Seeds of Liberty: Grass Skirts, Atabrine Pills---and Defiance! 

An excerpt of James A. Michener's "Fo' Dolla'" in Tales of The South Pacific (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1946) with illustrations from the author's collection.

"New Hebrides 1944" watercolor on paper by Martin Daniel Meyer, Seaman 3rd Class United States Navy. Meyer, an aspiring young artist from Denver, Colorado served as a crew member aboard a (yet unknown) Liberty Ship during 1944 and 1945, making deliveries of cargo essential to the Allied war effort and recording in two bound art folios the many people and exotic locations he encountered throughout the Pacific. In this picture of a scene from the New Hebrides---the colonial name for the present Republic of Vanuatu-----Meyer captures and anticipates precisely what Michener would later recollect and describe as the events and circumstances that unfolded as American sailors and Marines, and colonial French plantation owners and their Tonkinese---or Vietnamese----servants, found themselves forced into contact with one another. Note the prefabricated American Quonset huts, the sailor driving a Jeep, the Australian soldier or "Digger" leaning against the palm tree, and the Vietnamese woman selling grass skirts dyed yellow to, what is almost certainly, a US Marine. Collection of the author.

You got to watch ’em,” he whispered.

Don’t they like the taste?” I inquired, smiling back at a grinning Tonkinese woman who stood waiting. “Taste ain’t nothin’ to a guy that chews betel,” Benny said. “Everything tastes the same.”

Then why the act with the atabrine?”

Clever bastards,” Benny grinned. “Took ’em about two weeks to discover that them pills is a wonderful yellow dye. They keep ’em back of their tongues and then use ’em to dye grass skirts with.”

Grass skirts?” I inquired.

Yeah,” he replied. “They make ’em.”

When the session was ended, Benny grabbed a handful of his precious yellow pills and threw them on the table. “For your skirts!” he shouted, wiggling his hips as if he were wearing one of the grass skirts the Tonks sold to American soldiers.

As Tonkinese [Vietnamese] women battled for the valuable dyestuff the French plantation owner, a man of forty-eight or more, stopped us. He was a short, sloppy fellow, round-faced, bleary-eyed, stoop-shouldered. His pants hung in a sagging line below his belly. He had a nervous manner and a slight cough as he spoke.

It’s Monsieur Jacques Benoit!” Atabrine Benny cried in a loud, pleasant voice. The plantation owner nodded slightly and extended a wet, pudgy hand.

Mr. Benny,” he said forcefully. “Again, once more I asking you. Not give the women pills!” His voice was harsh.

It don’t do any harm!” Benny argued.

But the gouvernment! Our gouvernment! And yours, too. They say, ‘Tonkinese! No more grass skirts!’ What I can do?” He shrugged his shoulders apologetically.

All right!” Benny grumbled. “All right!”

Remember, Mr. Benny!” the Frenchman said, half pleading, half warning. “Atabrine pills! They drink, OK. They use for grass skirt, no!” Monsieur Benoit shrugged his shoulders and moved away.

Them damned Frenchies!” Benny snorted as we climbed in our jeep at the foot of the hill.

What’s this about grass skirts, Benny?” I asked.

The plantation owners is getting scared. That’s all,” he grumbled. “Why, you wouldn’t want a finer bunch of people to work with than them Tonks. You can see that. It’s just them damned plantation owners. And the guv’mint.”

You really mean the government has stopped the making of grass skirts?”

They’re tryin’ to, sir. But as you can plainly see. I’m doin’ me best to bitch the works, you might say. It’s this way. These here Tonks is brought out to the plantations to work the coconuts and coffee. They come from Tonkin China [Vietnam], I been told. A French possession. They come for three or five years. French guv’mint provides passage. Then they’re indentured to these plantation owners, just like in the old days settlers was indentured in America, especially Pennsylvania and Georgia. A professor from Harvard explained it all to me a couple of months ago. Said it was the same identical system. Plantation owner promises to feed ’em, clothe ’em, give ’em medical care.”

What does he pay them?”

“ ’Bout ninety dollars a year, man or woman, is standard price now. Course, they got good livin’ out here. That ninety is almost all profit.”

Do they ever go back to Tonkin?” I asked.

Sure. Most of ’em do. Go back with maybe four hundred dollars. Wife and husband both work, you see. Rich people in their own country. Very rich people if they save their dough. It’s not a bad system.”

