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Pacific Odyssey: Ghosts of the Matanikau Valley, Guadalcanal, Solomon Islands

This article is Part XII and the last in a series that describes a journey from the Philippines to Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. For Part I, please click here.

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The Matanikau River as it wends its way to the sea in Honiara, the capital of the Solomons. In 1942, some of the worst fighting on Guadalcanal took place where there are now houses on either bank of the river. Photo by Matthew Stevenson.

Walking near the Matanikau River where it flows into the sea reminded me of another end of innocence, this on the part of Bishop Paul Moore, who I got to know toward the end of his life. The same age as my father, Moore was a platoon leader on Guadalcanal in the 7th Marine Regiment. In action near the Matanikau in November 1942, he was seriously wounded and never returned to the First Marine Division. But if you want to find the headwaters in American history of the anti-war movement, the banks of the Matanikau might be a place to start.

During his time on Guadalcanal Moore was awarded the Navy Cross and Silver Star, and for the rest of the war he was part of recruiting events and war bond drives. But he became best known as an Episcopalian bishop who was active in numerous social causes, from civil rights to opposition to the Vietnam War.

His last position in the church was as the bishop of New York City, which gave him a platform to preach about social justice, although he was just as outspoken when he worked in equally senior positions in Washington, D.C. and Indianapolis. He came to the church, not just from the Marines and Yale University, but with a family of nine children and inherited wealth, which gave him the aura of an Episcopalian Kennedy brother.

By the time I got to know him, he was retired and living in his Greenwich Village townhouse, where he wrote his memoirs, Presences: A Bishop’s Life in the City. We first met so that he could share his recollections about Marine colonel Chesty Puller and the events at the mouth of the Matanikau River.

* * *

My interest in Puller, the most decorated Marine in the corps’ history, developed in 1997, after I visited another Pacific island battlefield of the First Marine Division, that on Peleliu (in the Carolines, two hours east of Manila).

On Peleliu, Puller commanded the First Marine Regiment, which in September, 1944, landed on White Beach (on Peleliu’s west coast) and headed inland to the sheer cliffs of Bloody Nose Ridge, where it suffered casualties exceeding 50 percent.

By the time of that battle, my father had moved up from being a company commander to serving as the executive officer of the 1st battalion, First Marine Regiment, and he was in Puller’s direct line of command.

For the rest of his life, my father had a reservoir of Puller anecdotes, few of which flattered the decorated Marine, who was long on personal bravery but short on the organizational details that make for an efficient military machine.

For example, whenever my father called Puller on the field telephone to present a battlefield dilemma, the colonel would invariably answer: “Well, just keep pushing, old man.” (Puller called everyone “old man,” in the manner that Jay Gatsby called everyone “old sport.” My father liked to quip: “Whenever Puller could remember a name, he usually mispronounced it.”)

Most of the officers from C Company, who became my father’s lifelong friends, thought that Puller’s battlefield reputation for genius was exaggerated. Yes, he was brave— they would say on visits to our house when I was growing up—but he also got a lot of good men under his command killed for no reason.

As I was writing about Peleliu, I discovered that a number of Marine officers were bitter about Puller’s style of command, which saw a lack of casualties among junior officers as evidence that an attack was faltering.

Everett Pope, who took over command of C Company on Peleliu and there won the Congressional Medal of Honor for the night he spent on Hill 100, said of one assignment he got from the regimental commander: “It was clearly to have been a suicide mission (ours, not Puller’s).”

Another first and second battalion officer, Jim Rogers (who like Paul Moore became a priest after the war), said to me once: “Puller thought a lot of your dad, and that’s one of the few good things I can say about Chesty.” Puller once ordered him—for no apparent reason—to stand at attention in a puddle of water.

During the critical battle on Peleliu, Puller suffered from a leg wound, not to mention from the oppressive heat, and many of the orders he issued sounded like the ravings of Melville’s Captain Ahab, in search of the white whale.

Later, Everett Pope said that on Peleliu Puller had been “out of touch with reality,” and my father said, “We never saw Chesty” (meaning, in the front lines). Both would shake their heads when they thought of him commanding a regiment. Pope would say, with touches of admiration and cynicism: “He was the greatest platoon leader in Marine Corps history.”

