Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
Ulithi is an atoll in the Caroline Islands of the western Pacific Ocean, about 100 km (62 mi) east of Yap. It consists of 40 islets totalling 4.5 km² (1.75 sq mi), surrounding a lagoon about 30 km (18 mi) long and 15 km (9 mi) wide -- at 548 km² (209 sq mi) the 4th largest in the world. It is administered by the state of Yap in the Federated States of Micronesia. Population was 710 in 1980.
Ulithi was a major base for the United States Navy in World War II. The Japanese had established a radio and weather station early in the war, and had used the lagoon as an anchorage occasionally, which resulted in strikes from US aircraft carriers early in 1944. However, Ulithi was perfectly positioned to act as a staging area, being nearly equidistant from the Philippines, Formosa, and Okinawa.
On September 23, 1944, an army regiment landed unopposed (the Japanese having evacuated the atoll some months earlier), followed a few days later by a battalion of Seabees. The survey ship USS Sumner (AGS-5) surveyed the lagoon and reported it capable of holding 700 vessels, and indeed just a few months later, 617 ships had gathered there for the Okinawa operation.
The Japanese still held Yap, and there were occasional attacks, but in general Ulithi proved to be an excellent base. Many sailors had fond memories of Mogmog Island, little more than a patch of sand, but they got two warm beers each and a few hours of sitting on the sand as respite from months at sea.
At present there are four inhabited islands on Ulithi Atoll. They are Falalop, Yasor, Malmog, and Fatharai. Falalop is the most accessible with an air strip, a small resort hotel, gas dealership, store and one of three public high schools in Yap state. Malmog is the seat of the high chief of Ulithi Atoll though each island has its own chief.
The airstrip on Falalop was developed during World War II and used by the Americans as an air base during their time on the island. According to the late Carlos Fong, Yasor (Asor), the smallest of the four currently inhabited islands, was used as the headquarters during American operations. Under Japanese administration there was a small store and coconut collection operation run by a Japanese family there.
During World War II, the local islanders were evacuated to Fatharai by the Americans. The remaining islands were converted and used as bases to support naval vessels and facilities within the lagoon. Carlos's wife, Antonia, recalled when the 617 ships where in the lagoon. She said that one could walk to any of the islands without touching water, moving from deck to deck between the islands. After the Americans finished operations in the area the population moved back to their respective islands.
There are a few sunken ships from the WW II era in Ulithi lagoon. Some are still leaking oil all these years later. There continues to be good fishing and good diving on the atoll though recent Typhoons have eroded some of the reefs, and exacerbated environmental problems with the leaking wrecks.
Some of the recent census records can be a bit misleading. Population can fluctuate during the year both because it is common for Ulithians to leave for work or school abroad and to return. This is particularly true during festive times like the Outer Island High School graduation ceremony when the population can swell quite a bit. Additionally during events like weddings and funerals even a small island like Yasor can find its population double.
While Ulithi was remote during the later half of the 20th century things are changing. Electricity is now available on some islands and the advent of video players and cell phones have brought a touch of the outside world to this isolated atoll. Like many places in the rural pacific, Ulithi will likely see rapid change over the coming years.
Samuel Eliot Morison, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II: Leyte (Little, Brown , 1958), pp. 47-50.
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