In the Jungle with George
With the passage of time, historians are able to analyze past events and present them in the light of facts that might have been unknown to the people who were present. In that sense, historians add layers of texture to the events on which they report and place historical moments in the broader context of time and place. At the same time, historians generally do not have any direct experience the historical events that they relate. When an actor in history, no matter how small his or her role, chooses to become a historian and to write about his or her part, the end result can be wonderfully compelling.
Often, the memoirs and studies of the people who participate in history will become the direct sources on which later historians build new histories. As later historians refine and expand on such earlier works, however, the memoirs and studies of those earlier writers often are forgotten or become mere footnotes to the story.
That is a damned shame.
Those earlier works deserve to be more than footnotes because they really are the words of the men and women who experienced what we now think of as history. Fortunately, this week I was able to rediscover two excellent explorations of aspects of World War II that were written by the men who experienced them and published their accounts while the war was still being fought.
Robinson Crusoe USN, written by George R. Tweed and first published in 1945, is the almost unbelievable story of Tweed’s escape into Guam’s wilderness as the Japanese were overrunning the island on December 8, 1941. Tweed survived for thirty-one months before he was finally rescued, only eleven days before the island was invaded and eventually recaptured by the forces of the United States. In describing how he survived and what he endured, Tweed offers both a remarkable personal story of the human determination to survive and a thoroughly entertaining tale of life on the run.
Tweed , a radioman, was a gifted technician with a creative mind. His ingenuity allowed him to be the “MacGyver” of Guam. Although he largely lived off the land, he did have a small group of Chamorro friends who helped to keep him hidden and well fed. Even with assistance, however, there were few creature comforts available on the island, but that did not stop Tweed from finding ways to make his own furniture, clothing, and shoes and even to rig up an electric light, publish an underground newspaper and repair a radio. His unrelenting desire to improve his condition—to do more than survive—is testament not only to his own tenacity but to the spirit that drove so many people to resist Axis oppression during the Second World War.
Tweed’s ability to survive is played out against a constant theme of self-assessment and the very real personal inquiry into whether he should survive. Japanese reprisals against his friends grow ever more brutal as Tweed eludes capture month after month. It is not surprising that Tweed’s humanity might cause him to question whether it was right for him to endanger so many people so that he might survive, even though it was well known that the Japanese would behead him if he were caught, just as they had executed the other five Americans who had fled into the bush on December 8.
In a memorable passage, Tweed explains why he decided to remain on the run. Speaking with a local school teacher, Tweed realizes that he is much more than one man resisting the Japanese. He represents the hope for the future of Guam.
“I can’t stand to think what others have to go through to keep me alive,” I said.
“I know,” she went on, “but you have much more to fight for than your own existence. The people of Guam feel that as long as you hold out the Americans will come back. If you surrender, they will believe that you have lost your faith and think the Japs have won. They will give up hope.”
Mrs. Johnston’s words made a deep impression. Without them I would have surrendered, sooner or later, even though it meant my execution. I couldn’t have let my friends go on being tortured for my sake. Mrs. Johnston had put my struggle for life in an entirely new light. Now I saw myself as part of a cause much bigger than myself. Then and there I resolved never to betray the confidence that the people of Guam had in America.
There are many stories of men and women who did great and inspiring things in the face of combat or while enduring captivity during the Second World War. Tweed’s story may be unique because his is a story of the bravery that it takes to survive, alone and with little hope of rescue, when the enemy might be just around every corner. Tweed recognized that he was a symbol of salvation for the 24,000 Chamorros who lived on Guam. MacArthur might have promised to return to the Philippines, but Tweed never left Guam.
While Robinson Crusoe USN tells the story of one man’s struggle to survive on an island in the Pacific, Herbert Laing Merillat’s The Island: A History of the First Marine Division on Guadalcanal, first published in 1944, tells the story of the struggle of a great many men to survive on a different island in the Pacific. The First Marine Division fought on Guadalcanal for four brutal months in late 1942. Landing in August, the first Marines would not leave Guadalcanal until December, a few weeks after the crushing defeat of the Japanese in mid-November. Merillat, who published a second book on Guadalcanal in 1982, Guadalcanal Remembered, and who died only two months ago, was an officer who fought with the First Marines during the entire four month campaign. He offers a thorough historical analysis of the events of August 7 through December 9, 1942, and infuses it not with personal experience but with the palpable sense of shared experience that he felt towards all of the other soldiers, sailors and marines who ever fought at the Canal.
Although many individual servicemen are mentioned in The Island, the reader cannot help but sense that for Merillat, the story that played out at Guadalcanal was a collective story. What happened to one man happened to them all. Individual acts of bravery were both conspicuous and frequent, and Merillat does pay tribute to many of those selfless men, but the experience of every man in the First Marines was remarkable and, in Merillat’s portrayal, noteworthy. That sense of common cause and common experience becomes all the more apparent when Merillat describes the experience of the First Marines by giving them a common personality—he calls them “George”—and shares what might have been a common experience for every enlisted man on the island in the days after their successful landing.
Few Marines realized the seriousness of our situation in the early days on Tulagi and Guadalcanal. The average Marine—we can call him George—going about his daily business of digging emplacements and foxholes and moving supplies from the beach, could not guess what a severe trial lay ahead of him. He knew that a major part of his mission, to wrest the airfield on Guadalcanal from the enemy, had been accomplished. He knew that there were very few Japanese troops on the island. The little enemy detachments were a nuisance, of course, and it would be a tiresome job to hunt them down, but George had no doubt that it could be done quickly. He had seen the beaches crowded with mountains of supplies. He worked hard for days carrying them to unit areas. But he could not know that these stacks of stores which looked so impressive were but a small fraction of the supplies that his commanders had expected to land.
In writing about “George” and about the experience of the many Georges on Guadalcanal, Merillat speaks as one of them. When a historian writes about a subject, he cannot credibly speak in terms of “we” and “our,” but Merillat could, and that intimacy makes his telling of the story that much more gripping.
Both Robinson Crusoe USN and The Island: A History of the First Marine Division on Guadalcanal are part of Westholme Publishing’s America Reads series (“Rediscovering Fiction and Nonfiction from Key Periods in American History”) and both are books that any serious student of the war in the Pacific will want to have on his or her book shelf. History, it turns out, it sometimes best heard from the people who were there.
Books mentioned in this column:
David Mitchell spent most of his youth arguing with his elementary school librarian about the merits of Enid Blyton’s works and why it was a crime that Blyton was not represented in the school library. He lost that argument, but that did not stop him from trying to read his way through the school library anyway. Over the years, he has immersed himself in the classics, science fiction and fantasy, history, biography, philosophy, popular religion, cooking, folklore, sports and just about every other genre that can be imagined. Between books, he received a degree in history from Boston College and a law degree from Boston College Law School. In addition to practicing law, he has worked as an interpreter of the history of historic houses in Salem, Massachusetts, and participated in the archaeological survey of Boston Common. David currently has his own law practice. He is also a contributing writer at SavingAdvice.com where he finds connections between frugal living and almost every aspect of life, and a contributor to Renaissance magazine and Book Page. He lives in Florida with his wonderful wife, two sons and a labradoodle named Biscuit. Contact David.