Vietnamese, Japanese, Formosan Coolies and the U.S.S. Pargo in the Paracel Islands in World War II

Given that things are heating up now that the PRC is attempting to set up an oil rig in an area of the sea that is claimed by Vietnam, I decided to look around to see if I could find some new information about the history of this area (at least something new to me – I’m not an expert on this topic).

A quick search in the National Archives of Australia brought up some interesting documents.


I found one document, for instance, that appears to be an intelligence report from 1945 about the Paracel Islands. Late in the war, Australian forces moved northward to liberate Southeast Asia from Japanese rule. They were instrumental in retaking Borneo, for instance, and this report was made in preparation for an anticipated landing in the Paracels (did that ever take place?).

To prepare for this operation, someone collected together various materials about the Paracels. For example, there is information here that was obtained from a 1940 pre-war report in which the Paracels were seen as a potential stepping stone in a Japanese advance towards Indochina.


That report contained the following information:

“The Japanese have phosphate and fishing companies here and on the pier at Woody Island is an imposing monument inscribed ‘Here begin the lands of the Empire of the Great King of Japan.’

“The French erected monuments on Woody, Duncan, Drummond, Robert and Pattle Islands in Mar[ch 19] 38, and on Lincoln and Money Islands in Jun[e 19]39, denoting that these islands belonged to the Republic of France.”


Going into more detail, this document recorded the following information about the Paracels:

“There is a French police station on the island. . . In Jan[uary 19]40, the French personnel consisted of

1 Inspector (native)

1 Sergeant (native)

1 Corporal (native)

24 Policement (native)

1 Doctor (native)

1 Interpreter (native)

1 Electrician (native)

11 Coolies (native)

“There is a Japanese phosphate undertaking at the SW of the island. The undertaking belongs to Messrs Kaiyo, Kagyo of Takao [now Gaoxiong] in Formosa [i.e., Taiwan], and the local staff consists of a Japanese manager, 30 Japanese and 150 Formosan collies. . .

“In Mar[ch 19]38, the Japanese were authorized officially to fly their flag, but it was pointed out that they were only allowed to do so as private individuals, and that the permission has no political significance. Since then it has been hoisted on very rare occasions. . .

“Except [a]round the French and Japanese establishments the island is densely wooded.

“There is an enormous number of rats.”


I had no idea that this is what life was like on the Paracels in the late 1930s, but apparently there was a group of Indochinese “natives” (I’m assuming that they were Vietnamese) based there, as well as Japanese who were obtaining phosphate from the large collection of guano there.

Or more accurately, Formosan coolies were probably the ones who were collecting the guano.

What I am unsure about is why the Japanese were allowed to fly the Japanese flag there. However, this detail, and the claim that there was a monument on Woody Island that had inscribed on it “Here begin the lands of the Empire of the Great King of Japan” suggests that the Japanese there were quietly setting a foundation for Japan’s eventual expansion into Southeast Asia (and it is well documented that Japanese businessmen performed this kind of role in the 1930s in Southeast Asia).


In the end, I don’t think that the Japanese used these islands as a stepping stone for their invasion of Southeast Asia. However, after they had successfully occupied the region, they apparently placed some people on these islands.

A secret mission that a US submarine, the U.S.S. Pargo, carried out in early February 1945 found Japanese soldiers on Woody Island, and the U.S.S. Pargo then fired shots at what appeared to be their administrative building.

Once they began to do so, someone raised the French Tricolor over the building, but the Americans saw this as a ruse on the part of the Japanese there and continued to fire.


I had never heard of any of this, but this file contains a very detailed account of the U.S.S. Pargo’s reconnaissance of the Paracels (they even noted that there was a dog on Woody Island, a cross between an Alsation and an Airdale, that anyone landing on the island needed be aware of, in case it started to bark at them) and its attack on the Japanese base there.

I found this particularly fascinating to read as I was at a conference a couple of years ago where a very respected historian from Southeast Asia argued that China’s claim to those islands really began after World War II when the Chinese tried to claim as their own territory areas beyond China that the Japanese had conquered.

This historian did not provide any details to support his argument, but I can clearly see those details here in these materials.

In the 1930s and 1940s, there were no Chinese claims on the Paracels. The French claimed those islands as part of French Indochina, and the Japanese tried to challenge that claim.

As for the Chinese, their main presence in the Paracels during those years was in the form of Formosan coolies (if we want to consider the inhabitants of the Japanese colony of Formosa as “Chinese”), men who spent their days collecting guano (i.e., shit) for Japanese businessmen.

Oh, isn’t history fascinating?!!

[The full file can be accessed here.]

5 thoughts on “Vietnamese, Japanese, Formosan Coolies and the U.S.S. Pargo in the Paracel Islands in World War II

  1. @ LMK

    I am very curious about what you think of a book by the South Vietnamese historian Võ Long Tê, which was published in Sài Gòn shortly after the conquest of the Paracel archipelago by the Chinese in 1974:

    Les Archipels de Hoàng-Sa et de Trường-Sa selon les Anciens Ouvrages Vietnamiens d’Histoire et de Géographie

    Nguyễn Thế Anh wrote in the Preface that it was a very solid piece of historical scholarship:

    However, I have never come across a thorough assessment of this study by a non-Vietnamese scholar. Hence my curiosity.

  2. I’ll try to take a look at this book. I’ve never looked at it. From the little but that I’ve been able to detect about it online, it looks like it contains a lot of information that people in Vietnam in recent years have struggled to find and document (in other words – if they had had a copy of this book [and from what I can tell, there only seem to be a few copies of this work in VN], their lives would have been a lot easier!).

    I’ve been looking in the National Archives of Australia, and this file is interesting:

    Starting on page 14, there is a confidential report that was made in 1975 about the Paracels. That report talks about this book and says (on page 19) “this work does not contain any evidence which would conclusively support the claim that the islands were formally incorporated into the Annamese Empire either in 1802 or in 1816.

    This report is interesting, however, in that it attempts to look at the evidence from all sides, and (although I need to read it more carefully), the conclusion seems to be that as of 1975 it was unclear who the islands belonged to.

    I need to look at all of this more closely (now that the PRC is doing what it is doing, I feel like it is finally time to start looking at this stuff), but what seems clear is that this is a kind of “intermediate space” that various empires impinged on. The Japanese started to move into the area, and that incited a Chinese response. Then the French moved in. And then the Japanese expanded. And then first the Nationalist and then the Communist Chinese made claims, and then South Vietnam did, etc.

    The result is that it is very difficult to see “sovereignty” here in the past, as this was a space that local kingdoms had not clearly laid sovereignty (in part because the concept of sovereignty did not exist) to and which expansive foreign empires (Japanese/French) then sought to claim as their own.

    It is therefore ultimately a mess (but it’s a great example of how the modern nations of Asia have been created from the debris of empires). Nonetheless, that doesn’t give China the right to move an oil rig into the area, or to ram Vietnamese boats or kill Vietnamese fishermen.

    So I’m fully confident in concluding that the PRC sucks, but the claims to sovereignty over this region (by anyone) are really problematic for multiple reasons.

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