UOG professor leads efforts to document little-known wartime past of Chuuk Lagoon

UOG professor leads efforts to document little-known wartime past of Chuuk Lagoon

UOG professor leads efforts to document little-known wartime past of Chuuk Lagoon

Entrance to Chuuk Hospital built in 1928 for Chuukese community
The entrance to the Chuuk Hospital on Tonoas island, in Chuuk, built by the Japanese in 1928. During World War II, the Imperial Japanese Army used it as a hospital for their personnel. Photo courtesy of Greg Adams.
Team members who surveyed wartime relics stand at WWII bunker entrance
Team members who surveyed wartime relics on Tonoas island, formerly called Natsushima during Japanese times. From left, Maria Kottermair, Geographic Information Systems Specialist; Greg Adams, photographer; and Dr. David Atienza, UOG Professor of Anthropology. They are seen at the entrance to the 120-meter-long bunker that Japanese communications operations during World War II. Photo courtesy of Hiroshi Ishii
Chuuk Chiefs
A visit to traditional Indigenous sites on Tonoas island in Chuuk on July 4, 2023, is joined by traditional chiefs of Tonoas; Mayor Gradvin Aisek, right of center, wearing a hat; and some of the Chuuk Lagoon Battlefield Project survey team members from the University of Guam. They are seen in front of the Tonoas Municipal Office, formerly a school built for Chuukese students before World War II. Photo courtesy of Stanson Stanley.
Chuuk Historic Preservation Officer and Technical Assistant observe anti-aircraft gun
This is one of two anti-aircraft guns placed in eastern Tonoas island. Inspecting the gun is Ranger Walter, Chuuk Historic Preservation Officer, and Technical Assistant Stanson Stanley. Photo courtesy of Greg Adams
Aerial view of island of Etten
A view of Etten island, called Takeshima during Japanese times, from a drone. Much of the island is reclaimed land, built and used as an airstrip during World War II. The long straight coastline is a wall built up with basalt rocks. Coconut trees were planted after the war, as part of developing a copra industry. Photo courtesy of Greg Adams
Underwater photo of Kalle Applegate-Palmer and Chioshy Topias surveying shipwreck in scuba gear
Kalle Applegate-Palmer, in pink fins, and Chioshy Topias survey the Heian Maru shipwreck in July 2023. Palmer is a marine ecologist and Topias is with the Chuuk Historic Preservation Office. Photo courtesy of Hiroshi Ishii


Dr. William Jeffery, Associate Professor
Dr. William Jeffery, Associate Professor at the University of Guam, is leading a research project to shed light on underrepresented World War II stories and sites at the Chuuk Lagoon. Photo courtesy of University of Guam.

The remnants of World War II echo deep throughout the Pacific, and that's no truer than in Chuuk Lagoon, where dozens of Japanese military ships have met their watery graves. Nearly 7,000 tons of ammunition were dropped onto Chuuk over 18 months, during U.S. bombings that began in February 1944. At least 50 to 60 major ships were sunk in the lagoon, and more than 5,000 Japanese and 1,000 Chuukese died.

Today, shipwrecks are a major attraction for Chuuk, drawing in tourists and researchers alike. But having been a significant military base for Japanese forces in the Pacific, there is more to the story of World War II in Chuuk than what can be found underwater. 

A team led by Dr. William Jeffery, Associate Professor of Archaeology and Micronesian Studies at the University of Guam, is hoping to shed light on underrepresented stories and sites at Chuuk Lagoon and develop a more comprehensive view of the war in this area. Tonoas, an island in the lagoon, served as the wartime headquarters of the Japanese in Chuuk. This is where Dr. Jeffery has been concentrating his focus.  

"The war remains are not just shipwrecks. There are all these other sites on Tonoas. It was heavily bombed. It had a submarine base. It had a seaplane base," Dr. Jeffery said. The island had a small town of about 800 people, he added. 

Several outcomes are planned for the project, including tourism aspects, such as developing signs for certain sites, informative content for online, and a brochure. See below to see a video of the project.


"The other thing we're doing on Tonoas, which is very significant, is that the war and the bombings bombed traditional Indigenous sites on Chuuk and had a big impact on traditional cultural heritage. So, we want to bring that out," Jeffery said. 

Further project outcomes include developing training programs for Tonoas residents employed as tour guides and for prospective employment in historical site preservation and diving. 

Dr. Jeffery also wants to connect with students from Chuuk, including those attending the UOG, as part of raising awareness about relics that serve as reminders about how the locals were affected during the war. 

The project includes efforts to survey three new shipwrecks, and to document marine biology at these sites and other shipwrecks. 

The project is funded through a grant from the American Battlefield Protection Program. UOG obtained the grant in 2021, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed work on the project. A three-week survey was conducted in July 2023. 

"The University of Guam is committed to advancing research that delivers public value,” said Dr. Anita Borja Enriquez, UOG President. "Dr. Jeffery's research illuminates some of the untold stories of our region's history and fosters a deeper understanding of the Pacific's wartime past and its lasting impact on Micronesia." 

Also supporting the project from UOG are Dr. David Atienza, Professor of Anthropology, and Dr. Peter Houk, Professor at the Marine Lab who is advising on marine biology. Participating from outside the university are Maria Kottermair, a geographic information systems specialist; Kalle Applegate-Palmer, a marine biologist; photographer Greg Adams; and Hiroshi Ishii, a Japanese maritime archeologist. 

Other partners include the Tonoas mayor's office, members of that community in Chuuk, and staff from the Chuuk Historic Preservation Office.