Eleanor Roosevelt's South Pacific travel diary (excerpts)
Jump to ER's account of her visit to Christmas Island, Bora Bora, Guadalcanal
20 August 1943
Just left Christmas Island, light fluffy clouds sailing around us, but we see the ocean under us. The head transport sergeant came to take me to breakfast in the air transport boys' mess. A few boys sat with me and we had a pleasant time. The whole room asked me to sign short snorters, but they were very considerate and waited until they thought I had finished my coffee. All the furniture they have is made by the boys themselves and they do a good job, though I have sat in more comfortable chairs and an army cot and mattress would not be my permanent choice for a bed. George Durno is getting me in each place a complete list of names which will be a great help though I won't know in many cases which name fits which person.
Later on Friday, August 20th.
On the plane from Penryhn Island in the Cook group to Bora-Bora. We arrived ahead of time—before twelve our time. The Colonel was away in Noumen, but Major Safford was nice, though at first I could see he didn't know what to do with me. After a while he said I was the first white woman he had seen since he left the States ten months ago. They have built this airfield and are still very busy so there was no one here who had been gone more than a year and therefore there is less unhappiness. The climate is warm but there is a constant breeze and if you don't move you don't perspire. It is healthy, even the natives are well, though they are pretty primitive and they live at one end of the island with a resident manager, an old sea captain who married a native woman. They showered me with presents of shells, grass skirts and some straw weaving. I went though the hospital, saw the Red Cross man, the headquarters building, tents, and mess hall and day room and out door theatre in a colored troop area. There seems to be no trouble anywhere out here between the white and colored. They lie in beds in the same wards, go to the same movies and sit side by side and work side by side, but I don't think I've seen them mess together, but their food is as good and everything just as clean in their quarters. Southern and Northern Negroes are in the same outfits.
23 August 1943
August 23rd (On the plane going to the Fiji Islands)
We landed in Samoa last night at five-thirty. It is scenically the most striking place we have seen. General Price was just going to be polite so he told me the Marines were so scattered I could really not see many men, but the guest house was ready for me and after a comfortable shower we would dine and I would meet his officers. The guest house I enjoyed especially a real mattress and hot and cold water, but I was afraid I was not going to do much of a job. I asked for the Red Cross man and found the area man was in on a visit and I saw both of them before and after dinner. The Marines and Navy have no "special services" officers, and here as always they have recreation on PX money. More recreation is needed, however, and new things are needed. A building is badly needed for sailors going ashore, they have no place now to sleep for a night, to write a letter, to play a game, or as the General put it, to come in out of the rain. Even more important I thought, was the fact that a combat air-crew dropping in here for a rest, had to sleep on cots without mattress or pillow. The men feel, I am told, that the Red Cross has not done such for them in this particular area. Projectors, victrolas, all supplies deteriorate faster than in other climates, so at the moment there is not a victrola that can be used on this island and no needles. This is true of the other islands in the group I am sure, and may not seem important, but it is a bigger factor than we at home think. Two commanding officers now have spoken to me about the fact that seeing no white women had the effect of making officers and men forget that certain kinds of relationships with the natives was not desirable and when it is safe to let women on duty come to these areas I think it will be a very good thing. There are a few Navy nurses but not enough.
We had a movie after dinner and then I went to bed and felt luxurious beyond words that I could stay there until 7 a.m. Breakfast with the General and then we drove to the Red Cross office. (At this moment our plane is crossing the date line.) I was not favorably impressed. There were some boys at a table outside studying. One had a geometry book so I asked if the director was helping then and he said: "Oh, no. we just study on our own."
We went to the training camp where the men go on arrival. About 1000 men are here at a time. Then to the Samoan Marines who are here at a time. Then to the Samoan Marines who are picturesque in their skirts, and are efficient and love to drill. Then to the hospital which has seven hundred patients. It seems well equipped but I heard one thing that troubled me. There is a native drink which makes our men go berserk and the Colonel thought was a factor which might bring trouble between his colored and white troops. There is no beer or wine on the island. I think a better recreation progress might help a little anyway.
We left by plane ant eleven and have flown as high as fourteen thousand feet to avoid a storm, but it does not bother me except that when we come down to our usual height I have to clear my ears. It is clouding up now and does not look as sailing an ocean as it has so far. My tetanus shot on Bora-Bora swelled up and was much more noticeable than the first one, but today I think it is getting better. I feel fine and though I get no exercise and feel sure I will put on weight, still the food does not tempt one to overeat.
20 September 1943
We are not using our usual size plane because it is too big to land on some of the small islands. Miss Coletta Ryan, who is out here to supervise the Red Cross clubs in the Southwest Pacific is making the trip with me, hoping to be allowed to set up clubs in places where they now do not have them. We landed about 11:00 A.M. on Efate and it seemed as though I walked through miles of hospital wards. I am deeply impressed with the work that has been done on that island to prevent malaria and make it to a healthful place. In the afternoon, about 4:30, I arrived at Espiritu Santo, which is the headquarters of the navy air force and also a rendezvous for navy ships and for some army personnel. The navy men have built themselves, on a little island across from the main station, a wonderful recreation ground. I saw a great deal in the first hour, and then in the late afternoon the admiral had a reception. We dined with him and went to the movies, where I said a few worlds to the men and it was almost 11:00 o'clock when we went to bed.
