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Interview of Alfred Capelle

Life Story


Note: The interviewee is noted by initials, the interviewer by [Q].

Early Education, Post-war Life

[AC] First of all, I would like to thank our Heavenly Father for this conversation with you, Newton Lajuan, and Professor Ron Tanner, sharing about my life: the kinds of jobs I worked, schools I attended.

To begin with, I would like to start off about my birthplace. I was born on Jabwor, Jaluit in 1940, a little before the Second World War took place. I grew up on Jabwor and, by the time Pearl Harbor was under attack, a group of battleships came and conquered Jaluit atoll, bombing and all. We dispersed. Some died, but many [Marshallese] dispersed.

I still can recall who…The reason I can recall this is that I was told the story when I turned one, and as Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese. And, we fled to Jaluit, including my parents. We went to Jittok-En [an islet in Jaluit] and stayed there through the war. Afterwards, the American Navy came and picked us up and returned all of us to our home atolls. They took us and moved us to Likiep Atoll, but we stopped first on Kwajalein Atoll. While staying there, my father decided to work with the Navy crew as an engine monitor, monitoring the electricity generators. He worked on Kwajalein and then moved to Ruwot later.

Then we moved here, to Majuro, flying on one of the Navy’s planes called the BT---the kind of plane that lands both on land and on water. It was my first time in one of those planes, I was so surprised… We flew here and landed on the lagoon. The plane made its way ashore---to where the Nauru hotel is currently sitting [just across the parliament building].

We landed and they transported us to Rita, and we lived there with some people from Rita. My father also worked here with the Navy crew. After a while, we finally moved back to Likiep in, if I can clearly recall, 1946 or 1947. We went back to Likiep. At that time, the Jesuits just started to settle there. They helped build the Marshall Islands.

The Navy asked for volunteers among the Catholics to help them build the Marshall Islands, and the Jesuits responded. When they came, they built the first school, called the Holy Rosary School, there on Likiep atoll. Then they admitted children interested in studying from all over the Marshall Islands like Jaluit atoll, Ailinglaplap atoll, Namdrik atoll, Majuro, and Kwajalein atoll. Anyone interested could attend, the Jesuits accepted them, and built another school called the Boarding School for both boys and girls for lodging.

We returned to Likiep, and I attended the Holy Rosary School up to sixth grade in 1954 before going to Xavier High School. But before I moved to Xavier High School, I witnessed the Bravo [nuclear] Shot. While the boys and I were playing on the beach, the sky started to turn reddish. We gathered and thought the sun was rising in the west. And, it was very bright. I wondered why the sun wasn’t rising in the east rather than in the west. After all, it was the Bravo Shot -- tested by the American armed forces in 1954.

Nuclear Testing

As soon as it exploded, we could clearly see the sky turning red. Few seconds after the explosion came the sound. When it exploded, we thought it was doomsday. We ran for safety. We ran to our houses. When I arrived at my house, I found glass shards on the floor. The sound wave broke glasses and shook others loose so they fell to the ground. We did not know what caused it.

A few days later, a Navy ship arrived. There were lots of American soldiers on board who came ashore carrying guns and rifles. Along with them was a Marshallese guy. His name was Lahn. I think he was the translator. We were surprised when we saw the ship; we thought another war had begun, but we were wrong. The Navy official came to monitor the radiation level there on Likiep, so we all walked to the beach to welcome them.

While standing on the beach, some of the Navy walked around the crowd holding something on their hands---I did not know what it was because I was 14 years old in 1954. They brought with them this thing and scanned everyone. We could hear the thing picking up sound wave frequency as it went off like “Kkkkk…kkkk”. They gave us the name of the thing, and it was called “Geiger counter”---it is a kind of an instrument that measures radiation.

