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Letter From the Marshall Islands

Defuzing the Past

Unexploded ordnance from WWII is a risk for the people of the Marshall Islands—and a challenge for archaeologists

By MICHAEL TERLEP

Monday, February 09, 2015

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Crystal-clear water laps the white sands of Wotje Atoll in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, roughly halfway between Hawaii and Australia in the Pacific Ocean. Up the beach, a line of coconut palms provides much-needed refuge from the blazing sun. It is, by any definition, a tropical paradise. Yet in the sand and scrub of these islands, being slowly revealed by wind, waves, and the daily activities of the Marshallese people, are dozens upon dozens of unwieldy metal cylinders. Many of these objects are breaking down and cracking open, and leak a lurid yellow powder. In the middle of the twentieth century, during World War II, the atolls in the Marshall Islands formed part of the eastern defensive line of the Empire of Japan. The metal objects are unexploded bombs and projectiles from that time—dropped, buried, or hidden, and forgotten by the outside world—known as explosive remnants of war (ERW). Time and the tropical climate have left the ERW deteriorating, toxic, and volatile. Accidental detonation and chemical leakage pose serious threats to islanders and to local historic sites.

 

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When discovered, ERW must be carefully rendered safe and/or removed by ordnance professionals. Yet the bombs and projectiles are still historical artifacts, and the sites around them provide important context. To remove or destroy these historic bombs without studying them first is to remove pieces of a story, a story that can reveal aspects of warfare and of life in wartime that went undocumented at the time. Although the safety of the Marshallese people is always the first priority, a careful balance of caution and inquiry has made it possible both to learn a great deal from ERW and to help restore places such as Wotje.

 

 

 

Letter-From-Marshall-Wotje-AtollOn a Saturday in February 2014, a small aircraft makes a rattling landing on the grass-covered Japanese-era airstrip on Wotje Islet in Wotje Atoll. I’ve come to the island as chief archaeologist with the Marshall Islands Historic Preservation Office (HPO) to assist two representatives from the ERW disposal company Cleared Ground Demining, Steve Ballinger and Morgan Matsuoka, in a survey of World War II ordnance contamination. Wotje looks like any other small village in the Marshalls. Extended families live in Western-style houses with outdoor cooking areas along the lagoon shore. Small stores near the center of the island sell rice, flour, ramen, and, on lucky days, ice-cold Cokes. A single motorized vehicle, a beat-up pickup truck, is the only way to transport supplies around the half-mile-wide island.

 

Explosive ordnance survey and disposal has become one of the primary objectives of the Marshall Islands HPO. In 2012, the mayors of several atolls voiced their concerns to the national parliament, and with funding assistance from the Australian and U.S. governments, the island nation launched a multiyear campaign to render the atolls ERW-safe. As part of this effort, the HPO assists disposal teams with historical reports and photographs, and joins them to collect data, work with local communities, and ensure no historical or traditional sites are damaged during removal. When possible, the HPO works with the ordnance teams to preserve ERW in situ as artifacts on a historic landscape. There have been only sporadic attempts to clear ERW in the past, but since 2012, six surveys and two large-scale disposal operations have taken place on Mili, Maloelap, Wotje, and Jaluit Atolls, with more planned for 2015 and 2016.