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Thursday, April 17, 2014

A different time and place

William H. Stewart

Editor’s Note: Over the next several days the Saipan Tribune will present the notes and recollections of an island chronicler who looks back at the Northern Marianas to a distant, simpler time dating from the 1970s. Recorded by Bill Stewart, a frequent contributor to this paper’s Opinion section, his personal snapshots recall several experiences and events which occurred about 40 years ago during the Trust Territory period and later as remembered and recorded in his personal journal. Portions of the article first appeared in MP Magazine.

First of five-part series

Someone once observed that “time passes"—but I wonder if time doesn’t’ stay and we pass?” It is hard for me to comprehend the changes that have occurred in the islands within what I perceive to be a short period of 40 years between 1970 and the present.

It seems like only yesterday the Boeing 707, Trans World Airlines flight #1 enroute around the world landed at Guam International several hours before sunrise for a short fuel stop before proceeding with its military passengers to Vietnam thence to Bangkok and points west as it raced to keep ahead of the morning Sun.

Disembarking into the warm, early morning hours that September in 1970 on a rain-swept tarmac with humidity so thick, it took my breath away, I waited for the 6:30 morning flight to Saipan aboard a four-engine DC 6 that carried a few spare parts and its own onboard mechanic. This was my first encounter with an island in the western Pacific. Forty-five minutes after boarding the ancient aircraft for a destination north of Guam, it started its final approach toward a brush-lined, unlighted, coral airstrip at Saipan International. When approaching the island for the first time it loomed out of the sea like a mirage, a green protruding tip of an undersea mountain surrounded by a vast expanse of blue sky and water.

During the aircraft’s decent to the island my thoughts returned to the strange turn of events which eventually culminated in my approaching an isolated island in the far reaches of the Pacific that I barely remembered from World War II headlines.

Until 1944 the Micronesian islands, sprinkled like tiny jewels across a vast universe of water, were known as the Japanese Mandated Islands. After the war they were considered a strategic trust by the U.S. military and closed off.

A series of buildings were constructed on Capitol Hill around 1953 by the Central Intelligence Agency to house staff responsible for training certain Asian personnel in the black art of covert activities and guerrilla warfare. This activity was undertaken by the top secret U.S. Naval Tactical Training Unit, (NTTU).

To this day, I have been unsuccessful in filling this “void” in the Northern Marianas’ history and, as a result of my research efforts, have been told to “stay out of it as it’s none of my business.” In 1962 the CIA closed the complex and it became the administrative center for managing the affairs of 2,100 islands of which only a 100 or so were inhabited and spread over three million square miles of the Pacific. I am of the belief the NTTU’s departure was the result of a man who visited Saipan in search of any local person who may have remembered seeing, or hearing, of an American aviatrix rumored to have been picked up by the Japanese and brought to the island after her aborted attempt to fly around the world in 1937. In his search for information about Amelia Earhart the gentleman stumbled upon the Capitol Hill facility and later mentioned it in a book planned for publication which the authorities tried to censor failing to realize that Amelia

Earhart’s husband was George Putnam of the famous Putnam Publishing Company.

Curiously, when the book was published the secret base was abandoned. However, there is no proof of any connection.

The Northern Marianas was one of six districts throughout Micronesia administered from the headquarters of the government of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands located on Saipan’s Capitol Hill. After NTTU’s abandonment the islands were administered for the United Nations by the U.S. Department of Interior. Those were the days when the Cold War was at its height and every two years various members of the United Nation’s Security Council would make inspection tours, always accompanied by a Russian member to evaluate the American government’s stewardship of the area. The Soviet representative was rarely pleased. But I’m getting ahead of my story.

On the day of my arrival and my first encounter with the island the plane flew low over the airstrip and I was told that this maneuver was a safety measure since there was no control tower and a “fly by” was necessary to check the wind direction and scare away any stray dogs or cattle that might have wandered onto the weed infested landing path of World War II’s Kobler Field situated at the southern tip of Saipan along what is now Koblerville Road.

Disembarking from the aircraft one entered a small, dilapidated, sun-bleached, corrugated tin structure without doors and without glass in open air windows. Dogs wandered about freely with little concern for those arriving or departing as if waiting for all the temporary intruders to leave so they could resume their lazy slumber on the floor or upon one of several roughly hewn wooden benches. By the late summer of 1970 the islands were almost devoid of the amenities of the last quarter of the 20th century—certainly the airport was.

One particular dog would meet every aircraft arrival, run up the steps when the door was opened and race down the aisle between the feet of deplaning passengers toward the cockpit where the stewardess fed it sandwiches. The dog met every flight. “Pilot’ was a regular fixture at the airport and when the day came when the crew was transferred to Guam they took Pilot with them. I guess he entered Guam without any papers but he did arrive with a full stomach.

For many years Air Micronesia was the only travel link many had with the world beyond the horizon. Two factors are responsible for the association of the far flung islands of the Federated States of Micronesia, (Pohnpei, Kosrae, Chuuk and Yap). Continental Air Micronesia connected them by the contrails of its engines and a billion dollar “pipeline” to the U.S. Treasury.

Little did I know when I left the terminal that September morning that I would spend many years of my life on the island.

To be continued

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