Anna Vodicka | Longreads | January 2016 | 12 minutes (3,051 words)
On Peleliu, the roads are paved with coral—a once-living thing, a hardy animal. The coral came from the inland ridges and valleys of this two-by-six-mile speck among specks in the island nation of Palau, in western Micronesia, an almost invisible scene in the shadow of bigger acts in the Pacific, where land itself is a kind of debris, cast from the ocean by tectonic clashes and shifts that left things topsy-turvy, bottom-up, fish-out-of-water. Before: an underwater reef, an ecosystem of competitive individuals. After: a coral atoll bleaching into a future island paradise. Something new under the sun.
During World War II’s Pacific theater of operations, the coral was harvested, carted, crushed, and laid at the feet of foreign militaries that took turns stripping Peleliu from the inside out. The Japanese landed first, evacuating locals and engineering a complex subterranean network of five hundred natural and man-made caves, bunkers and tunnels that still make up the island underground. Next, the Americans came in waves, and died in waves. In September, 1944, the first boats struck reef, forcing soldiers to sprint knee-deep for shore, where the Japanese waited undercover. For better aerial views, the U.S. experimented with a new technology: Corsairs rained napalm bombs from the sky, stripping the island naked, exposing rock and rotting machinery where jungle used to be. To win the battle, Americans used flamethrowers to trap the Japanese in their hives, then sealed off the entrances.
We never learned about it in school, but the Battle of Peleliu was one of the war’s bloodiest, with the highest casualty rate in the Pacific theater. More than 10,000 Japanese and 1,800 American soldiers died over control of a tiny airstrip of “questionable strategic value”—which means that once the smoke cleared and the war waged north, the airstrip was all but forgotten. American soldiers were told the fray would take three days. It lasted seventy-three. They thought they had sufficient backup, but no one expected the tangled web of caves and hideouts awaiting them. It was one hundred and fifteen degrees. When freshwater came at all, it sometimes arrived in unclean barrels slick with oil. They drank.
This was coral’s contribution to the war: a road through hell, crunching beneath the weight of landing craft, artillery, and the leather-soled boots of 40,000 marching men.
Back then, the coral road was rough and sharp. Bodies littered the beaches, and the tide rose red, washing warm waves over them.
But over time, the coral packed and fused, bone by bone, forming a rock-solid sheet of road that now shines so slick you could practically strap skates on and glide. The beaches glow white beneath equatorial sun, and the tides wash up sea glass in aquamarine, sage green and burnt sienna—remnants of sake and beer bottles baptized, over and over again, by the churning sea.
On a November weekend, friends and I took the State Boat from Palau’s main island of Koror to Peleliu, an hour south. We were all living in Palau for the reasons most expats do: attorneys, nurses, aid workers, all hired for temporary contract work by a government that, since the war, has modeled itself on the U.S. system. (Clerk in Paradise! read the subject of a job announcement my partner received from Palau’s Supreme Court.)
It’s a wonder the islands welcome foreigners at all, considering Palau’s recent history, a 130-year tale of colonization that features an all-star roster of power players. England brought guns and smallpox, decimating Palau’s population from 40,000 to 4,000. Spain brought missionaries and trade, then sold the islands to Germany. Germany imported mining equipment, invasive monkeys to serve as the proverbial canary, and jail. Japan annexed Palau during World War I, kept up the mines, and divvied and developed the land, clan ownership be damned.
When the Allies won the war, and so many Pacific islands, Palau became a Trust Territory of the UN under American governance, eventually entering into a Compact of Free Association with the U.S. in 1994. Its constitution, drafted in 1979 and implemented in 1981, reads like the United States’ might if it were drafted today—except that it includes a ban on the possession of personal firearms, a direct response to the violent bloodshed Palauans witnessed between East and West, the so-called “developed” world, over the last century. The constitution originally outlawed nuclear weapons, waste, and power, as well, but the U.S. refused to concede this point, and eventually negotiated a provision that allows the storage of nuclear material in Palau during times of war or emergency.
