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Tacloban and Copra

by Willie Lagarde


Before we left Leyte in August 1947, I tried to locate the area where my brother-in-law Charlie came ashore with the 96th Infantry and began fighting his way inland sometime before General MacArthur and his entourage of reporters and photographers left their boats and waded to the beach.

In the summer of 1942 I had given my sister away in marriage to Charlie shortly after he graduated from OCS. He was my brother-in-law and loyal friend for over fifty five years until he died The 96th went on to fight on Okinawa where Charlie was wounded and several of his close friends who had been together since the division was activated in Aug 1942 were killed. Casualties for the 96th in the Philippines and Okinawa were over 2000 killed and 6000 wounded.

MacArthur has been described by some as our greatest general, but very few of the Marines and soldiers I knew who actually fought in our Pacific war had good words to say about him. The Marines in particular were unimpressed and had sayings like; "by the grace of God and a handful of Marines, MacArthur returned to the Philippines." The only people I ever heard speak well of him were some of his staff and those who had no battle experience serving under him. It didn't matter to me one way or another, in my opinion Adm. Nimitz was calling the shots in the Pacific.

Next stop for us would be Long Beach CA over 7000 miles away, and then another 4000 or so miles through the canal and on to New Orleans. This is a long way to go in a liberty ship even one considered "fast" like this one that could cover up to 280 miles noon to noon with favorable winds and currents. The only land we would see in those 7000 miles was Agrihan when we passed to the north of the Marianas The sea looks the same everywhere but there was something special about the area we would pass through and over. I could feel it, especially in the gray light of dawn or when the sky was red at dusk. It wasn't deja vu, I knew I had been here before. Sometimes I almost got carried away or drifted into a reverie of sorts. In these same waters but rather than one of thirty seven men on lone freighter, I was part of a three thousand man crew in the company of many other ships and thousands of men. We weren't moving along at ten or eleven knots but on a high speed run in to the target with our wakes strung out to the horizon. Rather than the throb of a single reciprocating engine turning a screw at seventy something revs there was a high frequency vibration and everything loose was rattling. I could visualize the pre-dawn launches when we had a full deck load of planes and the roar of eighty or more engines with their blue flame exhausts. The F6F Hellcats in the first rows with those murderous 14' propellers and the chock pullers who were scooting on their rumps defying death doing their thing. Then the flight deck bo'suns with their hand lights, red in the palm and green on the back, calling planes out of the rows one by one in quick orderly fashion and directing them to the launching spot. No matter how the raid on this day or any day played out, these men were in charge now and until all the planes were airborne and on their way it was their show.

Our military forces of that time had the full support of the media as well as Hollywood and the entertainment industry. Bad seeds have since germinated in the sewers and cesspools of our country and have sprouted to corrupt and pollute a large segment of these institutions who unwittingly or not have become an enemy within.

You can't tell a story about a ship carrying a load of copra (dried coconut meat) without mentioning the copra bugs or beetles as they are sometimes called. They are black, about 3/8 to 1/2" long and they bite, not to sting but to take a bite out of your flesh. They can't break the skin but you can feel them trying. I didn't see them as a problem until we were at sea a couple of days when they began multiplying and swarming everywhere. They were on the bulkheads, tables and in our bunks. We had to pick them out of the food we ate. We were told the bugs were valuable to some importers and to make no effort to exterminate them because they were loaded with coconut oil. Our cargo was slated to go into soap and cosmetics production or so we were told. When we finally reached Long Beach and would be there long enough to go ashore for a few beers a couple of us went to a bar about a mile from the pier. I had become so accustomed to seeing them for the last month that we were on our third beer before I realized there was a copra bug crawling on the bar. When the bartender noticed my concern he walked over, examined the creature and said; "it's nothing, there must be a copra ship in the harbor".

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