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Japanese occupation of Nauru
Date 26 August 1942 – 13 September 1945
Location Nauru, Southern Central Pacific Ocean
Participants Empire of Japan, Nauru, Australia, New Zealand, US
Outcome Japanese surrender

The Japanese occupation of Nauru is the period of three years (26 August 1942 – 13 September 1945) during which Nauru, a Pacific island under Australian administration, was occupied by the Japanese military as part of its operations in the Pacific War during World War II. With the onset of the war, the islands that flanked Japan's South Seas possessions became of vital concern to Japanese Imperial General Headquarters, and in particular to the Imperial Navy, which was tasked with protecting Japan's outlying Pacific territories.[1]

The Japanese hoped to exploit the island's phosphate resources, and to build up their military defenses in the area. They were unable to relaunch phosphate mining operations, but succeeded in transforming Nauru into a powerful stronghold, which United States forces chose to bypass during their reconquest of the Pacific. The most important infrastructure built by the Japanese was an airfield, which was the target of repeated Allied air strikes. The war deeply affected the local population. The Japanese enforced a harsh regime, particularly on Chinese laborers who they saw as being at the bottom of the racial hierarchy; forced labor and brutal treatment were commonplace. They decided to deport the majority of Nauru's indigenous population to the Truk islands, hundreds of miles away, where mortality was extremely high. Still overpopulated with troops and imported laborers, the island was subject to food shortages, which worsened as the Allies' island-hopping strategy left Nauru completely cut off. Although effectively neutralized by Allied air and sea control, the Japanese garrison did not surrender until eleven days after the official surrender of Japan.

Pre-War situation

1940 map of Nauru showing the extent of the phosphate mined lands

Mining operations on Nauru began in 1906, at which time it was part of the German colonial empire. The island had some of the world's largest and highest quality deposits of phosphate, a key component in fertilizer, making it a strategically important resource on which agriculture in Australia and New Zealand depended. During the First World War, Nauru came under the control of the British Crown as a trusteeship of the League of Nations, effectively administered by the Australian government.[2] The British Phosphate Commission, in charge of mining operations, joined with Australian officials and Christian missionaries to establish paternalistic management of the Nauruan people, who showed only limited interest in mining employment, and generally continued to rely on their traditional subsistence activities of fishing and agriculture. The BPC instead imported large numbers of indentured workers, mainly Chinese and Pacific islanders.

Modernity reached Nauru in the form of imported goods, which had the effect of making the locals increasingly dependent on the Australian economy. Beginning in the 1920s, the Nauruans received royalties for the mining of their lands, an income that allowed them to cover their needs, but which was minimal compared with the actual value of the island's phosphate exports.[3] The population was decimated by several diseases against which they had no immune defenses; in 1932, however, they reached the population threshold of 1,500 that was considered necessary for their survival. This achievement is still celebrated in Nauru as Angam Day.[4]

In spite of the economic importance of Nauru for Australia and New Zealand, the island was left militarily unprotected, since a stipulation of the League of Nations mandate for Australian administration forbade the construction of coastal defenses. The island, very isolated geographically, was not under constant surveillance by the Australian navy, and was out of reach of aerial patrols; however, before the outbreak of hostilities in the Pacific theatre, Nauru hadn't seemed to be under direct threat.[5]

The Japanese empire became firmly established in the vast area north of Nauru as a result of the South Pacific Mandate of the League of Nations, and aggressive development of plantation agriculture in the islands was often facilitated by the use of Nauruan phosphate.[6]

Demography of Nauru in 1940
Chinese Westerners Pacific Islanders Total immigrants Nauruan people total population
1350 192 49 1591 1761 3552
Source : Viviani 1970, pp. 181

Threats on Nauru

German attacks

German attacks on Nauru the 7, 8, and 27 December 1940.

The Second World War first reached Nauru in early December 1940 when two German armed merchantmen disguised as civilian freighters targeted the island. Their aim was to disrupt production of phosphate and thereby weaken the agriculture-based economies of Australia and New Zealand. The Orion, the Komet, and their supply ship the Kulmerland headed for Nauru with the purpose of destroying the main infrastructure. Due to bad weather conditions they were unable to make a landing on the island, but sank several merchantmen in the area. On December 27, Komet returned to Nauru, and though again unable to land a shore party, severely damaged the mining facilities and exposed loading jetties with gunfire. The island's chief administrator, Frederick Royden Chalmers, a former Lieutenant-Colonel in the Australian Army who had served in the Boer War and the First World War, reportedly stormed along the waterfront hurling verbal abuse at the German ship, which slipped away unharmed.[7]

