South Pacific

The Navy Seabees tore into the wet jungle in an all out, gung-ho effort to complete the first of Santo’s coral- topped air strips. Soon, the island became the launch point for pushing the Japs back up The Slot of the Solomons—a natural funnel from Guadalcanal up between a chain of islands with names like Bagga, Ranongga, Gizo, Munda, Kolombanagara, Rendova, Vangunu, Gatukai and Vella Lavella—up to the big, brooding island of Bougainville and nearby Buka. This was the beginning of an island-hopping, counter attack strategy that was to roll inexorably upward through the islands of the Pacific toward the homeland of Japan.

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As we approached Espiritu Santo, the Kitkun Bay slid carefully past rocky outcrops along the treacherous, northern end of the island and on down the western edge—a land of unexplored jungle. At that time, planes that crashed into Santo’s green sea of thick, tropical jungle were never seen again. Minutes after the smoke cleared, a burnt plane was invisible.

The jungle contrasted starkly with the southern half of the island, which had become a bustling Marine Corps concentration. We disembarked by Higgins boat at Pallikula Bay.

Today, Espiritu Santo is probably best known as the island setting for James A. Michener’s Pulitzer-winning classic, Tales of the South Pacific. He was stationed on Espiritu Santo during the war.

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Within hours, Ox Wilson and I unexpectedly ran into three University of Oregon Ducks: Bob Ballard, Clyde Hollenbeck and Ralph Hartzell. They were pilots in VMTB-134, another TBF squadron. Both squadrons were billeted in Dallas huts, set in a stand of coconut trees on an abandoned plantation, less than a quarter mile from the air strip. A nearby double Quonset Hut served as our mess hall and another double Quonset Hut, located down along the edge of the palm-fringed beach, served as an overcrowded Officers’ Club. It was furnished with one large poker table and several chairs and benches, half- empty bookshelves, a few card tables and chairs and a busy full-length, stand-up bar serving Torpedo Juice and whatever beer was available. Torpedo Juice was the name South Pacific sailors and Marines gave early in the war to a lethal mix of high grain alcohol fuel stirred into canned grapefruit juice.

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