World War II in Tuvalu
War Years
by Melei Telavi

This resource is chapter 18 from the book Tuvalu - A History, published in 1983 jointly by the Institute of Pacific Studies and Extension Services, University of the South Pacific, and the Tuvalu Ministry of Social Services.

Mail Plane The Second World War, which began in Europe in 1939, reached the Pacific in December 1941, when Japan bombed the American base at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii. The Japanese were well prepared for the war, advancing quickly through south-east Asia to the Solomon Islands. There, at Guadalcanal, their southward movement was stopped by American forces late in 1942. In December 1941, the Japanese had also claimed Kiribati (formerly the Gilbert Islands). They met no resistance but their movements over the following months were observed by coastwatchers whose reports assisted the Americans and their allies to organise counter moves.

From Kiribati the Japanese intended moving south to Tuvalu but their losses at the battle of Midway delayed them. This enabled the Americans to get to Tuvalu first, on 2 October 1942. Moreover, secrecy was so well maintained that the Japanese did not learn of the occupation of Funafuti until March 1943. Nine times between 27 March and 17 November 1943 Japanese aircraft attacked Funafuti. Although killing one local man and a dozen Americans they did little damage. On the first alert of one raid in April 1943, 680 people took refuge in the concrete walled, pandanus-thatched church. Fortunately for them an American soldier, Corporal B. F. Ladd, persuaded them to get out of there and into dugouts. Ten minutes later, in the words of the American war historian Samuel Eliot Morison, 'a large bomb came through its roof, exploded, and completely blasted the interior'.

Some Americans died not in battle but in tragic mishaps. In one such incident two fighter planes crashed in mid-air during gunnery practice. In another, six pilots and twenty-two out of twenty-four aircraft were lost in January 1944 when a squadron of fighter planes coming from Tarawa flew into a storm near Niutao. Maheu Naniseni, coastwatching on Nui at the time, used his radio to summon help for some of the survivors.

Eight Japanese planes and their crews were lost in various engagements. The Americans, for whom Tuvalu provided important advance posts from where they could carry the fight northwards, defended their positions fiercely with fighter planes and anti-aircraft guns. The first offensive blow from Tuvalu was struck on 20 April 1943 when twenty-two B-24s took off from Funafuti to bomb Nauru. Other airfields were later built on Nanumea and Nukufetau, in time to be used in November 1943 by aircraft engaged in the battle for Tarawa. That was one of the major actions of the war in the Pacific.

In the middle of 1944, as the fighting moved further north, towards Japan, the Americans began to withdraw from Tuvalu. On occasions during 1943 there had been more than 6000 Americans based ill Tuvalu but by the time the war ended in 1945 nearly all of them, together with their equipment, had already departed.

To the people of Tuvalu, at least to those of them whose islands were occupied by the Americans, the war brought much excitement and material prosperity. They were able to obtain luxury goods and food in abundance. Many did not bother to cultivate their lands and pulaka pits, preferring to rely on the Americans to supply them - by way of both gifts and wages.

Funafuti, 1942When the first marines arrived at Funafuti the people enthusiastically helped unload their equipment. According to a marine historian, they set so fast a pace that they worked themselves to exhaustion. In fact they set a standard of friendly cooperativeness that was to mark Tuvaluan-American relations throughout the occupation.

Despite such amity, both military and government authorities carefully controlled contacts between Americans and islanders. Since communication between camp and village had to be by boat or canoe this was not too difficult. As a result the American presence resulted in the birth of only four part-American children.

On the islands not occupied by the Americans the people enjoyed fewer distractions and rewards than those who lived elsewhere. Sometimes they even lacked such things as tobacco, soap, kerosene, cloth and flour because of difficulties with inter-island transport. Radio contact between the islands was also restricted.

Tuvalu's war-time history may be further illustrated by separate accounts of events on the three islands occupied by the Americans.

Funafuti

The first Tuvaluan to have close dealings with the Americans was Pasifika Falani, a former pupil of Elisefou and who had joined the government service in 1934. Late in September 1942 he was recruited by an officer engaged in a reconnaissance mission toact as a pilot, and a few days later he guided the American fleet through the reef and across the lagoon to the main settlement on Funafuti. This had already been vacated by the local people, who shifted to Funafala and Papaelise. The marines then took over the site. Some of theln also settled on Amatuku, Fualefeke, Tepuka and Faatato.

