by Jack McKillop
Physical Description & History
The Ellice Islands are an island group consisting of nine low lying and narrow coral atolls in the South Pacific located about 670-miles (1,078-kilometers) south-southeast of Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands and about 730-miles (1,175-kilometers) north of Fiji. The atolls, which extend about 300-miles (483-kilometers) from northwest to southeast, are located from 5°39'S to 10°45'S and 176°04'E to 179°20'S. The total land area is 9 square-miles (23 square-kilometers) and the highest point is 16-feet (5-meters).
The Gilbert and Ellice Islands were a British protectorate from 1892 and colony from 1916 until 1 January 1976 when the islands were divided into two different colonies which became independent nations shortly after. The Gilbert Islands have been the major part of the nation of Kiribati since 1979, and the Ellice Islands became Tuvalu in 1978.
The first European explorer to make contact with the Ellice Islands was a Spanish explorer in 1568. The atolls were ignored until 1781 when a Spanish trader was forced well south of the Equator by unfavorable winds on a routine journey from Manila to Mexico but did not land. The islands were “rediscovered” in 1819 by an American in command of a British brigantine who in May 1819 discovered a group of fourteen islets which appeared to be inhabited. In the next decade more traders and whalers briefly visited the islands, especially after the discovery of the Central Pacific whaling grounds in 1818.
The waters around the islands were frequented by American whalers in the 1800s but during the 1860s slave traders, or "blackbirders," carried off about 400 islanders, mainly from Funafuti and Nukulaelae, to work in Peru.
Formerly named the Ellice Islands, they came under British jurisdiction in 1877. In 1892 the British Government, realizing that the failure to declare a Protectorate would probably lead to acquisition by Germany, despite an 1886 agreement with that country, or by the U.S. which was not a party to the agreement. The British government ordered the Royal Navy to send a warship to the Gilberts to declare a Protectorate. The ship’s captain had been ordered to visit the Ellice Islands but not to declare a Protectorate there. The captain reported that the Ellice Island “Kings” of each island had asked for a Protectorate to be declared and a ship was ordered back to the Ellice Islands in 1892, and on each island the captain declared a Protectorate between 9 and 16 October. On 10 November 1915, the group became the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony.
During World War II, after the Japanese occupied Tarawa in the Gilbert Islands, they intended on pushing further south into the Ellice islands, but heavy losses in the Battle of Midway slowed them down. This allowed the Americans to arrive first, landing in Funafuti Atoll in October 1942. Secrecy was so well maintained that the Japanese did not learn of the occupation of Funafuti until March 1943 when they flew over the island. The Ellice Islands provided important advance posts that allowed the Americans to push north, which eventually led to the invasion of Tarawa Atoll, in November 1943.
The United Kingdom prepared the colony for independence by granting self-government in 1974. Ethnic differences within the British colony of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands caused the Polynesians of the Ellice Islands to vote for separation from the Micronesians of the Gilbert Islands. On 1 October 1975, the Ellice Islands became the separate British colony of Tuvalu and independence was granted on 1 October 1978. On 5 September 2000, Tuvalu became the 189th member of the United Nations.
Funafuti, Naval Advance Base
Funafuti Atoll (8°31'S, 179°07'E) is a narrow sweep of land encircling a large lagoon 11-miles (18-kilometers) long and 8.7-miles (14-kilometers) wide, with a surface area of 106 square-miles (275 square-kilometers), by far the largest lagoon in Tuvalu. The land area of the 33 atoll islets is 0.9 square-miles (2.4 square-kilometers), less than one percent of the total area of the atoll. The largest island is Fongafale. This island is a long snake-like sliver of land, 7.4-miles (12-kilometers) long and between 33- and 1,312-feet (10- and 400-meters) wide, with the South Pacific Ocean on the east and the protected lagoon on the west. The southern end of the island forms an elbow about 700-yards (640-meters) wide. The entire island is not large enough to support extensive facilities however, ships with draft up to 20-feet (6.1-meters) can enter the lagoon, which is commodious and provides good anchorage.
