"Mr Santos was injured and made his way back to Tonga from Egypt before the war ended. His wife Uini Santos, 13 children and three adopted children migrated to New Zealand in 1958. John Santos, son of Manoel and Uini Santos, said his father was a man of few words, but was hardworking at the same time," according to Radio NZ. Photo: Joseph Vailima, Manoel Santos, Aleki Leger Photo: Supplied / John Santos (RNZ)

As Anzac Day is commemorated on Saturday, Kaniva News looks back at the American invasion of Tonga

The Japanese invasion of the Pacific never reached Tonga, but the kingdom had to cope with another invasion.

In May 1942, after three years of war,  7800 soldiers and 862 sailors, sailed into Nuku’alofa harbour.

Before the Americans arrived, Queen Salote had wholeheartedly supported Britain’s stand against Nazi Germany, despite her opposition to what she perceived as British interference in her kingdom’s affairs.

As Kaniva News reported earlier this year,  Tonga raised enough money to buy three Spitifres for the RAF.

Queen Salote provided land for an airfield and established the Tongan Defence Force, whose soldiers eventually fought the Japanese in the Solomon Islands campaign.

The Americans decided to set up a base in Tonga as part of a defensive chain across the Pacific to keep supply routes open to Australia and New Zealand.

According to American historian Charles Weeks who taught at the ‘Atenisi Institute as a Peace Corps volunteer, the US military planned to establish an Army and Navy force that would be strong enough to repel a Japanese invasion of Tonga.

But as Weeks pointed out, neither the Americans, the British nor New Zealand had bothered to consult with Her Majesty about the plan.

The American commander, General Lockwood, was sensitive, at least in the initial stages, to local sensitivities. Soldiers and sailors were warned:

—Buy fruit only through the government market.

—Do not pick growing fruit or vegetables. It is all private property.

—Do not disturb or injure the flying foxes [bats]. They are harmless and are reverenced by the native Tongans.

—Be courteous to the native Tongans. Treat grave yards with respect. Sunday recreation will be conducted away from the churches. Tongans will not be invited to play on Sunday. The golf course is not open on Sunday.

—Walk and drive on the left of the road.

While Queen Salote was friendly with the Americans and made sure fresh flowers were placed on the graves of U.S. servicemen killed in the Battle of the Coral Sea, she kept her distance from the occupying forces and dealt largely through Lockwood and the British Consul.

She ordered her subjects, especially young women, to move inland or to the outer islands, away from American influence.

Official American reports described her as a “magnificent woman  [who] has given Tonga an administration which almost everyone admits has been wise and productive.”

American naval officers were required by their superiors to wear dress uniforms at official functions. This contrasted sharply with the behaviour of some New Zealand troops who refused to salute Tongan officers.

The Americans spent prodigiously. Using Tongan labour New Zealand had completed 80 percent of Fua’amotu airport for a cost of about US$56,000. When the Americans arrived they spent US$498,000 to complete the remaining 20 percent.

American spending disturbed the Tongan economy. The Americans paid such high prices for coconuts and bananas that Tonga had none left for export. At the same time American servicemen threw money around so freely that soon consumer goods began to disappear from the shops.

The price of souvenirs, including woven mats and skirts, sold at 400 percent above normal prices. So much money could be made from the Americans that some Tongans stopped working their land to make tourist trinkets.

By the end of 1942, US forces had landed in what was then the British Solomon Islands Protectorate and Australian forces had inflicted the first land defeats on Japanese forces in Papua New Guinea on the Kokoda Track and at Milne Bay.

The value of the American base in Tonga diminished and troops were sent to other parts of the Pacific. What had once been seen as a strategic base became an isolated backwater where those troops left behind began to suffer from what the US  military referred to as “bush fever.”

In January 1943 two Tongan men were murdered, apparently because of their involvement in the “bootlegging and procuring” business of soldiers of the 77th Coast Artillery

Vast numbers of the American troops were illiterate and black troops were segregated. As morale collapsed problems arose, with prostitution, venereal disease, sexual assault and theft.

US troop set up home with Tongan girls,  something that horrified the girls’ families and was regarded as bringing shame to their villages. Others gave away  goods from the military depot and generally sowed confusion in the conservative society.

The American presence in Tonga introduced the isolated kingdom to many new ideas and practices, many of which contrasted wildly with island traditions.

While Tonga was doubtless happy not have been invaded by the Japanese, they may also have breathed a deep sigh of relief when  the last American troops left.

Anzac Day commemorations

Anzac Day commemorations in Nuku’alofa will be restrained this year.

Because of the state of emergency there will be no public celebrations.

Instead, the New Zealand High Commission has invited people to observe a minute’s silence while standing in their homes, driveways, gardens or workplace at 7am on Saturday  morning.

Pasifika Television in Tonga and Radio New Zealand on the internet will be providing coverage of Anzac Day in New Zealand. With the end of daylight saving, New Zealand is now one hour behind Tonga.

The main points

  • The Japanese invasion of the Pacific never reached Tonga, but the kingdom had to cope with another invasion.
  • In May 1942, after three years of war, 7800 soldiers and 862 sailors, sailed into Nuku’alofa harbour.

For more information

The United States Occupation of Tonga, 1942-1945

New Zealand High Commission, Nuku’alofa, Tonga

Queen Salote, Prince Tungi Tonga II and Tupou I: The story of Tonga’s Spitfires


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