Just after dawn on 1 November 1943 twelve transports carrying over 14,000 American marines steamed north-west towards Empress Augusta Bay on the west coast of Bougainville. Those looking towards the land saw the curve of the beach and the jungle rising ridge to mountain all the way to smoking Mount Bagana. It was, their official historian wrote, ‘wilder and more majestic scenery’ than they had encountered anywhere else in the South Pacific. Just before the transports halted and the marines transferred to landing craft, one of the captains asked his navigating officer for the ship’s position. The navigator replied, ‘About three miles inland, sir!’.
The officer had read his charts correctly, but those charts placed the Capes marking the limits of Empress Augusta Bay, Capes Torokina and Mutupina, about eight or nine miles south-west of their actual location. The best charts then available were still the result of imperfect work done by the Germans when Britain and Germany were defining their island empires. Fortunately, aerial and submarine reconnaissance had warned that the coast was not where the older maps said it was. A map prepared by the Allied Geographic Section just before the landing has the disarming note that the south-west coast was ‘approximate and is reported to lie to the eastward’. Over a year later, on 21 November 1944, the Allied Geographic Section stated in its special report that the best maps then available were from the Australian Army’s 1:250,000 series, but that they were ‘Inaccurate as regards villages and tracks in the SE sector. Positions of villages in the interior are only approximate’ and there was ‘scanty marking of hill features’.
In 1940 Rabaul was still the dominant town in Australian New Guinea, but the delays and disputes about the shifting centre of administration, the growth of the Morobe goldfields, the depressed price of copra, and the pioneering patrols through the highlands were shifting attention west to Lae and beyond. Bougainville was being left on the edge of Australian consciousness, and the fact that the best of their maps did not show exactly where the land ended and the sea began, or the location of inland villages, was indicative of Australia’s marginal interest in the island.
Seventy kilometres north-east of Buka, six islands rise within the reef that circles a lagoon. On 24 August 1767 Philip Carteret of the Swallow was the first European to report the existence of the islands, and that night he had his first sight of another ‘large, flat, green island’, part of a second group that he called the Sir Charles Hardy Islands. The first group of atolls became known as the Carteret Islands, and the Sir Charles Hardy were often called the Green Islands, with Nissan the main island in the group. But as is often the case in the Pacific, several names continued to be used. The Carterets were also called the Tulun Islands, for tulun is the name for horizon in the language of the Hanahan people of eastern Buka, and it was the Hanahan who colonised the islands on their horizon. The Carterets have also been called the Nine Islands, but as they have been reduced by earthquake and erosion to six, this name has lost favour. At some time the name Green Islands was applied not to Nissan but to the Carterets. In 1907 Richard Parkinson said it was the Carterets that ‘we designate today as “Green Islands”’. The people of the Carterets when they spoke to foreigners therefore began to say that they were from ‘Green Island’, but they pronounced it ‘Kilinailau’. Soon foreigners had accepted ‘Kilinailau’ as the local name, and so Kilinailau Island began to appear on their maps. In their first Annual Report on their newly acquired Mandated Territory the Australians used Nissan and Kilinailau to identify the atolls north and north-east of Buka, and they remained the dominant but not the only names. By 1940 within the Kieta District the Nissan Islands were said to have a population of 178 people and the Kilinailau Islands 446. But when the Americans and New Zealanders landed on Nissan in February 1944, they often used the old name for the group, the Green Islands.
While Nissan or the Green Islands were occupied by the Japanese, the scene of a brief battle, recaptured by the Allies and developed as an air base, the Carterets or Kilinailau were almost by-passed by the war. There were no Europeans to leave, and no Japanese troops landed. An aeroplane came over and dropped two bombs, killing one man and injuring another, but that was all the violence of war that came to Kilinailau. So eleven people of Kilinailau set off in a canoe to ask their kin in Buka what was going on. At Malasang village on south-east Buka the Japanese demanded to know who they were and what they were doing. They replied that they were from ‘Kilinailau’, for they were talking to foreigners, and there was not much point in explaining that they were from tulun, the horizon. But while Europeans saw no connection between ‘Kilinailau’ and ‘Green Island’, of course the Japanese, with their indifference to ‘r’ and ‘l’, did. They immediately thought the people were from the Green Islands, and these were now occupied by the Allies. Hard pressed, cut off from Japan and aware that the local people were turning against them, the Japanese decided that the innocent people from the atolls on the horizon were spies. They took them to Sohano and beheaded ten of them.
In a world war the people of the Carterets had suffered in one random, gratuitous bombing raid, and also in a case of mistaken identity that had its origins in Europeans’ uncertain navigation, uncertain hearing, confusing and numerous names on maps, and Japanese pronunciation. None of this was within the knowledge, control or influence of the people of the Carterets. Much of what happened to other Melanesians in the war was equally inexplicable, but within what they knew about the material and the spiritual world they had to try and give it meaning.