Lorel Thomas, Victoria Regional Meeting
Each and every war leaves a legacy of trauma and sadness. Physical and psychological scars remain and the rebuilding of shattered lives, families and communities is a long and painful process.
Nevertheless, in most cases, rehabilitation of people and environment can begin once the war is over. The existence of “legacy weapons” such as landmines, cluster munitions and varied explosive remnants of war (ERW) hinder this process. Accidents, with resultant death or injury continue the nightmare of the war. International recognition and funding is often necessary to provide care for survivors and to rehabilitate contaminated land. At the end of World War II, massive reconstruction efforts were needed for a devastated Europe. Little thought could be given to the tiny island countries far away in the Pacific Ocean.
Many of these island nations had been caught up in the maelstrom that was the Pacific Theatre from 1942-1945. They had experienced savage battles, principally between Japanese Imperial Forces and the United States of America, although Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and Canada also contributed forces. Countries were invaded, fought over and then abandoned. The war was not of the islanders’ making, yet they were left with a legacy that continues to threaten lives, destroys the ocean and reefs and makes land unsuitable for cultivation.
The early 1900s saw much internal change on the Japanese political scene and in the 1930’s regional invasions began. These were a mixture of a desire for political domination and the need to access raw materials that were being denied them by the USA and others. There has been much speculation as to whether regional invasion and the resultant battles may have been avoided if fairer trade and diplomacy had been afforded the Japanese.
In December 1941, the die was cast when Japan bombed Pearl Harbour, with its fleet of American ships. Plans for a full scale Pacific war now moved inexorably forward. Japanese forces radiated out in the Pacific, from Burma in the west, the Aleutians in the north, Hawaii in the east and the Solomon Islands and New Guinea in the south. The wider the Japanese influence spread, the more their supply lines were stretched. Very different battles were fought in the islands further away from Japan to those closer to the Japanese homeland. The outer islands saw a lot of running battles, whereas closer to home, Japanese forces had dug in and held heavily fortified positions. Many of the outer islands were isolated and passed by the Allied forces, leaving massive stockpiles of unused weapons which were abandoned when the war ended. The more heavily fortified positions such as Palau had caches of weapons, often on ridge lines or in caves, sea mines seeded the beaches and booby-trapped rocks held an explosive centre.
An Explosive Legacy
Naturally, the variation in battle styles meant a variation in ERW left behind as an explosive legacy. Some weapons were stockpiled, amassed in readiness for dispatch to front line troops. One such stockpile is found at Hell’s Point, in Honiara, in the Solomon Islands.
More problematic are those that were dispatched to the front line, dispersed during running battles and often abandoned as the war moved on. No records of abandoned munitions were kept and, due to the fluidity of battles, they could be widely scattered.
Then there are those which were used in fortified situations. Weaponry already found across the Pacific ranges in size from hand grenades in underwater caves in Palau, to mortars found in jungles and swamps, to huge sea mines. Traces of chemical weapons are also suspected.
Can we give an exhaustive list of the ERW remaining in Pacific Island nations? No, we cannot. To this day, no systematic study across the region has ever been undertaken. Spot clearance has taken place in a number of places but often records have not been shared, leaving mine clearance agencies and locals unsure which areas are safe and which are not.
The two exceptions to this are Palau and the Solomon Islands. The demining agencies Cleared Ground and Golden West Humanitarian Foundation have been working in Palau and the Solomon Islands respectively, working with local communities and funded principally with money from the Australian and US Governments. The Solomon Islands Royal Police Force now has an Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) team, which has been trained to international mine disposal standards. Sadly, the team is hampered in its work due to a shortage of money. The islands of the Solomons are numerous and scattered. When SafeGround researchers were undertaking field work they provided money for the EOD team, to allow them to buy petrol for the boat trips to outer islands. Normally the money does not stretch to responding to calls from these islands
In addition to the ever-present explosive danger, the weapons are old, leaking dangerous chemicals into soil and water, damaging reefs, inhibiting the burgeoning dive tourism industry and affecting farming.