We were traveling to Peleliu that November in part to get to know the work of Cleared Ground Demining, a UK charity currently funded in Palau by Australia. Co-founded by Cassandra McKeown and Steve Ballinger, a former British Army royal engineer, Cleared Ground works to eliminate landmines and other explosive remnants of war around the world.
After the war, hundreds of Peleliu’s caves remained sealed. Others were open to the public, explored by tourists who unwittingly wandered among unexploded ordnance, or UXOs. When Cleared Ground arrived on island in 2009, they swept the popular “1,000 Man Cave” of over 600 pieces of ordnance before deeming it safe for visitors. And when Palau’s government decided to unseal a cave and repatriate remains in anticipation of a 2015 visit from Japan’s Emperor and Empress—the imperial couple’s first-ever trip to the island, in honor of the anniversary of war—Cleared Ground was called upon to clear the way. Its workers donned breathing apparatuses, the first to enter when the stone rolled away from the tomb.
The State Boat, as usual, was packed: any trip to the outer islands is a chance for Palauans to deliver store-bought luxuries to far-flung family and friends. We cozied up beside our fellow passengers, two rusty vehicles, cans of gasoline, stacks of Pampers and toilet paper, and towering racks of Budweiser (Palau is what you might call a beerocracy: a democratic republic of 20,000 people with a President and a state-elected Congress reigning alongside the Council of Chiefs—rubaks, traditional clan leaders—a power struggle that ends every Payday Weekend when the King of Beers rules them all. Per capita, it’s the fourth-smallest country on Earth, and the world’s largest consumer of Bud.)
As we sailed, I spoke with Andy Johns, an ex-Royal Air Force ammunition technician contracted as a technical field manager by Cleared Ground. Andy is in his late fifties, wears his hair in a buzzed flat-top, and chain smokes with such dexterity that I never actually see him light up. He tells me about the shit he’s seen traveling to the underworlds of Afghanistan, Dubai and Laos hunting unexploded ordnance. The work is humanitarian, but Andy and Steve both derive a certain amount of boyish satisfaction from the fact that their life’s work is to watch things safely explode. Statistics show that 30 to 40 percent of explosives released during World War II never detonated on impact. When I asked how many of those might be duds, Andy shrugged and guessed a small percentage. Later, Steve said flatly, “All failed ordnance is still deadly.” For a jocular, outgoing Englishman, the subject held no humor.
After the battle, the people of Peleliu made productive use of war leftovers. In its initial survey of Peleliu, Cleared Ground found grenades, projectiles, and other UXOs on 26 percent of private and community properties, including the community meeting house, tourist attractions, and Peleliu Elementary School. They found folks who literally paid an arm and leg when they used pilfered gunpowder for fishing (due to repeat catastrophes and environmental damage, blast fishing is now illegal). One family had used torpedoes to prop up the limping framework of a house. During his first week in Palau, Andy stopped a man from unwittingly lighting a burn pile over a bomb.
In addition to search and recovery, Cleared Ground trains its local Palauan staff to recognize and safely remove UXOs—at last count, over 32,000 items since they arrived in Palau in 2009. Weekly half-page newspaper ads warn readers: “Have you seen any bombs? On land or in the ocean. Please call to report 778-BOMB. Unexploded Ordnance is still very dangerous and can injure or kill!!!!”
I had had my own unwitting encounter. On our first scuba dive in Palau, my partner and I explored Helmet Wreck, an upright Japanese freighter grown over with hard and soft corals, with a cargo of aircraft engines, medicine and sake bottles, gas masks, stacks of the eponymous helmets, and piles of rusty rifles and bullets. I, too, was rusty; when a fellow diver swam below deck to examine some tanks, I followed in a state of blissful ignorance, forgetting all the reasons you’re not supposed to enter dark, cave-like, predator-friendly spaces. Two weeks later, all dive companies were advised against Helmet Wreck trips. Turns out the ship was also laden with depth charges whose outer casings had been gradually eroding, leaking a stream of toxic acids that destroy, among other bodily functions I’d prefer to maintain, the liver, kidneys, and central nervous system. It was one of Cleared Ground’s highest-priority operations.
