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Interview of Honseki Jumon

interviewed by Newton Lajuan, March 18, 2008
translated by Newton Lajuan

WWII: Escape from the Japanese on Wotje -- with Help from Jonnenko the Seer

Honseki: Thank you! My name is Honseki Jumon and I was born on Wotje Atoll during the Japanese times, 1937 to be exact. Life then was pleasant due to the kindness of the Japanese to us Marshallese on Wotje.

Q: Now we read and hear that the Japanese did much to develop Wotje and that it eventually was one of the most heavily fortified bases with concrete buildings and elaborate airstrips. Did you see these developments and can you tell us something about them?

Honseki: They first built the airstrip on Wotje as well as warehouses to store their war material, such as ammunition for small arms and larger guns. And when it became evident that war was inevitable, the Japanese informed us Marshallese that we would be relocated to Wormej, another island in the lagoon. They met with Iroij Laplap [king] Tomeing of the Northern Islands that the American would arrive shortly and that he should move his people to Wormej. So we were all moved except the adult Marshallese males whom the Japanese kept to continue the task of preparing Wotje for war.

Q: What do you remember about the Japanese, the officers and soldiers. How were they dressed? What kind of supplies did they have? How did they interact with each other and with the Marshallese?

Honseki: Yes, I observed that they continuously patrolled the island and that uniforms then consisted of battle fatigues and cloth caps, not metal helmets. They conducted drills on the airstrip with lots of shouting and commotion. They also encouraged the Marshallese workers to participate in the drills. And when Wotje was first bombarded those of us on Wormej could clearly see the flashes and hear the sounds of explosion. Wotje first came under attack on the 22nd  of December [1944]. We could see the flames and smoke from the fuel depots that received direct hits.

Up till then, their main rations consisted of rice. However, as the conflict continued, all supply lines were severed and the Japanese negotiated with Iroij Tomeing to have his people supply them with “iu” (sprouted coconut) and other native food. Something in the order of 50 bags each daily. As traditional food sources diminished, the Japanes resorted to threats, telling Iroij Tomeing that he and we, his people, would be put to death if food supply did not continue. Some of us began to escape from Wormej to the islands farther down the lagoon as Japanese edicts became harsher and harsher. From the many islands stretching westward from Wormej, we saw the flames of destruction over Wotje. How we survived, I can only say, through the Grace of God. For I am convinced He kept us from all harm. When the final Japanese supply vessel arrived Wotje and made ready to off-load, planes dove out of the sky and sunk it. So it was truly God who kept us safe.
Upon reaching the island of Kaijen, we who had escaped could go no further. Kaijen was the last island in the atoll. Nothing but open sea between Kaijen and the next atoll, Likiep.

With the destruction of the last supply vessel, the Japanese garrison on Wotje began to starve. We heard stories that rats became their main source of food until there was not a single rodent left on the entire atoll. But more appalling were the tales of cannibalism that took place once all the rats had been consumed. According to the story, the Korean labor force were the target of these atrocities.

Q: And you, Marshallese, what did you eat?

Honseki: A soup-like concoction made from the palm heart. We would also dig for the bulb of the arrowroot plant. These always seemed to be in abundance. As I say, the Lord looked after us. We would fish at night to supplement our diet. And, of course, we had the coconut which we drank right off the plant or cooked to make “jakaro” (beverage made from coconut sap), “jokmai and “jokajeje” (jakaro boiled until it attains syrup-like texture).

Q: Did they (Japanese)  attempt to force you to give up your food?

Honseki: No, because Kaijen, the island we were on then, was at a far distance from Wotje where they were. But they informed Iroij Tomeing, still on Wormej, they had resorted to consuming rats, so great was the famine on Wotje.

Q: You said that the Japanese had relocated you to Wormej. How did you get to Kaijen? From Nubun?

Honseki: Well, from Wormej who fled to Nubun, and from Nubun to Kaijen,which was larger and could provide more food. In those days, most men knew how to build canoes so there were a large number of canoes being used to assist us in our escape from Japanese domination. These were canoes were large “tibnol,” each  able to carry up to 50 people. These were used to ferry the people from island to island until we reached Kaijen.

