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Taem Blong Faet: World War Two in Melanesia.

This special issue of 'O'o ('O'o means wooden drum in the 'Are 'Are language of Malaita) is the result of a conference on Oral History of World War II in Melanesia held at the University of the South Pacific Center in Honiara June 29-3rd of July 1987. It was sponsored by the Institute of Culture and Communication of the East-West Center (Honolulu) and the Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research (New York). Reflecting the blend of presentational styles that characterised the Honiara Conference, the volume combines academic presentations and story-telling. Essentially it tells the story of the war (the 'Big Death') from a Melanesian point of view. It is both empirical and analytical and attempts to assess the regional, social, cultural and historical significance of World War II as experienced and remembered by Pacific Islanders. The volume begins with an editorial introduction by Hugh Laracy and Geoffrey White and includes articles and narratives by David Gegeo, Hugh Laracy, James Gwero, John D. Waiko, Walingai Patrick B. Silata, Sir Gideon Zoloveke, Alesasa Bisili, Biuku Gasa and Aaron Kumana, John Kari and Andrew Langabaea. Except for the work of the editors all contributions are by islanders from places including Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu. The main focus is on the experiences of Solomon Islanders.

Local conference participants were chosen almost entirely from former members of the Solomon Island Defence Force and the Solomon Island Labour Corps. All narratives were originally presented and written in Neo-Melanesian (PNG Tok Pisin & Solomon Island Pijin), and subsequently translated for publication into English. The issue is of a narrower scope than originally planned, due to cancellations of the envisaged participation of war veterans from Fiji and New Caledonia. It both reflects and is representative of a gradual trend towards a renewed acceptance of the value of oral tradition as evidence of historical facts and is a positive effort towards writing what sometimes has been referred to as 'decolonised history' (Maude 1971) of the Pacific.

A major theme touched upon in the papers of Solomon Island and Papua New Guinea in relation to World War II is loyalty. It is shown to have been a much more complex issue than is usually acknowledged in written accounts of the war. Where colonial authorities and military forces tended to see islanders loyalties in stark black and white, ally-or-foe terms, many islanders approached both sides (i.e. Japanese and Allied Forces) with wariness, pragmatism, and humanity. David Gegeo's article: 'The Big Death: What Pacific Islanders teach us about World War Two', discusses the rational for pursuing oral historical investigations of the War, and outlines a number of ways in which oral historical investigations of the Pacific may contribute to our understanding of the Pacific culture and history.

Hugh Laracy's contribution to the volume consists of two articles. The first, 'War comes to the Solomons' is presented in the form of an introduction providing the reader with a general background to World War II in the Pacific, including a summary of some major historical events during the war in Melanesia. In his second essay, 'Missionaries and European evacuation of the Solomon Islands, 1942-1943' Laracy is concerned with the role of missionaries, who, he suggests, may have already made their greatest contribution to the Allied cause in the Solomons before the War by making Christians of Solomon Islanders. This, he notes, not only had insured the high level of indigenous support for the Allied forces, but unwittingly also prepared the way for an indigenous challenge to colonial rule. Yet, a point critically neglected, it also helped prepare the way for neocolonial dependency and acquiescence to the hegemony of an ecocidal and highly stratified New World Order inc. James Gwero's work is concerned with 'Oral history of World War II from Northern Vanuatu' (Ambae, Santo and Malekula). He discusses some of the impressions and attitudes that indigenous people developed during the war in response to (black and white) American soldiers, and the outsiders' material wealth. Gwero's paper, like others in the volume, shows the islanders' relations with Allied military personnel differed sharply from their prewar relations with colonial authorities. Also included in Gwero's work is a story about the powerful magic called 'Su' (a magic custom power from West Ambae), which was believed to have been stolen, and to have helped Americans defeat the Japanese forces in the Solomon Islands.

