Ordeal At Vella Lavella


Food posed another problem. The natives were short on supplies themselves, and the addition of scores of Helena survivors proved a serious drain. Once again the Reverend Silvester came to the rescue. He organized native foraging parties that systematically combed the area. Soon the camp was getting a steady flow of potatoes, tapioca, yams, pau pau, taro root, and bananas. When ripe, the fruit was given to the injured. Everything else was dumped into a huge copper pot, also provided by Silvester’s natives. It reminded Jack Chew, a little uncomfortably, of the pots he had seen in cartoons of cannibals cooking missionaries.

The pot was kept boiling by two experienced cooks—Seaman First Class J.L. Johnson and Marine Bert Adam, a massive bartender from Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Twice a day they ladled out a watery stew, laced with a few chunks of Spam scavenged from the beach. The men never ceased to marvel at the results. Sometimes it was rich purple, next time pink, then almost white, and again almost black. There were no complaints, although Coxswain Ted Blahnik later confessed that he tried to dodge the fish eyes.

On medicine, too, the Reverend Silvester proved invaluable. Pharmacist’s Mate Red Layton did a superb job with the injured, now bedded down in Sam’s shack, but his task was made easier by the sulfa drugs and painkillers that came from the mission stores.

Every evening Silvester dropped by to chat with Jack Chew—not just about the problems of the day, but about life in general. Gradually a close bond developed between them. Bern Kelly and the others felt it too, and they all agreed that this devoted man who did so much for them deserved far more than to be a mere “Reverend.” He should at least be a bishop, and so they made him one, unofficially. From this time on, they always called him “Bish.”

By July 12 life in “Mayor” Chew’s community almost bordered on the routine. In the morning the men got up with the sun—about six o’clock. Washing up without soap was somewhat futile, but they learned that a lime peel was excellent for cleaning teeth.

Breakfast (stew, of course) came around ten, when Chief Cook Johnson would ceremoniously announce, “Chow is ready.” Finishing, the men washed the coconut shells that served as plates, and then took two laps around the camp for exercise. Next came cleanup. Nearly everyone had some specific assignment; the most sought-after duty was the canteen detail because it meant an opportunity to bathe in the crystal-clear stream at the bottom of the hill.

Lunch (more stew) came at two o’clock, and that was the last meal of the day. The rest of the afternoon most of the men relaxed, gradually regaining their strength, until evening prayers around five thirty. Not quite knowing how this mixed and involuntary congregation would react, Chew passed the word that no matter how they felt, he expected the men to show proper respect during the Reverend Silvester’s service.

He need not have worried. Perilous hardship had brought most of the men closer to God than they had ever been before. Survivors and natives joined together in singing the hymns, especially “Rock of Ages.” The natives sang in their language, the Helena ’s, crew in theirs, but the effect was strangely unifying. The common melody seemed to mean a common bond that many of the men found enormously reassuring. It was not unusual to see them in tears as the service ended.

And so the days passed, one pretty much like another—except for the big feast. This took place after a party of natives butchered one of the stray cattle that roamed the island. Lugging the beef back to the camp, the natives were held up by Japanese patrols, and by the time they reached Sam’s place, the meat was ripe indeed. Chew consulted Chief Cook Johnson; they reluctantly agreed that it was hopelessly spoiled, and they had it buried. But this was more than Machinist’s Mate, Second Class, R. G. Atkinson could stand. He was the oldest member of the Helena ’s, crew, and among other things in life, had been in the Klondike gold rush. He told Chew that in the Yukon no one would throw away beef like that. He knew how to salvage it and would like to try his skill.

The meat was hastily disinterred, and Atkinson went to work. No one ever knew what he really did. Obtaining an iron pot from the natives, he boiled it for three days, occasionally tossing in bits of fruit and herbs he found growing in the jungle. Finally he announced that his treat was ready, and to the astonishment of the other 103 men, it turned out to be delicious.

Despite Atkinson’s genius—and the continuing efforts of the more orthodox cooks—food was always short, and always on everyone’s mind. The men no longer talked about the girls in Sydney—it was the steaks back home. So it was not too surprising when Major Kelly stormed up to Chew one day, reporting that someone had stolen one of the few cans of Spam salvaged from the rafts. “IfI find out who it is, will you sentence him to death?”

Chew said he thought this was a little drastic. The thief was probably some poor devil, so hungry he really didn’t know what he was doing. Kelly was adamant, and the “Mayor” was caught between approving what he felt was a Draconian measure, or undermining his “Chief of Police.” To his enormous relief, the culprit was never caught.