Solomon Islands: Reviving the rich heritage and history of Tulagi
Georgina Kekea, a local freelance journalist, has written an interesting feature article in today’s edition of Solomon Times Online.
Georgina mentions in her article the rich heritage of Solomon Islands old capital, Tulagi.
The article fails to mention the historic role Tulagi played during the Second World War in the Pacific and I have taken it upon myself too add to Georgina’s story.
Firstly, this is what Georgina wrote, quote.
“Only 42.7km of sea water separates Tulagi from Honiara. Despite the close proximity of both urban centers, little is known by Solomon Islanders of the town that was once the hub of this country.
“In 1893, Britain declared Solomon Islands a British Protectorate, four years later, in 1897, it established its administrative center in Tulagi.
“Resident Commissioners of the Colonial Government made their home on the island in the years it was the administrative center. Merchants and traders traveled through the harbour with goods and merchandise. Burns Philip and Co. also had its steamers carry out regular shipping service from Sydney to Tulagi.
“Chinese traders also have an establishment called Chinatown situated in Tulagi. Some of the small trading ships were owned by the Chinese. They also travelled from island to island.
“For almost 50 years, Tulagi was the capital of the Solomon Islands. Its main facilities consist of the courthouse, prison, post office and the government hospital. The town was mostly populated by Europeans and Chinese.
“Before world war two, thousands of Solomon Islanders passed through Tulagi as indentured or casual laborers. Most of the work done on the island was by Solomon Islanders as laborers. At most they worked to earn £20 per year. This is equivalent to SBD$220 today.
“Apart from the laborers, there were also the prisoners who made Tulagi what it is now. Cut hill, an iconic site on Tulagi Island was dug by the prisoners and laborers in 1918.
“123 years on, there is nothing much left on the island to show for its rich culture and heritage.
“Only a few landmarks are there now to remind Solomon Islanders of the colonial days. Cut hill is one iconic landmark in Tulagi now.
“The remains of the prison cells are still on the island. Persons convicted of felony were kept in a holding cell on the island. Capital punishment was also executed by the government on person convicted by the law enforcement agency.
“Towards the western side of the island of Tulagi lies a cemetery for foreign nationals who died while working in different administrations under the British Solomon Islands Protectorate. Most graves are just sand dunes with no marking to claim identity.
“Up on the hill with a 360 degree view overlooking Tulagi harbour was the site of the Resident Commissioner’s House. Called No. 1 House. Charles Woodford was the Resident Commissioner. “The house was built in 1898. A larger house was built nearby in 1905 but was condemned in 1933 due to white ants infestation.
“Fast forward to 2020, signboards are now erected by the Provincial Government Strengthening Project (PGSP) to identify the heritage sites. Some of the signboards were already destroyed by vendors and bad weather conditions. Only a few still retain their purpose of identifying what these landmarks are.
“With this, the Resident Commissioner’s No.1 house was one of the topics that made it to the government’s talking table.
“Fellow citizens, despite the pandemic, I am also pleased to note that the Ministry of Culture & Tourism has held two fruitful meetings with the Malaita and Central provincial governments with two Memorandum of Understanding to be signed soon.
"This is in regards to the continuation of the House No. 1 Project and Tourism investment facilitation programs for the Central Islands Province, which will host the Colonial History Museum of the country”, Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said recently.
“With so much history and heritage, the Colonial History Museum is welcoming news for the central islands provincial government.
“A reenactment of the Tulagi club is also in the making where an engineer is currently doing designs for the infrastructure.
“A similar kind of structure to that of Point Cruz Yacht Club where members can come and enjoy their time here in Tulagi”, Alan Siale, CIP Provincial Secretary says.
“While the tourism sector has been greatly affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, this does not deter the national and provincial government from carrying out their plan.
“The Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Culture and Tourism says they are now encouraging domestic tourism and how this can be facilitated with private sectors.
“Andrew Nihopara told the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) the immediate approach for the tourism sector now is to find practical strategies to make sure domestic tourism works.
“SBD$2.9 million has been allocated by the government for this project, pending cabinet approval of course. The Provincial Capacity Development Fund (PCDF) will support additional infrastructure for the project”, the central provincial secretary, Allan Siale says in an interview with Solomon Times Online.
“Meanwhile Prime Minister, Manasseh Sogavare says the MOU will set the pathway for collaboration between the tourism & culture ministry and the Provincial Governments, for joint execution and implementation of key tourism projects over the next financial year.
“Should this project come into fruition, Tulagi will certainly be an attraction site for both locals and international visitors. With its rich history and its close proximity to Honiara, it will be an ideal spot for travelers. The return trip to Tulagi via OBM is SBD$100.
“Currently the Island is home to both national and provincial government workers, church and missions’ staff as well as workers from other private public entities.
“The estimated population on the island now is 1800.
