New Caledonia

Relief map of New Caledonia

Photograph of New Caledonia hill terrain
U.S. Army

New Caledonia is a large island, measuring 248 miles (400 km) long and 31 miles (50 km) wide for a total land area of 8453 square miles (21,890 km2). It located about 900 miles (1450 km) northeast of Brisbane. Two rugged mountain chains run the length of the island, of which the larger is called the Chaine Centrale. The mountains reach to over 5000 feet (1500 meters) and produce a rain shadow in the interior plateau and on the southwest coast, leaving these areas sparsely vegetated. There is a barrier reef, the second largest in the world after Australia's Great Barrier Reef, that runs some 995 miles (1600 km) around the island and produces  the world's largest lagoon northwest of the island. The reef also produces a deep protected channel along the southwest coast that is used by coastal vessels. Located well south of the Equator, the island has a pleasant climate, similar to that of Hawaii, and an excellent harbor at Noumea.

Geologically, the island is a tiny sliver of continental crust that broke off an ancient continent (probably Australia) millions of years ago. Its flora and fauna have evolved independently and are unique. The island also includes some fragments of oceanic crust (ophiolites) that were thrust to the surface; these ultramafic rocks contain important deposits of nickel and chromium. The nickel deposits, which are probably second only to those of Canada, were discovered in 1863. The French subsequently set up penal colonies that supplied mine labor for four decades, though fewer than 100 convicts were left by 1942. New Caledonia supplied 20% of the world's nickel in 1941. In addition to metal ores, the island produced tropical fruit and timber and had a substantial meat and fish canning industry.

The native peoples were divided into a landowning class that mostly cooperated with the French, and mountain tribes that were suspected of continuing to engage in cannibalism and were closely watched by the French gendarmerie. The natives numbered some 70,000. There were also about 8000 indentured laborers from French Indochina and Java and about 17,000 Europeans. The Japanese had an agreement dating to 1935 to mine nickel and iron on the island, and several hundred Japanese civilians were interned at Goro near the southeast end of the island after war broke out.

The island had a good road, Route Colonial 1, that passed from Noumea along the entire southwest coast and partway around the northeast coast. Three roads crossed the island to connect the coasts and a narrow-gauge railroad connected Noumea to Paita, twenty miles to the northwest. The entire island had a well-developed telegraph system and there was a modern phone exchange in Noumea.

New Caledonia is a French colony and was controlled by the Free French during the Pacific War. The political situation in New Caledonia was tense when war broke out in the Pacific. De Gaulle, leader of the Free French movement, sent Rear Admiral D'Argenlieu to the island early in 1942 to replace a popular governor whose loyalty was suspect, but there was enough pro-Axis feeling among the islanders that there was real danger of a counterrevolution. Reports on Allied activities quickly found their way to the Japanese.

The garrison when war broke out consisted of a single 800-man battalion of French troops. This was joined by a hastily raised 2000-man Home Guard formation and by a 300-man company of Australian troops shortly after war broke out, but this was pitifully inadequate for such a large and valuable island. The French actually considered putting a stop to the construction of a large airfield by the Australians in the vain hope that this would make the island less attractive to the Japanese (who had already made plans for South Seas Detachment to move on the island.) A garrison of about 16,800 U.S. troops, built around 51 Brigade and 70 Coast Artillery Regiment (Antiaircraft), was organized into Task Force 6814 and arrived at the island on 12 March 1942. There they were joined by 67 Fighter Squadron. The troops later formed the core of the Americal Division.

Numerous airfields were completed around the island, of which the most important were Tontouta 33 miles (53 km) north of Noumea, which had two runways when war broke out, and Oua Tom north of Tontouta, which had a single runway operational. A third airfield at Koumac at the northwest end of the island was destroyed to prevent its being used by the Japanese; it would later be rebuilt by the U.S. Army. Another airfield was under construction at Plaine de Gaics (164.87E 21.22S) and seven auxiliary airstrips would be completed during the war.

The island was strongly defended primarily to deny it to the Japanese, but it proved of unexpected value as a support base for the Guadalcanal campaign.


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