UNCLASSIFIED Oct. 30, 2008
Hello Don, greetings from Australia,
You may recall my last e-mail to you after my reconnaissance trip to Tarawa in August last year as part of an inter Government assistance task, to observe the range and quantity of unexploded ordnance requiring disposal on Tarawa. As I said in my last correspondence, we had planned to conduct the disposal either later that year or in early 2008. Well a number of things got in the way and we eventually found a mutually acceptable time for the activity to occur in August 2008.
As a consequence of my post activity brief, it was understood that we would mount a tri-service (Navy, Army & Air) Explosive Ordnance Disposal team in order to handle the items that were located in the water or on land. The team of 22 we selected, included RAN Clearance Divers, RAAF EOD Technicians, Army Ammunition Technical, medical and logistic staff. While you are familiar with Betio and its surrounds, my brief had also identified a range of ordnance located on Butaritari (previously called Makin) about 100 miles due north of Tarawa. From the technical viewpoint, the types of ordnance were in the main common (US Navy and Japanese projectiles plus US and Japanese aerial bombs) although, there were no aerial bombs observed on Betio at the time of my previous visit.
After considerable planning, we departed Australia for Tarawa in early August by C130J Hercules aircraft. After the team arrived, unloaded and settled in to our accommodation at the Otintaai, we made arrangements with John Brown (who was waiting for us at the Bonriki Airport) for a short tour of the island. This would give those team members who had not been there (all 21 of them) an opportunity to work out their surroundings and to see the range and location of many of the tasks they would have to complete in the coming weeks.
It is surprising just how many things change on a little island in the middle of the Pacific in twelve months. The first surprise was a new road network on Betio complete with new asphalt, curbs, gutters, speed bumps and services pits, courtesy of the Dai Nippon Construction Coy. The second surprise was how many items had been found as a result of the roadworks or for other reasons. Crossing the causeway, the US 8" high capacity projectile still lay on its side near the toll booth, we then went to a site in a little village adjacent to the Police Headquarters (eastern end of Red 3) where two 127mm Twin Mount guns had been located. When I was there last year under the remains of one gun platform, a 127mm cartridge case jutted out of the ground nose down. Nobody knew what was on the end of the cartridge so the gun mount was closed off to the children who played nearby. When we went to look for this item, the gun mount had been cleaned out, new gravel laid below and the cartridge case had gone. So much for the suggestion it may have been a Japanese booby trap! Moving west we passed Shibasaki's bunker then arrived at Betio Police Station (once known as Bonneyman's Hill - Power Bunker). Here we found the missing 127mm cartridge case lying next to the bunker with a range of other US and Japanese ordnance, we noted that the cartridge case had a high explosive projectile still crimped to the nose of the cartridge case just as it was 65 years ago. I also noted that the old shipping container which held a small piles of bleached bones from my last trip had gone together with the remains. I could only muse about where the bones had gone but at least there were no more lying about!
Moving around to John Brown's place we set out onto the outer reef in search of the large calibre (Japanese 8" and 15cm) projectiles and the few 20lb US frag bombs I had found last year lying quietly near the wrecked plane engines. It was apparent that after the battle, several of the large bomb craters had been filled in by the Seabees with whatever ordnance was lying about the airstrip. They had simply dozed it off onto the outer reef or over the nose of the reef into deep water in order to open up the airfield for their use. And there it had lain, undisturbed save for the rush of breaking waves. One had to look hard in the knee-deep water for the familiar shapes clad in their light green algae camouflage. In some cases they were part buried and in others assembled in clumps on the sandy base. As the team moved out to the reef space, we could see people in the vicinity but we were not sure what they were doing. After we spanned the 600 m gap from beach to reef edge, it was clear that things had changed. I had been careful to advise the team that they would need to look hard to see these 20-30 odd items on the reef base as the marine life had added its natural camouflage. How wrong I was.
