ON THE THATCH RUN – A NAVY BOAT IN THE SOLOMONS BARTERS WITH THE NATIVES

Navy Boat Tours Solomons To Buy Grass Shacks for GI Use.

By Sgt. Barrett McGurn

YANK Staff Correspondent

ON THE THATCH BOAT IN THE SOLOMONS—Be it ever so homelike, there is nothing more humble and unromantic than the average GI dwelling place, whether it be a barracks in the States or a pyramidal tent in the mud overseas. But this is one section of the globe where GI structures do have a glamourous aspect. That’s because the American armed forces have adopted the natives’ thatched shacks. They have excellent qualities of insulation in this torrid zone—and they don’t have to be shipped from the States.  Natives prefabricate them on outlying islands, among the most primitive in the world—just about the last places on earth where you would expect to find QM “war plants.”



So far there are 500 of the thatch structures for GIs on Guadalcanal alone. Most of them are warehouses but others serve as chapels, offices, mess halls and barracks. About 60,000 thatch sections are used in new buildings every month, GI engineers put up the framework and the local natives tie on the sections.

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Women work here in the Solomons. Bundles of thatch like this must be carried more than 100 yards to the boat.

The one drawback to the leaf structures is that once in a while they burn down, but even then it’s fun and excitement for GI bucket brigades.

One Navy boat is kept busy all the time visiting the remote spots in the Solomons and picking up the finished thatch sections. Duty on this boat, enjoyed by 20 sailors, is admittedly among the best deals in the South Pacific area. The job comes nearer the romantic sort of South Sea Adventuring than most of the GIs in these islands ever get, even in books.

On one of the boat’s typical five-day trips, we set out at down bound for Ugi, an island visited by few whites. En route the little 104-foot APC (nicknamed Apple Cart because it upsets so easily) bucked and twisted like a rodeo horse. Sgt. Dil Ferris, YANK staff photographer, set up temporary headquarters at the rail, but it wasn’t easy. The little APC has been clocked at a 55-degree roll, enough to make even the old salts aboard seasick.

The first night was passed under the protective hills of Ugi. Next day the boat reached Kira Kira on San Cristobal. Here the vessels casually picked up a stranded New Zealand sergeant-pilot, William J. Thompson of Dunedin, N.Z., whose corsair had run out of gas during a patrol and had sunk 30 seconds after it struck the water. It took him 17 hours to paddle ashore, using raft floorboards as paddles. Natives showed him the way to Kira Kira, the British headquarters for the island. Luckily the natives are no longer the way they were 30 years ago when, at the same spot, they killed a white man to pay for the accidental death of a native boy on another white man’s boat—under the democratic theory that one white man was as good as another when it came to getting even.

Another half day’s ride brought us to Ulaws, the main loading paint for this trip. Like almost every other island in the Solomons, it was a tumble of mountains covered with green from the peaks to the water’s edge.



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Capt. Martin Nielsen skipper of the Apple Cart.

Here Capt. Martin Nielsen took charge. A native Norwegian who lived for a while in the United States, he probably holds the white man’s record for the longest unbroken stretch of residence in the Solomons —28 years. Although the Japanese didn’t know it, he shared Santa Isabel with them for six months.

Deserting his coconut plantation, he took toe the bush, moving his camp every time the Japanese moved theirs. “I saw the Japs every day,” he recalls, “But they never saw me.” One Japanese camp was three miles away, too close for comfort, so Nielsen’s natives, armed with knives slew 25 Japanese in their sleep and captured two.

Nielsen lived mostly on native vegetables, but some fine Japanese biscuits brightened his menu. These were obtained by a jolly 200-pound native friend who won the confidence of the Japanese and boldly visited them every two weeks, taking them bananas and papayas and bringing away the biscuits and a mental map of the Japanese ack-ack positions. Nielsen and the native split the biscuits and sent the ack-ack data to American pilots, who blew up several of the guns.

After the Japanese left, Nielsen went to Henderson Field on Guadalcanal and planned to leave the islands, but the U.S. Army persuaded him to stay on with a captain’s commission in intelligence.

