Lingering Legacies: U.S. Conventional Weapons Destruction Efforts and the Battle of Guadalcanal

On August 7, 2014, the sun rose over the still waters of Iron Bottom Sound, where exactly 72 years prior the Japanese Imperial Navy sunk dozens of Allied Naval vessels during the Battle of Guadalcanal.  High above the sound stands the “American Monument to the Naval and Marine Corps Troops” that fought at Guadalcanal. On that recent quiet morning, veterans of World War II and their families, active duty military from the United States, Australia, and Japan, and governmental representatives from across the globe gathered to honor the service and sacrifices of those who fought in a battle that would become the first American victory in the Pacific, and would mark the beginning of the end of World War II in the region.

At the podium stood Colonel H. Murphey McCloy, U.S. Marine Corps (ret.) and a senior advisor to the U.S. Department of State’s conventional weapons destruction (CWD) programs.  As the sun continued its ascent, Col. McCloy delivered emotional remarks on the bravery of the men who fought and fell on the island of Guadalcanal that fateful August.  As a veteran of the Vietnam War, Col. McCloy personally served under heroic veterans of the Guadalcanal campaign in the Solomon Islands and the Battle of Peleliu in what is now the Republic of Palau.  The battle of Guadalcanal forged the Marine Corps as Col. McCloy knows it, and he spoke movingly of the legacy of the Marines and others who had fought and died on that hallowed battlefield in August of 1942.

This year also marks the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Peleliu that began on September 15, 1944.  Together with Guadalcanal, these two battles are among the most renowned and strategically important of the Pacific campaign during World War II.  Allied commanders had planned these invasions to capture Japanese-held airstrips in the Pacific, from which Japanese bombers could launch attacks against essential shipping lanes north of Australia.

The brutal, months-long battles to capture these islands and the rapid forward movement of troops left both areas extremely contaminated by unexploded ordnance (UXO).  Guadalcanal served as a forward operating and training base for the remainder of Pacific campaign, while Allied troops rapidly moved forward from Peleliu after its capture.  On both islands, where existing forest and vegetation had been destroyed by aerial and naval bombardment, jungles regrew over and around battlefields littered with abandoned tanks, airplanes, bunkers and countless UXO.

The natives of these island countries learned to live among these dangerous artifacts of war and sometimes incorporated them into their daily lives.  They have invented ghost stories to keep children away from particularly contaminated and dangerous jungle areas, and built infrastructure away from known hazardous zones.  Despite these precautions, accidents have unfortunately occurred due to lack of awareness or fishermen attempting to use unexploded ammunition for “fish bombs.”

Since 2009, the U.S. Department of State, through the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs’ Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement (PM/WRA), has committed to clearing these hidden hazards from the former World War II battlefields of the Pacific islands.  Clearance on the island of Peleliu in Palau began that year with U.S. funding for one of our international NGO implementing partners, Cleared Ground Demining (CGD).  CGD has successfully removed tens of thousands of UXO, significantly reducing the humanitarian impact of World War II-era ammunition and opening up more parts of the island to socio-economic and tourism development.

In 2011, PM/WRA also began funding similar clearance operations at Hell’s Point, Guadalcanal in Solomon Islands, not far from where the Marines came ashore on Red Beach.  Hell’s Point had been the location of an ammunition storage depot that exploded prior to the end of World War II, and its scattered UXO abandoned by departing Allied troops.  With State Department support, a U.S.-based NGO, the Golden West Humanitarian Foundation, began a clearance and explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) training program on the former depot site.  During the past three years, Golden West has made impressive strides towards training select members of the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force (RSIPF) to respond and render safe UXO encountered by the public during development projects or after extreme weather events.  This PM/WRA-supported capacity building project ensures that the RSIPF EOD teams receive training to the highest international standards and are capable of responding to hazardous items whenever they are located.       

In 2012, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated the U.S. commitment to safely removing World War II-era remnants of war in the Pacific islands, and announced $3.5 million in funding for UXO clearance in the region by fiscal year (FY) 2017.  As of the end of FY13, PM/WRA had met and exceeded this goal.  Colonel McCloy and I visited the region this past month as part of our efforts to develop an ongoing Pacific strategy aimed at expanding UXO clearance operations to other affected island nations.

We were fortunate enough to visit the American Memorial on the Guadalcanal anniversary during this recent assessment.  Col. McCloy and I also met with representatives of the governments of Palau, Solomon Islands, and the Republic of Kiribati to discuss potential future clearance operations. We used this opportunity to strengthen working relationships between major donors to UXO programs in the Pacific, and discussed planning and priorities with members of the Australian, New Zealand, and Japanese governments.  In the Pacific, the Department of State collaborates closely with the U.S. Department of Defense’s (DoD) humanitarian mine action (HMA) efforts.  DoD currently has industrial equipment on loan to the Golden West team working at Hell’s Point.

The United States is proud of its enduring legacy and is committed to alleviating both the humanitarian and socio-economic impact of UXO left behind on the Pacific’s World War II battlefields.  The United States is the world’s leading provider of financial and technical assistance towards the clearance of UXO, and looks forward to continued collaboration with its partners in the region towards clearing hazardous legacies of war.  Since 1993, the U.S. Conventional Weapons Destruction program has invested more than $2.3 billion in aid to over 90 countries, including to help alleviate the threat of UXO, landmines, and other explosive remnants of war. Assistance in regions such as the Pacific helps clear affected land, one of the island nations’ most valuable resources, and sets the stage for continued economic development and growth.

For more information on U.S. humanitarian demining and Conventional Weapons Destruction programs, check out the latest edition of our annual report, To Walk the Earth in Safety.

About the Author: Cat Ramsey is an Assistant Program Manager in the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement. Follow the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs on Twitter @StateDeptPM.

The Former Japanese Headquarters on Peleliu, Palau, Which Was Later Used as the Allied Command on the Island in World War II
An Abandoned Japanese Bunker on Peleliu, Palau, Is Pictured
Ammunition Shells Recovered From the Depot Blast at Hell's Point, Guadalcanal, Are Pictured
The Bureau of Political-Military Affairs' Cat Ramsey Poses for a Photo With the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force Explosive Ordnance Disposal Team
Posted by Catherine Ramsey
November 12, 2014

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