When we reached the reefs seaward edge, there spread about in a haphazard manner were the rusty shapes of projectiles, bombs and mines ranging in size; 75mm, 12.7,14 and 15cm, 8", US 23 lb frag and 100lb bombs, Japanese small boat mines, 81mm mortar rounds and more. What caught our attention was a round shaped depression in the reef about 3m in diameter, its edge was thrust upward and contained the aforementioned objects spread about the rim and edges together with a dark coloured reef soil. The water was not clear but dark in colour and partly covered by a white scum of foam. We had arrived at the site of an explosive event not too long after it had occurred and from what we could find around, it was obvious that this was not the first time it had happened. Close examination of one of the projectiles provided a better clue, the remains of the brass fuze showed clear evidence of tampering - someone was collecting the brass fuzes. There were no copper driving bands on the projectiles, but we knew they had been taken in 1943 by souvenir hunters for 'trench art' (mentioned in your book). In the space of twelve months, the 65-year slumber of the reef had been disturbed by the escalating price of metals on the world market and someone’s need to make a living on Betio. Although we could not get a clear answer out of any of the locals, it appears that the process begins with a common hacksaw. One drags up a fuzed projectile then sets about removing the fuze by hacksawing through the top of the projectile. If the process draws smoke that is not easily extinguished, one hightails it out of the area leaving behind the offending item. Sometimes, they are lucky and off it comes, other times a small or large 'event' occurs leaving a hole in the reef and disturbing much of what was buried. Fortunately, it appears that these 'events' have been what we call 'low order', with very little noise and fragment throw. This practice of cutting into high explosive munitions is not new, it is common amongst many of the islands in the Pacific, but they are after the high explosive fill to make 'expanding bait' for fishing charges and usually they cut through the middle of the projectile well away from the fuze and the booster. As a technician, it is not a practice that I would recommend to anyone. On Betio, it is positively foolish.
Looking deeply into the round pool, Molly Brown asked me what a large object was. I thought she was pointing to an 8" Japanese projectile and so I said, "it's an 8" projectile Molly, from the big guns on the point!"
"No she said, the big thing down there below the white foam". I moved around to where she was and waited for the foam to float away and there it was, long, wide, black, its pointed tail was missing the fins that normally extend off the end, the opposite end was rounded but more blunt. I looked for the suspension lugs only to confirm who the original owner might have been. There in the bottom of the hole was a Japanese 500kg HE bomb lying on its side. Around the perimeter of the hole were another two US 100lb bombs and two small anti-boat mines plus an array of projectiles all filled high explosive - if the man with the hacksaw had been less lucky, they would have heard it on North Tarawa!
In the days following our discovery, we made arrangements to safely relocate a large quantity of what we found on the outer reef to a point over 850m off Temakin Point ( a place we affectionately named 'Poo Corner' for reasons that you will probably understand) on the southwest corner of Betio. The ocean currents have been busy building a long sand spit that extends well out to the edge of the reef. Here, utilizing structural traversing materials and a stack of sandbags that we had the pleasure to fill, we laid out as much of this ordnance as we could comfortably destroy given our stocks of available demolition charges. It took two days to prepare the site and lay out the task, during this time we had to battle the rising and falling tide and what came floating with it! Nevertheless, with the assistance of the Police Maritime Unit and the Betio Town Council, we established our cordon (just) and before a small assembled crowd gave the countdown before pushing the button. Water is an effective transmission medium, the shock wave from the detonation could felt beneath ones feet as 950kg burst forth from its watery cover. The spout of water climbed hundreds of metres skyward as the assembled crowd cheered. Local newspapers carried this image on their front page for the next day or two, what they did not see was the large aerial bombs being floated off the reef and out to sea where we could safely destroy them. Other tasks were prepared, sand bags were filled and placed off the causeway around two US 8" projectiles. The one that laid where it fell in November 43 was joined by another that had to be relocated from the Police Headquarters (in the twelve months since I was last there, the US 4" projectile had disappeared and been replaced with one quite larger - fortunately this one had lost its fuze when it bounced off something solid early one November morning).
We had to break from our routine on Betio in order to move to Butaritari by the Kiribati Pacific Patrol Boat. This was achieved late in the night, by early morning, we were motoring gently into the big lagoon off King's Wharf and 'Yellow Beach - 1943'. As I said before, Butaritari is unlike Betio in many respects, being further north it is wetter, greener, less populated and therefore less polluted and very much the picture of a tropical paradise. The team worked well to load all our equipment off the boat for transfer by Zodiac or RIB to the shore then to set up our camp at the Government Rest House. Here as on Betio, we re-acquainted ourselves with the surrounds and the tasks ahead. This time around, the tides ran further, when we looked for items to be destroyed near our camp more was found, including a Japanese 800kg bomb lying in about 3m of water not far from where the patrol boat anchored. Before long, we had located US 5" and 8" projectiles, Japanese 60kg bombs and a couple of US 3" anti -aircraft complete rounds lying in shallow water off the face of the wharf. Divers on the patrol boat also discovered the wreck of a Japanese flying boat lying on the bottom of the lagoon off the stern of patrol boat. This may have been one of the two shot down by Carlson's raiders in August 1942, a fact not lost on us was that we were there on the same day 66 years later.
