Lolo: The Last Cat on Johnston Island

“A man said to the universe,
‘Sir, I exist!’
‘Excellent,’ replied the universe, ‘I’ve been looking for someone to take care of my cats.” 
 ― Henry N. Beard, Poetry for Cats: The Definitive Anthology of Distinguished Feline Verse

Lolo, which means crazy in Hawaiian, was a black, gray, and white banded, pumpkin-headed tom when I first met him in the late 1980s. Despite his advanced age, Lolo still prowled the spaces between the apartments with a regal air of ownership. Lolo was the last holdover from a time when families and pets were welcome on Johnston Atoll. The last dog had died some years before. Lolo was crotchety and fiercely independent except when an island resident needed an uplifting spirit to sit and talk to. No one knew how many tears he felt on his fur, screams of agony or anger he listened to, or how many secrets he carried. Lolo never talked.

Jack Livingston, an even older island resident, was Lolo’s caregiver. Jack told tales of the days of nuclear rockets, knew how all the old cabling trenches had been used, and managed the island’s real property on 3X5 index cards. He was a holdover from Operation Fishbowl. While Jack could locate a propeller manufactured in 1942 is some remote corner of a warehouse, Lolo kept many from going ‘rock happy’ (a type of claustrophobia that develops as a result of being confined to an island). He consoled those who had lost wives and husbands through divorce and kept more than one person from slipping off the wagon and back into the bottle. When the tears came, Lolo was there. He was adored. Board Certified, chemically trained, medical doctors tended his every ailment and his favorite fish, caught fresh, was delivered daily.

Animals were used extensively during the Cold War (1947-1991) as they have been throughout the history of war. As in wars past, animals were tools in a toolkit during this war; biological programs for intelligence gathering, delivery systems for weapons, personal protective devices, and remote sensing platforms. People can readily summon to mind memories and tales of valiant dogs of war; but dogs are just the tip of an iceberg. Pigeons were used extensively in WWII but the celebrity pigeon during the Cold War was Leaping Lena. She carried a message from behind the Iron Curtain to Radio Free Europe in the mid- 1950s. [1] Dogs, cats, gerbils, and rats along with dolphins, orcas, and other marine animals all gave their bodies and behaviors to the Cold War technology, strategy, and missions.

The lesser known animal heroes of the Cold War are the companion animals that helped the warriors make it through the long days and nights. In southern Nevada, at the test site, pets were made of ring tailed cats in the tunnels at Rainier Mesa. In the abandoned facilities and spaces tucked into the cracks atop the mesas, empty tins of dog and cat food along with 1950’s pin-up calendars featuring Lana turner and others along with abandoned log pages created an illusion that the inhabitant was out for a walk. Only the layers of dust and grime spoke to the length of the abandonment. On the Tonopah Test Range, horses continue to gather where, in the past, they had been fed; hoping that one day the food will appear again. In the Pacific an old dog kept workers company on Bikini Atoll. Mice were tamed and teased with a rubber band tacked to the floor and encased with a Kraft caramel on the Central Arizona Project during the midnight shift. Everywhere I traveled, from Ghana and Australia to Chile and Guam, workers kept animals that were free to come and go. The animals chose to stay on more or less equal footing; a symbiotic relationship.

The annals of history are replete with similar stories hidden behind commas and semicolons. These animals and their humans deserve more than that. They leaned on each other and gave each other the gift of dignity.

One day, after losing a diver in the Johnston Atoll lagoon, I sat in my apartment shaken at the speed with which an aortic aneurism took a vibrant soul. Lolo showed up at my door for the first and only time during my tenure. Upon entry he jumped on the arm of the chair and purred. I sat on the chair lost in thought and stroking his fur. He was just there. The pain of the loss faded to other questions of responsibility as the hours passed and Lolo left. I don’t know why he came that day but I do know he helped me see.

To all the Cold War critters who helped the warriors welcome yet another sunrise, I salute you. Thank you for your service.

