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Life during wartime: Vanuatu in World War II

Wallace Andre
Wallace Andre
PORT VILA (TR) – Though a young boy at the time, Wallace Andre clearly recollects that moment six decades ago when a U.S. dive bomber began to encounter trouble while paying a visit to his coastal village on the eastern edge of Vanuatu’s capital island of Efate.

“Something happened,” Wallace remembers. “Maybe the pilot looked back at us and became distracted. Nobody was ever sure.”

Today a 74-year-old who sports patches of gray stubble, sandals, and a ball cap, he pushes his right palm in an upward arc to show how the plane attempted to maneuver just before it hit the tree.

A day that was intended to be one of generosity instead turned tragic, becoming Wallace’s most vivid memory of when his Pacific island nation, then a joint British-French colony known as the New Hebrides, was overrun by American troops during World War II.

The first U.S. personnel arrived on Efate, a bucolic island of scurrying coconut crabs and flapping coconut palms, in March 1942 to begin setting up infrastructure and facilities from which to coordinate defenses against Japanese advances in the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, and beyond.

The Seabees, a construction battalion, worked with local labor to carve the first road around the island’s circumference, to clear airfields, to build hospitals, and to install telephone lines. On the northern island of Santo an even larger garrison, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, was established a few months later. “I was amazed,” Wallace says, “with how quickly the engineers worked with water and sand to make the roads.”

Unlike other parts of the Pacific, where the war was raging on sand and sea, intense battles never reached Vanuatu. The approximately 60,000 Ni-Vanuatu living on the islands were therefore in the dark about the American activities. “I had no idea what was going on,” Wallace explains.

Wallace’s father was responsible for arranging the local labor for the offloading of cargo at Efate’s northern Havana Harbor, which served as a port for U.S. activities. The mix of cultures and separation from home for the troops, which at their peek numbered slightly less than 20,000, led to conflicts. “Some treated us well,” says Wallace of the Americans. “But others treated us poorly. There were a lot of problems in the villages. In secrecy some troops would take aside managers, like my father, and demand, ‘Bring us some women.’ If it didn’t happen, they’d pull out a pistol, put it to the manager’s head, and say, ‘I’ll shoot if you don’t.'”

To this day, Wallace knows of at least one offspring fathered by an American G.I. “I was not mad,” says Wallace, who today constructs Christian churches on Efate, of the American presence, “but I was very scared.”

His father, however, managed to become friendly with quite a few Americans. Among them was a pilot, who suggested to Wallace’s father that he fly his plane over their village as a gesture of friendship. “Tell me which house is yours,” Wallace remembers the pilot saying to his father. Fortunately, their dwelling was the first in the village whose roof was constructed of corrugated metal sheeting, a very visible mark from the air.

The pilot’s plane was a single engine, two-seat Douglas SBD Dauntless, which was used primarily for light bombing and reconnaissance. On the specified day two aircraft, each equipped with a pair of .30-caliber machine guns, departed Takara Airfield in north Efate and began the 20-kilometer journey down the island’s coast in search of that shiny rooftop.

Wallace remembers first hearing the engines. He then looked up to see the two planes — one, flown by his father’s friend, doing loops around the village and the other screaming back and forth along the length of the shore. “I took my shirt and waved it like crazy over my head at the plane circling above,” Wallace recalls, his face filling with excitement.

The plane then came a bit lower whereby it dropped wrapped candies from the cockpit to a gathering of children. But for reasons unknown the plane was not able to avoid a large tree that upon impact damaged its underside. The pilot immediately turned the plane back towards the base, but, with its fuel lines likely disabled, it came up short and crashed into the bush. The other aircraft returned to Takara.

The uncle of Wallace’s mother saw the downed aircraft from his garden. Frightened, the uncle hid behind a tree as the plane caught fire and spewed smoke. A medical team arrived and pulled the two airmen out of the wreck. “They were crying in pain,” Wallace claims his relative told him later.

After returning to Takara, they were taken to the local military hospital. Soon after, both were transferred to the much larger Bellevue Hospital in Port Vila, the capital of Vanuatu. One died during the journey; the second passed on following arrival.

Today the rear section of the plane’s fuselage, heavily dented and stripped of movable parts, rests in dense shrubs at the entrance to the Air Club Vila, a training and charter center located outside the international terminal of Port Vila’s Bauerfield Airport.

When the war ended in 1945, the Americans made a hasty exit of the islands. But since supply and equipment stockpiles during the war had not been managed properly, ballooning to staggering levels — thousands of tons, many estimates say — a large amount was dumped under an initiative known as Operation Roll-Up.

Between 1945 and 1947 entire planes, trucks, and bulldozers found graves underground or beneath the sea. “It was so fast,” Wallace says. “Some things they buried. But others they pushed off barges into the harbor of Port Vila.”

French and British colonists began establishing cotton plantations on the islands in the mid-nineteenth century. The British-French Condominium subsequently governed the islands from 1906 until independence in 1980. Though many records say that the American dumping was necessitated by the Surplus Property Act, which requires that excess reserves be jettisoned, others argue that the refusal on the part of the colonists to purchase the goods played a role as well. In the end, however, some planters made out quite well.

“For a bottle of rum, for a bottle of gin, a planter could get a jeep,” explains Allan Palmer, who has lived in Vanuatu his entire life, of the trading that took place between the locals and the soldiers. “A guy in a workshop here in Port Vila bought one from a planter and sold it to me in the early ’70s. I wanted to drive it on the beach, right along the sea, mainly at night because I didn’t have a driver’s license. The guy who eventually bought it from me forgot to add oil and wrecked the differential.”

For Wallace, his family still has a rifle given to his father by a G.I. Another American offered a truck. “I can’t have the truck,” Wallace recalls his father saying, “because I can’t drive the truck.”

Much more severe was the clearing that took place on the island of Santo, where U.S. installations included four airstrips, dozens of Quonset huts, and many buildings whose foundations still remain today. Rusted and corroded engine blocks, broken axles, and other bits of unidentifiable iron and steel litter the coast near “Million Dollar Point,” a dumping spot in the harbor of Santo’s largest city of Luganville. Further out to sea from these shores, discarded weapons, food cans, jeeps, trucks, airplanes, and bulldozers fill the bottom amid a setting of tropical fish and colorful coral that today is a popular diving location. In downtown Luganville, an aircraft engine greets customers at the front of the Kakaruk Hut restaurant.

In spite of the problems and gloomy circumstances that accompanied their existence, Wallace was sorry to the see the Americans go. “Overall, we had a good relationship,” he says.

This article originally appeared in July 2007 on the Sake-Drenched Postcards Web page.