* * *

It was as I was researching Puller and the battle of Peleliu that I came across some references to a former lieutenant, Paul Moore, who was described as one of Puller’s severest critics. I later figured out that this was the same Paul Moore who had been the bishop of New York City.

In one book that I read, he was quoted at length disparaging Puller for his erratic leadership on Guadalcanal, especially in the fights along the Matanikau River. When I mentioned this to a friend who was active in New York’s Episcopal Church and at the New York Public Library, he said immediately that he knew Moore and that he could arrange a meeting so that my father and I could make his acquaintance.

It took a few months to arrange, as I was living in Switzerland, but eventually a day was chosen and the three of us arrived at Paul’s townhouse in the West Village.

The house was on a prime block and today would be worth millions, as maybe it was then, but the interior had the feel of a Cape Cod beach house, with books and newspapers scattered about on the furniture.

Paul was tall and carried himself with an aristocratic air, but he was also direct, personable, friendly, and lively in conversation. Because of his well-publicized outspokenness, I was prepared for someone holier than thou, but immediately the four of us were a band of brothers, and in no time we were teasing Paul for taking us to a Village dive for drinks.

I am sure the bar is now long gone, as even in the 1990s it was a relic of the Village in the 1950s, when saloons filled townhouse basements with Naugahyde-red booths and linoleum tables. I remember Paul ordering something like a double Scotch, and how free and easy was the conversation around the table.

Paul and my father had never met, but they had friends in common, as Paul had served in the 5th Marine Regiment (G-2-5), which made the landing on D-day at Red Beach.

The Fifth Marines had not been engaged at the battle of the Tenaru but it was close to the action on Bloody Ridge, and Paul had endured the intense artillery shelling in October, about which he later wrote:

That night we were shelled by 16-inch guns from a Japanese warship. This was more terrifying than bombing, because the shells went screaming overhead sounding like an elevated railway. (As a matter of fact, some of the enemy’s ammunition came from the New York Sixth Avenue el, which had been sold as scrap to the Japanese.) Under the trees it was light as day. Searchlights or flares from the warships lit up the night and the scurrying forms of Marines running to their foxholes. I did not even bother to get in my foxhole I was so tired. During lulls in the shelling, I could hear guys groaning and vomiting.

Paul spoke effortlessly about his life before and after Guadalcanal—his schooling at Yale and, later, his time in the Episcopal Church. I recall now that he was just back from a field visit to East Timor, where he had campaigned for human rights.

His questions to my father, however, were all about what happened to the First Marine Division after he was evacuated in November, 1942. Paul had not kept up with the men in his company, as my father had. Nor had he attended reunions after the war. He knew the general outlines of the story—about Cape Gloucester, Peleliu, Okinawa, and occupation duty in Japan—but not the details, and as my father filled him in on the rest of the division’s war, I could sense that both men, ever so slightly, were detached in their own memories of what they had missed or endured.

I remember Paul saying to my father, “Wow, you did it all,” and my father joking, “Well, they didn’t give me much of a choice.” And Paul coming back: “Well, I don’t recommend getting wounded.” In fact, my father had been wounded along the Matanikau, but the cause was friendly fire and thus hushed up. He later wrote:

. . .  chaos struck shortly thereafter; a short round from one of our 60-mm mortars burst almost at the feet of Lt. Bob Fowler and myself. The concussion flattened us both. Lying there on the ridge, I noticed blood from a wound in my right shoulder. Luckily for me it was neither deep nor in a vital spot; the corpsman had only to dress it each day with sulfa powder and a fresh bandage. Understandably enough, no Purple Hearts are awarded for wounds inflicted by our own weapons. How would the citation read?

* * *

The one officer, besides Chesty Puller, that both men had known well was Lew Walt, who during the Vietnam War was one of the senior U.S. military commanders.

Walt had been Moore’s battalion commander on Guadalcanal. Although my father never served with Walt in the chain of command, the two men had become friendly during the war years, such that, after the war, when Walt was in New York City he would occasionally have dinner with my parents, although I have no memory of meeting him, so I assume the friendship faded in time.

