Essays on the Marshallese Past

The Fate of World War II Sites on the Central Pacific

With the 50th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor just behind us, it is time to take stock of the impact this event and the subsequent 4 years of warfare had on some parts of the Pacific. Not in terms of death and destruction, or in terms of changed political alliances, such as the creation of the (former) Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, but in terms of the visible remains of these times and the role these play in the modern world.

In the late 1930s some of the islands of Micronesia had seen the development of large Japanese naval and air bases. After the outbreak of the war, with the expansion of the area conquered by the Japanese further base development took place in Kiribati, Nauru, Papua New Guinea and the Solomons. At the same time, the other combatants developed their own bases, such as Eneen-Kio (Wake Island), later to be conquered and further developed by the Japanese, Samoa, Tongatapu, Viti Levu, Funafuti (Tuvalu), Efate and so on.

Many of the Japanese military installations had been destroyed from a military point of view by the often daily bombing runs, but much of the substance of the buildings is still around. In modern terms this means that these islands are littered with war remains, ranging from runways and other parts of the air installations to piers, gun positions, bunkers and the like.

Japanese 127mm Type 96 (1936) Dual Purpose Gun for anti-aircraft and coastal defense(Mile Island). These guns, emplaced in groups of two, with a third emplacement to spare, are the most common guns on the Japanese bases.

The artefactual inventory includes shipwrecks, airplane wrecks, tanks, vehicles, as well as heavy guns, an abundance of unexploded ammunition and aspects of after-hours life in the form of beer bottles and the like. The concentration of such remains in Micronesia had been so great that the former World War II had attained the nickname of "Rust Territory."

What is happening to these sites today?

Some are still in use. After having originated as fighter and bomber strips built by either side, a number of airfields and runways are still in use in original dimensions, while others have been substantially enlarged and have become hubs of modern aviation. Nadi Airport in Fiji and Henderson Field in Papua New Guinea immediately come to mind, but so are Fua'amotu Airport

Secondary use of World War II artefacts, such as these oxygen bottles buried upside down to serve as a pig pen (Mile Island), causes dislocation of the artefact and distortion of the context. In addition, several artefacts, especially those of non-ferrous alloys, were sold as scrap metal in the 1950s and early 1960s, leading to widespread destruction of the historical resources.

in Tonga, Funafuti in Tuvalu and a number of strips in the Republic of the Marshall Islands.

In several instances bunkers and the like are now utilised as sheds and pig sties, and larger structures are used for human habitation. The command building of the Japanese base on Taroa, Maloelap Atoll, even serves as a church. Other sites have been left untouched and vegetation has reclaimed them. But this historical heritage has been exposed to some destruction and impairment by a number of factors, which leave us with less than what had been left behind after surrender in September 1945.

In the late 1950s until the mid 1970s local and foreign entrepreneurs have pillaged these sites in search of scrap iron and especially non-ferrous metals. For some islands scrap metal was a major source of revenue: in the Marshall Islands for example it was the second largest export commodity in the late 1960s. One of the effects of the Jeanette Diana affair was that scrap metal imports from the Solomon Islands were prohibited by the U.S. These scrap metal drives continued the destruction of the historical resources at an unprecedented rate. While a bombed and burned-out generator station was still easily recognisable as such, these generators were cannibalised in search for the copper wiring of the anchors, the fly-wheels were taken if feasible and the like. A sorry sight often is all that remains.

In retrospect, the scrap metal collectors, as well as the well-intentioned clean-ups and the removal of unexploded World War II ammunition during the same period caused more structural damage to the World War II heritage than the entire war impact.

Recently a new threat has developed, caused by people collecting war remains, labelled "relics" to increase their spiritual value and thus the collector's justification for taking them in the first place. These collectors range from small time, one-off individuals, who encounter a number of artefacts and take one "for the fun of it" to fanatics driven by the desire to possess a complete collection of all Japanese infantry gear or the like. There are also a few "carpet baggers" who come to the islands to obtain war planes and other remains for eventual restoration and resale to museums. In the end-effect, if such is permitted, an island is stripped of all plane remains.

The Marshall Islands recently had to deal with such an attempt, and so had the Solomons. In Belau a court case is ongoing on the rights to salvage and export a submerged plane. Salvaging of shipwrecks and their cargo is also an ongoing problem, as recent events in Papua New Guinea testify. The level of legal protection of this kind of heritage is often either non existent or only too wide-meshed in many Pacific countries, which are also plagued by lack of a sufficient number of trained staff to manage the resources. Witnesses to the fierceness of the battles and the sacrifice of many crews, a great number of aircraft and shipwrecks rests on the bottom of the lagoons in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, accessible to divers.

