Not Forgetting May Be The Only Heroism Of The Survivor”

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IT WAS ONLY NATURAL , then, I suppose, that I became drawn into the Tarawa of today. I had long talks with officials about the problems of bringing the Gilbert Islands to independence (achieved four years ago); listened to British doubts about the future of the economy; talked at lunch with local merchants who weren’t very sanguine either; spent a morning touring the little hospital, including its small leper section; lectured to the sixty students at the training school for Gilbertese elementary teachers; went out to dinner parties; struck up a lasting friendship with Derek Cudmore, the assistant resident commissioner, and his wife Vrai; went on a hunt with the agricultural expert for the dread rhinoceros beetle (we didn’t find it); visited the Catholic bishop, who was in the throes of supervising the construction of a tropical cathedral, and who served me the coldest bottle of beer I had while on Tarawa. By the time I left I was beginning to feel at home and comfortable and somewhat reluctant to leave. A vivid contrast to twenty-five years earlier.

This involvement turned out to be an unforeseen benefit. For almost twenty-five years I had relived the battle so many times that I saw myself doomed to fight it over and over without end. But to see Tarawa now was to realize that even though the past does indeed influence and shape our lives, we cannot live there. Though I came to Tarawa bringing the battle with me, I left without it. There are those who flee the present to find relief in the past. I found that my journey had enabled me to escape the past back into the present. Tarawa, which had innocently placed so terrible a burden on me, innocently lifted that burden a quarter of a century later.

 

When I first arrived, I was surprised to discover that there was no memorial to the battle. I casually mentioned this when I talked with the students at the training school, not realizing that such a remark, suggesting ingratitude, would cause great “shame” to a sensitive people like the Gilbertese. Several days later, to show they did care, the students put on a big outdoor feast one evening, making me a kind of guest of honor. As the meal progressed, one of the teachers whispered to me that at an appropriate moment I would be expected to rise and speak. I searched my mind frantically for something to say. Suddenly I was nudged. I got slowly to my feet, and that was the moment I realized what had been happening to me during those two weeks. After thanking the students for their invitation, I said, as much to myself as to them: “When I left Tarawa twenty-five years ago, I took with me very bitter and unhappy memories, but I want you to know that when I leave Tarawa this time, I shall carry with me very happy and pleasant memories.” Not eloquent, but the students cheered.

My peace with the battle I would never have to fight again was my own private memorial, but I still thought there should be some visible sign of honor for those who had died on this distant piece of coral. Then, quite unexpectedly, I found it. Not long before I left, I talked with an expatriate minister who told me the following story.

VISITING IN THE northern part of the atoll, he was being taken by an old Gilbertese to someone’s hut. On the way they came to a place with a log and some piled stones, and the old man told him they would sit here. Puzzled, he sat down. Soon a couple of small boys came by, and they too stopped and sat. Then an old woman with a basket. After a couple of minutes, the old man got up. The minister asked why they had stopped there. After the battle on Betio, the old man said, a company of Marines had been sent in pursuit of several dozen Japanese soldiers who had managed to escape. During the chase up the atoll a Marine had been killed in a skirmish at that spot, and ever since then no one went by without sitting for a few minutes in silence. Later in 1968, on the formal anniversary of the battle,a concrete monument was unveiled in commemoration, but I think I prefer that silent ground in northern Tarawa. It doesn’t matter that few remember why they stop there.