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Interview of Isabella Silk

interviewed by Misako Lorennij, March 2008
translated by Newton Lajuan

I = Interviewer: Misako Lorennij
IS = Isabella Silk

I :  Would you please go ahead and tell us your name and something about yourself.

Isabella Silk:  My name is  Isabella Silk and I am the daughter of Injine John, and Isabella Kajio is my grandmother. My family on my father’s side is from Likiep and Ebon and my mother, from Arno. My grandmother was also from Arno and Ebon. My grandfather, the Capelle, traveled through these parts from Germany and was the first to purchase and trade in copra. He first made landfall in Ebon, where he was made welcome and given a wife, my grandmother Limenwa, who my grandfather later named Sophia, and whom he took to Likiep, where he went into partnership with another man, Anton- Jose de Brum, And they went to Likiep and set up a copra purchasing company. And the old lady remained with the old man on Likiep and never returned to Ebon till she died. And everybody (or many) do not know we are from Ebon but think we are from Likiep, only but we came from Ebon because of my grandmother whose name was Limenwa or Sophia, who was the eldest of the families of Anjua. She was the eldest--there were three--and she was the eldest. She was my grandmother. And she went and remained on Likiep until they both died on Likiep. And now, what do you need for me to tell you about the war?

I: If you can talk about the war. The beginning as you remember it and what occurred.

IS: Well, when it all started, we were on Jabwor, Jaluit, where I was attending “Kakko,” the Japanese school. By and by, one day we heard what we thought was the sound of very heavy rainfall. It was a sound similar to that of rain filling a barrel drum, a bass sound. We jumped outside and wondered what was happening, as there was no rain. Then we looked up and saw numerous planes overhead. They flew on and did no harm to us on Jabwor. They flew on towards Emiej, and shortly thereafter we heard the sound of explosions. We realized then that the planes were American, not Japanese. The sound of the Japanese planes were thin, like a woman’s voice, whereas the American were deep, like the sound of rain filling a barrel drum. And we realized something was happening when Emiej was bombed. Then, the Japanese sirens sounded and we ran into the bunkers. But we did not know. The planes disappeared and it was then we understood the war had started and now people were being moved.

Ships, big Japanese ships arrived and started to evacuate businessmen and other workers and Japanese civilians from Jabwor. And we knew the war had started. And so everyday, flight after flight of planes over flew Jabwor. But I didn’t understand--maybe someone was, what’s the term? Spying? Yes, maybe someone spying and giving them [Americans] information about Jabwor because they never molested us, never dropped bombs or shot at us. Nothing. Then we Marshallese began to escape from Jabwor at night in canoes to Jaluit, Jaluit, Imroj, Majjae, and other places.  Sometimes singly, in pairs, or small groups, we Marshallese started to escape until there were no Marshallese left on Jabwor.

Now, the funny thing is that -- and the reason I say there was someone spying for the Americans -- for some reason they knew we were escaping from Jabwor. Then when there were no more Marshallese left on Jabwor, they began to bomb it, especially the fuel dumps. They targeted the fuel dumps first. There were no Marshallese on Jabwor. We were all on the smaller islands of  Jaluit, Imroj, and Pinglap, no Marshallese left. And so, day after day the planes came and bombed Jabwor and Emiej. Then week after week. Wake up every day and there they were. Not to mention the smaller planes belonging to the English and Americans. They shot indiscriminately, perhaps not knowing which islands had Marshallese and which had Japanese. So we constructed underground bunkers in which to hide. And as soon as the warning that planes were coming, we ran for the shelter of the bunkers. The planes would strafe the islands with machine gun fire until they got tired, then flew off. Every day. And so it went on. But we never lost hope.

It got so that we knew when the planes would come and when they wouldn’t. And when they didn’t, the men would go fishing (the women too). By this time the Japanese had begun to impose themselves on us because they had started to starve due to the Americans targeting their supply barges. No supply barge made it to Jaluit because the Americans destroyed them all some distance away and they never arrived.  And so there was famine on Emiej. All the soldiers were hungry, the Japanese soldiers. They were hungry and so thin. They were brought to us to live and be fed by us on our islands. They were divided among us.  Now when some came to us, they were like shadows, only skin and bones; no flesh. They came and made restrictions regarding our food. They prohibited our harvesting coconuts, breadfruit, and pandanus.They took all our rights to our own food.

In spite of this, we sneaked into the interior of the islands and scavenged for food. We were also hungry. They would periodically ration out bits and pieces, say two or three small bits to each person for an evening meal. They knew the number of this and that household; they knew. And the planes continued bombing. Emiej was lit up night and day, night and day. And they really suffered because they were starving and did not know what to eat. Which was why they sent some to us. Then when we foraged and found edible plants such as “kartep” and “markinenjojo”-- these we found and cooked to eat as we were trying to survive. Well, when they saw us gathering these plants, they would force us to weave big baskets and stuff them with “kartep” and “markinenjojo”-- those we gathered for ourselves, they took.

