On June 6, 2014, the world will commemorate the 70th anniversary of the landing of the Allied Forces in France. Seventy years after the famous D-Day on June 6th 1944, a military operation that marked the true beginning of the liberation of Europe, large-scale ceremonies have been planned for the beaches of Normandy. This commemoration should be reminder that these tragic events also affected Tahiti and her islands, despite their long distance from the principal combat zones.
Before becoming French Polynesia, the archipelagoes, which were then called the French Establishments in Oceania (Établissements Français d’Océanie or E.F.O.), were also thrown into turmoil since they were dependent upon Metropolitan France. During the second world war, about 600 Tahitians took part in the war effort, mainly in Europe and throughout all branches of the armed forces, whether on the ground, at sea, or in the air. Many never returned, and the memory of these events has faded over the years and across generations. The publication of two books and the presence of exhibitions in Tahiti and Paris will shed some light on the fate of these Tahitian soldiers, most of whom were volunteers.
The first publication, L’Officier des îles (Officer from the Islands), will be released on April 17, 2014, and is written by François Broche, an expert historian over the World War II and the French Resistance. Brioche (also the author of the acclaimed Le Bataillon des guitaristes) narrates the fate of his father, Félix Brioche, an officer in the French Army who, in 1942, led the Tahitian expeditionary forces into the heart of the Libyan desert to Bir Hakeim during this pivotal year of conflict. There, far from the Polynesian islands he loved so much, Brioche was killed by shrapnel in late May-early June during this principal battle. Bir Hakeim allowed the Allied Forces to push back the dangerous German and Italian advancement into North Africa. During battles and in the armed forces for Free France, about 150 Tahitian soldiers were distinguished by their courage and tenacity, notably for facing Afrikacorps troops led by German Marshall Erwin Rommel, the famous “Fox of the Desert.” The book also tells of the passion that the French officer shared for Tahiti and Suzanne Martin, aka Tutana, who passed away on Huahine at the age of 100 in September 2012.
A second landmark publication is to be released in May, thanks to the work and determination of Tahitian author Jean-Christophe Shigetomi, who heads an association dedicated to remembering the role of Tahitians during various conflicts of the 20th century. Tamarii Volontaires, les Tahitiens dans la seconde guerre mondiale (Young volunteers: Tahitians in the Second World War) promises to be an excellent reference concerning this historical period. After considerable painstaking work collecting information in Tahiti and throughout the world, Shigetomi retraces the fates of Tahitian soldiers and their participation in various operations during WWII. This military adventure took them from air raids over Germany to Bir Hakeim, to battles in the Italian countryside, to landing on the coast of Provence in August 1944, and into the last battles of the war. Extremely detailed with previously unreleased material and moving accounts, the author did not only commit to writing about the battles, but also about the journeys of these soldiers who arrived from the islands.
Interestingly, the author also examines the conditions the survivors faced in May 1946 when they returned home. He highlights the profound changes that the arrival of these Polynesians who fought alongside the allies would bring to Tahitian society. This abundantly illustrated book of about 300 pages is rich in imagery, contains the results of conscientious research, and is complete with drawings by Jean-Louis Saquet. It allows us to take a dive into this war era to retrace the steps of these heroes.