The assumptions in this piece stem from the map below.When people hear of the name Matevulu, their minds switch automatically to Matevulu College – the school- or to the beautiful, cool blue holes (there are two of them). As a school, it has educated many a citizen of Vanuatu, some even now leaders in the Vanuatu government. Others have invested their time in activities that have in an indirect way, collectively built up Vanuatu. The blue holes have offered a place for cooling down on a hot day, or an energetic paddle up and down the two rivers in a kayak.
Records will show that the school started in the ’80s and has been going strong ever since. However, some 40 years before the first school house was built, there was a war that found its way into the Matevulu grounds. World War II (WW2), as the name suggests, had a global footprint on Santo island.
Many a tale has been told of how the US army set up base at Santo; of how the natives were astounded at the way the blacks and the whites of the US army worked together in harmony; of how the SS Coolidge ran aground; and of how after the war was over, the army dumped all their equipment at what is now called Million Dollar point, because the British could not offer a good enough bargain for said equipment.
None of the stories I’ve heard have detailed what actually happened during WW2. On the plains of Matevulu, the US army found flat terrain to build an airstrip as the base for their fighter planes. Here, their fighter planes would land to refuel, or for maintenance, or for pilot change before they’d head on back into the skies to attack similar Japanese planes.
In laymen’s terms, a fighter plane is an aircraft built and armed to the teeth to fight against other aircrafts from an enemy’s air fleet. There was only one such airstrip on Santo and it was at Matevulu. There were three other airstrips on Santo but these were bases for bomber aircrafts. These three airstrips were at Palekula, Pekoa (where the current domestic and international terminal is now located) and at Beleru.
Bombers are air-to-ground aircraft, designed and armed to attack targets located on the ground. While now-a-days there are aircraft which are built to be both fighters and bombers, back in WW2, aircrafts in Santo were either fighters or bombers.
Judging by the number of bomber airstrips verses the number of fighter airstrips, we can assume that during the time at which the US army was operating from Santo, there were more air to ground attacks than there were air-to-air attacks.
One can only imagine the hive of activity that went on in the Matevulu plains. Planes coming in and aircrafts flying off. Jeeps driving in and others leaving. Soldiers chanting in formation as they did their early morning jogs. How many injured pilots had to be put into quarantine for treatment? How many natives were willing to work with the Americans? Did they get all their food from army rations or did they get some from local gardens? Did the soldiers ever openly swim in the river or did they have to be cautious and dig their own waterhole?
Up to this day there are remains of this short stint by the US army during WW2. There are bits of aircraft still lying around in the bushes. There is a pool of water affectionately called the American Pool near the Nalaiafu river; and of course there’s the airstrip, although now overgrown.
Matevulu College sits on the hilltops squinting past the plains that hosted these little stories – across to Mavea and on to Ambae island in the distance. A good investigation into the history of the WW2 battles fought from the airstrip of Matevulu would be a great subject of interest for students of history at the college.
Here’s to a great year for Matevulu College as well as the business owners of Riri Bluehole.