What and Where is Palau?

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A Brief History

On October 1, 1994, the Pacific island nation of Palau entered an agreement with the United States called “a Compact of Free Association with the United States,” maintaining its independence while reaping some of the territorial benefits of being part of the “American Empire.”  While the average American is probably not familiar with the most populous of the 340 islands that make up the country, and probably never heard of the capital city of Ngerulmud, those familiar with the US vs. Japan Pacific War during World War II may be familiar with the island of Peleliu, the site of a vicious and epic battle between Japanese and American (mostly US Marines) forces in 1944.

Digging Deeper

Located in the Western Pacific Ocean east of the Philippine Islands and Northwest of the Island of New Guinea, Palau was first settled by humans around 3000 years ago by people coming from the island regions of Southeast Asia, probably from what are now the Philippine Islands and Indonesia.  Racially, Palauans are made up of Melanesian and Austronesian (73% of the population combined), as well as Micronesian, Filipino, and other Asian ethnicities.  Only just over 21,000 people reside in the island nation of Palau.

Europeans first encountered Palau when the Magellan expedition spotted the islands in 1522, and Spain subsequently assumed control of the islands in the 16th Century when the Philippines became Spanish territory, though the islands were largely ignored by Europeans.  The 18th Century brought British visitors, and the World War I era brought first Germans and then the Japanese to seize Palau.  Japanese hegemony was codified by the League of Nations after World War I, and the islands remained in the Japanese sphere until World War II when the Americans and Allied forces were victorious over the Japanese Empire.  The most notable battle of the Palau campaign during World War II was the Battle of Peleliu, a small island of only 5 square miles.  Those few acres cost over 2000 American and 10,000 Japanese lives during the vicious 2 month battle (after the US Marine commander predicted a 4 day battle!).

In 1947 the United Nations made Palau part of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, effectively turning over the islands to the United States.  The 1970’s saw some of the Trust Territories unite to become the country of Micronesia, but Palau and the Marshall Islands declined to join.  In 1978, Palau became an independent nation and adopted a Constitution in 1981.  In 1982, Palau and the US signed a Compact of Free Association with the United States, which was in turn ratified on October 1, 1994.  This agreement made Palau officially independent, although it had operated as such for the previous few months.  The agreement with the United States allows the US military access to the islands of Palau while in turn providing for the national defense of the nation.  The US Coast Guard patrols the waters surrounding the islands.

Palau is a decidedly tropical group of islands, with a daily high temperature averaging between 87 and 88 degrees Fahrenheit year round, with an annual rainfall of nearly 150 inches spread over an average of 224 rainy days per year.  The people of Palau make their living largely by agriculture and fishing, with tourism having made up an increased part of the economy.  Scuba diving and snorkeling are prime attractions in Palau, with numerous coral reefs and shipwrecks to explore.  The per capita GDP of just over $16,000 ranks 81st in the world and is somewhat higher than that of other regional islands, such as Micronesia which ranks 155th with a GDP of only $3400.  Palau actually ranks higher than some notably larger nations such as China and Brazil as well as the Philippines!  (Statistics coming from the American CIA, which lists a variety of demographic, geographic and economic data.)

The world is filled with obscure places most of us have not heard of, let alone visited, and Palau is probably one of those places for most of us.  Some of these places may well be territories associated with the United States, many of which are found in the Pacific Ocean.  Which ones can you think of?

Question for students (and subscribers): Were you previously aware of the existence and history of Palau?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Aflague, Gerard. My First Palauan 200 Picture Word Book. CreateSpace, 2017.

Rock, Tim. Diving and Snorkeling Guide to Palau and Yap. Independently published, 2018.

Sledge, EB. With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa.  Presidio Press, 2007.

Wink Travel Guide. Palau – Wink Travel Guide. Independently published, 2018.

The featured image in this article, a map of the Republic of Palau, is in the public domain because it contains materials that originally came from the United States Central Intelligence Agency‘s World Factbook.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.