A-tolly Different Experience: The Marshall Islands
by Risa Weinreb
I was surprised how small the plane looked. From wingtip to wingtip, the aircraft measured maybe 120 feet. In this space--about the size of a children's playground--ten American airmen had survived a crash into Majuro lagoon on December 28, 1943.
Slowly, I snorkeled over where the rear fuselage would have been, had it not been annihilated by the impact, or currents, or other unthinkable terrors of the briny deep. Covered by about four feet of water with the incoming tide, the top of the aluminum wings were pristine, weathered to a smooth yellowy-beige.
But the undersurface of the plane had been entirely transmogrified. Pale blue corals resembling pincushions encrusted the propeller mounts. Sea fans swayed near a toppled machine-gun turret, and red coral-bejeweled metal bits were strewn on the ocean floor. I caught a glimpse of an antenna under the plane belly as a lobster retreated from my unwelcome invasion.
I was snorkeling over the remains of a B-24J "Liberator" bomber, one of hundreds of World War II wrecks that slumber beneath the transparent turquoise waters of the Marshall Islands. While some sites are accessible only to scuba enthusiasts, other relics can be easily viewed by snorkelers as well. This unfortunate aircraft, for example, lay in waters so shallow, its propellers protruded above the surface at low tide.
Located 2,300 miles southwest of Hawaii, the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) consists of 29 atolls and five coral islands scattered over 750,000 square miles of sea. Total land area is under 70 square miles. When seen from the air, the low-lying isles float mirage-like on the limitless blue Pacific, as ephemeral as smoke rings.
Definitely on the tourism frontier, the Marshall Islands only receive about 6,500 visitors annually, and of these, just 2,000 are Americans. Although remote, the islands are surprisingly easy to reach, just a five-hour flight from Honolulu. Part of the post-World War II Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands administered by the United States, the islands entered into a Compact of Free Association with the U.S. in 1986.
In particular, the region attracts on-the-edge adventure travelers, especially people interested in big-game fishing, World War II history, and scuba diving. Occupied by Japan at the outset of World War I, the islands became the first Japanese territory invaded by U.S. forces during World War II. Land-based relics from pillboxes to tanks remain throughout the islands.
Even people unfamiliar with the Marshall Islands generally have heard about the most infamous part of the archipelago: Bikini. From 1946 to 1958, the American government used the atoll as a testing ground for nuclear weapons. Following a $100+ million clean-up, Bikini opened to scuba divers in June 1996.
Since then, it has become a big draw for been-there, done-that advanced divers, with more than 95 World War II ships sunken in its lagoon, bull's-eye scuttle for atomic tests. "If you're a wreck aficionado, there's no place else you can view this amount of history--people have called it 'the World Series of wreck diving,'" says Layne Ballard, owner of Central Pacific Dive Expeditions.
Resting on a 180-foot sandy bottom, sites include the Japanese flagship Nagato, from which Admiral Yamamoto directed the attack on Pearl Harbor. The U.S.S. Saratoga, the world's only diveable aircraft carrier, sits upright on the ocean bottom, with four bombers still in their hangars. "There's an ex-Army pilot called Bob Gohr who used to land planes onto the deck of the Saratoga during World War II," Ballard relates. "He's 81 now, and has dived the site with us twice. He says it's a real thrill to 'land' on the Saratoga again."
Located 525 miles from Bikini, Majuro is the capital of the RMI, arcing like a boomerang around a vast lagoon. Poking barely seven feet above sea level, the island is so narrow, you can stand most anywhere and see water to either side. The most developed island in the group, Majuro is home to about half the country's total population of 63,000.
Bananas and mangoes thrive in front yards; meanwhile, the local Cost-Price supermarket sells six-pound cans of green beans, gargantuan sacks of frozen turkey gizzards, and extended-family-size packages of Kraft macaroni and cheese. Most houses were built of cinderblock with corrugated aluminum roofs; any time we saw a grander residence, we were invariably told that it belonged to either a relative of the former president, or a local chief (there are about 20 hereditary rulers in the Marshalls).
Majuro being an island with about 25,000 residents--most of whom either know or are related to each other--people love to gossip. Some tidbits I gleaned from a loquacious guide:
An entrepreneur was contemplating building a theme park in the lagoon, with islands shaped like U.S., China, Japan, and other countries. For years, a crash-landed plane festooned the verge of the runway at Majuro airport. It was recently removed because "it gave the wrong impression." Local chiefs have clamped down on teenage crime by getting parents more involved. If kids engage in gang activities or paint graffiti, the family home is bulldozed.
Delve a little more, and you'll find that Marshallese traditions still hold sway. People fete local chiefs with annual banquets, and land is owned by the women, the tracts passed down from mother to daughter.
Like the rest of Micronesia, the Marshall Islands produce some simple but finely detailed handicrafts. Weavings are a specialty, the fans, mats, and ornaments often decorated with tiny shells. At the small crafts shop next to the Alele Museum, I bought two baskets with a flower-design woven into the center--a pattern typical of northern islands in the Marshellese group, the saleswoman told me. I also purchased a necklace with a "cat's eye" shell, the blue surface glinting eerily like a feline orb.
But Majuro is just the jumping-off point for adventures further afield in the archipelago. One day, I headed to the northwestern part of the atoll and Laura. Both Laura and its counterpart Rita towards the east are jaunty souvenirs of the Allied occupation of the Marshalls in World War II: servicemen named the lovely beach areas after pin-ups Lauren Bacall and Rita Hayworth.
