A Short Walk On Guadalcanal

PrintPrintEmailEmail

Every so often one comes across a writer who should be awarded the literary equivalent of the Victoria Cross or the Medal of Honor—one who gazes into the jaws of a hellish assignment and goes forward, resolute paragraph after resolute paragraph, knowing that there is no light at the end of the tunnel, that the end will be cruel and the reward negligible.

 

Such a man is J. L. O. Tedder, the author of Walks on Guadalcanal . I picked up his sixtytwo-page booklet at the government tourist office in Honiara, the principal city of Guadalcanal as well as the capital of the independent nation known as the Solomon Islands.

My wife and I had flown to Guadalcanal to do research on Time and Tide , the novel I was writing about the Navy during World War II. After hours of staring at the blank Pacific, we suddenly descended on an island where walking did not seem a very good idea. Most of Guadalcanal, except for the coastal plain around Honiara, where U.S. Marines and Japanese infantry blasted bullets and shells at each other for six months half a century ago, resembles a gigantic corrugated roof. A series of precipitous mountains rise and fall across nine-tenths of the island’s ninety-two-mile length, their slopes covered by the densest imaginable vegetation.

We toured the battlefields and drove out to Cape Esperance, where we got a graphic view of Savo Island, off which two of the war’s most ferocious naval engagements were fought. On Edson’s Ridge a tiny weathered tablet paid tribute to the U.S. Marines’ heroism (this has since been replaced with a more impressive one, on the fiftieth anniversary of the struggle). On a plateau overlooking the coastal plain, where the Japanese had an artillery piece that save the Americans a lot of grief, there is a majestic shiny Japanese monument, with apostrophes to world peace.

 

Beyond Honiara, in the village of Vilu, a cheerful whitehaired man named Fred Kona operates a grim museum full of crashed planes. Kona professes to be pro-American. But all his wrecked planes are American. I asked him why there were no Japanese planes. “They fall in the water,” he said. At Kona’s museum the Japanese had erected another memorial. At the Hotel Mendana the Japanese outnumbered the half-dozen Americans thirty to one. They came regularly in large groups to pray for the souls of their dead. None of them seemed interested in walking. They traveled to their gravesites in vans.

Nevertheless, after a week in Honiara we understood why Tedder wrote Walks on Guadalcanal . A more unpromising place for a writer to set up shop cannot be imagined. The local newspaper looks as if it had been printed on one of those presses for eight-year-olds sold at Caldor. The telephone directory has a page entitled “Oops! We missed these” and another page in the back for “Missing and New Numbers.” Although the government proclaims the official language to be English, a sign in the lobby of the Hotel Mendana, Honiara’s finest hostelry, says, WELKOM PRENDS! At last count the Solomon Islanders spoke at least eighty-two different tribal languages; the lingua franca is pidgin English.

Put yourself in Tedder’s place, now, and imagine his reaction when the government asked him to write Walks on Guadalcanal . Could any writer in such a situation turn it down? It might be his only assignment for a decade! I can see him, sitting down grim-eyed at his mildewed 1939 Royal.

He begins by refusing to let the geographical facts intimidate him. He insists that “regardless of age,” anyone who is “reasonably fit” can explore Guadalcanal on foot: “It is really only a matter of adjusting one’s thinking.” Once the heat (“never very bad”) and the humidity are accepted, walking the island offers a world “quite different from that seen from the air conditioned bus or aeroplane.”

Next comes advice about taking short walks in the lowlands around Honiara. Few of these sound particularly difficult; nevertheless, Tedder offers a few warnings in capital letters to deal with the “hundreds of tracks” in the area: “If you get lost, STAY WHERE YOU ARE and light a fire”; “ DO NOT START TAKING WHAT MIGHT APPEAR to be short cuts.” And of course, make sure to leave a note at your hotel telling where you“re going.

In his directions for visiting Mount Gallego, west of Honiara, Tedder notes that “care needs to be taken not to fall down some of the cliff-like northern faces. Although there are some excellent swimming holes in the Lunga River Gorge, “care should be taken…as crocodiles have been reported this far up in the river.”

These observations are only warm-ups for “General Notes for Longer Walks,” which take the traveler into the corrugated rooftop world known on Guadalcanal as “the bush.” Here Tedder hits his literary stride.

There is, to begin, no such thing as an accurate map. “The detail of the country is hidden from the mapper’s eyes under the thick rain forest and rivers are likely to change course after frequent floods.” As for clothing, shorts are the only possible outfit. Slacks and even shirts quickly become soaked. No need for a raincoat: Thanks to the humidity, “one becomes wetter [with one] than walking without one.”