During World War II, U.S. Marines arrived on the island of Efate in March of 1942; other American forces arrived in significant numbers in late May, and began to completely change the local landscape, building roads, an airfield, and filling in swamps along the coast near Luganville. The islands were then called the New Hebrides, named by the British explorer Captain James Cook, and they were jointly governed by England and France. The indigenous Melanesian inhabitants were granted neither British nor French citizenship. World War II was horrific. An accident of history brought Americans to these islands, now the nation of Vanuatu, and the unintended influences of the American presence hastened the foundation of this country.
American author James Michener spent two years on the island of Santo, while in the Navy during WWII. His fictional account of the beauty and romance, which later became the popular musical "South Pacific," described the islands as "…lovely beyond description." They remain so today.
Those of us in Santo as part of Pacific Partnership 2011 (PP11) wanted to speak with some ni-Vanuatu, as local people are called, about their memories of the Americans who first came here as soldiers. The elders of Hog Harbor, a village near Luganville, agreed to share their reflections with us, and we met with them under an enormous banyan tree (oh the tales it might tell…) on May 5. Elder Dr. Titus Path welcomed us to Hog Harbor, and many of the women offered us plates of freshly cut fruit and flowers. Then, we listened as several men and one woman, who were children ranging from 8 to 12 years old when American troops arrived in 1942, offered their recollections and their impressions. It was fascinating to hear what frightened them (planes, random explosions), inspired them (the interaction of American troops with each other and with local people), and evoked their gratitude (the protection from attack and possible occupation). Many others from the village joined us in listening to the elders, often nodding in agreement and, in more than a few cases, wiping away tears. World War II seemed like ancient history to me, but here I was listening to people describe it as though it were yesterday. For some of them, it was.
The roads, the airfield, and the reclaimed landfill have all contributed over the years to establishment and growth of the country of Vanuatu. PP11 is here in part to celebrate the continuation of this longstanding friendship. Last month, American Ambassador Teddy Taylor dedicated the opening of newly resurfaced highways on the islands of Efate and Santo; built by American Seabees during World War II, and renewed by a five-year compact from the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), an organization established to assist countries who achieve positive scores in areas of good governance, economic freedom and investment in their citizens. From our perspective, the MCC made a wise choice.