- Historic Sites
The Bonins—isles Of Contention
Americans settled early on the tiny, strategic Pacific islands, and dominate them again today. But the Japanese want them back
Februrary 1968 | Volume 19, Issue 2
As well as picking up supplies and letting off steam at Futami-Ko, the Americans recruited seal hunters, finding the best of these among the descendants of the old settlers living around Nathaniel Savory’s land at the village of Okumura, or Yankeetown, as its residents persisted in calling it. In the veins of the Savorys, Webbs, Gilleys, Washingtons, Robinsons, and Gonzaleses flowed the mingled blood of Americans, Englishmen, Germans, West Indian Negroes, Hawaiians, Guamanians, and other Pacific islanders. They all shared a taste for the sea. They could handle small craft expertly, and in time they developed modified outrigger canoes and whaleboats that amazed the Japanese with their speed and seaworthiness. Most men of Yankeetown could not see the point of grubbing around in the earth for food when there were fish to be caught and seals to be shot.
Surrounded by farmers from Japan, the seagoing descendants of the old settlers cultivated their sense of separateness. A good many of them became members of an Anglican missionary church where English was spoken, and were married there to mates chosen from within their own group. Some of the younger generation, however, married Japanese, and by the igao’s the Yankeetown people were less than a hundred in a population of several thousand. But nothing could persuade them to surrender their identity. They looked different, they thought differently, they were different, no matter what their citizenship papers said.
By the 1920’s the Pacific, that “immense ocean” of which Commodore Perry spoke, had become crowded. Japan’s successes on the Asian continent and in the islands during World War I led her to think in terms of an Asian Monroe Doctrine. After the war a conference was held at Washington to encourage interested parties to reconcile their oceanic ambitions. One of the main issues dividing the United States and Japan was the question of naval bases in the Pacific islands. The Japanese delegates made a strong bid to have the Bonins recognized as an integral part of Japan, because this would allow them to fortify the harbor at Futami-Ko without restriction. Anticipating heavy opposition, the Japanese armed forces had done considerable work in the Bonins before the conference opened. After some hard bargaining, Japan lost the decision: Article XIX of the Five Power Treaty stipulated that the military status quo should be preserved in several groups of islands, including the Bonins. Japan chose not to obey the prohibition. Only a few years later the emperor visited Chichi Jima to watch his Navy carry out war games there, and by that time the Bonins were under martial law. Foreigners found it more and more difficult to gain access to the islands, and at last, in 1935, even the Anglican missionary bishop whose flock included the tiny congregation at Yankeetown was barred.
When war came in 1941, Chichi Jima was one of a string of island fortresses stretching south from the Izus through the Bonins to the Volcanoes (where Iwo Jima was the strategic center) and on to Saipan and Tinian in the Japanese-mandated Marianas. At Futami-Ko the anchorage had been dredged to accommodate everything from seaplanes and submarines to battleships, and the hills behind the harbor had been blasted and drilled to make air-conditioned, copper-lined, bomb-proof caves for storing ammunition.
In the first years of the war, Chichi Jima’s role was simply to supply Japan’s forward bases to the south. Not until the tide turned in favor of the Allies in the Pacific did the island come under attack by bombers on their way to and from the Japanese home islands. Late in 1943 the strategic thinking of the Allies became organized around the idea of a Pacific triangle, with Tokyo at the apex. As the leapfrogging island war went on, the sides of the triangle were shortened, and advanced bomber bases were planned—Okinawa in the west, and the most suitable island along “the ladder of the Bonins” in the east. But Iwo Jima in the Volcanoes was chosen over Chichi Jima, first because its terrain was less rugged and bomber airstrips could be built there more easily, and second because intelligence reports showed that the fortress of Chichi Jima would be even more difficult to take than Iwo Jima.
Once American planes were able to use the airstrips on Iwo Jima, Chichi Jima, only a hundred and fifty miles to the north, was bombed every day for weeks. All civilians had been evacuated in the summer of 1944, including the people of Yankeetown, who were assigned Japanese names and sent to Tokyo and Yokohama. The garrison at Futami-Ko spent most of its time in the caves behind the harbor. There were no Japanese war heroes in the Bonins. During the last months of the war the Allies bypassed Chichi Jima, and in September, 1945, Lieutenant General Yosio Tachibana surrendered to Commodore John H. Magruder, Jr., aboard the destroyer Dunlap off Futami-Ko.