But what’s this about the government and the grass skirts?” I persisted. We were now in the jeep once more, and Benny, with his stomach hunched up against the steering wheel, was heading for the next plantation.

Well, that’s the economy of the island. It’s all worked out. Coconuts worth so much. Cows worth so much. Cloth worth so much. Wages worth so much. Everybody makes a livin’. Not a good one, maybe, but not so bad, either. Then, bang!”

Benny clapped his hands with a mighty wallop, then grabbed for the steering wheel to pull the jeep back onto the road. “Bang!” he repeated, pleased with the effect. “Into this economy comes a couple hundred thousand American soldiers with more money than they can spend. And everybody wants a grass skirt. So a Tonkinese woman, if she works hard, can make eight skirts a week. That’s just what a good woman can make, with help from her old man. So in one month she makes more money than she used to in a year. You can’t beat it! So pretty soon all of the Tonks wants to quit working for Monsieur Jacques Benoit and start working for themselves. And Tonk men work on plantations all day and then work for their wives all night making grass skirts, and pretty soon everything is in a hell of a mess.” Benny jammed on the brakes to avoid hitting a cow.

It’s just like the NRA back in the States. Mr. Roosevelt might be a great man. Mind you, I ain’t sayin’ he ain’t. But you got to admit he certainly screwed up the economy of our country. The economy of a country,” Benny said, slapping me on the knee with each syllable, “is a very tricky thing. A very tricky thing.”

So what happened?” I asked.

Like I told you. The economy out here went to hell. Tonks makin’ more than the plantation owners. Their best hands stoppin’ work on cows and coconuts. Tonk women who couldn’t read makin’ five, six hundred dollars a year, clear profit. So the plantation French went to the guv’mint and said, ‘See here. We got our rights. These Tonks is indentured to us. They got to work for us.’ And the guv’mint said, ‘That’s right. That’s exactly as we see it, too.’ And strike me dead if they didn’t pass a law that no Tonk could sell grass skirts ’ceptin’ only to plantation owners. And only plantation owners could sell them to Americans!”

Benny looked down the road. He said no more. He was obviously disgusted. I knew I was expected to ask him some further question, but I had no idea what. He solved my dilemma by walloping me a ham-handed smack on the knee. “Can you imagine a bunch of American men, just good average American men, letting any guv’mint get away with that? Especially a French guv’mint?”

No,” I said, sensing an incipient Tom Paine. “I can’t quite imagine it.”

Neither by God did we!” he grinned. He slowed the car down and leaned over to whisper to me. “Why do you suppose all the grass skirts is yellow these days? Didn’t they used to be red and blue? What do you suppose?” And he tapped his big jar of atabrine pills. “And there’s nothin’ in it for me. Not one goddam grass skirt do I own,” he said. “Just for the hell of it!” and he grinned the ancient defiance upon which all freedom, ultimately, rests.

And I am ashamed to admit,” he added in a low voice as he turned into a lane leading toward the water’s edge, “that it was the Marines who fought back. Not the Navy! I’m kind of ashamed that the Navy should take such a pushin’ around. But not the Marines. Now you watch when we get around this corner. There’ll be a bunch of Tonk women and a bunch of Marines. They’ll think this is an MP car and they’ll all run like hell. Watch!”

Atabrine Benny stepped on the gas and drove like mad, the way the MP’s always do when they get out of sight of other MP’s. He screeched his jeep around a corner and pulled it up sharp about fifty yards from the water. To one side, under a rude series of kiosks made of bamboo and canvas, sat five or six Tonkinese women surrounded by miscellaneous souvenirs and admiring Marines, fresh from Guadalcanal.

At the sight of Benny’s jeep bursting in upon them, Marines dived for the coconut plantation and were soon lost among the trees. The Tonks started to grab everything in sight and waddle like ducks into their incredible little huts. But as they did so, one old woman saw that it was not the malicious MP’s but good old Atabrine Benny.

Haloo, Benny!” she screamed in a hoarse voice. And that was my introduction to Bloody Mary.

She was, I judge, about fifty-five. She was not more than five feet tall, weighed about no pounds, had few teeth and those funereally black, was sloppy in dress, and had thin ravines running out from the corners of her mouth. These ravines, about four on each side, were usually filled with betel juice, which made her look as if her mouth had been gashed by a rusty razor. Her name, Bloody Mary, was well given.

