Feb 10, 2009


Carp Island Resort, Palau, Micronesia – Where the shell path slices into the mangroves, the young woman glances back. “Where are you from?” she whispers, in English.

“Seattle. America,” I reply. “You?”


Air erupts from my lungs and I wrestle the vacuum into a noise like “oh.”

“You’ve heard of it?” she beams.

Yes, of course, I want to say. My people fought yours for these islands, bomber runs low and swift and sharp, planes cartwheeling into the peacock waters of Palau, snarling the jungle’s vines. The Japanese honeycombed the upraised limestone of the Rock Islands and stained the beaches orange with U.S. marines’ blood. Near Carp Island – where afternoon sun and hibiscus blossoms mellow the dive resort even further – our counties played out some of the Pacific theater's’s most gruesome moments. And then, to end it all, America’s B29s winged from nearby Tinian to flash final and bright over Hiroshima, and then Nagasaki. Little Boy and Fat Man froze shadows in stone. "Practically all living things, human and animal, were literally seared to death," Radio Tokyo announcers said in a broadcast captured by Allied sources.

Those two atomic clouds – the only attacks with nuclear weapons in warfare’s history – killed at least 220,000 people, mainly civilians. But they also sparked the end of World War II, six days later, when Emperor Hirohito surrendered, declaring, “we must … suffer what is unsufferable” on August 15, 1945. The bombs’ justifiers speak of the millions saved by this capitulation. But I can’t stop picturing the kimono pattern, burned into a maiden’s shoulder – a girl perhaps about the age of Yayoi Hiraoka here.

Had I heard of Hiroshima? Yeah. Kinda.

I stare into her face, smiling and moon-bright. She’s roughly half my 33 years, I would guess, though it's hard to tell. Too young to feel the ache of all this history … or perhaps just young enough to think first and foremost of a stroll to the stone money quarry. We are two divers on a path of crushed shells. Does it really matter that her ancestors build this road to kill mine?

The debris of WWII craters Palau, and confronts me again and again. About 1,180 miles southeast of Okinawa, this Micronesian archipelago was earmarked as the capital of Japan’s overseas empire. They brought geishas, cinemas and sake houses to Koror, now a dusty ribbon of strip malls.

But it doesn’t matter much, because most tourists are divers – and some of the planet’s best descents lie offshore: the Blue Holes, Blue Corner and Peleliu Express. Palau sits at the nexus of three mighty currents, a condition that spawns close to 1,500 fish species alone. Sharks mingle with mantas, turtles, lionfish and even dugongs, the manatee-like sea cows. Flatworms ripple, gorgonian sea fans splay and jewel-bright mandarin fish hide their psychedelic patterns among staghorn corals. And in a brackish marine lake, the rare non-stinging mastigias jellyfish press their bubblegummy bodies against snorkelers. Small wonder the area’s been dubbed an Underwater Wonder of the World.

Yet planes and ships rust here too, soldiers’ bones often reduced to powder, almost indistinguishable from coral rubble. And a handful of people still search for answers, quickly, quickly now, before the Pacific dissolves all our history: the bloody and the bold together.

In the meantime, Yayoi and I follow the shell fragments through the mangrove swamp. Where the path meets lawn, just before Carp's sunrise cottages, we exchange bows and email addresses, even though we probably won't correspond.

The twain still met – and smiled.

On such a battlefield, that's triumph enough.


  1. Superbly written.

    I've been trying to do a Hiroshima write-up for years now and have never managed to find the right words. You have a lot of right words in this one.

  2. Cheers, DB! The right words don't come easily here: one reason I'm so far behind blogging this incredible trip!

  3. This post of yours is definitely one of my favourites. I couldn't resist visiting Hiroshima when I went to Japan - for a tangle of reasons that you touch on here.

    I look forward to reading more!

  4. Anonymous9:10 PM

    hey amanda...you are a fun read.. Joel (qwest)