NUKU’ALOFO, Tonga, Nov. 9, 2010 - The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff stopped at this island nation today to thank Tongans for their efforts to promote peace and stability in the world.

Navy Adm. Mike Mullen became the first chairman to visit the kingdom, although he had visited the island when he commanded the destroyer USS Goldsborough in 1987.

“I came back to Tonga simply to say one thing: ‘Thank you,’” Mullen said during a ceremony welcoming the admiral and his wife, Deborah, to the island. “Thank you for your friendship, thank you for your support, thank you for the long-lasting relationship.”

The Tongan people have stepped to the fore in the fight against terrorism. Tonga maintained a 55-man deployment to Iraq from 2004 to 2005. Anyone going to the Al Faw Palace – then the headquarters of Multinational Force Iraq – saw the Tongan soldiers guarding the compound.

The Tongan military is readying to deploy another 55-man detachment to Afghanistan. The soldiers are currently training with British forces in England. The deployment of these soldiers represents 10 percent of the Tongan military; the entire nation has a population of just over 100,000.

The chairman met with King George Tupou V, Prime Minister Feleti Vaka’uta Sevele, and Brig. Gen. Uta’atu, the Tongan chief of defense, during his stop. Mullen and his party are returning to the United States from the Australia-U.S. Ministerial Consultations held in Melbourne, Australia.

The military-to-military relationship between the United States and Tonga began in early 1942, when the U.S. desperately needed to keep the sea lanes to Australia and New Zealand open. The Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor destroyed much of the American fleet, and there was a danger that the Japanese – attacking south and east – would cut off and invade Australia.

Ultimately, more than 10,000 American servicemembers were based in Tonga during World War II, and the Tongan military fought alongside U.S. Army and Marine Corps units on Guadalcanal. That battle represented a turning point in the war against the Japanese.

The Tongan military held a Retreat ceremony in honor of the chairman. Mullen visited the island with the Goldsborough twice in 1987. He said he remembers one visit as if it were yesterday. “We parked at the pier and it was blowing about 50 knots,” he said. “It’s a tough pier to get alongside when the wind is coming like that.”

Mullen said he also remembers the warm welcome and the outreach of the people to the ship’s 300 American sailors. “Quite frankly, it was part of my long-term view that someday I hoped I could get back here,” he said.

And now he has returned to convey the thanks of the American people. “Again you’ve volunteered to be at our side in a tough fight,” he said.