Variations | When the good old days were terrible

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ON Oct. 31, 1967, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, D-Montana, informed his colleagues about recent news articles in Time Magazine and the New York Times that he said should serve as a “timely reminder that all is not well in the U.S.-administered Trust Territory of the Pacific.” The TT comprised of the NMI, Palau, the Marshalls and what is now known as the FSM.

“It is a depressing picture,” Mansfield added, “not only for the outward conditions which meet the eye, but also for the history of neglect which reflects harshly on this great Nation.” The news reports, he said, “tell the story of certain islanders who talk with nostalgia of Japanese rule. They tell of the inhabitants of…Bikini and Eniwetok who were uprooted by our atomic testing program and now live with hunger…. They tell of roads which tear vehicles to pieces, and of ship transportation so sporadic that traveling dentists have only time to pull a few teeth before their commercial vessel is loaded and moves on.”

The Time magazine article mentioned what a news correspondent found out after a five-week tour of the islands: “Today, with few exceptions, Micronesia looks — and is — a poorer place than in the heyday of the Japanese. Occupying U.S. forces leveled much of what the Japanese built that was still intact after the war. Even what survived was seldom maintained.”

The NY Times article, which appeared on the newspaper’s front-page, was even more critical. Titled “Micronesia: 2,141 Islands Forgotten by the United States” it was written by Robert Trumbull who reported that the islands’ leaders “are demonstrating growing disenchantment with the American administration….” Peace Corps volunteers and other American officials as well as visitors “also voice concern at the conditions they find in the…islands….” A Peace Corps district official was quoted as saying, “Volunteers fresh out of school arrive here believing in the American dream of good life and are shocked to find that the dream is far from reality in the Trust Territory.” Trumbull said the Americans and Micronesians he interviewed “in a month-long tour of 4,000 miles to more than two dozen islands…believe that there has been too little concern in the United States for an area considered vital to national security.”

Trumbull said the TT’s district administrative centers — Saipan, Koror in Palau, Yap, Truk (Chuuk), Ponape (Pohnpei) and Majuro in the Marshalls — “present depressing vistas of rusting Quonset huts and other dilapidated buildings of corrugated metal, abandoned by the armed forces as they left the scene many years ago. ‘The most beautiful scrap heap in the world,’ said Michael Malm of Rochester, N.Y., an official recently arrived at Koror, in describing his initial reaction to the ramshackle tin towns that disfigure some of the most spectacular island landscape on earth.”

Trumbull said U.S. officials “acknowledge that another major blotch on the record is the lack of roads, attributed to budget limitations.” In addition, the islands were dependent on ships but sea transportation was “so sparse that the Congress of Micronesia petitioned the [TT] Government…to invite a Japanese line to serve the area.” As for plane travel, it was limited to “two DC-4 propeller-driven planes of World War II vintage and two SA-16 Albatross amphibians. The SA-16’s are kept in service because only a few of the islands have usable landing strips. Under the Japanese, the area was dotted with military air bases. These have been allowed to revert to jungle.”

For Trumbull, the only “good thing” happening in the TT was the presence of the Peace Corps volunteers who were “mostly living with — and like — Micronesians.” He quoted an islander as saying, “The United States had done nothing on this island before the Peace Corps came.” (Many years later on Saipan, World War II hero Guy Gabaldon would blame “ultra liberal” Peace Corps volunteers and “the generosity of Uncle Sam” for “destroying” the local people by “pampering them.”)

In his 1966 book, “A Reporter in Micronesia,” E.J. Kahn Jr. noted that Americans and Micronesians in the TT “are accustomed to living with dashed hopes.” In a letter to a stateside friend, an American TT official wrote: “Nothing much new out here. As usual, petty crises of broken-down machinery and lack of supplies keep us from sleeping the peaceful life of the Pacific.”

According to Kahn, “The contemporary visitor to Micronesia’s islands is likely to be struck less by their innate tropical beauty than by the shabbiness of their man-made embellishments. The natives…are not as offended as are Americans by the rusty tin roofs that surmount many of their homes, but indigenes and aliens alike…wish that so much around didn’t have to look as though it had been acquired in a junk dealer’s clearance sale. The Trust Territory is heavily dependent for communications on radios; many of the sets…are 1944 models, for which spare parts are no longer obtainable. Even the seeds the local agriculturists receive are so old they have poor yields.”

In Ponape, Kahn said the weekly newspaper informed the public that the telephone switchboard, “suffering from old age,” had only four active jacks available for operation. “Only four calls can be connected at one time. Effective today, only business calls can be connected during working hours. Personal calls should be cut down to the minimum after 4:30 p.m. and during weekends.”

Ponape, moreover, had no fire engine. “It had one,” Kahn wrote, “but its tank wouldn’t hold water, and the tires gave out, and it was dumped in the sea.” In Truk, “the only ambulance available…is an Army one of Second World-War vintage.”

An American living in the TT told Kahn: “The reason anything is here is because somebody threw it out.”

Well, back then, at least not a lot of Micronesians suffered from lifestyle diseases. True. But according to Kahn, the natives lacked resistance to epidemics. “Diseases that Americans take more or less in stride, like whooping cough and measles can be killers, and even German measles can be serious.” And back in the day, “nearly everybody has intestinal parasites; the District Legislature of the Marianas passed a resolution in 1965 urging that all school children be dewormed at least twice annually.”

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