Joseph C. Meredith’s book, A Handful of Emeralds – On Patrol with the Hanna in the Postwar Pacific is neither a new release nor a best seller. It isn’t even about a salvage ship. But this 1995 book is a must read for any salvage sailor who has been privileged to ply the Pacific waters surrounding <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Micronesia.
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Meredith was skipper of the USS Hanna (DE 449) during and after the Korean War. After the armistice, Hanna operated out of Guam and patrolled the islands between Japan and the equator that came under U.S. responsibility, including the Bonins, Ryukus, Mariana, Marshalls and Carolines in 1953 and 1954.
My own personal experience aboard USS Tawakoni (ATF-114), when we called at the Western Carolines during our 1977 deployment, bears a remarkable similarity to those recollected by Meredith aboard Hanna.
Meredith recounts his personal experiences along with a rich tapestry of history, perspective and context. We learn about the past visits by explorers, whalers, pirates, confederate raiders, missionaries and merchantmen. Details are given about discoveries by Spanish, Portuguese, British, Russian, Dutch and German expeditions that slowly filled the charts of Oceana.
We read about the Hanna approaching these tiny atolls during the night, and I recall our first visit, to Tobi, with our gyrocompass and radar not functioning, on a pitch-black night. By dead reckoning and our magnetic compass, we found Tobi where we expected it to be, just three degrees above the equator. I was able to make out the low-lying isle in our Night Observation Device.
Meredith found much evidence of the Japanese occupation leftover from World War II. He and his crew saw many structures, piers, planes, beaches landing craft and wrecked ships, as well as examples or reports of unexploded ordnance. In 1977, we see fewer remnants of Japan’s rule, but there were still reports of unexploded bombs and shells that we reported to the Explosive Ordnance Disposal crews that would come a later time to neutralize these threats. At Tobi, the islanders reported to us that there were three pieces of unexploded ordnance at the southern end of the island. We could also see – but not use – the remains of the Japanese pier that handled phosphate carriers during WW II.
Like Hanna, Tawakoni was on the lookout for poachers. With a 200-mile Economic Exclusion Zone around each tiny atoll, the Micronesian waters were a bountiful fishing ground that attracted foreign fishing vessels that didn’t expect to be discovered illegally harvesting in TTPI waters. Hanna found a few poachers, but Tawakoni did not. Hanna actually came upon a fishing boat aground on the reef, with the ship abandoned but otherwise fairly intact. The fish in her hold was rotting and gave off a horrible stench.
The 1,350-ton Hanna was 306 feet overall, not dissimilar in size with our 205-foot Tawakoni, which displaced 1,650 tons. More importantly, both had a shallow draft, with Hanna drawing just under ten feet and Tawakoni slighter over 15 feet. So both ships could get in and out of relatively tight places. Meredith talks about entering Malakal Passage into Palau, which I also recall very well. We remembered how the Japanese dreadnought Yamato had been among the Japanese fleet that came through this same passage. Judging by the closeness of the coral on both sides of our sides as we carefully threaded the channel, we decided that the channel had been much wider during World War II and that the coral had grown back.
Like us, Hanna’s landing parties usually included a corpsman that held sick call and replenished some critical medicines. On Tawakoni, our standard landing party included an officer (usually myself), the aforementioned Hospital Corpsman, the diver who operated our IBS (or Inflatable Boat Small) from ship to shore, or as close to shore as the reef would permit. We also carried an Engineman to check the island’s generator, an Electronics Technician who checked the radio, and an Electrician’s Mate who would check the connection between the generator and the radio. At Tobi, for example, they needed a new antenna, and so we provided a new copper wire replacement.
Hanna and Tawakoni both visited Ngulu, a small island between Palau and Yap. Meredith recalls the primitive state of existence at Ngulu, of the tattooed inhabitants and referred to the women of Ngulu as “struggling in their immensity.” At Ngulu, “While the ship’s hospitalman held sick call,” Meredith wrote, “the chief and I posed for snapshots.” It’s too bad that Meredith passed away last year, as I think he would have smiled if I showed myself “posing for snapshots” with Chief Rinfl and his clan.
Meredith’s book mentions trading cigarettes and soap for trinkets and carvings. So did I. I purchased two cartons of sea cigarettes before we departed the Philippines for our TTPI surveillance operation. I don’t smoke, but these tax-free Marlboros cost just $2.00 a carton and constituted universal trading goods. Some soap, a few bags of ladies cosmetics and, surprisingly, some cans of sardines were in very high demand. In exchange, I would receive shells, carvings, canoe paddles and woven skirts called lava lavas. Meredith writes about trading a pack of cigarettes for a one of Tobi’s “squatting figurines that seem to peer fixedly at one from every angle.” He called it his “monkey man.” I, too, traded a pack of smokes for such a carving on Tobi and I gave it the same name.
Tobi, with its 60 or 70 inhabitants, was our first island when we conducted our voyage from west to east and then north to Guam. For Meredith, Tobi was the outer island of one of several trips from his Guam base. He referred to Tobi’s Melanesian character and its close proximity to the Indonesian island of Halmahera, and observation I would concur with. For Meredith, most Micronesians spoke little or no English, and he found that he would have to rely upon the island’s schoolteacher. This proved true for Tawakoni, as well.
On several outings, Hanna would embark a United Press reporter, Bob Miller, who wrote of some of the ship’s exploits. When Hanna crossed the equator just south of Kapingamirangi atoll, Miller wrote of the “rebellious polliwogs” who “attempted to fly a foreign ensign – the Polliwog flag – over the Hanna. The Navy said the mutineers gained temporary control of the situation under the direction of a young ensign who identified himself as the chief wiggler.”
