War Remains: The Culture of Preservation in the Southwest Pacific
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Mon Dec 16 14:19:40 MST 2002
Geoffrey M. White
War Remains: The Culture of Preservation in the Southwest Pacific
Like the fast-growing forest that has covered over island battle
sites, memories of World War II in the Pacific are rapidly being
overtaken by the busy activities of contemporary development. And yet
the war continues to be regarded as a major turning point in the
histories of island societies, just as relics of war still protrude
from the sands and jungles of islands with names such as Guadalcanal,
Tarawa, Iwo Jima, and Saipan. How is the war being remembered in the
Pacific Islands today? And what are some of the policies and
practices being brought to bear on the conservation of these memories?
The impact of the war on island peoples and ecologies was especially
dramatic in the Pacific where the magnitude of war was heightened
against the backdrop of the mostly small, isolated, and rural islands
where it was fought. The sense of drama surrounding people's wartime
experience can still be heard in the hushed tones with which
islanders speak of the sudden appearance of fleets of warships off
their islands and the subsequent transformation of tranquil
plantations into sprawling bases with roads, airstrips, docks, and
all the accoutrements of small cities.
The capital of the Solomon Islands (Honiara, a port town of about
35,000 people) is itself an artifact of war, located where it is
because the Japanese decided to build an airstrip there in 1942 and
the Allies decided to capture it, thus beginning their offensive in
the Pacific. Today the airport, named Henderson Field after an
American flyer killed in the battle of Midway, is the country's one
international airport. War memory is inscribed in the hills, valleys,
and rivers surrounding the airport, where names such as Bloody Ridge
reflect the savage fighting that took place there as the Japanese
attempted to retake the airfield over the course of six months in
1942 and 1943.
On top of this geography of war, one now finds another layer of
memory in the form of plaques, monuments, and memorials placed at
significant points as public reminders of the events that once made
the Solomon Islands the center of world attention. The international
visitor arriving by air in the Solomon Islands today is not long in
the country before encountering reminders of World War II.
Immediately upon exiting the small air terminal, he or she faces
three memorial obelisks dedicated by U.S. Marine veterans in 1982.
Just down the road, at the base of the original control tower,
another monument and bronze plaque were installed by American
veterans in 1992 during the 50th anniversary of the Guadalcanal
Just as the war and its relics were the products of foreign powers,
so too are these reminders of war the products of foreign ways of
remembering. The Pacific war was, after all, a war between the Allies
and Japan, fought over the terrain of colonized societies. The
monuments and plaques that memorialize it have been installed by
veterans and governments wishing to commemorate the sacrifices of
their citizen-combatants, often with reference to the role of natives
in supporting the war effort. But what are the meanings of the war
for indigenous Solomon Islanders? And what, for them, would be the
purpose(s) of preserving them? Answers to these questions are
complex, entangled in the political realities of new nations
attempting to articulate their own identities and histories, while at
the same time attracting investment and tourism from former
In a speech to a conference convened in 1987 to review Solomon
Islands perspectives on the war, Sir Gideon Zoleveke, a prominent
Solomon Islander with wartime experience, declared, "The war was not
our war." (Laracy and White, 1988). But such sentiments have emerged
only ambiguously in the period following independence. Indigenous
remembrances of the war, particularly as an object of national
memory, are still easily buried by the elaborate practices with which
former colonial powers produce their memories. Five years after
Zoleveke gave his speech, he was a guest of honor and keynote speaker
at 50th anniversary ceremonies commemorating the war as a common
victory of the Allies over Japan; and three years after that he was a
special guest of Australia at ceremonies held to mark the 50th
anniversary of the end of the war.
Contemporary approaches to the cultivation of World War II artifacts
and memories belie an underlying tension between the dominant
memories of the warring powers and the largely unwritten local
histories that frequently express meanings quite different from the
heroic narratives of loyalty and sacrifice characteristic of European
and American war histories (White et al., 1988). These tensions are
evident in the ways in which Solomon Islanders have cultivated war
memories in forms appropriate to the museum-going, memorial-making
practices of foreign veterans and tourists. In this brief essay I
discuss two examples: the most well-known local "war museum" begun by
a citizen-entrepreneur on Guadalcanal, and the official activities
organized to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Guadalcanal in 1992.
Build a Museum and They Will Come
About 12 miles down the coastal road headed west from Honiara, beyond
the point where the pavement ends, stands a rusting sign announcing
the Vilu War Museum. There a dirt road turns off and runs underneath
the tall palm trees of a coconut plantation, leading to a grassy
compound fenced in by a wall of Marsden matting -- the steel grating
used to construct World War II airstrips throughout the Pacific. This
is Fred Kona's museum.
