Americans in Atafu
During World War II
As World War II waged in Europe from 1939, Atafu was a peaceful haven that had little to do with the hostilities abroad.
The closest the war got to Atafu was when the Japanese bombed Funafuti in April 1943 (in what is now Tuvalu), about 1000 kilometres away, according to historian and writer Michael Field.
Atafu was mostly left alone. Allied flying boats did, however, routinely touch down on Atafu’s vast and safe lagoon, says Field.
But Atafu’s involvement changed when the US Coast Guard arrived in May 1944 to set up a Loran (Long Range Navigation) radio navigation station on the atoll. The Americans officially joined the war effort in December 1941, after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour in Hawai’i.
One of the founding fathers of the Atafu Tokelau Community Group, Niu Sila Mataio Taupe QSM, remembers fondly the time the Americans were in Atafu, when he was interviewed by Pasefika Proud in 2017 (video below). “During the second world war, the Americans chose to come to Tokelau and stay there for six years, that was another happy time for me,” Niu Sila recalls in the video. He says that as a young man he would follow the palagis as they came and went. Niu Sila would have been in his mid-teens at the time. He passed away in 2021 at the age of 90.
Building of the Loran station in Atafu began in May 1944 but the station was officially operational from 15 November 1944 to 15 May 1946. World War II ended on 2 September 1945.
On this page are photos taken by American Roger Kehm while he was stationed in Atafu during World War II and an excerpt from an interview - he remembers the people of Atafu very warmly and made "true friends".
Rosa Toloa, whose family researched this period of Atafu history, says Atafu was selected as part of a system of surveillance, air and sea, underwater (submarine). The Americans drew a line from the north to the center and landed on Atafu, after Phoenix Island around the Kiribati region. The plan was to surveil and radio to a ring of radio stations any sightings of the Japanese, Germans or their allies. Rosa says about 12 acres (approximately 5 hectares) of leased land was bulldozed and cleared to build the facility.
Thank you to Bill Dietz and the Loran-History.info website for allowing us to republish this material. All the photos and materials remain their property under their copyright. For more information visit https://www.loran-history.info/Atafu/atafu.htm
Photo: Pictued above is the original US Coast Guard crew of Unit 93 stationed in Atafu during World War II.
Loran Station in Atafu
Happy Time for Niu Sila
One of the founding fathers of the Atafu Tokelau Community Group, Niu Sila Mataio Taupe QSM, remembers fondly the time the Americans were in Atafu, when he was interviewed by Pasefika Proud in 2017. Niu Sila would have been in his mid-teens at the time. He passed away in 2021 at the age of 90.
The US Coast Guard Loran Unit 93 based in Atafu during World War II.
On Atafu, some of the original crew of the Loran Station.
Flag at half-mast in honour of President Roosevelt's death in April 1945.
A LCM (landing craft mechanized) was used to bring in a tractor and supplies for building the Loran station.
Contact with the outside world was possible about every six weeks, when a PBY Catalina plane would land in the lagoon with mail and supplies.
Atafu During World War II
These photos of Atafu were taken by American Coast Guard Roger Kehm, who was part of the Loran station operation during World War II. Below Roger describes in his own words what it was like being stationed in Atafu and the true friends he made while there.
Roger Kehm on guard duty in Atafu during World War II.
The Atafu village missionary church where the Coast Guard crew would listen to familiar hymns being sung.
Roger described this as the Atafu Community Center.
What appears to be locals playing Kilikiti.
The lagoon in Atafu.
A typical building structure in Atafu.
True Friends in Atafu
American Roger Kehm was part of the Loran station operation. In his own words he describes what it was like for him in Atafu during World War II. Pictured is Roger at age 93.
I was very fortunate for Loran duty in the South Pacific during WWII to be sent to an island where there were native people.
