carry back to the empty cargo holds.  I sailed from Noumea on the morning of February 13th.
On the 16th we dropped anchor in the harbor of Tongatabu, the “forbidden island” of the Friendly Island group, to pick up empty gasoline and oil drums from the small Navy station there.
Tongatabu was then a classic south seas island that could well have been used as a movie set.  It consisted of one green mountain peak surrounded by coconut palm covered level areas with white sand beaches.  The harbor was protected by a coral reef so the blue water in the anchorage was flat calm.  Frm the ship we could see only what appeared to be a small village with a church (old-time missionaries did not miss much in the South Pacific), three or four other whitewashed buildings with corrugated tin roofs, and a scattering of palm frond thatched houses.
We were informed by the lieutenant that Tongatagu was then (and I guess still is) the last remaining true monarchy in the world and was ruled by a queen.  When the U.S. Navy made arrangements with the queen to install a small patrol base on Tongatabu she agreed; however, she took an unusual precaution.  She had heard the stories about sailors and local native girls so (as the story went) she built a secret village somewhere in the jungles of the mountain slopes and moved every unattached female over the age of eight to it for the duration.
Hook and I were intrigued by Tongatabu and, when we found that the SEA WITCH would be there for three full days loading, we talked the lieutenant into letting us go ashore to see the village one afternoon.  It did not amount to much.  Besides the church there was a small school building, two large houses, and a square white building that was the local general store.  The rest was a motley collection of small houses, some of which barely qualified as a “little grass shack”.  The small Naval station was a quarter of a mile from the town.
We believe that we did confirm the story About the queen hiding the eligible females in a secret village.  On our walk around the village, we saw only very young girls or very old women, but there were several husky young males.  At one point we saw a road leading toward the interior of the island and started walking along it.  We did not get far.  A hundred yards or so beyond the last house two burly native men stepped out of the underbrush, one on each side of the road.  Each was carrying a bamboo spear.  As we approached they stood facing us.  One held up a hand and said in English, “Stop—go back—is taboo.”
We did not argue, but turned meekly around and went back to the town.  There we found a sailor attached to the local Navy station.  He confirmed the story about the secret village and said that their small patrol planes had flown over every part of the island, but failed to fine the fabled village.  They spotted only known settlements long the coast of the island.
The weather continued to be tropically perfect as we sailed from Tongatabu early on the morning of February 20th, bound for Bora Bora in the Society Islands.  The calm sea sparkled in the sunshine beneath a blue sky studded with white cumulus clouds.  In our plentiful spare time we would lounge under the sunshade on the fantail and watch the flying fish skipping across the foaming white line of the wake of the SEA WITCH.  Once in a while someone would yell, “Thar she blows!”  On those occasions we were treated to the magnificent sight of a huge grey whale broaching, then crashing back down into the water.  Afterward the big flukes would appear as the whale sounded.
On the morning of February 24th I watched in delight as SEA WITCH sailed into the harbor at Bora Bora.  It was without a doubt the epitome of south sea islands.  High green hills were on each side of the harbor entrance.  When the anchor splashed down we were a quarter mile off a beautiful curving golden sand beach lined with tall native village was beyond outrigger canoes drawn up o the sand.  The village included several thatched huts, one large house with a veranda, and the inevitable small church.  This one was clapboard painted green with white trim.  It was a scene of total peace and, for a little while, the war seemed very, very far away.
The outrigger canoes did not stay on the beach long.  People came swarming out of the village and piled into the canoes.  They came paddling across the blue lagoon and literally surrounded the ship.  They made no attempt to board but called out to us in mellifluous Polynesian for barter—grass skirts ornamented with waistbands of cowrie shells, carved model outrigger canoes, tapa cloth paintings, and ripe coconuts.
 Was obviously not a perfect Eden.  Several of the natives had pock-marked faces and, immediately below my position at the rail, an old man had feet swollen with elephantiasis that he could not put them side by side in the bottom of the narrow canoe.  He held up a beautiful grass skirt with a waistband of golden shells four or five inches wide. I thought it would make a perfect gift for Patty Cross when I got home so I held up a fresh pack of Lucky Strike cigarettes.  The old man flashed a toothless grin and nodded vigorously.  I tossed down the cigarettes and he handed up the grass skirt on the tip of his pointed paddle.
In a little while a small barge loaded with empty oil drums came alongside SEA WITCH and a cargo boom was rigged out.  At the same time a whaleboat carrying a doen brown-skinned strapping native men came to the boarding ladder and the natives swarmed aboard followed by an older white-haired man clad in a white lava-lava who was obviously in charge of the work party.  The ship’s crew removed a cargo hatch and the natives started transferring the oil drums into the hold, stacking them with those we had picked up at Tongatabu.
As the natives worked, one of them started to sing in the Polynesian tongue.  The other workers, one by one, joined in until the ship resounded with the sound of a melodious chorus.  The song was tantalizingly familiar and I finally realized that they were singing the old hymn “Onward Christian Soldiers” with Polynesian words.  It was beautiful.
The old white-haired man was sitting on a hatch cover watching the progress of the work.  I approached him boldly, hoping that he understood English.  “Excuse me, sir—I want to tell you how beautifully your men sing.”
He turned unusual hazel eyes on me and fingered a strand of shells that was draped about his neck.  “That is not real singing,” he said scornfully.  “You wait until this evening and listen to the music that comes from the church—then you will hear real singing!”
Unfortunately, we did not get to hear the real singing from the church.  Shortly after noon chow the loading was finished, the hatch cover closed, the native crew left the ship, and SEA WITCH weighed anchor.  We were now bound directly for San Francisco.  As Bora Bora faded on the horizon near sunset, the music haunted me and I vowed to myself that one day I would return.  (I never did and now I do not care.  I have seen recent color photographs of that Bora Bora harbor and it is now the milieu of tourists in droves with a Club Med and many high-rise resorts replacing he waving palm trees along that beautiful beach.  No doubt the village and the little church are long gone.)

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