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Interview of Juremen Komen

Life Story

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

Wartime Childhood

[JK] Well, first of all, I want to say thank you for this time given to me so that I can say something. Thank you for giving me some time to say something Mr. Newton. Well, what I am going to talk about is what I knew when I grew up. When I grew up, I did not really understand that I am from Jaluit and Ebon. And I also did not understand while I grew up on Ebon, but I was born there. I went to Jaluit, and grew up there.

In those times, before WWII. I grew up at Jabwor and also in Jaluit, Jaluit. I saw part of the damage from the bomb they [the Americans] dropped on Jabwor. I also saw people wounded as they tried to escape the bombing. There were many people who had lost limbs as a result of the bomb.  Some of them lost their intestines, some of them lost their hands, and they tried to take them to Jaluit, Jaluit [for burial] and there is a place there called “koba marong” [bring together power]. The reason why they call it ‘koba marong’ is that everyone from all the atolls in the Marshall Islands who died would be brought there. They buried them all there. And at that time, before they buried them, they filled a pontoon with bodies, not just one pontoon, but many pontoons. They filled them with those who died from their wounds, and brought them there so that they could bury them on Jaluit Atoll.

They call that place ‘koba marong.’ Well, I was young and I was running around, that is when I saw them carrying these dead bodies to this place, and after the burial, I went from Jaluit to my other atoll, Ebon. And when I went to Ebon -- that is when the war started in earnest. That was the start of the war between the Japanese and the Americans.

But I want to tell you something. Jaluit was the munitions storage location for the Japanese. I used to live in Imiej. The place they call Imiej is located on the Eastern side of Jaluit Atoll. And when someone would break the laws of the Japanese Government, well, they would take them there. . . . There were some limits that they [the Japanese] gave to the [Marhsallese] people, and when they went beyond them, then they [the Japanese] would behead them. Just as they did to the mother and father of Dwight Heine and many others. Well, this is the place where they killed them. This place they call Imiej.

[Q] In what location did they capture the people taken to Imiej?

[JK] They took them from all over Jaluit, but particularly from Jabwor. The Japanese laws were difficult to follow in those times. If we didn’t do what they said, well, they would find us guilty.

[Q] Now these old people who you might call the grandma and grandpa of Dwight Heine…

[JK] His mother and father.
[Q] His mother and his father, what were their names?

[JK] Grace and Claude.

[Q] Were these the missionaries or not?

[JK] No. They were the children of the missionaries. These people belonged to the missionaries. Carl Heine and the others --  their mother and father… The old woman, Grace, was from Ebon and Mili, these people are my relatives -- this old woman. Well, Claude was their grandfather. This family was well-respected here in the Marshall Islands.

[Q] What did they do, these people?

[JK] They were sons and daughters of a minister. They knew the Bible and how to treat people. They usually spent all their time in the church and they respected the Protestant church in the Marshall Islands.
[Q] So, these old people, am I right in saying that they are the parents of John Heine?

[JK] Yes that’s right.

[Q] I heard bits and pieces of a story about John. About how the Japanese chased John. Where did this take place, on Ebon or on Jaluit?

[JK] It started in Ebon and it came to Jabwor, Jaluit. And in Jaluit there were many things that the Japanese did to try to find him because they went and… John, the younger boy was the one the Japanese were looking for. As for Dwight, they tried to find him, but he stayed in Ebon. As for John, he came to Jaluit and he is the one the Japanese were looking for. He was about to escape the Japanese, but the Japanese captured him and they were getting ready to behead him.

[Q] What was his crime?

[JK] They said that the family was spying because of the color of their skin. They thought that they were spying during the war, but they were not.  And because of their skin color, maybe these things had the Japanese thinking that maybe they would do something like this [spy] because they had American blood, and that is why they accused them. But it was not because …. Life was hard during the Japanese era.

[Q] Well, you say that you went to Ebon and that is when the war really started.

[JK] That is where I went and witnessed the war. I was there during the big war. We did not know, but the Japanese knew... we only knew that they were getting ready to kill the Marshallese, and the day they were ready to kill the Marshallese at Ebon, the [American] ships started to appear oceanside of Ebon, and the Americans brought in tanks and ran them around. And I got to know some of them, well, the guy, father of the Mullers, Henry. This guy was a scout. He was one of the American men who came at that time.

