World War II

During World War II, the Marshall Islands served as the eastern defensive perimeter for the Japanese military forces in the Central Pacific. After taking control of the Marshalls from Germany in 1914, the Japanese steadily increased their military presence here and beginning in the late 1930s with the anticipation of war, they began to heavily fortify the atolls of Kwajalein, Wotje, Maloelap, Jaluit and later Mili and Enewetak. These heavy fortifications were intended to help launch air attacks on certain targets (such as Hawaii, Wake Island, Kiribati and Johnston Atoll) and to serve as defense posts for Japan's more westerly strongholds.
The first attack on Japanese forces in the Marshalls by the U.S. occurred in the early morning hours of February 1, 1942. The ensuing three years of fighting would prove to be some of the bloodiest in the whole of the Pacific. When the smoke cleared, what remained was an extravagant collection of war wrecks and relics unrivaled elsewhere in the Pacific.
The list below is an approximate inventory of intact land-based relics in the Marshall Islands. These include air raid shelters, barracks, hospitals, storage tanks, power plants, tanks, trucks, trains, towers, anti-aircraft guns, coastal defense guns, multi-purpose guns, pillboxes, walls, trenches, air control centers, various bombers and fighters, runways, hangars and much more.

Atoll Land Relics

Maloelap 215
Jaluit 104
Wotje 229
Mili 167
History of the Marshall Islands
Following is a brief synopsis of the history of the Marshall Islands from the time of "first contact" with Spanish sailors in the 16th century up to the declaration of the Marshalls as an independent Republic in 1986, present day status.
The Spanish were the first Europeans to sail into and explore the Pacific (with Magellan landing on Guam in 1521), and at least seven Spanish ships sailed through the Marshalls during the 16th century. The first atolls in the Marshalls to have been visited by these early explorers were, in chronological order: Enewetak, Bikini, Wotje, Kwajalein, Ujelang, Lib, and Mejit. The Spanish visits were brief; only minimal trade and exchange took place. After these initial visits, the Marshalls were not to be visited again until the late 1700's.
The British - Foreign visits resumed in 1788 when two British captains, John Marshall and Thomas Gilbert sailed into the islands aboard the ships Scarborough and Charlotte (as you will note, these two captains took the opportunity to name the two neighboring island groups after themselves!). Together, Marshall and Gilbert traded with the islanders and mapped the atolls of Arno, Majuro, Aur, Maloelap, Wotje, Erikub, and Ailuk. Other British ships followed Marshall and Gilbert; in 1797 the Brittania visited Namu; in 1803 the Rolla visited Ailinlaplap; and in 1809 the Elizabeth visited Jaluit.
The Russians - In 1816, Captain Otto von Kotzebue visited the Marshalls aboard the Rurik(Kotzebue was actually a German Estonian sailing for the Russian Czar). During his stay in the Marshalls, Kotzebue conducted the first ever ethnographic observation and documentation of the islands, visiting Wotje, Maloelap, and Aur.  Also aboard the Rurik were the artist Ludwig Choris and the naturalist Adelbert von Chammisso, who produced detailed hydrographical, botanical and ethnological reports (Choris’ detailed lithographs of traditional Marshallese life are available for view at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu).
Mutineers and Missionaries - The next documented visit to the Marshalls was by an American ship, the Globe, aboard which a great mutiny occurred in 1828. Two survivors of the mutiny lived on Mili Atoll that year and were later rescued by the U.S. Navy.


American missionaries were the next to arrive on the scene, sailing in from Honolulu and landing on Ebon Atoll in 1857. By the end of that century, the American missionaries (from the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions - or ABCFDM) had established churches on almost every inhabited atoll.

The Germans - With an established trading base in Samoa, German traders began moving north in the 1850s and in 1859, Adolph Capelle arrived on Ebon Atoll to set up a trading post. Capelle, who was originally from Hanover, was joined by Portuguese Jose deBrum and together they built the first permanent trading post in the Marshall Islands. The Marshalls were eventually declared a German protectorate in 1885 with headquarters on Jaluit Atoll.
The Japanese - In 1914, after 29 years of German protectorate status, World War I broke out. Japan took over military possession from Germany in October of that year and began establishing its own commercial ventures, with bases on Jaluit and Majuro. In 1922, Japan was formally awarded the Marshalls as a Class "C" mandate by the League of Nations. But in 1933, Japan withdrew from the League of Nations and, in anticipation of World War II, it began militarily fortifying the atolls of Kwajalein, Wotje, Maloelap, Jaluit, and later Mili and Enewetak.
The Americans - After heavy fighting in the Marshalls (as well as other parts of the Pacific) the islands were taken over the the U.S. The Navy immediately governed the Marshalls and in 1947 the islands were given to the U.S. as a UN Strategic Trust. In 1951, the Department of the Interior took over the administration.


Meanwhile, from 1946 to 1954, the U.S. conducted 67 nuclear tests in, above, and around Bikini and Enewetak ATolls (the reconciliation of which remains an important issue between the Marshalls and the U.S. today.)


In the late 1970s, while still under UN Trust status with the U.S., a growing desire for independence led the Marshalls to embark on an endeavor towards self-determination. This was eventually accomplished in 1986 when the country was transformed into a self-governing democracy in free association with the U.S.: the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

Underwater photos courtesy of Dave Fortin, Kwajalein
Geological History

The Marshall Islands first emerged 70 million years ago when volcanic cores erupted at presently extinct hotspots south of the equator. Around 40 million years ago, while the Pacific plate continued to move in a northwesterly direction, the volcanoes began to subside. The islands were initially high, volcanic islands, but over the course of the ensuing 40 million years, they slowly sank back into the ocean from which they came, propelled by their own weight. Microscopic organisms called polyps, which thrive in warm waters with high salinity, salvaged the remaining rim of what was once a volcano to the extent that, with botanical seeds transported by birds and ocean currents, 3,000 years ago small islets had taken form on the reefs, capable of sustaining life. These islets formed circular rings encircling sheltered lagoons, namely our beautiful atolls we today can share with visitors.

Spanish Ships sailing into the Marshall Islands during the 16th century:
Santa Victoria 1526
Florida 1529
Santiago 1543
San Pedro 1565
San Jeronomo 1566
Los Reyos 1568
Todos Santos  

A printed copy of the history synopsis is available in PDF format.

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Marshall Islands Visitors Authority
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