The battleship Zuikaku remained at Truk the day we left, but the two massive war ships the Yamato and the Musashi accompanied us to our first port of call, Tarawa, in the Gilbert Islands. The Gilberts, comprised of sixteen small atolls, are located on the equator in the central Pacific Ocean, and Tarawa, one of its larger atolls, is its capital. Situated in the western corner of the atoll is an island called Betio; it’s the most densely populated island in the atoll. That is where my contact was waiting. It is also where the main Japanese contingent was based, under the command of Rear Admiral Shibasaki.
The Japanese forces arrived in 1941 and took over Tarawa atoll, fortifying Betio as their base. According to my papers my contact on the island was a Japanese trader named Kojima, who had married a Butaritari islander and was an interpreter for the Japanese, as he was fluent in English and ‘Gilbertese’ as well as Japanese of course.
As we docked at Betio I had my first look at the island, which didn’t take very long. Betio was about three kilometres in length, flat, and consisted mostly of sand and coral and palm trees. In amongst this was built the Japanese command buildings, guard posts and dugouts. The odd island hut could be seen here and there. However, before I could take a good walk around, Japanese soldiers arrived and escorted me to a meeting with Rear Admiral Shibasaki. His office was in the back of the command building, a large concrete structure with stairs to the roof. I was led inside, where I immediately exchanged official greetings with the commander before receiving green tea. I was also introduced to my contact, Kojima-san. I left the Rear Admiral’s office with free reign to conduct my business on the island.
Kojima-san guided my men and I to a nondescript little hut at the other end of the island. I wondered how there could be any resources at all on the island. What I really wanted was oil and rubber of course, but I didn’t feel very hopeful; surely the Japanese army would have confiscated any resources when they first arrived in any case. It was doubtful that the islanders had anything left. From what I read back on Kure, the Gilbert Islanders are dependent on the sea for their livelihood. They also grow their own tropical fruit and so on, as well as raising their own animals, mostly pigs and chickens.
The island seemed deserted. Two huge, surly looking islanders guarded the hut that Kojima led me to, and I was glad that I was being accompanied by my troops. This hut actually had a door, whereas most of the other huts simply had an entranceway. The door cracked open and a face peered out. I told the troops to wait and be ready to act.
“This is the island council, and they were in charge of Tarawa before the Japanese arrived. They have collected some oil and rubber, as per Japan’s request. But I must tell you that it is not much, as one would expect from a small fishing island. I’m very sorry.”
I was surprised that they had anything at all, and relieved not to be returning to my ship with nothing to show. I nodded in agreement, and told Kojima to express my thanks.
“Wait,” said Kojima. “They have something else to offer you…” he said, trailing off.
“Yes. What is it?” I asked, curious. He looked nervous and I sensed caution in his tone.
“The men know where some gold is stored, and are happy to trade it for an assurance from whoever’s in charge. They want to be protected from any harm by Japanese troops, be assured that our island women will be safe, and know that our men will be allowed to continue fishing.” I was stunned to be put in this position; I wasn’t a diplomat; just a kind of wartime tax collector. Sensing my hesitation, he explained further.
“You see, two years ago, Japanese troops stormed this atoll, and caused havoc here. There was much panic and a couple of women were raped. However one of the Japanese officers took charge and restored order to the island, but it was kept under Japanese control. We’re scared. We’d like to go back to the way things were. Is a deal possible?”
“Well, that is up to the Rear Admiral, surely. I mean, he is in charge here now,” I said.
“Then before we hand over any gold, we will need his reassurance. That’s the deal,” he replied, looking at me calmly and confidently. I was stunned by his attitude. However, the possibility of gold fascinated me. This was something I had never expected. I wanted it!
“Listen,” I said, frustrated, “I know this for sure. If you don’t hand over the gold, you’ll be dead before the end of the day. All I have to do is give the command! Understand?”
