Secondary use of artefacts and the development of a new historical context: an example of the jet age
by Dirk HR Spennemann


Throughout history the use of artefacts has been common for purposes other than those for which they had been designed, especially if they consisted of desireable raw materials. On the islands of Micronesia an abundance of equipment was discarded as damaged or as surplus after the end of World War II, and much of this equipment found secondary use. Some items were more suitable than others and some items were modified to suit the new uses-ranging as far as the use use of flattened aircraft fuselage as walls of houses.

The 'dark side' for cultural resource management, however, is that such items are then removed from their original context. While a new cultural context is thus created, the original context is depleted and impaired. It is the balance between the two that defines responsible cultural resource management. It is of importance to provide examples of such secondary uses as they represent opportunities to identify trends in an artefact's first and second lives and thus allow us to make pre-dictions about the future of these or similar artefact types, as well as postdictions of past event sequences.

One of the relatively common finds at the shores and on the islands of the atolls of Micronesia are oblong or torpedo-shaped aluminium cylinders, which at first glance can easily be mistaken for floats of flying boats or sea-planes. These objects, either encountered at the shore or, more commonly, in use as water tanks at home sites, are external wing tanks of a F-86 Sabre fighterbomber, which could be discarded ('dropped') in flight.

Left: Drop tanks being mounted to a F-86 (after Davis 1978)..

North American F-86 'Sabre'

Developed in 1945-1947, the North American F-86 'Sabre' was the first American jet fighter aircraft to see production. It went into production in 1948 and as over time various variants of the F-86 were developed, the versatility of the plane increased from a good weather fighter to an all weather interceptor, an aircraft carrier fighter, and a fighter bomber capable of delivering nuclear warheads. The plane was mainly built by North American at its Inglewood (California) plant, but variants were built in license by Fiat in Italy, Canadair in Canada, and the Commonwealth Aircraft Corporation in Australia. It was flown by numerous airforces in the (then) non-communist world.

Right: Drop tank washed up at the beach of Sapuk, Moen Island, Federated States of Micronesia.

North American F-86 'Sabre' jet aircraft saw extensive service in the Pacific Area until the late 1950s, both stationed on island bases, such as Guam, Hawaii, Okinawa and the Philippines, as well as on aircraft carriers of the US Pacific Fleet. The F-86 was the mainstay of the Far Eastern Air Force during the Korean War. Early experiences had shown that the US propeller aircraft were no match for the Russian and Chinese MIG-15s. The F-86 changed the strategic situation as it outflew the Russian planes and dominated the skies. This fighter type in particular serves as the single best example of US aircraft characteristic of the early years of the Cold War.

Left: Drop tank washed up at the beach of Ebon, Island, Ebon Atoll, Republic of the Marshall Islands.

An abundance of F-86 aircraft does exist in various aircraft museums and on outside static display at airbases such as at the San Diego Aerospace Museum, the National Aviation Museum, Rockcliffe Airport, Ottawa, and the USAF History and Traditions Museum, Lackland Air Force Base San Antonio (TX). A tentative list of holdings includes inter alia 10A, 5D, 6F, 13H and 19L models and as such the planes are well represented and preserved as artefacts. While no F-86 seems to remain in the Western Pacific area, the abundant drop tanks form tangible evidence of the former presence of these aircraft.

Right: Drop tank on Ebon, Island, Ebon Atoll, Republic of the Marshall Islands.

Drop tanks

The small size and maneuvrability of the F-86 demanded that the wing and inboard fuel tanks be small. To provide the necessary range as well as the capability to carry the required payload of bombs or rockets, the aircraft were fitted with external fuel tanks, which could be jettisoned if the need arose, such as in combat situations when drag had to be reduced. Some of the planes had 'dual store' capability, i.e. the option to carry two drop tanks under each wing.

Left: Drop tank on Ebon, Island, Ebon Atoll, Republic of the Marshall Islands.

    These drop tanks come in a a variety of shapes and fuel capacities:
  • 120 gal. combat tanks with straight fins;
  • 120 gal. combat tanks with straight fins and sidepanels;
  • 200 gal. (finless) drop tank;
  • 200 gal. Misawa tank;
  • 206.5 gal. ferry tank (Davis 1978).

Normal patrol flights would return with the empty tanks, as they could be refilled. Thus it would appear that all of the fuel tanks so far found in Micronesia are 120 gallon combat tanks, which were dropped off as part of training exercises. These drop tanks were made by a variety of manufacturers on behalf of the USAF, among them Japanese companies such as Shin Meiwa.

Right: Drop tank on Ebon, Island, Ebon Atoll, Republic of the Marshall Islands.

