Bringing New Knowledge to the South Pacific
By William Sabel
I was instrumental in introducing watermelons to the natives on a lonely South Pacific island during World War II. My mission was to establish a vegetable farm in the Solomons on the island of Kolombangara for the express purpose of furnishing fresh garden produce for the base hospital at Munda. It came about in this way:
Prior to my induction into the army in April 14, 1941, I was a poultry farmer and always interested in gardening. For my basic training, I was sent to Camp Shelby, MS where I was supposed to remain for a year with the 113th Engineers. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and my army career was extended indefinitely, I had the opportunity to become an officer by attending OCS. (Officer Candidate School)
After receiving my commission, I was sent back to Camp Shelby to help train and organize the 350th Engineer General Service Regiment. After six months of training, we departed for the South Pacific in January of 1943 and our unknown destination was Espiritu Santos in the New Hebrides. Upon arrival, we were bivouacked in a cocoa bean plantation and I noticed the fertile dark soil where we had established our quarters and I wondered if vegetables and flowers would grow here in the tropics. I requested my parents, living in Chicago, to enclose a variety of seeds in their weekly airmail letters that we exchanged. As a consequence, outside of my living quarters at every base where we were stationed, I planted a flower and vegetable garden. Being close to the equator, everything grew quickly and profusely in the warm, moist climate of the tropics.
As the war progressed to the north and the Japanese were driven from the recaptured islands, our unit was ordered to Munda in the Solomon Islands. When my platoon was constructing the general's mess hall, I noticed him puttering around a small garden he was starting. Evidently he was a garden enthusiast like myself. In the course of our conversation, I mentioned the garden that I had on Santos and how successful it was. When the army garden project was being contemplated, he remembered my interest and spoke to my regimental commander about it. They suggested a vegetable farm be established on the nearby island of Kolombangara to augment the drab dehydrated menu that was served to the wounded men in the base hospital.
I was asked if I would be interested in taking on the project and I accepted the challenge. After examining the records of the enlisted men in the regiment, I selected 6 men, who had prior agricultural experiences before their induction into the army to help on the project. The British government, who had control of these islands,
supplied 15 natives to help with the work. A request was made to the Red Cross in Australia for vegetable seeds and they sent quite a variety including a bushel of field corn, watermelon, lettuce, okra, cucumbers and others I can't remember.
I obtained a small bulldozer from our motor pool and also a single bottom plow. The US Navy supplied a landing craft for transportation to Kolombangara Island 5 miles away, an extinct volcano. The natives arrived at the garden site in canoes from their village on a nearby island and we went to work.
Prior to the war, this island had a British coconut plantation and the Japanese in their bid to dominate the world had confiscated it. They had used the plantation as a fighter based airfield to protect their main base at Munda and had cut the coconut trees flush with the ground for the landing strip. From the air, it looked like an ideal place to farm except that the trees had been planted in a checkerboard pattern 20 feet apart and we could plow only a ten-foot strip between the stumps.
In 3 months time fresh garden produce began flowing back to the base hospital at Munda including many watermelons and cucumbers. It was gratifying, to imagine the surprised reaction the patients in the
hospital experienced, when they were served a slice of ice-cold watermelon with their evening meal, and also other unexpected fresh vegetables, in place of the canned dehydrated food stuff that they had long been accustomed to.
The native workers enjoyed the fresh watermelons as much as we did, and as they had not been familiar with this American fruit prior to the war, I demonstrated how to save the seeds and replant them. To this day I
keep wondering if my watermelons are still being grown on that faraway island of Kolombangara in the South Pacific.
Watermelons still growing strong at Kolombangara!
By means of the Internet, I have learned that watermelons are still being grown at the present time on Kolombangara and neighboring islands. There is an organization at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia called APACE which is an acronym for Appropriate Technology for Community and Environment. This volunteer organization is trying to upgrade the living standard of the Solomon Islanders by installing hydro-electric power plants on several islands in the area that have suitable streams of running water available for generating electricity. They are teaching the natives to be self sufficient as well as how to operate and maintain these power plants.
Donnella Bryce is the program director and has written that at the present time, watermelons are now principally grown on Rannogga Island and the inhabitants have become renowned locally for their watermelons that come into season about Christmas time. Many people from Kolombangara she states, are closely related to the people of Rannogga and there is much intermarriage so she assumes that there could well be connections with the watermelon growing on the two islands. She has never heard people from Kolombangara relate the story of where the watermelon seeds originally came from. ! But I know!
In January 1998, I sent an email to email@example.com relating my story and inquired if watermelons are still being grown on the island of Kolombangara. In a few days I received a reply:
Yes, happy to say, they are still being grown in quite large quantities. There have also been other varieties introduced by other people but your original seed stock still appears to be going strong.
Regards for now,
Les Ayers for APACE.
Another email stated:
Kolombangara is probably more or less as you knew it, though logging has destroyed much of the lowland forest. Interestingly, there was (not sure if it is still in operation today) a fairly large-scale operation initiated by the local people in the 70's, which consisted of growing many varieties of fruit and vegetables for local consumption and export. This operation involved the most modern system of agriculture and irrigation. Who knows, maybe your watermelon seeds were part of this project.