First Encounter – 1970 The Boeing 707, Trans World Airlines flight #1 enroute around the world landed at Guam International several hours before sunrise for a short fuel stop before proceeding with its military passengers to Vietnam thence to Bangkok and points west as it raced to catch the Sun.
Disembarking into the warm, early morning hours that September in 1970 on a rain swept tarmac with humidity so thick, it took my breath away, I waited for the 6:30 flight to Saipan aboard a four engine D C 6. This was my first encounter with an island in the western Pacific. Forty five minutes after boarding the ancient aircraft for a destination north of Guam, it started its final approach toward a brush lined, unlighted, coral airstrip at Saipan International. When approaching the island for the first time it loomed out of the sea like a mirage, a green protruding apparition surrounded by a vast expanse of blue sky and water. During the decent my thoughts returned to the strange turn of events that began one evening on the shores of North Africa and eventually culminated in my approaching an isolated island in the far reaches of the Pacific that I barely remembered from World War Two headlines.
Until 1944 the Micronesian islands, sprinkled like tiny jewels across a vast universe of water, were known as the Japanese Mandated Islands. After the war they were considered a strategic trust by the U. S. military and closed off.
A series of buildings were constructed on Capitol Hill around 1953 by the Central Intelligence Agency to house staff responsible for training certain Asian personnel in the black art of covert activities and guerrilla warfare. This activity was undertaken by the top secret U. S. Naval Tactical Training Unit, (NTTU). To this day, I have been unsuccessful in filling this “void” in the Northern Mariana’s history and, as a result of my research efforts, have been told to “stay out of it as it’s none of my business.” In 1962 the CIA closed the complex and it became the administrative center for managing the affairs of 2,100 islands of which 100 were inhabited and spread over three million square miles of the Pacific. I believe the NTTU’s departure was the result of a man that visited Saipan in search of a local person who may have remembered seeing, or hearing, of an American aviatrix rumored to have been picked up by the Japanese and brought to the island after her aborted attempt to fly around the world in 1937. In his search for information about Amelia Earhart the gentleman stumbled upon the Capitol Hill facility and later mentioned it in a book planned for publication which the authorities tried to censor failing to realize that Amelia Earhart’s husband was George Putnam of the famous Putnam Publishing Company. Curiously, when the book was published the secret base was abandoned. However, there is no proof of this.
The Northern Marianas was one of six districts throughout Micronesia administered from the headquarters of the Government of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands located on Saipan’s Capitol Hill. From that date the islands were administered for the United Nations by the U. S. Department of Interior. Those were the days when the Cold War was at its height and every two years various members of the United Nation’s Security Council would make inspection tours, always accompanied by a Russian member to evaluate the American Government’s stewardship of the area. I still recall meeting the Russian Ambassador to the U.N. when he visited Saipan and his account of the horrifying experiences during the German siege of Stalingrad. But, I’m getting ahead of the story.
I first became aware of the existence of the islands one evening in a village along the Mediterranean Sea as I sat on the balcony of a jasmine draped Arab villa savoring the beauty of a golden sunset as it bathed the 2,500 year old Roman ruins of Carthage, Tunisia, birth place of Hannibal. I was reading a 1967 edition of the New Yorker Magazine in which a story appeared about a cluster of islands called the Trust Territory. A place I had never heard of – and now I was about to experience one of them for the first time.
The plane flew low over the air strip and I was told that this maneuver was a safety measure since there was no control tower and a “fly by” was necessary to check the wind direction and scare away any stray dogs or cattle that might have wandered onto the weed infested landing path of World War Two’s Isley Field situated at the southern tip of Saipan, (now the Koblerville Road).
Disembarking from the aircraft I entered a small, dilapidated, sun bleached, corrugated tin structure without doors and without glass in open air windows. Dogs and cats wandered about freely with little concern for those arriving or departing as if waiting for all the temporary intruders to leave so they could resume their lazy slumber on the floor or upon one of several roughly hewn wooden benches. By the late summer of 1970 the islands were almost devoid of the amenities of the last quarter of the twentieth century – certainly the airport was.
Little did I know when I left the terminal that September morning that I would spend most of the next 27 years of my life on the island.
