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Funafuti

Funafuti-atoll

Funafuti — Photo courtesy of UOL Noticias

Funafuti shares with Midway and about a hundred other small islands scattered about the globe the distinction of having been claimed as U.S. territory under the Guano Islands Act of 1856. That law authorized the president to deem as “appertaining to the United States” any island — “not within the lawful jurisdiction of any other Government, and not occupied by the citizens of any other Government” — on which an American citizen had discovered a deposit of guano, which consists mainly of bird droppings and was highly valued in the nineteenth century as fertilizer. The Ellis Islands had been occupied for several thousand years, but apparently the indigenous civic structures, if there were any, did not qualify in Washington’s eyes as a “Government,” which meant Funafuti was up for grabs, and the U.S. at least nominally grabbed it.

Britain, not to be outdone, laid claim to the entire island chain, along with the neighboring Gilbert Islands, proclaiming the two of them a protectorate in 1892 and a colony in 1916. By the time the Macaw called in 1943, the U.S. had a longstanding claim to the atoll based on bird droppings, and the newly constructed Allied base there was manned by thousands of U.S. Marines, but the local flag featured a Union Jack and the official anthem was “God Save the Queen.” It was part of a British colony. That fact posed a ticklish diplomatic problem. Protocol required the commander of a visiting ship of foreign nationality to pay a courtesy call upon arrival on the chief local representative of government, and Paul Burton, according to Bud Loughman, harbored an intense dislike for the English:

… when we came into this island, I think it was Funafuti, there was one British … Britisher who was the representative of … Britain, and the captain … he hated the Japanese, and just a little below that he hated the English, and he couldn’t bring himself to go and visit the … Englishman, who was the only Englishman, too, on the island. … So Paul Burton told me, he said, “I want you to go in and represent me.” And I forget what his reason was. And at that time … I never was much for drinking anything, and one thing in particular I didn’t like was beer, and when I got in to meet this Englishman, very pleasant guy, he apologized profusely for having nothing to offer me but a warm beer. I drank it and I almost threw it up. 

It’s not surprising that an American serving in the Pacific during the war should have harbored ill will toward the Japanese, much less an American who had lived in China. Why Paul Burton should have disliked the English is harder to figure. Both his paternal grandparents were from England.

The Macaw remained at Funafuti for almost a month, from October 16 to November 14, participating in a hydrographic survey along with the survey ship USS Sumner, a survivor of the attack at Pearl Harbor, and frequently shifting about against the threat of the Japanese mapping out ship positions for bombing runs.

That was not an idle threat. Funafuti lay within range of Japanese bombers based on Tarawa, a heavily fortified atoll about 840 miles to the northwest in the Gilbert Islands. When the MACAW arrived at Funafuti, American forces were preparing to invade Tarawa in what would prove to be one of the bloodiest engagements of the war in the Pacific. The Japanese commander there had boasted it would take a million men a hundred years to take Tarawa. In fact, it took 35,000 Americans about a week, and more than a thousand lives, beginning November 20, 1943, six days after the Macaw left Funafuti.

But during her stay at Funafuti, Tarawa was still in Japanese hands, and Funafuti was still subject to bombing raids. There were nine altogether from  March 27 through November 17, 1943, at least one while the Macaw was on hand. Seaman 2/c Eugene Van Buskirk recalled seeing a Japanese bomb hit an ammunition depot at Funafuti. “It looked like fifteen Fourth of Julys,” he said. The Macaw was not hit. A plane — by one account a PBY seaplane, by another a B-24 bomber — and the fleet post office were. The resulting destruction of mail may have represented the worst damage the Japanese ever inflicted on the Macaw or her crew.

USS-Terror-(CM5)

USS Terror — Photo courtesy of Wikipedia

In fact, the Macaw herself did more harm to US assets at Funafuti than the Japanese ever did to the Macaw. Among the other ships calling at Funafuti while the Macaw was there was the USS Terror, a fleet mine layer commissioned July 16, 1943, just four days after the Macaw, and the flagship, when the two crossed paths, of Vice Admiral John Hoover. The Macaw struck the Terror while attempting to maneuver alongside her one day. Bob Jacobsen describes the incident vividly:

Capt. Burton had too much speed on the Macaw as we came alongside the Terror, he backed down but not soon enough. Our forward movement raked the side of the Terror — the overhang of our bridge ripped into some of their superstructure A screeching, ripping, tearing of metal. The Captain of the Terror came onto his bridge and yelled into a bull horn: “Get that damn metal scrap heap away from my ship or I will have my gunners sink you as a navigational hazard.” We never went alongside the Terror again. Our metal smiths & ship fitters spent several days on the Terror making repairs.

After the Terror incident, enlisted men aboard the Macaw took to calling Paul Burton “Crash.”

