Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Umnak Island, 2 September 1944 -- Includes a letter from the New Guinea campaign

Rosa darling…

We did not climb the mountain today. When we came from the mess hall after breakfast (a very good breakfast; bacon, eggs, tomato juice, canned grapefruit, cornflakes) the  mountain, which a quarter hour before had been black against a washed blue sky, had lost its head in a layer of clouds which pushed down from the north. So we went instead to our personal peninsula on the Bering.

The tide was the lowest we have seen it here. Down near the point where we chased the fox we came on a reef invisible on our earlier walks. The rocks of the reef are low and grooved and the tidal pools made me think of Otto’s quote from the Sea of Cortez: “We must look from the tidal pools to the universe, then back to the tidal pools again.”

I tried to photograph a few of the pools, although what tricks the reflection will place I can’t imagine. The water was so clear that we had to be careful as we walked not to step into a pool without seeing it. The rocks were alive: kelp lay sodden on the exposed stretches and stood flowing in the pools. Blue mussels hung to the rock and were in turn coated with two inch barnacles which played host to tiny plants. I assume they were plants but sea animals are so flowerlike it is hard to tell.

Farther out we found thousands of sea urchins, like tams or upside-down baskets, their slender green spines waving in the water. The Aleuts prize their roe as a delicacy and Jack, who claims to have eaten one on his last hike here, denounced me as lacking curiosity when I admitted not having an overwhelming desire to sample all the raw seafood in sight. I confined myself to nibbling on a piece of kelp, quickly followed by half a Mound bar.

Mussels and gooseneck barnacles
The most beautiful of the sea animals were the oval limpets, which are also a favorite Aleutian food. They are tiny shellfish which cling gently to the side of rocks and may be picked off without trouble. The shells look like half a clam shell, but are more delicate and finely colored in brown and white. I picked up quite a few and, if possible, will send you samples. 

While unlovely, the bidarki was the most interesting of our discoveries. Bidarki is an Aleut word meaning boat. The creature is a limpet [actually it’s a chiton] and was named by the natives because the scooped out shell resembles a kayak. The shell is soft and black and hinged and the flesh of the creature is a bright pinkish orange. He doesn’t look tasty but according to the army booklet on emergency foods he is a year round part of the native diet and has saved the lives of many stranded white fishermen and natives. It seems sacrilegious, eating a kayak. 

In the fields walking across to the Bering we came on several patches of berries. I thought they were salmonberries and so did Jack, but they had much more taste. On looking them up in the book Bill Bernnard left me I find they are thimbleberries. We also found some bright red mushrooms with ochre undersides which we did not eat. 

Sea urchins, chitons, and barnacles, and a limpet
We went down as far as the cliff we had all the trouble climbing a month ago. It still looks easy from below and I was tempted to go up it again. But the recent wet weather would make the grass even less stable and we decided against it. I did have a few bad moments, though, in trying to climb around the face of the rock cliff which barred our path along the Bering beach. I want to see what the land does on the other side—“you know,” what will be around the next bend?—and I got pretty well around the point. All I could see was another point and more Bering. Coming back was difficult because the tide was running in rapidly and my previous path was under water. 

I was very tired when we turned back. I worked pretty hard last night and the distance to the cape is between five and eight miles, so there was good reason. I was so tired that the sight of an old oil drum, wallowing in the surf like some Coney Island obese obscenity was screamingly funny. And then the sight of a heavy-winged black coot slogging along about ten feet above the water made me inexpressively sad. 

He was the first coot I have seen up here, although the emergency food booklet claims they are plentiful. But the booklet also says the American Scoter (also called coot) have a fine steady flight. Snafu. 

We got back to camp about one in the afternoon and I slept until nine-thirty. Then coffee, a quick look through a new pile of New York Times plus the New Yorker with the beach trio cover, and then a night at the office. 

Here is Pete’s last letter to us: [Pete Antoncich was a UW friend and classmate of Murray’s. Born on Bainbridge Island, he was a varsity football and basketball player for the Huskies, serving as basketball team captain in 1933. After college, they worked together on the Grays Harbor Washingtonian. I met him a few times as a child. Even in a middle age that seemed old to me then, he was also incredibly handsome. ]

July 29
New Guinea

This evening I have been sitting on a box, propped up against a post, smoking a cigar, bully beef settling a bit uncomfortably in my stomach, and watching the setting sun tint the clouds in the east. Yep, we suffer hardships in New Guinea. Hardships, by the way, is title of one of our most popular songs. Typical verses go something like this with many variations just as you’ll find variations in Bless Them All:
Ack ack here, and ack ack there
And God Damned zeros everywhere
Hardships, you bastards
You don’t know what hardships are.

When I went down to old Brisbane
And heard the P.D.* boys complain,
Hardships, etc.
When I reach that U.S. shore,
The P.D. boys were there before,
Singing Hardships, etc.
*per diem ($6 per day in Australia)

There is another nostalgic tune called “I Wanna Go Home.” The chorus tells us, “Gee, mom, I’m too young to die, I wanna go home….”

Those are two of the favorites. When anyone does a bit of bitching, another will usually pipe up with Hardships. [“Hardships,” in various versions was also popular among Australian forces]

I’d also like to tell you of our CO. For months in the states we were indoctrinated with lectures, at frequent dull meetings, that the enlisted men came first. It was a lesson we should never forget. However, we should keep our distance, as there was a definite line between EM and Officers and that line should not be crossed by too much familiarity. I think he read that in Officers Guide, cost $2 at the Military Bookstore, my copy of which has been consigned permanently to the jungles of New Guinea.

