British Naval Heritage in Micronesia:
Tangible evidence of the armament trade from 1890 to 1937
by Dirk H.R. Spennemann

Chapter 7: The guns--a legacy and resource

These guns, then are a unique historical resource and form part of the heritage of the respective they happen to be located in (i.e. Federated States of Micronesia and the Republic of the Marshall Islands, as well as the republic of Palau and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands), part of the heritage of Japan and part of the British Naval Heritage.

The Government of the Republic of the Marshall Islands has established an International carrier, AIR Marshall Islands, operating a DC-8 aircraft. The aircraft is used as a major tool to increase tourism. The tourism market aimed at will be specialty tourism, mainly geared towards divers and culturally and historically (World War II) interested people. As for any other country, the archaeological heritage of the Marshall Islands has some aspects, which, if wisely managed, can be of major economic benefits both on the national, and--more importantly--on the local island level.

What is the state of preservation of these guns today, and what is done to protect this part of the British naval heritage for future generations?

State Of Preservation Of The Guns

The state of preservation of the guns and gun emplacements, as well as the related structures is influenced by a number of variables: i) natural deterioration; ii) scrap metal dealers and vandalism; iii) adaptive reuse; and iv) clean-up operations, All these aspects will be discussed below.

Natural Deterioration

Most guns and emplacement 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, chiefly deterioration and corrosion, but occasionally visitor impact and acquisition of parts (see below), which leave us with little compared with what had been left behind after surrender in September 1945, but with a great deal compared with other historic battle fields and sites. Comparison of various guns in the Marshall Islands, for example, showed that the impact of corrosion and deterioration varied substantially between leeward and windward atolls

Scrap Metal Dealers and Vandalism

From the late 1950s until the mid 1970s local and foreign entrepreneurs have pillaged these sites. The remains of the war, namely the metal parts, such as the remains of tanks, trucks, guns, ships and the like soon attracted the interest of scrap metal dealers. Scrap metal dealers were particularly interested in the higher valued non-ferrous metals and alloys, as were used in brass fittings and copper wiring of generators, motors and other equipment, breech blocks and firing mechanisms of guns, copper alloys used in gun mountings, as well as in the alloy casings of artillery shells. As a result, the historic sites were torn apart and the usable and marketable materials were extracted, while the less marketable, or more cumbersome iron was left behind. Surprisingly, counter balance weights are still commonly present, but this may be attributable to their large weight. Hence, a great number of sites has been partially destroyed--or vandalised--in the process (personal observations on Wotje, Mile and Maloelap Atolls, Republic of the Marshall Islands. )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.

Adaptive Reuse

Adaptive reuse of World War II artefacts, and in fact entire sites is not uncommon throughout Micronesia. Many of the artefacts could either be used in their unadulterated state or with appropriate modifications. This adaptive reuse has some implications on the future of many artefacts and artefact categories.

Apart from the commercial scrap metal collections, the World War II sites have been combed for useful materiel by the islanders themselves. While the former bases once given up quickly became sources of household utensils and tools, the sites became later on a source of all sorts of material for manufacturing other items. An assessment of the secondary use of World War II artefacts has shown that an amazing variation of applications, ranging from the use of narrow-gauge railroad axles as weight lifting equipment on a work-out bench, to the construction of pig pens made of partly buried oxygen cylinders, or railroad tracks to the more sedate use of all sorts of containers as receptacles for water and the use of empty, metal ammunition-ready magazines as copra-drying ovens. Plane wrecks were quickly stripped of their aluminium sheeting, mainly for the use as coconut-grinder blades, husking-stick points and other artefacts, but also to make up forms for pouring concrete water tanks, or even to construct entire houses. Propeller blades have been used as reflectors to guide the way at night through lagoonal passes.

In addition, unexploded World War II ordnance, which is abundant on many places even after repeated clean ups, is collected for use as explosives in (illegal) bomb-fishing.

The 150mm guns and their components do not lend themselves to civilian use, if one excludes the ammunition ready boxes, which can serve a storage lockers or as copra drying units. This has been documented for the ammunition ready boxes of 127mm dual purpose guns, but can be expected for the ammunition boxes of 150mm coastal defense guns as well. Occasionally a recoil spring from a broken recoil cylinder finds use as foundation or a s a border for a coral gravel platform around a house.

Clean-up operations

Beginning in the late 1940s and lasting until the mid 1970s local and foreign agencies have conducted clean-up operations. Most of the Japanese garrison atolls and island have been subjected to such clean ups and systematic ordnance removal occurred. Some of the islands were cleaned up by the means of bulldozers pushing all metal and war debris into bomb craters and large piles. This type of work began immediately after the war with ordnance removal missions and continued in the 1970s with clean-ups sponsored by U.S. Army Civil Action Teams as well as locally funded operations. In those operations some complex structures, such as aircraft hangars have been reduced to a pile of twisted, meaningless metal without any chance of being recognisable in a historical context. A great number of the sites once extant have been destroyed in the post war era, mainly during clean-up operations for unexploded explosive ordnance, where half-submerged shipwrecks, bunkers and the like have been used as locations and "targets for bomb explosions.

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.

Conservation Programme

The Historic Preservation Needs

In the foreseeable future several or most of the resources dating to World War II World War II are threatened by a number of factors: i) environmental deterioration (e.g. decay), infestation by animals and destruction (e.g. shoreline retreat); ii) urban/infrastructural development of the physical environment, e.g. house construction, settlement expansion and installation of utilities; iii) artefact removal and site destruction for capital gain (e.g. scrap metal dealers and artefact collectors) and for personal use ("souvenir hunters"); iv) visitor pressure by increased visits of tourists and locals alike; and finally v) unwise local management decisions, such a ground clearing by burning.

Moreover, these sites are, in eye of most people, not worth protecting, and thus fare worse than sites considered worth keeping. Vandalism, scrap metal collection and clean-ups are not necessarily issues of the past. These threats are still present and can impair a resource rapidly. On top of this threat we have to understand the dynamics of the 50th Anniversary of the Pacific War and the added number of visitors and persons looking for keepsakes.

The Historic Preservation needs encompass the production of individual conservation management plans to better the physical conditions of these sites and heritage management plans to ensure the well being of the sites within the local social and land tenure structure. Finally, tourism management plans need to be provided to allow the utilisation of the sites by outsiders to increase the income of the outer islands communities and ultimately to increase the tax base.

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 air bases 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. Majuro Lagoon, for example, sports a huge graveyard of U.S. military vehicles.

The programme, which will cover the atolls of Jaluit, Mile, Maloelap and Wotje, all locations of major Japanese bases, focuses on the survey of the extant World War II sites, which will be mapped, inventoried, 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 prepared for each atoll to ensure that the tourists will not cause more detriment to the resources than war, scrap metal collection and secondary use taken together.

In December 1992 a metal conservation workshop was sponsored by the US National Park Service and the Republic of the Marshall Islands Historic Preservation Office was held on Wotje Atoll (Look & Spennemann 1992, 1993, in press). As part of this workshop one 120mm gun was cleaned up and repainted.

A comprehensive metal conservation plan has been prepared (Look & Spennemann in press),

Future Research

The data discussed in this paper have made it repeatedly clear that the present compilation is only a preliminary assessment. Future research and documentation on the coastal defense guns needs to focus on the followings aspects:

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Bibliographic citation for this document

Spennemann, Dirk H.R. (2000). British Naval Heritage in Micronesia: Tangible evidence of the armament trade from 1890 to 1937. Albury:
URL: http:/

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

(c) Dirk H.R. Spennemann 1993-2000
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