Funafuti was developed initially in the fall of 1942 in great secrecy to provide an air base and scouting and ferry point for planes en route to the South Pacific area. However, its facilities came into their most important use later in connection with the thrust northwestwards into the Gilbert and Marshall islands.
On 2 October 1942, the U.S. Marine Corps’ 5th Defense Battalion and elements of a Navy Seabee battalion occupied Funafuti Atoll. The Seabees immediately began the construction on a fairly level site of an airstrip, 5,000-feet (1,524-meters) long and 250-feet (76-meters) wide. Within 30 days, the field was in use by Navy planes. By early spring, a crushed-coral, all-weather runway, 6,000-feet (1,829-meters) long and 600-feet (183-meters) wide, was completed, together with parking and shop facilities. This airfield was located at 8°31' 30S, 179°11' 46E. A seaplane ramp was also built by the Seabees on the lagoon side of the island for seaplane operations by both short and long range seaplanes. This was abandoned after the war.
The Seabees also constructed 50 prefabricated frame buildings for housing, four Marine warehouses, a seaplane ramp 30-feet (9.1-meters) wide, a 76-bed hospital, a floating drydock for motor torpedo (PT) boat repairs, and a road system. In April 1943, they began construction of an aviation/gasoline tank farm, the project comprising ten 1,000-barrel storage tanks, together with connecting piping, a sea line, and moorings. They also constructed 43 plane revetments, of steel mat and coral fill, and erected a radio repair shop, an airfield operations building, an aerological building, and ten frame buildings for base personnel housing.
The first aircraft assigned to Funafuti were four Navy scouting squadron OS2U Kingfishers used for inshore patrols; they arrived in late December. There were no combat aircraft assigned until nine F4F Wildcats and six SBD Dauntlesses arrived on 31 January 1943 but they all returned to Samoa after three weeks. On 22 March 1943, six F4Fs were rushed to the island just in time. The Japanese had discovered the base and sent four bombers to attack the airstrip on 27 March. One of the attacking aircraft were shot down by an F4F pilot but the other three dropped their bombs. Although killing one local man and a dozen Americans they did little damage. This was the first of nine air raids between 27 March and 17 November. During the night of 21/22 April, Funafuti was bombed twice; two B-24s were destroyed and five others damaged.
U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) Seventh Air Force B-24 Liberators began flying reconnaissance missions to the Gilbert Islands on 26 January 1943. Many of these missions were by aircraft based further east and using Funafuti as a staging base. In April 1943, 24 B-24s based in Hawaii operated from Funafuti in raids against Nauru Island in the central Pacific and Tarawa Atoll. The airpower buildup began in the summer when Marine fighting squadrons and Navy patrol squadrons arrived. In November, two B-24 squadrons arrived and began attacking targets in the Gilbert and Marshall Islands. Once the Gilbert Islands were occupied, the USAAF bombers moved north.
The Naval Advance Base and Naval Auxiliary Air Facility Funafuti were commissioned on 15 November 1943. During various points in the war, there were varying numbers of ships at anchor. In October 1943 43 ships entered the harbor, and at its height, 174 in January 1944. The island was also a support base for the landings in the Marshall Islands in January 1944. Funafuti’s usefulness was over after the fleet anchorage at Majuro (q.v.) in the Marshall Islands was taken. The major operations switched to supporting flights by the USAAF Air Transport Command and the Naval Air Transport Service for aircraft flying to and from the South Pacific. The Navy disestablished their base on 12 June 1946.
In 2011, the capital of Tuvalu is located on Funafuti and the airfield is now Funafuti International Airport. The seaplane ramp was abandoned after the war.
Nanomea, Naval Advance Base
Nanomea (now Nanumea) Atoll (5°40'S, 176°7' E) is located at the extreme northwest end of the Ellice Islands group. The atoll is 460-miles (740-kilometers) southeast of Tarawa Atoll, Gilbert Islands and 295-miles (475-kilometers) northwest of Funafuti. This 7-mile (11-kilometer) long atoll has a small, reef-enclosed lagoon which provides no anchorage for large ships, though U.S. engineers dredged a shallow channel for boats later in the war. Total land area is 1.5 square-miles (3.9 square-kilometers). A total of five islets make up the atoll; the largest, with 90 percent of the land area, are Lolua and Lakena.
