Marianas Variety

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    Thursday, September 19, 2019-1:55:22P.M.






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Thirty-five years ago

Saipan  before affiliation with the United States
Part 2 of 3

IN the early days on Saipan before there was a tourism industry there were no recreational craft in the lagoon save one, a glass bottom boat operated by a Palauan. Middle Road was even less developed, another pot holed, two lane, dusty road with hardly a business on either side and even fewer vehicles to encounter. The maximum speed possible was about 20 - 25 mph.

One frequently saw an old Chamorro gentleman on the road in a wooden ox cart with huge, thick wooden wheels being pulled by a large horned water buffalo. His speed was about equal to that of my automobile. It was a beautiful sight.

As Lito Road was little more than a two lane dirt trail with dense vegetation on both sides at the road’s edge. There were no businesses on the strip and very few houses.

At that time the fire department had a single red jeep with a garden hose. In recalling those days long ago, I distinctly remember that I never saw people riding bicycles or jogging, saw very few birds, never saw lightening or heard thunder. Why this remains in my memory — I don’t know but for me it is evidence of marked climatic change that has occurred over recent years.

To even think of a tourism based economy was an unimaginable dream since the Japanese could only convert yen to its equivalent of $743. A round trip ticket to Guam purchased at the Pan American Airline office or from Continental Air Micronesia, was $28. Those were the days when there was only one flight a day and one cargo ship a month. The population of Saipan, Tinian and Rota combined was 12,256 including the employees of the Trust Territory government, the islands’ major employer.

In the early seventies the air route thru Micronesia and Saipan to and from Japan was to be awarded by the Trust Territory government. As a pre condition to the route award the High Commissioner required that any applying airline build a first class hotel in each of the six Trust Territory districts. On Saipan Continental constructed what is now the Hyatt Regency while Pan American constructed the Saipan Beach Intercontinental Inn now the much expanded Fiesta Resort and Spa.

The purchasing power of the dollar at the time would be equal to a little less that 15 cents today. There were 2,376 registered vehicle owners, including those of the Trust Territory and the district government, gasoline could be purchased for 38 cents a gallon; rice was 13 cents per pound; sugar 12 cents and a can of corned beef sold for 75 cents. There were 55 businesses in the Northern Marianas employing 673 people. The total annual government revenue was only $433,334 and the islands’ exports amounted to a measly $254,635. There was no private sector economy worth mentioning, no tourism, no garment factories, only government jobs for the most part.

I recall mentioning to a friend that one couldn’t buy an ice cream cone or a pizza. They were not available until much later. Watergate had not yet consumed America and it was the year four students were killed at Kent State University during demonstrations against the Vietnam War. Personal computers, fax machines and the internet were unheard of and slide rules were still widely used. Walter Cronkite’s CBS News was ten days late in reaching Saipan. After arriving by air these taped telecasts from WSZE TV, the small television station on Navy Hill, glowed to life about 6 p.m. and went off the air around midnight or earlier to the sound of the National Anthem. In those days mail from the U. S. east coast took 10 or 12 days — some things never change.

Doctor Torres hospital was located where the college is today. Capital Hill housing built by the CIA was the best on the island. The single Duty Free Store was housed in the Royal Taga Hotel and was no larger than a row of telephone booths, ten people in the shop made a crowd. The number of island restaurants could be counted on one hand.

I remember once running the island’s single stop sign posted at the entrance of the Taga Hotel and was ticketed by the police after being read my rights. Appearing in court the next day the judge asked for my plea, “Guilty, your honor,” I replied. At the sound of a gavel, he said, “I fine you $3.” Then the judge leaned over the bench and asked in a very compassionate and soft whisper, “Do you have $3?” I am certain that if I had replied, “No, sir, I only have $2,” the fine would have been reduced to that amount. There was very little money available on Saipan at the time. Nor was there much crime in those days, usually only rocks being reported thrown at someone’s tin roof.

One had to be very careful exploring caves and the “boonies” and walking along the beach, as unexploded hand grenades, cartridges and live ordnance of all type was littered about. Several people were killed when their souvenir hunting curiosity got the better of them. It is still dangerous to handle such finds. For a long time I would get a little nervous when passing a ditch digging machine along the road thinking it might “chew” into an unexploded 16 inch naval shell. At the time one could walk along the beach and find bone fragments of some fallen soldier and, when snorkeling, observe the floor of the lagoon littered with the weapons of war. Japanese “bone collectors” returned frequently to recover the pitiful remains of their fallen comrades for cremation ceremonies at Marpi and honorable burial rites for the ashes at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo.

Those were the days when one could walk along the beaches on Saipan’s western shore or explore the interior of the island and still find many remnants of the war. Helmets, canteens, ordnance of all type and other rusting artifacts which had been overlooked by the scrap collectors of the early fifties were very much in evidence.

Lying below the surface of a lagoon once congested with landing craft and ships of all type are the coral encrusted tools of war. Rifles, tanks, ships and landing craft litter the sandy lagoon floor as if in an underwater time capsule in silent testimony to one of the last battles fought in a pre-nuclear age. For many years after the invasion, the accidental detonation of live ordnance could still result in death of an unsuspecting souvenir hunter.

Prior to 1972 the United States exercised what was known as the “Favored Nation Policy” which prohibited non American investment in the islands. This was referred to as the “denial principle.” The United States government did not appear to be particularly interested in the islands except for Saipan and its training base for the CIA’s covert operations and did not wish to encourage investment from the nationals of other countries. The administering authority interpreted the U.N. Trusteeship Article 8 (1) in such a manner to be an effective tool to prohibit foreign investment. This policy also precluded Japanese businesses from re-establishing in the Marianas which were administered under the Trusteeship Agreement. It was largely through the efforts of the Saipan Chamber of Commerce and a dynamic business leader, David M. Sablan, at a meeting held at the Royal Taga Hotel in Dec. 1972 that the United States was convinced of the need to relax its policy and open the islands to foreign investment.

To be concluded