In Presences, his memoirs, Moore tells several stories about Walt, the first on Guadalcanal, and the second about the Vietnam War. About Guadalcanal Moore writes:

That night it rained. In the jungle it was so dark we could not tell if our eyes were open or shut. We had strung a rope to guide us along the defense line. I held on to it as I stumbled from foxhole to foxhole inspecting our troops. Many men were shaking with fever from malaria. Morale was lower than low. Despair had set in. I was exhausted. I kept falling asleep on watch. A buzzing in my ears (from the quinine we took to ward off malaria) made it hard to understand the voices on the field telephone. Since the battle on the Matanikau, I had an infection in my hand where a bullet had grazed it. In the tropics, the slightest scratch can become infected quickly and seriously. After one of those terrible dark nights in the jungle, I went to the aid station at battalion headquarters to have my hand attended to. Major Lew Walt, our battalion commander, saw me and asked, “Moore, what would you think if we were asked to go on the offensive?”

“Offense? No way. Sir, the men can hardly walk. We simply can’t ask any more of them….”

Later that morning, the company officers were called back to the battalion headquarters. “Men, we have been ordered to launch an attack up past the Matanikau to push the enemy back beyond artillery range of the airfield,” Major Walt told us. “There is one officer here who says we can’t do it. I trust none the rest of you feel as he does.” Walt looked me in the eye as he spoke. I wanted to fade from sight.”

Many years later, Moore, as a leader in the opposition to the Vietnam War, was in Saigon, protesting against the American involvement. (Confronted in the streets of Saigon by South Vietnamese soldiers, he writes: “How strange it was: the last time I’d faced armed soldiers I’d been leading a platoon of Marines on Guadalcanal.”) In his memoirs he writes:

A week or so after returning to the States, I received a long letter from Lieutenant General Lew Walt, who had been my battalion commander in Guadalcanal. Now he was commanding officer of the Marines in Vietnam, and he wanted to know how a good Marine like myself could have participated in such a subversive, unpatriotic action.

Good question.

George McGovern, who was also a highly decorated veteran of World War II and another mutual friend of my father and Paul Moore, writes in his memoirs about meeting Lew Walt on a fact-finding mission to Danang:

The next night I stayed with Marine General Lewis Walt at Danang. Listening to him talk earnestly long past midnight of his love for the Vietnamese people and his faith in the justice of American intervention, I thought how sad it was that devoted and capable men had been drawn into such a tragic misreading of reality.

* * *

Moore’s bitterness about Chesty Puller resulted from an incident that occurred near the mouth of the Matanikau, somewhere close to where I was walking in the late afternoon sun.

It was impossible for me to imagine jungle fighting here, as all I could see around me was the sprawl of a Pacific town that is now in the thrall of the internal combustion engine, be it on trucks, cars, or motor bikes.

Nor could I remember everything that Paul had said about Puller when we had our drink in the basement bar. So, when I got home, I looked up the passage in Presences, in which he describes the action. He begins:

The west flank was bordered by the Matanikau River, across which the enemy was dug in, a battalion strong. Colonel “Chesty” Puller (who later became something of a Marine icon, having received five Navy Crosses) was in charge of the detachment that was to take the mouth of the river. Puller had little regard for his own life and no regard for anyone else’s. I could not stand him.

As described in Moore’s book, the plan for taking the mouth of the river was to send successive platoons across the sand spit to attack the entrenched Japanese position on the opposite bank. To repeat the phrase of Everett Pope, “it was clearly to have been a suicide mission (ours, not Puller’s)”.

Moore picks up the story: “Five platoons went across, one after another. Five platoons were forced back with heavy casualties. Still Puller stayed with his foolish plan.” What followed was a bloodbath for the attacking Marines.

Moore went forward with his men until very few of them were beside him or alive. He writes: “With deep misgivings, I waved my men back. My sergeant and I bent over the wounded men as the sand around our boots was spattered with bullets. We turned each body over and saw the terrible expression of death on each familiar face. We left them and ran as fast we could along the beach back to safety. I reported to Colonel Puller, who was sitting against the trunk of a coconut tree smoking a cigar.”

The exchange, such as it was, between Puller and Lt. Moore is one that he told slowly over our drinks. In the memoir he writes:

“Lieutenant Moore reporting, sir.”

No answer from Puller.

Louder: “Lieutenant Moore reporting, sir.”

Still no answer, no recognition.

“Sir, there is at least one enemy battalion well dug in on the other side of the river. There is no way a platoon can dislodge them, sir.”

