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Reporter's Notebook : Admiration for U.S. Fuels Offbeat Statehood Drive in New Caledonia

July 14, 1987|DAVID LAMB | Times Staff Writer

NOUMEA, New Caledonia — A group of New Caledonians has an unusual solution for the political future of this French overseas territory where Melanesians are agitating for independence: They would make it America's 51st state.

The statehood idea is being pushed, only half in jest, by the American Assn., an informal coalition of about 10,000 people, most of them French settlers who remember fondly the massive presence of U.S. servicemen in the South Pacific during World War II.

On the outskirts of Noumea, tattered American flags are still flown from a few houses, and every year the American Assn. holds a rodeo and elects a "Miss AmeriCal."

The group has written to President Reagan to request statehood. But, alas, when New Caledonians vote in September on their political status, they will have only two choices: independence or continued association with France.

More than 300,000 Americans--then about five times the local population--were based here during World War II. An additional 100,000 were in the New Hebrides, now Vanuatu. The Americans created a reservoir of good will that still lingers.

Although the modern history of the Pacific deals mainly with World War II, the South Pacific islands are the least militarized region in the world. Only three countries--Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Tonga--even have armies. Papua New Guinea's is the largest, with 3,200 men. Its per-capita annual defense spending is about $9, compared to more than $1,000 in the United States.

Thousands of Pacific islanders volunteered during the war to work for the Americans as coast watchers, guides, porters and combat soldiers. The Fijians were such effective jungle fighters that not one was ever listed as "missing in action." Any who could not be accounted for were listed as "not yet returned." On numerous occasions villagers risked their lives to save American servicemen, among them John F. Kennedy.

An American trait the GIs did not leave with the islanders is the pursuit of money and material things. It is hard to imagine a people less money-oriented than the South Pacific islanders. For example, the practice of tipping is unknown. Even French waiters and barmen in Noumea do not expect a tip.

In Vanuatu, a guidebook says the people love to receive mail, and it suggests that instead of tipping, visitors send a postcard to anyone who has been particularly helpful.

Gerald Rissen, an Australian who is the public solicitor in Port Vila, Vanuatu's capital, learned early in his posting the limited value of money. According to municipal regulations, Port Vila workers will pick up only one trash barrel a week at any one address. Rissen once put out two and offered the collector a tip to take both. The collector refused and recited the regulation, leaving Rissen to figure out what to do with the other.

The islands of the South Pacific are surely the least-known group of states and territories on Earth. The independent country of Tuvalu (formerly the Ellis Islands) covers a total area of only 10 square miles. The name Tuvalu means "cluster of eight," though actually there are nine islands. About a quarter of the country's 8,200 citizens live in the capital, Funafuti.

Pitcairn, the last British colony in the Pacific, has a population of 54, of whom 47 are direct descendants of the HMS Bounty mutineers. The island's economy is based on postage stamps sold to collectors. Pitcairn (14 square miles) has no airport and no scheduled boat service.

Even in the larger island nations there is a refreshing absence of pretense. In Vanuatu, Prime Minister Walter Lini often receives visitors in his bare feet, but it is not unusual to see his wife, Mary, in a stunning dress from Paris. Nor is it unusual to see her, the next morning, padding off to market in her bare feet. Like most other Pacific leaders, Lini has no private plane, no limousine, no bodyguards--and no Swiss bank account.

Although three of the first six missionaries to reach Tonga, nearly two centuries ago, were reportedly eaten, missionaries still come to the South Pacific in large numbers. Church influence is strong. More than 95% of the people in Tonga, Polynesia's last remaining monarchy, are Christians, a proportion that is fairly typical throughout the Pacific.

The missionaries helped develop a language--Pidgin English--that befuddles a first-time visitor because it sounds vaguely familiar. A secretary in Port Vila the other day typed: "Plis yu should save me mi stil wandem blong helpem yu sapos yu wandem be yumas contactem mi bifo June, sapos yu wandem." That translates as: "Please, you should know I still want to help you. If you want me to help you, contact me before June."

New Zealand's prime minister, David Lange, has been highly critical of the Reagan Administration's refusal to recognize the nuclear-free zone declared by the South Pacific Forum, which consists of the leaders of independent and self-governing states in the region. Lange has barred visits by U.S. nuclear-powered or nuclear-armed warships, and this has caused tension between Washington and Wellington--but it has not diminished Lange's sense of humor.

Saying farewell to the retiring U.S. ambassador, H. Monroe Browne, who had bought a racehorse in New Zealand named Lacka Reason, Lange said, "You must be the only ambassador in the world to own a horse named after his country's foreign policy."

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