Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor precipitated the United States’ entry into World War II. In the Pacific, the Solomon Islands — particularly Guadalcanal — became the epicenter of fierce fighting between the Japanese and the United States. Little mentioned in popular discourse on the Solomon Islands Campaign is the contributions made by indigenous Solomon Islanders — who served as coastwatchers, scouts and laborers under Allied military units. When mentioned, indigenous islanders are cast as “loyal helpers,” a description that doesn’t consider the complex motivations behind Islanders’ service. Moreover, while the impact of the war on the Islands was immense, it is not often discussed through the local perspective.
In Solomon Islanders in World War II: An Indigenous Perspective (ANU Press, 2017), Anna Annie Kwai aims to bring the Solomon Islander war experience to the forefront with all the nuance it deserves. In an interview with The Diplomat, Kwai explains the strategic significance of the Solomon Islands and the varied motivations for Islanders’ participation.
For readers who may be unfamiliar, what strategic role did the Solomon Islands play in World War II?
Immediately following Pearl Harbor, the Japanese swiftly advanced into the southwestern Pacific along the New Guinea coast and islands, and into the Solomons with little resistance. The Japanese presence in the Solomons, especially the airfield they built on Guadalcanal, threatened to cut communication and shipping between Australia and the United States, isolating Australia and rendering her exposed to a possible Japanese invasion. Alarmed, the U.S. chose Guadalcanal as its first counterpunch on land, landing the 1st Marines Division at Lunga on August 7, 1942. The ensuing six-month campaign was a bloody struggle with the outcome very much in doubt for the first few months. Allied gains and eventual victory proved to be one of the main turning points of the Pacific War, with Japan being drained of men, ships and equipment, and having diverted so much energy and attention to Guadalcanal. Japan was forced to withdraw from the Kokoda Track in November 1942, abandoning plans to take Port Moresby. This was the beginning of the end for the Japanese in the southwestern Pacific.
Prior to WWII, the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) had put a coast-watching network in place in the Solomons, as an intelligence gathering platform that used civilians with radios to report any suspicious development in their assigned areas. District officers, plantation owners, and missionaries were given military titles and enlisted in the RAN as Coastwatchers. At the outset of war, as Japanese troops invaded the Solomons group, Coastwatchers went into hiding in the bush and began reporting on enemy movements to Allied headquarters. The Coastwatchers’ work was so significant in winning the Solomons Campaign that US Admiral William “Bull” Halsey, commander of the South Pacific Area, proclaimed that, “the Coastwatchers saved Guadalcanal and Guadalcanal saved the Pacific.”
You write that when Solomon Islanders’ involvement in the war is mentioned in histories (most often written by outsiders), the Islanders have often been cast as “loyal” to the Allied cause. Does this description oversimplify Islanders’ participation in the war?
The success story of the Coastwatchers has been celebrated extensively. Numerous books have been written about how brave the Coastwatchers were and how significant their work was to the Allied victory in the Solomons Campaign. But details of the foundation of this success – the role played by local Solomon Islanders – have been underreported and simplified. The 23 Coastwatchers in the Solomons archipelago (including Bougainville) relied heavily on the support of the local people. This widespread support is often referred to as simply “loyalty.”
When loyalty is highlighted this way, it raises the question, loyalty to whom, and why? The first part of the question is easy; Solomon Islanders were overwhelmingly loyal to the Coastwatchers and the Allies. Due to this loyalty, Coastwatchers were able to function effectively behind enemy lines, Allied soldiers were saved and the Allies won the campaign. But viewing Islander involvement through the Western lens of “loyalty” simplifies complex motivations. To an extent, the notion of loyalty implies that islanders were unthinkingly submissive to their colonial “masters,” with a hierarchical connotation that is often racial in nature. But asking “why,” unlocks the complexities of the story that only Solomon Islanders can tell, and that is the side of the story that provides insight into the different motivations for islander involvement in the war.
Can you describe some of the divergent motivations for Islanders to contribute to the war effort?
Indigenous wartime involvement was inspired by various factors, some pushing through perceived duty or responsibility and some pulling through attraction. There was a sense of familiarity and obligation toward the longstanding British colonial administration, so despite Japanese propaganda casting themselves as anti-colonial liberators, when Japanese troops invaded the Solomons they were immediately regarded as outsiders and “enemies.” But the war was also a very new and exciting event that fueled the curiosity of local men and prompted them to take part. The easy abundance of food in labor camps at Lunga and elsewhere was another draw, and the attraction of paid wages lured many men from their villages. There was also a sense of prestige attained from joining ranks with the Allied soldiers and sailors as fellow warriors.
But there were more coercive factors that drove local participation that shouldn’t be ignored. Some Coastwatchers imposed harsh punishments upon mere suspicion of any sympathy for or collaboration with Japanese troops. This at times included casual behavior by islanders that was interpreted as suspicious. Punishments imposed by some Coastwatchers included severe beatings unrealistic for the “crime” committed. This was done with the intention to instill fear in the minds of locals, in order to deter contact of any sort with Japanese troops.
How did the war impact postwar administration of the Islands? In what ways did the wartime experience contribute to the postwar anti-colonial movement?
Prior to the war, the colonial government was headquartered on the small island of Tulagi. Upon the Japanese invasion it was moved out of harm’s way, to Auki on Malaita. As soon as American forces landed on the island of Guadalcanal on August 7, 1942, the government moved to Lunga. Despite controversy, the postwar administration moved to Honiara (on Guadalcanal) where the capital city is currently located. This was to take advantage of war infrastructure, including Henderson Field (now the international airport), roads, and structures that were readily available. The placement of the capital on Guadalcanal planted the seeds for much of the problems that would eventually erupt into the “Tensions” of 1998-2002.
The war itself was an eyeopener for islanders. It provided islanders with the opportunity to interact with soldiers of different nationalities and race on a personal level that was not possible under the colonial administration. This made islanders question their experiences and encounters with white members of the colonial government. For the first time islanders were able to drive the same machines that white men drove, share the same food that white soldiers had, and feel a certain degree of empowerment. This exposure aggravated islanders’ grievances of inequality experienced under the colonial administration. So even during the war, islanders began to protest for an increase in their wages. From these feelings of inequality and injustice the famous sociopolitical movement Ma’asina Rule was formed. In the aftermath of the war, the fight for equality and recognition shifted to a fight for political autonomy from Great Britain, and 33 years after the war ended Solomon Islands finally gained independence (in 1978).
In the Solomon Islands today, how is the war commemorated? What is the linkage between Islanders’ war memorials and nation-building?
War commemoration in Solomon Islands has only recently shifted in focus to the remembrance of local participation in the war. Observances have always been the affair of the Americans or the Japanese, but recently the recognition of local involvement in the war was brought into annual commemorative events. This is because there is now more public awareness and education on the roles of Solomon Islanders during the war. Monument building is part of this awareness, and is a significant symbol of unity within a broader contemporary Solomon Islands society. This sense of unity was initiated by our ancestors during the difficult times of the war and grew throughout the journey to political independence. It is one of the pillars of our patriotism to our country. Islanders’ war memorials, in this regard, are symbolic of a unified sense of nationhood, and gratitude to those who laid the foundation for Solomon Islands sovereignty.