Declaration of war by Japan

For the Japanese empire, the importance of Nauru was twofold: first, they were interested in acquiring the island's phosphate deposits; second, Nauru was potentially a good base from which to launch aerial attacks against the Gilbert Islands and to threaten the sea route between Australia and North America.[8]

The attack on Pearl Harbor, on 7 December 1941, marked American entry into the war in the Pacific. On the 8th (actually the same day, as the international Date Line separates Hawaii and Nauru) a Japanese surveillance aircraft was sighted above the island.[9] The first attack took place on 9 December; three planes flying from the Marshall Islands bombed the wireless station at Nauru,[10] but failed to cause any damage.[8] The Nauruans, warned by observers on Ocean Island (350 km to the east), managed to seek shelter before the attack.[8] The following day, another plane made a second attempt on the radio station. The third day, four planes made a low-altitude strike and finally destroyed it.[8] During these three days, 51 bombs were dropped on or close to the station.[8] The governor of the island, Lieutenant-Colonel Chalmers, sent a message to Canberra stating that he thought the Japanese hadn't destroyed phosphate production facilities as they intended to occupy the island for its resources.[8] All maritime contact with the rest of the world was interrupted. The BPC ship Trienza, en route with supplies, was recalled. Until the end of February 1942, there were daily sightings of Japanese planes over the island.[8] In other parts of the Pacific Ocean, the Japanese advance rolled forward. They occupied the Gilbert Islands, north-east of Nauru, during Christmas 1941, and in January 1942 they took Rabaul, south-west of Nauru, and established a major base there.[8] Nauru was therefore isolated, situated between the two main Japanese axes of advance. On 19 February 1942, the bombing of Darwin marked the first time in its history that Australia was directly targeted on a large scale by a foreign power. News of the attack caused deep consternation on Nauru.[8]

Evacuation of Westerners and Chinese

The Triomphant, Free French Naval Forces destroyer which performed partial evacuation of Nauru in February 1942

Following the British declaration of war on the Japanese empire, the leadership of the British Phosphate Commission urged the Australian government to assist in the evacuation of BPC employees.[8] The authorities were slow to respond, due to reports speculating that an invasion of the island by Japan was unlikely because of the lack of a deep-water port or an airstrip. Their reluctance was also fuelled by the belief that withdrawal of the Westerners would result in a loss of prestige for Australia among the Nauruans. The evacuation was finally approved at the end of January 1942.[8] The initial plan was to remove all the Westerners and Chinese. Because of growing Japanese naval activity in the area, the Triomphant, a very fast destroyer of the Free French Naval Forces, was selected for the mission.[8] The ship met with the BPC freighter Trienza, which was camouflaged in the bay of Malekula in the New Hebrides islands, loaded with 50 tons of supplies bound for Nauru.[8] After taking some of Trienza's cargo aboard, the Triomphant steamed at full speed toward Nauru, arriving on February 23. The unloading of supplies and boarding of civilians proceeded quickly. Contrary to the initial plan, it was decided to take aboard only part of the Chinese population, due to cramped conditions on the ship.[8] Sixty-one Westerners, 391 Chinese, and the 49 members of the British garrison embarked; 191 Chinese were left on Nauru,[11] having been told they would be evacuated later, which, in the event, did not occur, due to the rapid pace of the Japanese advance.[12] Seven Westerners, including Chalmers and two missionaries, chose to remain, feeling it was their duty to look after the islanders. Before evacuating, BPC employees thoroughly sabotaged the phosphate mining facilities.[13]


1942: Beginning of the occupation

Japanese Invasion

Operation RY was the name given by the Japanese to their plan to invade and occupy Nauru and Ocean Island. The operation was originally set to be executed in May 1942, immediately following Operation MO (the invasion of New Guinea and the Solomon Islands), and before Operation MI (the attack on Midway).

The first attempt to occupy Nauru began on 11 May 1942, when an Imperial Japanese invasion force consisting of a cruiser, two mine-layers and two destroyers, with Special Naval Landing Force units, under the command of Rear Admiral Shima Kiyohide, departed Rabaul.[14] The task force was attacked by the United States Navy submarine USS S-42, leading to the loss of the Okinoshima. Attempts by the rest of the task force to continue with the operation were called off after Japanese reconnaissance aircraft sighted the American aircraft carriers Enterprise and Hornet heading towards Nauru.