Q: Where you decided you would be safe?

Honseki: Exactly! Kaijen, because of its distance from Wotje, was where Iroij Tomeing figured his people would be safe.

Q: How many people do you think there were in the group?

Honseki: Well, I was maybe 5 years old then and could not estimate the number. I only remember there being a lot, men and women. There were also students from other Northern atolls who had come to attend the Japanese school on Wotje, from Mejit and Utrok and other atolls.

Q: Who did not have the chance to return to their home atolls once the war began.

Honseki: Yes, once the war started there were no vessels to transport them home.

Q: When exactly did you realize that war had really begun?

Honseki: Rumors of war had been circulating for some time. Then we finally witnessed the flames and smoke raging over Wotje. We could even see the American planes diving to bomb and strafe Wotje. Also the absence of Japanese soldier visiting our islands convinced us war had really started. We were told to dig holes in the ground, what the Japanese call “bokonno”. These were fortified on top with coconut logs and covered with dirt. These we used as shelters and many lives were saved. When the (American) planes would arrive, a siren would blare. This was the signal for all to evacuate to the underground bunkers. Once inside we could feel the ground trembling from the shock of the bombs and saw coconut trees uprooted and thrown about from the shells fired from the large ships offshore.

Q: You could see the ships?

Honseki: We saw the ships on the ocean side and saw the flashes from the guns.

Q: How many ships do you estimate?

Honseki: Over ten. Huge ships.

Q: When did the Americans finally come ashore?

Honseki: Well, amongst us was a man, a “ri-kanaan”  (seer) who told us that the Americans had already gone ashore on Erikup, a small neighboring atoll. He told us that three vessels were anchored off Erikup and that they were expecting us. Iroij Tomeing instructed us to make preparation to sail our canoes to Erikup. I was on one of the canoes as we made for Erikup in the dark of night. And sure enough, exactly three ships were anchored very close to shore at Erikup. We disembarked from the canoes and were hoisted aboard the ships. I boarded the third one. As soon as we step on deck, we were all provided with clothes. The shirts had the letters UMC across the front. Being still a child, my outfit was many sizes too large.

Q: You say “ri-kanaan”, where was he from?

Honseki: His name was Jonnenko, from Majuro. And all [things] he foresaw were true. One day while we were at Kaijen, he said, “There are two ships on the ocean side”. And sure enough, the two ships were there. Another day he said, “tomorrow there will be plenty of food”. The next day we were amazed to discover the entire shoreline littered with boxes of  C-rations the Americans jettisoned offshore for us. We gathered all the cartons and brought them to Iroij Tomeing who then summoned all the “alap” (elders) from all the different atoll and islands present, from Utrik, from Mejit, and so on. The “alap” were then responsible for distributing the rations equally among all the people. The share for my father’s household was two cases of rations. Enough for satisfy all, with leftovers.

Q: Now, where there any Marshallese on Erikup before you all arrived?

Honseki: Yes, there were three. A couple, Jeppel de Brum and his wife, Limejit, along with a man named Manini. They were already living on Erikup when the Americans arrived. They were very well taken care of by the Americans.

Q: How did they come to be living on Erikup.

Honseki: They owned land on Erikup and where there when the war started.

Q: Did you see any American coming ashore on Wotje, Wormej, Nubun, or Kaijen?

Honeseki: No, the first Americans I saw were at Erikup.

Q: Once onboard the ships, did you remain of Erikup or did you sail somewhere else?

Honseki: We were first asked if there were any Marshallese or Japanese still on Kaijen.
Our translator was another Marshallese named Jepliin, who could understand and speak English. Oh, and now I remember that Jepliin was also among those already on Erikup before we arrived. He was a cousin of Limejjit and had accompanied her, her husband and Manini to Erikup before the war. So with Jepliin translating, Iroij Tomeing replied that there were four people still on Kaijen, two Japanese and two Marshallese. They were Yamamura, his Marshallese wife, and their daughter, Tosko, and another Japanese male.  Yamamura is also father to Kaname. Now, Tosko who was the adopted daughter of Iroij Tomeing. Anyhow, when we sailed for Erikup,  Iroij Tomeing granted her request to remain with her parents.

