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Memories of War

Memories of War: Micronesians in the Pacific War

Suzanne Falgout
Lin Poyer
Laurence M. Carucci
Copyright Date: 2008
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  • Book Info
    Memories of War
    Book Description:

    Micronesians often liken the Pacific War to a typhoon, one that swept away their former lives and brought dramatic changes to their understandings of the world and their places in it. Whether they spent the war in bomb shelters, in sweet potato fields under the guns of Japanese soldiers, or in their homes on atolls sheltered from the war, Micronesians who survived those years know that their peoples passed through a major historical transformation. Yet Pacific War histories scarcely mention the Islanders across whose lands and seas the fighting waged. Memories of War sets out to the fill that historical gap by presenting the missing voices of Micronesians and by viewing those years from their perspectives. The focus is on Micronesian remembrances—the ritual commemorations, features of the landscape, stories, dances, and songs that keep their memories of the conflict alive. The inclusion of numerous and extensive interviews and songs is an important feature of this book, allowing Micronesians to speak for themselves about their experiences. In addition, they also reveal distinctively Micronesian cultural memories of war. Memories of War preserves powerful and poignant memories for Micronesians; it also demonstrates to students of history and culture the extent to which cultural practices and values shape the remembrance of personal experience.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6358-6
    Subjects: Psychology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. 1-6)

    Some sixty years after the end of World War II, Micronesians still speak about their wartime experiences, and those of their parents and grandparents, as a time of profound transition, “the greatest hardship” that they and their societies have endured. These islands, ruled by Japan for decades before the war, contested in the bloody Central Pacific campaigns of 1943–1945, then governed by the United States, play a key role in the military history of the conflict. Yet the many volumes of Pacific War history based on Allied or Japanese sources scarcely mention the Islanders across whose lands and seas...


    • Chapter 1 “MICRONESIA”
      (pp. 9-19)

      The attempt to portray Micronesian cultural memories of the war is a more ambitious task than it may at first seem. Micronesia—which includes the Marshall, Caroline, Marianas, and Kiribati islands and Nauru—is a vast area of the world and one that embraces much geographic, cultural, linguistic, and historical complexity.¹

      “Micronesia” is a Western label given to the area; it means “little islands.” While generally smaller than those elsewhere in the Pacific, the more than two thousand islands in this area range from tiny sand spits covered at high tide to Guam’s relatively large land area of 225 square...

      (pp. 20-36)

      Scholars have written volumes on the importance of memory. They point out that our experience of the present is largely based on, or even embedded within, our knowledge of the past. While knowledge of the past is not unchanging, they argue, it nevertheless helps to keep us oriented. But what is a memory? Our commonsense notion of memory is an individual’s experience of some thing or event, acquired in the past, stored in the mind, and available for future retrieval. Recent research, however, challenges this “file drawer” model of memory. It seems that there is more to how we remember...


    • Chapter 3 THE MEANING OF WAR
      (pp. 39-43)

      Micronesian societies maintain highly valued warrior traditions, pasts in which chiefs and military action hold central significance. In stories of ancient times, warriors waged important battles both at home and against other islands. The actions and events of these battles hold value in the present (just as Americans refer to past military victories for modern inspiration), and well-known martial figures rank as important cultural heroes. Heroic accounts of ancient times constitute some of the most important of all oral traditions.

      Like modern war, ancient Micronesian warfare changed the lives of those involved. When they reflect on ancient battles, however, Micronesians...

    • Chapter 4 THE SHOCK OF WAR
      (pp. 44-71)

      When asked to recall the start of the war, many, perhaps most, Micronesians describe it as a surprise, a shock. People recalled that in the late 1930s the Islands were prosperous, with plentiful opportunities for wage labor, with young people, especially, busy making money, traveling, enjoying imported goods, learning the Japanese language and customs. The work and bustle simply seemed part of the economic development that peaked during the prewar decade. Islanders do not recall that the increase in construction projects held any threat at the time. Where Japanese air bases were hastily built, some locales were transformed overnight; but...

      (pp. 72-87)

      An important factor shaping individual and cultural memories is how people identify events or conditions that contrast with the day-to-day course of life. Elderly people measure their wartime experiences against recollections of peaceful (though not uneventful) times before and after the war years. Just how different those war years were from the ordinary experiences of life varied greatly. In locales that were not garrisoned or fortified, the war years might have passed with little change from the years before and after, except for the absence of imported goods and administrative oversight. On fortified islands, though, the buildup to war, battles,...

      (pp. 88-100)

      What comes immediately to mind when thinking of the many hardships of war is the trauma of combat itself. As we have seen, the danger of battle or air raids forms part of many Micronesians’ recollections of World War II.

