The War in the Pacific











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


In the short term, World War II had obvious deleterious effects on island health; many people were killed, wounded or fell victim to endemic or alien diseases. Nevertheless, the war years were a medical threshhold. As with transportation, communication and other technologies, the modernization of medical practice in the Pacific can be traced in large measure to the war. Large concentrations of troops encouraged the application of public health methods and the development of new medicines to treat tropical afflictions. Tropical diseases such as malaria, filiariasis and yaws were, for the first time, attended to on a large scale, generating wide-scale public health measures not seen before in the islands. The visible effectiveness of new treatments on disfiguring ailments which had long plagued island communities was widely seen as evidence of the superior power of the military newcomers.


The massive contact of alien populations with one another fostered the transmission of diseases in both directions. Villages were large "reservoirs' of mosquito-borne diseases such as malaria or dengue fever which quickly moved through entire troop concentrations; while Islanders were infected with dysentery, measles and chicken pox. Residents of the central highlands of Papua New Guinea were the victims of a dysentery epidemic which swept westward killing perhaps 10,000 people.


t was malaria, in particular, which caused military medical care to spill over to Islanders. Early in 1943, Australian and American battle casualties in Papua New Guinea numbered 7,752. Casualties from tropical diseases, however, totaled 37,360, including 27,892 cases of malaria. Troop movements also caused malaria to be introduced into some areas—New Guinea Highlands, for example, where it had not previously existed. Medical officers instituted a number of preventive measures which quickly lowered infection rates. These included the filling and oiling of standing water to destroy mosquito breeding grounds and the mass treatment of troops, workers and neighboring populations with atabrine. Malaria control required the training of Pacific Islanders to assist with the constant work of eliminating standing water or covering it with a film of diesel fuel.

Tatuba, Vanuatu (New Hebrides)
August 1943
A young boy sporting a sailor's hat submits to a dental examination by a military dentist. Many Islanders living near bases benefited from the sudden influx of modern medical care. This youngster's village was just offshore from the Allied Base on Espiritu Santo.

U.S. National Archives

Hospitals and Clinics

In many areas military medical units spent more money improving the health of local populations than the entire annual budget of prewar colonial administrations. Major bases constructed temporary hospitals and clinics and staffed them with trained doctors, nurses and native medical practitioners.

Islander access to medical services varied from region to region. In some places, the military established native clinics specializing in treating yaws, ringworm, hookworm and tropical ulcers. On Tonga, U.S. Army medics conducted first aid and sanitation courses in Tongan villages in order to reduce the case load at the Army's 750 bed hospital.

The war fostered widespread demand for local clinics supplied with modern drugs and staffed with trained personnel. During and immediately after the war, many Islanders received training as medical orderlies, practitioners and dressers. People also acquired knowledge of preventive public health measures, especially those connected with mosquito control. Even though most Pacific Islanders today continue to practice traditional medicine, the war reinforced the desire for access to Western medicine, especially the "needless" used to give injections of antibiotics and other treatments known for their dramatic results.