Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Memories of Saipan

Shortly after The Insular Empire aired on KCTS, I got a phone call from a viewer who wanted to correct something she thought was inaccurate. Pete's story had indicated that there was no high school on Saipan - but she herself had attended high school there. I asked her what year that was, and she told me it was in the late 60s. I explained to her that Pete was older than she was – he attended high school in the 1950's – and that it wasn't until the Kennedy administration and the lifting of the security clearance in the Marianas that Saipan finally got a high school.

The viewer, whose name turned out to be Sue Morrow Flanagan, followed up later with a wonderful email describing more of her experiences in Saipan during that time. Here is an excerpt:

"Our family moved to Saipan as part of a business venture that didn't work out for my father. Until I spoke to you this afternoon I hadn't realised the Kennedy period was a period of such transformation.  Although, the greatest measure of transformation came on my last flight home.  We boarded a crowded flight from Guam to Hawaii.  I was moved to a seat away from my family and tucked in next to a Navy man.  He was Capt. McLinnis who was returning to Pearl Harbor to accept command of the USS Ticonderoga and would then return to Vietnam.

I should explain that I became a journalist to cover for my socially inappropriate curiosity.  Indeed, my mother swears my first word was "Why?"  I was grilling the Navy officer immediately.  He turned the tables and asked about Saipan. He knew every landmark I mentioned from our home in Garapan to Capitol Hill. Finally, I asked him when he was on Saipan and for how long. 

"I have never been there."  He replied.  Of course I maintained that was impossible.  How could he know so much detail?

"I bombed it for weeks from an aircraft carrier." he grimaced.  To my horror, he described the utterly ravaged landscape.  Another carrier group had inflicted severe damage in another Micronesian island group as well, he said with a strange mix of sorrow and grief. Captain McLinnis didn't speak for a minute or two, staring out the window. 

I watched his clenched jaw. I had described a landscape healing its war wounds while he was going on to another war. Despite being a naive, spoiled 16 year-old, I began to understand at a visceral level---- the radical changes Saipan had endured from the Spanish to the Japanese sugar plantations to the war and then our tanga-tanga Americanization.  Who knew that hurricanes, Japanese business and Chinese labor exploitation lay ahead?   Yet, now, none of that is as disturbing as Hope's daughters not speaking their native tongue. I was in Fiji when they claimed their independence and in Apia, Western Samoa soon after their independence.  Both nations reveled in returning to traditional garb, heritage and language. Heritage is a priceless treasure.  The loss of language seems to me a far greater loss than all the other catastrophes.  I do hope your film inspires the Chamorro and Carolinian people to reclaim their heritage.  They are an extraordinary people."

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