Letter from Palau Number Ten
August 10, 2006

Greetings from apartment 402 in the Palau Transportation Company building on Malakal.  Yes, we are home in Palau at last.  We got back from Manila on Wednesday, after being declared good to go by the doctors on Tuesday. It is great to be back.  Naturally there had to be some suspense attending our departure.  We really weren’t sure we would be allowed on the plane until we actually sat down in our seats.

Last week Bobby called Continental to make our reservations. When they asked her to come to their downtown office to pay the small surcharge for changing our departure date, she said she was calling from a hospital room and couldn’t do it.  Did you say hospital?  Ma’am don’t you know that we cannot fly any patients without a request by their doctor to our Guam office 48 hours prior to departure and Continental’s agreement that they are fit to travel?  After some creative non-lying Bobby managed to get off the phone.  We spent the next week imagining that our names had now been flagged and we would be stopped at the gate when we tried to fly out.  In the event, nothing happened and our two hour flight back to Koror could not have been more pleasant, despite the latest in an unbroken string of typhoons and tropical depressions that came barreling out of the South China Sea making a bee-line straight for the Manila Metro Area and its 10 million people during the entire two weeks we were there. Those storms kept us from the two expeditions we had wanted to make, one to Intramuros, the site of the old Spanish administrative quarter and the other to Corregidor, the fortress island in the bay, from which MacArthur fled to Australia after being out-generaled and defeated by Yamashita in 1942. 

Growing up, the oddest book that was lying around our house was one by Carlos Romulo called I Saw the Fall of the Philippines. The book was published during the war on really cheesy paper, and was filled with passages blacked out by the censor. It contained a vivid account of the last stand against the Japanese by the Americans and Filipinos on Bataan and Corregidor.  For some reason this book fascinated me and I read it again and again.  So when I found myself discharged from the hospital with a week in Manila until our departure, I thought that at last I could visit Corregidor.  But no such luck.  And what does this have to do with Palau?

As everyone used to know, MacArthur famously proclaimed I Shall Return as he fled the Philippines for Australia in 1942 and so he did, fighting north from New Guinea over the next two years.  As the invasion and liberation of the Philippines drew near in 1944 he and his planners decided that their right flank was vulnerable because of the Japanese base in Palau. Thus the American landings at Peleliu and Anguar—leading to some of the bloodiest fighting of the war in the Pacific, including that on Peleliu at Umurbrogol Ridge, also known as Bloody Nose Ridge, where Japanese troops dug into fortified positions overlooking the landing site held off the First Marine Division for a month.  The fighting cost over 12,000 casualties, casualties judged by most military historians (if I understand rightly) to have been totally unnecessary to the operations in the Philippines.   It brought the first President Bush as a young naval aviator to Palau where he sank a Japanese vessel.  And it brought George Shultz, President Reagan’s Secretary of State, who was one of the marines who hit the beach and lived to tell the tale.  

And what of the Palauan inhabitants of Peleliu whose island was completely devastated by the fighting?  Relocated by the Japanese to Babeldaob along with the rest of the Palauan population before the invasion, they waited out the unimaginable violence sheltering with relatives, scavenging for food, and hiding from the incessant bombing.  Either then or later a rumor that the Japanese planned to massacre all the Palauans and throw their bodies into a great pit they had dug somewhere in the jungle became firmly established.  So far as I know its truth has never been established but many people today still believe it. 

Not everyone waited out the end of the fighting in Babeldaob.  Warned by a Japanese friend that something bad was going to occur, a group of Tobians who had been working on the construction of a new airfield in Airai (it is now Palau International Airport) fled at night on bamboo rafts to one of the Rock Islands.  One of the great Tobian stories about the war relates how they were almost able to surrender without any trouble when the Americans started clearing out the Rock Islands, only to have things go wrong at the last moment and a son see his father shot down by mistake.  Other stories tell of what was going on down on Tobi, the home island.  One I just heard for the first time tells of events during the latter part of the war, when the island and its inhabitants, including something like 300 Japanese troops, were cut off from resupply and facing starvation. 

Two units of Japanese troops were stationed on Tobi under a single overall commander.  Each unit had its own subcommander.  One of the units was made up of very tough men.  They had to be big and strong because they were in charge of the two anti-ship guns and, lacking any engines, had to move these very heavy guns by hand from one part of the island to another.  Without paying any rent, the soldiers took over one of the Tobian houses to use as a storehouse.  They dug a pit underneath it, in which they stored all their remaining rice.   Eventually some of those tough gunners broke into the storehouse and took some rice only to have their unit commander figure out what they had done and report it to the senior commander.  The entire garrison was lined up at the senior commander’s house and he then called out the thieves.  As they stepped forward, he started beating them with a heavy stick (like a baseball bat, people say).  He beat them so badly that one or two died and it took the rest many days to recover.  They decided to take revenge on their commander who had reported them.  Choosing their time carefully, they snuck into his house when he was asleep.  He was known to be a skillful and fierce fighter but he never had a chance because they brought his mosquito net down onto his sleeping body, trapping him in its folds before murdering him.  They then took his body down to the beach, put it in a boat, and dumped it in the ocean over the reef.  The other Japanese never learned what happened to him.  The Tobians eventually found out because some of them were friends with some of the killers.  Perhaps it was one of those friends who warned them that the big hole being dug in the jungle was where all the Tobians would be thrown when they were massacred.  Unlike Babeldaob, on Tobi there is no place to hide but fortunately the war ended before the hole was finished.   Or so the story goes.

