The Foreign Service Journal - December 2013 - page 25

A favorite contemporary image of Guam is the
Japanese pillbox under towering hotels on Tumon
Beach. Japanese tourists are the dominant economic
force on the island today. The irony of them lounging
on the beach around this World War II relic belies the
fierce fight their countrymen put up against return-
ing American forces. Numerous former machine-gun
emplacements chiseled from coral can still be found
along the jungle beaches north of Tumon, perfectly
positioned to rake the shore approaches of an invad-
ing force. But the Americans didn’t strike here, but
further south at Asan Beach in 1944, in what is now
the War in the Pacific National Park, the westernmost
Department of Interior monument.
I spend a day off on Guam exploring Japanese gun
emplacements buried deep in bamboo thickets and
visiting the isolated Talafofo River Valley, where Sgt.
Soichi Yokoi lived hidden for 28 years. When discovered in
1972, he had exclaimed: “We Japanese soldiers were told to
prefer death to the disgrace of being captured alive.”
The Real Thing
The Island Hopper mission truly begins, however, on the
spectacular flight from Guam into Chuuk (Truk), the first stop
on the United Airlines 737 route that services five islands on
the way to Hawaii. After Chuuk comes Pohnpei Island, Kosrae,
Kwajalein and then Majuro, capital of the Marshall Islands.
Chuuk is one of the largest atolls in the world, with a protec-
tive reef 140 miles around. Since there is no U.S. mission there,
I remain planeside for an hour to guard the classified pouches
in the hold. This is ample time to soak in the scenery and con-
template the history of this remote locale.
Initially part of the Spanish Empire, the Caroline Islands
became German after the Spanish-American War. They were
then ceded to Japan by the League of Nations’ South Pacific
Mandate after the defeat of Germany in World War I. Known
as the Gibraltar of the Pacific, Chuuk was the Empire of Japan’s
main base in the South Pacific. Its garrison consisted of 50,000
Japanese military personnel with the lagoon harboring most of
its Pacific fleet.
In 1944, the Americans’ Operation Hailstone, launched
from the recently invaded Marshall Islands 1,500 miles to the
east, became one of the most effective airstrikes of the war. It
destroyed 249 aircraft and sank 12 warships and 32 merchant
ships, turning Chuuk Lagoon into the largest graveyard of ships
in the world. In the poetic justice category, it is interesting to
note that one of the relics in the lagoon is the submarine
, part of the fleet that attacked Pearl Harbor, which was hit
when it attempted a dive to avoid attack.
After takeoff from Chuuk, with spectacular views of the
reef and islands, an hourlong hop to Pohnpei Island, for an
exchange of classified diplomatic pouches with the small
embassy in Kolonia, is next. Even though the capital of the
Federated States of Micronesia is now in the town of Palikir,
just down the road to the southwest, most embassies remain
in Kolonia. Because the Japanese had built up their defenses
on the island so thoroughly during their rule, the Americans
chose to drop 118 tons of bombs on this stronghold rather
The wreck of the Japanese submarine
in Chuuk Lagoon. This sub
was part of the fleet that attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
The Americans’ Operation Hailstone destroyed 249 aircraft
and sank 12 warships and 32 merchant ships, turning
Chuuk Lagoon into the largest graveyard of ships in the world.
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