In 1969, when the Solomon Islands was still a colony of England, the
British Chief Secretary, Tom Russell, advised Fred Kona that he
should begin gathering war relics for the purpose of making a museum.
Fred Kona was a native member of the government, but did not know
what a museum was. He liked to say that he only knew how to make
copra (then the Solomons major agricultural export). But he knew
there were plenty of war relics in the bush and in the sea, and he
knew that foreign companies had been active in salvaging them.
So, over the course of the next five years, Fred Kona organized his
relatives and neighbors to work at dragging, carrying, and trucking
an assortment of guns, helmets, mortars, cannon, and crashed planes
to a central site -- Vilu -- where a space was cleared to receive
them. By 1975, he had assembled an impressive collection of war
relics, built a small thatched house for the smaller items, and
installed three flagpoles. On October 2, 1975, Fred Kona inaugurated
his museum with a feast that was attended by ambassadors from the
United States and Japan, as well as representatives of the British
Solomon Islands government.
Just as inspiration for the site had come from British, American, and
Japanese interests in memorializing the war, so the museum proved to
be a magnet for returning veterans of both sides. Fred Kona had,
indeed, assembled an impressive array of World War II objects. Spread
around the perimeter of the compound, one could find the twisted and
perforated relics of such famous vintage aircraft as a P-38
Lightning, Grumman F-4-F Wildcat, and a Marine Corsair. Consistent
with the non-literate roots of this museum, it had none of the
signage typical of Western history museums. Instead, visitors to the
Vilu War Museum could usually expect a personal narration, at least
about the larger objects such as planes and cannon, from Fred Kona or
one of his assistants. The Vilu curators would readily regale their
visitors with stories about the planes, about where they had been
found, and about their final moments. In some cases, these stories
linked up with accounts that had been added by returning veterans,
including some of those who had actually piloted the craft on display.
During the post-war years, Japanese and Allied veterans alike have
continued to return to Guadalcanal on pilgrimages to revisit sites of
suffering, tragedy, and sacrifice. For these visitors, Fred Kona
became a kind of celebrity, developing his English along with an
extroverted persona to greet and welcome foreigners from all over the
world to his museum. In recognition of his work in preserving and
honoring memories of those who died in the Guadalcanal conflict, the
Japanese government invited him to Japan where he was given an
honorary award for his efforts.
Thus, Fred Kona's Vilu War Museum became something more than a
museum. It also became a memorial. In 1982, on the 40th anniversary
of Guadalcanal, Japanese veterans installed a small stone memorial on
the grounds of the museum. The memorial bears an inscription to the
"tens of thousands of young men who fell in battle" and a wish that
such events never be repeated. American veterans subsequently
installed a commemorative marker alongside it, giving a physical
locus to the memorial function of the memorial ground. Fred Kona, who
died in 1994, was quite explicit about the purpose of his museum.
Speaking to me, an American, in 1984 he emphasized the museum's
significance as a tribute to American sacrifices: "To remember how
the United States people sacrificed themselves and we have peace in
our country, and also Australia, New Zealand, England, and Solomon
Islands. That's why I made the museum. To remember that. Next thing
is to preserve, to keep the history...." The fact that the Solomon
Islands is added at the end of Fred Kona's list reflects the fact
that foreign veterans and tourists were the primary audience for the
museum -- people who were usually happy to pay a small entrance
donation to Fred Kona or one of his helpers, who always seemed to
materialize out of nowhere when a car would pull up by the compound.
Fred Kona embodied his museum's spirit of public, international
relations. While this personal presence was well received by his
foreign visitors eager to find living links to their own past
experience, the lack of any public or governmental role in managing
the museum casts some doubt on whether it will survive beyond his
Despite the efforts of local entrepreneurs such as Fred Kona, there
are no national museums or exhibits devoted to World War II in the
Solomon Islands. Although the small Tourist Authority office in
Honiara features posters and maps displaying war themes, there are no
sites, parks, or exhibits of war history sponsored or supported by
national institutions. The reasons for this are both economic and
cultural. In a country where the very relevance of museums is
constantly under question, and where the national museum is
chronically underfunded, there has been little opportunity or support
for new projects. Most of the international assistance for developing
tourist resources has focused on presenting aspects of pre-European
cultural traditions, not historical subjects such as the war.
Proposals to create a war museum or to expand the national museum to
include World War II exhibits have come mainly from foreign
businesses interested in salvaging and exporting World War II
aircraft. So far none of these proposals have materialized.
