Pick from the Past
Natural History Magazine, June 1943
Every Man His Own Robinson Crusoe
course in South Sea Island adaptation, the curriculum determined by the Bernice P. Bishop Museum of Honolulu, is now part of the training of the Ranger and Combat School in Hawaii, whose function it is to prepare picked men for commando action. It came about in this way.
After the Battle of Midway, when Hawaii could breathe easier and we at Bishop Museum had finished the job of mimeographing manuscripts and putting specimens in what we hoped were safer places, we had frequent opportunities to meet and talk with men heading southward. It was soon evident that our experience on expeditions and our knowledge of fauna, flora, and native means of providing food, shelter, and comfort would be of inestimable value in many situations. The stories coming in from fliers forced down at sea or in the interior of islands prompted us to volunteer to talk to crews about to go into action over the island areas.
For reply, two officers were sent to me at Bishop Museum to obtain information to incorporate into a Castaways Baedeker to the South Seas (printed by the Objective Data Section, Intelligence Center, Pacific Ocean Area, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii). Mr. Edgar Schenck, Director of the Honolulu Academy of Arts, heard of this and conceived the idea of my putting on at the Academy an exhibition, Native Lore for Castaways in the South Seas. This took place in January as a joint effort of the two museums. From the start we were swamped with requests from various air units for gallery talks and demonstrations in the court where a sample camp site had been set up. The exhibition was moved to Bishop Museum, where interest has continued unabated.
As a result of the possibilities opened up by the exhibition, the Ranger and Combat School asked Bishop Museum to organize and supervise a course in jungle living. An experimental group of eight officers and men was assigned to me for a short, intensive course. At the end of a week of instruction at the Museum, I took the class out onto the shores where conditions most nearly approximate those in the South Seas. They were introduced to the plant and animal life of reef and shore, and shown how these resources can be used towards solving problems of food, shelter, transportation, and maintenance.
After this, the men put on a demonstration for the whole school, simulating what they would do if sent on an island patrol. They appeared loaded with the food they would have picked up on the waypandanus fruit, breadfruit, bananas,
|They were introduced to the plant and animal life of reef and shore, and shown how these resources can be used towards solving problems of food, shelter, transportation, and maintenance.|
While I talked on the virtues of the various foods, the men prepared them. Sprouted coconuts were husked on the flat, sharp point of a straight stick thrust in the ground. Spectators were served the base of the sprout, millionaires salad in embryo, as well as the delicate uto, or marshmallow-like growth that fills the space once occupied by the fluid of the coconut. The half shells with their lining of coconut meat were laid out in the sun to dry. This dried coconut meat, or copra, would serve as reserve food, or after grating it, oil could be pressed out for relieving sunburn or preventing knives and guns from rusting. Pieces of this dried meat, impaled on a coconut leaflet midrib, made a perfect candle.
Mature coconuts were husked in less than a minute, split evenly in half by a blow with a stone on the center of the rib running midway between the eyes, and shredded into a heap of snowy white particles. The grater was made of coconut shell. With a pocket knife the shell was edged with teeth and then firmly lashed by a strip of bark to the end of a small log raised off the ground. The grated meat was
|In less than half an hour the house stood completed, floored with sleeping mats of coconut leaf, closed in at one end with leaf screens and at the other end with a mosquito netting of coconut cloth.|
The foods were wrapped in ti-leaves, placed on banana leaves laid on the nest of hot stones in the oven, and covered over with leaves and earth; then the second act began. This was the setting up of a shelter made entirely of coconut leaves. Thirty green leaves served for the thatching of this house, which was erected by six men and was capable of accommodating them. I demonstrated how a leaf thatch could be plaited in two minutes, while the men put up the frame of the house. The thatch was then tied on, beginning at the bottom, pairs of thatch sheets overlapping each other at intervals of six inches. In less than half an hour the house stood completed, floored with sleeping mats of coconut leaf, closed in at one end with leaf screens and at the other end with a mosquito netting of coconut cloth (leaf stipule).
Before opening the steaming oven to serve hot sweet potatoes, yams, bananas, and breadfruit to be dipped into the cups of coconut cream, one of the men showed how he would prepare himself to go out onto the reef to collect shellfish. He made himself a coconut leaf eyeshade, a pair of hibiscus-bark sandals,
|Stress is constantly put on the fact that the techniques they are taught and the knowledge given come originally from natives.|
These were some of the main points of the demonstration. In the week following, the whole school was taken out to an ideal location and the instruction received by the special class passed on to all. Stress is constantly put on the fact that the techniques they are taught and the knowledge given come originally from natives, and that it is greatly to their advantage as soon as they are on an island in the South Seas to contact natives and add to the foundation for tropical island living given them while in Hawaii.
The skills they have acquired are a source of pride, and the practice of them a recreation. The men are also taught what fruits to avoid, what fish are likely to be poisonous, how to use certain plants for cathartics, astringents, germicides, and antidotes for fish poisoning, and how to negotiate reefs without being knocked down by waves, cut by coral, or nipped by a shark. An unlooked for result of this preparation is an entire change in the attitude of the men who face the prospect of fighting in the southern islands. Dread of the unknown and boredom of waiting are replaced by lively anticipation and the pleasure of learning to be self-reliant in a world new to them.