National Geographic : 1943 Jan
War Finds Its Way to Gilbert Islands United States Forces Dislodge Japanese from Enchanted Atolls Which Loom Now as Stepping Stones along South Sea Route from Australia to Hawaii BY SIR ARTHUR GRIMBLE Formerly Senior District Officer of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony, Now Governor and Commander-in-Chief of the Seychelles With Illustrations from Photographs by Dr. Raymond A. Dillon PRIOR to December 7, 1941, few people knew anything about the Gilbert Is lands, and fewer still had been there. Even the cartographers had conspired to over look them, for it was only on the most detailed maps of the Pacific that their individual names were recorded.* However, a few days after the treacherous attack on Pearl Harbor the Japanese occu pied Abaiang and Makin (Butaritari) in the northern part of the group, and it was reported that they had evacuated the population of a third, Tarawa. They immediately began to turn Makin into a seaplane base from which to launch attacks on shipping between Hawaii and Australia. In the sudden raid of January 31 the United States Navy shelled and bombed Makin, and on August 17 a task force of the United States Navy and Marines raided the island and destroyed Japanese ships, radio, and air-base installations, stores of food and gasoline, and all but two of the 350 defenders. Thus war has brought into sudden promi nence 16 inconsiderable and previously little known atolls cut by the Equator and the 175th meridian of east longitude about 4,700 miles southwest of San Francisco (map, page 74). A Streamer of Islands 3,500 Miles Long The Gilberts form part of that multitudi nous archipelago of gemlike islets called Mi cronesia, which, beginning with the Palau Islands, at the gates of the Netherlands In dies, stretches eastward a full 2,000 miles above the Equator, then curves away to the southeast, crossing the Equator at the Gilbert Islands, as shown on the map on page 74. Tiny islands-some 3,500 miles of them sparkle "like jeweled plumes at random thrown" by a Master Hand through the mur murous and sapphire solitudes of the central Pacific. The 16 Gilbert atolls, despite their wartime prominence, do not bulk large amid so vast a concourse, and statistics seem to render them more insignificant still. Their collective area amounts to only 166 square miles; not one of them rises as much as 15 feet above sea level, or exceeds in width three furlongs from beach to beach. They are mere ribbons of coral rock, from 10 to 50 miles long, topped with a soil so sandy that it supports no useful plant save the coconut, the pandanus palm, and an inferior taro. Yet these islands, which have neither stream nor mountain, and lack the barbaric and colorful luxuriance of vegetation usually associated with the Tropics, have rare en chantment. Here it is form, not color, that charms the eye-the exquisite penciling of palms overleaning the lagoons, the rare grada tions of light and shade, the matchless trans parencies of atmosphere. They enjoy, as Robert Louis Stevenson wrote, "a superb ocean climate, days of blind ing sun and bracing wind, nights of a heavenly brightness." Famous Explorers Visited the Group According to native tradition, the first white man seen in the group arrived 14 generations ago, or, say, at the end of the 16th century. He is reported to have come to the island of Beru, alone and nearly dead, "in a boat shaped like a box." He was "tall as a giant, but very thin, like a lizard, with a head narrow like the blade of an adze." His hair was red, and he had a beard "that hung in two long points below his middle." From this description, the stranger seems to have been of Caucasian type, and the boat "shaped like a box" suggests a craft of European construction. Possibly he was some driftaway from a Spanish ship in these waters. * Their names are shown on the National Geo graphic Society map of the Pacific, February, 1942. Beginning at the north they are: Makin Meang (Little Makin), Makin (Butaritari), Marakei, Abaiang, Ta rawa, Maiana, Abemama, Kuria, Aranuka, Nonouti, Tabiteuea, Beru, Nukunau, Onotoa, Tamana, Arorae.