The War in the Pacific











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


. . . .gun noises, and the actual sight of the ships seemed to have removed the bones of the people. They could not run and even if they did try to run, they could not. It was a unique disaster beyond anybody's memory...

That afternoon. . . . there was no time to go to your village to gather your family or collect your valuable belongings. Wife ran naked without her husband and children. Husband ran naked without his wife and children. A child ran without his parents... All ran in different directions into the bush. All ran like rats and bandicoots in the Kunai grass. The night fell and each individual slept either in the grass or under trees. The soil was your bed and the rotton logs your pillow You go to sleep wherever you happened to run to. The noise of the guns died down at night.

Alfred Duna of Konje village describing Japanese landings at Buna, Papua New Guinea

Hundreds of islands and atolls stretching across the Pacific Ocean were affected in vastly different ways by the war. In parts of the New Guinea Highlands, large populations remained unaware that the war was taking place, even as coastal areas were in the throes of European evacuation or Japanese occupation. But on those islands which became battlegrounds, there was every form of disruption and degradation, ranging from the inconvenience of severed communications to the devastation of entire communities.

Daily life in many areas became harsh and regimented as Islanders were recruited to work for victory—Micronesians for the Japanese, Polynesians for the Allies, and Melanesians for both sides. Then, as battles raged, occupied areas were cut off from supply lines, bombed incessantly and, in some cases, invaded with massive force. The death toll of Islanders killed by the warring powers, either accidentally or deliberately, will never be known. It is estimated that in Papua New Guinea alone, 15,000 villagers perished in the fighting, bombings and executions.

August 1944
As U.S. forces drove north during the final week of fighting on Guam, many people emerged from hideouts in the hills. Here a Chamorro woman suffering from malnutrition is brought in for treatment by the Americans. Much of the indigenous population of Guam remained loyal to "Uncle Sam" after the Japanese occupation on December 10, 1941, and suffered greatly as a result.

U.S. Marine Corps

Uprooting and Evacuation

For people who find their identity and well-being rooted in the land, forced movement away from villages and ancestral lands was one of the most bitter experiences of the war.

The flight of the people sometimes took place in torrential rain, or cold....The hunger was terrible and in some places one taro sufficed for five or six people's appetites. The children often cried and nursing mothers wept because they were suckling babies.

Peter Buck, New Georgia, Solomon Islands

Villagers were evicted from their settlements as military authorities on both sides moved people out of the way to establish their own bases. Nearly the entire population of Nissan (Green) Island was evacuated by the American forces to Guadalcanal where many died of malaria. On Rennell, where Americans cut down a coconut grove and moved its owner to make room for an airstrip which was never used, the owner, Tekiuniu, composed a song in retaliation:

Dig up my coconuts, remove my house,
kill my forest trees
as the geemugi of harvest songs.
Would there were a path to tread upon,
as I would retaliate such my thought
as I ravage America I lay waste.


War has come.
The young men are leaving
to defend alien land.
The foreigners will be saved.

What has called
the young men away
to become enemy victims?
The conquerors will be happy.

The mother is deserted
lonely without her son
a barren beggar
abandoned to heartache.

The mother who lost blood
has become a barren beggar
The one who bore him
I am a lonely beggar

Gavide, Kotaure village, Papua New Guinea

And I sit crying in the belly of my house,
thinking of my brother.
And he truly went into the thick of war
in which people vanish...

Kiabig, Siar village, Nissan Island

The massive and often chaotic movement of people during the war—for refuge, for labor, and for fighting—separated mothers and sons, husbands and wives, and kin from kin for months and years at a time with no certainty that they would ever see each other again. The intensive recruiting of workers and soldiers left many communities empty of young men and struggling to survive.


Islanders remember attempts by both the Japanese and Allied forces to keep them out of targeted areas, but thousands became innocent victims of indiscriminate bombing. Others died in bombing raids carried out, by both sides, against villages suspected of collaboration. In January 1943, U.S. planes bombed several villages on Bougainville and dropped leaflets warning neighboring peoples of a similar fate.

In Guam, where Chamorro residents of the former U.S. possession had lived for two and a half years under harsh Japanese supervision, numerous atrocities were perpetrated prior to the American invasion in 1944. Atrocities happened afterwards, too. The people of Enewetak, on February 4, 1944, took cover in bunkers from an awesome naval and air barrage. Whereas most of the local inhabitants of the lagoon recall being treated well by the American invaders, the people of Meden were the victims of a senseless attack. One of the survivors recalls,

. . . All of us were in the holes. Anything not in the holes disappeared. . . . In the holes it was awful. We were hungry and thirsty but no one could go out. If you traveled outside you would disappear. Then in their coming the (US) warriors were not straight in their work. They came to the shelter of ours, guns ready and looked toward us inside. So great was our fear that we were all in a corner, like kittens. And then they yelled and threw in a hand grenade... When it burst, the whole shelter was torn apart. So powerful was the thing one could never stand. Earth fragments struck us, but the others in the other half, they died. All the force of the explosion went over there....