Recognizing these interests of foreign collectors, however, the
government passed a War Relics Act in the 1980s with the intention of
prohibiting the export of war materiel and limiting profiteering by
outside interests. The major difficulty with the Act has been
enforcement. Except for the installation of an x-ray machine in the
national airport to detect foolish attempts to transport World War II
munitions on board jet aircraft, the Act is largely unnoticed. In a
few cases, local provincial governments have taken responsibility by
setting up cultural offices that monitor the trade in artifacts. The
Western Province, which passed its own cultural policy and created a
Cultural Affairs Office to administer it (see Lindstrom and White,
1994), was so successful in confiscating war relics (usually from
recreational divers) that it faced a storage problem. For the most
part, however, the vast array of war artifacts remain outside any
organized efforts at public interpretation or conservation.
A Political Economy of Memory
Despite the lack of sustained national projects aimed at developing
the war's cultural resources, the government has responded to
foreigners' interests in war memory, especially for purposes of
promoting tourism. Seeing an opportunity to capitalize on the
international attention aroused by the 50th anniversary of the battle
for Guadalcanal, the Solomon Islands government designated 1992 as
the Year of Tourism in Solomon Islands and allocated a budget of
$100,000 to support local planning for commemorative events.
The potential for the Guadalcanal anniversary to attract worldwide
attention was anticipated by many entrepreneurs in the business of
producing historical materials for popular audiences. Thus, the same
team that mounted an expedition to find and photograph the Titanic
organized a similar project, using advanced underwater technology, to
locate and film many of the sunken warships that gave the waters off
Guadalcanal the name Iron Bottom Sound. Sponsored by National
Geographic and other investors, this project produced a
made-for-television documentary film introduced by former U.S.
President George Bush and a glossy coffee-table photograph book
(Ballard, 1993). Except for occasional obligatory references to the
role of native coastwatchers, there is little in this kind of
technology-centered, history-as-spectacle approach that speaks to the
experiences and concerns of Solomon Islanders.
Despite the creation of a Solomon Islands planning committee, the
agenda for the 50th anniversary events was largely set by the former
Allies, even resulting in the exclusion of the Japanese, who
contribute more international aid and investment in the Solomon
Islands than the United States. The U.S. World War II 50th
Anniversary Committee (a Department of Defense program based in the
Pentagon) organized an entire Task Force, called "Operation
Remembrance," to undertake an island-hopping campaign for the purpose
of supporting American veterans groups and military units
participating in official ceremonies throughout the region (White,
1995). On Guadalcanal, the centerpiece of the 50th anniversary
commemoration, was the dedication of an impressive monument
consisting of a walled compound with large marble panels telling the
story of the Guadalcanal campaign. Perched on top of Skyline Ridge
overlooking the major battlegrounds, the monument was conceived as a
counter-measure to an imposing Japanese "Peace Memorial" that had
been installed in 1983 on a neighboring ridge overlooking the
capital. Funded by the U.S. Battle Monument Commission and by
donations from American veterans, the monument cost about US$500,000.
The scale of plans for the monument and dedication ceremonies did
raise some local eyebrows. A former Prime Minister, writing under a
pseudonym in a national newspaper, asserted:
What possible benefits do we, as a country get out of the War Memorial?
This simply reinforces local peoples' sense of inferiority.
The idea to build the monument, its design, the money and the
technology all belong to foreigners....
And yet again, at the height of Skyline Ridge we have yet to witness
another battle between USA and Japan.
Do we need them to do that yet again in our own soils?....
I think that apart from the praise given to our people for their
services during the war years, the Americans and British need to
consider some forms of compensations to our local people....
I think we have already had enough of USA vs Japan during the last war.
(Solomon Star, April 28, 1989, p. 7).
These complaints about the foreign-dominated process of commemorating
the war points to both cultural and economic problems that beset the
development of indigenous forms of public history and conservation.
The dilemma for national planners is that sites of war memory
developed for the purposes of tourism inevitably speak to foreign
audiences interested in objects, people, and places that fit within
their own conceptions of history. How can island nations struggling
to develop tourism economies that will appeal to overseas interests
also build cultural and educational projects that have meaning and
value for an indigenous, national public?
To date, most of the initiatives and financing for preserving and/or
commemorating island war memories have come from the metropolitan
powers. Papua New Guinea, the largest and most wealthy island nation,
is the only country to have created a national war museum. But even
here national expenditures amount to only a small fraction of what
the United States, for example, has invested in its efforts to
recover the remains of air crews lost in Papua New Guinea's mountains
and jungles, where more planes disappeared in World War II than in
any theater of war before or since. The cost of the Skyline Ridge
Memorial in Guadalcanal would have paid the entire budget of the
Solomon Islands National Museum for several decades. But the
disparity in efforts to preserve and commemorate war memory are more
than economic. The economy of memory here is undergirded by more
basic questions about the meaning and relevance of "preservation,"
particularly preservation of World War II memories.