On 18 August 1943, an advance party of U.S. Army Air Forces (USAAF) aviation engineers and U.S. Navy Seabees landed on Lolua Island (5°40' 59"S, 176°07' 38"E) in the southern part of the lagoon to reconnoiter and choose an airfield site. This airfield was temporary, intended to allow aircraft to attack the Gilbert and Marshall Islands. Ten days later the forward echelon of the 7th Marine Defense Battalion and additional Seabees landed and began work on an airfield. The plan was to build two runways, one for fighters and one for heavy bombers on southeastern Lolua Island. The bomber runway, which was 6,000-feet (1,829-meters), ran up the east side of the island while the 3,000-foot (914-meter) fighter runway crossed the bomber runway in an “X” configuration. The fighter runway was completed by 7 September and the bomber strip by 11 September. The Japanese had discovered the new airfield and ten Betty bombers (Mitsubishi G4M, Navy Type 1 Attack Bombers) from Tarawa bombed it from 3,000- to 5,000-feet (914- to 1,524-meters) on 7 September; only little material damage was done but five men were killed and seven wounded. By 28 September, Marine Fighting Squadron 441 (VMF-441) with F4F Wildcats was aboard to provide air defense. The Seabees built the necessary camp and operation facilities for the airfield, including an 8,000 barrel tank farm for aviation gasoline.
Two USAAF B-24 Liberator squadrons arrived in early November to begin the aerial bombardment of the Gilbert Islands. On 10 November, three Japanese bombers attacked the airfield destroying one B-24 and killing one U.S. serviceman. A USAAF fighter squadron with P-40Ns arrived on 28 November relieving the Marine fighting squadron.
By May 1944, the Seabees began salvaging structures and the tank farm and the base was dissolved in December 1944. The airfield was abandoned and it remains that way in 2011.
Nukufetau, Naval Advance Base
Nukufetau Atoll (7°59'S, 178°22' E) is located about 61-miles (98-kilometers) northwest of Funafuti and 223-miles (359-kilometers) southeast of Nanomea. The rectangular-shaped island is a true coral atoll, consisting of 22 islands and islets around a lagoon that is about 9.25- by 5.5-miles (15- by 8.9-kilometers) wide with deep-water passages on the northwest side. The circumference of the atoll is 24-miles (39-kilometers) and the total land area is about 1.2 square-miles (3 square-kilometers). The largest islet is Motolalo at the southern tip of the atoll (8°04' 04"S, 178°22' 35"E).
The 2d Marine Airdrome Battalion occupied Motolalo Island on 27 August 1943; a Seabee unit arrived three days later. This airfield was primarily an air operations base, designed to support strikes against Japanese installations in the Gilbert and Marshalls Islands. The airfield was“X” shaped with a 3,500- by 200-foot (1,067- by 61-meter) east-west runway for fighters and a north-south runway that was 6,100- by 220-feet (1,859- by 67-meters) for bombers. The fighter strip was operational on 9 October and the bomber strip was completed by the end of October. Hardstands, revetments and parking areas were provided for 45 fighters and 34 bombers. A control tower, radio station and weather station were also built but no lighting was provided for night flying.
A Marine fighting squadron landed on 20 October with F4F and FM Wildcats. This was followed by a Navy bombing squadron with PB4Y-1 Liberators on 7 November, two USAAF B-24 Liberator bomber squadrons on 11 November and a Marine scout-bombing squadron with SBD Dauntlesses on 15 November.
A complete aviation/gasoline tank farm, consisting of eleven 1,000-barrel tanks, a filling station, pumps, and off-shore lines for receiving gasoline from tankers, was constructed. Other necessary facilities, such as hangars and hardstands, were provided at the fields. To link together sections of the atoll, the Seabees built a 1,000-foot (305-meter) causeway, using coconut logs for the foundations.
By early 1944, the U.S. aircraft had moved north to the Gilbert Islands. Roll-up activities began in May 1944. The naval advance base was retained for emergency use until it was disestablished in December 1944. The airfield is no longer in use.