PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT
Development Program/East-West Center
Center for Pacific Islands Studies/University of Hawaii at Manoa
NAURU: A MIDDLE GROUND DURING WORLD WAR II
By Jack D. Haden
HONOLULU, Hawai‘i (March/April 2000 – Pacific Magazine)—During World War II, many islands in the Pacific became household names as the Japanese surged through the region, with the Americans in hot pursuit.
Newsreels in movie houses around the world screened footage of battles and hoisting of victory flags on islands such as Tarawa, Guadalcanal, New Guinea, Iwo Jima, Peleliu, Kwajalein, Saipan and Guam.
The islands received their notoriety mainly due to the high number of casualties that were part of the price of those victories. However, many other islands also were greatly affected by the war and suffered many hardships even though they received scant mention in the news.
Nauru is one such island that went through the pain and isolation of war that inflicted a heavy toll on the indigenous population and devastation to the land itself. It may come as a surprise to many that Nauru lays claim to being one of the few places in the world that was attacked by both the Germans and Japanese during the war.
German raiders, disguised as Japanese merchant ships, operated out the Caroline and Marshall Islands before the war between Japan and the United States began.
The connection with Nauru came on December 6, 1940, when the British Phosphate Commission ship Triona, bound for Nauru, was intercepted by a German raider just north of the Solomon Islands. Passengers and crew were taken off Triona and held captive on the raider while the Germans looted the ship and then scuttled it.
Raiders Orion, Komet (masked as Maebasi Maru and Nanyo Maru, respectively) and Kulrnerland then sailed to Nauru. Between December 7 and 8, 1940 they sank four merchant ships drifting off the island waiting to load phosphate rock.
The four sunken ships are in water so deep that it's nearly impossible to dive on them today, unlike those vessels at the bottom of Truk Lagoon and Iron Bottom Sound that attract war-relic divers from around the world.
Quiet returned to Nauru until Komet came back to the island on December 27, 1940, this time with the Nazi swastika draped over the rails and flying from the mast. The raider signaled that it was going to attack the BPC facilities and wireless station and that all personnel should be evacuated, adding no resistance be offered to avoid any casualties.
After steaming up and down the reef shelling shore installations, Komet sailed away leaving shattered buildings and fuel storage bins ablaze.
All remained quiet on Nauru after that and extensive repairs ensured phosphate exports were maintained--until December 8, 1941 (December 7, U.S. time) when news filtered in about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
During the previous week, a Japanese aircraft had appeared over the island and bombed the wireless station. Ironically, it was exactly a year since the German raiders had sunk the merchant ships off the island.
Word reach Nauru that the Japanese were advancing at a faster rate than expected, due to their occupation of the neighboring Gilbert Islands some 390 miles distant. Many of Nauru's residents began to feel uneasy.
BPC management decided it would be best to evacuate the island. The French destroyer Le Triomphant arrived from the New Hebrides on February 23, 1942, and took aboard 61 Europeans, 391 Chinese and 49 members of the military garrison. There were 191 others left behind, hopefully to be evacuated later, but, unfortunately, this never happened.
Although they were expected sooner, a force of 300 Japanese landed on Nauru on August 26, 1942, and immediately rounded up the remaining Europeans and made them prisoners. The local Nauruans (numbering some 1,850 in all), although still allowed the freedom of the island, were placed on food rations and made to bow to all Japanese.
A number of 6-inch coastal defense guns were installed around the island, along with 127 mm antiaircraft guns at Command Ridge, plus numerous concrete pillboxes along the coast. An underground hospital was built and some inland bunkers constructed at strategic vantage points.
Later, a contingent of about 1,500 Japanese and Korean laborers arrived to begin construction of an airfield. Another 300 Nauruan and Gilbertese were conscripted to augment the work force.
The airfield runway was completed and made operational by January 1943, the basis of which serves as the current runway used by Air Nauru today.
Although experts came from Japan in an attempt to resume phosphate mining, this idea was abandoned and the island was left as an important link in Japan's defense system in the central Pacific.
American planes bombed Nauru on March 25, 1943, destroying 15 Japanese aircraft parked near the runway and damaging field installations. In retaliation, the Japanese executed five British prisoners.
The U.S. air raids caused an interruption of food supplies to the overcrowded island causing the Japanese commander to send 1,200 Nauruans and two missionaries to Truk in the Carolines. Only 737 of these survived the harsh conditions under the Japanese on Truk. They were repatriated to Nauru in January 1946.
Conditions were harsh on Nauru too. Torpedoed supply ships and continual air bombardments meant survival depended on subsistence living. By the end of the war, some 300 Japanese had died from starvation, with many resorting to cannibalism to survive.
The Americans bypassed Nauru, although a landing of troops from the 27th Infantry Division had been planned earlier.
Low morale and isolation dampened the spirits of the Japanese, although there was some encouragement when a B-25 bomber named Coral Princess from the U.S. 41st Bomb Group based on Makin in the Gilberts was shot down on June 29, 1944. A 75 mm cannon salvaged from the plane adorns a property entrance near the airport today.
The Japanese surrender of Nauru came on September 13, 1945, aboard the Australian warship HMAS Dimantina. Some 3,745 Japanese and Koreans were repatriated from the island soon after. Some of the Japanese were later to face the war crimes tribunal over the execution of European and native prisoners.
When the Republic of Nauru observed 50 years of independence on January 31, 1998, the celebration included acknowledgement of its war history. Tours of existing relics were conducted and a small museum was opened where other reminders of the war are on display. This was fitting in that not many are living today who remember those times firsthand. Still, custom dictates that many Nauruans who survived the Japanese occupation remain silent about the war and the atrocities that took place. Attempts have been made to document those events, with little success.
Time and development have taken their toll on the surviving war relics. Unlike many neighboring Island nations, Nauru hasn't promoted them as a tourist attraction to lure visitors.
However, paths have been installed to make the gun emplacements and bunkers easily accessible. Even the remains of the shot-down B-25 can be found hiding among the Topside pinnacles.
The PBC museum at Aiwo has an impressive display of war memorabilia along with other items related to the island's history and phosphate mining.
Regardless, Nauru remains a relic hunter’s delight and there are two hotels that offer comfortable accommodations. Air Nauru operates regular flights to and from Micronesia, Fiji, Australia and the Philippines.
One mystery that remains from the war is the fate of the four Japanese Type-95 light tanks that were on the island right up until the surrender. No one seems to know what happened to them. Perhaps there is someone reading this who has the answer.
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