The Yeh-Yeh series shares rich stories and oral traditions of Saipan. The name is inspired by Refaluwasch elder Lino Olapai’s childhood memory of being told to say “yehyeh” as the elders told stories. Once it was quiet, the elders knew the children were asleep.
When Don Farrell left his home in the mountains above San Bernardino on New Year’s Eve at the dawn of 1977, he had to chip ice from his driveway to get out.
From Los Angeles, he flew to Honolulu then boarded another plane in the dark to his destination––“Gwaim.” (That’s right, he didn’t even know the pronunciation.)
The 30-year-old marine biologist, scuba aficionado, and teacher was setting out on a new adventure, answering a call to teach in Guam after Typhoon Pamela had devastated the island and scared the previous teachers away.
He had to go to the library to even learn about Guam; he had never heard of it. “I searched in the encyclopedia for G-U-A-M and there it was, with two paragraphs, an American flag, and its coordinates: 145° East, 13.5° North. Coral Reef Country.”
When he arrived, he blinked his unbelieving eyes as the sun finally rose in his new destination. “Jesus!” he exclaimed. “There were coconuts, and hibiscus, and bougainvillea blooming. It’s freakin’ January. And, I said to myself, ‘OK, I like what I see so far.’”
Now 73, Farrell sits in a lawn chair in the shade of a lada tree on North Field, just near the bomb pits, on Tinian. It’s hard to grapple with the gravity of this exact spot, barely marked today for its incredible role in world history. This place where the atomic bombs were loaded quietly and covertly into the Enola Gay to fly to Japan at the culmination of World War II.
But Farrell is working tirelessly to change that. The accomplished historian, teacher, and author has recently published a new book, Atomic Bomb Island, and he’s already working on the next one.
He laughs easily and often behind his long gray beard. His Hawaiian shirt features not the usual tropical flowers but vintage war planes. He seems as surprised as anyone that “a boy from Oklahoma” has become a published author and historian.
When he first arrived in Guam, Farrell taught at Inarajan Junior High School in the south. It was not a popular post at the time. While the rest of the teachers were assigned to bigger schools and air-conditioned housing, Farrell ended up living in a trailer on a beach in Merizo near the Chamorro community.
“It turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said.
And it was on a chance trip to check out his new school library that Farrell discovered a treasure trove of historical books on World War II.
“Someone had purchased every major WWII novel ever published about the Pacific,” he said. “So I started reading them. I didn’t know the story of Guam or what happened to the Chamorros. And then I started noticing the names of my students, and how they were the same as the names in the books. I started asking my students, ‘Hey, are you related to this guy?”
Farrell started interviewing anyone he could who lived through the Merizo massacre, when Japanese soldiers massacred nearly 50 Chamorro men and women from Merizo in two separate confrontations. He continued to learn all he could, reading books, and talking to anyone who would talk to him.
His original teaching position eventually fizzled out and he moved on to other jobs. He sold Revlon lipsticks and spent his afternoons underwater, diving. He bought a sailboat and sailed to the Northern Islands, once even leading a group of birders for the Smithsonian, a gig that paid for his new sail. He was living the good life.
But his interest in island history only grew and he soon began writing regular articles for Pacific Daily News. It wasn’t long before he attracted the attention of local political figures, and he was soon offered a job as the public relations officer for the Guam legislature.
It was in this position that his then boss, David Tydingco, convinced him to turn all his articles into a book. Farrell was incredulous. Who would want to read all these stories? But he found a publisher in Japan. And Farrell took out a $10,000 loan to pay for it.
This book was published as the first edition of the Americanization of Guam in 1981. And with Tydinco’s help, they sold all 1,000 copies.
“Around that time, I made a critical decision for myself. I would focus on the history of the Pacific. I really wasn’t considered anybody in anything. But, I decided then I would focus all my effort on the history of the Marianas.”
And that’s exactly what Farrell has done. That first book turned into a new edition, then more titles, as Farrell left work in the public sector to move to Tinian, his wife Carmen’s home island.
Farrell once again turned to teaching, and focused on his writing, including a two-year project to research and write a modern history textbook for the Public School System, The History of the Northern Mariana Islands.
But it was an email from a librarian in Guam that pulled his focus even narrower. That friend had a directive: Go to the National Archives. Ask to see Record Group 77. The Tinian Atomic Bomb files.
Farrell was intrigued––so much so he followed his friend’s advice. And sure enough, when he made the trip to ask for the files, a young researcher at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland, gave a forlorn look and then disappeared. He returned 45 minutes later, dirtier and dustier, with the box of files.
The notes weren’t in order. And Farrell couldn’t decipher any of it. There were code names and dates. But he could tell it was important, and there was a story to tell.
He copied every one of the some-2,500 pages, put them in a box and hand-carried them all the way back to Saipan. He found atomic bomb experts to help him decode and transcribe every page. This incredible research became his book, Tinian and the Bomb, a detailed account about the important and often overlooked role Tinian played in the Pacific Theater of WWII.
His newest release, Atomic Bomb Island, is a new edition of that book, published by his first stateside publisher, Stackpole Books. It includes updates from some of the best atomic bomb critics in the world and includes new photos from Los Alamos.
Farrell is now working on his next book: Seabees and Superforts: Tinian’s role in the Ultimate Defeat of Japan.
Farrell is quick to say that writing books is simply his passion. He’s not getting rich. But he gets so much more out of it.
“Since my first visit to Tinian on Easter weekend 1980, the people of Tinian have treated me kindly. So many told me stories about life on Tinian after the war, stories that I have shared with the outside world.”
He gestures out to the abandoned and overgrown North Field, once the largest operating airport in the world, housing 200 roaring B-29s that often shook the entire island. Now, only the occasional kingfisher soars through the tangan tangan branches in the breeze.
“I will spend the rest of my life doing this,” Farrell said. “Because I live here. And because it’s an important story.”
Lindsay Nash is a writer and photographer who lives on Saipan. She is a member of the Marianas Writers’ Movement and is currently writing a novel about 20th century Saipan. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.