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  • By Geoff Goodman

Mili: Behind the charm of this idyllic atoll lie the scars of battle

Majuro-- Mili Atoll is about 70 miles south of Majuro, the capital of the Marshall Islands. It has a population of 1,200, but once there were over 5,000 Japanese soldiers on its 5.8 square miles of land.

After WWI, Japan took control of the Marshall Islands from Germany under the South Seas Mandate. Before and during WWII they were bringing in Korean slave labor to supplement the locals whom they had also pressed into service. In 1942 and 1943, they built a radar station and air strips.

My friend Ben’s father's family is from Mili. Imagine the comeliest deserted and lush tropical Pacific islands you can. Then, add water that explodes in blues that you cannot grasp so you have to just stare at it and try to process the fluxing, crystalline shades. He is building houses there, and, whenever I talk to him, dreams out loud about moving there once satellite internet becomes available.

Ben's grandmother lived on Mili Atoll under the Japanese occupation. By 1944 the Japanese were cut off from supplies and faced increasing food shortages. American bombing campaigns killed or injured an estimated 900 soldiers for whom medical help was unavailable. The Japanese tried to survive the privations by ramping up fishing and vegetable production. They gave their laborers food production quotas. So desperate to supplement their diets, they even caught rats to eat.

Under the Japanese occupation, the Mili people lived in conditions so miserable they were only surpassed in desperation by the Koreans who were categorized as lower class slaves than the natives. Starvation killed many of the workers as did the bombardments. People were doing awful things just to survive. Food production quotas—set at exceedingly high levels—resulted in severe punishment, even death, if not met.

Particulars about the timeline of events are shakier than the usual fog of war chronology. I avoid these from here due to the lack of specific times.


An irooj, or chief, named Laninat had had enough of the occupation and instigated a rebellion. The Mili people and Koreans stormed an armory, overpowering or killing the Japanese soldiers. They had weapons but little ammunition beyond what was in the guns, so soon they were left with useless firearms.

The Japanese retaliated and quickly subdued the rebels, who then retreated and regrouped. Fighting continued across the atoll as the rebels slowly lost ground. The battle lasted for about a month, until soldiers pushed them to Jeliben Island, which was at the end of that section of the atoll. Cornered, the natives and Koreans were forced to fight against a much greater force and were massacred.

On the other side of the atoll, roughly around the time of the uprising, many people were trying to escape—a crime that was met by execution. Ben’s grandmother and her children were on a boat that was heading out to sea toward the other nearest atoll, Arno, when they were spotted by a Japanese patrol boat. They sent the children to swim ashore. Some people stayed on the boat.

Ben’s father swam with other children to the next island, making it to safety. He also found family members.

He then stayed on Mili with his grandfather. They went from the conflict zones of the atoll to a smaller, remote island where the grandfather knew they could hide. There they survived by raising fish in a mangrove swamp that was also an inland lagoon. It could not be seen from the water.

They hid out, eating fish, coconuts, and pandanus. From the island there was great visibility on all sides and they could see anyone coming. From the outside, however, it looked like a swampy little rocky island where no one could live.

The United States did not soon come to the rescue. They were instead waiting the Japanese out, sometimes getting close to the atoll to add military pressure to their siege, including defoliating the islands with napalm.

Near the end of the war the family was eventually rescued by an early version of what would become Navy SEALs, who, with a translator, were looking for people to rescue. The U.S. did not want the Japanese soldiers to keep using them as human shields, as they had turned to doing once the flora and structures on the island had been decimated.


The family was eventually brought to Majuro. The Navy showed Westerns and put on USO shows in Delap Park, to the children’s total astonishment.

As with many other people on Mili, Ben’s grandmother was caught and punished for trying to escape. That punishment—for her as for so many—was decapitation.

After the war, many were repatriated to Mili. Both American and Japanese artillery, shells, and aircraft remain, and Mili is still acned by craters from the two years of U.S. shelling on the Marshall Islands. Often full of standing water, they exacerbate mosquito problems.

The thousands of other relics on the island endure as ubiquitous souvenirs of what for the hundreds of people still living there is an increasingly distant memory of dark military adventures of empires. Some use these shells in the creation of handicraft. Others hang laundry from the rusting guns.

Foreign TV shows and the super wealthy come here to experience what feels like perfect seclusion and screensaver-style Pacific vistas. The Google Boat docked here for a month. Though a significant foreign power, they seemed to have little interest in colonizing the place, and they did not need the artillery to dry their laundry.

Geoff Goodman teaches Liberal Arts at the College of Marshall Islands. Send feedback to

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