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Espiritu Santo & Wallis Island

Espiritu Santo is a tropical island of volcanic origin, at 1,420 square miles the largest and westernmost of the New Hebrides chain about 1,300 miles off the northeast shoulder of Australia. Its name, meaning Holy Ghost, stems from its discovery in 1606 by a Portuguese navigator working in the service of Spain. Home to a population of Melanesian subsistence farmers, it suddenly became a very active place in 1942 when the Americans arrived and began construction at Luganville on the southeast corner of the island of a base that was to support the invasion of Guadalcanal, about 600 miles to the northwest in the Solomon Islands. More than half a million Allied troops would transit the island before the war was over, and about 47,000 would be stationed there.

Among the latter group was James Michener, a young naval officer assigned to aircraft performance analysis. A fictionalized Espiritu Santo serves as the setting for his Tales of the South Pacific and of South Pacific, the musical based on that book.

The Macaw did not remain at Espiritu Santo long enough for its crew to get involved with the locals in the way Michener’s fictional or not-so-fictional Americans did. But Bob Jacobsen of and a bunch of companions from the Macaw encountered at least one exotic beauty at Espiritu Santo in the person of Hedy Lamar as half-caste femme fatale Tondelayo in the 1942 MGM release White Cargo, which was shown there on the deck of one of the Liberty ships in the convoy they’d just escorted there. They stood on the deck, Jacobsen recalled, and watched the whole movie in a driving tropical rain. Perhaps the fact that Lamar, said at the time to be the most beautiful woman in Hollywood, appears throughout the film in a bikini top accounts at least in part for the powerful charm the movie seems to have exerted on Jacobsen and his companions that evening.

The MACAW anchored at Espiritu Santo for a few days, then escorted a transport to Wallis Island, a tiny French possession between Fiji and Samoa where the Marines had an airstrip and where the men on the MACAW got a shocking glimpse of tropical reality. Bob Jacobsen recalled the scene vividly 67 years later:

Wallis Island. Never forget it. Steaming up the channel you would see off to Port the rusty remains of a ship which had piled up on the reef. Ahead you would see a huge rocky cliff with a huge white cross painted on it. When we anchored, we were soon surrounded with a host of outrigger canoes. They came out with loads of fruit and vegetables to trade — but no one could think of eating what they brought. These people were the most ghastly sights we had ever seen: people with leprosy – flesh rotting away. [You] could see hand bones, leg bones, arm bones. Half faces rotted away. Others with elephantiasis: Women with breasts as huge as big watermelons. Men with testicles as big as cantalopes. Fingers like sausages. Arms big as legs. Ears big as a head of lettuce. Captain had us rig fire hoses and blast them off if they tried to come on board. This is a French Island — They used it as a medical island. Sent all the lepers, elephantiasis and TB patients in their Pacific possessions to this island. [Bob Jacobsen letter, Oct 2010]

Bud Loughman later recalled that Bosun’s Mate and French-speaking Louisiana native Adam Autin went ashore in a boat at one of the islands the MACAW visited, ran it onto the beach in the absence of a dock and was greeted by a local resident of European extraction, who emerged from a hut and complimented him in French — and much to his displeasure — on his shapely hips. Autin, Loughman recalled, gave vent to some strong words about the incident when he got back to the ship. This may have been at Wallis Island.

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