The War in the Pacific











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


. . . They quickly made friends with our people. They brought presents of food, clothes and all sorts of good things, and they passed around plenty of whiskey. So our people had a big celebration on the arrival of the Japanese.

Michael Somare, Murik area,
Papua New Guinea

Throughout the Pacific Islands, the act of giving and receiving goods is imbued with wider meaning than a simple economic transaction. For example, in Melanesian societies where political stature is built up through the distribution of food and wealth, the military men who liberally gave out food, cigarettes, clothing and supplies accrued instant prestige and goodwill. The Americans, who imported the greatest tonnage of war materiel, are remembered especially for their generosity. Many U.S. servicemen engaged in the profligate exchange of goods, buying or trading for souvenirs and giving away unwanted military supplies.


Isaac Gafu, a laborer from Malaita working on Guadalcanal, remembers vividly the food given out by American troops,

. . . you ate until you could not eat anymore so you threw the food away. When the boxes would break open and food would fall out all over the place. . . . the Americans said, "You all eat these things. This is our food. Let's all eat while we are all still alive."

And food moved in both directions. Military rations were dispersed to Islanders while locally produced foods were given, bartered or sold to soldiers. A man from Nguna, Vanuatu remembers,

. . . Americans needed bananas, pineapple, sugarcane, chicken, and everything. We brought many things for them, and gave them to them. We were happy that we were able to help them with everything of the land.

Mendaropu, Papua New Guinea
October 1942
Villagers barter tapa cloth—this characteristic of Oro Province—with an officer of ANGAU (Australian New Guinea Administrative Unit). In addition to traditional objects, they also brought in fresh fruit and vegetables to trade with troops of the nearby 32nd Division of the U.S. Army.

Australian War Memorial

Dollars and Souvenirs

. . . .When I was in Funafuti, I saw that the Americans paid a lot of money for our mats and baskets; maybe two or three, sometimes five dollars.

Neli Lifuka of Vaitupu, Tuvalu

The demand by American Marine and Army personnel for such things as sea shell carvings, walking sticks, grass skirts, combs and so on resulted in even people my age focussing on making or finding something to sell. I was four teen years old in 1942/1943 and actively involved in making walking-sticks, combs and grass skirts.

Sir Frederick Osifelo of Malaita,
Solomon Islands

The widespread demand for souvenirs, paid for with dollars, evoked a vigorous response from Islanders. Father Emery deKlerk looked out from his mission station on Guadalcanal one day in May 1943 and observed "a whole fleet of native canoes travelling toward Lunga to trade with American soldiers." The increase in demand also produced a sharp inflation in the prices of local artifacts. In Tonga, the rise in souvenir prices was gauged at 4000%. The result in many areas was a thriving industry of "tourist arts," which continues to the present time.


Islanders remembering the war point out correctly that exchange was mutual. In addition to providing food and labor to the Allies and Japanese, money also flowed back to the military powers as Islanders in some areas contributed to war funds, signifying their partnership in war. In 1943, the people of Belau donated 131,815 yen (about $560) to the Japanese—at a time when miners were earning 8 yen per day. In Tonga, Islanders raised enough money to buy three Spitfires for the British Royal Air Force.