Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Captain of the Head: A Shithole Story

Bob Hamant, "A Marine on Tinian"
   A certain word has been much in the news lately, and it reminded me of a story I recorded several years ago during an interview in Cincinnati with Bob Hamant. Bob spent a year with the Marines on the island of Tinian during World War II.
   The story, one of many Bob told during the interview, which was arranged by his daughter, began with a discussion of the atomic bomb.
   "Toward the end of the war," Bob said, "they issued us wool socks, wool pants, jackets, wool sweaters, gloves. Hell, it's 90 degrees on the average [on Tinian], what are they gonna need that for? And nobody knows anything, but they gave you all this survival training for the winter. Hell, the only place they could take would be Alaska and we already owned that. But one thing we did have while we had that stuff, one of the guys says, 'Hey, there's a big plane up there on the airfield,' and he says, 'They're doing something to the bomb bay doors.'
   "Somebody says they're going to take a bigger bomb.' [The Enola Gay, which dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima, took off from Tinian.] "Well, if you want to keep something a secret, you put guards around it, so then everybody comes up and looks. And we asked the guards. They didn't know. They just said they're doing something to the bomb bay doors, and that's it. 'We're supposed to keep everybody away.'
   "Hey, the bigger the better that you could drop on them. Well, nobody knew what an atomic [bomb was]. And so we found out. They notified us that they dropped an atomic bomb on Japan, and in the area where it dropped nobody will be able to live for 45 years. And we thought if they drop a couple more, we'll go home and everything will be fine. I don't know how many days it was later on they dropped the second one, and they came down and said, 'Turn in all your winter gear.' And then they told us we were supposed to make an invasion on northern Kyushu, which has snow, and they expected like 85 percent casualties because the Japs were gonna fight to the last man and old woman, and the cold. They said we'll lose almost half the guys from the cold alone, with frostbite.
   "So we were really glad we didn't have to go. But anybody comes along and says we were horrible for dropping the atomic bomb needs their head examined. There are thousands and thousands of guys, maybe millions of them, that are living today because they dropped it. And probably in Japan too, it probably saved a lot of their lives."
   "You mentioned the prospect of frostbite," I said. "What about malaria?"
   I'm not 100 percent sure what made me ask that, but I thought since Tinian was a tropical island, it might have been a problem.
   "That was more or less in the Philippines," Bob said. "There was no malaria on our island."
   "Even with all the mosquitoes?" I asked.
   "No, we had mosquitoes," Bob said. "There's something I forgot to mention was flies. You can't imagine the amount of flies. At night the flies would go and land on a tree, and a little twig would wind up to be a big branch because the flies were on top of flies. And when you went to eat, when you opened that can, the flies were on it like that. Your food disappeared, so we had to figure something out. We had mosquito netting, you'd pull it over your head and try to eat, but after a while you weren't so persnickety, you'd eat flies. When you went to the john, there'd be maybe ten million flies in there and you almost didn't have to wipe your butt because the flies were so thick. It was pitiful.
   "Oh, that's another story I could tell you. I got put on as captain of the head. That means you've got to clean the heads. So I had an oxcart that I would bring around and it had gasoline on it. I'd throw a cup full of gasoline down each one of the holes and roll up some toilet paper, set it on fire, toss it in the hole, step out the door, and it'd go 'Whooooff!' And it would kill all the flies.
   "Well, I ran out of gasoline, so I told the truck driver, 'I need more gasoline.'
   "He said, 'Okay.' He brings out a 55-gallon drum, and we put it on the oxcart, and I went in there and I threw a cup full of gasoline down each one. This was different, it's an eight-holer, and I rolled up the toilet paper, lit it, threw it down there, closed the lid, stepped out, and there was the biggest explosion you'd ever want to see. I got hit by the door, and about two or three hundred feet up in the air there was toilet paper flying. Here they gave me aviation gas. I was just getting the regular old gas. I blew that thing all to hell. But I was just lucky the door hit me, and nothing else. I was clean. That was funny. And they gave me another name for that, I forget what that one was. 'Don't go to the john when Hamant's around!'"

Order the full two-hour audio interview with Bob Hamant from my eBay store:

Bob's interview is included along with three other interviews in the audiobook "Four Marines."

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