Renting an automobile for $2.50 a day I started driving on a pot-holed, coral road near Agingan Point and turned right and headed northbound on another road choked with coral dust which appeared to have remained unimproved since the U. S. military left several decades before. Weaving first to the right then to the left of the road to avoid the deep, water filled craters at a speed of about 20 miles a hour, I noticed that there were very few structures along the way, only weeds, uncut brush, thick vines and assorted tropical vegetation. Passing Townhouse market’s quonset hut, (now Payless), opposite Carmen’s Safeway Store and continuing north toward Susupe and the 56 room Royal Taga Hotel (where the Diamond now stands), very few vehicles were met on the road, maybe five rusted, second hand pickups. Here the island’s single stop sign was posted at the exit of the Taga Hotel. Passing Joeten’s Shopping Center I later learned that this store, facing Beach Road and shaded by a beautiful tree, (which has long since been destroyed to provide a single parking spot), was the social center of the island. It’s strange that I should remember that tree after all these years – but it was huge and magnificent. It was here also that one made overseas telephone calls from an RCA booth. In those days long distance calls could not be made from one’s residence.
From that point, past the Marianas District Administrator's Office, (where the Judicial Center is now located), not more than five or six ramshacked structures lined Beach Road between the island government offices and the Microl intersection. Continuing toward Garapan – even fewer buildings were in evidence on either side until reaching the Hafa Adai Hotel, the island’s only other hotel which consisted of ten plywood bungalows each slightly larger than a shipping container and the hotel’s small Japanese restaurant. Facing the Hafa Adi on the other side of the road was the future location of M.S. Villagomez store which, years later, would be the location of the beautiful DFS building.
I distinctly remember one event concerning planned travel to Guam to see the newly released film, “The Godfather”, which had been advertised in the Guam Daily News many days in advance.
In those days to view a movie on Guam one had to purchase an airline ticket, rent a car, stay overnight in the Cliff Hotel and eat in a restaurant – all to see a $2 film. I made reservations on Air Mike several weeks in advance to reserve seats and then followed up every few days to reconfirm my reservations on the 84 seat aircraft. Each time I called I was assured that I had indeed, airline seats reserved in my name.
When the day arrived after anxiously waiting several weeks to depart, I went to the air field where, much to my surprise, there must have been 400 people all claiming to have seats reserved on that particular flight to Guam. I approached my friend who was the airline’s station manager as was told that I “couldn’t board as all the seats had been sold.” In complete astonishment I said, “but you told me several times over the past few weeks that I had confirmed reservations!” He said, “Bill, I knew the day you first called that you couldn’t go because the plane was full – but think – I made you so very happy when you thought you were going.”
That’s one reason I have always liked the islands – they make many days of happiness – but few of disappointment. In those early days before there was a tourism industry there were no recreational craft in the lagoon save one, a glass bottom boat operated by Tetsuo, a Palauan. Middle Road was even less developed, another pot holed, two lane, dusty road with hardly a business on either side and even fewer vehicles to encounter. The maximum speed possible was about 20 – 25 mph. At that time the Fire Department had a single red jeep with a garden hose. In recalling those days long ago, I distinctly remember that I never saw people riding bicycles or jogging, saw very few birds, never saw lightening or heard thunder. Why this remains in my memory – I don’t know. To even think of a tourism based economy in 1970 was an unimaginable dream since the Japanese could only convert yen to its equivalent of $743. A round trip ticket to Guam purchased at the Pan American Airline office, or from Continental Air Micronesia, was $28.
Those were the days when there was only one flight a day and one cargo ship a month. The population of Saipan, Tinian and Rota combined was 12,256 including the employees of the Trust Territory Government, the islands’ major employer. The purchasing power of the dollar at the time would be equal to a little less that 20 cents today, (1998). The 2,376 registered vehicle owners, including those of the Trust Territory and district governments, purchased gasoline for 38 cents a gallon; rice was 13 cents per pound; sugar 12 cents and a can of corned beef sold for 75 cents. There were 55 businesses in the Northern Marianas employing 673 people. The total annual government revenue was only $433,334 and the islands’ exports amounted to a measly $254,635. There was no private sector economy worth mentioning, no tourism, no garment factories, only government jobs for the most part. Watergate had not yet consumed America and it was the year four students were killed at Kent State University. Personal computers, fax machines and the internet were unheard of and slide rules were still widely used. Walter Cronkite’s CBS News was ten days late in reaching Saipan. The world could have ended and we wouldn’t have known it for more than a week from the black and white telecasts originating from WSZE TV, the small television station on Navy Hill that glowed to life about 6 P.M. and went off the air around midnight or earlier to the sound of the National Anthem.
