The War in the Pacific











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


Even as the war was causing death, hardship and suffering, it also presented Pacific Islanders with new opportunities. In many islands where warrior status had lain dormant since colonial pacification, taking up arms and fighting alongside the major world powers enhanced self-esteem and permanently changed views of the outside world. In the Japanese territories of Micronesia, the organization of military and support units established a greater sense of identification with the Empire. Mesubed Michael of the Belau Chosatai (a survey group sent to Irian Jaya [Dutch New Guinea]) wrote a patriotic song which concludes:

"On our shoulders rests the name of Belau,
the opportunity for us to devote ourselves
to the Emperor's country, Japan, has come."

Jacquinot Bay
Jacquinot Bay, New Britain, Papua New Guinea
November 1944
Sergeant Major Kube stands among members of B Company, 1st New Guinea Infantry Battalion as they head for their new headquarters at Pomio village on Jacquinot Bay. They are being transported aboard a former Hawkesbury River vehicular ferry.

Australian War Memorial

Island Military Units

During the war, formal military units were organized in nearly every colony and territory. In areas away from the front lines, police forces and militias such as the American Samoan Fitafita guard were expanded for defensive purposes. In Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, where the most sustained jungle fighting occurred over a period of years, both sides recruited local scouts and trained island military units. In Papua New Guinea, more than 3,500 Islanders fought in the Pacific Islands Regiment made up of the Papuan Infantry Battalion, and the First and Second New Guinea Infantry Battalions. And in the Solomons, over 400 members of the Solomon Islands Defence Force served as coastwatchers and scouts for the Allied forces. Along the north coast of New Guinea, where both the Australians and Japanese enlisted recruits, villagers sometimes found themselves on opposite sides of military encounters. Islanders from more distant regions were also recruited to fight in these "hot spots." More than 2,000 Fijians joined new combat battalions and fought in the Solomons, while 17 Pohnpeians (Ponapeans) died fighting with the Japanese at Buna in Papua New Guinea. The longest war journey was undertaken by the Maori Battalion from New Zealand and the Batallion du Pacifique (made up of Tahitians and New Caledonians) who fought in North Africa and Italy.

Heroes and Medals

As is usual in war, those who distinguished themselves in combat were honored with medals for bravery. The Fijian battalions, for example, lost 42 men in the fighting in the Solomons and were highly decorated. In some instances, the heroic exploits of certain individuals, such as the late Sir Jacob Vouza of Guadalcanal or Sergeant Yauwika of Bougainville, were singled out for prominent attention by the Allied military and media. But for each Vouza there were scores whose stories are known only to the men they fought with and the villages they returned to.


At least as important as the formal military units raised by the warring powers were the hundreds of Islanders who contributed as coastwatchers. Most of these were working with Allied networks established behind Japanese lines in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. Small groups of island recruits supported Allied officers with radios transmitting valuable information back to military command centers. These men also rescued, with the assistance of watchful villagers, hundreds of downed pilots in remote areas. In the case of the Guadalcanal campaign—the first Allied offensive in the Pacific—information supplied by coast watchers proved to be critical, as officers hidden in Japanese-held islands north of Guadalcanal radioed advance notice of planes and ships moving southward. In the words of Admiral William Halsey, Commander of Allied Forces in the South Pacific, "The coastwatchers saved Guadalcanal, and Guadalcanal saved the Pacific."