There were children born at that time who were ill, but it was one of the blessings that God was able to settle of all the problems. The day when we would have died in Ebon, well, the ships arrived and the tanks came ashore and shot the Americans, no! I’m sorry! They shot the Japanese to end the war in Ebon. All of the Japanese on Ebon at the time were there because the businesses sent them there. There were no Japanese soldiers.

[Q] Do you remember the name of the Japanese company?

[JK] The company they called Nantak, but I think Nantak it is also an…. Because the company that circulated through the Marshall Islands is Naniobotikajai. In this time, Nantak was the biggest company on Ebon. There were no soldiers, only businessmen at that time, but there was a man they called Boroso. This guy was a soldier. And he was the only soldier on Ebon and this guy stayed in the tower on the oceanside of Ebon to keep watch. So that he could share information with the other stations in Kwajelein, Jaluit, Mili and the other places.

This guy -- Japanese businessman -- persuaded all the businessmen to take up arms. Yes, it is true. These guys found a way to kill the Americans, to kill some of the American soldiers.  They raised their peace flag [white flag] two pairs [of Japanese] and a captain I don’t know why, but they called him ‘captain’ an old guy, and the welcomed the [American] people by raising the white flag, but they [the Japanese] had already made a plan. They had already created a place for the Japanese to hide ready to shoot. [This was an ambush.] And the people in the first tank were injured when they got out of the tank already having seen the white flag which means ‘I surrender’. They were [pretending to] apologize to the Americans.

As the Americans got off of the tank, the Japanese shot them and they died. And when the first ones were dead, the rest charged. A captain and a few sailors had already died. They had been shot and they were dead. After that, the Americans would not wait any longer, they were thinking of killing whoever. Some Marshallese met the Americans charging to the battlefield. This place they call Torawa [this might mean ‘the vehicles came’] and they [the Americans] stripped  the Marshallese and asked them, “Where are you from?” And when it was clear that these were Marshallese and it was clear that they did not carry arms and that they were not involved in the war, they gave them food, drinks and something to wear, and everything.

The clothing the Marshallese were given were uniforms . Then they took the Marshallese to the church at Jittaken [a small group of islets facing the east] and that is where they took the Marshallese. As for some of us, well, we were still in Rairok [the southern area of the atoll] crouching between trees hiding. Well, the Americans came. The Army came and they saw us there and yes, we were scared as hell. Some of us thought that the old man, Henry, because he was an American, was a soldier. Then the old man Henry, laughed and said, “I am Marshallese and I came with the soldiers so I could show them these places.”

For us this was one of the surprises. We thought the Marshallese would not have aligned themselves with the Americans during the war. Yet today, the Marshallese fight on American battlefields. And the good thing is that it doesn’t matter if we die because we are in the shadow of the cross. We understand that it doesn’t matter what happens [because] we still believe in the gospel . . .  so everything is good now. Nowadays, we have moved and come to live under the government of…I believe the democracy of the Americans now we have an alliance with them and live with them. 

[Q] Well, before we end this, I will ask a question, which just occurred to me.

[JK] OK.

The Origin of the Word for Westerners

[Q] The word ‘ri-pelle’ is really ‘ri-belle’?

[JK] The word ‘ri-pelle’. The reason why they say ri-pelle is…

[Q] Well?

[JK] Well, because they had a lot of things with them when they came to war. And they gave biscuits, rice and everything away. Well, that is when they started calling them ri-balle

[Q] Ri-balle.

[JK] Ri-balle. When they came and stationed themselves here, their dumps were filled with many good things and they were still new, but they threw them away and the Marshallese workers in Kwajalein. Who worked in Kwajalein with the military, they would go and bring these good things from their dump. And that was one of the benefits that we got in those times. These things were still new like shoes, clothing, and almost everything that the American soldiers would throw into their dumps like sheets and pillows. Well, that was one of those places where we used to ‘shop’. Balle means ‘balle’ [necessary items—like clothing and furniture]. Ri-pelle comes from the word because the Americans have a lot of things.  Balle, for example is like a tree when it bears fruit or a flower, we say, “that tree it is fruitful.” [15:39]