6 thoughts on “Lolo: The Last Cat on Johnston Island

  1. Your best post yet. Of course I would love it. Our animal caregivers don’t get enough recognition. Thank you for bringing them out of obscurity.

  2. I was on Johnston Island for 28 years, 1964-1992, and I knew Jack Livingston. Never once did I see a cat on Johnston Island/Atoll. Cats were forbidden because they killed the nesting birds. This is the first time I’ve ever heard of Lolo’s existence. As for dogs, there were many. I had three, Friday, Bruno & Patches. I buried Friday & Bruno, and Patches died shortly after I left in ’92. A neighbor had Primo. Another neighbor had Stoney. The Army had Muttsy and Max as its mascots. Eventually the Army had to get rid of Max. I took him and sent him to a G.I. who had been on the island. There was also a German shepherd.
    And the Coasties had a dog named SigmundFreud. Getting back to Lolo, I just talked to John Merle who was the H&N Resident Manager and my immediate boss for a time. John confirms there was a cat named Lolo on the island. A TDY civilian doctor had sent the cat to John, who named him Lolo. When John Merle left the island, he left Lolo to Jack Livingston; however, John Merle explained Lolo was not a pet in the usual sense of the word. He roamed. John fed him when he showed up and that was it. It’s not like Lolo was a companion in the sense that dogs are. I’ve got five cats and I can verify, they are not pets like dogs are! Cats are very independent and self sufficient. The day I kick the bucket, the cats will survive on their own. Not the dogs. Dogs are totally dependent on humans, which is how we become so attached to them. Doesn’t mean I don’t love my cats, or that I’m not attached to them, but they are a different species. Jake D Sitters, Castroville TX P.S. I sure hope the foto at the beginning of this story is not mistaken to be Johnston Island. JI is virtually flat, the highest natural land mass being something like 12 feet above sea level.

    • Hi Jake! Sound like retirement suits you. You sound like you are in terrific shape. I appreciate the additional history on the Island and its critters! The picture at the beginning is the header and it was taken in Vietnam in 1967. Jack Livingston was an amazing man and Lolo was always something of a surprise. We also have dogs and cats and they are definitely different. Barbara Johnson

  3. Thank you for this wonderful tribute to LoLo, Jack Livingston, Jake Sitters, and the Island. I would also like to add a short memory of MAX the dog. Max loved to come into the Block House (JOC “Joint Operations Center”) sneaking in as someone came in or out so he could enjoy the cool air conditioned protected environment. He was a friendly but indifferent dog. Max was pretty much like LoLo in that he did his own thing and usually got away with it. We were awaiting the arrival of 4Star General Max Thurmond, US Army Chief of Staff….who was coming to Johnston Island to inspect the Red Hat (US Army Chemical Weapons Storage) Depot. The Island was spiffy after a major field day, some new lines on our paved roads, and every corridor in every building cleaned and waxed. Then he arrived in his gleaming white COS Army designated C135….and all the dignitaries met him with the usual formalities. If you knew MAX Thurmond….he was a rough and ready no-nonsense brilliant and tireless General. Most of those who knew him either revered him or (with good reason) feared him.

    OH, I digress…..to continue…..right after General Thurmon landed and while he was still at the Air Terminal being briefed and fitted with his gas mask, MAX the dog slipped into the JOC and decided it was necessary to relieve himself on the freshly waxed floor by the elevator. The Holmes and Narver contract maintenance worker was so angry that he threw Max out of the JOC and then put a sign on the front door entrance. The sign said in big black letters: “MAX IS NOT WELCOME HERE”.

    Someone forgot to take the sign down before the General and his entourage arrived at the JOC…..and when General Max saw the sign….he turned to the Commander of Johnston Island and said in a very loud voice: “I get the F’ing Point !” We were all shocked and embarrassed and then greatly relieved when the General started laughing. It was one of my more memorable moments in Johnston Atoll history.

    • John, that is a wonderful story! I love it! Your wry sense of humor and turn of phrase still keeps me laughing and loving people!

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