Under Captain Andrew’s guiding hand, Grin loops circles around S/V Romano ceremoniously flying Old Glory. “To capture S/V Romano as an American Territory!” Andrew declares.
Romano - a British Boat - has invited us to celebrate American Fourth Of July with them. Brexit 1776! After enjoying a cheese burger in paradise for lunch, Andrew and I gather up a two liter bottle of Coca-Cola and Sonrisa’s Ships’ Stores of Sailor Jerry. We transfer our flag from its normal pole on Sonrisa’s stern onto our longest boat hook. Then, we putter off to place our flag in the fertile soil of previously British owned terrain.
Really, there is no better place in the South Pacific to celebrate the 4th. As Sonrisa mentioned, Luganville was purpose built in 1942 to act as the United States supply and troop base to push Japan back from the West Pacific. In an amazing feat of wartime efforts, the first airstrip here was cleared of jungle and built in the span of only one week. Two more air strips followed in a short month. The city sprang up over night, built of Quonset Huts and tents to house thousands of troops.
After spending the last year and a half in countries built by up the Brits and the French, Luganville feels oddly American: wide, straight roads, businesses lined up in rows.
To cap off our tour of “Little America” as some call it out here, we make a snorkel trip over to Million Dollar Point. Million Dollar Point is one of the most fascinating physical archives of The American Attitude.
Prior to the war, a handful of French and British people made their home in Espirto Santo, growing coconut plantations. When the war started, the French and British were wooing the United States, trying to convince America to get involved and become an ally. When they asked what the US needed, the US requested Espirito Santo as an outpost. So, it was. Americans came here, built their base, including movie theaters, bars, and restaurants. We brought the delicious steaks that Andrew and I are so relieved to taste on Vanuatu’s shores. And, we brought countless jeeps, bulldozers, airplanes, boats, and all sorts of other war menagerie.
Once Japan surrendered, the Americans were all ready to go home. Just one thing. What were we going to do with all the equipment we brought here? We couldn’t take it home; all the war supply contracts with the companies who ramped up manufacturing promised that we wouldn’t bring the equipment back to the US and flood their market with cheap, used equipment for the foreseeable future. No one wanted to bring it all back anyhow. Taking account, packing up and steaming all that equipment back in ships would not only be very expensive but time consuming for troops who just wanted to return home. So, we started negotiating with the French.
As the American story goes, we offered the French a great deal! They could buy all this equipment for pennies on the dollar. The French, however, had other plans. They figured if they dragged their feet long enough, eventually, the Americans would just leave all the equipment behind. The French would have a new fleet of vehicles, all for free. This irritated the Americans quite a bit. And so, in the days before everyone was to board their ships to head home, we fired up all that top of the line war equipment, placed bricks on their accelerators, and drove it into the sea.
You read that right.
We drove it all into the sea.
At first, I feel this odd sense of pride. Of course we are not going to just give all this stuff to the French! At least until I get into the cab with our driver from Vanuatu. He relays the story, then falls silent.
“Tsk, tsk, tsk” he clicks with his tongue, shaking his head. How can anyone have so much money that they can build these machines, and then turn around and drive them into the sea? I am convinced that “tsk, tsk, tsk” is an involuntary sound the Ni Vanuatu make when they are feeling a mixture of awe and disgust.
We all know America cannot just arrive in a remote place like this, with our chocolate and Coca-Cola, fancy machines, picture movies and military swagger, and not make an impression. For better, for worse. In the 40s’ cargo cults sprang up amongst native peoples of the South Pacific, each hoping America would return from the sea and the sky to bring wealth. Most of these cults have died off, but here in Vanuatu the faith remains strong. On the Island of Tanna, Vanuatu (remember Mount Yasur and the team of all-night dancers?) there is an entire religious group who worships and waits for the return of their savior, an American named “John Frum”. Andrew and I did not get the time to explore the John Frum group in Tanna. If you want to know more about this, read this amusing article to learn more. Knowing all we have learned about the Ni Vanuatu’s sincerity, strong custom practice, and faith in magic, this author captured the spirit of the Tannese John Frum sect perfectly.
In any case, our taxi driver drops us off at a little hut where we pay $5.00 to enter Million Dollar Point National Park. We explore rusty bits of rubble on the reef. Crushed glass from millions upon millions of Coca Cola bottles line a mile of shore. We find a bottles intact, one stamped from Oakland, California and one stamped from San Francisco, California. We find an engine block, rusted into a solid block save for a shiny copper coil. The reef is no longer the floral, air filled garden of coral it once was, but a frozen block of fused rock, metal and Coca Cola bottles.
We jump in the water and find a mountain of rubble rising up from the depths. The axel and wheel set of a jeep, tractor treads, an enormous diesel engine.
We even find the shell of an old boat, sunk while salvage divers were trying to recover something from the mess we Americans made.
We dry off when our cab returns to pick us up. As we ride back to where Grin awaits, all three of us are “tsk, tsk, tsking.” Amazing. To think we would dump all of that in the ocean. To think that we shipped that many Coca-cola bottles here. How much did we spend shipping Coca-Cola all over the world during the war? “Tsk, tsk, tsk.”