A second invasion force departed Truk on 26 August 1942, and three days later, a company of the 43d Guard Force (Palau) conducted an unopposed landing on Nauru, and assumed occupation duties. They were joined by the 5th Special Base Force company, which departed Makin on September 15 and arrived at Nauru two days later. By October 1942, there were 11 officers and 249 enlisted Japanese soldiers on Nauru.[1] On 7 March 1943 Captain Takenao Takenouchi arrived to take command of the garrison (known as 67 Naval Guard Force); he, however, was ill and bed-ridden throughout his tenure, and command was effectively held by Lt. Hiromi Nakayama, who had led the initial landing force. On 13 July Captain Hisayuki Soeda arrived to replace Takenouchi as commander of 67 Naval Guard Force, a position he held until the end of the war.[15]

The five Australians who had remained on Nauru - Lieutenant-Colonel F.R. Chalmers (Nauru’s administrator), Dr. B.H. Quinn (Government medical officer), Mr. W.H. Shugg (medical assistant), Mr. F. Harmer (BPC engineer), and Mr. W.H. Doyle (BPC overseer)[16] - were interned and placed under guard in a house near the island's hospital. The two missionaries, Father Alois Kayser (an Alsatian) and Father Pierre Clivaz (a Frenchman), were, for a time, permitted to continue their religious work.[15]

New order

Soon after their arrival the Japanese appointed Timothy Detudamo as the chief of the natives. The Nauruans were ordered to obey him, otherwise they would be "skinned and treated as pigs".[17] Detudamo had served as Head Chief of the Council of Chiefs in the pre-War administration and was respected by the Nauruans.[17] Under the Japanese regime, however, he had no autonomy; his duty was only to take orders from the occupiers and apply them.[18] Those who didn't follow the Japanese rules could be severely punished. The Nauruans would witness the beheading of several Chinese, Gilbertese and Japanese accused of breaking the law. The Japanese requisitioned several houses abandoned by their inhabitants after the landing, as well as all vehicles owned by the natives.[18] They established a rationing system: Japanese workers and Nauruans where entitled to 900 grams of rice and 45 grams of beef per day, whereas the Chinese had smaller rations. All men were obliged to work for the Japanese, and, along with Korean and Japanese workers, were immediately put to work building an airstrip. The construction took place at breakneck pace, and the forced workers were beaten when they couldn't work as fast as ordered.[18] However, even if Japanese rule was harsh when contrasted with the more paternalistic Australian approach, it was (at least for the native Nauruans) not as brutal as in other areas controlled by the Japanese.[19] The occupiers tried to seduce the natives using propaganda, educational programs, and entertainment.[18] They opened a Japanese school, a language which many Nauruans learned during the war,[19] and hired native dancers for celebrations they organized, which brought the Nauruans extra money.[18] They opted not to interfere with the work of the two European priests, who had great influence among the population,[19] and allowed religious services to take place. They also hired some of the employees of the former administration.[17] However, the Japanese were particularly harsh with the Chinese, who were at the bottom of their racial hierarchy. They were underfed and beaten more often and brutally than the other inhabitants.[17]

Military works

Nauru International Airport a legacy of the Japanese occupation

The organization of the island's defenses was the first task of the occupiers. They sited 152 mm artillery pieces around the coast and placed 12.7mm anti-aircraft machine guns on Command Ridge. They built pillboxes on the beach, bunkers further inland, and an underground hospital. Their main work was the construction of an airstrip (which, after the war, formed the basis of Nauru International Airport). To build it, they brought in 1,500 Japanese and Korean workers, as well as using Nauruans, Gilbertans, and Chinese as forced labour. The creation of the airstrip on the narrow coastal belt led to the expulsion of many natives from the districts of Boe and Yaren, where the best lands of the island were located.[18] The airfield became operational in January 1943.[12] Work on airstrips in Meneng and Anabar was begun but never completed.[18]

One of the goals of the Japanese in invading Nauru had been the takeover of the island's strategic phosphate industry.[17] A few days after their landing on 29 August 1942, the occupiers brought in 72 employees of the Nanyo Kohatsu Kabushiki Kaisha (South Sea Development Company) to assess the condition of the mining facilities sabotaged by the Australians before their departure.[17] They recovered some machinery parts and ordered some Chinese to start collecting phosphate; however, in June 1943 the employees left, after some friction with the military. No shipments of phosphate appear to have been loaded during the Japanese occupation.[17]

Nauru was therefore used only as a link in the chain of Japanese defenses in the Central Pacific Ocean.[20]