      At the start of the war, most Micronesians had been impressed with Japanese military preparations, and after nearly three decades of acculturation, they supported Japanese predictions of victory and willingly joined in patriotic activities for the emperor. As we will see in chapter 7, Japanese law did not allow Micronesians to enlist in the military (though a few sons of...


    • Chapter 7 “IT WAS NOT OUR WAR”
      (pp. 103-117)

      The Japanese began the Pacific War confidently, with a strong offensive against U.S. and British possessions in the region. For the Allies, the Pacific theater was a secondary front: they decided to defeat Hitler in Europe before focusing their forces against Japan. Once engaged, though, they mounted a two-pronged drive, along with attacks on shipping, to dominate the region and press the war to its conclusion in the Japanese homeland. The first and best-known trajectory of this offensive followed General Douglas MacArthur through the Southwest Pacific; a “second road to Tokyo” followed Admiral Chester W. Nimitz through the islands of...

    • Chapter 8 THE TYPHOON OF WAR
      (pp. 118-126)

      Given the remoteness of the islands, the effective Allied blockade, and laws prohibiting travel and the spread of war-related information, it is hardly surprising that most Micronesians knew little about how their experiences compared with those of others in distant locales. And in fact, we have seen that there is little reference to the wider view in wartime narratives. Instead, stories concentrate on personal hardships. The repetitive nature of those hardships lends itself to condensation: that is, a few dramatic incidents stand for the whole of the long period of suffering (for example, the repeated bombings or ongoing food shortages)....

      (pp. 127-151)

      Layered over accounts depicting Islanders’ relative powerlessness, lack of knowledge, and shock are themes speaking to the challenge of coming to terms with two sets of foreigners, the war’s major combatants: Who were these warriors? Why were they here? What would be the fate of local people as a result?

      We should not underestimate the sophistication of these questions. Micronesians at the time of the war—and perhaps even more today, after additional decades of colonial and postcolonial political experience—were at home with complex social and political interactions. Indeed, stories about both groups are complex and multifaceted, reflecting the...

      (pp. 152-166)

      Micronesian memories recall not only the hardships of war, but also the strategies used to endure it. They depict themselves as survivors, drawing on a wide array of resources to make the best of tough times. Coping stories constitute deliberate efforts to pass on what elders learned, to teach important lessons about mutual dependence and aid, risk taking, and the importance of their struggles to secure a better life for their children and grandchildren.

      Coping stories emphasize decidedly Micronesian responses to challenges. Faced with physical danger, exhaustion, and shortages of food and shelter, they invoked traditional kinship ties that offered...


      (pp. 169-185)

      Happiness is an important value in Micronesian cultures, most often taking a form perhaps best translated as psychological and physical contentment.¹ Contentment comes from an individual’s social standing—that is, the possession of a certain rank (or position) in the community, which brings acknowledgment of one’s worth and respect. It also comes from social harmony, characterized by the absence of public conflict and the presence of sharing, exchange, and working together. Of course, even in the small-scale societies of Micronesia, daily life entails disputes, and island societies have many ways to negotiate, resolve, or bury such conflicts. The modes of...

      (pp. 186-216)

      Anyone who has lived on a Pacific Island treasures memories of poignant welcomes and leave-takings. Small islands, by their nature, make vivid settings for ceremonies of arrival and departure. Ships or planes are sighted at a distance and watched into port; songs, dances, and feasts often mark the start and finish of visits. Even the ordinary comings and goings of travel off-island to work, to school, or for medical care are never routine. One never knows—and certainly in the years of war this was even more true—when or whether relatives or friends will meet again. Island songs and...


      (pp. 219-227)

      War shatters communities. Much of history recounts how military conflict transforms the political, economic, social, and physical landscape of contending powers. But wars continue to affect a society long after the obvious damage has been repaired. In this book we have considered one aspect of the long-term significance of war: that is, how the cultural memories of the war years continue to resonate in the minds of survivors and into the next generations.

      Cultural memories, as we have explained, differ from lived experience. They are shaped not only by individual lives, but by social facts and cultural understandings, by the...

    • Chapter 14 “THE GREAT AIRPLANE”
      (pp. 228-240)

      We end this book with the full text of a dance song composed on Fais Island shortly after the war. The song is revealing because it represents the maintenance of an acutely local, but also an increasingly globalized, Micronesian identity. This dance song covers the entire span of Fais Islanders’ wartime experiences, both on their home island and on nearby Yap, where they were relocated during the war. It treats the end of the Japanese civilian administration and the military occupation of Fais, and continues through the invasion by American forces at the end of the war.

      The song was...

  11. APPENDIX List of Participants in Oral History Interviews
    (pp. 241-248)
  12. NOTES
    (pp. 249-256)
    (pp. 257-266)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 267-276)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 277-278)