The War in the Pacific











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 bombers.

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.

Ellice Islands
Nanomea, Tuvalu (Ellice Islands)
September 1943
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.

Labor Corps

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.