Modern History of the Ulithi Atoll, Part IV

This is the third in a series of blog entries chronicling the modern history of the Ulithi Atoll. For background information see Part I (1529 to 1730), Part II (1731 to 1899), and Part III (1900-1943).

The Americans came to Ulithi in September of 1944. Their presence would lead to far greater changes than the previous three occupying powers combined. The U.S. sought to make the lagoon a naval base, to serve as a point of consolidation for its eastward drive towards the Japanese Mainland, and most immediately the attack on Okinawa. The Japanese had left Asor, and the US landing forces encountered no resistance when the Americans landed. In order to make the maximum possible use of the limited land space the islands of the Atoll provided, they consolidated all Ulithians onto Federai. By displacing the other islands’ inhabitants they were able to create an airfield on Falalop, a logistics center on Sokoli, and an area for fleet rest and relaxation on Mogmog.

USS Enterprise CV-6 crewmen at the beach on the island of Mog Mog, Copyright US Library of Congress

With all the Atoll’s native inhabitants squeezed on the thin island of Federai (a few are said to have remained on nearby Ladoua) there was no hope of any sort of agricultural subsistence. Furthermore the lagoon’s water were said to be dirty from oil (from US and Japanese ships) as well a harboring naval mines. The navy simply brought huge rations of canned goods, rice, sides of meat, and other foods for the Ulithians, who received such an abundance of these, that they were said to have often feed them to their pigs once they had themselves become full. The Navy also sent a handful of medical doctors to deal with an outbreak of Yaws . In accordance with practice in the Pacific, the Navy itself served as the ruler and administrator of the Atoll .

After the War the Navy withdrew, though a contingent of US Coast Guard remained to man the small station that had been created. Although the Navy made some token efforts at cleaning up the islands where people had formerly lived (Falalop, Asor, Mogmog, and Sokoli) were for the most part quite barren, the soil replaced with crushed coral (to support the weight of trucks and machines) and the shores and reefs littered with trash and rusting machinery. The Navy sought to wean the Ulithians of their dependency on imported food over the course of a decade as the local foods began to be grown again in significant numbers. The Americans allowed US Jesuits to come and preach on the Atoll, with Father William Walter arriving in Mogmog in 1949.

An American teacher employed by the TTPI on the Ulithi of Atoll, Photo Copyright US Government

The United Nations allowed the United States to rule the islands of the Pacific in a “Strategic Trust Territory.” The “Strategic” qualification meant that the US reported to Security Council rather than the General Assembly of the UN, and that the US had total control of all political and military concerns. This included a prevention of all non-US foreign nationals from entering the territory. The Navy officially passed control to the US Department of Interior in 1951. Although there were efforts made in the direction of basic infrastructure / medical / educational improvement, the reality was that the TTPI was initially not unlike the League of Nations Mandate that the Japanese had exercised in terms of the foreign power’s perception of primary responsibility towards the locals.

The “Strategic” qualification is key to many critics’ understanding of the intent and interest of the Americans through this period, and even through to the present. David Nevin argued in the late 1970s that “Americans have had a disastrous impact in Micronesia. They have been motivated by their interest in the strategic value of the islands and have been guided by a naïve altruism and an arrogant assumption that has allowed no self-questioning.”

A significant tenant of US rule was the insistence that no foreigners could own land within the trust territory, and this included the American Government itself. On Ulithi the Coast Guard acquired land through long-term leases, and this was the case for some sixty acres , primarily the area to the North of the airstrip on Falalop, known as Hapillpill, or “the government side.” It was this land, already secured as “public” in the form of leases that would host the Atoll-wide high school.

The 1960s saw a revision in American perceptions and attitudes. Although planners in the Pentagon were in no hurry to cede islands that had been “given away” in the 1890s only to be earned back through great loss of American blood in the 1940s, military technologies as well as centralization made certain locales very significant (Kwajallein, Guam, Okinawa) while the vast majority of Pacific Islands were admittedly of little strategic value. The whole was considered much greater than the sum of its parts . The Kennedy Administration brought new thinking, and eager optimism, along with much greater funds for the TTPI. Third country nationals, as well as their economic efforts were allowed in, and the Peace Corps arrived in mass to further basic educational and sanitary programs. The overall budget for the TTPI was vastly expanded as well.

A major factor contributing to the change in policy overseen by the Kennedy administration was a 1961 report by the United Nations which painted a rather grim and blaming portrait of the “considerable dissatisfaction and discontent” among the Islands throughout the TTPI . This was particularly damaging, as the US had recently, and quite publicly, announced it support for the anti-colonial stance taken by Angola against its former masters in Portugal.

The days of the Trust Territory Pacific Islands (TTPI), and particularly from the late1960s through the early 1980s represent the peak of foreign involvement and development on Ulithi. Schools were created on each island at the elementary level, as well as an atoll-wide high school on Falalop. During this period the Ulithians continued to recieve a great deal of aid and assistance from the military. Following a disastrous typhoon in the 1960s companies of US Navy Sea-Bees (Construction Battalion) arrived to fabricate new homes for all the Atoll’s families. Water catchments, men’s houses, and other concrete structures were also created with a combination of US leadership / supervision and Ulithian labor. It was during this period Outer Island High School (OIHS) earned a reputation as “The Best In The Western Pacific” when it was headed by an American Contract teacher / principal named James D. Boykin, and staffed by a small army of Peace Corps Volunteers.

Changes in funding did not address the TTPI mechanisms. The control over the “American Pacific” remained with the Department of the Interior. Frustration was voiced by some at the “supreme illogic of giving (the Department of the) Interior dominion over an immense exterior region more than 6,000 miles from Washington .” The exceptions were few, namely direct Department of Defense control of military facilities at Kwajallein, Eniwetok, and Bikini, as well an unclear amount of CIA control over Saipan, home to the intelligence organization’s Asian training facility.

Elementary School Student, Falalop, Ulithi. Copyright Habele

As the Trust Territory came to an end, the various island groups in the Central Pacific could not come to a unanimous decision as to their desired national status, and each negotiated separately. The Marshalls (1986) and Palau (1984) became republics, and the Northern Marianas a US Commonwealth (1978). The Islands of Pohnpei, Chuuk, Yap, and Kosrae established themselves a loose federal structure, termed the Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), and aligned themselves with the United States in a “Compact of Free Association” that while maintaining formal sovereignty for the FSM, provides for a significant portion of direct US aid, and eligibility of FSM citizens for US domestic assistance programs. The Compact was intended to be a one-time treaty to be concluded after twenty years, and culminating in a state of final financial self-sufficiency for the FSM. Having failed to reach these goals, a second compact of free association was agreed upon in the late 1990s.

The Habele Outer Island Education Fund is a US-based non profit organization dedicated to promoting educational opportunities and accomplishments in Micronesia's remote Outer Islands.