I made a few minor research breakthroughs this week, but not enough for me to write about the next person in the French family story…that’ll have to wait a week. Instead, I thought I would focus a bit on the context in which Louise Martin and Henri Stumph would have known each other, into which my father was born, and in which Louise made the decision to marry John Aponte and move to the United States. This context comes from a book I’m currently reading: Rock of Contention: Free French and Americans at War in New Caledonia, 1940-1945. The “Rock” in the title makes reference to a colloquial name (“Le Caillou”) for New Caledonia used by mainland French (because of its terrain and the rocky relationship with the territory). “War” in the title refers to both WWII and the conflict between American and French (not New Caledonian) leadership in the South Pacific.
New Caledonia, with its rich mineral resources, was a highly desirable bit of real estate in the eyes of the Japanese, and by early 1941, local leadership was faced with ultimatums (to support Vichy France, with whom the Japanese were allied, or face invasion). The local population was anxious, and the Free French under de Gaulle could not defend the island. At the same time, the American military leadership recognized the strategic importance of New Caledonia, given its location in the middle of sea lanes between Australia and the United States. An uneasy alliance was formed, which is the focus of Kim Munholland’s book.
Imagine, then, that a 20-year-old Louise and her/our family wake up on the morning of March 12, 1942, and in the bay of Noumea, Operation Poppy Force, has arrived – a flotilla carrying the first 15,000-22,000 of an eventual 40,000 troops and all of the equipment and supplies necessary to support them, defend the island, and support operations elsewhere in the South Pacific, including the Solomon Islands, particularly Guadalcanal. Click here for some photos of the arrival. Not even DeGaulle was given the details of the size of this mission for security reasons, so you can imagine the surprise of the populace. One Noumea resident is quoted in the book as saying “If Martians had landed among us, we would not have been more surprised.”
Let’s put this in perspective:
- The population of the entire island was approximately 57,000: 29,000 Kanak, 17,000 of European descent, and 11,000 Asians (mostly Javanese and Tonkinese, who will figure into a future blog post). The European population were either the majority Broussards (ranchers, coffee growers, shopkeepers, etc., many descended from bagnards, or prisoners) or the minority wealthy elite (owners of large cattle ranches, mining companies, and other large commercial enterprises).
- The population of Noumea was about 18,000. So, for most of three years, the American military presence outnumbered the locals by almost 2:1.
- By 1943, the amount of tonnage passing through Noumea harbor was second in the Pacific only to San Francisco. At one point, the wait time to unload was six weeks.
The economic and social impact could have been nothing less than astonishing. A sleepy, tropical colonial town was transformed overnight. The impact was mostly positive in the eyes of the Kanak and Broussards, but the French leadership and eventually the local elite were not so enthralled. The latter’s obsession with assumed American ambition to claim New Caledonia outweighed their concern with Japanese ambition to claim the island. This is at the center of the book, although Munholland does devote at least a chapter to the cultural misunderstandings that fed the obsession, the economic impact on French-Kanak-Asian labor relations, the issue of race (particularly the presence of African-American soldiers and the Kanak), the strain on local utility and other resources, and the bad behavior of some servicemen, amongst other issues.
For a while, the French may have been right about American interests in the New Caledonia. But by late 1944, strategic concerns moved U.S. combat operations elsewhere, leaving only medical and supply operations in Noumea. The withdrawal of American troops from the island had an equally startling effect on the island; with them went access to material goods and entertainment. In the eyes of most locals, with the Americans went modernization. I am nearing the end of the book, which covers this period, but you can imagine what a young Louise must have thought about what life in the United States must be like. John shipped out at a date to be determined, and Louise followed not long after, kids in tow.
*This is a hastily written post, composed to meet my self-imposed French Friday deadline. All facts, figures, and ideas are from Kim Munholland’s book, save the references to Louise and the family. I’ll go back and add page references over the weekend. Buy the book! It’s a great read.