From time to time I’ve talked about the little World War II-vintage booklets produced to familiarize Army and Navy personnel with various places around the world that the fight against the Axis might compel them to go. Some of those places are still hot spots, like Iraq. Others were obscure then and remain so today, unless you’re a specialist or someone with an inordinate curiosity about things in general (me).
For out of the way places, you can’t beat New Caledonia. This large island in the Southwest Pacific, a French territory only now looking towards a future referendum on independence, is populated by Melanesian Kanaks and French settlers and has an economy centered on nickel mining. During the war, however, it was the island’s strategic position that made it the subject of a Pocket Guide to New Caledonia. Not long after the fall of France in 1940, the French colonials on the island revolted against their pro-Vichy governor and declared for the Free French, so the island and the harbor at Noumea, the colony’s capital, became a huge naval repair, troop transit, and logistical nexus for America’s armed forces. TheU.S. presence had a huge and generally positive economic, political, and cultural impact on the Kanak population, but stimulated an almost paranoid reaction among Free French officials, who saw the American “occupation” as a threat to their colonial dominance. Clearly, our soldiers and sailors needed some guidance on how to handle these complicated crosscurrents!
Pocket Guide to New Caledonia does a very good job of outlining New Caledonia’s history and cultures, with an emphasis on tolerance and understanding of the customs and faiths of others, whether French or Kanak. It also manages a light touch when discussing some topics, to wit:
“People living in the tropics or subtropics are likely to be exposed to hookworm and other intestinal parasites, and to be bothered by dysentery. To check this latter ailment, the natives eat a certain grass which is called ‘dysentery grass’ and is supposed to have a herbaceous effect. Our troops have made not a few noble experiments with this particular variety of hay, and up to date nobody has been hurt, though the record is confused as to whether anybody has been helped. So if you see a creature eating grass inNew Caledonia, don’t shoot! It may be the corporal.”
Like other wartime publications, this booklet also benefited from the work of a well-known artist. While Dr. Seuss handled malaria prevention, the great New Yorker cartoonist George Price drew theNew Caledonia short straw (see left) and provides a comic glimpse at GI life in the tropics.
I enjoyed browsing through Pocket Guide to New Caledonia. The Government did a good job of prepping folks for trips to places that most of them never imagined going, and now we can make the same visit thought these little time capsules. You can read it here or in a library.