Mothers' Darlings of the South Pacific: The Children of Indigenous Women and U.S. Servicemen, World War II ed. by Judith A Bennett and Angela Wanhalla
Some seven decades beyond the end of the Pacific War, oral historians have moved past recording the stories of war survivors (most of whom have passed on) to documenting the war's effects on succeeding generations. One [End Page 241] effect was a succeeding generation—a flush of war babies born around the newly established US military bases and ports. Judith Bennett, Angela Wanhalla, and project collaborators Saui'a Louise Mataia-Milo, Kathryn Creely, Jacqueline Lekie, Alumita Durutalo, and Kate Stevens, between 2010 and 2012 tracked down and interviewed dozens of these children, several of their mothers, a few surviving fathers, and a number of grandchildren. To find interviewees, they relied on sketchy official records, a project website that invited participation, and local knowledge of family histories in the wartime venues. These sites were Bora Bora, Sāmoa, New Caledonia, Vanuatu (New Hebrides), Wallis (Uvea), Tonga, Fiji, New Zealand, Solomon Islands, Cook Islands, and Kiribati (Gilbert Islands). As the Pacific War progressed, the US military also occupied other areas including scattered islands in Micronesia, the Ellice Islands, and New Guinea. It had long occupied Hawai'i and Guam, certainly contributing to demographics there, although these longer-term colonial occupations differed from the briefer military incursions elsewhere.
Contributors to this volume summarize wartime establishments and events in each region, and also the local sociocultural contexts (including women's mobility) that influenced sexual and romantic liaisons and their occasional issue. The editors estimate that wartime relationships between American servicemen and indigenous women produced around four thousand babies across the islands surveyed and perhaps forty legal marriages, mostly in New Zealand. These are notably small numbers, especially when compared with the thousands of Amerasian children born during the Vietnam War. Colonial and military policies, opportunity, and cultural expectations on all sides that informed sexuality and stranger romance during World War II apparently also limited possible pregnancies.
Oral interview excerpts provide a range of reflections about wartime events, relations with mothers and family, childhood experiences, and seeking and, in a few cases, finding lost fathers and American relatives. Unmarried motherhood and missing fathers are variously accepted or deprecated across the region, and contributors sought and interviewed war babies—now respected elders—with care and sympathy, keeping some anonymous. Most were happy to tell their stories. Some of these life accounts are detailed and extensive, happy or tragic, including New Caledonian Isabelle Pezron, who followed an American husband to Minnesota where she would lose both him and her children, and Wallisian Petelo Tufala, adopted by an American Roman Catholic priest in Vanuatu who would depend on his son during his old age. Poignant illustrative family photographs depict mothers and children during the war and also today.
Although occasional or professional sex workers serviced the more cosmopolitan bases in New Caledonia and New Zealand, according to family stories (which might favor romance over sex) many other wartime relationships were indeed amorous. [End Page 242] American "love" discourse was a powerful motivator, then as now. During wartime, young American men may have been desperate for sex, but many soon fell in love with Island girlfriends. Only one reference to affairs between servicemen and Island men pops up, from Tonga, but wartime gay relationships would be even more challenging for oral historians to excavate and document. Military boyfriends were the original mothers' darlings, followed next by their left-behind children. When the war tore couples apart, some boyfriends struggled to keep in touch and, if they knew of children, left or sent money, photographs, and gifts. Enduring relationships were difficult in the face of military and civilian efforts to thwart wartime romances. None could marry without the permission of commanding officers and this was rarely granted, given US immigration law that then required immigrant wives to be of at least 51 percent documented European ancestry, and given anti-miscegenation laws that pertained in twenty-nine of the states. Furthermore, although military policy required servicemen to support their children, in practice few mothers received monetary assistance, since that policy also demanded proving paternity.
Pacific scholars interested in kinship, the family, and children will appreciate this research. Pacific War babies, unlike Vietnam's Amerasians (4), in general were integrated into loving families. This followed from Pacific kinship practices including common adoption and fosterage, and also a history of marriage and liaisons with strangers in many communities. Many unmarried mothers passed along new babies for others to raise, but typically they gave them to extended family members. These children, although notably fatherless, were nurtured if sometimes also teased, especially those with African-American fathers who were born into Polynesian communities. Many endured taunts and labeling with new postwar sobriquets like Kai Merika (Fiji), Marikena (New Zealand), and Marike or Puti (Cook Islands). Despite familial nonconformity as children, most grew into respected and successful adulthood.
Those interested in existential Pacific personhood will also trace a mix of individualist and relational elements in these life histories. Almost all those interviewed wanted to find lost fathers and their families: "Each person is prompted to search for his or her American father for different reasons: some only want confirmation of paternity, whereas others want to know where they fit in the family puzzle and to understand their heritage" (226). Desire to locate an unknown parent may arise from an individualistic sense of an incomplete, imperfect self: Knowing the father tells one who one is. Or, it may reflect desire to expand one's network of kin: The more relatives a person has, the more one feels accomplished, supported, and fulfilled. Both desires may motivate searches for lost fathers and families, but particular children and their communities may lean individualistic or relational.
Should future war babies in search of lost fathers and unknown families discover this book, they will appreciate [End Page 243] its appended "Research Guide to Finding Family." This lists helpful archives and online sites for seekers beginning a paternal family quest. The Mothers' Darling project also has its own progeny: a website (http://www.otago.ac.nz/usfathers/) that offers research advice and invites submissions that might help track missing dads. These life histories remind us that Pacific War relics include both people's bodies and stories.