(Author’s note: In 2004 I spent two weeks in the beautiful Micronesian republic of Palau, a place once ravaged by warfare, now an archetype of idyll. Today, Memorial Day, I thought I’d offer this snippet from my time in Palau, randomly meeting one of our honorable veterans.)
On my final night in Palau I ordered sushi in a restaurant called Mingles, but I did no mingling because the place was empty. So I ate in silence.
Walking back to my hotel I came upon a gaunt, geriatric white man sitting in a folding chair on the corner of the road, in front of the Koror post office, smoking a cigar. He wore a blue floral shirt and beige shorts; his bare legs were skinny pale pins of veiny flesh, and his eyeglasses were a quarter-inch thick. Two pieces of luggage were at his side.
“Your cigar smells quite good,” I said.
“Oh, no thank you. I don’t smoke.”
“Good for you. You don’t need it.”
He was an 86-year-old World War II veteran named Cecil. He was sitting there waiting for his ride to the airport to fly back to his retirement home in Kansas, a tiresome red-eye route stopping in Guam, Honolulu, Houston, and finally Wichita.
“That seems like an awful lot of flying for a guy like you,” I said.
He scoffed. “I got here, didn’t I?”
“What brings you to Koror?”
In World War II the Japanese shooed natives from Arakabesan Island and made it a seaplane base, its remnants remaining in the vicinity of Meyungs and Palau Pacific Resort. In 1914 Japan took Palau from Germany, Koror became Japan’s Micronesian capital, and for decades Japan dominated the innocuous little island nation. Then came World War II, when things changed.
Palau’s bloodiest battle occurred in the autumn of 1944 on Peleliu Island, 25 miles south of Koror, when 2,000 Americans and 11,000 Japanese troops perished. Under the command of First Marine Division Commander General Bill H. Rupertus (killed in combat in 1945), the U.S. attempted to seize Peleliu from Japan with Operation Stalemate II, a move Rupertus claimed would take three days. It took three months.
Jim Moran in his book Peleliu 1944: The Forgotten Corner of Hell:
“Equaling Tarawa, Iwo Jima and Okinawa in scale and ferocity...the Japanese fought a bloody battle of attrition from prepared positions, and in a struggle of unprecedented savagery a whole Marine Division was bled white.”
“I came back for three days to see Peleliu,” Cecil said. “Hadn’t been there since ‘44. Took a boat on Friday. Came back yesterday. Place looked beautiful. Broke my goddamn heart. Cried more’n I ever had, tell you what.”
“The war must have come back to you.”
“It never left. Happened 60 years ago. I’ve thought about that damn island every day since.”
“What did you do?”
He puffed on his cigar. “First Marine Division. The Old Breed. Fifth Marine Regiment, infantry, second battalion. We’d hit Guadalcanal and Rabaul in ’42 and ’43. MacArthur wanted the Philippines from the Japs, but we had to get them out of the region. So we went to Peleliu. Nimitz ordered us in.”
“Then all hell broke loose. ‘Course most folks think we could’ve saved lives if we’d just hit the Japs from the air. Bombed their boats and planes. Would’ve saved thousands of people.”
I looked around at the cars and people, the happy kids and their mothers, the innocence of the starry Koror evening. Across the street was the cheap delicatessen that doubled as an Internet café, used heavily by tourists and locals, and it was full of them tonight. I wondered if any of these people realized the bloodshed and struggle required to enable Palau’s domestic freedom, so they could check their e-mail there, mail a letter here, or sip sake down at Mingles until midnight.
It was all very peaceful and harmonious and normal. Folks were happy, there were no guns or aggression. I had been quite free to fly here, sleep here, walk here, eat here, surf here, dive here, explore here. It had been deeply enlightening and soul-cleansing, a stirring sojourn to a sublime place. Coming alone was the only way.
I looked at Cecil, chewing on his cigar.
“Was this trip worth it for you?” I asked.
“Well—” He exhaled smoke. “—did you see much of Palau?”
“Did you feel safe and happy?”
“There’s your answer.”
And he was right.