Like all Tonkinese women, Mary wore a simple uniform: sandals on her feet, a conical peach-basket hat on her head, black sateen trousers, and white blouse. And like all Tonkinese women, she was graceful, quick in her movements, and alternately grave and merry. Her oval face was yellow. Her eyes were Oriental. Her neck was beautifully proportioned. Around it she wore a G.I. identification chain from which hung a silver Marine emblem.

Because of her ill-fitting sandals, she rolled from side to side as she walked and the Marine emblem moved pendulum like across her bosom. But her little peach-basket hat remained always steady above her white blouse. She had a sly look as she approached the jeep. Her almond eyes were inscrutable, but jesting. It was clear that she liked Benny.
As soon as she reached the jeep, she darted her strong small hand in, grabbed the atabrine bottle, popped three pills into her mouth, chewed them up, taste and all, and swallowed them without water. She then stole a handful of the precious dye and placed it in a pocket of her sateen pants. In a continuous motion she replaced the bottle, smiled her horrible smile, black teeth now tinged with pale yellow, and walked sedately away. Benny grabbed his bottle and waddled after her. To me, they looked like two old ganders heading for the water.

Bloody Mary, oblivious to everyone, returned to her bootlegger’s kiosk and sat cross-legged on the earth beside a weird collection of items. She had some grass skirts, predominantly yellow, some beautiful sea shells, some mother-of-pearl, two bows with arrows, a new peach-basket hat, three toy outrigger war canoes, and two hookahs, the water-filled smoking pipes good either for tobacco or for opium. Mary would probably get not less than eighty dollars for what she had on display.

With rapid motions of her arms she signaled the Marines in the coconuts to come on back. Slowly they emerged, young, battle-old veterans who saw in Bloody Mary a symbol of age-old defiance of unjust laws. I stood to one side and to my surprise the first two men who entered her kiosk were not Marines at all, but terribly embarrassed SeaBees. Grinning at me and at the Marines, they unrolled the bundles they had under their arms. Well made grass skirts tumbled out.

So the stories were true! The SeaBees were a bunch of dressmakers! The Tonks were selling grass skirts faster than they could make them or buy them from natives. So the omnipresent SeaBees were in the game, just as they were making Jap flags, Australian bracelets, and New Zealand memorial gods. They were remarkable men, ingenious men, and there just weren’t enough airfields to build to keep them busy all the time.

Pin-up painting on the interior lid of the sea trunk of Ship Fitter 2nd Class Albert J. Warlick of Seattle, Washington, 27th Naval Construction Battalion (SeaBees), Tulagi, Solomon Islands, 1942. Oil paint on plywood. Tulagi and Guadalcanal island eighteen miles distant across Iron Bottom Sound, were the first islands to be invaded by the Americans in their long march across the Pacific to defeat Imperial Japan. These islands and the waters surrounding them were the scene of some of the most brutal and desperate fighting of all of the Pacific war as the two sides engaged in a battle of attrition in which the US Marines and US Navy, backed up by the seemingly endless bounty of American industry, were eventually able to prevail. Tulagi was transformed into an important forward operating base for US Navy PT Boats and Destroyers, the latter of which is depicted here, rounding a "point" and being greeted by a bare-breasted and fair skinned "native" woman.
Collection of the author.

Bloody Mary appraised the skirts of the first SeaBee. She liked them. She held up two fingers. “Two dolla’,” she suggested. The SeaBee shook his head. “Two-fifty!” he countered.
Goddam snovabcech no!!” Bloody Mary screamed at him, hitting him in the stomach and kicking the skirts away.

Two-fifty!” the SeaBee persisted.

At this Mary went into a paroxysm of rage, Tonkinese profanity ricocheted off the surprised SeaBee’s head. When he could stand no more of Mary’s cursing and the Marines’ laughter, he bundled up his wares and moved away. But Mary kept after him. “Goddam stinker!” she screamed hoarsely, following that with bursting Tonkinese epithets, and ending with the Marine Corps’ choicest vilification: [fucking] bastard!”

Then composing her placid face, the old harridan ignored the Marines’ applause, smiled sweetly at the next SeaBee, and began fumbling his skirts. When he drew back, she patted him on his shoulder and reassured him in Pidgin English, “Me look, me look, me buy.”

