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Truk Lagoon: History

Dive the wreck diving Mecca of the World


Micronesia is the collective name given for various island groups in the central Pacific including the Caroline’s and the Marshall’s. The first explorers in these islands were the Spanish, arriving centuries before anyone else. British and then German explorers also reached some of these islands in the nineteenth century. Japanese sailors would visit these islands for the first time in 1875. They named the geographical region the “South Seas” or “Nan’yo.” Semi-regular visits to these islands by the Japanese Imperial Navy on training cruises began in 1884. The Germans, who had originally settled in the Marshall’s, bought both the Marianas and the Caroline’s from Spain in 1898. It appears the primary interest in these islands by the Germans was their advantageous locations as way stations for laying transoceanic cables to permit transmission of Morse code messages from continent to continent. German settlements usually consisted of colonial administrators, cable-company employees, and a few traders and missionaries.

Following the onset of World War I in 1914, German raiders began a campaign of sea warfare directed at British shipping including those plying East China Sea routes. Short of sea power in the area, the British requested naval assistance from the Japanese government in eliminating this threat from enemy vessels. With certain nationalistic groups within the Naval General Staff and Naval Affairs Division of the Navy Ministry along with commercial interests welcoming any chance of territorial expansion to the south, the request was recognized as a great opportunity to further Japanese influence in the South Seas. In addition, Japan could acquire advance bases with minimal military risk that might give them a vital strategic advantage in any conflict with the United States in the future. Japanese government officials informed Britain that it would go to war with Germany in order to satisfy its commitments under the Anglo-Japanese Alliance and in order to preserve the security of Pacific sea routes. British officials immediately realized their mistake; they had given Japan an opening to expand into Micronesia. When the British government tried to withdraw its request for assistance, Japanese officials informed them that war preparations had already been set in motion and that reversing these efforts would bring down the Japanese Cabinet. When British officials questioned Japanese intentions, the government denied any ambitions to seize new territories. At this point, all the British could do was to try to limit the damage by trying to coax Japan into confining its military operations to the East Asia region.

Under the pretext of pursuing the German East Asiatic Naval Squadron (including battle cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau) in the Nan’yo, Japan used its strategic opening to begin seizing German Micronesia outright. In October 1914, Japanese forces captured the Palau’s, Saipan, Truk, Ponape, Kusaie, and Jaluit. Yap and Pagan would soon follow. Truk was seized on October 12th when the armored cruiser Kurama under Vice Admiral Tanin Yamama along with a cruiser escort, part of the First South Seas Squadron still officially in pursuit of the German East Asiatic Squadron, entered the Truk Lagoon and discharged a permanent occupying force ashore.

Japan immediately adopted a policy of secrecy regarding its aggressive occupation and exploitation of Micronesia including making it plain that it did not welcome entry of any other ships into Micronesian waters, even those of its allies. These devious actions caused great ire amongst the Anglo-Saxon nations. The intentions of the Japanese were brought under further suspicion when requests for assistance to the Allies in other important theaters of the war where help was desperately needed were obstinately refused. Britain took measures to try to prevent Japan from establishing a permanent claim to its Micronesian spoils. The new course of action was to utilize diplomacy to bolster Britain’s view that all respective British and Japanese occupation of Germany’s Pacific territories should be considered a temporary wartime measure and the final disposition of the islands should be left to discussion between the Allies following the end of the war. Japan’s answer was to immediately increase its presence in the islands. A Second South Seas Squadron sent to Micronesia would be transformed into the Provisional South Seas Defense Force (Rinji Nan’yo Gunto Bobitai) under the jurisdiction of the Yokosuka Naval District which would administer the newly occupied territories until war’s end. During the war year 1917, Japan was still able to extract promises regarding the islands from both Britain and Australia that the United States was not informed of. An agreement was forged out that would guarantee Britain’s support for Japanese claims to ex-German Islands north of the equator in return for likewise Japanese support for British claims to others south of the equator. This agreement was reached after Britain sent appeals for help in the European war theater … in particular, a request for Japanese naval units to assist in anti-submarine patrol work in the Mediterranean. In making this agreement, Britain rationalized at the time that it was inevitable that Japan would retain these islands anyway. Australia, a major force in the British Empire, was able to convince the British the agreement was necessary as it was similarly determined to retain naval garrisons in New Guinea and the Bismarck Archipelago thereby providing a means of preventing further southward expansion by the Japanese. With an agreement in place for Britain’s support, Japan was then able to bargain for similar secret treaties from other Allies including France, Russia, and Italy. All of this happened during a period of rising mutual resentment between Japan and the United States. American naval strategists were greatly alarmed because of Japan’s occupation of Micronesia and the veil of secrecy that had been dropped around its conquests; an armed Micronesia would place American strategic plans in dire jeopardy. America’s naval station at Guam was potentially in danger and the path to the Philippines bases could be blocked by the strategic cover of Japanese held islands.