Still not so much as a nod of the head.

“Sir can you hear me?”

No response at all. I stood there at attention for a full two minutes and then left. I still cannot comprehend the man’s behavior. Maybe he just did not want to admit that he was wrong and that he had recklessly lost many men. Maybe he was angry that we had retreated rather than remaining to die.

On Peleliu, Everett Pope had a similar experience with Puller, and he later wrote to me: “Why Puller wanted us dead on top of that hill has never been clear to me.”

My father had his own dealings with Puller, in many combat situations, but for some reason he managed (I think he was astute at what might be called “battlefield politics”) to finesse, when he got them, Puller’s suicidal orders. But the Puller in Paul’s story from Guadalcanal was the Puller that my father, Everett Pope, and Jim Rogers saw many times on Peleliu.

Guadalcanal ended for Paul Moore on November 3, 1942, when he was wounded in action, again near the mouth of the Matanikau. The citation for his Navy Cross reads: “Pressing forward in the face of a steady barrage of hostile machine-gun and mortar fire, Second Lieutenant Moore, by aggressive charges and skillful employment of his units, forced the enemy to retreat to the ocean’s edge. As the Japanese fought desperately to survive, he stayed on the line with his platoon, directing its fire under terrific assaults by the enemy, and urged his men forward in a series of hand-grenade and bayonet charges, personally leading their successive attacks. In the final stages of the engagement, although critically wounded by a hand grenade fragment and lying prostrate and helpless, he continued to encourage his men to keep attacking until he lost consciousness.”

The account in his memoirs is less heroic. He writes of his wound: “I thought I was dying. I did not know what to think,” although later in his description of the incident it seems to be the moment when he embraces god.

* * *

For a few years after that initial get-together, I would occasionally see Paul on my trips back to New York City. Sometimes we had coffee in the Village, and once we shared a meal. He would always speak about Puller and his experiences on Guadalcanal and ask about my father, who would sometimes join us.

I remember Paul’s enthusiasm in 2001 when my book Letters of Transitwas published, and in it were chapters about Guadalcanal and Peleliu, including a long section about Chesty Puller. But then he got sick with cancer, and I lost touch with him.

Five years after he died in 2003, I happened across an essay in the New Yorkerthat was written by Paul’s daughter Honor Moore. It was an excerpt from her memoir, The Bishop’s Daughter, that W.W. Norton published in 2008. I never read the full book but I did read the New Yorkerexcerpt, and much of it was taken up with “outing” Paul for being a closet homosexual for much of his adult life.

I don’t want to say that his daughter had no affection for her father—she obviously did—but she had decided to pull back his curtains, which, as an admirer of Paul, his life, and his courage, I found regrettable (as he could not tell his side of the story).

In her memoirs she describes at great length how the family discovered that he was gay (there was a strange man mentioned in Paul’s will, and that turns out to have been his lover), and she dwells on the image of the public bishop (doer of good deeds and defender of the downtrodden and the poor) with the clay feet of her father.

Of late I have seen mentions of the bishop as a “sexual predator,” which gives a modern twist to his daughter’s 2008 revelations. I hope that wasn’t the case, because the Paul that my father and I met over drinks in that Greenwich Village dive (with the Rt. Reverend joking with the waitress and ordering a double whisky) was an honorable man who had put his life on the line in defense of social justice and freedom.

As I walked across the mouth of the Matanikau, at that moment clogged with Honiara’s rush hour traffic, I understood better the demons that might have haunted the rest of his life, and I felt remorse that he, my father, and thousands of others had to descend into the netherworld that was the Matanikau in autumn 1942.

* * *

I took a bus from the Matanikau back to my guest house. It involved a change of mini-vans in Kukum, a village of roadside kiosks and dust. When the first planes arrived on Guadalcanal, shortly after the airfield was taken, the pilots referred to themselves as the Kukum Air Force, as it was the closest village to Henderson Field.

Kukum today is a succession of Chinese strip malls and shopping centers that might well be copied from the design of Red Army barracks. Many look as though they were built from pre-fabricated kits, and the result is suburban sprawl that could be outside Shanghai or Chongqing.

It made me sad to look around and realize that the Japanese own (or control) the airport in Honiara, and that the Chinese control the economy.

