Island Memories of World War II
© 1987, East-West Center
We worked very hard... The steamers and warships
were constantly coming and going we went out to work lifting bombs and
military cargo onto big trucks. There were so many trucks. You had to
look carefully when you went around....
We worked building wharves on the beach so the
landing craft could come and open their "mouths," at which point we
would go and unload them. We became so absorbed with the work that we
did not know which day was Sunday or which one was Saturday. Every week
was just like the one before. Every day was just the same. We had no
time to rest. We just worked. But the guns were constantly firing... We
were so afraid, we could not sleep at night.
Isaac Gafu, Malaita, former member, Solomon Islands
Labour Corps, Guadalcanal
It quickly became apparent to the major powers in the
Pacific conflict that the logistic requirements of waging war on remote
tropical islands required the mobilization of thousands of Islanders to
keep supplies moving. Working for an army at war was often dangerous and
sometimes fatal. Supply bases were an obvious target for enemy
We are a group of young men
from all over Belau.
Our camp is in the middle of savannah.
We are lonely all of us.
There is nothing to do for fun.
From morn till night
over the clear surrounding area
airplanes keep flying over
with the loud sound of their bullets.
We, Belauan, are
young men from all over.
The enemies are flying over us.
But we have to keep on working.
The bullets are falling
just like we're in the rain.
But with the war approaching the end
the sound of airplanes is diminishing.
Belauan laborers' song, composed at
Japanese camp on Babeldaob, 1945
Fortunately for many laborers in Japanese-occupied
Papua New Guinea and Micronesia, American bombers often arrived at the
same time every day, so that work could be scheduled in between bomb
attacks. Working conditions were extremely harsh. Pohnpei women working
in tapioca fields were forced to sleep in concrete bunkers too small to
sit upright in. One of the workers, Lena Dehpit Rikardo, composed a song
of their misery:
Our temporary quarters makes us really lonesome.
It's worse than being in jail.
Because we have assumed the appearance of frogs,
creeping on all fours, gathering,
tearing up, looking straight ahead.
Nanomea, Tuvalu (Ellice Islands)
As U.S. forces arrive on Nanomea, Islanders and Marines work together to
transfer water-tins from a U.S. Navy Higgins boat to an outrigger canoe
which can negotiate the shallow waters over the coral reef.
U.S. Marine Corps
By June of 1944, nearly 38,000 Papuans and New
Guineans had been recruited from areas controlled by the Allies
(compared with an estimated 50,000 working on plantations before the
war). One of the most dangerous and arduous jobs was performed by
carriers who moved huge amounts of food, equipment and ammunition over
mountain terrain to support Australian troops attempting to turn back
the Japanese advance toward Port Moresby and Australia. Carriers hiked
up steep mountain tracks with huge loads, then picked up the wounded on
stretchers and walked back again.
Islanders all over the Pacific joined newly formed
labor corps, leaving home for months and even years at a time for
contract work. They worked mostly at Allied and Japanese supply bases,
but sometimes ventured into the scenes of battle, as in the case of
carriers on the Kokoda Trail in Papua New Guinea and the hills of
Guadalcanal. Many signed on eagerly, looking for wages and new
opportunities. Others found themselves dragooned into forced labor.
The U.S. military employed some 1,500 New Caledonians
out of an indigenous population of about 30,000. In Vanuatu (New
Hebrides), nearly 2,000 were at work at the American bases on Efate and
Espiritu Santo. In Fiji, 1,375 men had joined the First Battalion, Fiji
Labour Corps by the end of 1942. About 3,200 men signed on with the
Solomon Islands Labour Corps and went to work on Guadalcanal, Gela,
Russell Islands and New Georgia.
Although working for military forces, local labor
corps were generally organized and directed by colonial authorities. In
Allied areas, these men were frequently the very same district officers
and plantation managers who had been the prewar "masters." They
attempted to maintain prewar expectations by limiting wages and prices
for trade items, and by restricting contact with soldiers. In the end
they failed. Workers in many areas put forth demands for increased wages
and improved working conditions, frequently with the support of new
found military friends. In both New Caledonia and Vanuatu, Americans
stepped into supervisory roles when workers approached them with
complaints about food shortages. As the time for U.S. withdrawal drew
near at war's end, Vanuatu laborers could be heard to sing,
We work for America;
not knowing when this time will end;
We wave goodbye to you, United States;
don't forget about us;
the things we sing to you;
goodbye, sometime until we meet again;
you remember me;
you United States.
On Guadalcanal, where workers continued to work under
former colonial "masters," laborers organized walkouts on at least four
occasions during 1942 and 1943. Even if they had little success (leaders
of the strikes were either sacked or jailed), these acts signalled a
major shift in perceptions of work relations with Europeans.
Far from Home
Wartime labor, which took Islanders far from home,
created hardships but it also established new and extended social
networks beyond the plantation economy. Allies and Japanese moved
manpower where it was needed. In all the island groups where bases were
established, laborers were brought in from outlying is lands to work at
central base areas. In the case of the Allied base at Torokina,
Bougainville, stevedores were brought in from as far away as Fiji. About
400 Kiribati (Gilbert Islands) workers cut off from return home were put
to work by the British on Guadalcanal.
Sixty Islanders sent to work at Manokwari in Irian
Jaya were the first Belauans to work overseas under the Japanese
administration. People from Ngatik went to work on Pohnpei, while nearly
200 men from Pohnpei were shipped to Kosrae. On Kosrae, the Pohnpeians
encountered workers from Kiribati who had been transported from the
Banaba (Ocean) Island phosphate works after the Japanese occupation in
1942. As former British subjects, Kiribati laborers working for the
Japanese received harsher treatment than other Micronesians.