On its gauge, the reading hand hit the other [red] end of the measuring line seen through the glass as the officers scanned the crowd. Today, when I think about it, it makes me feel weak picturing the little reading hand on the instrument touching the other end. And so, the Navy officers walked back-and-forth, here-and-there in the crowd then on the ground, too. They kept scanning and scanning everywhere and everyone, but they told us nothing except that it was a radiation-measuring tool.

Days later, another ship arrived. This time, there were doctors.

The Bravo Shot made me think. It made us feel scared and afraid. When I think about it, I think it would’ve been better if we had been informed in advance-- at least a line saying, “Please be informed that there will be a nuclear test...” and so forth…You see, light travels faster than sound, right? The light goes off and seconds later the sound follows, “Ka-boom!” We were very afraid when it exploded. Well, I witnessed it.

Later in 1954, Father Allan asked my parents if they wanted me to attend Xavier High School, and, my parents said it was a good idea. At that time, Xavier High School was a minor seminary. It was put on trial to see if it could attract anyone interested in learning to become priests or sisters, and so forth. And so, I went to Chuuk later 1954 and stayed there until I returned the following year ---you see, there were no air planes; rather, we went by ship. So I had to travel on boat from Likiep to Majuro then to Chuuk and back. When I arrived here, on Majuro, I lived temporarily with Father Hacker. He made sure we had housing, I and my two other relatives, To and Michael. We were the only three from the Marshall Islands to go to XHS in 1954. After living with Father Hacker for a few days, he found me a host family among the members of the Parish, and I went to live with my host family. My host parents were Tomaki and Lynn. I lived with them just as I lived with my parents. I cleaned outside the house and cleaned their property at Rairok.

Then time came for us to leave for Chuuk. I hopped on one of the government’s boats called the “Cariñidad” and “Sea-Guards.” We made our first stop at Ebeye, loading and unloading. We stayed there for a day. Then we set sail to Kosrae non-stop and did the same. Finally, we reached Pohnpei. The boat crew unloaded everything. We drove from the port to the male dormitory, and lived there with the brother named Bobo. Brother Bobo had very strict rules was very serious. He was from Spain. From there, we moved to Xavier.

The trip required two weeks. When vacation came, we returned to Likiep by the same route. When I arrived on Likiep, I went to start collecting coconuts for tuition fees. The vacation was over, I hopped on the same boats, the “Cariñidad” and the “Sea Guards” and traveled on to Chuuk. We lived on deck of the boats because there was no cabin. Plus, the captain had strict rules. We were told to stay put. The captain probably worked for the US Navy and was very strict. And so, we traveled back-and-forth between Chuuk and Marshall Islands for four years: 1954, ’55, ’56, ’57, and ’58. I graduated from Xavier in 1958 and returned here.

Early Work

I returned and worked for the administration, the district administration called the “Maynard Neice.” I worked with Kinja…No not Kinja but Charles Andrike who was the finance officer at that time and had an assistant named Tan Akimoto, a Hawaiian along with Abimelik. They worked in the Payroll department. So, I joined them as their clerk. At that time, we were paid 20 cents per hour -- 20 cents. And so, when it came time to distribute payments, including each atoll’s health assistants and elementary teachers, I went with them.

[Q] Cash or check?

[AC] Cash. There were no checks at that time…Abimelik’s job was to ensure all payments were exact. If an employee earned 10 dollars, he would make sure each received the exact amount, no more no less. He  mastered the job.

Then the Trust Territory announced it was giving scholarships for any interested applicants going for higher education. So I applied for the scholarship and took the test along with Atlan, Titus, and Carl Heine, and passed the test. They awarded me a scholarship, and I went to the College of Guam. At that time, it was a two-year college. I started, but did not finish it, rather I decided to join the Army with Kunar. We had the same thought trying the Army, gaining further experience and all. We registered in the selective service there on Guam and were accepted. We underwent our physical exams then were sent to Hawaii for basic training there at the Scofield Army base, and we were placed in that division.

