Saturday, April 26, 2008

Going Home to Vella

Going Home to Vella [Saltwater Dreaming series], 500 x 500mm, oil on canvas board, 2007. Vella laVella, Western Province, Solomon Islands.

In 1942, RAF Sergeant Eric Marsden was 22 , had served on fighter stations during the Battle of Britain and then been trained in the production of breathable oxygen, then in the very early stages of development. Today oxygen comes in bottles or you might have a small machine humming away in a corner producung oxygen. In 1942 the back of a 3 ton Bedford truck and a huge Crossley trailer held the machinery necessary to produce the oxygen needed by pilots at altitude. Fighters carried a small bottle giving just 6 minutes of oxygen, so they could not stay at altitude for too long.
The Air Ministry sent 3 of these plants and Eric Marsden on the Dominion Monarch heading for Singapore. Singapore fell. The ship carried hundreds of troops and also several large battle tanks which had been intended for Singapore- now in the hands of Japan. They tried to unload them in Cape Town, but bent the crane. So on they sailed to Bombay and eventually Sydney. From there Eric was posted to Hamilton in North Island, New Zealand. For a lad from a farm in Derbyshire, it was paradise. He trained a team of Kiwis and set up the three oxygen plants- switching off one on a test run after a cable from the Air Ministry in England warning of sabotage. Stripped it down and found that it had been sabotaged and would have flattened a good chunk of Hamilton in a few more minutes. An American Lt. Cmdr. from Admiral Nimitz' staff came down from Auckland and asked Eric if his oxygen plants could be transported by sea and set up 'in the islands'? Rather bemused and wondering which islands, he said yes, of course. Orders were then cut and Eric, his squad and two plants were loaded onto a liberty ship and sailed to Numea in New Caledonia and then to Guadalcanal where the recently landed 'Cactus Airforce' were holding Henderson Field. He was told he would be going to 'Acorn 10 Pyre 66' which did not mean a great deal. The US Navy was at this time 'island hopping' through the Solomon Islands to roll up the Japanese threat. After taking Guadalcanal and New Geogia next was Vella laVella which would be a staging post for the attack on Rabaul in New Guinea. Eric was told that there was a problem with oxygen for the fighters. Planes were falling out of the sky and no one knew why. The American oxygen plant- an all singing all dancing chrome wonder, was being stripped and rebuilt by the ceebees, but they could not solve the problem. All the oxygen for that theatre of war would henceforth be made by the RAF plants at Acorn 10. Aviation artists who paint Corsairs of the Flying Tigers and the Black Sheeps squadrons of this time put in the white duct tape used to block up all sorts of air intakes in an attempt to solve the problem. After a few weeks wait, the plants were loaded onto a barge and sent up The Slot to Acorn 10. Eric and the team flew up in a DC3 and landed on Barakoma Strip- Acorn 10, which is on the island of Vella laVella, about 490 km from Henderson Field. Eric drove the trucks ashore onto the cruched coral strip at Barakoma. The island had recently been taken by the US Marines and the New Zealand 3rd Division. The exec. Officer on the strip was Richard Nixon- who was a very good officer. At the top of the strip, under the mountain, the ceebees had blasted the mountain away- it shone white, and made an excellent target for Japanese planes, so the American troops all lived at the bottom of the strip, near the lagoon. Eric and his team set up the two oxygen plants and worked 24 hrs a day and 7 days a week for 6 months, producing oxygen. The exhaust from the plants purified water, so everyone brought their buckets of drinking water to be improved. During this period the Americans mounted a feint on the island of Choiseul- an armed raid, to divert attention from their next target which was the island of Bougainville. From Barakoma strip there is nothing to see but the beautiful island of Kolombangara. This area forms the background to many of James Mitcheners' stories, which became the movie, South Pacific. Japanese warships, the 'Tokyo Express' would race down to Kolomangara at flank speed, to recue Japanese troops stranded there by the American advance. One of the ships sliced John F Kennedy's boat in half- PT109. Eventually Eric solved the problem of the American pilots falling out of the sky- it was a handling problem, a vital piece of equipment had not been shipped, and tropical air was getting into the bottles. On the second or third fill, the bottle became toxic. American troops took Bougainville and then on to Iwo Jima and mainland Japan. When I was quite small, the movie South Pacific was released. My father sat muttering 'rubbish' and 'nothing like it'- they used Bora Bora for the opening shots, which is in French Polynesia, a long way away. But I never forgot the colour- was
