Paradise on Earth Today Was the Site of a Major WWII Battle

By Liz Goldner

The Palau island chain consists of about 200 islands in the western Pacific Ocean, 528 mi (650 km) southeast of the Philippines. Only eight of the islands are permanently inhabited. They vary geologically from the high mountainous largest island, Babelthuap, to low, coral islands usually fringed by large barrier reefs. Palau enjoys a warm climate all year round with an annual mean temperature of 82° degrees F. (27° C.). Rainfall can occur throughout the year, and the annual average is 150 inches. The average relative humidity is 82%, and although rain falls more frequently between July and October, there is still much sunshine.

The island chain is often described as a spectacular 400 mile long strand of pearls laid across blue sea. The chain is made of limestone coral reefs lifted above sea level and undercut by ocean currents. Three ocean currents converge on Palau, bringing with them marine life four times as rich as that in the Caribbean. There are more than 1,000 species of fish and more than 700 species of coral. Giant clams sit on the reefs and moray eels hover nearby as do sharks who appear to be too well fed to be interested in you.

The tightly clustered Palau archipelago consists of the high islands of Babeldaob, Koror, Peleliu and Angaur in the south, the low coral atolls of Kayangel to the north east and Ngeruangel and the limestone rock islands.. Apart from Kayangel, Ngeruangel and Angaur all the islands are inside a single barrier reef. Only eight islands are inhabited, and the entire population is 17,235 with the majority living in the provisional capital of Koror. There are an additional 2,500 foreigners. mostly Filipino laborers.

The Spaniards named the group Los Palos (the native name is Belau) and laid claim to them in 1898, selling them to Germany a year later. In 1946, Palau became one of the trust territories of the Pacific islands under the governance of the U.S.A. In 1994, it gained its independence and was admitted to the United Nations as its 185th member.

The island group is divided into 16 states. each maintaining the traditional clan system with English and Palauan the official languages. Word for Peace

Koror, the capital, has views of the islands, Japanese stone lanterns and the only Shinto Shrine outside Japan, a reminder of Japanese occupation during the war. There is a national museum founded in 1955 which displays island treasure. On special occasions, you can see young Palauan women dressed in grass skirts covered in coconut oil and turmeric perform ancient native dances on the museum's grass.


Studies indicate that today's Palauans are distant relatives of the Malays of Indonesia, Melanesians of New Guinea and Polynesians. Carbon dating of artifacts from the oldest known village sites on the Rock Islands and the terraces on Babeldaob place civilization here as early as 1,000 BC.

The most noteworthy first foreign contact took place in 1783 when the vessel Antelope, commanded by of English Captain Henry Wilson, was shipwrecked on a reef near Ulong, a Rock Island between Koror and Peleliu. With the assistance of Koror's High Chief Ibedul, Wilson and his men stayed for three months to rebuild the ship.

Foreign governance of the islands began when Pope Leo XIII asserted Spain's rights over the Caroline Islands in 1885. Two churches were established and maintained by two Capuchin priests and two brothers, who introduced the Roman alphabet and helped eliminate inter-village wars. In 1899, Spain sold the Carolines to Germany, which began to exploit the islands' natural resources.

Following Germany's defeat in WWI, the islands were formally passed to the Japanese under the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. The Japanese shifted the economy from a subsistence level to a market economy and property ownership from the clan to individuals. In 1922, Koror became the administrative center for all Japanese possessions in the South Pacific. The town of Koror was a stylish metropolis with factories, shops, public baths, restaurants and pharmacies.

Peleliu, a small island in Palau, was the site of some of the bloodiest battles of World War II. Though only 5 sq miles (13 sq km) in area, in two months there were more than 20,000 casualties, more than the current population of the whole country. Many of the island's residents are survivors of that campaign. During the fighting, Peleliu's forest were burned to the ground, but now re-growth has occurred. Six thousand Japanese defended the island when the 1st Marine Division assaulted it on September 15, 1944, landing on the southwest corner of the island. The American drive was halted for a month on Umurbrogol ridge (know as the Battle of Bloody Nose Ridge). Organized Japanese resistance ended on October 13, 1944.

