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Tutuila in WWII: In the Cross-hairs of History – Part 1

Member of the 1st Samoan Bn., USMCR, in training, c. 1941-42. [USMC photo. Leatherneck Magazine]

It is hard to imagine now, but the old photographs help you picture it—Tutuila as a bustling, chaotic military camp preparing for all-out war. It was only seventy years ago—barrage balloons and fighter planes, barb-wired beaches and the harbor filled with supply ships and naval vessels, air-raid drills and nightly blackouts. The Japanese Imperial fleet was coming. A bombardment and invasion was almost certain, the only question was when. Pearl Harbor had been the first attack on American territory. Pago Pago would be the next. It was Japan’s master plan for World War II in the Pacific.

 It was a transformative moment in American Samoa history, and it happened in a flash, a matter of months. Nothing would ever be quite the same again in the islands. After forty years of U.S. Navy suzerainty and little change, suddenly America had arrived in Samoa, as a war machine. As one native islander observed, “There were so many Marines on the island you could hardly move.”

First, you must remember that in 1941 the population of Tutuila was only about one-sixth of what it is today, fewer than10,000 people (including 31 white civilians, 4 Japanese, 2 Filipinos, and 1 Chinese), almost all of whom still lived as their ancestors had off the land and the sea, without any twentieth-century amenities. Few had ridden in an automobile. Theirs was not yet a cash economy. (In 1940 Tutuila’s only bank, The Bank of Samoa, had a gross income of $9,500 on total assets of $180,000.) Beyond the boundaries of the small U.S. Naval Station in Fagatogo, island life continued as it had for millennia in time-tested patterns and practices centered on the family and the village. But within a year it would be estimated that there were as many Marines on the island as locals.

Not just Marines, but all their stuff, too, boat-loads of it. In the year preceding December 1941 a total of three military ships had anchored in Pago Pago harbor. By December 1942 a total of 56 had arrived during the year, and by March 1943 there were a 141. Trucks and bulldozers, re-bar and concrete, airplanes and tanks, big guns and smaller guns, and hundreds of tons of ammunition—an avalanche of stuff that Samoans had never dreamed of before—and cash, greenbacks, dollars. (By the end of the war The Bank of Samoa could post a gross income of $34,000 on assets of almost $2 million.)       

Work for pay had arrived, and every able-bodied Samoan male was employed either in the newly created 1st Samoan Marine Battalion or in the construction of buildings and roads, airstrips and coastal defenses (starting salary eight cents an hour). Women also earned money, doing the Leathernecks’ laundry. Plantations were deserted. The traditional division of labor collapsed.

Other things suddenly changed as well. For forty years the Naval Administration had striven to keep alcohol and fire arms out of the hands of Samoans. The Naval Station itself had been abstemious. But now, with over 1200 mainland palagi construction workers on island and then the Marines, spirits were not just available but cheap. And the Marines strove to arm not just the Fita Fita guard and the new Samoan Marine Battalion (the “barefoot malini”) but seemingly all able-bodied Samoan males with outdated Enfield rifles. And—it must be mentioned—that an estimated thousand afamalini children were conceived.

After months of frenzied preparation for war—building coastal defenses, gun emplacements, pill boxes, barracks, bunkers, roads, camps, command and observation posts, an airstrip in Tafuna—the tension finally burst to the surface on December 7, 1941, the “day that will live in infamy,” with the news of the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. In the days and weeks that followed the Japanese seemed to be on the attack everywhere in the Pacific, from California to Indo-China, Guam, Tarawa, the Gilbert Islands, Midway, the Philippines. An attack on Tutuila, America’s sole armed base in the South Pacific and the strategic lynchpin for control of the sea lanes between Hawaii and Australia/New Zealand, seemed imminent.

All nonessential palagis—Navy families and mainland construction workers—were immediately evacuated on Matson liners, leaving only the Marines and the Samoans. Then, on January 11, 1942, the war was finally brought home to Tutuila, when a Japanese submarine surfaced off Fagasa and fired fifteen rounds of 84-pound shells over the mountain, trying to hit the fuel tank farm in Utulei. Most of the shells landed harmlessly in the bay, but one took out the only Japanese-owned building and business in the territory, Shimasaki’s store. Another shell injured a navy radio man and a Fita Fita guard. For all anyone knew, this was just the beginning, but it was both the beginning and the end of the shooting war here. Although more enemy submarines and observation planes were seen in the islands, there was never another hostile shot fired in Samoa.

For all intents and purposes the threat of a Japanese attack on Samoa ended with the U.S. Navy’s decisive victory in the Battle of Midway in early June 1942, although it would take a number of months for this to be clear and for the general anxiety level and frenetic activity on the island to begin to lessen. For another year and more Tutuila would continue to serve as a major base for Marine operations in the Pacific theater, as a staging and training area for the tens of thousands of troops who went on to the bloody island-by-island battles to the north and west and, in the huge MOB-3 hospital in Malaeimi, receive back the bloody and shattered casualties.

 In Part 2 of this article we will look at the physical evidence of Tutuila’s role in the Pacific war—the staggering amount of armament, ordinance, and fortification construction materials that was invested here in its defense. And we will look at what still remains here as historic proof and reminder of that time when Tutuila occupied the cross hairs of history.

 For a much fuller and more fascinating account of these events and of the entire period of U.S. Navy presence here in Tutuila ma Manu’a read Joseph Kennedy’s The Tropical Frontier: America’s South Sea Colony, copies of which are available for sale on-line from Amazon.com and University of Hawaii Press.

Member of the 1st Samoan Bn., USMCR, in training, c. 1941-42. USMC photo. Leatherneck Magazine


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