Interview of Calvin Jormelu,
interviewd by Newton Lajuan, March 2008
translated by Newton Lajuan
C: My name is Calvin Jormelu and I am from the islands of Majuro, Wojtje, and also Ebon.
N: If I understand correctly, you would like to share your experiences as a child during World War II.
C: Yes, my story is about the Second World War. It was the year, 1945 and I was about eight years old and, although I cannot recall all that occurred, I will share things that remain vivid even today. I was on the island of Wotje and it was Christmas Day, December 25, and we were just about to begin church services when suddenly, we heard the sound of many airplanes. I cannot recall if it was a Sunday or Monday. I just remember it was Christmas Day. When we heard the sound of the airplanes, we younger children ran outside and looked up into the skies, which seemed to be filled with planes.
The planes were flying southeast towards Wotje, Wotje. We were on the island of Wormej. Wormej during those days was what Majuro is today: the capital of Wotje and this was where the main population resided. In addition, people from the neighboring islands came to Wormej for special occasions such as Christmas. This is also where the “Irooj” were based. We thought the planes were flying over Wotje on their way to another island. So we went back in and had our church service and returned home for lunch. Then, if I recall correctly, at around 1:00 o’clock, we heard distant sounds of explosions. I was having lunch with a boy my age when suddenly a siren went off and my friend and I abandoned our lunch and ran, along with everyone else. Because, before the war actually started, the Japanese had instructed us to run into the bunkers at the first sound of the siren. So my friend and I did not have time to find our grandparents or parents; we just got up and ran. And so we ran towards the oceanside and entered a bunker along with some other people.
As the bombs continued to be dropped on Wotje, we remained in the bunker until nearly sunset when the bombing stopped. By this time, a search was being conducted to find my friend and I. When they finally located us in the bunker, they asked us why we had run off and hidden. We replied that we remember being told to run when the siren blasted and did not think to what particular bunker, so great was our fear. That was the first day of the bombing raids on Wotje. We remained on Wormej for four days before the “Irooj” allowed those of us who resided on the neighboring islands to return home. My grandparents and I returned to our island which is very close to Wotje. In fact, it is the third island down from Wotje.
Several weeks after we had returned, the planes returned. This time instead of coming in low, they came directly out of the cloud cover over Wotje to drop their bombs. I think it was a Sunday when they startede the bombing raids. Some friends and I ( they were relatives) were swimming in the narrow reef channel between the next island and ours when we saw the planes begin to drop their bombs. And, while my friends and I remained on the beach awe-struck by the devastation a short distance away, all the adults had dropped everything and gone into the bunkers. So we stood there watching and shouting in amazement when we saw a plane spiraling out of the sky after being hit. We were brought to our senses when one of my uncles came at us with a short stick and started beating us with it. We were not aware of his presence until the ones he reached first dropped to the sand and writhed in pain. By the time he got through with us, our backs were black and blue. He was very short-tempered. The women spent hours that night soothing our backs with herbal ointments.
Well, three days later, two planes appeared over the nearby islands. They were tracking a Japanese vessel running north along the shoreline. When the vessel reached the island next to us, it grounded itself on the beach and men scrambled out onto the sand. The planes circled back with guns blazing. None of the men from the vessel survived. When I visited Wotje during the 2006 Liberation Day commemorations, only the bow of the vessel remains visible.
N: What kind of vessel was it?
C: A war vessel. Japanese.
N: I mean was it a land or sea vessel?
C: It was a ship. And you know, we wondered why it did not fire on the planes as there was a gun at the bow. It was only when the men from our island when on board to investigate and subsequently unload provisions such as rice and flour on –board that we discovered that the gun was made of wood. But it was of such craftsmanship that you had to actually touch it to know. My friends and I went aboard the next day to see this fake gun.
N: And the men on the vessel….
C: They all died. More than ten.
N: And when you unloaded the vessel, the men…
C: All dead. Lying around on the sand.
N: You did not move them?
C: No, we did not. Men came from Wotje later and retrieved the bodies. The island east of us was where bodies were taken to be cremated. That was when I saw people being cremated. When the body is lit, it is prone. As the heat increases, the body sits upright for a while and then returns to the prone position until it has all been consumed, except for the intestines. The intestines do not burn. I don’t know why. Nothing left except for the intestines.
N: Now going back a bit. You say it was 25th when the planes first appeared. Were they American planes?