Later, our division deployed to Thailand for almost three months…we served there for three months, returned to Hawaii and back to the Marshalls. We returned here, and I was referred to the Kwajalein base to work for the company called Global. Then I returned to Likiep. When I returned, I became the mayor for Likiep for two years. At that time, I had a family. I was married to Mwejo who I first met while serving on Ebeye, Kwajalein. I took her with me to Likiep, and we started a family there.

In 1966, we moved to Likiep; and in 1969, we decided to move to Ebon. There, I started teaching. I worked in the elementary school on main island, Ebon, Ebon. At that time, Amram was the principal: Amram Alik. I asked him if he needed teachers, I was happy to help out. He said, “Yes. I do. Come.” So I joined the rest of the faculty in 1969. I taught for a year.

In the following year, 1970, I came to Majuro to work as a language trainer, training the Peace Corps volunteers Kajin Majol [the Marshallese language]. Also, I took some training courses for teaching, namely ESL and TESOL. Then I returned to Likiep and taught there. Then summer vacation came, then the regular school year, and finally the next summer. That summer, there was a search for a volunteer who was willing to go to Hawaii to work with Dr. Bender, who was finishing up on the Marshallese-English dictionary. They asked me and I said, “Yes.”

So they sent me away to Hawaii. I was away, but on administrative leave. Then I decided to take some linguistics courses there at UH-Manoa and applied for another Trust Territory scholarship, in 1976. In 1976, I graduated with my BA and decided to continue for my graduate studies to get my MA. As I graduated, the Marshallese-English Dictionary was published. I returned here to work for the RMI-Government under the Department of Education.

Then I moved to Alele and worked there for Jerry Knight for several years. Next, I moved to Assumption schools and worked there teaching. After teaching at Assumption schools, I applied for a teaching position at our local college, the College of the Marshall Islands. At that time, the college needed a president. So I applied for the presidential position and worked up to 2002. After 2002, I resigned and was assigned to represent the RMI to the United Nations from 2002 to 2007. I returned here, applied for a job that fitted my field, and am now working at our Customary Law entity as the commissioner.

[Q] You mentioned Guam. At that time, air transportation was available, so you were not required to go by boat.

[AC] Well when I went to Guam, I went there in an airplane owned by the government (Trust Territory).
[Q] Owned by government?

[AC] They called those planes, the SS-16.

[Q] There was plane that often stopped here. It has a black dot…

[AC] Exactly...It flew from here (RMI) and stopped at Pohnpei, landing on the water. The SS-16s were designed to land both on land and water. From Pohnpei, it flew to Chuuk. Though Chuuk had a landing field. From Chuuk, we flew straight to Guam.

[Q] Along with Kunar, right?

[AC] Actually, it was only me. I flew to Guam myself because…

[Q] How did you guys meet?

[AC] We met there on Guam. Kunar and other Marshallese students like Atjang, Kinja, and others came after I got there.

[Q] There you guys decided to…

[AC] Exactly. That’s where we decided to join the army, taking the test to see how well we did.

[Q] And the rest of the Marshallese students?

[AC] They did not.  They did not agree.

[Q] So you guys were placed in the…?

[AC] We were very lucky because we were there for a very short time when the war broke out between the Laos communists and the Thailand government. We were deployed there, ready and waiting. Our division was prepared, but the communists did not attack. No one…

We were there patrolling the villages. Anyway, as I said, we were very lucky because right after our division returned to Hawaii, the war broke out in Vietnam. We could’ve been…If we had stayed longer there, we would have died in the war. When we arrived in Hawaii, another division was deployed. When that division arrived in Thailand, all of the US soldiers were almost wiped out. There were lots of deaths. I visited the graveyard in Honolulu, I saw some of my friends there. I felt very sad when I saw their names. When I think about it, I whisper to myself, “If I had been part of the war, I would’ve died with the rest.” It was a miracle for me.

[Q] It sounds like your division included front-liners…

[AC] They select the division you best fit.