Seventy years and most of the veterans of the last great war have passed, but the ammunition lives on. And on. And on.
The next day, we were biking the coral roads, fighting to stay upright, the tread on our motley collection of rusting island cycles no match for the rain-slick terrain. The road was a giant grey Slip-and-Slide, humbling even the most skilled among us—an Australian Navy officer, for example, who wins triathlons and was in training for a tour in the Dolomites, went down hard shortly after his equally sporty wife, their knees and elbows clattering on the coral pavement like bags of bones. They cursed and examined the cuts and scrapes, which take on new meaning in the tropics. The jungle never simply goes for blood, but oozing infection, ulceric rot, and all kinds of bacterial nastiness that thrive in the humid Petri dish of the islands.
We ditched our bikes and followed the Cleared Ground crew down an unmarked trail, where we searched the overgrowth for caves, shadows, holes in the surface of otherwise dense tropical scenery—an exercise in mistrusting your environment, and your own two eyes, even in broad daylight. One by one, we followed Steve, Cassandra, and Andy down into a cave, descending into an underworld of bat guano and muck, heat and sweat, a man-made planet of darkness where you hold the artifacts of war—a tin bowl, a laceless boot—and you think of a soldier who licked that bowl and whose boots licked the bottom of this lowly barrel, and you imagine what his short, long-gone life was like.
Above ground, we pedaled on, sweating in the midday heat, to visit Peleliu’s war attractions. (That’s how they’re billed, places of war: “attractions.”) Bloody Beach. The Japanese Canon. The Airstrip of Questionable Value. And the site of greatest carnage, Bloody Nose Ridge.
In order to overtake the ridge, U.S. marines had to cross the open airfield. Perched in their caves inside the coral mountain, Japanese snipers picked them off en masse, an eight-day barrage of fire. In his memoir, veteran E.B. Sledge described crossing the airfield as “a veritable shower of deadly metal” and “the worst combat experience I had during the entire war.”
We biked unencumbered, and climbed the ridge by staircase—a precarious staircase, with wobbling handrails and few missing stairs, but no one was complaining. The aerial views were humbling: on one side, a vast turquoise ocean flecked with Palau’s signature Rock Islands; on the other, an empty battlefield with an airstrip in the shape of a giant grey cross. A tombstone just over the hill from Paradise.
“As I looked at the stains on the coral,” Sledge wrote, “I recalled some of the eloquent phrases of politicians and newsmen about how ‘gallant’ it is for a man to ‘shed his blood for his country,’ and ‘to give his life’s blood as a sacrifice,’ and so on. The words seemed ridiculous. Only the flies benefited.”
By day’s end, the heat and the jungle and history of Peleliu had had its way with us. We were drenched with sweat, caked in mud, scraped and sunburned. We pedaled past a clearing filled with whooping laughter, and we followed that laughter to the Ngermelt Swimming Hole, a fifteen-foot-deep natural sinkhole fed by a tunnel to the sea. A few local families were swimming off the heat, and we gratefully peeled off our layers and jumped in after them, filling the jungle with more whooping and hollering, lucky-to-be-alive sounds, human cannonballs, rocketing handsprings off the ledge.
On Sunday morning, I sat alone on Purple Beach in front of our rented cabin, trying to meditate, be in the present, find some peace. But what did that mean on Peleliu? We’re fed time and history in order, a chronology of minutes and years stacked neatly in sequence. On Peleliu, someone had come along and shuffled the deck.
A breeze rustled the palm leaves to clacking. A baby wailed inside a nearby house, a husk of a place made in the common island style of clapboard and corrugated metal. Men worked, even on a Sunday, mending stairs and light fixtures. They traded words in Palauan, a language whose glottal stops and throaty consonants eluded me. But the tone, the speed of the exchange, the passage of tools and the words we use when we work, put our bodies on the line together—it was so familiar that for a moment I believed I understood it.
