National Geographic : 1948 Jan
We Survive on a Pacific Atoll BY JOHN AND FRANK CRAIGHEAD S WE stood aboard a Navy picket boat, ready for our adventure, we were confident that we had the most en viable assignment in the Navy. Our job was to demonstrate that man, cast away on a dot of land in mid-Pacific, can live almost in definitely by using his ingenuity and Nature's resources. Specifically, we were to gather information on edible plants and animals, ways of get ting water, travel conditions, disease hazards, native lore, reef and surf conditions, and other data to safeguard the lives of downed Navy fliers.* To survive in a wilderness, with a mini mum of physical equipment, could be an in teresting experiment or a harrowing experi ence. How would we find it? We wondered. Our island was a low coral formation, one of the many uninhabited specks of land that make up Kwajalein Atoll. Some of these atolls, Kwajalein, Eniwetok, Majuro, Mili, Jaluit, and others, stretch over 800 miles of ocean to form the Marshall group.f All of them together contain about 74 square miles of land (map, page 74). Each atoll is composed of an irregular chain of islets around a central lagoon. The islets are separated by continuous shallow reefs with a deep channel or entrance into the lagoon, usually at the leeward end of the atoll. An Islet Shaped Like a Dumbbell This we knew about our islet; what we could see was still more interesting. We could survey it all at a glance. It was shaped like a dumbbell, with the two broad ends densely covered by vegetation and the narrow central strip opening to a coarse sand beach strewn with coral boulders. A small lagoon nestled between the project ing ends of the islet and emptied into the ocean by a channel through the reef. A billowy cloud hung over the coconut trees, shimmering heat waves distorted the outlines of objects on the beach, and a rough surf pounded the frontal reef. Now that the war was over it was possible to appreciate the natural beauty of our island. There were the graceful coconut palms swaying over sandy beaches, the aquamarine blue of the lagoon, the emerald green of tropical vegetation, the shrill cry of white terns and noddies, the booming of the surf, and the gentle whisper of northeast trade winds. Five of us were going ashore-John J. Lynch, Merle Stitt, Goniske, a Marshallese native, and the authors. As we gathered up our meager equipment our attention shifted from the aesthetic to the practical. We had to live with that island. A glance took in the number of coconut trees; they would be our staff of life. The nut crop was poor. The trees were thin and tall, which meant a long climb for a drink. Apparently there were no breadfruit trees, but the reef looked productive. The little lagoon teemed with colored reef fishes, and back of this were many deep tidal pools that served as natural traps for varied sea life. All in all, foraging prospects looked good. We were anxious to get ashore. We bounced into a rubber raft. A seaman threw our line free and mumbled to a com panion, "They can have it." We were on our own. A Lesson from Earlier Mishaps Many a castaway in a rubber boat drowned in the surf or received severe coral cuts by landing on the windward side of an island. We pulled toward the calmer lee shore on the lagoon side of our islet. Our raft rode through the surf on the crest of a small wave and when it hit the shallow reef we jumped overboard. The picket boat was a gray speck on the horizon by the time we had waded the reef and eased our raft up on the beach. Unloading was simple. Besides personal gear such as a machete, sheath knife, pocket fishing kit, underwater goggles, magnifying glass, flashlight, and tennis shoes, we had a first-aid kit, several cameras, notebooks, and a few reference books on plant and ani mal life of the region. Then, too, we had Goniske, who had sur vived on the islands during the Japanese oc cupation. We had included him in our party as a sort of reference book from whose war time pages we hoped to learn some new tricks. The natives of any area know from genera tions of primitive living the simple, easy ways of utilizing the resources at hand. Goniske was no exception. Besides, he proved to be a real companion and our most useful piece of "equipment," a skilled coconut husker. * See, in the NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, "They Survived at Sea," by Lt. Comdr. Samuel F. Harby, May, 1945. t See "Map of the Pacific Ocean and the Bay of Bengal," issued as a supplement to the NATIONAL GEO GRAPHIC MAGAZINE, September, 1943.