Three ni-Vanuatu Men Remember Their World War II Service With The American Military Forces

References to the effects of the American occupation of Vanuatu during WW II are often made by Westerners writing about Vanuatu, but first-hand ni-Vanuatu accounts of that time are rarely found. One of my email correspondents asked me to translate these interviews from Bislama to aid his research into events that occurred on Espiritu Santo Island during the War. I found them so fascinating that I asked where they had come from, and learned that they were part of 120-odd interviews conducted in 1988 as part of a project carried out by James Gwero of the Vanuatu Cultural Centre and Lamont Lindstrom of the University of Tulsa (Oklahoma, USA), who has given me permission to post my translations of these three interviews here.

Lamont Lindstrom and James Gwero are just (early 1998) finishing a book in which excerpts of these interviews have been organized by topic and accompanied by a large number of photos. Judging by the Table of Contents and sample chapters that I have seen, "BIG WOK - Storian blong Wol Wo Tu long Vanuatu" is going to be a great read (in Bislama) for those who are interested in the Melanesian viewpoint of that episode in history.

When it is published, I will post information here about how it can be purchased.

Although there was very little combat on or over Vanuatu, the War had a tremendous effect on Vanuatu. The Americans came, overwhelmed everything for four years, and suddenly left. Things were never again the same, though. Besides the infrastructure left behind, once again the ni-Vanuatu universe had changed. They had witnessed a relationship between white and black people that was markedly different than their relationship with the British and French colonial powers, even though the American military was segregated and black troops restricted to construction work. For example, ni-Vanuatu saw black and white people eating in common mess halls, and even ate there themselves, as these accounts relate. Eating together is an expression of social bonding between equals in Vanuatu, and was rare between the races before the war. As well, black Americans drove trucks, a responsible activity that had always been denied ni-Vanuatu. Trains of thought about how inter-racial relationships could change were germinated, culminating in Independence thirty-five years after the war in 1980.

The ni-Vanuatu men who served with the American forces were fiercely proud of their association with that powerful nation and their contribution during its time of need. They contributed not only their labour, but their local knowledge and, as one narrator relates, kastom magic powers. I met one such man on Malekula, and he brought out and showed me his war memento; the rusty old metal parts of an American rifle that he had found in the bush and hand-carved a stock for.

These three accounts speak of the adventure of new experiences, wonder at the immense amount of materiel brought by the Americans, amazement at anti-aircraft searchlights and tanks, and relations between the narrators and individual Americans.

The three interviews that I have translated are:

Translator's Note:

Being my first real stab at translation, this was a learning experience for me; I have gained some respect for serious translators of the Bible, novels, etc. Rather than translate the Bislama into English idioms and proper grammar, I have translated much of it more or less litterally in order to retain the Bislama speech patterns and some of the flavour of cross-cultural communication. Some nuances do not survive the transformation well, so I have attached quite a few footnotes. Footnotes also give locations of places named and admit where I am not quite sure of the correct translation. Readers are welcome to email me with corrections.

A caution: I suspect that these tales have not suffered any in the telling. The interviews were conducted in Bislama, which is the second language of all these men. They have also been through the lenses of time, generations, culture, transcription by English-speakers, and my translation. Although in the main they have the ring of truth to them, there are portions that contradict the facts as I understand them, and quite possibly other parts that are not literally true. If so, as with most tales, most probably they are related as the way they should have happened.

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©Stan Combs, 1998.