As Chapman notes in his introduction to this collection, many in the
Pacific Islands region view issues of culture and cultural
preservation in a distinctly different light than is typical in the
United States and the more developed nations of Asia. While there are
vast differences among the societies of the Pacific, the region is
noted for the substantial continuity of rural lifestyles rooted in
gardening and other subsistence practices. This is particularly the
case in the Southwest Pacific, where about 80% of the populations of
the larger island nations of Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, and
Vanuatu live subsistence lifestyles. The historical significance of
the war in peoples' lives is primarily that which is expressed in
songs, stories, and ceremonial practices enacted in village settings.
In the rural Pacific, where literacy is only slowly making inroads,
history is largely oral history. Translating these histories into
relevant forms in books, films, museum displays, and so forth,
requires sensitivity to the different ways in which history itself
acquires relevance for peoples' lives.
Pacific Islanders have asserted repeatedly that they are less
interested in preserving artifacts than in protecting and promoting
indigenous culture, which in most areas remains vital, despite
decades of colonial history. Attitudes toward the role of museums --
a concept that still has relatively little currency for most
Islanders -- reflect broader differences in Western and indigenous
philosophies of culture. In much of the island region, there is no
"culture of preservation," at least as preservation is
professionalized and institutionalized in Western societies. Except
for the expatriate community and tourist visitors, there is no
museum-going public that brings kids to public places on the weekend
for educational experience viewing unusual exhibits.
This, of course, is not to say that there is no appreciation of such
experiences. Island cultures typically have elaborate means for
recalling the past (White, 1991), and most communities today are more
increasingly interested in matters of traditional culture and
history. But local modes of connecting to the past are embedded in
oral and performative practices that make the past personally
relevant and socially significant for those doing the remembering.
Thus, when people who remember World War II tell their stories, they
frequently do so by focusing on personal connections they developed
with the foreigners who flooded through their islands. In many cases,
objects such as U.S.-issue knives, plates, or helmets, acquired as
gifts from the military foreigners years ago, have been carefully
preserved -- tucked away in storage trunks, to be displayed only when
the occasion merits (such as the visit of an American traveler
decades later). Like many objects in island cultures, these
"souvenirs" represent objects of exchange that acquire meaning as
tokens of relationships formed with outsiders, and the stories that
tell about them.
The public management of historical resources is further complicated
by the politics of knowledge that usually regards stories about the
past as protected by local copyrights. Only the owners of stories
have rights to tell them -- rights that are often unrecognized by
literacy-centered ideas about intellectual property. Thus, when a
national committee of Solomon Islanders began meeting to discuss the
organization of an international conference on the oral history of
World War II, the first issue raised concerned control over the
recording and distribution of stories that would surface in such a
One of the challenges of developing indigenous approaches to war
memory as public culture, especially as public national culture, will
be to find ways to represent personal and local histories such that
they obtain relevance and meaning for broader audiences. Efforts to
do this will inevitably grapple with the dominant tastes and
conventions of the international "market" for war memories and
memorabilia. Whether new approaches to cultural management can
resolve some of these tensions will be the "trick" of cultural
development in the Pacific for some years to come.
Laracy, Hugh and Geoffrey M. White, eds. "Taem Blong Faet: World War
II in Melanesia." Special Issue of _'O'O: A Journal of Solomon
Islands Studies_ No. 4. (Honiara: University of the South Pacific
White, Geoffrey M., Gegeo, D., Akin, D. and K. Watson-Gegeo, eds.
_The Big Death: Solomon Islanders Remember World War II_. (Suva:
Institute of Pacific Studies,1988).
Lindstrom, Lamont, and White, Geoffrey M., eds. _Culture, Kastom,
Tradition: Developing Cultural Policy in Melanesia_ (Suva, Fiji:
Institute of Pacific Studies, 1994).
Ballard, Robert D. _The Lost Ships of Guadalcanal_. (Toronto:
Warner/Madison Press, 1993).
White, Geoffrey M. "Remembering Guadalcanal: National Identity and
Transnational Memory-Making." _Public Culture_ 7:529-555. (1995).
White, Geoffrey M. _Identity Through History: Living Stories in a
Solomon Islands Society_. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,
Geoffrey White is an anthropologist and Senior Research Fellow at the
East-West Center and a noted author on World War II in the Pacific.
He was the director of the Pacific Islands Development Program at the
East-West Center for several years.
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* Anti-War Activist Resources: <http://www.osu.edu/students/sif/activist.html>
* Student International Forum: <http://www.osu.edu/students/sif/>
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