World War II came without warning or invitation for the people of the South Pacific and brought issues that few understood. The war became a period of excitement, hardship, and at the same time, of material abundance. Their islands, the place they called their homes, were abruptly exposed and used as never before to new outside influences and by uninvited guests. “Their harbours were used by fleets of warships, while onshore bases were built to house troops, and landing fields were constructed to service a suddenly created aircraft traffic,” (Howe 156). Pacific Islanders were for the most part, observers of the war and the turmoil it generated, rather than constituents. Although there were a number of them who were actively and directly entangled and played crucial roles, there are still very few published accounts of Pacific Islanders camaraderie in the war. Their involvement had gradually disappeared over the years in the record books, as so did their island paradise.
World War II cast a dark shadow in the South Pacific. The Islanders were in no doubt victims of the war, mere bystanders, innocent, and oblivious to the outside world before the invasion. It was a terrible and untamed place to fight a war. The South Pacific was home for a population that was quite large considering the lack of towns and economic development during that time. “There were perhaps 2.5 million people living in New Guinea and the Solomons during World War II,” (Bergerud 104). Much of the Solomons was concealed paradise, although colonized for centuries before. Large areas of the inland mountains of New Guinea had no or little direct organized contact with the Western world whatsoever, until the war.
The population consisted of scores of linguistic and ethnic groups that possessed markedly different cultures in numerous ways. “A coastal villager from the Solomons might well speak English, read the Bible, and periodically work at a nearby coconut plantation. While a hill tribesman in the Stirling Mountains might carry a shrunken head, practice cannibalism, or engage in periodic genocidal wars against neighbors,” (Bergerud 105). There were thousands of different practices, of cultures, of diversity in languages, in religion and of beliefs.
The early stages of the war touched a small percentage of the indigenous population, those who were swept up in the conflict, played vital roles. In the Marshalls, whole villages were swept for all adult males, who were then shipped from atoll to atoll to help fight in the war. With some few exceptions, some had a personal stake in the war and were concerned of the outcome it would bring to the islands. There were areas where people were barely aware that war was even taking place. There were many who could have cared less if the Japanese came, or if the Americans left, or if the Japanese left, and the Americans came.
The fighting that emitted in the Pacific spewed from the Japanese raid on the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on December 7, 1941 and infringed heavily on the Pacific Islands. At that time the Japanese were an invincible force, moving, invading island to island victory to victory. “The battle lines were clearly drawn and provided a basis on which Pacific Islanders could be classified according to the way they would experience the war,” (Howe 154). Some of the natives lived within the Japanese occupied territories, while some, luckily, were out of arms way. Those who did were destined to difficult times while their islands were turned into battlefields.
Almost everywhere the Japanese came, they found lush realms, with snow-white beaches, frond hunts, coconut palms, and dark-skinned people who wore sarongs, grass skirts or loincloths. The invaders made themselves at home and settled in with the Islanders. Many local Japanese officers tried to establish good relationships with the indigenous people and often succeeded in winning their trusts. The men went fishing in the lagoons or streams; they climbed palm trees to gathered coconuts, and exchanged cigarettes and canned goods with the Islanders for fresh fruits like bananas, papayas, and mangoes.
“Until the shipping lanes were cut off in late 1943, vessels from Japan regularly brought news, letters, movies, dancers, singers, and packages filled with snacks and other amenities,” (Steinberg 8). There were also comfort women, prostitutes, who volunteered their services in the battle zones to help ease the tensions of the troops. The war gave the Islanders opportunities to obtain imported goods, by working for money, receiving gifts and fraternizing with not only the Japanese but also with the Americans.
The Japanese, aggravated with numerous losses of battles to the Allies, began mistreating the Islanders. Gradually, as the war increased pressures on the Japanese military, their hostility also grew towards the natives. The Islanders soon began to acknowledge the inequality and harshness they received from the Japanese and many started to welcome the Americans and the Allied troops with open arms. When the Japanese understood the labor supply nightmare they had initiated, they reacted with unsympathetic labor-conscription measures that made the villagers more fearful and distrustful of them. “To make matters worse, when the Japanese retreated, they murdered scores of laborers who might have gathered important military information,” (Bergerud 109). For these reasons, the natives began to side with the United States and their Allies. Additionally, they were impressed with the Americans kindness and generosity towards them and were grateful for liberating them from the Japanese rule.
However, there was more to the war than many people perceive. The harsh climate and terrain in the South Pacific was a guarantee that the men faced an extraordinary task. Yet it was not the terrain and climate alone that made the Pacific Islands the most horrible battlefield of World War II. “It was also the breeding ground for diseases so numerous, pernicious, and debilitating that they pushed three armies to the breaking point,” (Bergerud 89). It was the primary killer during both world wars. Realizing this, all of the major armies fighting in World War II had a major medical apparatus and allocated substantial resources to educating troops in reducing diseases.
Many of the men came down with malaria the worst medical problem throughout the South Pacific during the nineteenth century. Malaria is caused by a parasite transmitted through the bite of the female anopheles mosquito. To make it worst, mosquitoes were everywhere, coming in clouds during the tropical nights. Once in the blood, the parasites travel to the liver and begin to reproduce asexually. Malaria can kill, but more commonly at that time, it caused a high and prolonged fever, making fighting difficult. There was no known cure for malaria and there was no alternative to enduring the attacks.
All soldiers were inoculated against yellow fever knowing that the climate in the South Pacific was home to a bewildering host of microorganisms. However, the environment that allowed the diseases to flourish in the first place made prevention and treatment all the more difficult.