Quoting from Military Warfare, in relation to Tulagi during the Second World War Pacific campaign, the commentary, quoting just a few extracts from the whole story reads, quote.
Unlike their comrades who invaded Guadalcanal on August 7, 1942, United States Marines landing on Tulagi met fierce resistance. It was a harbinger of the bloody island fighting that marked combat in the Pacific during World War II.
“The strategic defeats suffered in the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway checked Japan’s advance in the Pacific. The engagements, which cost the Japanese over 400 carrier and land based aircraft and five aircraft carriers, forced Tokyo to assume a defensive posture.
“As part of its new military reality in the Pacific, Japan still relied on its plan to secure its strongest naval bastion in that area, Truk in the Caroline Islands some 1,600 miles northeast of New Guinea, by strengthening its recent acquisition of Rabaul on New Britain in the Solomon Islands, and building a major base there. To safeguard Rabaul, forces were landed in eastern New Guinea, Guadalcanal, and Tulagi in the southern Solomons chain.
“By holding fortified air bases at these locations, the Japanese could meet Allied air and amphibious attacks by shuttling their own air assets from base to base. This strategy was employed in anticipation that the United States might push its inevitable counterattack through Port Morseby, Rabaul, and Tulagi as an alternative or complement to its obvious strategy of attacking across the Central Pacific toward the home islands of Japan.
“By mid-June, the Japanese program designed to establish airfields in the Solomons, including Guadalcanal (construction commencing there on July 6), Florida, and Savo Islands, was authorized. Its primary purpose was to use airpower to cut communications between the United States and Australia and forestall American offensive operations. The threat to vital American supply bases in New Caledonia, the New Hebrides, and Fiji was also an important reason for the expansion of the Japanese defensive perimeter.
“The Americans planned to parry the enemy’s plan by capturing Tulagi and the Santa Cruz Islands and setting up their own airfield somewhere in that zone to support an advance toward New Britain and New Guinea. On June 24, 1942, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Commander in Chief U.S. Pacific Fleet, was ordered to prepare to capture “Tulagi and adjacent positions.” It was not until July 5, when definitive intelligence revealed that the Japanese were preparing to build an air base on the island of Guadalcanal, that the Americans dropped the Santa Cruz Islands from their forthcoming amphibious assault, instead preparing to move against Guadalcanal. Tulagi remained a target, albeit now a secondary one, to be occupied simultaneously with Guadalcanal.
“Tulagi’s Strategic Importance
“The island of Tulagi is two miles long and a half mile wide; it lies just south of Florida Island and 22 miles directly north across Sealark Channel from Guadalcanal. A ridge rising over 300 feet above the sea marks the northwest-southeast axis of the island. About two-thirds of the way down from its northwest tip, the ridge is broken by a ravine and then rises again in a triangle of hills, the farthest southeast designated Hill 208 and the farthest northeast Hill 281 after their elevation in feet.
“Tulagi had been the seat of the British Solomons Island Protectorate with the governor’s residence and other governmental structures located on its northeast side. About 3,000 yards east of Tulagi are the small islets of Gavutu and Tanambogo joined by a 500-yard long causeway. Gavutu Harbor on the northeast end of the island and Purvis Bay to the southeast of Gavutu and Tanambogo formed the finest deepwater anchorage in the Solomons.
“The islands of Tulagi, Tanambogo, and Gavutu are located in the southern Solomons. Control of these small islands was deemed critical to the success of U.S. landings on Guadalcanal and subsequent ability to resupply the Marines ashore.
“To protect Tulagi, Gavutu, and Tanamabogo the Australians stationed only two dozen soldiers and 130 native policemen along with crew and maintenance personnel who operated the four Consolidated PBY Catalina flying boats assigned for patrol duty there. After the Japanese began regular bombing of the islands in January 1942, the Australian government evacuated the civilian population. The tiny defense force was taken off on May 2, one day before the Japanese Army occupied Tulagi while also installing small garrisons on Gavutu and Tanamobogo. Concerned about the ability of the enemy to conduct long-range air rreconnaissance from Tulagi, in late May Admiral Nimitz urged that the island be reoccupied using the 1st U.S. Marine Raider Battalion. However, his idea was rejected by General Douglas McArthur, commander of U.S. ground forces in the Pacific, citing the shortage of combat troops available to hold the place once it was retaken.
“On May 3, 1942, the Japanese invaded Tulagi. The ground troops were from the 3rd Kure Special Naval Landing Force (SNLF). Sometimes erroneously referred to as Japanese Marines, these were a peculiar hybrid of sailors used as landing parties, specially trained in amphibious warfare. After taking Tulagi, the Japanese constructed a seaplane, ship refueling, and communications base on the island with supporting facilities on Gavutu, Tanambogo, and Florida Island.