When America’s President Woodrow Wilson learned of the secret arrangements Japan and the other Allies had made regarding Japan’s acquisition of Micronesia, he became determined to block the claims being made and set a course of creating new methods for international conduct and handling of spoils of war. He campaigned for a program of international guardianship under the League of Nations where prior agreements with regards to conquered territory would not be honored. The policy that was finally agreed upon on by U.S. naval advisers of the President was the insistence of military neutralization of Micronesia. President Wilson encountered reluctance on the part of the British to renege on its 1917 agreement with Japan; the problem was compounded by the agreements with Australia (and New Zealand) with regard to their disposition of Pacific territories south of the equator on the grounds that these were necessary for their national security. Throughout Japan, there was a widespread supposition (especially with naval planners) that they should be rewarded with the islands for their contribution to the war effort and for the security of the nation. A no-retreat stance on the issue was considered by many a matter of national honor. It was hard to refute at this time that Japan was already established in Micronesia and that during each of the five years of occupation it had consolidated it presence and the islands had virtually become a Japanese colony. Such were the major arguments that would be considered by delegates the 1919 Paris Peace Conference; all concerns would be tied to the most critical concern amongst the participants, the issue of strategic value.

The disposition of the islands had become an international issue of global significance. Allied representatives met in Versailles in January 1919 to establish the League of Nations and to decide the issues of the war including the Japanese claim to Micronesia. Japan’s delegates argued that Micronesia should be awarded to them because of its record of humanitarian accomplishments in the islands. President Wilson spoke for the international community who opposed all annexations of wartime acquisition territories and pressed for the alternative of having the ex-German islands be governed by a disinterested third party smaller nation excluding Japan under a mandate, that the administrative nation should refrain from the fortifying the islands, that freedom of commerce and trade be preserved, and that the administrator should protect the welfare of the inhabitants of their mandated islands. This proposal brought about a heated debate within the delegates with major criticism coming from countries under British reign, particularly Australia. Prime Minister William Hughes of Australia, even though concerned that Japan was Australia’s biggest threat, argued vehemently for his country’s right to annex certain territories south of the equator. The results of the debate over Hughes’ spoils-of- war arguments and President Wilson’s stance of having the islands be administered by a third-party nation under the League of Nations brought about a compromise. Japan received a League of Nations mandate to govern occupied Micronesia, henceforth to be known as the Mandated Islands. Terms of the mandate specified that the islands be demilitarized and Japan was not to extend its influence beyond its presently occupied islands in the Pacific. The previously proposed Open Door policy of trade and immigration between Mandated Islands held by Japan and those by Australia and New Zealand was rejected. These last two provisions were an attempt to deny Japan’s aspirations for a southward advance below the equator. Eliminating the Open Door policy restricting trade and immigration would provide Japan an argument for keeping the Mandated Island waters off limits to foreigners. In retrospect, the terms of the mandate provisions allowed the islands to be administered as Japanese possessions and not as territories under temporary supervision of the international community. Access to the islands in the final context of the mandate would serve as a springboard for Japan’s advance into the South Pacific and for its development as a major maritime power. The diplomatic arguments and bad feelings over the issues of Japan’s occupation of Micronesia would result in a legacy of suspicion and resentment and cause of strain and ill will in U.S.-Japanese relations. Having secured a mandate from the League of Nations with only minimal and ineffectual constraints by the international community, Japan’s rule over the islands and peoples began with governing policies following guidelines more like a colonial administration instead of a trusteeship. Five naval districts were established in Palau, Saipan, Truk, Ponape, and Jaluit with headquarters for this command under a rear admiral at Truk. The naval administration in all districts would take the form of Japanese controlled assimilation under force leading to the exploitation and regimentation of the islanders with the objective being to make Micronesia an integral part of the Empire. Similar measures were implemented in all districts and included the following:

Dealing swiftly with any resistance.
Issuing laws and regulations needed to insure peace and order.
Importation of traders, teachers, doctors, and scientists.
Supervising education, hygiene, and sanitation.
Initiating surveys and censuses.
Expanding the road systems, docks, wharves, and navigational channels and buoys.
Charting of island coastlines, reefs, and obstacles.
Promoting Japanese language instruction.
Restructuring village life to conform to Japanese values and customs.
Promoting agriculture and trade.
Subsidizing steamship services between territories.

Japan’s adopted policies in pursuit of its opportunities for national self-interest were limited only by the yearly scrutiny by the Permanent Mandates Commission of the League of Nations in Geneva. In June of each year, the Japanese Mandate came up for review and the Commission would examine reports by Japanese officials and ask questions relevant to the specific terms of the covenant. Exchanges between Japanese representatives and members of the Commission to discuss the progress in fulfilling terms of the Mandate produced little. Following the submission of the annual report by Japanese representatives, Commission members restricted themselves to questioning of the representatives on the basis of their own careful securitization of the prepared report. With no first-hand knowledge of the mandated territories under question, the Commission members were limited in their understanding of the subject at hand and their supervisory capacity was severely limited. No attempt was made by Commission members to inspect the mandated territories since this might obstruct the progress of the administration and any attempt to do so might imply League suspicion regarding the word and good faith of the Japanese. When critical questioning and rebuffs to Japanese policy implying misconduct regarding practices in the mandates did occur on rare occasions, no action would result. In reality, the Commission was powerless and incapable of accurately judging the Japanese obligations with respect to the mandates. The principal responsibility imposed on Japan as a trustee over the territories to promote and protect the material well being of indigenous inhabitants and help in their becoming a free, self-governing people was ignored. The period between 1914 and 1920 was characterized by a transition from naval to civilian administration. By 1920, all Naval Defense Force authority was transferred to the Civil Affairs Bureau in Truk. This bureau, responsible to the Navy Ministry, would be transferred from Truk to Palau in 1921. The naval garrisons were disbanded at this time per terms of the Mandate. Governing of the islands by a purely civilian administration would begin with the establishment of the “South Seas Government” or “Nan’yo-Cho” in March 1932.

