Read Tales of the South Pacific Online

Authors: James A. Michener

Tags: #1939-1945, #Oceania, #World War II, #World War, #War stories, #General, #Men's Adventure, #Historical - General, #Islands of the Pacific, #Military, #Short Stories, #Modern fiction, #Modern & contemporary fiction (post c 1945), #History, #American, #Historical Fiction, #1939-1945 - Oceania, #Historical, #Fiction, #General & Literary Fiction, #Fiction - Historical, #Action & Adventure, #War & Military, #South Pacific Ocean

Tales of the South Pacific

BOOK: Tales of the South Pacific
2.59Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

James A. Michener

Tales Of The South Pacific

First published in 1946

This collection of tales is set against the background of the South Pacific, the endless ocean, the coral specks called islands, the coconut palms, the reefs, the lagoons, the jungles, and the full moon rising against the volcanoes.

The tales are told by a young naval officer whose duties on an Admiral's staff take him up and down the islands. He meets many people, both service men and the original inhabitants, and hears their stories-the remittance man who lived among the Japs and radioed their movements until one fatal and dramatic morning; Bloody Mary, the Tonkinese woman who introduced her daughter to a young Marine lieutenant; Emile de Becque, the French planter who fell in love with an American nurse; Tony Fry, the individualist who fought a very personal war in his own very effective way; Lieutenant Bill Harbison, who lived like a hero but turned out to be a louse; and the young enlisted man from Ohio who was going to pieces on one of the islands until a Sea Bee gave him a reason for living.

Because Mr. Michener was there, he is able to reproduce exactly the mood and atmosphere of the early critical days of the Pacific War. Because, in addition, he has a lively imagination and inventive power, he has turned this raw material into stories that will be eagerly read for their dramatization of the greatest adventure of our generation.


The South Pacific

Coral Sea


An Officer and a Gentleman

The Cave

The Milk Run


Our Heroine

Dry Rot



A Boar's Tooth

Wine for the Mess at SEGI

The Airstrip at Konora

Those Who Fraternize

The Strike


The Landing on Kuralei

A Cemetery at Hoga Point


I WISH I could tell you about the South Pacific. The way it actually was. The endless ocean. The infinite specks of coral we called islands. Coconut palms nodding gracefully toward the ocean. Reefs upon which waves broke into spray, and inner lagoons, lovely beyond description. I wish I could tell you about the sweating jungle, the full moon rising behind the volcanoes, and the waiting. The waiting. The timeless, repetitive waiting.

But whenever I start to talk about the South Pacific, people intervene. I try to tell somebody what the steaming Hebrides were like, and first thing you know I'm telling about the old Tonkinese woman who used to sell human heads. As souvenirs. For fifty dollars!

Or somebody asks me, "What was Guadalcanal actually like?" And before I can describe that godforsaken backwash of the world, I'm rambling on about the Remittance Man, who lived among the Japs and sent us radio news of their movements. That is, he sent the news until one day.

The people intervene. The old savage who wanted more than anything else in the world to jump from an airplane and float down to earth in a parachute. "Alla same big fella bird!" he used to shout, ecstatically, until one day we took him up and shoved him out. Ever afterward he walked in silence among the black men, a soul apart, like one who had discovered things best hidden from humanity.

Or I get started on the mad commander who used to get up at two o'clock in the morning and scuff barefooted over the floors of his new hut. "Carpenter! Carpenter!" he would shout into the jungle night. "There's a rough spot over here!" And some drowsy enlisted man would shuffle from his sweating bunk and appear with sanding blocks. "See if you can get those splinters out, son," the commander would say softly.

Take the other night up in Detroit. Some of us were waiting for a train. The air in the saloon was heavy. For more than an hour a major told us about his experiences with Patton in Africa, in Sicily, and in France. He used great phrases such as: "vast deployment to the east,"

"four crushing days into Palermo,"

"a sweeping thrust toward the open land south of Paris,"

"a gigantic pincers movement toward the heart of Von Rundstedt's position."

When he had won the war, he turned to me and asked, "What was it like in the Pacific?" I started to reply as honestly as I could. But somehow or other I got mixed up with that kid I knew on a rock out there. Twenty-seven months on one rock. Heat itch all the time. Half a dozen trees. Got involved in the bootlegging scandal. Helped repair a ship bound for the landing at Kuralei. And then he got a cablegram from home.

