The War in the Pacific











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


Wartime encounters threatened established symbols of separation and inequality. Prewar norms required distinctly different styles of conduct and dress for Europeans and Islanders. These differences served to maintain boundaries between colonizer and colonized. But, with the war, every encounter between Islanders and military newcomers threatened to violate these boundaries and the code of European superiority. Every time an Islander and soldier did the same job, ate the same food, played the same game, wore the same clothes, or addressed each other with the same term ("Joe" or "mate"), the established code was violated.

Colonial Attitudes

In Papua New Guinea, efforts of long-time white residents to maintain prewar relations with "natives" were codified in a 1943 booklet written by an Australian officer for the Southwest Pacific Allied Command: You and the Native: Notes for the Guidance of Members of the Forces in their Relations with New Guinea Natives. Several of the 100 points of advice give a clear picture of prewar attitudes:

14. Always therefore maintain your position or pose of superiority even if you sometimes have doubts about it....

22. Don't clasp him (the native) round the neck. Brotherhood is all right. But don't act like a twin brother. Be very much the big brother

23. Always, without overdoing it, be the master. The time will come when you will want a native to obey you. He won't obey if you have been in the habit of treating him as an equal.

But the Australian, New Zealander and American soldiers who came to fight a war cared little for these dictates. Many objected to the petty treatment of men who were fighting alongside them and saving the lives of wounded mates.

The situation in Papua New Guinea between colonial authorities and army troops was paralleled closely in the Solomon Islands. British authorities responsible for administering the Labour Corps urged the U.S. commander on Guadalcanal to issue the following memorandum:

It has come to the attention of the Commanding General that certain practices on the part of military personnel prejudicial to the full utilization of native labour and the control of natives by British authorities are becoming prevalent. These practices include—overpayment for services or commodities, employment of casual labour without adequate supervision or control...and permitting casual natives to wander through camps and military areas and encouraging this latter bad practice by feeding or making gifts to these casual natives.

U.S. Major General Patch, 29 March 1943

The stories told by veterans of the Solomon Islands Labour Corps indicate that the British authorities did indeed have a problem on their hands. Jonathan Fifi'i, leader of a Labour Corps section on Guadalcanal, remembers the deep impression made by friendly encounters with Americans.

They invited us inside (their tents), and when we were inside, we could sit on their beds. We got inside and they gave us their glasses so we could drink out of them too. They gave us plates and we ate with their spoons. That was the first we had seen of that kind of thing. We talked about it like this, "Those people like the British and the whites before, it was terrible because they were not kind to us! These people here are really nice to us. We can all sit on one bed, and we all eat together."

Black Americans

The sight of Black American soldiers wearing the same uniforms and performing many of the same roles as white soldiers carried a social message for black (Melanesian) Islanders. Approximately 200,000 black U.S. military personnel served in the Far East and the Pacific. Since many were in service units (quartermasters, Seabees), they had considerable contact with island labor forces. Apparently the structured segregation of World War II forces left much less of an impression on island memories than the obvious abilities and achievements of Black Americans.

We saw the black soldiers there, and they all wore shirts, and they wore trousers. And their job was to work just like the white soldiers. Even we worked with the white soldiers. . . . they were really great people! Any kind of thing that the whites did, they could do it too. They knew how to do carpentry, and they knew how to write. And they were the people we worked together with.

Jonathan Fifi'i of Malaita


For most Pacific Islanders, sharing food is a sign of closeness and trust. Exclusion from the tables of colonial "masters," except to wait on them, had always been an emblem of social distance and servitude. In contrast, servicemen from both sides found it natural and appropriate to share meals with their island "hosts." Jack Boland, a member of the Australian 39th Battalion remembers,

Whenever we were with these people, at the base camps and so forth, our cooks would prepare lunch, and if there were twenty or thirty or more natives working, we'd always have them come down and share our food. This was, quite frankly frowned upon by the local white population. They considered this not quite the thing to do at all. They were quite disgusted, and I believe they made protests.

from Taim Bilong Masta by Hank Nelson


In addition to learning about modern warfare or work routines, Islanders also acquired a much fuller understanding of the cultures of Westerners and Japanese—their music, food, sports, politics, and language. For their part, Islanders taught curious newcomers (admittedly, many were not curious) about "custom": how to dance, weave thatch, make fire with sticks, make string-figures and the like.

Early in the war, the Japanese increased opportunities for advanced education in Micronesia, and also set up elementary schools in Bougainville and along the north coast of Papua New Guinea. In Belau (Palau), where people had been much more immersed in Japanese language and culture through 30 years of their colonial rule, a song composed at the end of the war laments:

We won't forget you good people (Japanese)
who were our teachers for 30 years,
My favorite sakura.
Our relationship with you has ended.
We don't know which direction to go next.

Islanders young and old brought food to troops—Japanese or Allied—to make friends with them. Good relations established by the Japanese in Melanesian areas such as Rabaul deteriorated quickly as the war imposed harsh conditions. In Micronesian areas where the Japanese had been for 30 years, good feelings about them lasted longer.

Mainichi Shimbun


Since villages were usually off-limits, visits by invited military personnel often became ceremonial occasions for villagers to display their traditions in context, and to use those traditions to define new relationships. Again and again military delegations were welcomed with mock attacks, elaborate handshaking or hymn-singing, feasted with sumptuous stocks of food, presented with gifts, and entertained with dancing and singing into the night.

For the warring armies, the most potent customs and ceremonies were those symbolizing the identity of nations and cultures they were fighting for. The Japanese in Belau exhorted the local populace to gather for morning worship in homage to the Emperor in Tokyo. These ceremonies included patriotic speeches, singing the national anthem, and repeating an oath to the Emperor. As U.S. forces occupied Micronesia, they replaced this with flag-raisings and their pledge of allegiance.