Capt. Nielsen knew the natives at Ulawa, so he handled the thatch dealing. With a big pile of silver florins, British two-bob coins minted in San Francisco for this purpose, the captain paid the chief of Ulawa’s village of Sumole one shilling (16 cents) for four of the six-foot thatch sections. Typical of American lavishness, the price was twice pre-war rates.



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Canoes come out from the island of Malaita to greet and trade with the crew of the Apple Cart

The chief was the least native-looking of all the Sumoleites. Dressed in a full suit of dungarees, he looked like a dockhand. But there was no doubt about how primitive some of the others were. A few of the men had shirts but none of the women had. Every face and body was tattooed with circles, dots, zigzags, fishes and other symbols. One fellow, who had been to New Zealand, had a drawing of a burlesque queen. All had holes in their ear lobes, which had been enlarged by bigger and bigger plugs until the lobes of the oldest became long and stringy and as big as the rest of their ears. One old man had a read bead in the tip of his nose.

The thatch sections were made of the ivory-nut palm leaf, dried and tied with vines and poles. Loading took a day and a half. In frequent breaks, while old women tottered under the heavy thatch sections, some of the men demonstrated to us how they shoot fish and pigeons with bow and arrow. One man drove a palm-leaf arrow an inch deep into a tree trunk. “I’d rather have those natives shoot at me with a gun than with a bow and arrow,” said a British official who had been here off and on for 30 years. “They’ll hit you every time at 100 yards.”

Final stops for the Apple Cart were Maaka in the Maramaseke passage and Veletante and Port Adam on Malaita. Maaka was the spot where, 20 years ago, Capt. Nielsen saw human flesh prepared for eating, the only place he has ever seen that happen. The body, wrapped in big leaves like those from the banana tree, had been roasted in a stone-lined pit. The natives, as usual in those days, were in an ugly mood, but Nielsen’s party had enough weapons to keep to hand.



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Aboard ship, a native bargains with sailor.

The natives who paddled out to meet the Apple Cart in canoes seemed a lot more interested in American tobacco, soap, jackknives and dollars than in American heads, legs and arms. For one buck, Louis C. Smith CSK of New Orleans, La., bought a betel-palm bow and four arrows barbed either with thorns or spikes from the wings of the giant Solomons bat, a creature known as the “flying fox” that annoyed GIs at bedtime.

At Port Adam a native pulled alongside our boat and offered a bow and arrow. A sailor held out a shiny quarter and said: “Him two bits.”

“One shilling sixpence that,” the native replied. “Four makeum dollar.” And, he added, his bow and arrow would cost not two bits but five bucks. The sailor sheepishly pocketed the quarter.

IT reminded the crew of the standing joke about the skipper, Lt. (jg) Eugene L. Burdick of Santa Barbara, Calif. He had offered a native a watch in trade. The native wound the stem, held the watch to his ear and handed it back. “No spring.” He said.

Not all of the native traders are tough. On San Cristobal, the crew got spears for 2 cents and pineapples for a 6-cent stick of tobacco. Joe (Trader Horn) Ahearn S1c of the Bronx, N.Y., obtained as ship’s mascot a handsome, talkative parrot in exchange for a box of matches, a can of condensed milk and a cigar. “Baldy” Pruitt S2c of Cincinnati, Ohio, gave the skivvy shirt off his back for a black-and-white- puppy.

Loading done, the boat headed back. The sea was calm and not even Ferris was sick. Moody blue-eyed Stephen A. Eisler, a bosun’s mate from New York who has seen all the world in his 16 years in the Navy and likes only China and Europe, admitted that the return voyage was “like peacetime yachting around Miami Bay.”

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Everybody participates in South Sea islands jam session. Here sailors and GIs learn to Hula.

On battlewagons and carriers you’re either working on detail or standing watch all the time, but on this little island-visitor you can soak up sack time during the day. And the galley is open all the time for between-meal snacks of java and salami. There’s the free run of the ship to EM except on the bridge and officers’ ward room. The comfortably cool quarter deck, “officers’ country” on some APCs, is open to EM on this one.

All in all, it’s an easy life. But things have not always been so quiet. More than once the Apple Cart has passed through waters where subs might be lurking, and on the bridge a painted Japanese flag reminds the crew of the strafing Japanese float plane they knocked down off New Georgia.



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