Unfortunately, malaria and yellow fever were not the only dangerous diseases that plagued the armies in the South Pacific. There were dysentery, scarlet fever, dengue fever and scrub typhus, another insect-borne disease. Yet there were thousands of native people who over the centuries had made the South Pacific their homes and seem to have made peace with its fierce nature and an unpredictable environment. They learned to get by with coconut milk when they were without disease free water.
Although the early stage of the war touched only a small percentage of the indigenous population, those who were involved, did however, play very important roles. The Islanders contributed to the Allied war efforts significantly. The native people were a vital supply of manual labor. Many, who were former traders, planters, prospectors, and government officers, became coast watchers assigned to report any strange ships and planes or any suspicious affairs. They stood watch working on American built bases monitoring the Japanese naval troops and air movements and radioed the intelligence they gathered to Ally headquarters. It was dangerous but necessary work, and no one denied that the system could not function without the indigenous support and support could not be taken for granted.
The intelligence they gathered always gave the Allies one step ahead of the Japanese. In addition, the coast watchers rescued downed Allied airmen and saved hundreds of survivors of ships and boats destroyed by the enemies. The success of the Allied forces depended heavily on the good will and bravery of the Islanders, some of whom risked their lives serving the Allies as scouts, guides, and spies. Maintaining their cover was essential to their survival, yet there were times when they went so far as to scoop out of the open sea drowning airmen or shipwrecked sailors. The war was long, continuous, and thousands of local people became involved in the military effort.
“Native guides were a fixture of the war in the South Pacific,” (Bergerud 114). Both sides used them extensively. Most Solomon islanders viewed the war fearfully and avoided getting involved. Those who did, however, sided with the Allies almost exclusively because the Japanese often frightened many.
For those who were fortunate enough to be with the Allies, the war brought change, at times prosperity to the Islanders. They found employment and discovered a market to sell their crafts, fruits, and personal services. The Allies brought soap, beer, and ready-made cigarettes to the islands. They introduced them to ice cream, donuts, canned meat, and they began to watch movies for the very first time in theaters the outsiders built. They praised the unlimited supply of food, blankets, tools, and most importantly, medicine. “American GIs showed great generosity toward villagers, gaining tremendous goodwill,” (Bergerud 114). Consequently, the Allies benefited greatly by being able to befriend and associate with the native people who assisted them in the war effort.
New Guinea was a very different tale. While along the coast, many Allies received life-saving assistance; inland the native people loathed outsiders. The natives killed Allied and Japanese troops alike; where in the jungle, they had the upper hand. “Likewise, on the island of Bougainville, the Japanese Army and many indigenous peoples were at war with each other late in the conflict,” (Bergerud 118).
The Islanders and Allied troops were able to communicate with ease; they did so by means of gestures and Pidgin English. They entrusted the Allies and believed that “with the white men for the first time, islanders received an insight into a new order of human life,” (Howe 160). The natives no longer found it difficult to understand, and they were now more open to change. The Islanders had a chance to learn more of life beyond the island.
However, within the desires of the Islanders, came demands. There were now greater needs and wants for new things, they began to speak only of dollars and Americans. “The implications of such changes were enormous and were early manifest in a greater readiness among Pacific Islanders to challenge the authority of their colonial rulers,” (Howe 161). Already before the war, the Islanders showed interest in social reform. For the most part, the war initiated it. The United States presence on the islands had awakened the people to aspire for economic modernization and for racial equality with the Europeans. Until they came the native people never knew how envious they were of the outside world. They also provided new meaning to the word freedom. As liberators, the Americans won the admiration of the Islanders.
Another visible result of the war has been the boost it gave to migration from the Pacific Islands. In Samoa, for instance, new skills acquired during the war helped in a particular way to generate an eagerness to succeed in labor markets overseas. The Islanders began to seek for the further betterment they desired. Nevertheless, the impact of the war continued in many ways. “Relics of it, both material and otherwise, abound and conspicuous among them are the wartime airfields scattered through the islands,” (Howe 166). This was just the beginning of what was to grow into a self-sustaining movement, as people came to recognize materials of the outside world.
World War II in the Pacific during and until now, not only a major turning point that changed the lives of the Pacific Islanders, it was moreover an introduction to colonization and what it had to offer. Although most are now deserted, “much of the formerly productive garden or plantation land lies lost beneath a layer of compacted crushed coral or concrete,” (Howe 166). However, islands like, Papua New Guinea, Tonga, New Caledonia, the Solomons, Western Samoa, and Fiji have successfully built international airports, their countrys main gateway to the outside world. Additionally, paved roads and buildings, such as the hospital in Honiara, have been constructed during the war, and have contributed to the infrastructure of modernizing the Pacific.
The fact of the matter is that the war helped the indigenous people learn the meaning of the word westernization. In many aspects, the invasion of the Americans and its Allied troops, and even the Japanese, were beneficial in terms of the abundant supply of food and especially medicine that were introduced to the native people. They were taught personal hygiene and manners. They were led and encouraged to develop new ideas, often to help better their lives in their island paradise. There were major improvements in education, health services, agriculture, trade, and water supply; also by developing a controlled government they had a better handle in trying to deal with criminals within their villages. They began to see the importance of an organized colony; and aside from what they were already accustomed to, they began to adapt many of the Western lifestyles. They learned how to use their resources efficiently and productively. Moreover, the people of the Pacific had a better understanding of who the outsiders really were.