White Beach and Bloody Beach was the site of the initial United States Marine landings. There is a huge blockhouse inland of White Beach that has been renovated into the new Peleliu Museum. Ray Barao, who works for the United States Embassy in Palau collected soil for Gary Simpson’s Common Ground 191 at Bloody Beach on December 28, 2006.

After liberation from Japanese occupation during World War II, Palau became part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, administered by the USA under a mandate from the United Nations in 1947. In 1986, the governments of Palau and the United States agreed the terms of a Compact of Free Association, similar to those reached with other Micronesian Trust members, which allows for independence under a US defense umbrella. But the Palau Compact remained unsigned, because of a crucial clause forbidding the presence of any nuclear weapons on the islands, including visits by ships equipped to carry them. The US refused to sign the Compact until the clause was rescinded.

The dispute over the Compact introduced a violent aspect into Palau’s politics – president Haruu Remeliik was assassinated in 1985; his successor, Lazarus Salii, committed suicide in August 1988. At the presidential election of November 1992, Kuniwo Nakamura won a narrow victory. In October 1994, the Compact was endorsed and Palau was admitted to the United Nations in December 1994, then became a member of the IMF in 1997. Nakamura served a second term between 1996 and 2000, after which he was replaced by the current president, Tommy Remengesau. Economic issues have dominated the political agenda in recent years, as Palau attempts to deal with typical problems of all Pacific islands – isolation and lack of infrastructure.

Social Structure

While Palau has adapted to an international economy, Palauans continue to strongly identify with traditional culture. Traditional ceremonies, such as birth ceremonies and funeral services are widely practiced..

The most noticeable aspect of Palauan culture is the people's connection with the sea. Traditionally, it was the duty of the family to go to sea to harvest fish and battle against enemy villages. Men developed a close relationship with oceans, becoming knowledgeable about the currents and the phases of the moon and the behavior of the fish they needed to catch.

Women stayed on land or along the shallow reefs surrounding the islands, providing foundations for their families. They tending to their homes, family and fields where they grew taro.

Palauan villages are organized around 10 clans. A council of chiefs from the 10 ranking clans govern the village, and a parallel council of female counterparts hold a significant advisory role in the division and control of land and money.

Palauans are highly sociable. Traditionally, history, lore and knowledge were passed down through generations orally as there was no written language until the late 1800's. Palauans still practice that traditional method, and at the end of the day, groups of natives are excitingly engaged in telling stories.

Daily Life

The women of Palau have traditionally woven household items, including sleeping mats, baskets and the sails of the long-range outrigger canoes. Although the women weavers still make traditional wares, they have introduced bags, backpacks and other useful items.

As the primary form of travel around the islands has been by canoe, building these has traditionally been an important occupation here. There were canoes for every task and occasion, such as the sleek war canoe or the bulkier kaeb canoe used to transport people from island to island.

Chants have traditionally been used here to relate stories of historical and ceremonial events and to parody individuals and situations. In Palauan tradition, to criticize or ridicule someone directly was a harsh, humiliating action that could lead to recrimination. Instead, people would chant songs that were essentially parodies of a person or village that allowed people to enjoy the messages while learning important lessons. Chanting is performed on special occasions and in dance performances.

Chants are often accompanied by dances, performed at ceremonies commemorating events. The movements are fluid and unhurried. The Palauan cha cha and jitterbug, adaptations of the dances brought in by the U.S. military, are performed with characteristic careful movements.

The official languages in Palau are English and Palauan. The word for “Peace” in Palauan is “Budech.”

Natural Outdoor Beauty

Palau is said by tourists to be one of the most extraordinary diving spots on this planet. Far to the southwest of Micronesia, the Republic of Belau (the traditional name) consists of an archipelago of 343 islands, spread north to south over 100 miles form the atoll of Kayangel to the island of Angaur plus five tiny islands, known as the southwest islands.

Blue holes, huge caverns and an immense variety of rare and exotic marine species are easily accessible in clear water with visibility exceeding 200 feet. Vast numbers of large pelagic predators, sharks, turtles, dolphins and many species of migratory fish gather at a unique crossroads of three of the world's major ocean currents. Land locked marine lakes, accessible from the sea through tunnels beneath the island's steep shorelines, are home to rare jelly fish, anemones and soft corals.






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