Atafu is part of the Tokelau Island chain - Atafu, Nukunonu and Fakaofu. These 3 islands are New Zealand mandated and Swains Island - Olosenga is also considered a part of the Tokelau’s but is part of American Samoa. At the time I was there, only Atafu and Nukunono were populated. The Tokelau Islands are located south and east of the Marshall Islands and Atafu is about 300 miles south of the equator.
There were about 400 natives on the island and they were Polynesian people. They were extremely friendly and helpful to the Coast Guard.
All of us “Coasties” were adopted by a family in the village - we were known as having a “true friend.” My family was Aluia (sp?), Pua and their little daughter Meliani. Pua means flower and Meliani translated means Mary. They were probably in their mid to upper 30’s. They were wonderful to me.
As friends I tried to give them gifts that they could use. The natives of course were barefoot and we decided that we would not give them shoes for when we were gone they would not have access to replace them. (Ugh--- barefoot on the coral but they were used to it.} We gave them soap, other toiletries, shorts, dungarees, t-shirts and all sorts of practical things that they could use.
They wore lava lavas for the most part. The lava lava was a “skirt”, a cloth worn around the waist and about mid-calf length. They had a method of gathering and folding at the waist like we would wear a bath towel. The women wore “Mother Hubbard” dresses. I sent home for a quantity of colorful yard goods to give to my friend for lava lavas.
The native friend was really a “true” friend. Pua did the washing of clothes for me. Just skivvies and shorts - a pair of cut-off dungarees. But that was nice of Pua. I would often go down to the village after a 24-hour watch to sleep - it was hot during the day and a bit more quiet down in the village at my friend’s open thatched roof house. I would lie on a mat, covered with a light sheet and a pillow. Many times Pua would have Miliani or one of the other children in the village fan me to sort of keep me cool. They were really “true” friends and we in the Coast Guard were united in our resolve to not take advantage of the truly good people.
I would often go down to Aluia and Pua’s house on Sunday morning - it was across from the native church and listen to the singing of the hymns. They were usually familiar ones that we all sing. The people were good singers and they sang load and clear. That was always a pleasant time on Sunday morning.
Speaking of the church, it was the only traditional built structure in the native village. It looked like a traditional church building and had a small steeple with a bell that they rang on Sunday mornings.
The Missionary was a Samoan and he and his wife had a little girl. He was strictly no good as an individual! I never attended the service at the church and I don’t believe any of the other Coasties did either. We all knew what kind of a guy he was and treated him accordingly. He acted like a little king to the people and treated them very badly. I believe the denomination was of the Church of England and he was sent to Atafu by them. He was a bad man! We would send our leftover food each meal to the village for them to share - however they would want to divide it up. We learned that the Missionary did not take his turn - he got it every other day! He was a bad man! And so on the day that he got the food, our Cooks put some soap power in it! He was a bad man!
The native people were extremely good to us and we tried in every way to treat them nicely.
Each day there would be 4, 5 or 6 native men that would come up to our site, they would be there making craft items and be available for any work around the station that they could help us with. One time the drain field on our septic system needed maintenance and they insisted that they would do the work for us. They were awfully nice people.
They were in contact with Samoa - briefly - each day. A native who preferred to be called Jim would send the weather information by CW (morse) code. It was a very low powered transmitter and I guess I never knew about his batteries that powered the transmissions. But they were and had to be very brief.
About once a week the village would have a community Hulu dance. And we Coasties would go on occasion. Generally it was divided into 3 groups - the children, the young adults and the older people. And of course the native Magistrate and the village Council would be at end of the thatched roof building. Each group took turns, singing dancing and entertaining. The Coasties had to take their turn - and we got tired of singing You Are My Sunshine or any other song we all knew. I had an Ocarina (a type of vessel flute) in my sea bag that I play once in a while around the station and the guys talked me into taking it to the Hulu one night. I played a song when it was the Coast Guard turn, there was applause and then the Magistrate and Council members were talking. Finally they said they really liked the “bird”, thought it was special and that I should bring it every time we came to a dance.
