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A Short History

In 1900 a huge deposit of high grade phosphate was discovered on Nauru. A London Company began extracting this phosphate in a small way supplying it to Australia and New Zealand, countries who were badly in need of quality fertiliser.

Following World War I, the Governments of the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand unitedly bought out the interests of the London Company, and by the Nauru Agreement of 2nd July 1919, arranged for the industry to be carried out by a commission consisting of a member appointed by each of the three countries. The new control thus set up, and known as The British Phosphate Commissioners, was to carry on the operations on strictly business lines, but acting as agents for the three governments.


Open cut mine at Nauru


      Loading phosphate at Nauru


   Staff accommodation

The people of Nauru were fortunately able to carry on their traditional life without undue imposition by the British Phosphate Commissioners (B.P.C.). This was because the phosphate was located in central knob of the island which was surrounded along the coastline by flat fertile plain where the people lived. These plains were covered with thick growth of coconut which were too dense from the correct plantational point of view but ideal from the local's point of view. Here and there was a clump of pandanus palm with their strange aerial roots and used fruit.

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Nestled among these picturesque surroundings were the simple huts and homes of the native people who always seemed to be in harmony with their environment.

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Often could be seen a wide spreading framework of native wood, forming a perch for the Nauruans' numerous tame man-of-war hawks (frigate birds).

Along the coastline, occasional picturesque pinnacle of coral limestone can be seen while in the background is a more or less broken line of rugged limestone cliffs.

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Further around the coast is the picturesque Catholic Mission and the large church built to suit the climate. A mile or so further on there is a bronze inscription setting out that it marked the landing place of the first Protestant native missionary, a Gilbert Islander from Tarawa by the name of Tabuia. He came in the American Mission vessel Morning Star and did great work among the local people.

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When World War 2 broke out in September 1939, the British Phosphate Commissioners were mining and shipping phosphate at the rate of 1.25 million tons per annum. As was inevitable, serious difficulties were soon experienced. Tragic events occurred in quick succession and Nauru, as well as Ocean Island (Banaba), were subsequently occupied by the Japanese for over three years.

During December at Nauru, the weather often comes up very bad with strong westerly gales and drenching rains being experienced. There is low visibility with rough seas and heavy surf which brings the shipping operation to a complete standstill. The vessels being loaded have to leave their moorings at the loading berths and keep under way in the vicinity of the island until finer conditions set in.

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Wartime map of Nauru

Early in December, 1940, four vessels were drifting off Nauru under these circumstances, and a fifth was en route to the island being four days away. It was then that a German raider, pretending to be Japanese, struck. On December 6th, the Commissioner's steamer Triona then a short distance north of the Solomon Islands was shelled, and afterwards sunk by a time bomb. The following evening the chartered Norwegian ship Vinni was similarly attacked and sunk. Early on the morning of the 8th December, the Commissioners' motor ship Triadic was shelled near Nauru, set on fire and abandoned. The chartered steamer Komata was next attacked and was sunk after suffering severe casualties. The next day, the Commission's motor shop Triaster was shelled and sunk.

The Captains, officers, crew and passengers from the vessel had been taken aboard the raider and the supply ship under prisoner-of-war conditions, the large number causing very crowded and distressing circumstances, particularly for the children and the women.

The three vessels comprising the raider squadron then sailed north to a Japanese base in the Marshall Islands, where fuel oil and stores were taken on board. They then returned to the vicinity of Nauru but bad weather still continued and it was impossible to effect the landing.

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Burning tanks of fuel oil

On the 27th December, the Japanese opened fire on the phosphate loading equipment as well as the large storage tanks of fuel oil which was set ablaze. The day after Pearl Harbour, Japanese bombers were over both Nauru and Ocean Island with devastating results. It was generally understood that when Japan came into the war that the position at Nauru and Ocean Island would be hopeless. The Australian garrison at Nauru consisted of only a few men and they were without adequate equipment.

The wives and families of the Commission's staff had been sent to Australia before this stage of the War, and the number of Chinese at both islands had been reduced to the minimum necessary to carry on the operations. It then became apparent that practically all the European community including the meagre garrison at Nauru must be evacuated. This was foreseen at being very difficult as Japanese planes and warships had become increasingly numerous in the Central Pacific and great difficulty and danger in arranging and evacuation expedition must be experienced. An elaborate plan was prepared which involved a scheme of plant demolition prior to the evacuation.

The plan was that a secret and well hidden rendezvous in the New Hebrides (Vanuatu) should be established, and the commission's large motor ship, Trienza with adequate supplies of oil fuel, provisions and water should proceed forthwith, joining up at a specified date with a very fast French light cruiser Le Triomphant which by good fortune happened to be in Australian waters at that time. The plan was put into effect without the loss of a single life and the evacuation of Nauru was accomplished. 

Following the evacuation of Nauru on the 23rd February 1942, only a few months elapsed before the Japanese occupied the island and little is known about what transpired on the island at that time. However it is understood that on August 23rd 1942, nine Japanese planes raided the island, and the same night two of their cruisers bombarded the place damaging the administration settlement. No resistant could be offered and the next day the island surrendered to the Japanese. On the 26th August, 1942, three Japanese cruisers arrived and a landing force after hoisting the navy ensign, established their Headquarters in the Commission's office building. Two day later, 208 of their marine corps arrived with this force being increased in early October by more 300 more marines.

