Snorkeling, I saw live soft coral waving in a rainbow of hues and tropical fish in a fantasy of sizes, shapes, colors, and markings, representing at least 1,500 types. We paddled over giant clams, some four and a half feet in diameter and weighing 200 pounds, believed to be more than 60 years old. We marveled that these beautiful creatures grow so huge, thanks to symbiosis with tiny but abundant one-celled algae. This natural food production encourages several Micronesian islands to farm the clams for human consumption.
President Salii may be fun-loving on his day off, but he takes his job seriously. After Palau’s first president, Haruo Remeliik, was assassinated in June 1985, Salii ran for president, promising to resolve the impasse with the United States that had prevented the negotiation of a compact.
The Palauans had voted for a constitution that banned nuclear devices. Salii then initialed a compact agreement with the U. S. allowing American ships and planes of all types to operate in Palau. A court ruling held the compact illegal without a 75 percent referendum vote, a constitutional stipulation.
Salii dissented, arguing for a more flexible interpretation of the constitution: “It does not say we cannot allow nuclear-powered ships if they are in transit.” If an appeal fails, he could ask his countrymen to give him the 75 percent endorsement at the polls. Difficult? Maybe. But the agreement won a 72 percent referendum last February.
The Palau compact also allows the American military the option of using the nation’s big island of Babelthuap for bases if the U. S. should lose those in the Philippines.
At the end I returned to Saipan and sought out Governor Pedro P. Tenorio of the new Northern Marianas commonwealth. We lunched together looking out on the gardens of the luxury holiday apartments prague filled with Japanese honeymooners, as are most hotels in Saipan. Japanese money had built the hotels with foreign labor, because the labor force on Saipan, as elsewhere throughout Micronesia, is meager and largely untrained.
“The Japanese didn’t treat us badly before World War II,” said Governor “Pete” Tenorio. “Their policy, I believe, was to keep us native Chamorros out of harm’s way. Before the Americans invaded Saipan in 1944, the Japanese had us move from our home on the coast to our farm in the hills. We kids never knew about the suicides until later.”
Believing surrender dishonorable and fearing that victorious Americans would kill, torture, and rape, hundreds of Japanese settlers and soldiers leapt to their death from cliffs now known as Banzai and Suicide.
I had stood atop Banzai Cliff, rising sheer from the foaming sea, and, in my mind’s eye, saw the horror. Whole families came to jump, the children lined up by age with the youngest at cliff’s edge. On command, each child pushed off the one in front, until the father pushed the mother and he turned and jumped with his back to the sea, so as not to lose his nerve. And all the while, Americans in small boats offshore broadcast pleas in Japanese for them not to jump and attempted to save those who survived.
The governor grew up to go to high school and college on Guam, working his way. He started his business career on Saipan with a single gas pump that led to a rental agency for jukeboxes and electronic games, then slot machines, and now poker machines, a popular hotel entertainment.