75 years ago, the French rounded up Japanese migrant workers and detained them in Australia. They refused to let them come back after World War II ended, so the detainees were deported to Japan. Most of them never saw their families again. Their descendants are still trying to learn what happened to them.
Anais (Eto) Melissa had just finished breakfast and was preparing to go to school when the French militia took her father. She never saw him again.
Now in her 90s, Melissa watched footage of the Australian War Memorial with other French children of Japanese parents, hoping to see her father in the crowd.
The footage was shot at the end of WWII and it shows the detainees boarding ships bound for Japan from Sydney.
But she was not able to spot her father in the grainy footage.
Historian Ismet Kurtovitch calls it a shameful episode in history.
Historians and researchers have gone through the archives in New Caledonia, Australia and France, trying to find answers about what happened to the former detainees.
There is a telegram dated December 8, 1941, from the governor of New Caledonia which tells the mayors to arrest all Japanese and send them to concentration camps in Bourail and Noumea. All Japanese were suspected of being spies.
Families that had become naturalized were stripped of their French citizenship. Families were torn apart and the ones left in New Caledonia were left without means to support themselves.
Most of the descendants are not interested in apologies or reparations. They just want to know why.
Marie-Jose Michel is Japan’s Honorary Consul in Noumea. Both of her grandfathers were arrested after the Pearl Harbor attack and sent to an Australian detention camp.
It was shameful to be Japanese at the time, she remembered.
“I feel like my father and mother were the ‘sacrificed generation,’” she said.
There are thousands in New Caledonia with mixed Japanese, French, Kanak and other ethnicities.
There is a memorial in Noumea dedicated to the first Japanese migrant workers that arrived in New Caledonia 125 years ago. They worked in the nickel mines, were farmers, owned small businesses. Some became rich enough to own nickel mining licenses.
Over a thousand Japanese immigrants and naturalized citizens were sent to Australia and detained in 1942. Only ten of them made it back to see their families.
The New Caledonia archives have many records of when people of Japanese descent were detained and what they owned of value. According to Kurtovitch, all of their assets were seized by the government and sold at auction. It was all legal, he said.
Instead of sending the men back to New Caledonia after the war, Australia sent them to Japan. No official explanation has ever been uncovered.
The only document concerning the fate of the detainees is a document from Australia saying that the French refused to take them back.
Once the French denied admittance to the detainees, there was nothing more the Australians could do, SBS News reported.
Kurtovitch is convinced that they will find a document somewhere, either in New Caledonia, France or Australia with a reason. “Everything was written down somewhere,” he said.