Island Memories of World War II
© 1987, East-West Center
The people cannot sleep because they are afraid that
the American planes will drop bombs.
They are crying but at the same time
they are pleased with the spirits
because the spirits are standing in the middle of the
ocean and watching for enemy ships and planes.
The spirits guard the southern part of Lamotrek
and if American planes come the spirits go into the planes
and sit with the pilots.
When pilots make a decision to drop a bomb,
the spirits make sure that it is dropped in a place
that won't kill any people.
Those spirits also said that they will destroy
by pulling out screws in the planes' engines.
Lamotrek Ilefilimar dance song
When faced with the incredible dangers and
uncertainties posed by World War II, Pacific Islanders protected
themselves with all the resources at their disposal. The traditional
means involved calling upon powerful spirits for assistance, usually the
spirits of deceased ancestors. Even areas where people drew upon
Christian ritual and belief to survive the ordeal, traditional magic and
sorcery were often employed to supplement the arsenal of spiritual
Magic and Sorcery
Islanders in many areas used fight magic and hunting
magic during dangerous situations. Many who were recruited into military
units tell of relying upon magic to avoid detection and injury in
battle. By chanting the proper words or employing the appropriate
ingredients, one might disorient the enemy or cause his bullets to miss
the mark. A Solomon Islander who helped evacuate a group of nuns by
paddling them across the open sea says that they were saved by a
traditional ("custom's") priest who uttered a spell to make them
invisible to Japanese planes overhead.
Many island cultures found new uses for finely honed
sorcery practices designed to attack traditional enemies. Most Americans
fighting in the Solomons were probably not aware that they had new
allies on Ambrym in Vanuatu where sorcerers wanted to help their friends
by directing spirit attacks against the Japanese. In parts of Papua New
Guinea, people attributed Japanese successes over Australians to their
use of magic and sorcery.
Momentous and mysterious events such as those of
World War II were ultimately explained in religious terms, whether
traditional or Christian. In some parts of Papua New Guinea, people who
saw Japanese for the first time speculated that they might be the
returned spirits of dead ancestorsthey were obviously powerful
enough to have forced a quick European evacuation. Attempts at
explaining these bewildering events sometimes gave rise to cults aimed
at attaining new forms of power and wealth unattainable in the old
In Belau, the Modekugei religion was developed by
those Belauans who refused the Japanese head tax. It incorporated a
number of anti-foreign features. When cult prophets in some areas
overtly challenged Australian or Japanese authority they met with
disastrous results. The Australians executed nine leaders of an
anti-white cult near Vanatinai (Sudest) for their role in the murder of
a district officer attempting to re-establish colonial control at the
end of 1942. The Japanese beheaded three cult leaders in Buka, and
killed hundreds of cultists in Irian Jaya.
. . . Our engineers found them using hand-grenades
to kill fish, and then cooking them in an oven made out of belly-tanks
jettisoned from airplanes. But the great shock of our
"wilderness-expedition" was when the natives used to motion them to sit
down at about 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. every day pull out a book and start
conducting religious ceremonies. . . one of the favorite tunes was
clearly "Onward Christian soldiers"!
U.S. Senator James M. Mead,
Tell the Folks Back
Falalop, Ulithi, Federated States of
Christian priests serving with Allied
forces also ministered to Islanders. Since the Japanese either ignored
or suppressed Christian practices in areas once within the missionary
fold, the arrival of military priests was welcomed by many. Here a
Catholic priest gives a rosary to a young girl beside a makeshift altar
on the beach.
U.S. National Archives
In the small islands and coastal regions where most
of the war in the Pacific was fought, local residents had a long history
of contact with outsiders. The hundreds of thousands of newcomers who
came into the region for the first time during the war frequently
expressed surprise at local people's sophistication with Western ways.
Christianity, more than any other element of Western culture, symbolized
Islanders' previous contact with the wider world.
The Japanese in their 30 years in Micronesia appear
not to have actively promoted Shinto religion as a replacement for
either Christianity or traditional practices. They did, however, share a
common concern with ancestors.
On Belau, the approach of war brought the
construction of an important Shinto shrine which, for the first time,
was used by both Japanese and Belauans. This joint worshippraying
for national victory in warsignified a new solidarity between
Islander and outsider, just as church services did elsewhere in the
For those Islanders who practiced it, Christianity
was the single greatest symbol of their common bond with the Allies.
Both Islanders and Allied soldiers possessed knowledge of Christian
rituals such as praying, singing hymns, and attending church services
and funerals. By jointly engaging in these activities, they demonstrated
a degree of shared culture highly significant to both parties. Allied
chaplains regularly conducted church services and administered communion
to Islanders, whether in their villages or on military bases. For their
part, island catechists and priests assisted in these services and, on
some occasions, organized their own ceremonies.
Just as Christianity provided an important bond with
Allied troops, it was sometimes a barrier to acceptance of the Japanese.
In some Christian strongholds, Japanese evoked strong resentment by
mistreating missionaries and desecrating churches. On Guam, the Chamorro
population saw their cathedral turned into a jail to confine captured
Americans, and then an entertainment center where Islanders were called
upon to perform traditional dances. By the end of the war about 200
foreign missionaries had died in Papua New Guinea. People who had
evacuated their villages along the coast found themselves without either
priest or church, and thus without the spiritual protection and strength
they long sought through Christianity. A major part of "liberation" for
many peoples in Japanese-occupied islands was the renewal of Christian
ritual life. In Cape Gloucester, New Britain, two village catechists who
had hidden the church goblets in the forest brought them out for their
first church service in years after Allied troops retook the area.