Warning: Some of these photos are graphic; story by Circe Olson Woessner
One day my neighbor, Ed, knocked on my door. He had two stacks of black and white photos held together by ancient rubber bands.
“These are pictures my stepfather took with his Brownie camera in the Pacific during World War II. Do you want to see them?”
I invited him in.
We sat at the kitchen table going through the stacks of photos one by one. He said he didn’t know much about them. Some of them were taken on Tinian, some of them were taken on Saipan and a couple of them were from Midway. All of them showed the mythical, legendary fighting Seabees. Ed’s stepfather ,John F. Givens, was one of the Seabees who have been immortalized in movies and television documentaries and in history
The photos had a variety of subjects: dead Japanese soldiers, prison camps, the ancient ruins of Tinian, bombed-out cities, sailors rigging showers and baths out of various materials. It was amazing because these photos had never been seen by anybody except Ed and his immediate family.
The photos told an interesting story, one not written about in Wikipedia or other scholarly journals. Apparently the Seabees got a ration of liquor on occasion, and there was an awful lot of partying going on in between the serious business of war. In some of the pictures there was an unidentified woman; Ed had no idea who she was. Was she a wife, a girlfriend, a servant, a camp follower? She was in many pictures, as was a gentleman who was dressed in similar attire. Who were they?
There weren’t very many pictures of this Pied Piper in Wikipedia, so I cannot say that any of Ed’s photos were of the Pied Piper–Guy Gabaldon.
According to Wikipedia, “PFC Guy Louis Gabaldon (March 22, 1926–August 31, 2006) was a United States Marine who, at age 18, captured (or persuaded to surrender) roughly 1,500 Japanese soldiers and civilians during the Battle of Saipan (1944) in World War II. For these actions, Gabaldon was nominated for the Medal of Honor but was instead awarded the Silver Star, which was later upgraded to the Navy Cross Medal. His exploits were the basis for the 1960 Hollywood film Hell to Eternity.”
Upon claiming the airfield, the 121st NCB Seabees set to work filling bomb craters and laying steel mat on the runways. Fighter planes landed on the 20th June; this airfield was used by fighters on mopping-up operations. At night time a few Japanese planes bombed the field. The damage was light and the Seabees were not distracted from their task.”
David Moore, Cdr. USN (Ret.) in the Battle of Saipan – The Final Curtain wrote,
“A few days later, a visit to the 121st Seabee camp revealed a windmill which was operating to wash the battalion’s clothes. They fought first class. At the same time, just north in a field, Marines were firing mortars to dislodge some enemy pockets. A few of the enemy infiltrated to the airstrip where the Seabees stopped them.”
Tinian in area map, southwest of Saipan showing waters around islands, and deeper Pacific section.
According to Wikipedia, when the “US turned the entire island, excepting its three highland areas, into a 40,000-personnel installation, Navy Seabees (107th NCB) laid out the base in a pattern of city streets resembling New York’s Manhattan Island, and named the streets accordingly. The area south of West Field was developed from the main Japanese installation at Sunharon. This was nicknamed “The Village” because its location corresponded to that of Greenwich Village. A large square area between West and North Fields, used primarily for the location of the base hospitals and otherwise left undeveloped, was called Central Park.
The Japanese had constructed three small fighter strips on Tinian, but none were suitable for bomber operations. Under the Americans, nearly the entire northern end of the island was occupied by the runways, almost 11 miles (18 km) of taxiways and the airfield area, designed to accommodate the entire 313th Bombardment Wing of B-29 Superfortress bombers.
It was from Tinian that the bombers Enola Gay and Bockscar from the 509th Composite Group carrying the atomic bombs Little Boy and Fat Man were launched against Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The bomb components were delivered to the island by the USS Indianapolis and aircraft of the 509th Composite Group.”
As we went through the photos, Ed told me a little bit about his family. His birth father had been in World War I and had been gassed by the Germans, Although he survived the gassing, he was very ill and died at a young age. Right after World War II, Ed was a young man just getting ready to go into the Air Force. He took his mother to a dance in their small town in in Nebraska. While they were at this small town dance, they met John Givens who was there with his mother and his grandmother. Ed’s mother and Mr. Givens fell in love and married, so Ed became a stepson as an adult to John Givens.
Ed respected and admired his stepfather very much. They shared much in common, having served in the military. When Ed got out of the military and as his stepfather grew older, he shared these photos with Ed.
Now almost 70 years later, Ed and I sat at the kitchen table looking at history held together by rubber bands and thought back to these fighting Seabees, these magnificent, heroic men who literally carved pathways through the jungles, clearing spaces for airfields , landing strips and docks to help the US win World War II
Looking at the conditions in the prisoner camp, the horrific wounds on the dead Japanese soldiers, the destroyed infrastructure and the ingenious adaptations these men made, the story of the Pacific war became much clearer for me. I saw these people– these long dead heroes—as mortal men, living, fighting, playing tourist and celebrating the good times.
As we stacked the pictures, one by one, I examined Ed, now in his mid-80s and saw another side of him.
He had been shaped by two different men– one who had lived through World War I “the War to End all Wars” and one who had been fought his way across the Pacific in World War II. That man was one of the “Greatest Generation.”
I thanked Ed for sharing his photos, and asked if I could scan some of them into the computer. As we both parted, I smarter and more informed; Ed glad to have shared photos from his hero– his stepfather. He turned to me and said, “Now, after all this time, someone will see those photos.”