1943-1944: American offensive, murders, deportations, and isolation

American offensive

By the time the Japanese occupied Nauru in the summer of 1942, their rampage in the Pacific was coming to an end; checked at the Battle of the Coral Sea and defeated at Milne Bay and Midway, the Japanese were being forced onto the defensive.[21] In 1943, as American offensives loomed in the relatively nearby Gilbert and Marshall Islands, the garrison on Nauru continued to improve its defenses, unaware that the American Joint Chiefs of Staff, at a meeting in August, had decided to bypass the island. Wrote historian Samuel Eliot Morison, "it seemed unwise to leave an island with an airfield only 380 miles from Tarawa in enemy hands. But, the more Nauru was studied, the less anyone liked the idea of assaulting it. For Nauru is a solid island with no harbor or lagoon, shaped like a hat with a narrow brim of coastal plain where the enemy had built his airfield, and a crown where he had mounted coast defense artillery. The hilly interior was full of holes and caves where phosphate rock had been excavated - just the sort of terrain that the Japanese liked for defensive operations".[22]

Although spared a pitch battle, Nauru would be subject to regular aerial bombardment, while Allied warships made it increasingly difficult for supply ships to get through to the island. Beginning in mid-November 1943, US forces, in support of their campaign in the Gilberts, pounded Nauru for six weeks, effectively destroying the airfield. From December 1943 through January 1945, smaller-scale air raids continued on an almost daily basis.[23]

The Murder of the Australians

On 25 March 1943, less than three weeks after Takenouchi arrived on Nauru, 15 bombers from the US Army Air Force (USAAF) bombed the airstrip for the first time, destroying eight bombers and seven fighter planes. When the Australians later interviewed Nauruans, Gilbertese, and Chinese who had remained on Nauru, several of them claimed that the five Australians interned on the island had been killed by the Japanese shortly after this first American bombing raid.

From US Navy authorities on Truk, the Australian authorities obtained the testimony of a Gilbertese man named Tauna, who had been sent to Truk along with other Nauruans after the bombing. Shortly after the air-raid, stated Tauna, he happened to be at the native hospital opposite the house where the Australians were detained:

“At daybreak, a motor truck came alongside the hospital and I saw four Japanese soldiers, one carrying a sword and three with rifles, enter a house close to the hospital. I was standing in the doorway of the hospital facing the house where the Japanese had stopped. One Japanese soldier opened the door of the house and called for them to come to the door and line up before him inside the house. Three Japanese with rifles stood outside the doorway of the house and the one with the sword was standing in front of them.

“The Japanese with the sword called for one of them to step close to him. Colonel F.R. Chalmers stepped forward and I saw him stoop over and the Japanese raised his sword with one hand and brought it down on the Colonel’s neck. His head was severed from the rest of his body. Then Doctor Quinn, Mr. Doyle, Mr. Harmer and Mr. Shugg stepped forward one at a time and the Japanese with the sword went through the same motion until all the men mentioned had all been decapitated. After the execution I saw each body being carried to the motor truck and placed in a large box therein.”

Some Chinese and Nauruans who were patients or workers at the native hospital also testified that they had seen Japanese soldiers dragging dead bodies out of the house, putting them in a truck, and driving away. Nauruans who visited the house later said they had found bloodstains on the walls and floor, and testified that they had been threatened by Japanese soldiers, who told them they would be beheaded if they talked to anyone about the executions.

Confronted with these testimonies, Lt. Nakayama, on 4 May 1946, while detained in Rabaul, confessed to the killing of the five Australians. A former subordinate of Nakayama who had returned to Japan in April 1943, Acting Sub-Lieutenant Saburo Sasaki, was arrested and detained in Sugamo Prison in Tokyo shortly after the war's end. He confirmed that the five Australians had been executed, while denying personal participation in the actual killing.

Their testimony differed from that given by Tauna and other Nauruans who claimed that, from the hospital, they had observed the beheading of the Australians by a Japanese officer. The story given by Nakayama and Sasaki, as noted by Australian investigators, was that:

Prior to the first US air-raid on Nauru on 25 March 1943, the 67 Naval Guard Force had been informed by Fourth Fleet Headquarters on Truk that Allied warships were assembling to the south of Nauru. Because of the air raid, Nakayama thought an Allied attack was imminent, and was concerned that the Australians might escape confinement and instigate the islanders to sabotage. He therefore resolved to kill all five Australians that night as, in his view, a basic military security measure.