“The First U.S. Ground Offensive of World War II
“The amphibious assault on Guadalcanal and Tulagi was the first U.S. ground offensive of World War II. Designated Operation Watchtower, the hastily thrown together plan called for the 1st Marine Division, about 19,000 men, supported by American and Australian warships and transport vessels, 82 ships of all types, to make the seaborne assault. The Allied armada assembled near Fiji on July 26. A poorly planned and executed rehearsal, Operation Dovetail, was held on Koro Island in the Fijis, after which the fleet sailed for its objectives on the 31st.
“As the Allied fleet neared Guadalcanal, it split: the Guadalcanal Group, made up of Combat Group A composed of the 1st and 5th Marine Regiments, the divisional artillery, and support units (11,300 men), under 1st Marine Division commander Maj. Gen. Alexander A. Vandegrift, headed for Lunga Point on Guadalcanal. The Northern Group, built around four Marine infantry rifle battalions (2,400 troops), led by assistant division commander Brig. Gen. William H. Rupertus, steered for Tulagi, Florida, Gavutu, and Tanambogo.
“Guadalcanal vs Tulagi: Two Very Different Battles
“At 9:10 am, August 7, 1942, the first wave of Marines of Combat Group A scrambled ashore on Guadalcanal between Koli Point and Lunga Point, quickly establishing a 2,000-yard-long, 600-yard-deep beachhead. Their surprise arrival met no organized Japanese ground resistance. Approximately 2,500 laborers, mostly Korean, of the 11th and 13th Construction Unit along with the few dozen regular Japanese soldiers melted into the island’s hinterland as the Americans came ashore. The only threats to the leathernecks that day came from a number of mostly ineffective Japanese air raids launched from Rabaul. By nightfall the Americans had carved out a mile-deep toehold on Guadalcanal. They halted for the night about 1,000 yards from the unfinished Japanese airfield near Lunga Point. The next day, August 8, the Marines, meeting only sporadic enemy resistance, advanced to the Lunga River and at 4 pm captured the airdrome.
“The main Marine force that came ashore on Guadalcanal encountered more difficulty with the island’s foreboding jungle terrain, oppressively hot weather, and the confusion the inexperienced Americans had with offloading men and supplies than it did with the Japanese. It was a different and deadly story for General Rupertus’s command, which hit the beaches at Tulagi, Gavutu, and Tanambogo that same day.
“Following a U.S. air raid on Japanese positions on Tulagi, August 7, 1942, smoke billows from the island’s cricket grounds.
“At 6:52 am on the morning of August 7, 1942, Japanese troops on Tulagi began to send a flood of radio transmissions in the clear reporting 20 enemy ships shelling the island accompanied by air attacks and seaborne forces. At 8:05 am, Tulagi signaled that the island’s defenders were destroying their papers and equipment and signed off with the message, “Enemy troop strength is overwhelming. We pray for enduring fortunes of war,” and pledged to fight “to the last man.”
“Landing on Beach Blue
“The Japanese garrison on Tulagi consisted of a 350-man detachment of the 3rd Kure SNLF under Commander Masaaki Suzuki, 536 naval members of the Yokohama Air Group, and some Japanese and Korean civilians from the 14th Construction Unit. About 900 soldiers under the supervision of Captain Shigetoshi Miyazaki, commander of the seaplane-equipped Yokohama Air Group, were in residence on Gavutu and Tanambogo. Making good on their promise, the Japanese on Tulagi did fight almost to the last man while exacting a heavy price on their American opponents.
“The Marines assaulting Tulagi were carried to their objective by Transport Group Yoke, consisting of three troop transports, four Navy transport-destroyers, and one cargo ship. The landing force was made up of the 1st Raider Battalion; 1st Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment; 2nd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment; and 1st Parachute Battalion. These were the best trained units in the division and expected a tough fight. That assumption, which proved to be spot on, was based on prebattle intelligence assessments that Tulagi and the other islands were held by several hundred elite Japanese SNLF personnel of proven fighting ability who were well dug in.
“Pre-invasion aerial reconnaissance revealed that the strongest defenses on Tulagi fronted the northeast and southeast shorelines. Therefore, the Marines selected a 500-yard stretch of beach (named Beach Blue) midway on the southwest side of the island for the landing. The invasion plan called for elements of the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines to secure flanking positions on Florida Island followed by the 1st Raiders and then the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines going ashore on Tulagi. The idea was to make the first American amphibious assault of the war against natural obstacles instead of enemy firepower.
“Four hours after American troops hit the beach on Tulagi, the parachutists were to have gained control of Gavutu and Tanambogo. Lt. Col. Merritt A. “Red Mike” Edson, chief of the Raider Battalion, offered to make a reconnaissance of the objectives on Tulagi prior to the operation, but the idea was rejected since it might alert the Japanese to the impending landing. As a result, the Marines would be landing with little concrete information on Japanese dispositions and strength.”
Lest we forget!