Wilbert Chapman and World War II

I haven’t written much about Wilbert Chapman on the blog. He’s in both my books, and in various academic papers, but there is not much about him in these pages. I’m going to be writing a series of posts about him, to tie into some of the other content that is available on the blog. Chapman is considered  by several scholars, me included, to be a central figure in the development of post-war fisheries, fisheries science, and oceanography. He left voluminous records, housed at the University of Washington Special Collections, his last employer, Ralston Purina, paid to have his papers archived and I think it’s a couple of hundred boxes. I have happily trawled through many boxes and the man had his fingers in many, many pies.

Both Harry Scheiber and Arthur McEvoy have written about Chapman; Scheiber most extensively. Like me, they basically summarized his career after 1945, when he became a leading voice for the expansion of fisheries and oceanography in the Pacific Ocean. He was appointed an attaché for fisheries within the State Department and he negotiated two treaties creating new international commissions that are still in existence, as well as greatly shaping the peace treaty with Japan. He later worked for the American Tuna Association out of San Diego (the address for the office was One Tuna Lane, I just love that), and for Ralston Purina as director of research. He died in 1970.

Chapman spent spent 14  months in the Pacific. At the behest of the “Great White Father,” Chapman writes that he “spent the better part of fourteen months wandering from base to base in the Central and South Pacific, starting fisheries on a semi-commercial scale…”     The book is about from April to September of 1944, fishing in the Solomon Islands. It was published in 1949.

It’s a very mixed book. His main focus is the frustrations of trying to catch fish in a war zone, and the interpersonal conflicts among the three GIs and five “very black, and very stalwart men of Segi.” In addition to Chapman, there were three other scientists on the project.  Robert Smith died of complications from tropical diseases (Chapman does not make it clear), while Milner B. Schaefer contracted rheumatic fever and was spent 14 months of the war in military hospitals.  He died at the age of 60, so his health was probably permanently impaired by his time in the military.


Chapman left San Francisco in September of 1943. The Central Pacific Command asked him to spend a few days advising them about finding fresh fish to keep the troops. The “few days” stretched to three months and 20,000 miles of air travel. His plan to set up units on military bases, so troops could catch their own fish, using a fishing kit that had been designed by Reginald H. Fielder, a federal fisheries advisor. I am still searching for more about this fishing kit, but haven’t found anything. He spent nine month in the Gilbert, Ellice, and New Caledonian islands, hiring local fishermen and teaching them to use the gear, and setting up units on roughly 20 different military bases.

“This is a complete kit that can be used to catch almost anything edible that swims and compact enough to be loaded on a plane,” Chapman wrote in a draft press release about his wartime service.  “Now the kit goes along with our troops as they move to new bases.”[i]

The food situation is critical, in November of 1943 the upper Solomon Islands were so recently secured from the Japanese there were no lines of supply. Rations were dry and in short supply. After his scouting party, he finds the project has been transferred from the Navy to the Army. Chapman writes that the “plan of action which I submitted for the establishment of fisheries in the whole South Pacific area was turned into the Navy,” but then disappeared “and I was never again able to find the slightest trace of it.” It was up to the Army to implement a plan that had never been formally received.

Needless to say, this does not go well.  Chapman narrates the story in a light-hearted way,  with a dash of natural history as he collects specimens of fish for identification back at the Academy of Sciences.

But revisiting this story tells me two things: that there was a military plan during the war to expand American fishing deeper into the Pacific, and how these experiences shaped Chapman’s vision of the expansion of American tuna fisheries into the Pacific. Chapman returns to San Francisco at the end of the war, determined to expand American tuna fishing deep into the equatorial Pacific.

[i] University of Washington Special Collections, Chapman papers, Undated Box 4, Folder 1


About finleyc

I'm a writer and a historian of science. I'm interested in the intersection of science and policy in the oceans, and especially around fishing.
This entry was posted in Albacore tuna, American Tuna Association, Carmel Finley, fisheries science, Fishing, History of Science, Maritime History, Ocean fishing, Pacific Fishing History Project, Wilbert M. Chapman, World History. Bookmark the permalink.

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