The passing of a ‘Living Legend’

James Gwero, who did an enormous amount of work to preserve the Ni Vanuatu memories of World War II, passed away in February 2019.

His legacy is the famous Bislama oral history, Big Wok, published in 1998. James, who was born in 1929, joined with United States anthropology professor Lamont Lindstrom and others to gather stories for the book.

Professor Lindstrom, who is also a member of the South Pacific WWII Museum, says he is deeply saddened by James Gwero’s passing.

“We worked hard to talk with more than 120 men and women in 1988 and 1989, to record their stories of World War II. James took me to Nabangahake village in Ambae, his home village, and in 1990 he came to be with me in Honolulu, Hawaii.

“When we were in Hawaii, he worked to transcribe these stories and sort out the relevant parts to insert in Big Wok.

“I think James enjoyed the opportunity to travel to Hawaii. We visited the Arizona Memorial, where the Japanese planes bombed USA warships. We had beach picnics a lot of times when we were there, as tourists, visiting places.

“In 2006, we both spoke to all field workers in a VKS (Vanuatu Cultural Center) workshop in Vila. We both talked about our work, and James talked about World War II history.”

James Gwero with his book 'Big Wok'

James Gwero with a copy of Big Wok.

Big Wok included examples of local songs about the wartime experience. This excerpt is from a song about Shepherd Islands and North Efate men recruited to do the initial clearing of what today is Bauerfield airfield.

Tai manga tu do dongo

Vakalo Endo paitalevanimaramana

Ma tedoumaipakikuengida

 E awi re tetungavaeesava

Brothers we used to hear about the war

On the other side of the world.

But it is coming to our country

Where are we going to go?

James Gwero at the opening of the Museum Project Office

James Gwero as guest of honour in October 2017 at the opening of the South Pacific World War II project office.

In October 2017, James was a guest of honour at the opening of our Museum project office in Luganville, joining US embassy deputy chief of mission Mary Drake and then Minister of Lands Ralph Regenvanu to cut the ribbon.  It was fitting that he be part of our mission to further bring to life the history he has done such much to preserve.

James Gwero’s work leaves the history of Vanuatu immensely richer, and will be invaluable to the South Pacific World War II museum in telling our Ni Vanuatu stories. We thank him for his work and his legacy.