On the way home Atabrine Benny told me how Mary had acquired her vocabulary. “After the new laws she sneaked out here. Does a very good business, although I expect they’ll close her out one of these days. Well, after she had been here a little while, this bunch of Marines from Guadal moved in. Rest cure. They came to like the old devil.  Then Benny went on to tell of how the Marines, with nothing better to do, would hang around the betel-stained old Tonk and teach her their roughest language.

Stand up like a man, and tell them to go to hell, Mary,” the old, tough Marines would tell the old, tough Tonk. Mary would grin, not understanding a word of what they were saying, but after they came to see her for many days in a row the old miracle of the subdued races took place again. The yellow woman learned dozens of white words but the white men learned not one yellow word. When she had mastered their vilest obscenities, they made her an honorary Marine, emblem and all.

The words Mary learned were hardly ones she could have used, say as a salesgirl in Macy’s or Jordan Marsh. For example, if a sailor just off a boat asked her the price of a grass skirt, she would smile sweetly and say, “Fo’ dolla’.”

At’s too much for a grass skirt, baby.”

Then Mary would scream at him, thrusting her nose into his face, “Bullshit, brother!” 

She wasn’t quite sure what the words meant, but from the way new men would jump back in astonishment as if they had been hit with a board, she knew it was effective. And so she used it for effect, and more men would come back next week and say, “Four bucks for that. Not on your life!” just to hear the weathered old Tonk scream out some phrase they could report to the fellows in the saloon back home, “and then, by God, maybe those guys would know us guys was really seein’ somethin’ out here!” And for Mary the best part was that after she had cursed and reviled them enough, the astonished soldiers and sailors usually bought what she had to sell, and at her price.

When it became apparent that Bloody Mary was not going to abide by the island order, plantation owners asked the government to intervene with the American military authorities.
Would the island command place Bloody Mary’s kiosk out of bounds?”

Certainly!” An order went out forthwith, and two military police were detailed to see that no Americans visited the kiosk.

But who was going to keep the kiosk from visiting the Americans? That was a subtle problem, because pretty soon all that the military police were guarding was an empty chunk of canvas strung across a pole about five feet off the ground. Mary wasn’t there any more. She was up the island, hidden among the roots of a banyan tree the Marines had found. She was selling her grass skirts to more men than before, because she was the only woman who dared defy both the civil and military governments.

But commander,” the civil representative protested. “Your men are still trading with her. The whole purpose of the law is being evaded.”

What can we do? We put her place under restriction. But she doesn’t live there any more. It seems to me that’s your problem.”

Please, commander! I beg you. Please see what you can do. The plantation owners are complaining.” The civil representative bowed.

The island commander scratched his head. His orders were to keep peace and good will, and that meant with plantation owners, not with Tonkinese or sailors off stray ships. Accordingly he dispatched an underling to seek out this damned Bloody Mary what’s her name and see what the score was.

The officer, a naval lieutenant, went. He found Mary under a tree with a half dozen admiring Marines around her. They were teaching her new words. When the lieutenant came up, he bowed and spoke in French. Mary listened attentively, for like most Tonks, she knew French fairly well. The lieutenant was pleased that she followed his words and that she apparently understood that she must stop selling grass skirts not only at the kiosk but everywhere else as well. He smiled courteously and felt very proud of himself. Dashed few officers hereabout could speak French. He was not, however, prepared for Mary’s answer. Standing erect and smiling at her teachers, she thrust her face into that of the young lieutenant and screamed, ''[fuck] you, major!”

The officer jumped back, appalled! The Marines bit their lips and twisted their stomach muscles into hard knots. Mary just grinned, the reddish betel juice filling the ravines near her mouth. When she saw that the lieutenant was shocked and stunned, she moved closer, until she was touching him. He shrank away from the peach-basket brim, the sateen pantaloons, but he could not writhe away from the hoarse, betel-sprayed shout: “Bullshit, major!”

All he could say was, “Well!” And with that austere comment on Marine-coached Tonkinese women, he walked stiffly away and drove back to the commander, who laughed down in his belly the way the enlisted men had.

The upshot was one of those grand Navy touches! By heavens, Bloody Mary was on Marine property now. She was their problem! She wasn’t a Navy problem at all! And the curt, very proper note that went to the Marine Commandant made no bones about it: “Get the Tonkinese woman known as Bloody Mary the hell off your property and keep her off.” Only the Navy has a much better way of saying something like that to the Marines, The latter, of course, aren’t fooled a bit by the formality.....”

Semper Fidelis

Kenyon, July 4, 2020


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