The War in the Pacific











Island Memories of World War II
© 1987, East-West Center


World War II swept into the Pacific Islands with incredible speed and force—a force made even greater by the relative isolation of prewar island communities. The sheer magnitude of the war would be enough to ensure its place in island memories. On the island of Guadalcanal, for example, the number of Allied and Japanese who died on the island in just nine months of fighting was nearly double the total indigenous population of 15,000. But, for most Islanders, the events which unfolded between 1942 and 1945 amounted to much more than a massive military confrontation; they marked a turning-point in the history of race relations and the development of island nations. It is this story, the story of massive cross-cultural encounters and social disruption, which is the main focus of this exhibition.

The war came at a critical moment in the history of many island communities struggling to define their relations with colonial authorities and the wider world. For some people, the war presented opportunities for improved status and government involvement; while for others it offered new ideas and skills which could be used to challenge entrenched colonial regimes. In areas where Islanders had become increasingly restless with domineering colonial officers, the encounter with powerful, exotic, and often friendly military personnel was a catalyst for change.

Like any major event in the history of island societies, wartime experiences have been incorporated in local oral traditions—historical "archives" which depend for their existence on the memories of a disappearing generation of Pacific Islanders. This exhibition is designed to use these oral traditions plus photographs from the war era to portray contributions that Islanders made to the war effort (on both Allied and Japanese sides), as well as something of the meaning of those events for Islanders themselves. Although mostly taken by foreign military personnel, the photographs capture many of the activities and scenes which recur in island recollections of the war. The selection of photographs is necessarily limited to the topics and events which suited the purposes of Allied and Japanese photographers. So, for example, ceremonies of all kinds—awarding medals, conducting church services, and the like—were highly photogenic, whereas there is little photographic record of the experiences of village women and children who struggled to survive while whole villages of able-bodied men were recruited as laborers and fighters.

In recognition of the value of the oral traditions as expressions of culture, identity, and history, the East-West Center's Institute of Culture and Communication has undertaken a research project on "Pacific Recollections of World War II." Geoffrey White and Lamont Lindstrom are the scholars for this project, which includes both this ethnographic approach to a photography exhibition and a future book about Islander experiences in the war.