National Geographic : 1944 Aug
Palms and Planes in the New Hebrides BY MAJ. ROBBER' D. HEINL, JR., USMC MY ACQUAINTANCE with the New Hebrides began without warning in March, 1942, when the ships' loud speakers announced to our force of Marines that our destination was the island of Efate. All hands made for the nearest chart to con sider the strategic aspects of our expedition. During the spring of 1942, Japanese pene tration of the Southwest Pacific was stabbing at American supply lines to Australia. Sweep ing southward, enemy forces were attempting to conquer New Guinea. At the same time they were menacing the feeble defenses in Tulagi, still in friendly hands. Only a step to the south lay the New Hebrides. Athwart the Enemy's Line Thus the charts revealed our destination to be squarely athwart the enemy's line of ad vance. In fact, it was the last defensive position between the Japanese and our mari time life line through New Caledonia (map, page 233). Of the islands toward which we sailed, we, like most of the world, knew virtually noth ing. Our charts, while the best available, were based on long-past surveys, and the little they conveyed served only to raise our doubts. Thus our only advance descriptions were of forbidding terrain, dense jungle, and ferocious islanders. An illustrated magazine on ship board contained a photograph by a well-known explorer of what was described as a bona fide cannibal feast in these very islands. The full military import of our mission was not yet evident, nor would it be until we learned of the impending Solomon Islands of fensive. Thinking of ourselves as a stopgap defense force thrown in to arrest the enemy, we had no realization that by our occupation of the New Hebrides we were screening the deployment of much larger forces which would soon be mustered for America's first offensive, a movement not only against the Solomons to the north but against the conquered Philip pines and eventually Japan itself.* As our convoy coasted along the shoreline of Efate after a dawn landfall, we saw land with towering, abrupt mountains, immense up thrust ledges of coral, and dense tropical growth which seemed to dispute the shore line with long Pacific rollers booming against its reefs. *See Map Supplements to the NATIONAL GEO GRAPHIC MAGAZINE, "Japan and Adjacent Regions of Asia and the Pacific Ocean," April, 1944, and "Pacific Ocean and Bay of Bengal," September, 1943. Overhead, instead of the blue sky of Techni color, hung heavy clouds, portent of many a downpour to come. To a few old hands the shoreline suggested less hospitable parts of the coast of Panama. Not a building or work of man was in sight-only dense, dripping jungle. Within an hour, however, as we rounded a con spicuous promontory topped by a half-size sugar-loaf hill, we came upon a harbor en trance guarded by several tiny islands and crowned by a completely unanticipated vil lage on heights to shoreward. It was our first sight of Vila, which was to be our base for many weary months to come (page 255). When American troops first landed, Vila was a tiny, white-walled, red-roofed town con structed around the twin hubs of the British and Fighting French Residencies-nuclei of the curious dual governmental system, called a "condominium," under which England and France exercise joint sovereignty throughout the New Hebrides (pages 230, 231). Remote from Trade Routes Remote as it was from ordinary trade routes, Vila nevertheless boasted a telephone ex change, electric lights, macadamized streets (a defense against bottomless rainy-season mud), and a few principal shops. Padlocked were the remnants of a Japanese commercial system whose enterprises, shortly before the war, were out of all proportion to the economic rewards in Vila. Built out over the water stood a tiny club which, with its Chinese attendants, tables covered with green baize, and shuttered veran das, might have been created by Kipling or Maugham. Except for one long main street parallel to the water front, the whole town clung to steep hillsides which rose from the shore to a commanding chain of ridges a half mile back. To the eyes of our transport-weary Marines the sudden revelation of this tranquil harbor and neat little town was accented by the appearance of the sun and a sky which partly redeemed hopes engendered by Hollywood. As if we were world-cruise tourists, our ship was soon surrounded by dugout outrigger ca noes. They were handled with alarming care lessness by extremely black islanders whose hair, standing inches upright from their heads, was colored in disconcerting shades of red and yellow. Efate is the chief, but by no means the largest, of a group of 14 principal islands.