By the time I joined the Marine Corps the day before my 18th birthday in December 1942, I had read the books of Nordhoff and Hall, Joseph Conrad, Herman Melville and W. Somerset Maugham. After Marine boot camp and a month’s training as a bugler, I embarked in April 1943 for Samoa, and I could not believe my good fortune, assigned to the area I most wanted to visit in all the world. I joined the 7 Defense Battalion, the first fleet Marine Force to operate in the Pacific, arriving in American
Samoa on March 15, 1941. On January 11, 1942, a small Japanese ship believed to be a submarine, shelled the Naval Station in Tutuila, American Samoa. On March 28, 1942, the 7th Defense Battalion sailed for Uopolu, British Samoa. From the time I joined the 7th in late April 1943 until we left September 1943, we had no more contract with the
The two Samoas, American Samoa and Samoa (formerly British Samoa, then Western Samoa), lie on a line between Hawaii and New Zealand, about 4, 000 sea miles from California. In the 19th century, the U.S., Great Britain and Germany coveted Samoa. The Tripartite Treaty of 1899 awarded Germany the two larger islands, Upolu and Savai’ I (now Samoa), and the United States received Tutuila, 76 square miles, with an excellent harbor.
After World War II, a League of Nations mandate gave ownership of Germany’s Samoan islands to New Zealand, and it became known as British Samoa. In 1962, it gained its independence, the first Polynesian nation in the 20th century to regain its sovereignty. It took the name Western Samoa, later changed to just Samoa. It lies about 80 miles northwest of American Samoa.
Samoa was named for the sacred (sa) chickens (moa) of Lu, son of Tagaloa, the god of creation. The island of Savai’I was Hawaiki, legendary Polynesian homeland where the Samoans originated. Although some anthropologists question whether any pure Polynesians still exist, the 225, 000 Samoans supposedly come closest. Samoa’s Polynesian population is the world’s second largest; first is the Maoris of New Zealand.
Samoa includes four inhabited and five uninhabited volcanic islands, with Upolu the most developed and Savai’ I the largest. Samoa’s capital, Apia, though 35, 000 inhabitants, is actually a cluster of villages, but boasting a harbor and waterfront lined with churches, trading companies and a colorful and active market. Unlike the U.S. and Europe, 80% of the land is owned communally by family groups and cannot be sold.
Nick, three months older than I, explained he had been an 18-year-old kid when he worked as an ammunition-cleaner on the 75mm guns of Dog Battery of the 7th Defense Battalion. Nick thought he remembered the 7th’s most famous alumnus, a young second lieutenant in Dog Battery, George P. Shultz, later President Reagan’s secretary of State.
The first European to step onto Samoa was that Dutchman, Jacob Rogeveen, in 1722, on his same voyage to Easter Island. He was followed by other explorers and whaling ships, and in 1830 by missionary John Williams who converted the Samoans to Christianity, which today dominates their lives. Samoa’s most celebrated resident was the Scottish writer, Robert Louis Stevenson, who retreated to Samoa for his health in 1869. The famous author of Treasure Island earned the love of Samoans when he visited their chiefs, who were imprisoned by the Germans in the 1890s. When Stevenson died on 3 December 1894, of a brain hemorrhage, his American wife, Fanny, at his side, grief-stricken Samoans bore his body up the steep flanks of Mount Vaea, and buried him a the summit, 1148 feet high, so that he could forever look over his beloved adopted country.
Beauty and serenity aside, Samoa is listed by the United Nations as one of the world’s least developed nations. Its dependence on agriculture and fishing, at subsistence levels, is occasionally disrupted by cyclones and diseases. Attempts are being made to diversify the economy, but unemployment is high, and much-needed remittances from Samoans abroad are declining. Principal exports are coconuts and cocoa, with lumbering and light industry expanding. Tourism is developing, but Hawaii and Tahiti are scrambling after the same travel dollar. Trade and financial aid come primarily from New Zealand to Australia. An elected assembly, a strong prime minister, ceremonial head of state, member of a prominent Samoan chiefly family, all struggle to find solutions to these economic problems. And as with so many fledgling Pacific nations, the hill is indeed a
high one, and the small steps toward the summit seem backward as often as forward.
Samoa will always occupy a unique place in my heart. On 19 July 1943, I received an unexpected letter from my sister, Eleanor. In it, she wrote that our father had suffered a heart attack on the 4th of July and another during the night and was dead by the morning of the 5th. I crumpled on my cot, tears streaming down my face. The next day, Gunny Sgt. Driskill gave me leave to go into Apia to have a picture made to send to my mother in Forth Worth. Afterwards, I wandered over the waterfront and sat on a hard bench, brooding and staring out at the
harbor. Forty years to the day later, 5 July 1953, I sat again at one of those picnic tables, looking at the placid harbor water, and thinking about all the events that had passed during those four decades. But even time has no solace for the bereavement of a child for the loss of a parent.