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Pavuvu

By Art Ackerman

A map of the Pacific reveals a fly speck just sixty nautical miles northwest of Guadalcanal. This fly speck carries the name of Pavuvu, one of the Russel Islands, only ten miles east to west and six miles at its widest measurement north to south. This small island had been designated by the marine corps brass as a suitable rest area for the Marine First Division between campaigns.

From the ocean approach, one could see neat rows of British-owned coconut palms above a white sand beach. It seemed the perfect location for a Dorothy Lamour-Bob Hope movie setting. The idyllic picture ended just a few hundred yards beyond the palm trees. Most of the island was impenetrable jungle over a thin crust of earth concealing bottomless sinkholes of quicksand. The ground was barely thick enough to support the weight of one man. My introduction to the First Marine Division was here at Pavuvu where the tired veterans of Guadalcanal and Cape Gloucester had come to rest.

Little rest was afforded day or night. By day we battled overbearing humidity and heat, frequent thunder showers, and ankle-deep mud everywhere. We slogged to the mess tent at the bottom of a slippery slope. Often we slid down the mud with our mess gear jangling, received our slop, and scrambled back up the muddy hill to our tents.

The menu was not a gourmet quality. Our mess tent provided messes. Powdered eggs, powdered grapefruit juice, C rations, and ersatz coffee were the main menu, along with a slice of bread made with flour infested with weevils. The slice of bread dotted with baked black weevils led one marine to say he was at least thankful for the protein. The coffee (or what substituted for it) gave birth to a verse in the Marine Corps ditty:

The coffee that they serve us
They say is mighty fine.
Itís good for cuts and bruises
And tastes like iodine.
I donít want no more of USMC
I just want to go
Right back to Quantico.
Iíll take the B&O
HOME.

Most days we were assigned to work details. Some times we were sent to the coral quarries to work with heavy sledges, pounding huge chunks of coral into manageable coral rocks for road building. Our attire was merely cut-off dungarees and boondockers (combat boots) sans socks.

Other times we gathered rotting, odoriferous coconuts into huge piles incinerated by gasoline fed fires.

Anyone considering joining the corps should seriously think about a name change. Invariably, the sergeant assigning work details started from the front of the alphabet for each new assignment. A man with the name of Zeller was assured of a free ride, but "Ackerman" topped every new detail list. Once, when the garbage detail assignment worked down to the Lís, Bob La Coss was nowhere to be found. Unfortunately, I was in the vicinity and was assigned to take La Cossí place. After finishing the sweaty, smelly day-long task of collecting and disposing of tons of garbage, the knock-out blow came when the sergeant said, "Good job, La Coss."

Going to sick bay to avoid details was ill-advised. I once was jeeped to the sick bay tent with a possible broken ankle. While waiting to be examined, I needed to urinate and asked a corpsman for directions for relief. I was instructed to go out into the plantation field, far away from the sick bay tent. When I asked for crutches or a cane, I met a brick wall and was forced to hop one-legged into the dark, over rotting coconuts, far enough from the tent for sanitary relief.

When my turn for examination arrived, I was assigned to a cot covered with a green marine woolen blanket (no sheet). The blanket was juicy. I refused to use it. The marine in the next cot said the previous inhabitant of my cot had died of severe burns. I received a substitute blanket. The marine in the cot to my left was undergoing intravenous feeding. I noticed that he was turning blue. I yelled for a corpsman, who hastily disconnected the tube. He had received an inappropriate medication.

My ankle was not broken, only badly sprained, but while spending the first two days in sick bay, I contracted oriental crud, better known as jungle rot (a foot fungus that was prevalent). My feet were soaked in solutions of potassium permanganate, causing my feet and angles to turn a deep black that lasted for months. Also, in sick bay I suffered from a severe sore throat. A marine doctor advised removal of my tonsils but crudely suggested that I wait until the completion of our next campaign. If I came back, he could do it then. He was brutally frank.

Water was scarce on Pavuvu. Until wells were dug, the daily torrential rains were a blessing, providing cold water showers. We stripped, and with a bar of soap, ran into the rain, hoping that the downpour would last long enough for sufficient rinsing. We also caught rain in our steel helmets for morning tooth brushing and shaving.

Nighttime brought no relief. We slept in cast-off tents from the Guadalcanal campaign. The tents stunk with mildew and rotting canvas. All tents were divine--they were all holey. The constant rains kept the tent floors in a sea of mud. It required brilliant engineering to squeeze six cots into a four-man tent in such a configuration as to avoid the major leaks.

To add to the nightly problems were the varmints. The island was home to thousands of land crabs--six inches across. The crabs roamed at night, invading tents. Each morning we shook out our boondockers, sea bags, and gear to reveal hiding crabs. On several occasions, I found my boots had been dragged twenty feet outside the tent.

Swarms of mosquitoes and other flying insects added to our nightly discomfort. Most all of us suffered from malaria, with episodes of fever followed by chills. Another distraction and annoyance were the hordes of jungle rats. Some of these evil-looking, long-toothed, snarling rodents were two feet long from pointed snout to whip-like tail. At dusk they appeared in armies, scampering over tops of tents, sliding down the tent ropes, then charging through tents looking for food. Where these rats lived in the daytime was a mystery. The popular theory was that they nested in the tops of the palms.

With poor chow, heat, humidity, daily downpours, ubiquitous mud, malaria, jungle rot, mosquitoes, crabs and rats, Pavuvu was hardly a rest camp.