C: Yes, they had probably bombed someplace else and then targeted Wotje.
N: Were there any Japanese planes on Wotje?
C: When we were about to leave Wormej for our island, we saw many planes landing on Wotje. They were Japanese. And on the second American bombing raid, when we stood on the beach and watched the battle, the planes that engaged the Americans were the ones we saw landing on Wotje as we were leaving Wormej. The next day, the American planes came again for a third bombing run on Wotje. At the same time, Wotje was bombarded from what we assumed were ships somewhere offshore. We couldn’t’ see the ships, but some of the shells landed on the beaches and embedded themselves in the sand without exploding.
We were thankful our island did not seem to be a target as the shells all landed on Wotje and the two adjacent islands. The next day several planes appeared I don’t know from where, amphibious Japanese planes, and attempted to land off-shore. As soon as one would attempt a landing, an American plane appeared out of nowhere and shot it down. This went on until all the Japanese planes had been destroyed, except one which was hit but managed to escape. There were maybe ten of those Japanese planes. The one that got away, we were told later after the war, dropped over Maloelap. The others were all destroyed on Wotje.
N: Were they attempting to land on land or in the water?
C: In the water, but they never made it as the American planes seemed to come out of nowhere to shoot them down. Maybe there was someone spotting for the Americans since they seemed to know exactly when the Japanese planes would arrive.
N: Were there any Marshallese on Wotje during this time?
C: Yes, they were referred to as “Niimbu” or workers. They were the ones who brought bodies to the island to be cremated.
N: Were the workers all Marshallese?
C: There were a few Japanese among them but they were mostly Marshallese. Now a short time later, all the Marshallese were evacuated from Wotje.
N: Who evacuated them?
C: The Japanese. Then shortly after the bombing raids began, the “Irooj” told everyone that we were to move to an island at the northernmost part of the atoll and very distant from Wormej. I forget the name. Anyway, we did not depart by day. We waited until nightfall. There was an old man named Jonenko, who was able to foresee future events.
N: A seer?
C: Yes, a seer. He decided when and to what island we would go to. He would tell us when we were to leave one island and go to another. We would never move during daylight hours; we would wait until night to move. And so it was that he would all of the sudden have us move from one particular island to another. We would load the “tipnol” or large canoes( there were no boats then) and sail from one island to another.
N: Do you recall if what the seer predicted was accurate?
C: Well, he would say that they [Japanese] would raze one particular island, and it would happen. Because, by that time, food was scarce and the Japanese were looking for people [Marshallese] to harvest and gather food for them. I mean there were no Japanese foods like rice and flour since the war was on. Likewise, we Marshallese survived on very little. The men would go out fishing at night and catch dogtooth tuna the size of a plywood [sheet]. The fish we would cook as a soup and this was what we would eat. And during breadfruit season, we would steal the unripe breadfruit during the early morning hours. It was bitter, but if cooked with coconut milk was tolerable and provided nourishment. Plus, arrowroot, which was a main staple. We would dig the arrowroot up during the day and prepare it.
N: So the Japanese were starting to go hungry.
C: Yes, they were beginning to starve as their supplies dwindled drastically when the Americans bombed their warehouses. And so we continued our escape from island to island. Then one day, I remember the old man instructed the men to dig a trench at the end of an island( I forget the name of it) a large trench. And so the men dug the trench and the next day, we saw two landing crafts full of soldiers approaching. And I remember the old man saying that there would come a time when they [Japanese] would come to kill us all. Now during this time, there were two planes that would fly low over the lagoon, at dawn and dusk, as if on patrol. Well, the planes came that morning and saw the landing crafts and machined gunned them. None of the soldiers in the crafts survived. We looked from ashore and saw the planes shooting the crafts. And some of us suggested that the crafts and soldiers had come to kill us all and put us in the trench. Who knows, maybe that would have been the time when all the people of Wotje would have perished. So I guess we on Wotje were fortunate because only two died during the war, a man and a woman. The woman was the mother of the wife of Lawrence Edward, what’s her name?
C: Yes, Neijon. And the man’s name was Meto, father of Libaton. Do you know Libaton?
C: Well, those were the only people who died.
N: How did they die? Were they killed?
