Civilians and European-theater veterans thought of South Pacific island "rest areas" as enticing beaches; vivid, multi-hued blossoms amid lush, green flora and fauna; the pristine tints of a tropical sunset or sunrise; and perhaps fervid mental images of amorous entanglements with lithe and willing native damsels. They never heard of Pavuvu, the one six-letter obscenity in the lexicon of 1st Marine Division veterans of World War II.
The "straight scoop" rumor that swept the division's ranks on departure from New Britain affirmed a universe governed by a just moral order: The bedraggled unit was headed back to Melbourne. But instead of Melbourne—and justice—the 1st Marine Division got Pavuvu. The largest of the Russell Islands, it rests 60 miles north of Guadalcanal and measures at most 8 miles wide and 1,500 feet tall. A huge coconut plantation organized the island into symmetrical ranks of palms. It looked quite reasonable from the air—and it was from the air that staff officers of the III Amphibious Corps, to which the 1st Division had been assigned, picked Pavuvu, primarily because Guadalcanal was already crowded with American installations.
For four years those neat rows of palms had indiscriminately bombarded the ground with unharvested coconuts. The hairy, shelled missiles rotted and then dissolved under rains that continued far beyond nature's normal cycle in 1944 to turn the ground into a mush best navigated barefoot. For accommodations, the division was issued cots (frequently rotted) and pyramidal tents (still more frequently riddled with holes). Every imaginable material found employment in getting personal gear off the ground, but individual Marines learned that only coral gravel existed in enough quantity to floor most tents—after work details first paved company streets.
Initially there were no lights, no mess halls, and no recreation areas on Pavuvu, as well as no adequate supply of fresh food. The menu was officially called "B," which in fact was like a warmed version of "C" rations—the minimum sustenance. Bathing was done naked in the open with hopes both lathering and rinsing could be completed before the fickle rains that supplied the shower ended. The island also lacked adequate training space, particularly after firing ranges were established. Maneuvers of units larger than a company inevitably overlapped terrain occupied by some essential function created by the Marines.
Then there were the rats and land crabs. Rodent raiders seemed to mass at night for close-order drill across tent tops. When they became bored, they fell out with squeals to scamper down the sides and ropes. Great ingenuity went to devising means of rat control, from individual traps to on one occasion a mass flamethrower hunt. The rats at least evoked some grudging respect for their nerves and agility; the slimy land crabs provoked nothing but disgust.
"You could almost hear the noise that loneliness made as it came crashing through the grove at sunset," noted the division historian. Anyone who sought solitude at night was recognized as sick. Instead, with rituals that would have filled the notebooks of an eager anthropologist, Marines organized themselves into small groups of friends. The one great shared recreation was an ad hoc movie amphitheater. Hollywood's best and worst enjoyed equally avid attendees. When well-proportioned actresses appeared, the projectionists learned to halt the film and back it up to reshow the scene three and sometime four times.
Veterans retained just one joyful memory of Pavuvu: Comedian Bob Hope made an extraordinary effort to put on a show there for them they never forgot.