the world really like this? I grew up in the north of England among coal mines and moors- no gorgeous colours there. As years passed, Vella was always quietly there in the background. As a family, we knew where the Solomon Islands were, which is not at all usual in England. My father's exposure to American troops had left him with a liking for America and a love of ice cream! He sailed across the Pacific to San Francisco, crossed America and then back to Liverpool on the Queen Mary. I asked him once if it didn't look utterly dreary after the South Pacific and he said that he always felt constricted in England after that.
When he was very old we would talk about his time on Vella and research it thanks to Google and he corresponded with the Black Sheep Squadron and others. One day last year I found myself in Tahiti and flew to Sydney and Brisbane and from there to Guadalcanal- landing at Henderson International Airport- refurbished by the Japanese government, but the old WW2 control tower still stands- there was a Kiwi solder on top of it that day. Guadalcanal has huge mountains- it seemed a harsh and rainy place. The Solomons capital, Honiara, is small and very basic. Rusty working ships were anchored in the roadstead, there is no harbour. A Solomon Islander told me that I could get a ferry up to the capital of the Western Province, Ghizo, so I booked a passage on the Pelikan and we left at 06h30 on a Sunday morning. The Pelikan is a flat bottomed jet boat for use on rivers and was going to do the 500 odd km across Iron Bottom Sound, through the Morovo Lagoon and past Rendova and Kolombangara to Ghizo in 10 hours. We caught the tail end of a cyclone, the sea was black and had very big holes in it, into which we fell with a crash. Stopping at various ports on the way, passengers came and went. Coming through the pass in the reef to Noro, the
captain took it too fast- we saw a huge breaking wave and the boat broached- Islanders said afterwards that they had picked out which coconut palm to swim to... but the boat righted itself. Off Kolombangara, in the dark, we stopped in mid ocean to drop some cargo into a canoe and we arrived at Ghizo in the dark. Gizo on the island of Ghizo, is tiny. The next morning I looked acoss 9 miles of open sea at Vella- and was not at all sure I wanted to get there in anything less than a large cruise ship! And there weren't any of those. As I wandered along the broken up main street, and islanders stopped me and said- you want to go to Vella? It seems he had heard me telling my father's story on the Pelikan. He said- I think Noel is in town. Which didn't mean an awful lot. But back at the hotel, in the upstairs bar- open to the air, carved pillars, leaf roof- I crashed a 'sea conditions' conversation to ask how to get safely to Vella, and met Noel, who lives on Vella and said that as soon as his wife was finished shopping, he would take me in his canoe.
Noel is a Kiwi who builds and repairs ships on Vella. His wife, Rosie, is a Solomon Islander and one of the nicest women on the planet. Kolombangara was looking as beautiful as ever as we crashed through the swell across the 9 miles to Vella. The mountain loomed bigger and I cried helplessly- I was coming home. It isn't home- I had never been there before, or even seen many pictures- but that mountain said I was coming home. Staying with Noel and Rosie [she keeps pigs in a WW2 foxhole and feeds them coconut meat] and talking to them and to people from Vella was amazing. There are no tourists, roads or telephones. I was asked why I was there? It was time to 'story story' as they say, and I would tell the story of my father and show them pictures of him and some copies of drawings he had made. People thought it was a very reasonable thing to do and would nod gravely. In the west people would hear my tale and then say- but why? Here it was quite a different response and they would then tell of their grandparents suffering and starvation when first the Japanese and then the Americans came. Early in the 70's the last Japanese hold-out