Immediately after the air raid, Nakayama ordered Sub-Lt. Sasaki and ten other soldiers to dig five holes in the beach, while Nakayama with five soldiers went to the house where the Australians were detained and brought them to the beach by truck. Sasaki, who had a high fever at that time, sat on the grass and watched the execution party proceed to the site of execution near the shore. He stated that Nakayama first beheaded one of the five Australians – probably Lt. Col. Chalmers - and then ordered soldiers to bayonet the others. The bodies were buried in the holes that had been dug on the beach. However, Sasaki testified that due to the dim light and his fever, he was not able to see exactly what happened. Nakayama testified that all five Australians were shot, not bayoneted.

Australian prosecutors at Nakayama and Sasaki’s war crimes trials apparently did not regard the discrepancies between the various stories as a vital issue. Testimony by Wong Lupchung, a Chinese houseboy to the Australians, suggested that Dr. Quinn had been too sick to be moved, and that Nakayama may have killed him at the house before taking the other four Australians to the beach. In any event, it was clear that Nakayama had himself made the decision to execute the Australians, and had afterwards given Captain Takenouchi a false report of all five Australians being killed by American bombs while being transported to an air-raid shelter. Takenouchi had made no queries about this report apart from his short response, that it was a pity.

At his Australian Military Court trial at Rabaul in May 1946, Nakayama was sentenced to death for the crime of killing the five Australians on Nauru, and was hanged on 10 August. Sasaki was also tried at Rabaul for his involvement in the murder, as well as another case, and was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment.

Population movements

Nauru population flows in June 1943 : more than 2,000 Japanese and Korean soldiers and workers arrive on the island (red arrow), as do 600 Ocean Island natives. (blue arrow). In the same period, 1,200 Nauruans are deported to Truk Islands (green arrow).

Truk, destination of Nauruan deportees

On Nauru the Japanese established a huge garrison relative to the size of the island. In June 1943 there were 5,187 inhabitants, 2,000 more than in 1940. This figure includes 1,388 military personnel and 1,500 Korean and Japanese workers, as well as 400 non-Nauruan Pacific Islanders and Chinese previously brought in by the BPC. The 1,848 Nauruans were therefore a minority on their own island.[17] At the end of the month, 1,000 more military personnel were brought to Nauru.[17]

The authorities, fearful of starvation on an overpopulated island kept under blockade, resolved to deport the entire Nauruan population. Shortly after the arrival of the last military convoy, the Japanese called together a Nauruan council and made the announcement of the deportation of part of the islanders under the leadership of Timothy Detudamo. They refused to tell the Nauruans their destination, which increased anxiety among the population; they were only told that the island to which they would be sent had an abundance of food.[17] Just before departure, Nakayama, second in the military hierarchy of the island, gave Detudamo a letter bearing the seal of the emperor Hirohito, indicating that the Nauruans where under his protection.[24] This document was later used as a safe-conduct by the exiles.[24]

On 29 June 1943, 600 Nauruans and seven Chinese[17] were brought to the waterfront and taken aboard (by night, to avoid Allied attacks) the freighter Akibasan Maru. The following day the boat set sail, escorted by a small navy ship,[24] for the Truk Islands, site of the headquarters of Japanese forces in the Central Pacific, 1,600 km north-west of Nauru in the Caroline Islands.[17]

Following this departure, the Japanese committed what is considered their worst war crime on Nauru, the massacre of 39 lepers[24] who lived in a colony built by the Australians in Meneng. Before the arrival of the Japanese, the lepers had been able to receive visits from their families, and in certain instances, have their children live with them.[24] The occupiers, fearful of contagion, isolated them completely as soon as they landed, and included their families in the first boat to Truk. On 11 July 1943, the 39 lepers, having been told they were to be transferred to a colony on Ponape, were placed aboard a fishing boat, which was then towed out to sea by the Japanese picket-boat Shinshu Maru. Once the boats were out of sight of Nauru the towrope was cut and sailors aboard the Shinshu Maru began firing on the fishing boat with the ship's 5 cm cannon and 7.7mm machine gun. The Nauruans were finished off with rifle fire, and the boat capsized and sank. Lt. Nakayama, the de facto commander who had ordered the massacre, would later tell the new garrison commander, Captain Soeda, that the lepers and their boat had been lost in a typhoon while being taken to Jaluit atoll.[15][17][24]

The next month, 659 emaciated Banabans[17] were brought to Nauru from neighboring Ocean Island which was also under Japanese occupation. They told the Nauruans about the drought in their land which had become barren because of the Japanese presence, forcing them to eat grass and tree bark for survival.[24]