Droptanks as water catchments

The atolls of the Marshall Islands are made up of small islands with very small ground water lenses. Rainwater catchment is a priority and any suitable receptace is used as a water tank.

Where possible, the concrete water tanks build by the Japanese army during World War II have been repaired or refurbished and are commonly used at present for the same purpose (eg. Taroa I. [pers. obs.]; Wotje I. [pers. obs.]; Majuro I. [Ryenkevich 1981; Spennemann 1990]). Japanese driftnet floats (both glass and plastic), as well as remains of WWII tanker trucks and gun powder containers (Look & Spennemann 1993; Spennemann and Look 1995) were also 'drafted'. Thus it is not suprising that the drop tanks were utilised as water catchments. Such tanks have been seen by the author on a wide range of atolls:

Left: Drop tank on Mile Island, Mile Atoll, Republic of the Marshall Islands.

Taroa Island, Maloelap Atoll, RMI.
Bouj Island, Ailinglaplap Atoll, RMI.
Ebon Island, Ebon Atoll, RMI. (3 examples)
(one originally from Djarrit Island, Majuro Atoll, RMI)
Laura Island, Majuro Atoll, RMI.
Lukej Island, Arno Atoll, RMI.
Mejatto Island, Kwajalein Atoll, RMI.
(originally from Rongelap Island, Rongelap Atoll, RMI)
Mile Island, Mile Atoll, RMI.

In addition, tanks were seen washed ashore and partially embedded in the coastal deposits on Sapuk, Moen Island, Chuuk Atoll, FSM.

The ocean current patterns in the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia area allow for transport of such droptanks from both the west (such as Guam) and the east (such as Hawaii).

Right: A F-86 droptank as the main water catchment at the principal's residence site, Lukwej Island, Arno Atoll, Marshall Islands (1992). Note the guttering from the roofline.
A survey on Mejatto Island, Kwajalein Atoll, encountered a drop tank used as a water catchment. The tank had been found washed ashore on Rongelap Island, Rongelap Atoll, and moved to Mejatto Island on Kwajalein Atoll when the island population was evacuated in 1985 due to radiological contamination. A drop tank found at the shore near an abandoned house site on Ebon originally came from Majuro Atoll. These examples document the importance Marshallese attach to additional water storage options and to the value droptanks have as late as the 1990s.

Left: Drop tank on Laura Island, Majuro Atoll, Republic of the Marshall Islands.

While the use as water tanks is the most common, the large aluminium objects also found other uses. On Pohnpei (Ponape, Federated States of Micronesia) two nose sections of drop tanks were seen placed as entrance pylons to a Sakau Bar (see below).


The drop tanks are comparatively recent items, and outside the 50-year clause for historical significance as defined by the US Historic Preservation Act, the Republic of the Marshall Islands Historic Preservation Act (1992) or similar acts in the Federated States of Micronesia. Thus, at first sight, these 1950s drop tanks seem to be of little concern for cultural resource managers.

Right: Drop tank parts used as entrance pylons at a Sakau Bar, Kolonia, Pohnpei Island, Federated States of Micronesia.

However, these drop tanks are exemplary of a more general issue. Modern naval warfare is dominated by the doctrine of highly mobile, self-reliant forces centred on aircraft carrier formations. U.S. naval power in the Pacific is circumscribed by a number of military/naval bases and a number of mobile naval and aerial units. Because of its mobility, the tangible evidence of this naval presence is far and between and this even more pronounced in the case of the naval arm. These drop tanks, then, are demonstrative of issues of conservation management of cultural resources and the documentation of historical events for which there is no other tangible evidence in the Micronesian region, such as:

Left: Drop tank parts used as entrance pylons at a Sakau Bar, Kolonia, Pohnpei Island, Federated States of Micronesia.

the early development of military jet aircraft;
the military build-up during the Cold War;
the US Air Force involvement of the Korean War;
the deployment of jet aircraft in Micronesia; and
the control of Micronesian waters by the US Navy.

The ubiquity of these tanks throughout Micronesia indicates the wide-spread presence of the US Navy and the US Air Force. Wake Island (Eneen-Kio) was a staging point for the US Air Force ferrying aircraft and goods from Hawaii to the US bases in the Philippines and on Okinawa.

On the atolls of Micronesia these tanks are further demonstrative of the water shortages on many locations, especially in the Marshall Islands, and the need to utilise every water retaining receptacle available.

The management of these resources, however, poses a problem. The aluminium alloy of these tanks was designed to hold partially corrosive agents (jet fuel) and was meant to be unpainted and exposed to the elements. It seems to withstand decay much better than the aluminium of many US and Japanese World War II planes (cf. Look and Spennemann 1993) and from a material preservation point of view will survive longer.

