Essays on the Marshallese Past
Historical Sites on Taroa Island, Maloelap Atoll
Taroa (population ~130) is the second largest island on Maloelap Atoll, some 35 flight minutes north of Majuro. It is the administrative center of Maloelap Atoll. The island (area 160 hectares) measures about 1.48km in width (NW-SE) and 1.68km in length (NE-SW). South of Taroa is a small island, Eoon-epje, now connected by a causeway.
We do not know when the first people came to settle on Maloelap Atoll, but a date around 500 B.C. can safely be assumed. At the time of contact with Europeans Taroa was inhabited. Chamisso (1816) describes the island as not well populated compared to other islands in the atoll. Purchasing the Marshall Islands from Spain in 1885, the Germans developed Jaluit as a central place. On Maloelap only a trading station was established; the first Christian Church came in 1896. The local affairs were left with the traditional leaders. At the beginning of WW I in 1914 Japan took over the Marshalls.
Between the wars. After the capitulation of the German Empire in 1918, the newly formed League of Nations gave all former German possessions north of the Equator to the Japanese Empire for administration. The Japanese established a centralised district administration in Jaluit. The internal affairs of Maloelap Atoll were left to be handled by a local atoll headman set up by the Japanese.
The Taroa airbase. In the late 1930s Japan began to develop a military infrastructure and fortifications in its Marshall Islands possessions ˆcontrary to the Covenant of the League of Nations.
Map of the Japanese installations on Taroa.
during World War II. In order to create a suitable defense system at its perimeter, the Japanese navy decided to develop some of the atolls of the Marshall Islands into bases for seaplane, naval surface units submarines, and, with the advent of long-range land-based bombers, as airfields. Taroa was to become a major airbase. The development of Taroa base began in December 1939, when a battalion of Japanese prisoners was drafted for the construction of the airfield.
Administrative centre: 1¡Runway; 2¡small boat ramp; 3¡main wharf; 4¡concrete-covered fuel tanks; 5¡small pillbox; 6¡command bldg.; 7¡water tanks; 8¡"German"-style pillbox; 9&10¡airraid shelters; 11¡air operations bldg.; 12¡hangars; 13¡service apron; 14¡main power station; 15¡aircraft revetments with remains of Japanese zeroes.
The Japanese constructed an airfield with two runways (4800' + 4100'), two hangars and a service apron. At the beginning of the US bombing a third runway had been begun. By end of 1943 there was a total of 380 buildings on Taroa (with ‡= 490,000 square feet floor space), 80 of which had a floor space greater than 50 feet square. It had several power stations, a command centre, an air operations centre, fuel farms (35,000 gals.), a pier for larger ships, several ammunition bunkers, a large barracks area, and an extensive workshop area. The garrison had an extensive road network serviced by over 70 vehicles.
There were two radar sets (range 50 miles) on island, giving the air wing some 10 minutes warning. During the war two squadrons of planes were stationed here many of which were destroyed on the ground. A large number of plane wrecks, mainly Zero-fighters (Mitsubishi A6M) and Betty-bombers (Mitsubishi G3M) are scattered about on the island.
The perimeter of the island, especially the ocean side, bristled with guns, which were a mixture of British and Japanese manufacture: 8 6 and 2 12cm coastal defense guns, 4 6 howitzers, 5 127mm dual purpose guns, 69 anti-aircraft guns and a number of small guns.
Between Feb. 1942 and Aug. 1945, US aircraft dropped 3543t of bombs and US ships shot 453t of shells onto Taroa. While the first attacks were carrier-based and irregular, daily attacks were started after Majuro and Kwajalein had fallen to the U.S. At the same time, all supply lines to Taroa were cut off, and the Japanese garrison was left to starve. Of the originally 3097 strong Japanese garrison (1772 Navy, 368 Army, 957 civilians) only 1041 (34%) survived. Several Marshallese were also killed. The survivor rate for Taroa is the worst of all bases in the Marshalls. Death occurred from air raids, diseases, accidents, and suicides, but mainly from starvation.
Remains of a Japanese Barracks Building on Taroa, seen from the air.
Tours and sights
The Taroa of today is the result of dramatic alterations caused by people: the natural primary forest of the island had been cleared by the first Marshallese settlers and replaced by breadfruit trees and taro pits to provide food. During German and Japanese times most breadfruit trees were replaced by coconut palms to produce copra. The final transformation came with the base development, when all trees in the centre were felled to allow for runways, roads, barracks etc.
Today these areas are largely overgrown with scrub and low but very dense bush. To some extent this impedes a visitor's progress and it can be tiring for children.
Tour 1: Administrative centre. On leaving the runway for the village you will notice a concrete gutter system which lines all run- and taxiways. It was the main rainwater catchment. To the left are several destroyed zeroes placed in their earthen revetments. Down the track you will pass the air operations center to your right and then will reach the village with the UNDP hut in the centre. Straight ahead you will see a heavy pillbox and the main pier. Turning right at the UNDP hut there are three large water tanks and the command and radio building which is worth investigating. On the island side of this building you will see concrete foundations and the twisted pile of metal girders which once made up the hangars. Proceeding north you will pass large concrete-covered fuel tanks and will reach the tip, where a coastal gun stands in the water - evidence of coastal erosion on Taroa. If you proceed to the south from the UNDP hut, you will get to the main generator building. The cooling water tanks are to the south, while the large fuel tanks, sheltered in their own concrete building, are in the back. The two large generators produced 250kW each. Past two large iron air fuel tanks you will get to the beach, which following to the right will lead you to the pier and back to the UNDP hut.
Tour 2: Southern Taroa & Eoon-epje. Going south from the UNDP hut you pass the main generator station, an area of workshops (note the abundance of pipes etc.), a scatter of bomb carts and vehicles. You will reach the southern generator station and further south the end of Taroa. Eoon-epje I. was connected with Taroa by the Japanese by means of a 700 feet long and 20 feet wide causeway, across which ran a narrow-gauge railroad track ending at a terminal point in the water south of the island (still visible as a lone pillar). In the middle of Eoon-epje is a large bomb crater from an exploded ammunition dump and a concrete block which has been called the beheading place. Oral traditions have it that this was the location where the Japanese executed U.S. and Marshallese prisoners. If you return along the ocean shore you will see a large reef area, which once had been part of the island.
Tour 3: Barracks & eastern shore. Across the runway you will get to the barracks area. Here are a number of personnel bunkers, concrete foundations of barracks, a laundry, an officer's mess and the like. When you get to the shore, you may turn left or right, and after some walk you will encounter coastal gun positions, just lurking out from the shrubs.
Other. During landing or take-off - depending on the wind direction - the plane will take you over the wreck of Toreshima Maru, the last supply vessel to reach Taroa. Surprised by U.S. aircraft in December 1943 it was sunk in relatively shallow water. It can be reached by swimming and is a dive spot.
The Japanese built pier at the lagoon-side of Taroa, seen from the air
Bibliographic citation for this document
Spennemann, Dirk H.R. (1998). Essays on the Marshallese Past Second edition.
Dirk H.R. Spennemann,
Institute of Land, Water and Society,
Charles Sturt University, P.O.Box 789,
Albury NSW 2640, Australia.