Recent media coverage of Victory in the Pacific Day has highlighted the way Indigenous peoples of the Pacific remain invisible in our public memory of the Pacific War. We sometimes recall the deeds of the so-called “Fuzzy Wuzzy Angels” of Papua New Guinea. But the wider impact of war on Pacific Island worlds should also be part of our collective memory.
In 1941, much of the Pacific was under some form of colonial or external rule. Rigid rules maintained vast social distances between colonial masters and Indigenous peoples in many Pacific colonies. An Australian government pamphlet, “You and the Native”, for example, advised Allied servicemen in New Guinea to “maintain your position or pose of superiority”. Never “descend to his level”, it advised, and “be the master”.
When war broke out, Allied and Japanese command treated Pacific Islanders as the Natives of colonial territories. Their islands, crops, plantations and bodies were widely used to support the war effort, with devastating results. But the Pacific War was not just a tale of loss, it was also one of transformation and recovery on a scale that deserves commemoration.
War brought devastation to Pacific Islands
When war broke out the Japanese Imperial forces moved rapidly down the western rim of the Pacific. Within months the islands of New Guinea, New Britain, Bougainville and parts of the British Solomon Islands were engulfed in war.
To make way for battlegrounds and Japanese and Allied bases, villages, farms and sometimes entire island populations were relocated. The population of Mavea in Vanuatu, for example, was moved by the Allies to make space for target practice.
The labour needs of war were immense and untold thousands of Pacific Islanders were enlisted as labourers. In New Guinea alone, August Kituai estimated that the labour of at least 40,000 men and women supported the war effort.
As workers, Pacific Islanders were also relocated. Palauan workers were shipped to Rabaul, Nauruans to Truk and Kiribati, and Pohnpeians were sent to Kosrae Island. They worked as general labourers, but also as armed scouts, coastwatchers and soldiers in island regiments beside Allied and Japanese troops.
By 1942 the Allies had halted the Japanese advance southwards with intense air and land battles on the island of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. As an indicator of scale, within six months the Japanese and Allied dead outnumbered the entire indigenous population of 15,000 by two to one.
For coastal villagers on and around Guadalcanal, their sea was turned toxic as the dead, and the detritus of oil and debris from naval and airborne warfare, washed up on their beaches.
During 1943, the Allies island-hopped north in an attempt to sever the supply lines to Japanese bases in the islands. The intent was to starve the Japanese into retreat. As their supplies dried up in New Guinea and Bougainville, and on Kosrae, Guam and Palau, tens of thousands of Japanese servicemen leaned on indigenous locals for sustenance.
With farms unable to keep up, everyone was plunged into prolonged famine. On Kosrae, labourers from Kiribati survived on potato leaves. On Bougainville, soldiers recorded eating grass and tree sprouts to survive. Reporting from an Allied camp on Bougainville on May 25, 1945, the Ellesmere Guardian noted a constant stream of “emaciated natives” who were “mere skeletons” emerging from the jungles in search of sanctuary.
The Allies eventually “liberated” Japanese-occupied islands in Micronesia with a brutal twin campaign of severing supplies and conducting indiscriminate bombing raids. With nowhere to evacuate, Indigenous peoples were repeatedly bombed, strafed and starved alongside the Japanese.
On many islands, including Chuuk, Pohnpei and Palau, these strafing raids left the landscape utterly denuded. Elsewhere in the Solomons, New Guinea and Bougainville, villages and farms along entire fertile strips of land were left ruined and deserted as the war ended.
It is probably not possible to enumerate the full impact of the war on the Pacific. In New Guinea alone, Douglas Oliver has suggested that at least 15,000 civilians perished in the crossfire.
Air and maritime bombardment also left tens of thousands of people displaced, missing and unaccounted for. The New York Times reported on September 2, 1944, that 60,000 were still missing in the southern mountain areas of Bougainville, as were thousands on Guam and the former Japanese mandates. These are rubbery figures, but they hint at the scale of devastation of a war not of Islanders’ making.
No going back: the postwar transformation
Although colonial administrations expected life in the Pacific territories could go back to business as usual after 1945, it could not. Beyond the devastated physical landscape, the internal terrain of peoples’ consciousness had shifted.
While war had brought unprecedented violence, it also brought access to a world that contrasted sharply with prewar colonial orders. In the space of weeks and months the Pacific had been flooded with war-related cargo as airfields, roads, hospitals and telecommunications infrastructure were built.
In Vanuatu and the Solomons, radio channels broadcast music, world newsreels and entertainment for the first time. The Allies built movie theatres and dance halls, and so much associated infrastructure that new townships popped up in months. This was juxtaposed against the relative neglect and penny-pinching conservatism of colonial administrations.
In contrast to the drudgery of plantation labour that many Melanesian Islanders had done in the colonial period, at war they worked with shortwave radio, viewed radar in action, drove trucks, cars and motorbikes, operated telephone exchanges and strung telephone wires, laid railways, built roads and handled the extraordinary volumes of cargo that arrived in Pacific docks.
At war, Pacific Islanders also experienced Japanese command and they worked beside and often in friendship with white Allied service personnel. They saw African-American servicemen who, although segregated, wore the same uniforms and ate the same food as whites. For many, this completely reset race relations.
The Pacific War played out as a colonial war in the Pacific. It was brutal for non-combatant civilians in its path, and its impact epitomised the dehumanising capacity of both war and colonialism.
But the human interactions between locals and both Japanese and Allied servicemen also blew away the stuffy rules of the old-world colonial past. This laid foundations for a longer process of decolonisation. This is a story that should be remembered when we commemorate the Pacific War.