It was evident that the Japanese intended to exploit the phosphate deposits. They commenced working on the deposits employing some of the Chinese coolies for that purpose and later on a number of Gilbertese (I-Kiribati) native people. They were however subjected to bombing by the Americans and there were disagreements among the Japanese as to how to proceed and it was doubtful that a single ton of phosphate had ever been shipped.

Within a fortnight of their occupation, the Japanese gave evidence of their cruel terrorism tactics. Two Chinese coolies were put to death by beheading for wandering around the settlement at night. A little later, a Gilbertese native shared the same fate that the nature of his offence was not known.

Towards the close of 1942, the Japanese had commenced making a landing ground for their planes; and they had brought in 700 labourers to do the manual work. Early the following year, a similar number joined them, while 275 Nauruans were pressed into service. Sadly, thousands of coconut trees were cut down which must have been a devastating experience for the Nauruans who had to take part in this destruction. By the end of January 1943, the airstrip was far enough advanced for enemy planes to make use of the ground, and their bombers and fighters began to come in.

The Americans responded with their planes coming over in ever increasing numbers despite the anti-aircraft batteries installed by the Japanese. On November 20, 1943, it is said that over 50 American planes raided the island making four flights. The heavy bombing continued during the following year, and August 1944 was said to be the worst month since the war broke out with August 28th being the only day when no American planes were seen. All Japanese planes were destroyed and the airfield put out of action before the end of 1943, though a year later, they resumed repair work expecting the arrival of more planes.

Not only were the Japanese badly beaten in the air, but their losses at sea off the island were considerable. In September, 1943, a 1,000 vessel running between Nauru and Ocean Island were sunk by bombers and in the same month a 6,000 ton cargo vessel carrying large supplies of petrol and provisions were torpedoed by an American submarine about two miles off shore, and sank with heavy losses of life.

Despite all these setbacks, the Japanese maintained a strong force on Nauru, further reinforcements totalling 2,500 of marines arrived in three consecutive shipments in 1943. Evidently by the last of these vessels, six hundred Nauruan natives accompanied by Fathers Kayser and Clivaz were deported to Truk (Chuuk) in the Caroline Group. Earlier in 1943, a similar number of Nauruans were sent there, while about 800 Ocean Islanders had been brought to Nauru. The reason for deporting the natives was not quite clear. Probably it was owing to the food position which had become serious, mainly through a severe drought having set in early in 1943, and apparently continuing through 1944.

Cruelty and terrorism on the part of the Japanese continued throughout their occupation. Several more Chinese were put to death for trivial offences; one of them for stealing pumpkin. On such occasions, the whole community was compelled to attend and witness the execution. A Gilbert Islander employed at collecting toddy for the Japanese was severely beaten and tied up for three days before being put to death, merely for supplying them with toddy mixed with water. The record of the Japanese at Nauru was a shocking one. The cruel marines left memories that will never be effaced.

Japanese forces surrender

Apparently no Japanese planes or vessels arrived at the island during 1945 and on August 20th, an announcement was made public that there was peace between America and Japan. The following day, it was said that a letter had been dropped from an American plane addressed to "The Imperial Japanese Commander," after which the white flag was hoisted. It was a case of trying to "save face" right up to the end.

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Formal signing of the surrender documents

On the 1st day of October, 1945, the Union Jack was again hoisted over Nauru. The occasion was very colourful and impressive and an Australian forces guard of honour paraded. At right angle to the section was a naval guard from H.M.S. Diamantina and opposite them was a small contingent of Gilbert and Ellice Islands (Kiribati and Tuvalu) native constabulary, a particularly well set up and well drilled force. The officers and troops of the garrison were grouped nearby. At the appointed time Brigadier Stevenson and Lieutenant Commander Rose with their staff arrived on the scene. The Brigadier and the officers came to the salute, the guard of honour presented arms and all stood to attention as the flag was slowly hoisted.

Among the European presence were Colonel V. Fox-Strangways, Major Wakefield, the four members of the Commission Survey Party and three members of the New Zealand Party. The Brigadier and Commander then inspected the Guard of Honour, including the native constabulary. Several of the natives were presented to the Brigadier, and he was much impressed by one of the Gilbertese, Nabetari by name, who escaped from the Japanese on Ocean Island the previous year, and made a record ocean voyage in his little fishing canoe.

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Nauruan spectators at the raising of the Union Jack

The Japanese had treated the natives very badly but had given the Chinese a much worse time, and the three years of oppression had been a dreadful experience; the starvation, the incessant toil from daylight to dark, the repeated raiding of their quarters when the enemy looted anything that took their fancy; and then the sights of several of their numbers being executed in a brutal manner for trivial offences. The daily bombing attacks also must have been a dreadful experience. Throughout it all the morale of both the Chinese and the local people was still unshaken and on Nauru they all came up smiling in the end.


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Jane Resture
(E-mail: -- Rev. 29th July 2004)