It wasn’t their war, but it turned their lives upside down just the same. Wars have a way of doing that to people.
Village wars were once common, but British and Germans had put an end to this by the beginning of the 20th century. Even when they were fought, these wars were usually limited to a death or two before peace was declared. Destruction of property was rare.
Wars between foreign nations had touched Micronesia before, but only indirectly. The Spanish-American War ended Spanish rule in the islands, and World War I had done the same for German rule.
World War II was a very different sort of experience. The islands themselves became a war zone, in some cases the very battlefield. During 1942 and 1943, American submarines cut off the supply lines between the islands and Japan. Soon after that, the regular bombing raids began on many of the islands. Faced with possible raids, islanders found it dangerous to go out and fish or farm their lands. On the other hand, they could no longer rely on foreign foods, even if they had the money to buy them, because of the shortages.
Life became only more difficult in 1944 when a full division of the Japanese Army was assigned to each major island group to bolster defenses in the event of an Allied attack. Soldiers had to eat, too, and they needed housing. So homes were confiscated and signs were nailed to trees proclaiming that henceforth only the Japanese Army might harvest their fruits. As their hunger worsened, Micronesians turned to foraging for whatever edible plants they could find–and stealing back from the Japanese food that was originally their own. If they were lucky, people could find dogs, cats, rats or lizards to provide some protein for their diet.
The war brought massive relocation of the islanders. Hundreds of Nauruans were brought to Chuuk and Pohnpeians were transported to Kosrae, not to mention that forced evacuation from one island to another within the same groups. The entire Palauan population was resettled on Babeldaob, while whole villages from Toloas and Weno were moved to the western part of the Chuuk lagoon. But there were also the evacuations that were a matter of survival. When the bombs began to fall, many islanders abandoned their homes for caves and shelter in the interior. Larger families were split up, as individuals found refuge where they could.
Hundreds of Micronesians lost their lives in the war, not just as victims of bullets and bombs but because of the effects of beriberi and dysentery and malnutrition. The loss of life was tragic, but it could have been much worse. American losses could be reckoned in the thousands, and Japanese in the tens of thousands.
Perhaps it was their indomitable spirit and faith that allowed Micronesians to survive the miseries of the last year and a half of the war. It might have also been their irrepressible sense of humor: the woman who toiled in the fields sang of themselves as frogs hopping around, and the men joked about how they tricked the military guards while stealing food.
At the end of it all, the islanders’ eyes turned skyward for signs that the period of suffering was over. Even those who had not been told of the surrender could sense the war had ended by the unconcern among the Japanese troops when American planes flew overhead.
Islanders were preparing to do again what they had done so many times before: welcome a new colonial power. Once again there would be plenty of food and new fabric from which to make clothes and buildings materials so that they could construct new homes for themselves. The years of misery were over.
Francis X Hezel, SJ