A new contingent of 1,200 soldiers[24] arrived 6 August 1943, and the same day, another group of 601 Nauruans, mainly women and children led by the two Catholic priests, Alois Kayser and Pierre Clivaz, where sent into exile. Meanwhile, there had not yet been any news of the whereabouts of the first group.[17][24] Although cramped, conditions aboard the boats bringing the Nauruans to the Truk islands were bearable. For the vast majority of the exiles, it was the first time they had left their isolated island; therefore, along with the general anxiety, there was some excitement, particularly among the Nauruan youth.[24]

On 11 September the boat which was to be used to deport the remaining Nauruans arrived on the coast of the island, only to be destroyed by a torpedo from an American submarine. This prevented the Japanese from completing their plan of removing the entire Nauruan population and allowing only uprooted people without specific land rights to remain on the island.[24]

In 1943, 1,200 Nauruans left,[25] but were replaced by a larger number of Japanese and Banabans, thus doing nothing to alleviate food shortages.[17]

Survival in isolation

B-24s of the US Seventh Air Force bomb Nauru in April 1943.

Occupied Nauru was at the very end of a long supply line linking the Pacific islands to Japan. The American advance toward the Western Pacific, and the growing efficiency of American submarines, made supply missions to Nauru increasingly difficult.[26] In September 1943, a 6,000 ton freighter loaded with supplies for the Japanese garrison was sunk off the island.[26] In addition, the annual monsoon rains largely failed during the 1943-1944 season, resulting in a severe drought on the island. In early January 1944, only two Japanese supply ships made it to Nauru. The second boat arrived on January 10, and was the last surface ship to resupply the base for the duration of the war.[26] A final delivery of provisions and ammunition was made by two submarines in September 1944.[23]

The situation forced the inhabitants to look for alternatives to imported goods. Their main concern was to compensate for the lack of food supplies, especially the rice that was the staple food under the Japanese occupation.[26][27]

One of the Nauruans' methods to reach self-sufficiency was to exploit their gardens to the fullest. They cultivated many edible plants and were soon imitated by the Japanese, who began to farm every space available. They grew eggplant, corn, pumpkin, and sweet potato.[28] Still lacking sufficient output, they created pumpkin plantations, using half drums filled with night soil[27] which had been collected from the population by forced Chinese workers.[28] This method turned out to be extremely productive in Nauru's tropical weather, but as a result, dysentery spread, killing several people. Swarms of flies appeared around the plantations, and the smell was unbearable.[28] Toddy, brewed with the sap of coconut trees, was a valuable dietary supplement and at times the only food available.[29] All the trees used for toddy were inventoried and allocated to the population, three for each Japanese, two for a Pacific Islander, and one for a Chinese. They were used to such an extent that they were no longer able to produce coconuts.[29] After learning that rubber tree fruit was edible, the Japanese forbade the Islanders from gathering it, and started eating it themselves.[29]

There was an upsurge of hunting, fishing, harvesting, and other traditional practices which had fallen into disuse during colonization. Men would go up the cliffs hunting Black Noddy, a local small bird, while women were collecting sea food in the reefs; everyone was fishing as much as possible.[29] Nauruan women produced twine, made of coconut tree fiber, which was used for construction in lieu of nails, as well as for canoe making and fishing. From pandanus leaves they made a strong fabric used for mats, baskets, shelter-pieces, and sails.[26]

1945: Last year of war

By January 1945 the air raids on Nauru had tapered off, the front lines of the Pacific War having moved to the west.[21] About 40 Nauruans had been killed in the attacks, and many more injured.[23] The food shortage became acute. Several Chinese workers died of starvation, and islanders of all stripes suffered from various diseases made worse by malnutrition, dwindling medical supplies, and increasingly unsanitary conditions on the island. For the most part, however, the Nauruans on Nauru were faring better than their kinsmen who had been deported in 1943.

The Nauruan exiles had been relocated to Tarik, Tol, Fefan, and other islands in the Truk archipelago (modern Chuuk in the Federated States of Micronesia).[23] As on Nauru they had been forced to work for the Japanese, and had faced food shortages as Truk was in turn bombed and cut off by the Americans. Despite the best efforts of Timothy Detudamo, Father Kayser, Father Clivaz, and others, conditions were made worse in Truk by complete lack of medical care and the Nauruans' status as aliens. The native Chuukese resented having to share scarce resources with the interlopers, while the Japanese treated them much more harshly than on Nauru. Many of the exiles suffered beatings, and many women were sexually assaulted. All were forced into long hours of heavy labor, mainly excavating defensive positions and growing food for the Japanese garrison.

