National Geographic : 1946 May
American Pathfinders in the Pacific BY WILLIAM H. NICHOLAS N THE DARK of night, hundreds of land ing craft pushed off from Angaur, south ernmost of the Palau Islands, and quietly headed northward. By early dawn they had come within sight of their objective-a low lying, reef-fringed coral island which loomed in the semidarkness before the straining eyes of troops crouched in their boats. Amasa Delano, of Duxbury, Massachusetts, stood in the bow of his launch, in the center of three advancing waves, and looked to his rockets. About him were British naval offi cers, East Indian seamen, Micronesian warriors -an amphibious invasion force of several thousand .men. Like clockwork, the mosquito fleet slipped within the reef and converged on the beaches. D Day had dawned in the western Carolines. But it was not the D Day of September 15, 1944. This was not the First U. S. Marine Division forcing a landing on Peleliu.* This task force, headed by Abba Thulle, King of the Palaus, was bent on subduing a rebellious tribe. The date was June 22, 1791. An American, 8,500 miles from home, was in the thick of it. His rockets were ancient Chinese inventions which "were not very de structive in fact . . . (but) made a great pa rade of death to those who saw them ap proaching with smoke, and fire, and threaten ing leaps upon the water." Psychological rocket warfare, 18th-century style! Amasa Delano lived adventurously in the Pacific of a century and a half ago, but his experiences were not unique. Pacific Was Vast Whale Fishery Americans were at home in every part of that vast ocean between the close of our Revo lution and our Civil War. GI's and sailors in the Pacific during World War II were fol lowing in the footsteps of their great-and great-great-grandfathers. Whale oil, sealskins, beche-de-mer (dried sea slugs), edible birds' nests, turtle shell, sandalwood, and guano were the prizes sought in the days of sail by these daring American seamen. They risked their lives in far-off places to fill their ships with novel cargoes and then sold them, often at fabulous profit, in Canton, San Francisco, New York, or the ports of Europe. By 1840, smoke from the tryworks of some 675 American whaling ships billowed over the waters of the Pacific. Fifteen thousand sea men manned our whaling fleet. Following the War of 1812, daring traders from Salem, Massachusetts, Stonington, Con necticut, and other New England ports put in at New Guinea, the Solomons, and the Ad miralties. American missionaries made their homes thousands of miles from our shores, among hostile savages on remote islands where months passed between ship calls. Nearly a century ago, Americans laid claim to about 50 islets near the Equator, although it is not certain that all of them existed. The tiny dots contained guano deposits, the ac cumulation of the excrement of sea birds, a valuable fertilizer high in phosphates. "American Polynesia" Our enterprising guano diggers husbanded their claims so zealously that this stretch of the Pacific was referred to in 1859 by E. Behm, a German geographer, as "American Polynesia" (map, pages 624-5). The area also was labeled "United States" on the map of Oceania in the 1873 and 1882 editions of the Royal Atlas of Modern Geog raphy, by Alexander Keith Johnston, Scottish geographer. With the Civil War, decline of our mer chant marine, and development of our own far West, the American public largely lost interest in the Pacific. Whale oil gave way to petroleum; many guano deposits were ex hausted. Our acquisition of Hawaii and the Philippines reminded us of the vast ocean, but only for a while. For half a century the pages of the NA TIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE have kept fresh in the minds of members of the National Geographic Society the knowledge of remote areas of the Pacific, but few readers dreamed that suddenly the day would arrive when these exotic islands, vividly described in picture and story, would be inextricably linked with our Nation's destiny. Now a House Naval Affairs subcommittee has recommended establishment of permanent military bases over a wide area of the Pacific. U. S. Navy recommendations along parallel lines have been submitted to the Senate Naval Affairs Committee. The war made the names of these bases household words. With the single exception of Midway, a * See "South from Saipan," by W. Robert Moore, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, April, 1945. t See "Revealing Earth's Mightiest Ocean," by Albert W. Atwood, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGAZINE, September, 1943.