Essays on the Marshallese Past

Historical Sites on Mili Is., Mili Atoll

Mili (population ~850) is the largest island and administrative center of Mili Atoll, some 20 flight minutes south of Majuro. The island measures about 1500m in width (SW-NE) and is 2100m long (N-S). To the southeast is a small island, Bogukarikku, now connected by a causeway.


We do not know when the first people can to settle on Mili Atoll, but a date around the middle of the first millenium B.C. can safely be assumed. At the time of contact with Europeans Mile was inhabited by over 500 people. Mile as the southernmost atoll of the (eastern) Ralik Chain of Atolls saw frequent contact with people from Kiribati (former Gilbert Islands) to the south, and today a number of people of Gilbertese extraction live on Mile Atoll.

Mile first attained European fame during the beginning of the 19th century, when the mutineers of the whaleship Globe landed on Mile. In the event, the whale ship was retaken by part of the crew and sailed away, stranding the mutineers and some other crew on the atoll. Following self-destruction and attacks by the Mile people all but two Americans were killed. For over 18 months these two lived as slaves on separate parts of the atoll.

The famous blackbirder and confidence trickster Bully Hayes owned Tokowa Is. on Mile during the late 19th century and used it as a base for his Pacific-wide operations.

Left: Map of the Japanese Installation on Mile Island.

The strong point: a northern 127mm dual purpose gun position. 1¡Western 127mm dual purpose gun; 2¡Empty 127mm gun emplacement; 3¡Eastern 127mm dual purpose gun with gun director;4¡Western 100cm searchlight; 5¡Power station; 6¡Command bunker.

Purchasing the Marshalls from Spain in 1885, the Germans developed Jaluit as a central place. On Mile only a trading station was established; local affairs were left with the traditional leaders; by 1870 came the first Christian Church; At the beginning of WW I in 1914 Japan took over the Marshall Islands.

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 for administration to the Japanese Empire. They established a centralised district administration in Jaluit, with the internal affairs of Mile left to be handled by a local atoll authorities. There is an unsubstantiated notion that aviator Amelia Earhart who disappeared on a trans-Pacific flight in 1937, crashed in Mile Lagoon.

The Mile airbase. In the late 1930s Japan began to fortify its Marshallese possessions contrary to the Convenant of the League of Nations. These fortifications were centered on Kwajalein, Maloelap and Wotje. Any development of Mile Atoll, however, was not part in the grand strategic scheme.

Mili 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 seaplanes, for naval surface units submarines, and, with the advent of long-range land-based bombers, as airfields. Mili was only to become a small lookout, radio direction finding and weather station. After the begin of the war and the Japanese occupation of Kiribati, however, the strategic concepts changed. The development of Mili air base began in in autumn 1942 when the Korean and Marshallese labour force building the seaplane base on Majuro was transferred.

However, as the base was begun very late in the war, when Japanese resources were being stretched and when Japanese shipping was under attack by U.S. submarines, the base development is characterised by a relative absence of large concrete structures, such as command buildings, power stations or bunkers. In a very short time, between late 1942 and late 1943, the Japanese had constructed an airfield with three runways (4750', 4550' + 4400'), two hangars and a service apron. By end of 1943 there were also several hundred buildings, mainly of wooden construction, a wooden pier and several repair shops.

There was one radar set (range 50 miles) on island, giving the air wing some 10 minutes warning. During the war two squadrons of planes were temporarily 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 3 14cm coastal defense guns, 4 127mm dual purpose guns, 2 10cm mortars, 35 heavy and over 70 light anti-aircraft guns as well as an assortment of small guns.

Between mid-1943 and Aug. 1945, the US aircraft dropped 3350t bombs and US ships shot 450t shells onto Taroa. While the first attacks were carried-based and irregular, daily attacks were started after Majuro and Kwajalein had fallen to the US. At the same time, all supply lines to Mili were cut off, and the Japanese garrison was left to starve. Of the originally 5100 strong Japanese garrison (2600 Navy, 2500 Army,) only 2500 (50%) survived. Casualties occurred from air raids, diseases, accidents, and suicides, but mainly from starvation.

Tours and Sights

Mile Island, as you see it today, is the result of three dramatic alterations caused by people: the natural primary forest of the island had been cleared by the first Marshallese settlers and replaced, where possible, by breadfruit trees and taro pits to provide food. During the German times the breadfruit trees were largely replaced by coconut to produce copra. The final transformation came in preparation for the base development, when all trees in the center were cut down to allow for runways, taxiways, roads, barracks areas and the like. Today these areas are largely overgrown with scrub and low but very dense bush.

Mile allows the visitor to see a complete defensive strong point with all its components well exposed. This is well worth visiting. To this end it is suggested that visitors follow the lagoonal track towards the northern tip of the island. The walk (~20min) will lead past several concrete watertanks and some concrete foundations for the main barracks area, past several bombcraters around the former main power station with its large 6-cylinder engines (which is well worth a short detour) and an assortment of small concrete sniper posts.

North of the power station was the antenna field of the Mile radio station. Trained eyes may observe some of the metal spirals which once held the guy wires to the ground.

Coming to the northern tip we come to the 127mm gun battery (1-3, left figure), which is a standard feature on all Japanese defense systems throughout the Pacific. The Mile example is a textbook case, straight from the Japanese artillery manual. One can easily recognise the twin-barrelled 127 dual purpose (anti-aircraft and coastal defense) guns; there are three gun emplacements, two with guns in place (1,3), and one, spare one set out as a triangle (2). You will see several recesses in the walls of the emplacement, which were used to store ammunition to have the gun ready for firing at various angles.

Do not walk around inside the two emplacements which have the guns or step up to the guns as there is some unexploded ammunition in the emplacements which is very dangerous.

On the slight rise in the center of the triangleˆs base stood the gun director as well as the only radar set of the island. South of the the rise is the underground command bunker as well as an underground ammunition depot.

One can also see a network of personnel ditches around the strong point. What has gone by now are dozens of heavy and light machine gun nests which would have defended the strong point against attacks from the ground.

The guns were flanked by two powerful searchlights with 100cm mirrors; the metal bases (truncate pyramids) are easily recognisable. These guns, which were electrically driven, as well as the powerful search lights, had to be supplied by electricity, which was generated by a power station to the southwest of the gun battery. The large 6 cylinder engine, as well as cooling tanks and fuel farm are still visible.

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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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