Storied Canoe Returns Home to Micronesia 70 Years Later

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James  Hapdei holds a model canoe in Yap, Micronesia. The model was a gift  from his father to Francis Wilson, Chief Pharmacist’s Mate, who helped  treat a Yaws epidemic during World War TwoContact: Neil Mellen

Habele Outer Island Education Fund

US 803 586 2358

FM 691 952 5005

(Colonia, Yap) A two-foot long model canoe has returned to Yap,  Micronesia, where it will be restored and preserved by a local group of  carvers. Included in the group is the son of the man who first made the  model for a special US Sailor seven decades ago.

The canoe has traveled thousands of miles on its journey home. It was  carved as a gift for a US Navy sailor who served in the Pacific during  World War Two. Chief Pharmacist’s Mate Francis Wilson was one of a pair  of sailors who helped to battle an outbreak of yaws, a crippling  tropical infection, on the Atoll of Ulithi during the war. The other was  physician and author Dr. Marshal Paul Wees.

According to 1950 article in the "Saturday Review," “Dr. Wees was sent  by the U. S. Navy to cope with a terrible scourge of yaws with which the  people of Ulithi were afflicted... With a minimum of medical supplies  and no assistance but the aid of a pharmacists' mate, Dr. Wees  accomplished his mission and eliminated yaws.”

The islanders gave Pharmacists Mate Wilson the canoe along with other  gifts of thanks and friendship when the two Navy men left Ulithi. The  model is over two feet long and nearly a foot wide from the edge of its  outrigger to the hull line. Wilson’s son located the canoe among his  deceased father’s effects earlier this year and coordinated the donation  through “Habele,” a US-based nonprofit organization that supports  students across Micronesia.

Habele reached out to long-time partner “Waa’gey,” a local partner group  in Yap that preserves and revives traditional island skills such as  carving and weaving. Waa’gey has been crafting full size traditional  canoes by pairing older master carvers with high school aged students.  Among their volunteers is James Hapdei, the son of the man who first  carved the canoe model for Wilson during the war. The group offered to  make repairs to the slightly deteriorated model and display the canoe  for islanders and tourists to enjoy.

The model is a faithful and detailed representation of the Caroline  Island dugout sailing canoes that are emblematic of Yap and appear on  the Yap State flag. It is believed to be the oldest Outer Island style  canoe model in all of the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM).

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Master and apprentice carvers from Waa’gey examine the donated canoe model and prepare plans for its restoration and display.

“Waa’gey is receiving a valuable artifact from an interesting period in  Ulithi’s past, when model outrigger canoes were not just souvenirs for  tourists but taught young people how to make real canoes.” explains  Anthropologist, Barbara Wavell, an expert on Caroline Island carvings  and author of “The Arts and Crafts of Micronesia.” “Model canoes were  also used in traditional rituals or as toys for young boys.”

The medical work of Francis Wilson and Dr. Marshall Paul Wees were  chronicled in the 1950 book “King Doctor of Ulithi.” The text makes  specific mention of the model. The canoe model is also nearly identical  to one depicted in “The Ulithi Encyclopedia,” a text authored by US Navy  Lt. John Loudon Vollbrecht and other sailors in 1945.

“Holding this canoe feels like one has reached through time and touched  the past,” explained Larry Raigetal the founder and director of Waa’gey.  “As modern day canoe builders, it gives us an incredible sense of  motivation and participation in our past. We are so grateful to Luke  Wilson and Habele for this donation, and this trust”