Strolling across idyllic, powder-soft beaches, with names like Champagne and Golden Beach, it is hard to imagine the islands of Vanuatu were once home to the largest US military base outside mainland USA and Hawaii. In a matter of months, one of those islands, Espiritu Santo, went from unspoilt island paradise to the centre of the US war effort in the Pacific region.
Luganville, the main town on Espiritu Santo, certainly has an incredibly diverse and fascinating history. From coffee and cocoa production by British and French colonialists, to copra export and more recently beef and livestock farming. But it was the events of 1942, that threw Espiritu Santo and the smaller island of Efate into the Pacific War spotlight.
By early 1942, the Japanese had reached the Solomon Islands and New Guinea, prior to an intended push on Australia. Given the strategic importance of what was then known as the New Hebrides, the population of Vanuatu feared that it would only be a matter of time before the Japanese invaded their homeland as well. The Americans saw the strategic importance of Vanuatu and in a surprise move sailed into Second Channel to the south of Espiritu Santo throughout April and May of that year.
More than just establishing minimal defences throughout the islands, the Americans literally took over and built massive infrastructure on the two main islands – Espiritu Santo and Efate – to support the war effort and turn Vanuatu into a massive offensive staging area from which to wage war against the Japanese forces.
Tens of thousands of tons of machinery and supplies arrived to enable the construction of wharves and jetties, ammunition dumps, fuel farms, gigantic mess halls, cinemas and all the vital infrastructure such as roads, power and water to support the troops. Three major bomber bases, a seaplane base and a fighter base were constructed, along with three hospitals, containing over 4000 beds. There was even a gigantic floating dry dock, shipped out from the US in pieces and reassembled on site, that could repair and refit any ship in the US fleet, including battleships and aircraft carriers.
Incredibly, the Americans constructed around 118 acres or 5 million square feet of undercover storage space to support the navy, air force and marine personnel that were stationed there. And support they needed. Very soon, over 100,000 troops arrived from the US, which peaked at around 400,000 at the height of the military build-up in Vanuatu.
Thankfully the Japanese never made it to Vanuatu, although there are some stories of Japanese tanks being found in the jungle on one of the northern islands. And rumor has it that a Japanese aircraft made only one attack on Vanuatu, causing the only single loss of life on the islands – Bessie the cow.
With its incredible history in supporting the Allied war effort throughout the latter stages of World War II, it probably does not come as a surprise to learn that Luganville, the main town on Santo, has been chosen as the site for the new South Pacific World War II Museum. And yet, it is amazing to think that a museum had not been considered prior to fairly recently. It wasn’t until two seemingly unrelated events took place that the seeds were sown for something quite spectacular.
Some years ago Bradley Wood, a long-time resident of Espiritu Santo, was lucky enough to be offered an extensive collection of World War II memorabilia by an American living on the island of Aore, who was moving back home to the United States to live. Bradley, an avid collector of historical artifacts and a passionate advocate of Vanuatu tourism, saw an opportunity to do something with the collection, but at this early stage was unsure as to just what that would be.
Not long after acquiring the war relics, Bradley met with the then Lord Mayor of Luganville, Mr. Trevor Moliva. At that meeting Mr. Moliva asked Bradley whether he had any ideas that would inspire and enrich the town of Luganville. And that’s when Bradley had an eureka moment.
Getting together with a number of like-minded and similarly passionate locals living on Santo who shared a love of the history of the island, they decided to see what they could brainstorm. It soon became apparent that whatever they decided upon, it should benefit the people of Santo and indeed Vanuatu as a whole, but just as importantly preserve and take pride in the rich WWII heritage that is such an important part of Vanuatu’s past.
Over the course of several months, Bradley along with Dave Cross, Bill Widup, Jim Bennie and Mayumi Green met with Mr Peter Sakita, of the Luganville council and floated a number of ideas past him. And it was from this series of meetings that the idea for a museum was born.
To oversee the fundraising, building and operation of the museum, the Elwood J Euart Association was formed in 2012. The association was named in memory of Espiritu Santo war hero Captain Elwood J Euart. Upon entering Espiritu Santo harbour in October 1942, the troop ship SS President Coolidge, a former luxury liner, hit allied mines and began sinking. Over 5000 troops made it ashore, but realising soldiers were still below decks in the infirmary, Captain Euart re-entered the ship with nothing but a rope to rescue them. Unfortunately, having become so weak himself getting the men to safety, as the ship rolled Captain Euart was unable to pull himself out and went down with the Coolidge. It seems a fitting tribute to have Captain Euart as the namesake for the organisation behind the museum – and what a museum it will be!
The South Pacific World War II Museum is intended to be more than just somewhere tourists can go to look at remnants and souvenirs from the war in the Pacific. When constructed, it will be a truly world class museum and educational complex, designed to inform, exhibit, preserve and educate through an incredibly unique and diverse range of museum services. It will function as a nonprofit institution dedicated to preserving the memory of the servicemen and women who served in the Allied forces during World War II. And just as importantly, it will become the focus of an entire community, providing an invigorating focus to the national tourism industry of Vanuatu.
Upon completion, the South Pacific World War II Museum will become the hub for discovering all there is to know about the World War II history of Espiritu Santo and indeed the wider Pacific region. From short walks looking at local base infrastructure, to drives to see where the old bomber bases were, dives on wrecks, crashed aircraft in the mountains, bike tours, jungle walks, whatever your interest, the Museum will be your first port of call to find it.
If finding lost aircraft is what interests you, the Museum will point you in the right direction. Like to trek to see where a bomber went down? The Museum will be able to arrange that too. And that is what will make the South Pacific World War II Museum so unique.
Design of the museum is well underway by award winning Queensland architect John Pearce from Arkitektika. It will be based around an oversized World War II quonset hut – something of a known identity in and around Santo. With the museum drawing upon the unique design characteristics of such a recognizable building type, it will emphasize that identity and preserve it for future generations.
On May 24 2016, history was made with the signing of a lease by the government of Vanuatu and the Elwood J Euart Association granting the museum almost a hectare of land on which the South Pacific World War II Museum will be constructed. The museum will occupy a stretch of land near the mouth of the Sarakata River at the western end of the Luganville township –the site of a former US Navy base. This location will conveniently locate the museum in the middle of where so much activity took place during World War II, thereby surrounding it with history in every direction.
As Bradley Wood says, “You could effectively say we will have the biggest museum in the world, because it covers all of the south corner of Santo. If you want to take it further then you can go out, see it, feel it, and get that warm fuzzy feeling of being where it all actually took place.”
The South Pacific World War II Museum will be unlike any museum in the world today. Not only will it be a fully immersive, interactive experience about the Pacific Theatre during World War II, it will take adventure tourism into a whole new world. More importantly, it will serve as a reminder of those who made the ultimate sacrifice and bring into focus the legacy they left behind.
Story by Jimmy Carter. Photography courtesy of the South Pacific WWII Museum.To find out more about the South Pacific World War II Museum, visit southpacificwwiimuseum.com