I was called at 1 A.M., since we were to take off at 1:30 A.M. Coletta Ryan and I sat on two little seats opposite each other and over the bomb bay. The young man who gave us blankets when we were cold and offered us cups of coffee, was the most solicitous for our comfort. He turned out to be the nineteen-year-old nephew of governor Stainback of Honolulu. It is unbelievable how young some of these boys are, but the responsibility of war matures them quickly. By 6:00 A.M. we were on Guadalcanal, where we had breakfast with the commanding officer on the airfield; he is a great friend of Admiral Halsey's. At one point he was lost and everybody turned out to find him, including the admiral himself.
Then the army officers came to get me, and as we drove off the trucks with the men who were working on the field were just coming in. Coletta Ryan and I leaned out to wave. At first there was complete surprise written on the faces of the men, and then one boy in very stentorian tones said: 'Gosh, there's Eleanor.' I am never quite sure whether to take this as a compliment or to be a a little ashamed of it, but they were so evidently pleased to see women, we had to laugh and go on waving. The commanding officer was plainly horrified to have me treated with such levity, so I tried to make believe I considered it a great compliment.
I visited all the improvements which have been made since this part of the island came into our possession. There are thought to be some Japs still on the other side of the island and there are still air raids.
One of the things which I shall never forget on Guadalcanal is my visit to the cemetery. The little church there was built by the natives and given to the sliders; they even made an altar and the altar vessels, carving them beautifully and decorating the church with symbols which have special meanings for them—fishes of various kind which mean long life, eternity, etc. it was very moving to walk among the graves and realize how united these boys had been in spite of differences in religion and background. The boy's mess-kit or sometimes his helmet hung on the cross which some friend would have carved with the appropriate symbol of the Jewish or Catholic or Protestant faith. Words that came from the heart were carved on the base, such as "He was a grand guy"—"Best buddy ever."
The cemetery is carefully tended and flags wave over the graves. The chaplain told me he to photographs and sent them home to sorrowing families in the United States.
Hospitals and cemeteries are closely tied together in my head and heart on this trip and I think of them even when I talk to the boys who are well and strong and in training.
On Guadalcanal, as in many other places, I said a prayer in my heart for the growth of the human spirit, so that we may do away with force in settling disputes in the future.
I asked to have Joe Lash sent for, and also asked for Cecil Peterson. Cecil Peterson and I had a short talk, and I had a brief few minutes with Joe just before lunch but arranged for him to come for me in a jeep after my official visits were over, when I could have an hour with him. I lunched with the officers and continued immediately afterwards on the rounds. We were not able to finish going through the hospital wards because I took an hour off from 4:30 to 5:30 to go to the weather station where Joe was assigned so I could tell Trude about it. At 5:30 I went to the dinner that had been arranged and then back to the hospital to finish the wards. There was an air-raid alert just as we were driving in, which meant that we had to take to the shelter in the hospital grounds, with all the patients who could walk. For a short time there was a rather tense atmosphere, but somebody started to sing and we all joined in. when the all-clear sounded I went through the wards I had not covered before. I was much interested to see what the effects of the alert would be on those who could not leave their beds and go to the shelter. I saw only two men who were badly affected—one a colored boy who lay turning his head fro side to side and moaning, seemingly completely unconscious. A sweet little nurse sat beside him trying to quiet him. The other was a white boy who paced the floor in a little room. I tried to talk to him to change the current of his thoughts, but it was impossible and I finally had to give up.
I went back to the little guest cabin, had a bath and sat down on the porch to rest and wait for Joe. Though he arrived late, we did have an opportunity for a fairly long talk, so I shall have much of interest to tell Trude when I get back. Finally he left and I had a few hours' sleep, but we were up again at 4:00 A.M. off the Island by 5:00 A.M. and on our way back to Espiritu Santo.
I left Miss Ryan on Espiritu Santo and heard shortly afterwards that she had been successful in establishing clubs.
The return trip to Hawaii was again made by way of Christmas Island because an attack was being made on the route we originally planned to take and it was thought not safe for me to go that way. My time on Christmas Island was short and I visited only one boy, about whom the doctor was very much worried. At the hospital, I made him promise that he would try to get well if I would try to see his mother on my return. I did see her, and fortunately he recovered and came to see me when he got back to the United States.
This time I stayed some days in Hawaii, where I saw the training given under actual fire—and was greatly impressed by it—visited a great number of hospitals, and a New York State regiment. Judith Anderson met me at luncheon at one of the hospitals. She and Maurice Evans were giving Shakespearean plays on the islands in this group—Macbeth at the time—and it was a wild success. She told me with satisfaction that some of the boys would wait outside and ask her 'who this guy Shakespeare' was and tell her it was the first time they had seen a real play with living people in it, and ask to be allowed to come again the next night because they did not think they got everything there was in the play. They were audiences such as few actors and actresses ever meet and I think repaid fully everything which Miss Anderson and Mr. Evans put into their trip.
ALS AERP, FDRL