"Why, hell!" the major snorted. "Seems all he did was sit on his ass and wait."

"That's exactly it!" I cried, happy to find at last someone who knew what I was talking about.

"That's a hell of a way to fight a war!" he grunted in disgust, and within the moment we had crossed the Rhine and were coursing the golden tanks down the Autobahnen.

But our war was waiting. You rotted on New Caledonia waiting for Guadalcanal. Then you sweated twenty pounds away in Guadal waiting for Bougainvillea. There were battles, of course. But they were flaming things of the bitter moment. A blinding flash at Tulagi. A day of horror at Tarawa. An evening of terror on Kuralei. Then you relaxed and waited. And pretty soon you hated the man next to you, and you dreaded the look of a coconut tree.

I served in the South Pacific during the bitter days of '41 through '43. I was only a paper-work sailor, traveling from island to island, but I did get to know some of the men who actually directed the battles. There was Old Bull Halsey who had the guts to grunt out, when we were taking a pasting, "We'll be in Tokyo by Christmas!" None of us believed him, but we felt better that we were led by men like him.

I also knew Admiral McCain in a very minor way. He was an ugly old aviator. One day he flew over Santo and pointed down at that island wilderness and said, "That's where we'll build our base." And the base was built there, and millions of dollars were spent there, and everyone agrees that Santo was the best base the Navy ever built in the region. I was always mighty proud of McCain, for he was in aviation, too.

Then there was little Aubrey Fitch who fought his planes in all the battles and banged away until the Japs just had to stop coming. I knew him later. I saw Vandegrift, of the Marines, who made the landing at Guadal, and bulldog General Patch who cleaned up that island and then went on to take Southern France.

Seeing these men in their dirty clothes after long hours of work knocked out any ideas I had of heroes. None of them was ever a hero to me. It was somewhat like my introduction to Admiral Millard Kester, who led the great strike at Kuralei. I was in the head at Efate, a sort of French pissoir, when I heard a great swearing in one of the improvised booths. Out came a rear admiral with the zipper of his pants caught in his underwear. "Goddamned things. I never wanted to buy them anyway. Sold me a bill of goods."

I laughed at his predicament. "Don't stand there gawking. Get someone who can fix these zippers," he snapped, only he had a lot of adjectives before the infuriating zippers. I went into the bar.

"Anybody in here fix a zipper?" I asked, and a chief machinist said he thought he could, but he was drunk and all he did was to rip the admiral's underwear, which made me laugh again. And finally my laughing made Admiral Kester so mad that he tore off both his pants and his underwear and ripped the cloth out of the offending zipper and threw it away. Even then the zipper wouldn't work.

So there he was in just a khaki shirt, swearing. But finally we got a machinist who wasn't drunk, and the zipper was fixed. Then Admiral Kester put his pants back on and went into the bar. Fortunately for me, he didn't know my name then.

There were the men from the lesser ranks, too. Luther Billis, with doves tattooed on his breasts. And good Dr. Benoway, a worried, friendly man. Tony Fry, of course, was known by everybody in the area after his brush with Admiral Kester. The old man saw Fry's TBF with twelve beer bottles painted on the side. "What in hell are those beer bottles for, Fry?" the admiral asked. "Well, sir. This is an old job. I use it to ferry beer in," Tony replied without batting an eyelash. "Been on twelve missions, sir!"

"Take those goddam beer bottles off," the admiral ordered. Tony kept the old TBF, of course, and continued to haul beer in it. He was a really lovely guy.

They will live a long time, these men of the South Pacific. They had an American quality. They, like their victories, will be remembered as long as our generation lives. After that, like the men of the Confederacy, they will become strangers. Longer and longer shadows will obscure them, until their Guadalcanal sounds distant on the ear like Shiloh and Valley Forge.


I AM always astonished when an American says, "The Coral Sea? Where is that? I never heard of the Coral Sea." Believe me, Australians and New Zealanders know all about it. The battle we fought there will be in their history books for some time. Perhaps I can explain why.

In mid-April of 1942 I was one of a small group of officers who went ashore on the extreme eastern tip of Vanicoro Island, in the New Hebrides. We carried with us a broadcasting station, enough food for two months, and twelve enlisted men who knew how to repair PBY's. It was our intention to make daily reports on the weather and whatever other information we obtained. The airplane repair men were to service any flying boats forced down in our large bay.