John D. Waiko's paper 'Damp soil my bed; Rotten log my pillow: A villager's experiences of the Japanese invasion' portrays the lives and activities of two individuals, Arthur Duna and Emboges between 1942 and 1943. Arthur Duna's story as presented by Waiko, is a graphic description of the Japanese landing on the first day between Buna and Gona in the Northern province of Papua New Guinea. It includes details of the treatment Duna received from both the Japanese and the Allied Forces, and elaborates on his capture and escape from the Japanese, his recruitment into the Allied Forces, and his being beaten by Australian soldiers. Emboges' story is an account of his struggle with the dilemma of serving two 'masters'. Emboge (presumably a leader of the Papuan Infantry Battalion -- a point not very clear in Waiko's account) initially collaborated with the Japanese forces, but later decided on his own not to pay loyalty to any particular invading forces. He was executed in August 1943 by the Australian Government for 'assisting the enemy'.

Silata's paper; 'Oral accounts of Second World War experiences of the People of the Huon Peninsula, Morobe Province, Papua New Guinea', sheds light on changes in race relations between Papua New Guineans and the colonial 'Masta' (colonial white) and includes anecdotes on the often dreadful experiences of men involved in the pacific war. His paper concludes with two eye witness accounts of the Japanese landing near Wandakai, and accounts of some Australian atrocities in the Huon Peninsula area.

Sir Gideon Zoleveke's contribution 'The War was not our War', is a general retrospective account of the Solomon Islanders' involvement in World War II. (Zoleveke was a medical dresser, working with the Coast watchers in the western Solomons during the war). His discussion in part emphasises the role of Solomon Islanders in the course of the war: 'if it hadn't been for us, they (Allied Forces) would have been stopped by the reefs, the jungles and starvation; they would have died'. Like many other war veterans, Sir Zoleveke expresses dissatisfaction over the lack of compensation after the war. Nobody who served in the Solomon Islands Defence Force so far has received the pensions or other compensations given to Allied war veterans.

Alesasa Bisili's narrative 'Scouting in Western Solomons', describes his experiences as a scout during the Japanese landing at Munda in 1942. Like Zoleveke, he too expresses sadness and anger over the unjust lack of recognition and award given to Solomon Islanders for their services during the war. Bisili's narrative is followed by a collection of 'Oral accounts from Solomon Islanders' surrounding the rescue of John F. Kennedy from his badly damaged vessel PT 109 in this part of Melanesia. The contributions are by Biku Gasa, Aron Kumana, (the two Solomon Islanders principally responsible for Kennedy's rescue), John Kari and Andrew Langabaea.

The final chapter on 'Food and Friendship' consists of selected comments that illustrate some of the 'more benign' and startling gifts of war, like the loosening of the rigid colonial ethnic relations of prewar society, and the introduction of new consumer goods and food stuffs. The war was the beginning of a new phase, and broke the routine of many people's existence. For many islanders it was the first time to earn money. Commodities such as 'tinned corned beef, imperial cola, donuts, ice-cream and hot dogs', became the tokens of a new time.

The volume has three historical appendices, (A) a list of names of former members of the British Solomon Islands Defence Force, of members of the Labour Corps and of Solomon Islanders who served with the Australian and Fijian Armed Forces, (B) a chronology of World War II in the Solomon Islands and (C) militaristic notices and instructions to civilians issued by the Japanese Forces upon their occupation of the British Solomon Islands in 1942.

The strength of this Journal of Solomon Island Studies lies in its telling the story of the war in Melanesia as it was experienced by the people who live there. An acknowledged major weakness and limitation of the volume is the total absence of contributions by women, as if the war had been purely a men's affair. It is disappointing that half of the population has been left unrepresented in this issue, and there is, as Laracy and White point out, an urgent need for oral historical investigations of the experiences of these 'invisible' populations. The volume as an historical document could have benefitted from a better print quality of its twenty black and white photographs. FRANZ BROSWIMMER University of Hawaii/Manoa
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Author:Broswimmer, Franz
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 1, 1993
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