To judge by the potholes on almost every street, the local government has pawned local assets and sovereignty to third party interests (anyway, someone other than the voters).

Who knew, when the combined air, land, and sea battles were being fought for Guadalcanal, that in less than three generations gangsters would be shaking down Americans heading to Mount Austen, or that the Solomons Islands would be wards of yet another co-prosperity sphere, this one directed from Beijing.

That evening I swallowed antibiotics and ate dinner in front of the television, nursing my leg and watching a forgettable movie on an Australian cable network.

The next morning, up at dawn with the sun coming through the bars on my windows, I borrowed a bicycle from one of the gardeners at the house and biked back to the Ilu River and Red Beach, to see it one more time.

My flight to Brisbane wasn’t until 1:00 p.m., so I had several hours to ride around on jungle paths. And even though the bicycle was an old mountain bike with soft tires, it rode perfectly in and around the many potholes on the paths.

On this occasion I tried to find where the 1st battalion had crossed the Ilu, on their way to envelope the rear guard of the Ichiki Detachment. All I found were small houses and fenced gardens by the riverbank, not to the mention the stares of many villagers as I pedaled through their backyards on what passed for single-track.

* * *

I had given myself more than three hours at Honiara International Airport, as, after checking in for my flight, I wanted to look carefully at the markers on some of the walls and in the surrounding gardens of what was once Henderson Field.

As it turned out, I was glad to have the extra time, as Solomons Airlines refused to check me onto to the Brisbane flight until I could show them that, in addition to my American passport, I had “pre-approval” from the Australian government to enter the country.

Fortunately, the sale of pre-approval vouchers was a local growth industry, and to get one, all I had to do was give $30 to a man in a small cubicle, who then entered into the computers of Solomon Airlines that I had made the payment.

* * *

Once I had my pre-approved boarding pass and had checked my backpack through to Brisbane, I was free to wander the grounds of the Honiara airport, which include a Heroes Wall near the arrivals hall and, outside, a Memorial Garden. Coming through when I landed, I had noticed some anti-aircraft guns out front.

Nothing on the Heroes Wall noted that it was the 1st battalion that captured the airfield, but there was a quote from Lord Byron, even though in his wanderings he never got close to the South Pacific. It reads:

But these are the deeds
Which should not fade away,
And names that must not wither.

It’s appropriate on a heroes wall, of course, but it doesn’t capture the gallows humor that sustained the men through their months of ordeals in the Solomons.

Whether it was his time on Guadalcanal or something else, for the rest of his life my father had the ability to laugh at almost anything. He had his serious moments, of course, but never far from the surface were the witticisms and laughter that, I am sure, the men in his company came to admire and rely on for their survival.

It was the kind of wry humor that said, “We can get through this, I promise,” or “We’re all in this together.” The men of C Company—I am sure—laughed at incompetent Marine generals, pompous correspondents, terrible food, silly orders, and fuck-ups in the chain-of-command. They respected the Japanese as a ferocious and determined enemy, but they also channeled their fears of combat with jokes, asides, and laughter.

Much of the humor came from New Zealand and Australia, where the First Marines had respites from the fighting. I once bought a book of Australian war slang, and was surprised at how many words from Down Under—dinkum was one—had punctuated my childhood. And gallows Australian humor was a perfect match for American infantrymen and their plight in the Pacific. For example, anyone complaining in an Aussie unit would be told: “The next thing you’ll want is flowers on your grave.”

About one night of heavy shelling in the lines, as C Company braced for a Japanese counterattack, my father writes:

In the gray, rainy dawn men slumped numbly in their foxholes. Nothing stirred. The ammunition-dump fire raged out of control. But as I walked among the platoons of C Company, I sensed, through scattered wisecracks and remnants of the old cocky swagger, that the men still had an indomitable will to live and that the future could still belong to us. Now it rested with the Japanese. Our orders (and those of the other two companies held in reserve) were to move instantly against any counterattack that might come after the naval shelling had lifted. Colonel Cresswell had added this ominous phrase at his briefing: “… and if that doesn’t work, all bets are off.” [Meaning: the garrison would have been overrun and the surviving Marines would have scattered into the jungle.] These words echoed in my mind as we underwent our third successive night of horror. But by that third day the moment of truth had come and gone for the enemy. Henderson Field could have been theirs had they administered the coup de grâce. They failed to do so.

