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Saipan Adventure

Continuation. Page 2 of 3. This article originally appeared in Pacific Crossroads, publication of Commander Naval Forces Marianas, in September 1982.

Photo, right, this bomb-blasted concrete lintel still hangs above the main door to the old Japanese jail on Saipan.

Cars would approach from one or another direction. We would turn on a flashlight, just to be sure they knew we were there and did not run over us. Some slowed slightly while the occupants stared at us. Some sped up and shot on by. One driver turned his head around at us and nearly drove into a tree. The vehicle behind that one nearly rammed that one as it slowed to check us out. A few cars slowed slightly as if to see if we needed help. But as soon as they saw what a large mob we were, they sped off into the darkness. We listened carefully for the sound of breaking rods and disintegrating cylinders, waiting for our truck to return. We heard some novel sounds from some strange-looking vehicles, but our sick truck never showed up.

Finally, a vehicle with high beams turned on drove directly at us from downhill. At the last moment, we leaped aside and the vehicle stopped -- it was our guide and the other, not-so-far-gone, truck! He had send the boy home with the first truck to get it ready to go in the morning.

Head 'em out, once again. Over bone-jarring bumps and through head-smacking overhanging brush, we rushed through the night back to our little ranch.

It had been a long, hard and exciting day, full of culture shock and other difficult experiences. We were SO ready to go to sleep. The men went into their room; the women went into their room. The women posted a guard while they got ready. Everyone spread out their sleeping bags, or whatever they had brought for sleeping.

It was a close fit, with the rooms so small. "Good night," the women called out. The men were talking as fast and as loud as they could, stock, interest rates, banging things around. "Shut up!" rang out through the night. The men were instantly silenced, and no one heard another word out of any of them until morning.

Ten minutes later, the sound of scratching came from the women's room -- mosquito bites. Then ... "ming" ... the sound of a mosquito in someone's ear. "ming" "ming" "zoom" -- more mosquitoes. I grabbed my air mattress and sheet and bolted out the door.

Wandering around outside under the moonlit sky, I noticed a picnic table under the mango tree. It seemed like the only place a person could lie outdoors without risking being trampled by chickens or pigs during the night. So, onto the picnic table, wrap up in the sheet like a corpse, arms over ears to keep out the "ming" sound, and to sleep. Periodically during the night, chickens above in the tree would stir and crow.

Three-thirty AM. The mango tree was loaded with sleeping chickens, or roosting roosters, as it turned out. The back yard was full of assorted chickens perched in and on everything available. One chicken woke up, saw the light of the moon and crowed, afraid he would miss something. Instantly, the air was split with the sounds of at least 60 roosters doing their thing, each in his own unique way. Echoes from other farms rang across the valley when this flock was done, setting them all off again. And again.

Still, most campers dropped back into sleep. Then -- rain on a hot tin roof! On the picnic table I leaped to my feet, nearly hurling myself head first into the dirt. The good truck rested in the clearing, sounds of snoring echoing inside the bed (!) at the back. I snapped my air mattress and now-considerably-less-clean sheet, and dashed across to the house, entered the back door into the women's bedroom.

"It's raining," I said out loud, in explanation for disturbing the others. "I can't sleep outside in the rain," a plaintive voice. But that was the end of sleep for me anyway. I ended up joining the one non-sleeper in the kitchen, sipping soda to relive the thirst of galloping dehydration. "ming." I had thought mosquitoes quit a few hours after dark. No such luck. They stay out all night long. It was a beautiful sunrise, fully as spectacular as any sunset in the Marianas. There were enough clouds to make a great show, but not enough to keep it from being a fine, sunny day. As the dawn grew lighter the cattle slowly became visible in the fields, and an explanation appeared for strange sounds heard during the night. When the little pigs woke up in the night, they were hungry or thirsty just like children. They wandered around, one by one, snuffling for any leftovers from the day before. Eventually that pig went back to sleep and another woke up and took its place. This also caused some spectacular sound effects in the house, since the pigs slept under there with no sound insulation.

With sunup, hunger struck. Back home on Guam, I would have just plugged in the electric frying pan and the toaster and had breakfast ready in no time. No electricity here. No pan, no toaster, no HEAT, for heaven's sake. Now what?

Our guide finally woke up. He quickly built a roaring fire in the kitchen "stove" out of practically nothing, filled a blackened soot-layered teakettle with water, and injected vital coffee into the group. The next time we saw him he was stirring a large vat of scrambled eggs. A moment or two later, he had produced toast and plates. "Come and get it." Everyone got up and came to breakfast.

The small pigs snuffled around the edges of the clearing, clearly hoping for handouts, or at least fallen scraps. One tiny pig was by far the smallest of all. Even his tail was retarded in growth, or perhaps nipped off by a litter mate. A bare inch of tail stuck straight up and wiggled from side to side when he was excited, as by the smell of food. We nicknamed the little pink fellow Arnold.

We slipped Arnold a few pieces of food, trying to lure him out of the fringes of the clearing. He was very cautious. None of the animals were quite tame. Arnold jokes followed. Pig jokes. "My deah, I simply l-o-v-e that hair style (salty and sticking straight up). Where do you have it done?" Answer: "Arnold of Saipan."

Back into the trucks for a day of sightseeing. Suicide Cliff, then Banzai Cliff. Next we found ourselves at the Last Command Post. This was an elaborate Japanese monument, well kept up by a permanent full-time worker. He was sitting on a concrete slab watching his lawn mower. He continued sitting as we visited the monument and stayed a while to rest out of the sun and cool off. But the place was immaculate, the bathroom really worked and was as clean as it could be, and new flower plants marched around the pavilion in neat rows.

I think the Last Command Post was the most impressive World War II monument we saw. The remains of different types of tracked vehicles dotted the flat area, along with examples of very large Japanese guns. An involuntary shudder passed through me as I examined the half-inch-thick metal of a tank, twisted completely out of shape by a force so strong I couldn't imagine it.

Above the tank, a gun pointed out toward the ocean, nearly intact except that the end of the barrel was split wide open and melted into the semblance of a drooping, split banana skin. Another similar gun showed no obvious damage to the barrel; however, the housing of the recoil springs had melted and sagged out of shape.

A natural fortress loomed above the scene, the rock hollowed out for ammunition storage. I climbed up to the gallery around it and peered inside. Solid concrete and rock walls inside were blackened, pierced and smashed. Voices echoed hollowly in the background, though no one was visible. A raised shelf on the rock outside held a machine-gun-sized weapon securely fastened to the fortress. The rock behind and above it was fire-blackened, telling me all I wanted to know about the final day of the Last Command Post.

Back at the pavilion, the group was still lazing on the concrete benches. They said this was the nicest place they had been on Saipan, with a bathroom and everything, and they didn't want to leave! There was talk of getting all our supplies and moving into the monument. Eventually the mutinous mood died down and our guide felt it was safe to load us into the trucks for the next sight.

Bump carom lurch up one unpaved road and down another. If we had some idea where we were before, now we were totally lost. But we rushed up to a viewing area on the top of an ocean cliff and slid to a stop. Gosh, that was pretty. Bird Island. The weather was perfect -- bright sun and a fresh breeze. We came from one island in paradise and had been looking at the best sights of another island in paradise. The blue of the ocean was so intense it almost brought a moan from its viewers. EVERYTHING was that intense. We stood and watched the surf and the island and the multicolored reef and the sweep of land up the mountain in the rear. It was too much. We just couldn't react any more in a way that did justice to what we were seeing. This was an overload to the senses of all of us. But we agreed we would never forget that particular blue the ocean was boasting under the clear sky and dazzling tropical sun. <

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