War in Paradise
World War II sites in Truk Lagoon, Chuuk, Federated States of Micronesia
World War II in Chuuk
Japan took control of Micronesia from 1914 and under
a veil of secrecy developed the region to its liking. Following on with
its war with China which began in 1931, Japan initiated a war with the
USA in the Pacific and as part of this war, they established major bases
in Micronesia, one of them being Truk Lagoon. It became the Imperial
Japanese Navy's Fourth Fleet base from November 1939 and the Combined
Japanese Navy Fleet were based there from July 1942 to February 1944.
Truk Lagoon was regarded by the USA during World War II as the strongest
naval base in the Pacific with the exception of Pearl Harbor. Over
37,000 Japanese lived and worked in Truk Lagoon, dominating the 9,000
Chuukese until the end of the war in September 1945.
The veil of secrecy that Japan surrounded the whole of Micronesia
helped fuel American suspicion on whether Japan was establishing
military bases in the region. The speed with which Japan struck Pearl
Harbor and then captured bases such as Guam, the Philippines and Rabaul
was facilitated by the ships and aircraft based in Micronesia and at
Five airstrips and seaplane bases were built in Truk Lagoon, some
initially as civilian facilities, and they were quickly converted to
military use. As the war progressed, only minimal repair facilities,
fortifications and defences were established and when the Japanese Army
arrived en masse in January 1944, they considered the base was
poorly equipped to defend itself. The army established numerous coastal
defence and anti-aircraft guns, pillboxes, bunkers, and caves in
preparation for an amphibious invasion but this was of little use
against the 18 month period aerial bombardment which began in February
1944. Truk Lagoon was also greatly hampered by American submarines which
reduced the number of ships, equipment and personnel getting to and from
the base. They sunk over 1000 large merchant vessels and about 300 Navy
vessels during World War II.
The Imperial Japanese Navy, who were in charge of
Truk Lagoon base put their resources into building up their fleet of
ships and aircraft, wanting to use them in the final big decisive battle
which would settle the war in favour of Japanbut this never came!
Beginning with Operation Hailstone, the base was bombed on February 17
and 18, 1944; again on April 30 and May 1, 1944; then with USA B-24 and
B-29 bombers, some on a daily basis over many months, then less frequent
until the war's end. Further attacks were launched by a British Aircraft
Carrier group in June 1945. A total of 6,878 tons of bombs were dropped
on Truk Lagoon, in one month alone, June 1944, the total was 1,813 tons.
No amphibious invasion took place.
The result of this was that Truk Lagoon's role as an advance base,
then as a base to assist in the defence of the rest of Micronesia and
Japan itself, was virtually non existent. Over 4,000 Japanese Navy and
Army personnel were killed and wounded. Over 50 ships (mainly merchant
vessels) were sunk in the lagoon and about the same number outside of
the lagoon; about 400 aircraft were destroyed; and all five
airstrips/seaplane bases rendered useless. However, the Japanese
Combined Navy Fleet pulled most of its warships out of Truk Lagoon prior
to February 1944.
Over 120 Chuukese were killed and/or wounded during the war. Most
Chuukese had been forced to leave their homes to accommodate over 10,000
Japanese Army personnel. The Japanese military confiscated local food as
imported food could not get through the submarine blockade. The
continual bombing destroyed local crops and it made it difficult to farm
on land as well as collect fish. While Chuukese labourers were once
paid, they were now forced into slave labour to construct the many
military facilities. Starvation and malnutrition became common, and
torture and cannibalism was said to have occurred. Turner and Falgout in
their paper Time Traces: Cultural Memory and World War II in
Pohnpei, state "Those who experienced the intense suffering
during the Japanese military buildup and the American campaign describe
it as the greatest hardship they ever endured." It is further summed
up by Poyer, Falgout, and Carucci, in their book titled the The
Typhoon of War: Micronesian experiences of the Pacific War: "The
war forced a rethinking of cultural values, and it expanded islanders'
knowledge of global ran military, political, and economic realities.
World War II in Micronesia meant, in short, both terrible suffering and
momentous change. Nothing would ever be the same again."
There are a number of Chuukese who witnessed the war still living in
Chuuk and who provide a very real connection with the terrible
suffering. There are also many war artefacts and sites on the islands
and underwater. In his survey of the World War II features of Chuuk,
Colt Denfield concluded that Chuuk "...has insitu as many guns as all
of Europe." Many of the Japanese war buildings were torn down and
the material re-used to help build Chuukese homes. The shipwrecks and
aircraft found underwater are a scuba diver's paradise that not only
display the range of munitions and equipment used in war, but the
incredible beauty of the underwater world.
The term 'paradise' as it relates to Chuuk was put forward by Thoms
Gladwin after his six month's stay in Chuuk in 1947. He was part of the
USA's teams of sociologists, anthropologists and linguists who were
dispersed throughout Micronesia after the war to gather information
about the Micronesian people and their customs.