* * *

A plaque outside the airport terminal, with the flags of Japan and the Solomon Islands on top, tells the more recent history of the airfield since it had been christened Henderson Field. It is entitled: “The project for restoration of international airport,” and below those words it reads: “Grant from the people of Japan as a token of friendship and cooperation between Japan and the Solomon Islands, 2005.” I would have thought that Guadalcanal would have remained “a corner of a foreign field that is for ever American.”

The Memorial Garden is another monument that is new since my visit in 1989. It’s a glade of neatly planted trees, and by the base of each sapling is a stone on which, for $135 (I was told), it is possible to affix a tribute to someone or something. For example, a marker dedicated to SFC. Joseph R. Wargo reads, simply: “Solomon Islands to Hokkaido Japan.”

I thought about buying a plaque in honor of my father’s C Company, and to note that it had captured the airfield, but when I went online I could find no link for the Memorial Garden. Maybe those guys at the roadblock on Mount Austen have a side business engraving markers at the airport? Next time I will ask.

Wandering around the ground of the airfield, I thought about our family friend Jim Wagner, who grew up in Virginia, attended the University of Richmond, and served much of the war with my father in the 1st battalion—after which they remained lifelong friends.

Toward the end of my father’s life, Jimmy was forever calling him, as they were among the last two officers still living from the C Company that landed at Guadalcanal. Jim (my father only called him “Jimmy”) commanded the 1st platoon, and whenever his name was mentioned, my father would say: “He was a terrific officer. One of the best.”

I once visited Jimmy at his home in Richmond, and we drove out to Saluda, Virginia, where Chesty Puller had lived in retirement and where he is now buried. It was raining when we stood over Puller’s grave, and Jimmy said to me puckishly: “Some of my men would have preferred I do something else here, but I am going to salute the colonel one last time,” and he did, graciously.

* * *

In the last summer of my father’s life (he was almost 94), I decided to organize a dinner in honor of the 70th anniversary of the landing at Guadalcanal, to be held at the retirement home where my father was living in New Jersey.

My mother had died the year before. Otherwise, as someone who loved dinner parties and occasions, she would have done the planning. Instead it fell to me, and I collected about twenty friends and members of the family, and worked with the restaurant on a suitable menu.

When I called Jimmy Wagner to see if he could attend, he immediately said yes. On the day of the dinner—August 7, 2012—he drove with members of his family from Richmond to New Jersey, where the rest of us had gathered.

A local Marine reserve unit offered to send over an honor guard to walk the two Marines from my father’s house to the dining room. But when it came time to leave for the dinner, there was no sign of the Marines, and about ten minutes later we had a call from their commanding officer, saying that they were lost and would be there shortly.

Neither my father nor Jim needed more waiting time on their military records, and so on their command—so to speak—so we set off without the honor guard and wended our way to the community dining room, on a glorious evening of late summer.

To our surprise, other residents of the retirement community were waiting by the front door, and they cheered the two Marines as we entered the front door and walked to the private dining room.

It wasn’t an evening of speeches or even toasts, but simply a dinner, among friends and two families, to mark the occasion of the landing seventy years earlier.

At some prompting, both men talked about their memories from the day—of pushing inland in the darkness, of the firefight with shadows, about the taking of the airfield. But only later, when I was talking with my father back in the house, did he tell me a story about Guadalcanal that I had never heard.

It happened on the first night after C Company had captured the runway, when the marines had dug foxholes around the airstrip. Everyone was on edge, thinking that a counterattack could be imminent. After darkness, the rule in the Marine lines was that no one was to move about and that anyone moving around would be considered the enemy.

On Guadalcanal, the Japanese had made it a practice to infiltrate the Marine lines and to kill unprepared Marines. And on that first night at Henderson Field, a figure approached my father’s command post, where he was standing with his pistol drawn, asking for the password. He said he shouted the word “Password!” three or four times, in his commanding voice, but that the approaching figure never said anything.

Convinced that the shadow was a Japanese sapper in the American lines, my father cocked his pistol to shoot when, out of the tropical darkness, Jim Wagner dropped into his foxhole, breathless from a patrol of the perimeter. He had been out checking the wire and the men when darkness fell in an instant, as it does in the tropics.

I thin