Now “ametama”: we couldn’t drink “jakaro” because each man was assigned to cut sap from ten palm trees in order to make two “kure” of “jakaro”or three, every day. From these we made  “ametoma”, which they again took from us to feed themselves because they were very hungry. And the planes continued to come, the smaller ones. The larger ones went to cause destruction on Emiej. The smaller ones, they were they ones that strafed our islands. Just shooting away, without discrimination. If they spotted someone in the open, they opened fire. But all I can say is thank God because bullets would land left and right without hitting you until you managed to reach the bunkers. But still, there were Marshallese who were hit and perished. For example: the parents of Kondo; I don’t know whether you know Kondo. It was a Sunday and they were in their house. The warning had sounded but they did not run to the bunkers. The planes came and dropped their bombs and they perished.

So our lives under the Japanese were very difficult. And when word spread that they were planning to kill all the Marshallese on Jaluit, I heard that somehow the Americans became aware and as a result launched an assault on Emiej and the rest of Jaluit and took the Japanese prisoners. This was when they heard that the Japanese were going to kill us. The American ships came in and landed. But even before the invasion, vessels with scouts came ashore -- American vessels -- at night. Some of the scouts were ones who had escaped earlier on and knew where the Marshallese were, and where the Japanese were. Now outside each household was a [Japanese] soldier on duty who never slept but kept guard on us. Still, people from Jaluit managed to escape -- those from Pinglap escaped. And that was how we all hid, then escaped with the Marshallese and American scouts who came ashore and gathered people at night. Those who could escaped on the reef flats, others went through the interior of the islands towards the vessels that had been prepared at end of the islands to be taken and loaded onto LCI’s ( American ships). I was among the last to escape.

When it was said that there was to be a landing, there were always vessels used for evacuation. Vessels for Jaluit, Eoo, the island we were on, Mejjatto, and many nearby islands. Nearly all the islands were evacuated around the same time. On some islands, such as Eoo, there were those who did not escape because people were being shot. So the Americans were shooting ashore at the Japanese to  prevent them from shooting at the Marshallese while they attempted to escape. Some did not want to risk being shot so they stayed. On the island I was on things remained calm because the Japanese did not know we were contemplating escape. When we did escape and had all gathered at the end of the island and boarded the LCI’s, the Japanese finally realized something was afoot. But it was useless because by then we were already underway along the shoreline on our way to Pingelap to meet the large ships standing off Pingelap. The boats from Jaluit and Eoo were also making their way to the ships off Pingelap. So by the time they roused themselves, we were already secure aboard the ships. That was the last evacuation before the end of the war.

And the truth was that we suffered greatly under the Japanese as they really oppressed us. When we tried to gather food, they prevented us from doing so. We were harassed every day by planes. The larger planes would target Imiej, while the smaller planes constantly strafed our islands. And so we spent most of our time running to the safety of the bunkers. Some nights, those with small children would stay in the bunkers because sometimes the sound of large planes could be heard. Sometimes there would be one plane, other times two. They would fly overhead and drop their bombs on our islands. And so we were afraid. But we also feared the Japanese, in case they decided to kill us. Some -- I forget their names -- were taken to Imiej and never returned. Maybe they [Japanese] killed them. Oh, the father of John Heine was one such person. Him and his wife and son, but they successfully plotted the boy’s escape. He evaded his pursuers by wading from one island to another, always one step ahead of the Japanese until he reached the island north to Pingelap. They say that was where he finally saw an American ship near the shore and swam to it and was rescued. This is what they say, but I don’t know for sure. So he was picked up and lived.

But his life on the run saw him hiding under dead psalm leaves or hiding on top of coconut trees because they were hunting him. Everyday, the Japanese boats would search for him from island to island. And so we suffered greatly under the Japanese because they oppressed us in all things. And during the last evacuation, I escaped. But what amazed us was how they knew there were many Marshallese on Jabwor when they began their campaign of destruction. And we surmised there was someone passing information to them, what’s the term? Cornbeef. (spy) Yes, cornbeefed for them. The person may have been on Jabwor all along but the Japanese were not aware of his existence. They didn’t know.  Because they seemed very well informed. You know the big gun on Enejet, they [Americans] knew about it and destroyed it. And you know the fuel dumps over there for kerosene and gasoline? They [Americans] targeted and destroyed them first. It seemed they knew the exact layout of Jaluit; what this was, and what that was.

And so we were hungry, but never got sick. There were no illnesses such as cough and aches and pains, nothing at all. We never got sick at all. We ran out of soap for bathing and washing clothes. Just rinse and hang. That’s all we could do. Bathe in the lagoon and then rinse off, as we had no other option. But you see, on  Jabwor- you know the stores, the ones they bombed? Well, clothing and food were scattered all over. And yet, we were hungry on the islands we were on. No one went near Jabwor at all. We remained on our islands till the end.