[Q] Select?

[AC] They place you anywhere they see fit. You have no choice at that time because there was a great need for infantry officers on the front line.

[Q] Then you returned and?

[AC] One of the benefits was that I received medical attention. When I arrived in Hawaii, I visited Tripler for veterans. They checked us.

[Q] You stayed in…

[AC] When I enrolled in UH-Manoa and worked on the dictionary, they paid me. They awarded me a scholarship under the GI Field Scholarship program. I was fortunate because I received three different checks: one from the GI Field scholarship program, another award from the Trust Territory scholarship program, and lastly my administrative leave hours. So, I was able to take my family with me. At that period, there were several Marshallese students, too. I saw Nidel (Lorak) and Litokwa (Tomeing)…while I was there.

[Q] I remember flying to the States with my parents, and my father said…And I still can recall…

[AC] In which state did you reside?

[Q] I was young, I was a student. We stayed in Costa Mesa, California. We had not moved to…

Work on the Marshallese Dictionary

[AC] I was really interested in working on the project with [Dr.] Bender. I felt there was a need to really understand its significance while I was there from 1971 to 1976. I remembered a trip I took to Kwajalein to conduct an interview with the elderly Marshallese there, like Eowidrik, Laikidik among others. During that trip, I was able to tape Laikidrik, one of my interviewees, who was able to share in detail the story of Lainjin’s ikid [This term describes the gentler tides which occur during the waxing and waning of the moon].

The story was titled Ikid En An Lainjin. I was very blessed to have his voice taped, transcribed, and then translated. Today, I am unsure if it’s available. Though I remembered submitting the article to be included in the Micronesian Reporter. I wrote the story and submitted it to the Editor, Bonivard Casikio.

[Q] Indeed. He was the editor…

[AC] Xavier…The news editor graduated from Xavier High School.

[Q] Yes, yes. I thought there weren’t many students…

[AC] There were many.

[Q] And you were among the first Marshallese there?

[AC] Indeed. We three were the only Marshallese.

[Q] I heard there was only one school building…?

[AC] Yes. There was one building, but it included the chapel, dormitories, the dining room, teacher’s lodgings, and classrooms. At that time, there weren’t as many students as today. We numbered a hundred something. There were four students from Palau, who graduated there along with students from Pohnpei and other Micronesian countries. We were friends. Anything else?

[Q] Yes. This will be the very last question, but before I ask, I would like to thank you for sharing with us…

[AC] Great. I believe the Marshallese language is…

[Q] Exactly. You mentioned that the language is your field of interest. I decided to participate in this project because I begin to feel the need to safeguard the Marshallese language and customary practices, and I want to help out in this project. What do you think about this project? Is it one way to bring back the elderly Marshallese voices to life, like yours in the future? What is best way for this project to become an NGO and separate from our local college, CMI?

Do you think it will be easier if this program detaches itself from CMI in order to avoid misconceptions, etc.? As we know, CMI has more goals in the academic discipline and thus its goals vary from this program. What is the best way to easily make this become reality and continue into the future?

[AC] Thank you. I think the project is an excellent idea, and I think if it continues to attract and recruit as many CMI students as possible, the cultural knowledge can be safeguarded. The more youths it can recruit, the more they begin to realize its significance in the forthcoming generations. They can pass on the knowledge. However, there must be a binding agreement between the NGO, CMI, and the RMI-Government as they all strive to help preserve the language and culture.

[Q] This is the very, very last question. Do you think there is still enough time?

[AC] Indeed. Yes. There is plenty of time. We must not discard our traditions, culture, and language because it is us. These are pieces of our culture handed to us from our forefathers that tell who we are.

[Q] I think I know where I can find your office…

[AC] Yes. You know where you can find my office…

[Q] …in order to collect further advice and information…

[AC] We must not forget our customary practices. These are gifts given to us from our forefathers.

[Q] That is true…

[AC] They tell who we are.