Even after the Japanese surrender announcement on 15 August 1945, the Nauruan exiles had little choice but to continue working for the Japanese for several weeks, seemingly forgotten by the victorious Allies. While Detudamo wrote letters to Allied commanders pleading for help, Nauruans continued to die of malnutrition-related illnesses and simple starvation. In one six-month period in 1945, 200 Nauruans died on Tarik.[15]

In January 1946, the deportees were finally repatriated to Nauru by the BPC ship Trienza. Of the 1,200 Nauruans who had left in 1943, fewer than 800 returned.

Japanese surrender

Surrender aboard HMAS Diamantina. Japanese commander Hisayuki Soeda hands his sword to J. R. Stevenson, the Australian commander

Departure of the Japanese. After their surrender, troops board a barge taking them out to RAN vessel bound for Bougainville Island

As the Pacific War finally reached its end, there was some uncertainty among the Allies as to who Nauru and neighboring Ocean Island should be surrendered to.[30] They were in a zone under American command, and it had been planned that US troops would liberate the islands; however, the Australians and New Zealanders emphasized the fact that both islands were critical to their economy, and that phosphate mining needed to be resumed as soon as possible.[30] Thus it was agreed that the Royal Australian Navy would handle the task, with the Australian commander signing the surrender document twice, first as the representative of the United Kingdom, and then on behalf of the American Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet.[30]

On 8 September, Australian planes dropped leaflets giving notice of the coming of three boats with personnel to oversee surrender proceedings.[31] Five days later, on September 13, the frigate HMAS Diamantina arrived offshore, escorted by the frigate HMAS Burdekin and the corvette HMAS Glenelg.[31] On board were well-known figures of the colonial administration, including William Bot, the administrator of the local unit of the British Phosphate Commission, and Thomas Cude, head of the Nauruan police.[31] Returning with them were five young Nauruans who had spent the war in Australia, where they had been studying at its outbreak.[31] As the boat approached the islands, the passengers could plainly see the devastation wrought on the island.[31] By means of signals, they arranged with the Japanese to conduct the surrender ceremony at 2PM.[31] The Australian commander, Brigadier J. R. Stevenson, accompanied by P. Phipps of the Royal New Zealand Navy and representatives of the BPC, received the surrender of Hisayuki Soeda, commandant of Nauru's Japanese garrison.[10][30] As a sign of submission, he handed his katana to Stevenson.[31] The weapon was placed on the centre of the table and the instrument of surrender was then read in English and in Japanese.[31] Soeda bowed in sign of agreement, signed the document, and rapidly left the boat, leaving his officers on board to be interrogated.[31]

The following day, a contingent of 500 Australian soldiers landed. They were greeted by a jubilant crowd, while the Japanese were confined to their barracks. That afternoon, during a military ceremony, the Union Jack was hoisted over Nauru for the first time in three years.[31] The executives of the British Phosphate Commission surveyed the island to determine the extent of war damage to mining infrastructure, and found the phosphate factory totally destroyed.[32] However, they found that the health of the population was much better than had been expected, based on the testimony of two Japanese who had fled the island in June 1945.[31]

Between the first and the third of October, the 3,745 Japanese and Koreans on the island were taken on board Allied ships heading for Bougainville Island in the Solomon Islands.[30] During the transfer, the former occupiers were molested by the Nauruans in charge of the boarding operations.[31] They were also violently attacked with canes by Chinese seeking revenge on their former tormentors. The abusers were harshly pushed back by the Australians.[31]

Demography of Nauru at the surrender
Japanese soldiers Japanese and Korean workers Pacifics Islanders (Gilbertins, Banabans) Chinese Nauruans total population
2681 1054 837 166 591 5329
Source : Tanaka 2010


No climactic battle ever took place on Nauru, and the Japanese launched only a handful of minor raids from it. Nevertheless, the island played an important role in the campaigns of the Central Pacific. It was too well-defended to invade, yet its airfield and strategic location made it too threatening to ignore; thus the Americans had to divert considerable effort and resources to keep it neutralized. It could be said that militarily, the Japanese on Nauru did their job very effectively. Over 300 of them died from malnutrition, disease, and enemy action.

The British Phosphate Commission moved quickly. With much of the European staff returned, new facilities built, and new workers brought in, production was resumed in July 1946. Sanitary conditions on the island were quickly restored.