You know, after the last evacuation, we were taken to Tutu, Arno, where they said we would receive medical treatment because we were contaminated. And upon arrival, we were given clothes and needles and threads so we could mend our own clothes. Then we were vaccinated, perhaps to counteract contamination from the Japanese first before transporting us to Jaluit, no, Majuro, where we remained. The soldiers and military hospital were located on Majuro then until they relocated to here, Rita. And so we remained till the soldiers left and we came under the Trust Territory Government.

And during the Trust Territory period, all goods were so inexpensive. Twenty five cents for a soft drink. Cloth -- seventy five cents for a yard in those days. Now things like plywood and similar items -- five dollars, ten dollars. Compare this to today and you will understand why we urge you to pursue your studies because in the near future, prices will continue to increase. And you will experience hardships greater than these. As for myself, I am fortunate that all my children have completed their education and I have no worries. They finished during those times when education was cheap, as was everything else.

Now, only my grandchildren shoulder the burden. And I, well, I simply take life easy. All my children have completed school and are working. Those were the times. And so I tell you to be diligent in your studies because you will inherit a tomorrow with ever-increasing cost of living. Anything else?

I: Does anyone have any questions? Regarding the story.. here is one.

Question: What do you mean by “kakilten”?

IS: What? They didn’t give us physicals.

Question: Ah, “kakilten”.

IS: “Kakilten”? Let’s see, what’s one way of putting it? Well, it was devising ways to steal food, like going into the interior to steal pandanus. You waited until the Japanese were occupied then sneaked off to harvest, for example, breadfruit. And the way you cooked it was to boil it in tin containers under edible shrubs such as “kartep” so they did not know. The same if you raised pigs or chickens. If it was a pig, you would also cook it in tins. You know some of the Japanese were kind. They would warn us to hide our food from those of higher ranks and to make sure we left some for them. So they would come and ask what we were cooking and when we told them, they would tell us to be sure to really conceal our food from the officers. Then they would return later and we would share some of our food with them. We really pitied them because they did not resemble human being at all. Just skin and bones. Very tragic, almost as if they were just about to die. Then after a month or so among us they gained weight and became really healthy. Then they would be taken away and replaced with others whom we were charged to nurse back to health. We really suffered a lot. For, instead of remaining on their island, Imiej, they were brought to us to lord it over our food and treat us as servants.

Question: You say there was a plan to begin executing Marshallese. Did they ever start?

IS: Well, there was this one lady -- I can’t remember her name -- whose crime was that she would go from island to island and provide information and assisted in escapes. Well, this lady was taken and executed. And the parents of John Heine were first imprisoned on Imiej because they were considered whites. The two of them, along with their son John, who successfully escaped. They searched and searched for him but never found him..

Question: And the parents?

IS: They vanished. No one has seen them to this day. We suspect they were executed because they disappeared. The reason they took the father to Imiej for imprisonment was due to his light skin color. They suspected he was a spy for the Americans. I don’t know how they managed to have their son escape. He escaped at night and swam the pass between Imoroj and the next island and took shelter with the Marshallese there.

Question: How old was he?

IS: I’m not really sure. Maybe a bit younger than yourselves. But all one can really do is thank God as he swam all those passes and was not molested by sharks. He would arrive at an island and take shelter with the people there until a Japanese vessel was spotted , then would swim to island further on, until he arrived at the island north of Pingalap. This was where he spied a ship close offshore and swam to it and was rescued. I and some other girls went fishing at the end of our island at low tide. People were shouting from the beach to warn us of the approach of a plane so we could lie down on the reef flat. We were too far out to hear the warning. But now, looking down myself, I wonder how we could have escaped detection, as the view is quite clear. So looking back it would seem that any attempt to have crouched and try to blend with our surroundings would have been an exercise in futility. Anyway, it was until we turned around that we saw the plane banking over the island. I thought the three of us were certain to be killed. But we squatted down and attempted to make ourselves as tiny as possible. There were now rocks to hide near; the reef was barren. And so we squatted and fearfully watched the approaching plane.

We were very, very frightened as some planes would come in with guns blazing and would not even reconnoiter. It was so low, we could clearly see it. Then when it was almost overhead, the plane dipped from side to side and we could clearly see the pilot waving at us. I burst out, “ Praise the Lord!”, as we felt certain our hour had come. We wanted to wave back but couldn’t as there were soldier on the beach. As I mentioned, some planes didn’t discriminate. Although they could identify women or children, they went ahead and opened fire. And others, like the one we encountered, were good -- the crews would wave.

Question: What were the names of your companions?

R: My older sister, Monica, and another girl, Likkol. We were so frightened. We thought for sure our time had come.