Anyway, at every station in N.G., the boss has had a house built for himself, the present one with a floor, radio, running water, a sink, a private shower, an electric toaster and a small electric washing machine. Incidentally, we received a new radio yesterday, so he is taking that one, and giving the old one to the men in the mess hall. 

The men don’t live in discomfort. They have the same setup we junior officers have, showers, four holers, etc., with the exception that we don’t have to wash our mess kits, eating out of enameled plates. In all, we live comfortably, unlike the infantry. Food is fair and poor, usually the latter, and our biggest concern is jungle rash and ants. The latter are a constant nuisance and the former seems to break out in the most private sections of the body. Luckily, I’ve escaped the latter. 

We hacked this present home out of the jungle. It is damp as we had rain constantly for two weeks, but the past few days have been dry so that we managed to get the musty smell out of our clothing and blankets. Contrary to popular belief, there is little colon [?] in the Guinea jungle except on the coast and we haven’t been located anywhere where there was a wide variety of animal life. We have a few snakes, and some varmints. The white cockatoo is the most common bird we’ve met. When they alight on trees, they appear as snowballs against a green background. 

Recently I spent three weeks in Australia on leave, and as is my custom I dodged the men I went down with and did a good deal of meandering by my lonesome. I’ve met such assorted characters as a Yugoslav who thought I could get him a passport to the U.S., a Danish second mate, an English ship engineer who was an introvert with a delicate stomach and so confined his drinking to good scotch and poor Australian whiskey when the scotch ran out; two Aussie privates, brothers as tall as I am who teamed up with me one afternoon at the bar. The three of us were the object of scrutiny by the assembled multitudes so that we were frequently interrupted to answer questions on our height, a padre (I don’t know what denomination) at the same bar who spent years in Guinea and could speak pidgeon English much faster than I could follow him; some gypsies who bummed a match then wanted to bless the money I had in my wallet; some common ordinary folk; some bums, some Americans; a streetwalker who wanted $29 for the night; two sailors in a small coastal schooner who invited me on a trip after I gave them a pack of cigarettes; six Yugoslav communists with whom I had quite an argument when the attacked the U.S. but who stumped me and with whom I agree when they wanted to know why in a democracy there was racial prejudice and violation of civil rights; two charming Australian officers, one of whom would sing “I’m minding my own business and am busy all the time” when in his cups; a lovely girl with whom I played golf and want to theatres and dances; and a barmaid who sold beer to the Aussies but saved the scotch for the Yanks. I had an excellent time…

To me, the Aussies are developing a national consciousness and are trying to impress themselves and the Allies that they should have a vital role in the Pacific. It makes sense, but remember that the entire continent has less people than the city of New York. Their newspapers and magazines encourage and demand Australian music, literature and art to develop the artistic resources of the country. The newspapers and newsreels make great ado about new industries, such as an aircraft factory, plugging them as R.V. Mack would plug a new fish cannery or the airport which was to make Hoquiam a great city. It seems to be a recent trend by which Australia hopes to take its place among the great nations of the world. 

I like their energy, but not their cold rooms, extremely so to me whose blood must have thinned out a bit. There is a great deal of antagonism between Yanks and Aussies, much of which doesn’t show on the surface. It is a result of American bragging and Aussie resentment of  it; Aussie bragging and American resentment in reverse lend lease attitude. Another factor is the higher rate of pay that Americans have. The American is boastful, as our standard of living is higher and we have more material comforts and luxuries than the average Australian; the Aussie in meeting an American is polite and a bit distant until thawed out, then is a great companion. 

I liked them as a rule and as in most cases, a bit of understanding on both sides would straighten out the dislike. I liked their newspapers though they now overplay the part Australia is doing in the Guinea campaign, even with all due credit to the opening days of the war when they fought the Nips with little more than their bare hands. However, that seems like a [?] in the campaign to have a decided voice in the peace. They’re loyal to the King but fiercely resent being called English. Their reviews of plays and literature are critical. Reviewing one play, a critic said that the performance of the leading characters by no means sullied their amateur standing. On another occasion the soprano in Lilac Time was pictured thus: “Her conception of acting consisted of ear-splitting smiles.” One review of a new book was a peach and I’ll send it along but wanted to retain a copy for myself. It was entitled “Consign to Your Dust Bin.” Their humor is excellent, but more subtle and ironic than ours and they use the understatement to excellent effect. 

After Mrs. Roosevelt’s visit to the South Pacific, she wrote that it appeared that Americans were getting all the Australian girls. To which one Aussie sailor replied, “They’re sorting them out for us.”

That about covers this epistle. The Aussie is no different, under the surface, than we are, but I’m afraid that he’ll be criticized just as the businessman, rotarian, kiwanian, lion and energetic chamber of commerce member criticizes the Mexicans as shiftless and inefficient merely because his standard of living is lower. Likewise, the Aussies criticize the “Dagoes” and foreigners because their mode of life is different. I’m through arguing with Southerners. I’m tired of the question, “Would you want your sister to marry a nigger?”

P.S. I can possibly shed some light on your derelict ship. Along about 1928, during the summer I believe, a Japanese fishing boat came to shore near Port Townsend or Port Angeles. There were skeletons aboard and no signs of life. A diary was found aboard and a translation indicated cannibalism. The boat’s motor had failed and the derelict apparently drifted four years. I believe its name was the Bachimo. It was a front page story and perhaps some energetic person could find it by going through old files at the public library. Possibly it’s the same boat. It could have floated to the Canadian coast, then cast on the Washington coast by currents.

And that covers everything I can think of, little one, except how much you are missed and longed for and loved. …

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