from WW2 surrendered himself on Vella, but the 3 soldiers still on Kolombangara let it be known that they were fine and didn't want to be found, thank you. Many New Zealanders and some Americans had returned- I was the only Brit- but there were only two RAF servicemen in the Solomons anyway.
One day I was given a canoe and driver and we went to Barakoma village and the headman, Ian Elubole, a sprightly old man in shorts with bare feet, nipped across the coral and into the surf and jumped into the canoe. I told my story. Yes, he said, he would take me to the airstrip, which is now overgrown- but the coral base is still sound. We landed and climbed up the coral to the 2000m strip. While some islanders looked at the picture of my father and discussed them I took out my camera- and the screen failed! It had been fine in Antarctica and all the way across the Pacific, and now it failed. My father had taken 2 rolls of film on Vella-and got not one picture.
So I sat on the grassy runway and drew and drew. Back across the lagoon at Liapari, Noel said- so the Vella Devil has broken your camera, hey? A few days later I thought that it was time to go. I had swum and swum in the lagoon and filled pages in my sketchbook and now time to move on. As I was saying my goodbyes I found myself face down in the coral. Thinking well, you are a clumsy oaf, sat up a bit- ouch, my wrist is really sore- and realised the ground was moving a great deal. It was an 8.4 earthquake. Followed by a tsunami. During the next 9 days I found out what it is like on the other side of the TV screen- behind the story. It's very quiet. Not a ship or plane or helicopter, nothing-
only empty canoes floating by. Rosie lost 3 relatives on another island and a child died on Vella.
It certainly makes you think! There was no point in trying to leave- the airport island off Ghizo was covered in tree trunks. So I was forced to stay in paradise and stare at Kolombangara.
The islanders were so wise. When we showed them a map and marked the epicentre, which was 34 nautical miles from us, they said that the grandfathers told of an island sinking in that place. At last I took the canoe back to Ghizo. Part way there the boatman stopped the canoe and reached into the sea. He handed me a Nautilus shell saying 'I think that you should show this to your father, she has come from Choiseul.' I managed to get this beautiful shell home intact and did show it to him He sent the boatman some fine rasps and a diamond hone to help him with the shell carving he does. In Ghizo the Solomons Police were loading their patrol boats and taking out supplies. The Aid Agencies were quarelling about who had which island and waving their clip boards and the devastation was terrible.
That was last April and my father died in September after we had had hours of 'story story' about Vella. He was so pleased to think that Ian Elubole had a picture of him in Barakoma village. I began painting and painted Vella obsessively. The aerial view of Vella, Ghizo and Kolombangara painted itself, it seemed. It made Dad cry
and he loved to look at it. After he died an e mail asked for some details so that a tribute could be read out in the church on Vella. More tears.
I cried when I saw Vella and cried when I left- my heart remains there- at home on

(more paintings to follow)


Chica said...

that's such a cool story. You do great work. :)

reader Wil said...

I read the story with much interest, because my father, who was an engineer on board of a Dutch merchant ship, was sailing during WWII under convoy together with a whole fleet of allied ships, among them British and American ships. He lost a great number of colleagues and friends. After the war he was not the same man we had known.
Thanks for showing the paintings!

Lana Gramlich said...

I love the small bay & the distant mountain. Very nice.

saltwaterdreaming said...

Thanks so much for visiting and looking and reading - much appreciated!!

And good to hear your story too, reader.

Robert Soule said...

On August 1943 I was involved in the invasion at Vella Lavella. I was in the US Navy and our base was ANB 338 at Biloa Mission. Jack Kennedy was at Lambu Lambu Cove after PT 109 was sunk. Your article brought back many a memorie. I enjoyed your paintings of Vella Lavella & Kolombangara. At the time Kolombangara had an estimated 10,000 Japanese soldiers.