In 1977, USS Tawakoni presented itself at the equator, and as an ensign and senior polliwog, I too led a rebellion that succeeded in raising the Polliwog colors over Tawakoni, if briefly. The flag featured a polliwog with menacing teeth like a shark. I still have the flag, although the banner’s blurred and is torn where it was ripped from the halyard and its makeshift grommets.
At Helen’s Reef, uninhabited at the time, Meredith was looking for poachers. When Tawakoni called there, there were a few people attempting start a sea cucumber aquaculture project. The channel was too narrow for us to go through, so two men came out in the motorboat. When it was time to return, they asked us to get them as close to the channel through the reef as possible because the sharks were known to bite at their propellers.
Meredith’s crew saw wrecks, vestiges of the war. We saw charts indicating where wrecks lay below the surface.
On Lukonor, Meredith mentions his crew spent the night in the lagoon and invited the islanders out to the ship, where they “gave the population a treat with a shoot-em up western movie.” We had a similar experience on Tawakoni in Ulithi Lagoon, where the residents of Mog Mog came out to watch a movie on the fantail and enjoy some ice cream. The movie? Clint Eastwood in “The Outlaw Josey Wales.”
Meredith’s ship went to Ulithi, too. Like us, he entered the lagoon by way of the Mugai Channel. Ulithi’s lagoon is huge, and a very large part of the wartime U.S. Pacific Fleet lay at anchor there at one time. We went ashore at Mog Mog, but we later learned that we were expected at an island on the other side of the lagoon.
When Hanna called at tiny Sorol atoll in 1954, they found just 16 souls there, all part of one family, but described by executive officer Lt. Don Rayner “proud and solid.” Hanna’s landing party reported an unexploded 500-pound bomb right in the center of the village.
My recollection of Sorol is vivid. Our six-man landing party approached the reef but could not get through or across in our IBS. Our diver brought the boat up to the reef and the rest of us debarked. I was wearing my khaki shorts and blue Addidas shoes, customary for my landing details. The surf was calm at the reef’s edge, and the water was no more than calf-high above the coral. Much sea life could be seen between the coral heads, including moray eels, so we stepped gingerly. Once past the reef, we would wade ashore. There was no sign of a village, so we looked for signs of inhabitation along the shore. We moved along the beach, then found what looked like a trail that paralleled the beach, and so divided our landing party into two teams, one on the beach and the other in the jungle. Soon one of my Sailors saw a woman, and she saw us. She waved and called to us, pleasantly surprised to see visitors. She took us to see the chief, who was also pleasantly surprised. Only Chief Santos and one other woman from the 11 people on Sorol spoke English.
Meredith also talks about the ritual of drinking from the coconut. At each island we went to, after introductions, the chief and the men would gather, and coconuts would be produced, which were then sharpened to a point with a machete, then the tip lopped off for drinking. The liquid inside was watery, sweet and at ambient tropical temperature. The coconut would be passed around much like imagine the peace pipe was passed at Native American councils. I declined to drink too much, fearing “Magellan’s Revenge.” At these gatherings, I would give the chief some cigarettes, which he would promptly share with the others. I might also present a photograph of the ship, or other items such as soap. Then, with respect, I gave the chief a flag.
Since I was aware that the trusteeship was coming to an end, and knowing the strategic value of these islands, I wanted to make a statement and had requisitioned a dozen or so American flags back at Subic Bay. These were received with solemn gratitude.
At Sorol, our Sailors relaxed and drank from some coconuts. Several coconuts were split open for the island’s dog, Lassie, who eagerly ate the coconut meat inside. There were fewer people at Sorol than at other islands, so we didn’t have the same gathering of men. Chief Santos, who was heavily tattooed, including some Japanese tattoos, kept repeating, “I like Navy.” In our exchange of gifts, he gave me some shell necklaces made with coconut fiber string, and a coconut shell water holder, also with the same string. “This antique,” he told me.
While the islands were exploited by the Germans and Japanese for various natural resources, during the U.S. trusteeship only coconuts were harvested as an export. On some islands, like Fais, the coconuts would be cracked open and the “copra” allowed drying in sheds. Copra is used to make oil, for soap and for cosmetics (as an edible oil, however, it has since declined in value as its high saturated fat content became better known). On smaller islands with fewer young men to work, gatherers would come ashore from ships such as the M/V James Cook and gather the coconuts. These coconut palms are everywhere on these islands, and it is not uncommon to hear them dropping through the foliage and thudding on the ground. This appeared to me to be a safety hazard. Since the coconuts would fall when they were ready, there was no need to go up into the trees to pick them. One of my Sailors, a native of the Philippines, who was with me on Sorol that day, climbed up a nearby coconut palm to fetch a coconut, amazing the natives as if they had never seen such a thing.
How much did these islands change between Hanna and Tawakoni’s visits? Much, and little. I often wonder how much they’ve changed since I was there in 1977. In some ways, they can never be the same, as modern-day culture corrupts and displaces the old ways. I probably contributed to that corruption. The concluding paragraph from our SITREP following the call at Tobi stated,” Today the children of Tobi were out of school because of our visit, and as a result learned to chew bubblegum and blow bubbles from an ensign from Boston.”
Reading A Handful of Emeralds was evocative. Since so many salvage ships were employed in periodic visits to these islands, I’m sure similar memories will be rekindled among those who have been to these tropical isles.
Captain Edward Lundquist, U.S. Navy (Ret.), was an ensign aboard USS Tawakoni (ATF 114). He is now a naval analyst and communication director for the Center for Communication Strategies and Operations, Anteon Corporation, Arlington, Va.