The Terror, by one account, was not the only vessel at Funafuti to come to grief in an encounter with the Macaw According to Motor Machinist Mate 2/c Dan Weber, the ship attempted to come to the rescue of an LST (an amphibious landing craft equipped with tank treads) that had run agound. “We hooked onto him,” Weber recalled. The Macaw, as he remarked, was essentially “a huge tugboat,” and a very powerful one. “We pulled the tail end off that LST.”

Nor was Burton the only one aboard the Macaw to win a less than flattering nickname there. Seaman 1/c Harry Vance of Jackson, Ohio, went swimming there after a round of heavy drinking, almost drowned, had to be rescued and was dubbed “Sad Sack.”

The beverage he had overindulged in might have been Lucky Lager beer. About 25 or 30 cases of one-quart bottles of Lucky Lager, intended for the Funafuti officers club, fell into the lagoon during the Macaw’s stay there when the sling in which it was being unloaded from a merchant ship broke. The Macaw, having eight deep-sea divers aboard, was uniquely qualified to respond to this disaster. After a day or so underwater, the beer was salvaged, and in keeping with the law of maritime salvage, or of finders keepers, it became the property of its salvors and made for what Jacobsen recalled years later as some great parties on the fantail.

 Burton, Verkennes & shipmate

Paul Burton (right) with Seaman 1/c Joseph Theodore Verkennes of Flint, Michigan, (center) and unidentified shipmate in front of the divers' decompression chamber, ca. Nov 1943. Verkennes' right index finger was crushed when he caught it in a line passed around a bit six days after the ship left San Francisco Bay.

Whether or not Paul Burton participated in that salvage operation, he was a formidable diver in his own right. A cross-country runner in his days at the Naval Academy, Burton had astounding lung capacity and demonstrated it at Funafuti one day by descending the anchor chain without benefit of SCUBA gear and returning with a handful of muck — proof that he’d gotten to the bottom. Seaman 2/c Eugene Van Buskirk was among a group of onlookers who timed him. To Van Buskirk’s amazement, Burton was underwater two minutes and 56 seconds.

Among the prime entertainment venues at Funafuti was the outdoor theater. Movies were shown there, but for many of the Marines who frequented the facility, the main attraction preceded whatever movie was showing. An elevated cable ran across the front of the stage, and every evening, promptly at 8:00 by one account, a small animal, variously identified decades later as a rat, a squirrel and a monkey — the prevailing recollection is of a rodent — would run across the cable, the audience would burst into applause, and then most of the Marines would get up and leave. The tight-rope performance was what they had come for.

Van Buskirk’s friend Seaman 2/c Jack Vangets got into trouble at Funafuti on the morning of October 19 when he took exception to what he recalled as an attempt by Augie Paul Koepke to rouse him from his bunk by rapping one of the chains that supported it with a billy club. As he explained about 60 years later, “I didn’t wake up too good.”

“At that time I didn’t take too much offa anybody. … I was half asleep … I jumped up and grabbed him … We scuffled around a little bit.”

At a captain’s mast on November 1, Burton sentenced Vangets to two days in the anchor chain storeroom that passed on the Macaw for a brig. Vangets was supposed to be on the prisoner’s traditional diet of bread and water, but, he said, Ship’s Cook 1/c Dean Frederick Jewell of Eugene, Oregon, sliced the heel off a loaf of bread destined for him and stuffed it full of meat, and men who were scrubbing down the deck outside supplied him through a port hole with orange juice. Vangets recalled that Chief Pharmacist’s Mate William Roscoe Funk weighed him before and after his incarceration, compared the two figures on the latter occasion and exclaimed, “I can’t believe you gained weight!”

Van Buskirk got into another sort of trouble at Funafuti. There was a raft off one of the beaches there — a well constructed raft, he recalled years later, except insofar as the gaps between the boards were too big. On November 12 he and two friends from the Midwest — Vangets and Seaman 1/c Joseph Verkennes of Flint, Michigan — were vying for possession of it, playing king of the raft. (Dave Wallington, also of Flint, may also have been a participant.) Van Buskirk had just staked his claim to the throne, planting his left foot, or inadvertently dangling it, in one of those gaps when one or more of his rivals mounted a challenge in the form of a charge that broke his leg. “My foot slipped down between two two-by-fours,” Van Buskirk said. “About that time Verkennes took a flying tackle at me. … I went one way, he went the other, and my foot stayed put. … He wanted to be king.”

Vangets recalled that he and Wallington made the assault. Whoever did the deed, it fractured Van Buskirk’s left fibula. It snapped, Van Buskirk recalled, like a board. The Macaw having no doctor, Van Buskirk had his leg set on a larger ship, then reboarded the Macaw within a day or two with his leg in a cast, which many of his crewmates, of course, proceeded to sign.

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