Admiral Kester personally saw us off in the tiny tramp steamer which took us north from Noumea. "We can't go back any farther," he told us. 'Take along plenty of small arms and ammunition. If the worst should come, destroy everything and head for the high hills of Vanicoro. I don't think they can track you down there. And you can depend on it, men. You can absolutely depend on it. If you can stay alive, we'll be back to get you. No matter what happens!"

Ensign Aberforce, our radio expert, hurried out from the meeting with Admiral Kester and somehow or other stole an emergency pint-sized radio transmitter. "If we go up into the hills, we'll be of some use, We'll broadcast from up there." Each of us strapped a revolver to his belt. We were a rather grim crew that boarded the rough little ship.

At Vanicoro we were thrown out upon a desolate, jungle-ridden bay where mosquitoes filled the air like incense. Of those who landed that day. all contracted malaria. No one died from it, but eleven men ultimately had to be evacuated. The rest of us shivered and burned with the racking fever. Not till later did we hear about atabrine.

We built lean-to's of bamboo and coconut fronds. A few venturesome natives came down from the hills to watch us. In silence they studied our rude efforts and then departed. Centuries ago they had learned that no one could live among the fevers of that bay. Nevertheless, our shacks went up, and on the evening of our arrival Aberforce broadcast weather reports to the fleet.

Six times a day thereafter he would repair to the steaming shack, where jungle heat was already eating away at the radio's vitals, and send out his reports. On the eighth day he informed Noumea that we had withstood our initial Jap bombing. A Betty came over at seven thousand feet, encountered no antiaircraft fire, dropped to two thousand feet, and made four runs at us. Radio and personnel escaped damage. Two shacks were blown up. At least the Japs knew where we were. After that we were bombed several more times, and still no lives were lost. By now we had dug a considerable cave into the side of a hill. There we kept our precious radio. We felt secure. Only a landing party could wipe out the station now. The second, smaller set we buried in ten feet of earth. A direct hit might destroy it. Nothing less would.

As men do when they have been frequently bombed, we became suspicious of every plane. So we ducked for foxholes that afternoon when our lookout cried, "Betty at four thousand feet." We huddled in the sweating earth and waited for the "garummmph" of the bombs. Instead, none fell, and the Betty slowly descended toward the bay.

Then a fine shout went up! It wasn't a Betty at all. It was a PBY! It was coming in for a water landing! It was a PBY!

The lookout who had mistaken this grand old American plane for a Betty was roundly booed. He said it was better to be safe than sorry, but none of us could believe that anyone in the American Navy had failed to recognize the ugly, wonderful PBY. Slowly the plane taxied into the lagoon formed by coral reefs. Since none of us had experience with the lagoon, we could not advise the pilot where to anchor. Soon, however, he had decided for himself, and ropes went swirling into the placid waters.

Our eager men had a rubber boat already launched and went out to pick up the crew. To our surprise, a New Zealand flying officer stepped out. We watched in silence as he was rowed ashore. He jumped from the rubber boat, walked stiffly up the beach and presented himself. "Flight Leftenant Grant," he said. Our men laughed at the way he said leftenant, but he took no notice of the fact.

His crew was an amazing improvisation. One Australian, three New Zealanders, four Americans. The Allies were using what was available in those days. Our officers showed the crew to their mud-floored quarters.

"I'm reporting for patrol," Grant said briefly when he had deposited his gear. "The Jap fleet's on the move."

"We heard something about that," I said. "Are they really out?"

"We think the entire southern fleet is on the way."

"Where?" we asked in silence that was deep even for a jungle.

"Here," Grant said briefly. "Here, and New Zealand. They have eighty transports, we think."

We all breathed rather deeply. Grant betrayed no emotion, and we decided to follow his example. "I should like to speak to all of my crew and all of your ground crew, if you please." We assembled the men in a clearing by the shore.

"Men," Grant said, "I can't add anything which will explain the gravity of our situation. That PBY must be kept in the air. Every one of you take thought now. How will you repair any possible damage to that plane? Find your answers now. Have the materials ready." He returned to his quarters.

We did not see much of Grant for several days. His PBY was in the air nine and ten hours at a stretch. He searched the water constantly between the New Hebrides and Guadalcanal. One night he took off at 0200 and searched until noon the next day. He and his men came back tired, red-eyed, and stiff. They had done nothing but fly endlessly above the great waters. They had seen no Japs.

BOOK: Tales of the South Pacific
2.59Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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