And church was over—the bells and choral hymns had drifted from the evangelical church across the street over breakfast—but I could still hear the children singing in their non-native English, “Father Abraham” and “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” imported Christian songs I knew by heart but couldn’t remember learning.
And the bodies of the ones who died on these beaches are gone—all of those angry, sad, brave, sweet, afraid boys, who must have imagined beautiful wives in their futures, heroic acts, college, maybe, and Christmas, when they would take their mothers to church, light candles and sing inside a holy space. But instead they landed on this stretch of beautiful beach, another acting troupe playing dead on a stage of the Pacific theater, lying face down in the sand with a blistering sun at their backs and grenades flying overhead like synchronized fish out of water. I saw my grandfather, who couldn’t speak about the war without crying—his blue eyes misting as his brain left us for a world of memory—so he didn’t talk about it, didn’t want to go there, until it was his turn to die in old age, and he did pull-ups on the bar above his hospital bed, still, in his final hours, wringing what he could from his physical body, knowing the grace and the guilt of living when so many boys died far from home.
At a ceremony to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Peleliu, two veteran survivors, Kiyokazu Tsuchida, 94, and William Darling, 89, once enemies, embraced one another like brothers. They promised to pass their stories of trauma to their grandchildren, so that future generations might escape their fate. “It was a horrible war,” Tsuchida said. “We must never wage war again.”
If these roads have a story to tell, then, let it be one of regeneration, of renewal. By now, the land has grown itself a new green jungle skin and wears the artifacts of war like scars. Bomb casings, torpedoes, guns and grenades lie camouflaged beneath grass and vine. Landing craft rest at odd angles in improbable places, between two houses, or roadside among the banana trees. Canons and burly A-1 tanks have rusted to a halt like old farm implements, wagon wheels and tractor parts we used to climb in the fields at home. The tanks are filled to overflowing now with bright green ferns—postmodern planters sprouting blooms from bullet holes. You could mistake overgrown bunkers for abrupt mesas and buttes on the horizon, but if you look closely, you see those hillocks have doors.
During the last big typhoon, the fortified caves served as inland shelter for the people of Peleliu—Andy Johns and the Cleared Ground Demining Crew among them. They gathered flashlights and as much food and water as they could carry, and for fourteen hours, camped among the bats and spiders, dripping stalactites, bomb casings and bones, living as the soldiers lived, singing songs together in the dark.
Soon, I’ll be on the State Boat, watching Peleliu shrink on the horizon. The cases of Budweiser beer will have been replaced by hefty quantities of Peleliu’s own brand of bud, a source of pride among Palauans (like Christianity, English, and Budweiser, marijuana is non-native, a Western import introduced, I’m told, by Peace Corps volunteers to Micronesia in the late 1960s). Locals will stand on shore, as the custom goes, waving until we’ve receded from view.
But for now, I’m still kneeling in the sand on Peleliu, the skins of my knees sore with the imprint of coral, my fists full of shells. I feel a sudden sharp pain, an attack on the flesh of my left palm, and open my fist to see a hermit crab fighting for survival. My other palm, too, is filled with living things. A whole world in my hands. Suddenly, I am standing on another shoreline, in another decade, when I was a girl and my sister taught me to sing songs to the lifeless periwinkle shells, to watch their bodies rise up from their dark caves toward the sun.
Good and evil aren’t as clear-cut as they used to be, and this story, like any war story, has no hero. Just the words of the old men, the survivors who remain. And the children’s choir on Sunday, maybe, if their voices can carry this far down the coral road.
Anna Vodicka’s essays have appeared in a variety of literary magazines and anthologies, including Guernica, Harvard Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Lonely Planet’s recent anthology of travel writing, “An Innocent Abroad.”
Editor: Julia Wick