For the Nauruans, the occupation had a profound effect on their society and psychology. Unprotected by the Australians, bombed by the Americans, tormented by the Japanese, and shunned by the Chuukese, the seeds of self-determination were planted. Wrote historian Nancy J. Pollock:

"First, determined to control their own lives after having been pawns in a major war, they rejected the British Phosphate Commission's offer to relocate them. Nauruans wanted to maintain ties to their island. After the war the fight for phosphate royalties continued with renewed vigor, ending only when the Nauruans bought the phosphate industry from the commission for A$20 million, a transaction entwined intimately with Nauru's declaration of independence in 1968. Second, their land became even more precious to them. Most Nauruans continue to live on Nauru. Those who do migrate do so either to seek education, to take positions in Nauruan diplomatic missions, or, in a few cases, to take jobs in Australia. But the bulk of the Nauruan population can be found living on the island of Nauru. In this they differ markedly from other Pacific Island nations where a growing proportion of the population is to be found in metropolitan countries."[23]


  1. 1.0 1.1 Stanley C. Jersey (2004-02-29). "The Battle for Betio Island, Tarawa Atoll". 
  2. Viviani 1970, pp. 40–42
  3. Viviani 1970, pp. 51
  4. Viviani 1970, pp. 53
  5. Gill 1957, pp. 281–283
  6. Sydney David Waters (1956). The Royal New Zealand Navy (The Official History of New Zealand in the Second World War 1939–1945 ed.). Historical Publications Branch. pp. 144–146. 
  8. 8.00 8.01 8.02 8.03 8.04 8.05 8.06 8.07 8.08 8.09 8.10 8.11 8.12 8.13 Garrett 1996, pp. 13–20
  9. Gill 1957, p. 486
  10. 10.0 10.1 Gordon L. Rottman (2002). World War II Pacific Island Guide. Greenwood Publishing Group. pp. 477. ISBN 0-313-31395-4.  Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Rottman_345-346" defined multiple times with different content
  11. The Chinese Communities in the Smaller Countries of the South Pacific: Kiribati, Nauru, Tonga, Cook Islands. MacMillan Brown Library, University of Canterbury. 2007.  Working Paper 10
  12. 12.0 12.1 Pacific Magazine History of Nauru during Second World war
  13. Certain Phosphate Lands in Nauru. United Nations Publications. 2003. ISBN 92-1-070936-5. 
  14. Bullard, p. 57.
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3
  16. Australia's Forgotten Prisoners: Civilians Interned by the Japanese in World War Two, Christina Twomey, p50 (notes)
  17. 17.00 17.01 17.02 17.03 17.04 17.05 17.06 17.07 17.08 17.09 17.10 17.11 17.12 17.13 17.14 17.15 Viviani 1970, pp. 77–87
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 18.3 18.4 18.5 18.6 Garrett 1996, pp. 31–37
  19. 19.0 19.1 19.2 John Garrett (1997). Where nets were cast: Christianity in Oceania since World War II. Institute of Pacific Studies, University of the South Pacific, World Council of Churches. pp. 222–224. ISBN 982-02-0121-7. 
  20. Williams & Macdonald 1985, p. 325
  21. 21.0 21.1
  22. History of United States Naval Operations in World War II: Aleutians, Gilberts, and Marshalls, S.E. Morison, pp83-85
  23. 23.0 23.1 23.2 23.3 23.4 Nauruans during World War II, Nancy J. Pollock
  24. 24.00 24.01 24.02 24.03 24.04 24.05 24.06 24.07 24.08 24.09 24.10 Garrett 1996, pp. 51–58 Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "Garrett51-58" defined multiple times with different content
  25. Carl N. McDaniel, John M. Gowdy, Paradise for Sale, Chapter 2
  26. 26.0 26.1 26.2 26.3 26.4 Garrett 1996, pp. 146–149
  27. 27.0 27.1 I. de Garine, Nancy J. Pollock (2004). Social Aspects of Obesity. Routledge. pp. 99-100. ISBN 2-88449-186-4. 
  28. 28.0 28.1 28.2 Garrett 1996, pp. 152–153
  29. 29.0 29.1 29.2 29.3 Garrett 1996, pp. 150–152
  30. 30.0 30.1 30.2 30.3 30.4 Sydney David Waters (1956). The Royal New Zealand Navy. Wellington: Historical Publications Branch. 
  31. 31.00 31.01 31.02 31.03 31.04 31.05 31.06 31.07 31.08 31.09 31.10 31.11 31.12 Garrett 1996, pp. 168–175
  32. Williams & Macdonald 1985, pp. 339–340


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