Island Memories of World War II
© 1987, East-West Center
One spoke of Americans long ago.
In 1941 they came to Tanna,
their eyes fierce.
Happiness, astonishment here.
We saw many things:
airplanes, submarines, tractors, autos.
The land was too small.
They were like the sand and the stars in the sky,
impossible for me to count.
ballad by Nikiau of Tanna, Vanuatu
The encounter with the full brunt of Western and
Japanese technological might astonished Islanders who had little
previous experience with the output of modern industrial nations. The
sudden infusion of the machinery of war and the modes of production
required to support it left deep impressions on islands where prestige
had traditionally been measured in terms of ability to produce and
distribute food and wealth.
Islanders had a front row seat for the most awesome
display of firepower ever let loose in war. Islands which had only known
copra boats and occasional seaplanes now witnessed regular armadas of
warships and bombers. Beaches and lagoons where only canoes had passed
were now host to huge transports capable of landing tanks, trucks and
enough supplies to fill up whole warehouses.
The term "cargo" once referred to Western goods
stored in the holds of trading ships. It was given new meaning by the
Pacific war. Between 1942 and 1945, the U.S. Army alone shipped over
four million tons of supplies to the Pacific. To a large extent, it was
Pacific Islanders who loaded and unloaded this cargo.
Military supply lines did more than transport
materiel from one point to another. Modern support facilities and
industrialized forms of production were also introduced. In areas where
only coconut plantations had stood before, hundreds of miles of roads,
docks and airfields were laid down, electricity and telephone lines
strung, acres of warehouse and fuel tank space constructed, and row
after row of quonset huts put up. Whole cities appeared in a matter of
months, with the latest Hollywood (or Tokyo) attractions showing nightly
for service personnel and Islanders alike.
Modes of Production
These bases also became centers of production capable
of supplying food and war materiel. The Japanese methods of intensive
gardening and Allied war farms introduced new ideas about agricultural
production. Islanders found employment in new factories, machine shops,
print shops and medical clinics. An ordinance plant at the Allied base
at Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea acquired the name "Little Detroit" for
its ability to assemble 120 vehicles a day. A boat assembly plant at the
same base constructed a total of 2,000 landing craft. People on islands
where there had been no roads learned how to drive trucks, tractors,
jeeps and motorcycles; and they learned how to fix them in motor pool
Nadzab, Papua New Guinea
Island workers and Allied military men struggle to offload machinery for
the drive on Lae about 20 miles downriver. Villagers must have wondered
at the sudden appearance of hundreds of planes disgorging all kinds of
supplies, weapons and equipment.
Australian Department of Information
American industrial output exceeded the needs of
troops to such an extent that U.S. troops nonchalantly gave away huge
amounts of food, clothing and equipment. Islanders working at major
supply bases at the war's end witnessed the spectacle of thousands of
tons of machinery being abandoned or destroyed, producing such current
tourist attractions as Espiritu Santo's "million dollar point" where
vehicles and equipment were pushed, rolled or dumped into the sea. At
Kukum docks on Guadalcanal, the U.S. Army burned, buried or dumped at
sea some 60,000 tons of cargo worth almost $20,000,000 at the end of the