Essays on the Marshallese Past

The women of Majuro, from Laura to Zelda

There is many an apocryphal tale or urban myth floating around in this world. Everybody who tells this tale asserts that it happened to a friend of a friend of his/her, often believing this assertion, and thereby perpetuating the myth.

Modern folklore in the Marshall Islands has it that the islands of Laura and Rita on Majuro Atoll have been named by the U.S. soldiers stationed here in honour of the film stars Lauren Bacall and Rita Hayworth. This myth is perpetuated throughout the country, and almost every guide book tells the story, every new-coming visitor is told the story sooner or later. It seems very surprising that no one ever seems to question, why on earth Laura is called Laura and not Lauren as it should be if the island had been named after Ms. Bacall.

Debunking modern myths makes one feel like a spoil-sport, some misogynist who is not prepared to let people have their fun. But the moment the myth becomes ingrained in the belief of a population, the moment it becomes "fact" and school children are taught the myth instead of the historic reality, it is time to take issue and to set the historic record straight.

The saga of the naming of the islands on Majuro is much more prosaic. We all know about Rita and Laura, but almost no one here knows about Salome, Magde, Teresa or Zelda.

When Operation Flintlock, the taking of Kwajalein, was planned by the U.S. forces, Majuro Atoll also had to be taken as it was to serve as a major base for the U.S. Fleet. As it was practice at the time, the U.S. Navy assigned code names to every little island on these atolls. For Kwajalein Atolls the U.S. chose boy's names from A to K. The name of Carlos is sometimes still heard. The girls names from A to K were used for the Enewetak Operation a few weeks later. In order to avoid any change of confusion, the code names chosen for Majuro Atoll were girlØs names, starting with the letter L. The largest island, with the greatest population was taken as the beginning and named Laura. And then the islands were labelled going clockwise around the atoll: Leona, Lena, Lilian, Linda until they got to the stretch of land between the airport and Ajeltake, the island of LājemwØ, which was code-named Zelda.

A complete list of these code names is presented as a table below. This table shows the common western spelling of the name, as it found on most maps, the new Kajin Majāl spelling as proposed by the Marshallese Language Commission led by Alfred Capelle, and the U.S.Navy Code name. The Germans, as well as the Japanese had other names and a plethora of diverging spellings for the Marshallese names islands. For those interested: the Historic Preservation Office holds a list of those other names.

For people who are good at names it may become obvious that some names rather common in the 1930s have been omitted from that list, although they fall between L and Z. The reason for this omission was that these code-names were already in use to identify Japanese aircraft common in the Central Pacific Theatre of War, and the use of these codes for islands on Majuro could have led to confusion. Names such as Mavis (the Kawanishi H6K Flying Boat) or Sally (the Mitsubishi Ki-21 Heavy Bomber) come to mind.

It needs also to be remembered that the codename Laura applied to the entire single uninterrupted landmass, that is from Ajeltake to the tip of Laura, including the stretches of land known as Arrak and Woja. It interesting to see that modern usage once more uses Ajeltake, Woja and Arrak, but keeps Laura for the large part of the island.

But what about the original name for Rita and Laura? Many people, including expatriates, know that Rita is in fact Djarrit or Jarāj Island. Djarrit is occasionally heard being used by some expatriates in favour of Rita. But Laura? Very few, even of the Marshallese I asked, knew that the island was called Majuro.

This aspect needs some more elaboration. If one has a look at the map of the atolls of the Marshall Islands one will notice that both the northern, as well as the southern atolls have one large-sized island, a few medium sized ones, and a great deal of tiny ones. The atolls in the middle, such as Ailinglaplap or Maloelap deviate from this by having several large islands. There where the atoll is dominated by a single large island, the atoll name and the name of the largest island are the same: Mile, Mile; Arno, Arno; Wotje, Wotje immediately come to mind.

Common Name Kajin MajālName U.S. Navy Name
Ajeltake Ajeltake -
Woja Wāja ->Laura
Arrak Arrak -
Majuro MØjro ū
Ajokowola AjolØ Leona
Bwokwalijimwa BokwwØ-Lijmwa Lena
llene Ileel-en -
Jeloklap žnen-rilik ->Lillian
Jelte žne-kallep ū
Anejabwaru žne-debokut Linda
Enerebakut žne-jabaru Lois
Rongron žnen-reaar Loraine
Aneju žne-ju Loretta
Bwokwtoona Bokwa-tuon-al Lottie
Boken Bok-en Lowena
Irooj Irooj Lucille
Calalin Kālal-en -_Luella
Allokan Ellākan ū
Anemakj žne-makij Mabel
? åaanke Madeline
Anekotkot žne-kātkāt Mae
Bokaitoktok Bok-aitoktok Madge
Lobikaere Lo-pikaere Maggie
Eninurij žneen-wådej Marjorie
Kolok Kilāk Marbella
Kideren Kiden-en Margaret
Bwokwalokaajlo BokwØ-ākāmlā Marie
Enigu žne-ko Marilyn
Bikendik Pikān-dik Martha
Bikenlibw Pikān-lip Martena
Bwuron Båruān Mary
Bakajij Pik-ajaj Maureen
Leblon āplon Mayme
Bokallab Bok-āllap Midge
Leblan Lijebāro Minne
Enebararo Pikden Mitzi
Bikirin Bok Molly
Enumanet žne-manāt Myrna
Enekelamur žne-kolamur Nancy
Denmeo DØnemeo Nellie
Bokeril BokwØ-del -_Nina
Bokenmak Bokwan-mak ū
Bokiur Bok-iur Norma
Bokmej Bok-meej Olive
Bokonboten Bokwan-bātin Pamela
Bokelijekia BokwØlikiar Patsy
Kemman Keemman Poppy
Bokelatule BokwØ-atulik Paula
Rierej Didej -_Peggy
Common Name Kajin MajālName U.S. Navy Name
Anil Anel ū
Garra KārØ Phyllis
Ejit žjej Priscilla
Anearmej žne-armej Pryde
Pegerian Pikeel-ea~ Rhoda
Djarrit Jarāj Rita
Uliga Wålka Rosalie
Enilegere žne-likāre Ruby
Biggariat Pikādat Ruth
Delap Telap Salome
Utwe Utwe Sheila
Robotin obotin -_ Sherry
Enirak žnedik ū
Bikielobo Båkielābo Simone
? MØjpin Sylvia
? Eoonmaaj Tess
Rairok Rairāk Theresa
ditto. ditto. Tootsie
ditto. ditto. Victoria
Anenlibw žnen-elip Vina
? ? Virginia
? ? Vivian
Lokojbar Lā-kājbar Zazu
Lejemwa ājemwØ Zelda

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Bibliographic citation for this document

Spennemann, Dirk H.R. (1998). Essays on the Marshallese Past Second edition. Albury:

Dirk H.R. Spennemann, Institute of Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, P.O.Box 789, Albury NSW 2640, Australia.

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