A Japanese submarine chaser off Ollot I., Maloelap Atoll.

A Grumman TBF "Avenger" torpedo bomber on the bottom of Majuro Lagoon.

Any removal of artefacts or any further damage and impairment of the sites and resources will lead to the depletion of that part of the Pacific Region's historic heritage to a level that the overall integrity of some resource may be gone for good and ever. People, especially collectors with a vested interested, have often been arguing that the remains are left to rot and decay and that islanders do not really care about them or at least did not care about them in the past. The question not asked is why they should have cared in the first place.

With some exceptions the Pacific Islanders were not directly involved in the war. It happened around them, it happened against them. For some, their islands were bombed and burned; their gardens burned by napalm or destroyed by tanks plowing through them; their villages shelled by naval vessels and canoe sunk by aircraft; the islanders themselves were commandeered for forced labour, experienced food shortages and starvation. Some of them were even executed because of suspicion of collaboration with the enemy.

But, in short, the Pacific War, which forms an important event in World History from a Western and Eastern point of view, is all but a very short intermission from the Pacific Islanders perspective. It is a time of painful memories and thus a time better forgotten. And it would have been largely forgotten were it not for all the war remains lying about the atolls and islands of the Pacific, which even 50 years after the event cause carnage by hidden ammunition exploding on unsuspecting villagers.

The entire period would have been repressed were it not for all those who come to see just these sites. To see them once more, as all the returning veterans (mainly of the victorious Americans) testify; to see them because their relatives died here, as the visits of the Japanese bereaved families associations document; to see them for the first time as the increasing number of tourists shows.

They come to see the sites on land, and they come to dive on the sunken ships. The sunken Japanese fleet on the bottom of Chuuk (Truk) lagoon has become a Mecca for divers. And so have many shipwrecks in the Solomon Islands, and so will the fleet sunk in 1947 during the nuclear testing period on Bikini Atoll, Republic of the Marshall Islands.

At the same time sites on land, such as the air bases on Mile and Maloelap Atolls, Republic of the Marshall Islands, have become tourism attractions in their own right and are promoted by AIR Marshall Islands, while part of the World War II history of Efate (Vanuatu) is promoted by Air Vanuatu in the in-flight magazines of their partial parent airline Ansett, advertising Efate throughout Australia.

With tourism espoused by many Pacific Islands government's as a new and major source of national revenue, if not as a panacea, these war tourists have been recognised as an economic force, and with them the sites they come to see. The World War II remains have become a national asset, and as such they are in need of proper management, now more than ever. The Tourism Council of the South Pacific has recently financed the restoration of the Japanese coastal defense guns at Betio, Kiribati, an indication the importance a regional tourism organisation give the World War II related tourism.

The Historic Preservation Office of the Republic of the Marshall Islands, with financial support by the Department of the Interior, Office of Territorial and Insular Affairs, has begun a programme to take stock of the existent resources, ranging from complete airbases replete with aircraft wrecks, gun emplacements with guns installed, concrete installations, personnel shelters, bunkers, support structures including vehicles and the like.

The lagoons of several atolls are littered with wrecks of ships and aircraft, or with war surplus material discarded by the U.S. forces after the Japanese surrender.

Unexploded ammunition, such as this Japanese 127mm dual purpose shell, poses dangers to Historic Preservation staff conducting fieldwork for documentation and preservation assessments, as well as to tourists and locals alike. (Mile).

Majuro Lagoon , for example, sports a huge graveyard of US military vehicles.

The programme, which covers the atolls of Jaluit, Mile, Maloelap and Wotje, all locations of major Japanese bases, focusses on the survey of the extant World War II sites, which will be mapped, inventorised, described and documented. Based on these surveys, management plans for the resources will be drawn up to determine the needs and directions of future management and preservation efforts. Ultimately, tourism management and development plans will be developed for each atoll to ensure that tourist will be presented with a level interpretation of that part of the history. At the same time, these plans safeguard the heritage from impairment because of the vistors.

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Bibliographic citation for this document

Spennemann, Dirk H.R. (1998). Essays on the Marshallese Past Second edition. Albury:

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

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