I never met Bob Bender, but I can picture him.
It’s early September 1943, and Bender stands shirtless on a white sand beach in the Western Samoan Islands. His shoulders are bronzed and freckled from the South Pacific sun and he’s got a bottle of beer — no, check that, a bottle of whiskey — in one hand and a Lucky Strike in the other. He and some of his buddies from the 3rd Marine Brigade are shaking off a mean hangover in the shade of the palm trees and trying to avoid the Military Police.
You see, Bob was a sergeant until a week ago, but stands barefoot and busted today as a lowly private. He doesn’t want to talk about it.
Bob also happens to be from Baldwin, which means he’s a fisherman by nature. And as the hair of the dog makes its rounds from leatherneck to leatherneck, a group of Samoan natives appears on the beach with homemade canoes, paddles, nets and all other manor of angling accouterments. Bender and his buddies perk up, just as intrigued by the natives as they are of him. Portions of the Western Samoan Islands were largely untouched by the outside world at the start of the war, but by 1943 the number of Marines on the Islands surpasses that of the natives. No doubt the language barrier proves difficult, but very little needs to be exchanged between fishermen to get their point across.
“Any fish in that reef?” might as well be universal.
Anyway Bob hasn’t done any fishing since he left for overseas and even when he was home, Lloyd Bolier put a jinx on his rod and he got skunked the last four times he went out. This is a real opportunity.
Bob and his buddies convince the Samoans to take them for a whirl in their canoes, and they set out into the reef, sand still crunching between their toes.
The Samoans start by tossing a net over the side and dragging up some baitfish. Hand lines and bait hooks are passed out next, but as Bob starts to work the first piece of bait onto his hook, the native with the bad B.O. next to him signs for him to wait.
Simultaneously the Samoan fisherman begin popping live baitfish in their mouths, chewing them up and spitting them into the water, chumming the reef.
Two of Bob’s pals loose their liquid lunch over the side of the canoes, Bob manages to keep his at bay in the top of his throat.
Fishing soon after commences and the boys catch four or five fish that look like mackerel. The highlight of the day comes as one of his buddies catches a huge bass of some sort. Everybody figures it weighs 20 pounds. Bob on the other hand, goes completely fishless — Damn that Lloyd Bolier.
They sit around a fire on the beach and eat everything they caught, war all around them as the sun sets on the South Pacific.
A shorter (and slightly less embellished) version of this story appeared in the Baldwin Bulletin in late September 1943. It caught my eye as I was flipping through the pages looking for other WWII content. I had to laugh at Bob, who really had been recently busted to private, watching Samoan fisherman chew up live baitfish. What a shock it must’ve been to a kid from Baldwin.
I love this story so much because I picture Bob as the kind of rough-around-the-edges Marine who came home and spent his life on the water and in the woods, like so many other WWII vets did.
GIs flooded into the fields, rivers and timber when they came home from the war, using the sportsman’s life to both remember and forget what they’d seen and done overseas. They were rough, tough S.O.B.’s that also happened to be some of the most accomplished outdoorsman in the history of our country. There are a lot of reasons to remember The Greatest Generation fondly, not least their dedication to the outdoors.
C.L. Sill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. or on Instagram @thewingbeat
C.L. Sill can be reached at email@example.com or on Instagram @thewingbeat