My brother Isauro told me that story yesterday when he was visiting us in our apartment.  He is just about my age and one of my closest friends. Trained as a carpenter, he lost his sight in a tragic accident in 1970 and transformed himself into the principal and teacher of Tobi elementary school. Now retired, he lives here in Koror and is one of the main sources of the language material we are collecting.  (If you go to the Voices of Tobi Island page on our Friends of Tobi Island website you can see his picture and hear his voice).

He and Bobby spent a couple of interesting but intense hours working on the many numbering sets in Tobian.  The number set you use depends on the characteristics of that which you are counting.  For example one set is used for living things, another for round things, another for long things. I never learned more than a few of these sets and am not even sure how many there are.  But he is a great teacher and a very meticulous informant.

I’m afraid losing two and a half weeks to illness is going to cost us dearly.  In fact we already missed what would have been the high point of this whole trip, a voyage to Tobi and the other Southwest Islands on Atoll Way, the Tobi State ship.  Departure was set for July 28 and I had been able to greet Bobby when she got here with the happy news that we had reservations.  We learned while in Manila that the departure had been postponed because of engine trouble and bad weather and for a while hoped against hope that we could still make it.  But we learned as soon as we got off the plane in Airai on Wednesday that Atoll Way departed last Monday, scheduled to return early next week.  This is a major disappointment for both of us.  She has never been to Tobi and I have not been able to get back there since I left in 1973, despite my many trips to Palau since then.  Something always happens to delay the departure so I can’t make the trip before I have to leave Palau:  broken engine, bad weather, an epidemic of flu in Koror, drunken captain.  In a sense it is kind of like that Rotary drawing. I have a perfect record of not being able to get back to Tobi and we all have a perfect record so far of not winning that raffle.

That’s right, last Wednesday no one won the prize.  There are now only seven cards left in the deck and over $1,700 in the pot.  We are all pretty much beyond expressing amazement any more. 

Five days we spent in the Manila Hotel, A Venue of Big Events and Grand Aspirations, as it bills itself. This was where MacArthur lived with his wife and son in an enormous suite of rooms, specially built for him and covering the whole top floor.  Those were his salad days as Generalissimo of the Philippines, before the Japanese so rudely evicted him, adding insult to injury by moving their top general into that suite. 

Five days of rain and wind, high above the container port in Manila Bay.  We read the pickings of a second hand English language bookstore Bobby discovered near the hospital.  (Why, I wonder, do I keep forgetting William Kennedy, whose novels set in Albany are some of the finest written by anyone, regardless of setting?  What a great find coming across one of his I hadn’t read).  We worked on the web pages we are trying to create (one for Hatohobei State Government—that’s Tobi’s) and another about health issues in Eang.  We took short walks in the rain to run errands and get fresh air.  We watched the world news on the BBC and tried not to get too angry and/or depressed.  We watched the operations of the port out our big window.  And what did that whole experience of getting so sick, flying to Manila for some amazing hospital care, and then hanging out in the grand old Manila Hotel teach me?  Well for one thing, never leave home without a big iPod in your pocket, the kind with a jillion gigabytes of memory and 16 hours of battery life.  Those endless hospital nights when you lie awake staring at the ceiling and trying to manage all the lines and tubes going in and out of your body are much more manageable when you can navigate among your playlists to listen to special music you have stored there—if only to figure out what you want played at your memorial service.  I’m really glad I had mine with me.  Another thing I learned is that it helps in such a situation to have a good mystery to ponder over.  In my case I had two.  The first arose from the news that the Secret Service had checked out Palau National Hospital while I was there because Vice President Cheney’s daughter was coming to Palau.  How come I never noticed those guys, I wondered.  And in my delirium did I say anything that will get me on a more serious list than Continental Airline’s Patients Who Need Preapproval From Guam?  The other arose from the news from Virginia that the stock price for Ribsters, our local barbecue joint, had tanked.  Was this really the result of the news about my gall bladder?  Believe it or not, worrying away at stuff like this made the time actually fly by.

Bestly Cards

View from 402
Home again

Manila Bay
Outside our
room in the
Manila Hotel

War relic, Palau
War relic near Little League field, Koror

Bloody Nose Ridge
Bloody Nose Ridge (photo by Jeff Boal)

Peter & Isauro
Working with Isauro on language

Isauro Andrew 1972
Isauro Andrew
Tobi Island, 1972

Atoll Way
Atoll Way

Manila Hotel
Bobby and I at the Manila Hotel

Port of Manila
Port of Manila

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