When the building of the station was completed and right after the Construction Detachment (Unit #211) left there were the 25 or so manning (Unit #93) left on the island to operate the station. The CO - Chief Warrant Officer - Al Padgett had a meeting for all hands. He had a directive from the 14th Naval District that had to be presented to us. It said that since Atafu was a New Zealand possession there were rules that had to be in place concerning the native people. We could only go as a group for a couple hours on Sunday afternoon and had to be accompanied by two of the Chief Petty Officers. Padgett read it to us. Then he stated that he would not enforce it because we would be on Atafu a long time and it would be unenforceable as far as he was concerned.
He then stated that if anyone got in trouble down in the village - “I’ll throw the book at ‘ya!” Nuff said. (One of our cooks got in trouble with one of the native girls and he went to Baker Island where there was no vegetation - just coral - and no natives. We got one of their cooks and he was glad to be on Atafu.)
Right after the war ended, Aluia, Pua and Meliani left for New Zealand. I gave them $50 for their trip. They were very good friends.
Note: USD$50 would be about USD$850 in today's money.
CIA Report: Post-war Soviet Union Interest in Atafu
Historian and Pacific expert Michael Field also wrote about the Soviet Union's post-war interest in Atafu. Here is an excerpt from his piece "Tokelau - Once Strategic and Important". Click here to download the CIA paper on the matter.
In October 1956 a US Central Intelligence Agency wrote a rather detailed, urgent report after New Zealand advised it that the Soviet Union wanted a science base on Atafu.
The CIA report, “Comments on the Soviet request to observe the October 1958 solar eclipse from the Tokelau Islands” noted a solar eclipse two years on with Atafu “to lie astride the path of totality”. The CIA said Moscow had asked Wellington for permission to send a 40-man expedition to Atafu to observe and photograph the eclipse.
The CIA said the eclipse would allow the Soviets to find out exactly, precisely, where Atafu was. That had military implications and, said the CIA, “will afford little opportunity for establishing long geodetic connections”.
Knowing with absolute precision where Atafu was, could then be used to test missiles with a range of 5,500 miles (8851 kilometres).
By combining this eclipse data, with other data, “Atafu might become a key point from which geodetic relationships with the Western Hemisphere could be determined.”
In short, the Soviets did not have enough ocean to test fire long range missiles. Tokelau could change that.
“Without any mid-Pacific Ocean islands of their own, the Soviets could utilize the 1958 eclipse as an opportunity for geodetically positioning Atafu in order to see what degree of accuracy is possible using a gravity approach to the problem.”
In case this did not terrify President Dwight D Eisenhower enough the CIA had another string to pull.
Atafu was close to Eniwetok. Well, 3500 kilometres away, but close enough. In the Marshall Islands, it was being used by the United States to test hydrogen bombs – some very big ones. The CIA thought the Tokelau operation might be connected.
By fixing Atafu’s position accurately, the Russians could establish a remote Pacific listening post directed toward U.S. nuclear tests at Eniwetok.
“A covert seismic station operation on one of the less frequented islands (and serviced by submarines) could pick up seismic recordings of the nuclear tests at closer range than any other Asiatic station,” the CIA man said.
Worryingly they said that such a Pacific post would be a good place to detect fallout and any increase in atmospheric radioactivity.
“The advantage of having Asiatic detection stations augmented by a station on the beyond side of Eniwetok might be considered by the Soviets as great enough to warrant the preliminary steps towards achieving it.”
So, the CIA said, New Zealand, then under the leadership of Sidney Holland (who actually was quite partial to Tokelau), should be told that the Soviets could go to Tokelau but they should provide a list of all their staff and the equipment. And Tokelauans should have full access to the base – “during their observations of the Brazil eclipse of 1947, the Soviet camp was closed to non-Soviets”.
A Soviet report would need to be supplied: “A duplicate copy of all observational data should be supplied to New Zealand.”