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BC's Pacific Heritage: What happened on Anatahan Island?

“A MELODRAMA of hunger, sex, jealousy and violence.”  That was how Collier’s magazine of 1952 described it.  It was, without question, one of the strangest true stories to come out of the Second World War.

BC Cook
What is more, we will never know what really happened.  What would you do if you were the only woman stranded on a remote island with forty men?

That question may sound like the stuff of romance novels but in the closing phases of the war it happened on Anatahan Island in the Marianas.  Around 32 Japanese soldiers and civilians survived their sinking ships to await rescue on the island.  About 40 Chamorro islanders already lived there, along with a Japanese plantation manager and his 28-year-old wife, Kazuko.  It was soon revealed that she was not the wife of the manager after all, but belonged to another man with the same last name who was off-island.  The competition began.

While the islanders and the Japanese kept their distance from each other, it soon became clear that food and Kazuko were the most important commodities on Anatahan.  The remains of a crashed B-29 bomber were found in the hills and many items were retrieved, including two pistols.  And that’s when the killing started.  At first some of the Japanese killed others they hated, but soon whichever man Kazuko paired up with was the primary target.  Seven men were murdered in rapid order.  Kazuko moved from bed to bed as fast as they could bury the bodies, and just as fast the next man died.  Sometimes the bodies were found with bullet holes in them, sometimes they just disappeared.  “Washed away while fishing” was a common excuse, but everyone knew better.  A few suffered “food poisoning” and one was executed after a makeshift trial.

The pistols became the ultimate power on the island.  Whoever had one could have the woman, but winning her proved extremely hazardous to one’s health.  One man who had both a gun and Kazuko foolishly went fishing and left the gun at home.  He was dead before sundown and the gun (and the woman) passed to someone else.

In all of the competition to possess Kazuko, no one seemed to notice that the islanders all disappeared.  Fleeing the violence and hopelessness of life on the island, they were picked up by Americans and relocated to Saipan for the duration of the war.

The end of the war came and went but no one on Anatahan noticed.  They were completely isolated from the outside world and increasingly isolated from each other in an atmosphere of mistrust, hatred, and jealousy.  At the center of it all was Kazuko.  It stayed that way for five more years, until Kazuko fled the island in 1950 and the rest of the castaways accepted American offers and were rescued and sent back to Japan the following year.

This much we know, and about how much all the survivors agree on.  But their stories differ more than they agree.  Of the 12 Japanese who died on Anatahan, eight were murdered or killed over Kazuko.  But what was her role?  Was she a powerless victim of male aggression and dominance, passing helplessly from one alpha male to the next like a piece of property?  Or was she the mastermind of her own security and salvation, who manipulated the men and used all her feminine assets to protect herself until rescue could be had?  Was the true power on Anatahan the pistols or Kazuko?  And isn’t it convenient that, according to the stories, nearly every murderer was himself murdered, so that nearly everyone rescued was innocent of wrongdoing?  It sounds like a conspiracy of silence that masks the truth of what really happened on Anatahan.  Will we ever know?  Can we trust the eyewitnesses in this case?  What does your instinct tell you?

If you want to get to the bottom of this mystery, visit the museum on Middle Road in Garapan.  One whole room is devoted to this story and there is much more to learn than I have revealed here.  And contact me when you have solved the mystery of what happened on Anatahan.

BC Cook, PhD researches and teaches Pacific history and other subjects. He has taught at various universities in the U.S., including the University of Missouri and Lindenwood University.