On hearing this, the Americans asked Iroij Tomeing to assign four men to return to Kaijen and bring back the Japanese, his family, and the other Japanese.  They were given rope and told to tie the Japanese up before bringing them back. On arriving Kaijen, the Marshallese men informed Yamamura that they had come to take them to Erikup, to which Yamamura and his family agreed. However, Koshne, the other Japanese refused, saying he would rather stay and die for the glory of Japan. Back on Erikup, the Americans were upset and insisted the men go back and forcefully bring Koshne to Erikup. So they returned at night, grabbed him in his sleep and manhandled him to the boat and brought him back.

He was loaded onto the ship I was on and as they were depositing him on the deck, he shouted, “Toneka, banzai!!” Hearing the cry, a colored American soldier attempted to prod him with his bayonet, but was stopped by a white soldier. Yamamura were given comfortable quarters below decks, but Koshen, they put him beside the large cannon at the back of the ship, and assigned soldiers to guard him.

Q: And from there?

Honseki: From there, we sailed to Tutu, Arno atoll, where we stayed awhile and were given medical treatment. After a short time, the Americans asked if any of us wished to be taken here, to Majuro. Now, my mother, who was from Majuro, urged that we be included. And so we were brought to Majuro and transported to Laura, where we took up residence. We were replaced on Tutu by people from Mili , who were in turn, replaced by people from Jaluit. However, both peoples would eventually join us in Laura. And so I spent time here on Majuro, time spent being fascinated by the American soldiers. By older brother got a job with the Americans and I came with him to the worker's camp on Rita.

Q: What part of Rita? And was it for the Marshallese?

Honseki: Yes, and it was located south of where Tibrikrik's service station used to be, where Win Allen's residence is now. That was where it started and extended north towards the end of the island. It was a large camp so as to accommodate the many Marshallese working with the American Navy.

Q: So only Marshallese occupied that part of the island?

Honseki: Marshallese with a few Americans.

Q: Where were the Americans headquartered?

Honseki: Delap. No, Delap was where the planes were stationed. But the American administrative center was located here in Uliga.

Post-war Life on Majuro

Q: Growing up, I saw a building called CRC, what was it?

Honseki: CRC was… ah, yes, the Coconut Rendezvous Club, where all the American congregated.

Q: What kind of food was there, then?

Honseki: Oh, there was an abundance and variety of food. The Americans gave us bread, steak, eggs, potatoes. You know how well American soldiers eat, well, we pretty much ate what they ate.

Q: And cigarettes, what brands?

Honseki: such brands as Lucky Strike, Phillip Morris, and Camels which everyone seemed to prefer. When I started smoking, I started with the cigarettes in the C-rations, the ones with four to a pack. All the boys my  age learned to smoke from those cigarettes. Our school was supplied with C-rations and Birash (Joash) was in charge of our warehouse. Well, we would break in and steal C-rations until Birash got so angry he broke the lock. He was a character, that Birash. Well, anything else?

Q: Let's just continue and reminisce. So, you say Delap was the plane station, Uliga the administrative center, and Rita the Marshallese labor camp? Now, aside from the CRC, were there other places the Americans gathered? A ballfield?

Honseki: I don't recall any ball field. Their camp was sort of the playing ground.

Q: Were there freezers then?

Honseki: Yes, but only for the Americans. Mostly to cool their beers.

Q: Do you remember what kind of beer they drank?

Honseki: Budweiser, Schlitz, and one type of Australian beer called Three Horses. Really potent. All came in bottles.

Q: And soft drinks?

Honseki: The Coco Cola  came in the thick bottles with pop tops. Nothing today compares. Those were the days.