One notable underwater site is a ship wreck in Malakal Harbour in, Palau, often called the “Helmet Wreck” It is 189 feet long and resting on an underwater hill with its stern in 45 feet and the bow in 110 feet of water. An accurate number of depth charges on the wreck is difficult to ascertain but 167 are clearly visible. If left undisturbed there may never be a detonation. The problem is that it is not left undisturbed. A quick internet search for Helmet Wreck, Palau, will bring up multiple websites extolling the wreck as an ideal diving venue. Researchers dive there, carefully; this may not always be the case for divers keen to “live on the edge”.
Around Hell’s Point in the Solomon Islands, there exists yet another danger. Although the area is fenced off, around the perimeter, traces of scratched and dug earth are found each day. Some locals engage in a dangerous and destructive practice called Dynamite Fishing, or Fish Bombing. Small bombs are scavenged, cut open, the explosive removed and packed into a soft drink bottle. A crude fuse is then attached and the homemade bomb hurled into the water. If the venture is successful, fish are stunned and killed over a wide area. These bombs also kill sections of the reef, destroying it permanently. Some fish float to the surface and are able to be harvested. Fish killed using this method are of poor quality for eating, with broken bones and ruptured internal organs. Still some people choose to undertake this risky fishing method for short term gain. And risky the practice certainly is. Mis-time the fuse and the bomb explodes prematurely, taking an arm with it. It is illegal to tamper with stockpiled weapons in the Solomons so not all accidents are reported. If a fish bombing victim is admitted to hospital, the cause of the accident is often mis-reported for fear of prosecution.
Fish bombing is an extremely divisive practice, pitting islanders and communities against each other, some favouring fish bombing, others striving to protect both their traditional fishing methods and the environment.
How to finally gain international attention for the on-going plight of the Pacific Islands?
Not only does lack of money hamper regional Pacific island clearance efforts, it also renders the area mute at international conferences. Very rarely are Pacific Islands able to send representatives to international treaty conferences such as the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (CCW), which covers ERW. For this reason I headed to Geneva in November, with SafeGround colleagues, to put the Pacific in focus for the international community, principally donor governments and mine action agencies. As a result of sending researchers to do intensive work in Palau and the Solomon Islands, we published a book titled In Search of Safe Ground- ERW in the Pacific. This was launched at the United Nations building with support from the Australian Government. We also mounted a photographic exhibition and held two lunch time panel discussions, of which I was moderator. We called for a systematic regional survey, followed by comprehensive, coordinated clearance.
The Victoria Quaker Fund supported my application, covering my expenses and providing money towards printing of the book, mounting the photo exhibition and distribution of the book to Pacific Island nations.
The task in doing this is large but not infinite or impossible. Although fighting in the Pacific Theatre was savage and covered wide spread areas, it did not see the saturation bombing that later technology would bring. For example, the saturation bombing that took place over Laos and Cambodia by the US military during the Vietnam War delivered a higher tonnage of bombs on those two small countries than by all sides on all battlefields during WWII.
Detection of WWII era weapons and munitions is simplified due to their high metal content and physical sizes. This is in contrast to landmines, many of which were purposely constructed of plastic and Bakelite to make detection difficult.
The end result is that clearance of the Pacific nations is possible. It is definitely not a technological impossibility. With sufficient political will and funding World War II could finally be relegated to the history books in the Pacific.
SafeGround is a small Non-Government Organisation staffed principally by volunteers. We pay only for extended field work and authorship/design of publications. We began life as the International Campaign to Ban Landmines – Australian Network Inc. I have been with the organisation for twenty years and have been either Secretary or National Coordinator for all but one of the last thirteen. More can be seen about our work here. Our most recent venture is to join the Campaign to Ban Killer Robots. I can be contacted here should any Friend wish more information on our work or be interested in being involved.