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The Ellice Islands are a group of atolls located just southeast of the Gilbert Islands and some 2600 miles (4200 km) southwest of Hawaii. The atolls are arranged in a chain extending some 300 miles (480 km) from northwest to southeast. They were discovered by Europeans between 1764 and 1824 and came under British control in 1941, the islands having become part of a British crown colony with the Gilberts in 1915, ostensibly to protect the natives from exploitation by traders. The natives had a high degree of self-rule and British law prohibited land purchases by non-native persons. British oversight was exercised through a resident commissioner at Ocean Island who also oversaw the Gilbert, Phoenix, Fanning, and other small island groups in the area. Most of the natives had adopted Christianity by 1941.
The population consisted of 4200 Polynesians and virtually
no Europeans. Some 2000 residents had been voluntarily resettled in the
previously uninhabited Phoenix Islands just before war broke out in an
attempt to reduce overpopulation.
The islands became the front line early in the
Pacific War when the Japanese seized
the Gilberts. Although the Japanese did not occupy any of the Ellice
Islands, there were occasional bombing raids, and New Zealand coast watchers were assigned
to some of the atolls. Three of the atolls were occupied by the United States in October 1942
and August 1943 to secure the approaches to Samoa and Fiji
and reconnoiter the Japanese in the Gilberts. An airbase was built on Funafuti that supported the Tarawa invasion in late 1943.
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