These tanks, however, are movable artefacts and, as the examples of the ex-Rongelap and ex-Majuro specimens has shown, are being moved not only between islands on a given atoll, but from one atoll to another. As large-volume fibreglass and sheetmetal watertanks become more and more common on the islands of the Marshalls, these droptanks will be abandoned in favour of the larger tanks and are likely to disappear, both from the current secondary use and possibly from the record in general.

In the case of these tanks it is not possible to conserve the cultural resource in a meaningful way in place and unchanged, as the conceptual setting of the resource changes. While it would be advisable that the Alele Museum (National Museum of the Marshall Islands) collects a tank and accessions it into its collections, along with ample pictorial of oral information on the tanks origin and its use at the time of collection, this would only provide an archival documentation.

Implications for CRM

Heritage conservation hinges on the perception of significance attributed to a given cultural resource. If the resource is neither deemed significant by the people utilising it, or otherwise protected , such as by legal or regulatory controls, its survival is imperilled. As has been shown elsewhere, the preservation of World War II items and sites is - understandably - very low on the agenda of most Micronesians (Spennemann 1992a, 1992b). The World War II period is perceived as an intrusion - a foreign heritage on one's shore. Some sites are recognised as having tourism value, and are promoted as such, such as the shipwrecks o the bottom of Chuuk (Truk) Lagoon and military bases such as Taroa, Maloelap Atoll, RMI. However, items such as drop tanks, do not fall into this category. They are of precious little interest to tourists and, as they do not even originate from any resource located in one's own country, are of even lesser interest to the Micronesians.

References and further reading

Davis, L. (1978) F-86 Sabre in action. Carrolton, TX: Squadron/signal publications.

Look, David W. and Dirk H.R. Spennemann, (1993) For Future Use: A Management Conservation Plan for the World War II sites in the Republic of the Marshall Islands. Albury, NSW, Australia, and San Francisco, U.S.A.: The Johnstone Centre of Parks, Recreation and Heritage and the U.S. National Park Service Western Regional Office.

Ryenkevich, M.A. (1981) Traders, Teachers and Soldiers: An anthropological study of Colonial Era sites on Majuro Atoll, Marshall Islands. Micronesian Archaeological Survey Report 8. Saipan: Historic Preservation Office, Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands.

Spennemann, D.H.R. (1990) Cultural Resource Managment Plan for Majuro Atoll, Republic of the Marshall Islands. 2 Vols. Report prepared in fulfillment of U.S.Department of Interior, Office of Territorial and International Affairs Technical Assistance Grant MAR-42. Report submitted to the Historic Preservation Office, Majuro, Republic of the Marshall Islands. August 1990.

Spennemann, Dirk H.R. (1992a) World War II Remains on Central Pacific Islands: Perceptions of Heritage versus Priorities of Preservation. HPO-Report NÄ 1992/4. Majuro, Marshall Islands: Historic Preservation Office.

Spennemann, Dirk H.R. (1992b) World War II Remains on Central Pacific Islands: Perceptions of Heritage versus Priorities of Preservation. The Pacific Review 5 (3), 1992, 278-290.

Spennemann, Dirk H.R. (1993) Cultural Resources on Mejatto Island, Kwajalein Atoll, Republic of the Marshall Islands. Observations during a series of exhumations in January 1993. Case report prepared for the Republic of the Marshall Islands Historic Preservation Office. Pacific Cultural Resources Management Case Reports. Albury, NSW, Australia: Pacific Cultural Resources Management.

Spennemann, Dirk H.R. (1995) Secondary use of airplane parts: F-86 droptanks A photographic case study from Micronesia. Johnstone Centre of Parks, Recreation and Heritage Report NÄ 37e. Johnstone Centre of Parks, Recreation and Heritage, Charles Sturt University, Albury, NSW Australia. URL

Spennemann, Dirk H.R. and David W. Look (1995) Impact of Tropical Vegetation on Historical Cultural Resources. A photographic case study from the Marshall Islands. Johnstone Centre of Parks, Recreation and Heritage Report No. 18. Johnstone Centre of Parks, Recreation and Heritage, Charles Sturt University, Albury. URL

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Bibliographic citation for this document

Spennemann, Dirk H.R. (1995) Secondary use of artefacts and the development of a new historical context: an example of the jet age.
URL: http:/

Dirk H.R. Spennemann, Institute of Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, P.O.Box 789, Albury NSW 2640, Australia.

© Dirk H.R. Spennemann 2000-2001
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