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.
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
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
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
includeoverpayment 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
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."
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
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
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 Japanesetheir 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
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
troopsJapanese or Alliedto 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
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.