Laura presents a lush emerald vision of shower trees, breadfruit, and endless stretches of coconut palms--much of the area was once covered by copra plantations. It was Sunday, so I saw many boys in crisp white shirts and girls in frilly dresses walking with their mothers to church.
I drove up to a house where piglets and some half-fledged boobies toddled through the front yard--the home of Terry Sasser, my host for the day. The son of missionary teachers, Terry had lived in the Marshall Islands as a child, and later moved to the U.S. mainland. He worked in music and sports management in Nashville, Los Angeles, and New York, representing groups such as Guns and Roses before coming home to the Marshalls.
I climbed into his well-laden powerboat for our journey to Ajoklae, a small, palm-thatched island across the lagoon from Laura. Since the waters off Ajoklae were shallow, we made a wet landing, jumping over the side of the boat and then pulling the craft to shore.
Terry had arranged a castaway idyll under a gnarled seagrape tree. A bottle dangled from one of the tree's limbs, stuffed with pages from a Bible--a local family had left it, Terry said. As I watched, some local women plaited palm fronds into mats for us to sit on, and wove bougainvillea into wuts (leis) to wear on our heads.
I sampled a delicacy called iu--baby coconut, which was textured like cotton candy. Terry opened the shells by pounding them onto a pointy stake driven into the ground. Next, he demonstrated how to eat pandanus--imagine an artichoke with the heft of a bowling ball. First, you peel a waxy covering from a segment, then chomp down with your teeth. Pandanus has a sweetish, pumpkiny flavor, like raw acorn squash, and leaves yellow fibers between your teeth--residents jokingly call it "Marshallese dental floss."
Lunch itself was delicious: chicken barbecued over coconut shells, scoops of rice, a corn and bean salad lavishly seasoned with cumin, served on bowls woven from palm fronds. For dessert, we had bobo: rice pudding made with coconut.
It was on our return to Laura that we stopped to snorkel the wreck of the World War II bomber. Some research when I returned to Majuro revealed more about the tragic history of the B-24 plane, serial number 42-73013. During a U.S. attack on Japanese installations at Taroa on Maloelap, the plane was hit by enemy fire. The crippled aircraft crash-landed in Majuro lagoon, with most or all crew members surviving.
According to Marshallese oral history, the airmen were first captured, then beaten under the orders of a Japanese official. The Americans, along with Alexander Milne, a Marshallese mission teacher who refused to join in the torture, were then transported to the Japanese garrison on Maloelap.
Neither Milne nor the ill-fated crew were ever heard from again. At the end of World War II, no POWs were handed over by the Japanese in Micronesia. Captured airmen had either been executed, or killed during U.S. bombing raids on Japanese installations.
In contrast to somber musings generated by World War II history, another day brought joyful celebration of island traditions, during the Second Annual Outrigger Marshall Islands Cup sailing race. Master boatbuilders and sailors, the Marshallese use a unique outrigger canoe called a korkor, made from hollowed-out breadfruit trunks. To tack, sailors shunt the mast from one end of the boat to the other, always keeping the outrigger towards the wind.
On race day, children and adults gathered along the waterfront three hours before the start. A choir from a local church sang hymns, the women's voices soaring impossibly high, and the men's resonating deep. Twenty sailors from the distant reaches of the archipelago competed, representing islands with exotic names: Ailinglaplap, Ebon, Wotje. The winner--by a large margin--was the sailor from Namorik, who maneuvered with dolphin-like grace in the 20-knot-per-hour winds.
After the race, I chatted a bit with Stephen Marquard, the brilliant young chef at the Outrigger Marshall Islands Resort. On the cutting edge (so to speak) of New Micronesian cuisine, Chef Marquard is creating dishes like mango bread, and lobster timbale using local shellfish topped with deep-fried taro. What's it like to innovate gourmet food on an atoll frontier?
"It's a thrill being able to work with the staff and do something in the kitchen for the first time--I was the first person ever to make spaetzle in the entire country," says Marquard. He also recalled the time the propane delivery didn't arrive for 17 days, quelling his kitchen's stoves. "We have an idea," said Marshallese staffers, who carted in cores of pandanus trees, which they used for grilling in traditional fashion.
Once again, I thought about how past and present come together in the Marshall Islands.
For further information, contact the Marshall Islands Visitors Authority: Phone: (692) 625-MIVA; Fax: (692) 625-6771; E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Focusing on World War II history, Valor Tours has scheduled an expedition to the Marshall Islands from October 31 through November 5, 1999. Based in Majuro, the group uses chartered aircraft to visit a different atoll every day, viewing sites such as Japanese gun positions and bombers. Rates: $2,450 per person, double occupancy, including round-trip airfare from Honolulu and the charter flights, accommodations, and some meals. A minimum of 12 people are needed for the expedition. Phone: (415) 332-7850 or (800) 842-4504.
Central Pacific Dive Expeditions specializes in scuba diving trips to the Marshalls, including Bikini Atoll. Phone: (800)U-GO-DIVE; Website: http://www.cenpacdive.com.
Opened in 1996, the Out-rigger Marshall Islands Resorts offers 150 extremely comfortable accommodations, with air conditioning, color cable TV, in-room refrigerator, and more. Dive, sportfishing, and other packages are available; call (800) 688-7444.
For information about additional programs and tour operators, see the Geographical Index under "Marshall Islands".