Mail from the U. S. east coast took 10 or 12 days – some things never change. Doctor Torres hospital was located where the college is today. Capitol Hill Housing built by the CIA was the best on the island. The single Duty Free Store was housed in the Royal Taga Hotel and was no larger than a row of telephone booths, ten people in the shop made a crowd. The number of island restaurants could be counted on one hand. I recall running the island’s single stop sign and was ticketed by the police after being read my rights. Appearing in court the next day the judge asked for my plea, “Guilty – your honor”, I replied. At the sound of a gavel, he said, “I fine you $3.” Then the judge leaned over the bench and asked in a very compassionate and soft whisper, “Do you have $3?” I am certain that if I had replied, “No, sir, I only have $2”, the fine would have been reduced to that amount. There was very little money available on Saipan at the time. Nor was there much crime in those days, usually only rocks being reported thrown at someone’s tin roof. One had to be very careful exploring caves and “boonies” and walking along the beach, as unexploded hand grenades, cartridges and live ordnance of all type was littered about. Several people were killed when their souvenir hunting curiosity got the better of them. It is still dangerous to handle such finds. I still get a little nervous when I pass a ditch digging machine along the road thinking it will “chew” into an unexploded 16 inch naval shell and blow me to glory. At the time one could walk along the beach and find bone fragments of some fallen soldier and, when snorkeling, observe the floor of the lagoon littered with the weapons of war. Japanese “bone collectors” returned frequently to recover the pitiful remains of their fallen comrades for cremation ceremonies at Marpi and honorable burial rites at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. The islands have had to overcome some tremendous obstacles in their quest for economic growth. They had a small population and thus a small domestic market fragmented over three inhabited islands. There were no known natural resources in the traditional sense other than those of the sea. They were, and still are, located far from major sources of supply and foreign markets. Both raw materials and exported products, (of which there were none) were subject to high freight rates. Jet aircraft was not that frequent a visitor and thus had not become a major contributing factor in disjointing one’s concept of time and space in the Pacific cosmos.
In those days the air was filled with invisible air waves transmitting teletype, telex, television and radio signals from every corner of the world – but the messages they carried were largely unheard by many of us. People just didn’t seem too interested in the affairs of the world beyond their own center of the universe on Saipan. At that time I thought about a particular affliction that seemed to effect some people distorting their perception of reality. The never-ending cycle of the ebb and flow of the tide, always present, never changing in its eternal wash, hour by hour, day after day, month after month can make one feel one is also ageless. Some of the islanders I have met seem to live mostly in the present. I have not noticed that they dwell on the past or even discuss it at length. Maybe that’s what happens when you inhabit a place that has twelve months of July with the only monotony of the climate broken by raging typhoons that scare the devil out of you. Thinking back, someone once observed that the Spanish brought Christianity to the islands, the Germans commerce, the Japanese a sense of discipline and the Americans dollars, commercialism and a the concept of democratic government. My own version of the historical account is: “the Spanish discovered the islands for the west and sold them to the Germans. The Japanese took them from the Germans. The Americans took them from the Japanese and gave them back to the local people who leased them back to the Japanese.” Shortly after my arrival on Saipan I recall thinking it curious that some elderly Chamorros and others throughout the former Japanese Mandated Islands looked back on the Japanese period with nostalgia. This was somewhat surprising. It may have been related to the desire for formality found in Japanese relationships and the discipline instilled by Japanese society and its sensitivities, both markedly different from the casualness, informality and briskness of the west.
I learned the Pacific is the ocean where east meets west — ancient civilizations with cultural and ancestral stability and with reverence for the past are juxtaposed with the restlessness of the west and its obsession with the future. Perhaps also, it could be that individual opportunities were limited in those distant days there-by simplifying life's choices. Then too, it may be a misplaced perception or remembrance and longing for a bygone time, now remote and as irrecoverable as one's youth. Whatever it was, it still existed in the hearts and minds of many islanders long after the Japanese society was washed away on the waves of time. Tennyson may have been right when he wrote, "There is no time like the old time, when you and I were young." And now it has happen to me as my thoughts return to the old days of the Trust Territory. Today the Marianas archipelago, situated in a universe of water, are the farthest stars out in the American galaxy, a political affiliation few could have foreseen.
I will be forever grateful for the opportunities that came unexpectedly my way and for the wonderful friendships I have been fortunate enough to have made on Saipan. I really did nothing to deserve them. My life on Saipan has been an adventure that I wouldn't have missed for anything in the world.
Bill Stewart, Saipan – May 2, 1998
Copyright 1995, ‘96, ‘97 & ‘98 By Economic Service Counsel P. O. Box 5201, Saipan, MP 96950
Web page: http://www.cnmi-guide.com/phm/