In case you missed it last week, my answer to the question in the title of this column is, “Depends on which island.”
I have spent about one-quarter of my life on one island or another, a total of 20 years on Staten Island, Iceland, Japan, Okinawa, and England, though I don’t really count Japan and England as islands. They were so big they lost the island “feel.”
At one time or another I have also had the good luck to spend some time on the Azores, Hawaii, Wake, Guam, the Philippines, Rhode Island, and a few others not worth mentioning.
We can toss out Hawaii, the Azores, and the Philippines. I didn’t spend enough time there to tell you more than what the place looked like, and that you can get from a tourist guide.
So, having disposed of Iceland and Okinawa last time, what does that leave us with? Let’s see ...
Wake, Guam, and Rhode Island.
What’s that you say, Johnny? Rhode Island ain’t an island?
Must be. It calls itself “The Ocean State.”
That doesn’t count?
OK, I confess. I only put Rhode Island on the list because being a New Englander I knew it wasn’t an island and thought you might wonder how it got its name.
Which is a screwy enough tale to make it worth telling.
Truth is, Rhode Island isn’t called Rhode Island. It’s actual name is “The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.” That’s right. Look it up.
Smallest state, biggest name.
So how did it come by such an outlandishly long moniker?
It seems that in 1636, Roger Williams and his followers left the Massachusetts Bay Colony because of religious differences. Off they went to form “Providence Plantations,” a whole new colony.
But not too long afterward, in 1639 if I remember right, a part of the Providence group splintered off and went to a location which included an actual island named Rhode Island, which name they gave to their new colony. It was located near present day Newport, and later on the two splinter groups joined together as one colony, and when the state was formed after the revolution it was called The State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.
Except by sensible people, who just call it Rhode Island.
I’m sorry to have to get a little serious now. We have come to Wake Island, a place I can never treat lightly because it has a special meaning for me, one I won’t go into here.
I never spent much time on Wake — just five days all told, but I have walked the entire atoll. I’m sure you remember Wake. World War II. Pearl Harbor bombed. The Philippines bombed and invaded. Hawaii hunkered down for the worst. Our small islands like Wake, Guam and Midway warned to expect immediate attack, but told they would have to hold out on their own.
How I would hate to be on an island as small as Wake with an invasion fleet steaming toward me. Wake Island — actually three small islets which make up a tiny atoll — is all sand. It’s just 10 or 12 miles long in a V-shape, and nowhere is it over a quarter mile wide. In fact, most of it is narrower than that.
Can you picture being trapped in a place like that? Over 2,000 miles from Hawaii and 1,500 miles from Guam? Can you imagine being told to hold out as long as you could? We had just 450 Marines and 68 Navy people there, along with some civilians who volunteered to fight, even knowing they risked execution for doing it.
Incredibly, even though the enemy threw an invasion fleet at Wake, which eventually included two aircraft carriers, three light cruisers, six destroyers, and two light destroyers which had been converted to patrol boats, we stopped the first invasion dead, and held out afterward for a total of 15 days.
In what, and behind what I do not know. I remember walking that sand, looking at abandoned emplacements, eying the hulks of enemy ships still protruding from the sea, picturing brave men facing the combined naval guns of 14 enemy vessels, and the planes from two aircraft carriers, and wondering how they did it.
But somehow or other they did.
Wake Island cost the enemy two destroyers, one submarine, and somewhere between 700 and 900 dead, in addition to 300 wounded.
We lost 49 Marines, three Navy men, and 10 civilians. Except for some of the civilians who were kept on the island as laborers, and were later machine gunned, everyone else was shipped to POW camps.
How many survived those POW camps I do not know. But this I do know: I am sitting here now writing this, and you are sitting wherever you are, reading it, because brave men laid down their lives for us on that lonely piece of sand and coral. Freedom is a precious thing when it is bought at such a high price.
Of the fight for Guam, I am happy to say, I know nothing, but of Guam in 1962, and of Anderson AFB in particular, I know a bit more.
I spent 11 days there handling inbound and outbound cargo and passenger aircraft at a time when we were sneaking troops and equipment into Vietnam.
A couple of things impressed me, as one of them did again later on Okinawa.
When you can stand in one place and see both sides of an island you realize an island like that exists only as long as the sea allows it to exist. The other thing, a bit lighter in nature, was my first view of the runway on Anderson AFB.
It runs uphill and downhill! And ends at a steep cliff.
That’s right. The first time I saw an aircraft going hell bent for leather up a slope, with all four engines roaring in an attempt to take off, I could hardly believe my eyes. I watched and watched, and then ...
It reached the end of the runway and disappeared.
Fortunately, it showed up again after a few seconds, slowly climbing into the blue.
They tell me there’s a shark down there below the cliff at the end of the runway. Got a good ear for engines with a problem.
They call him Check Point Charlie.
And on places like Guam, what they call me is ... gone.