I placed my hand on my gun. A couple of them looked alarmed, and turned to Kojima with frightened expressions, but to my surprise Kojima smiled at me coolly and said,
“Yes, we will die, happily in fact, and you will leave here with nothing.” I was lost for words but before I could think of something intelligent to respond with, he continued.
“You see, if they don’t get the assurance, they are ready to die; today or whenever. But you’ll never find the gold on your own.” My mind was spinning, looking for an answer.
“Do you know my rank, Kojima-san? It is equal to that of the Rear Admiral, for the purpose of this operation. I will let him know the deal when I leave here. Is that clear?” He looked at me very carefully, scanning my uniform, and finally looking into my eyes.
“Do I have your word?” he finally asked, and the confidence had gone from his face. This was common between Japanese soldiers, from the samurai tradition, that one soldier would not lie to the other when giving their word. It was a matter of honour. Of course my loyalties were to General Tojo, not Kojima. But he would still believe ‘my word’.
“Yes,” I said, hating having to lie. “I will inform the Rear Admiral later today.”
He translated that to the men, and they nodded in unison. In the middle of the circle sat a pot, and some large cups made from decorated coconut shells. From the pot was poured a clear liquid, and a cup was handed to each of the other council members and myself. They raised their cups in my direction, and I followed suit, and we all drank the liquid. It was alcohol – sweet rum of some sort. My contact smiled at my reaction to the beverage, and explained that it was rum made from coconuts – an island specialty.
After this, the council stood up, and we all went back outside. They bristled slightly upon seeing the Japanese troops, but they led me past my soldiers and around the rear of the hut to a coconut grove. In the middle of the coconut grove, there were at least twenty strongly built island men standing in a circle around a small pyramid of wooden boxes.
“Never find it, eh?” I said to Kojima, who looked at me sideways and smirked, saying,
“Until yesterday, these crates were buried in secret locations around the islands.”
The council walked me over to the boxes, the islanders parting to let us through. The boxes appeared to be old shipping crates; behind them were a couple of barrels of oil and a few small boxes of used rubber. The man who I presumed was the council leader opened the top of the chest to reveal gold. Not just trinkets, but gold medallions as well!
“How does your island come to have solid gold medallions like this?” I asked Kojima.
“Trade” he replied simply. “And gifts. The islanders have received gold in return for birds, animals, coconuts, fruit, plants and so on. Some of it is from the French, some from the Germans, even some from a lost Spanish ship that was shipwrecked during a storm. Rewards for services, such as assisting ships wrecked on the coral and rocks form part of it as well, but what you see here has been accumulated over a couple of hundred years.”
I smiled and nodded. I gave an order for the troops to approach, and to carry the gold and resources back to the ship. I bowed to the island council members and followed my troops back to the dock. My contact, Kojima, said goodbye and stayed behind.
I spoke with Rear Admiral Shibasaki, and told him about the ‘deal’, promising to send the gold to Tokyo for the war effort. I don’t know if he intended to honour the deal with the islanders, but that was not my concern. Nevertheless, I noticed that Kojima-san was observing me, and he seemed satisfied as I left the commander’s office.
Back on the ship, I breathed a sigh of relief; my first job was completed without incident. Despite the lack of danger on Tarawa I felt relieved to be back in my cabin. The captain congratulated me on the successful completion of my first mission. The oil and rubber was recorded in a ‘resource inventory’ and stowed below, but my mind was captivated by the gold. It wasn’t recorded in the resource inventory, and was stored separately. The oil and rubber resources would be sent back to Japan in periodic shipments, but I decided there and then to present the gold at the very end of my mission to General Tojo as a surprise. I also began to think about the possibilities of gold on other larger islands.
So it became all about the gold, Joshua thought. Like father like son like grandson, he mused. It must run in the family. Joshua heard a noise outside his stateroom door – a small creak. He put aside the memoirs, his pad and pen, and the kanji dictionary he had been using to help him with translation and crept silently over to the cabin door.