This new civilian government would continue the policy of ignoring advancement of the well being and development of the indigent populace; the paramount interest of the Japanese was to make the South Sea Islands produce a profit. The emphasis by the Japanese was to enhance the interests of its own nationals by exploiting and developing the island’s natural resources. From the beginning, the policies in the islands were established with the Micronesians being treated as a third class people behind the Japanese nationals and the Korean/Okinawan immigrants. Schooling for the islander children was primarily oriented towards teaching them the Japanese language and preparing them for subservient roles limited to manual labor and lower positions in the Japanese system. The government seized all unused or uncultivated land within the islands including communal property. There was significant potential for copra production in Truk and islanders were instilled into the operation as laborers, harvesters, and producers. They were given subsidies to clear land, plant more coconut trees, put up drying sheds, and harvest the crop. Copra produced would be sold to Japanese brokers who would act as intermediaries between the islander producers and the South Seas Trading Company (Nan’yo Boeki Kaisha or Nambo or NBK). Commercial fishing was also important at Truk. The South Seas Development Company (Nan’yo Kohatsu Kaisha or Nanko or NKK) had a fish processing operation on Dublon Island run by its subsidiary, Nanko Marine Products Company (Nanko Suisan). Although the commercial fishing was dominated by the Japanese and Okinawans, many locals were hired as laborers in the processing of the catch for export. Even though the Trukese were exploited for their labor, they were able to attain a modest affluence. Not only did they have money in their pockets, there was a considerable selection of consumer goods available to them from Japan at the village level to purchase. With Japan’s war in China in the late 1930s, demands for raw material were increased along with the labor need to produce it. This situation led to an unprecedented boom in the economy of the islands. Further increased demands for labor and local foodstuffs would occur with increased military presence and visits by naval shipping. Even during German rule, the South Seas Trading Company had established a network of freight transportation, passenger service, commercial fishing enterprises, inter island mail services, and trading posts throughout the islands with a fleet of small schooners. The company would take over the majority of all German commercial enterprises in the islands when World War I began as a result of the Japanese Navy prohibiting foreign shipping in South Seas waters. In 1915, the Japanese Navy awarded the company an exclusive contract for freight, passenger, and mail service between both the Empire and the interisland routes. When the lucrative shipping contract between the Empire and the islands drew the attention of larger, more influential shipping companies, the South Seas Trading Company was forced to relinquish the route to the largest steamship lines in the Empire, Nippon Yusen Kaisha (The Japanese Mail Steamship Company or NYK);

it did manage to retain the inter island shipping contract with the Japanese Navy. The NYK initially chose vessels for the South Seas circuit from ships it could spare from the more lucrative routes in the Orient including the 1912 built 4,000-ton class passenger-cargo ships Yamashiro Maru, Yokohama Maru, Yawata Maru, and the Shizuoka Maru. Two main routes were established: the western route from Kobe by way of Yokosuka, Saipan,Yap, Palau, Davao, and Manado to British North Borneo; and the eastern route from Kobe by way of Yokohama, Saipan, Truk, Ponape, and Kusaie to Jaluit Atoll in the Marshall Islands. In the early 1920s, the NYK vessels would typically ply these routes every six weeks carrying passengers along with cargoes of sundries, building materials, foodstuffs, machinery, and coal. With the upswing in commerce and industry and a dramatic increase in immigration to the South Seas in 1925, service was increased in the two routes to once every three weeks. New sailing routes were added at that time: an east-west route from Kobe to Jaluit via Palau, Woleai, Truk, Ponape, and Kusaie; and a route from Kobe to the Marianas (Rota) via Saipan and Tinian. New 4,500-ton class passenger-cargo ships were built to serve the now important South Seas service including the Palau and Saipan Marus. The luxurious amenities offered aboard these vessels brought about the beginning of Japanese tourism to the islands. The South Seas Trading Company, under NYK contract, increased the number of routes commensurately to six between the main South Seas ports and the outlying islands of the Mandates. These lines were extended further to include the British Gilberts and Rabaul. Rapid development of long-range aircraft by the Japanese aviation industry in the 1930s led to the beginning of commercial air routes to the Mandates. With little flat land available in the islands for airfields and sheltered bodies of water accessible near most population centers for landing areas, the flying boat became the plane of choice for commercial aviation in the Mandates. Pioneer commercial flights were begun in 1935 by Great Japan Airways (Dai Nippon Koku) using Kawanishi 97-type flying-boats (later to be known to the Allies of World War II as the Mavis-author) leased from the Japanese Navy. Initial regular commercial flights to Palau and eastward via Yap, Truk, and Ponape to Jaluit were begun in 1940 and regular service in 1941. With only limited passenger seating (the Kawanishi 97-type flying boat held only 18 passengers-author), these flights would not contribute vastly to the immigration and tourism to the South Seas Islands. Transportation in this manner was limited to affluent travelers and government/navy officials. The establishment of these routes was important in the development and strategic use of the flying boats and would provide valuable experience leading to the widespread war time network of seaplane bases throughout the islands. The commercial service would terminate within months following the outbreak of war in the Pacific.

Exert from Dan Baileys book WWII Wrecks of Truk Lagoon

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