C: Well, Meto did not furl the sail of his canoe when challenged by the Americans. Plus he had a helmet on and was dressed completely in white and perhaps was thought to be Japanese. Plus he did not trim his sail. So they shot him. And Neijon’s mother, well, they had shot the canoe she was on and she had jumped overboard and was hiding under the connection between the hull and the outrigger, while the father hid under another part of the canoe. Now another man who had accompanied them saw the mother release her hold on the canoe and saw the girl beginning to sink and so he grabbed onto her. It was good because the planes made only one run and flew on.
N: Was the aircraft American?
C: Yes, American. The planes I said that came suddenly. And so only two died during the war on Wotje. But I think if the landing crafts had landed safely, we would all have died.
N: The crafts you say were approaching your island?
C: Yes, the two we saw just two islands down from the island we were on.
N: Now, did the Americans land on Wotje?
C: Wait, after the two crafts I mentioned had been destroyed and perhaps two nights later, there appeared, what do you call them, scouts? Well, they appeared one night and told us to make our way to Erikup. And I remember the old man saying we should try and reach Eirkip, where there were Americans waiting for us.
N: The seer
N: The scouts, were they Marshallese?
C: One of them was. Do you know Freddy Narhun?
N: Yes, he died several years ago.
C: Another was a man from Kiribati who spoke Marshallese. One of the Marshallese living in Kiribati. And some Americans. They came one night and told us to flee, as food and water were prepared and awaited us on Eirkup.
N: How did they come?
C: By boat or ship, I don’t know as they came in the dark. And so the word was spread that night and the canoes were launched and we sailed to Eirkup. When we arrived at Eirkup at dawn, we saw crates of food and beverages and lots of tents. The next day two LCI’s ramped side by side. We were boarded and told we were going to some island called Tutu. Now some of the older people fooled us younger ones and said we were going to be taken to Hawaii, since it was known to be where everyone went swimming, hence “tutu”. But when we arrived, it wasn’t Tutu, Hawaii, but Tutu, Arno. Well, Tutu was where we stayed before being relocated to Laura. And after Laura…
N: How long did you stay on Tutu?
C: Months. And then we were taken to Laura. And from there, we were told we would be returned to our home islands. It was 1947, I think. My grandparents and I did not return to Arno, where he had been assigned. You see, my grandfather was a pastor. His name was Lani.
N: And so you returned where?
C: We went on to Ebon and stayed until things got better and then my grandfather was reassigned to Arno where he worked before we were moved back to Wotje.
N: Where on Arno?
C: Ine. My younger brother, Hilmer, was born and remained on Arno. He is married to Lantimur. Then from Arno I was sent to go to school on Rongrong.
N: It is amazing how you are able to recall these events so clearly.
C: Let me tell you that battle, war, I don’t want to ever see war again. Although weapons then were not so powerful, you could not sleep at night when you heard the sound of aircrafts. You sat up shaking with fear, wondering what you can do.
N: When you were in Laura, were Americans present?
C: Yes, there were Americans there. Hospitals had been constructed and so forth.
N: Did they provide you with food or what?
C: Yes, there were no Marshallese food yet so we were given C rations.
N: And after attending Rongrong?
C: I spent one year at the intermediate school here then went to PICS and then went to the Fiji School of Medicine. And after that I worked with the Trust Territory Government and then the Republic of the Marshall Islands Government until my retirement.
N (to students): Does anyone have any questions?
Student: What year did the war end?
C: I remember when we went to Ebon, it was the year 1947. I think it started in 1945.
Student: So it went on for two years?
C: It went on for a year and a half. It wasn’t very long. After Wotje, we went to Kwajalein when they recruited scouts, including my father.
N: Where was he recruited?
C: Laura, at the end of the war. He was one of the scouts who went to Mili where one of his fellow scouts, Kalco, was shot. Do you know this man?
N: I’ve heard of him.
C: He was the father of Melvina.
C: Melvina, the wife of Jack Helkena. They were standing alongside the steps leading onto the ship when the shot was fired from ashore and hit him on the left right side of his chest. My father was standing directly in back of him. They were assisting people up from the boat onto the ship while the Japanese were shooting from ashore.
N: Did he die?
C: No, he lived to old age. Well, as I say he and my father were helping people aboard when he was shot and fell back against my father. He was taken away to be treated.
N ( to students): Are there any more questions? Do you have anything more you would like to say?
C: Well, as I said, I never want to witness war again. I have seen the horrors of war, especially sailing at night. You did not know what lay ahead. The canoes were not all that big, but when the old man Jonenko, said sail, we would set sail no matter the hour. And always at night, never during the day.