The arrival of eleven warships on the afternoon of 2 October was a spectacular sight to the islanders, who had never before seen such large vessels - or so many of them at one time. Still, it was only the beginning. During October 1943 forty-three ships entered the harbour, and the figure was to rise to 131 in November, to 141 in December, and to 174 in January 1944.

SurveyingImmediately the Americans landed a Construction Battalion ('Seabees') began building an airstrip and subsidiary facilities, including a sea-plane ramp on the lagoon side of the island. They also built a control tower which stands where the Seventh Day Adventist mission is now. Their radio station was at Tepuka, and was connected by cable to the main camp. The local fishermen have since cut up all of this cable, which lay in shallow water, to use as sinkers for fishing lines and nets. The colonel's headquarters were where Teagai Apelu's residence is now, and his bunker carl still be seen. So quickly did the 'seabees' work that, says Morison, 'the new airfield was ready for launching photographic missions against Tarawa, Mili and Jaluit before the end of 1942'.

Building AirfieldIn the construction of the airfield a large portion of the land was covered up. The local people were later compensated yet they suffered an enduring loss. Pulaka is no longer a staple food, although during the war it did not matter. The American occupation brought them more food--as well as cigarettes, soap and kerosene--more than they had ever had before. Many still think of that as the best time of their lives.

Still, not all memories are happy. There were two incidents in which local men were killed. In one, Apelika Paikea was shot by an American during curfew. This occurred when he went onto the beach during a film show. The marine who shot him was sent back to the States the following day. In the other incident, Esau Sepetaina was killed in the bombing raid that destroyed the Funafuti church on 23 April 1943. Since then the Funafuti community has annually commemorated 23 April as 'Te Aso o te Paula'. Seven Americans also died in the same raid.

Nanumea

A week before the marines landed at Nanumea, in August, 1943, the people were told to move to Lakena. So they pulled down their houses and dragged the planks through the shallow water to their new home. From there they experienced the generosity of the Americans and marvelled at their equipment, which included devices for turning sea water into drinking water.

Being close to Kiribati, Nanumea suffered several Japanese raids. In August 1943 the mission ship John Williams was attacked while it was unloading supplies for the coastwatchers. On another occasion a bomb damaged the church. No one was hurt and the damage was later repaired.

Indeed, most damage done on the island was done by its defenders. The airfield took up one sixth of the land grea, and to make it the Americans destroyed nearly half the coconut trees, 22,000 out of 54,000. Moreover, efforts to replant that land have not been very successful. The coral is packed too hard for the trees to grow properly. Another unpleasant reminder of the war was a number of unexploded bombs and shells left lying around. Until they were recently disposed of by a New Zealand bomb disposal team, children used to play with these dangerous relics by taking the powder out of them and pouring it into coconut shells to make bombs of their own. Also unpleasant is the wreckage that remains. That in the lagoon can be a danger to swimmers and canoes or, if it is in deeper water, where much equipment was dumped, is thought by some villagers to poison fish. The wrecked American cargo ship, near the main settlement a particularly unsightly monument. On the other hand, the American Passage, blasted through the reef by the 'Seabees', assisted by local divers, has proved to be of continuing benefit to the island. 1n this and similar tasks the Americans were assisted by eighty local divers, who placed explosives in deep water.

Nukufetau

Nukufetau was like Funafuti in that big cargo ships and warships entered and anchored inside the lagoon, whereas at Nanumea, where there was no natural deep passage, only small vessels could enter.

The Americans occupied Motulalo which is about eight kilometres from the main settlement on Motumua. Motulalo is the largest of the islets so it is there that they built their airfield and deep water wharf. To assist in clearing sites for their installations the Americans hired local men, who commuted daily from the main settlement by landing craft. When the clearing was done a few of them were chosen to stay on as orderlies and cleaners.

War relics are more numerous at Nukufetau than at Nanumea and settlement the Americans did not bother to clear everything away before they left. There, too, the former air-strip provides very poor ground for growingg coconuts.

The Second World War was a brief and dramatic episode in Tuvalu history. Its direct impact on the place and people, except for the airstrip at Funafuti which has been kept in service to give the nation an international air link, has been slight. Nevertheless, since it clianged the world within which Tuvalu had to live, the impact of the war was profound. For it helped put an end to the age of colonial rule, and brought into being a world in which colonies were to be prepared for independent nationhood.

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The United States Army has a webpage devoted to the American involvement during the Central Pacific Campaign. This can be seen at http://www2.army.mil/cmh-pg/books/wwii/72-4/72-4.HTM