It was not long before the whole island knew we were there. Invitations were extended for us to lunch with the Bishop and to attend village Maneabas at night, to be entertained by dancing, singing and ceremony. Unfortunately, the ceremony included reciprocal rights and I admit our rendition of a traditional Australian ballad bought much amusement - if it were judged like a karaoke gong show, we probably would not have made it past the first stanza! Teams were sent the length and breadth of the islands, one team went north and destroyed the two US 100lb bombs on the outer reef, others went searching with metal detectors for buried bombs - only to discover old metal rods beneath pandanus palms or empty Spam cans off Red Beach 1. While the digging work was exhausting in the heat and humidity, cool refreshment was only a palm tree away, you only had to gaze skyward at the coconuts before someone would race quickly to the top dispatching ripe nuts to the ground below where they were expertly scalped and passed around for the milk to be consumed. At the Ukiangang end, divers located a US 14" projectile wedged in the reef 50m seaward, others located more US 8" projectiles lying in the mangroves. A week quickly passed, items were destroyed, Maneabas came and went then it was time to go back to Tarawa. The return journey was a mirror of first, except this time we had to load our equipment and break camp at the same time we were being farewelled by our island hosts. The return sea journey was not as friendly as the first, those of us who were 'deck cargo' slumbered amongst the spray so the lagoon at Tarawa was a welcome sight.
Our last few days on Betio were spent finalizing those tasks that we could complete in time and with our meager remaining stock of explosives. We had time to reflect on how the local population see the threat of this 'Galvanic legacy' lying about their island, it is apparent that they lack any concept of how dangerous this old ordnance can be and that probably has more to do the combined fact that there has been no serious injuries and the majority of people lack televisions. This was self evident, when driving past the causeway task we noted a carefree group of children using the sandbags we had packed around the 8" projectiles as a makeshift dive platform. After closing off the causeway and evacuating a safe cordon, we destroyed these two old projectiles and at the same time endeavoured to clear some sand from the channel under the causeway bridge by locating the last of the tasks on the reef bed there.
After three weeks the team were getting tired, the C130 returned to collect us for the long journey home but not before another of Murphy's travel laws of the Pacific bit hard. Our plane only had two hours of fuel, while a new delivery of fuel had arrived at Tarawa it had not been tested and certified for use, that would take two days. Nauru was less than two hours but had no fuel for sale, Majuro was close but we needed two days to clear diplomatic channels to land there. The only solution was to head for the US base on Kwajalein another two hours north, pick up fuel then turn around and fly south. So the journey home took five hours more than we expected and we all got to see Kwajalein airfield. We had successfully cleared over 400 pieces of ordnance but a lot more remained, we never anticipated that there was so much ordnance hidden away. All who went, shared a lifetime experience safe in the knowledge that their efforts directly contributed to the safety of the Kiribati people, I am sure they will never forget it. The 'Galvanic legacy' continues, we expect further requests for assistance to dispose of what remains so more people will have a chance to travel to this quiet little place -lets hope the man with the hacksaw finds something better to do with his time until then.
We did survive the trip well, there were the odd bumps and scrapes, one of the divers cut his toe on the coral when looking to see where the 14" was off Butaritari. All of us at one stage or other contacted the 'rapid rush syndrome' where one found the need to visit the small room regularly, some had the double-ended version others just got away with one end! As you are aware the habits of the locals (and it is something that has been done for centuries) include the morning visit to the beach space. Unfortunately now the lagoon has been plugged by causeways the windward drift takes all of South Tarawa westward to Betio, so the little landmines you dodge on the beach itself will catch up as the floaters on the ebb tide, while you are between ankle and chest deep in the water - you either get used to it or freak out.
The other news that came our way from John Brown was there should be another 'anniversary tour' through in November. John indicated he was looking to go to the UK with Molly and one of his daughters for a few weeks in order to get some work done on the 'superstructure' at the Royal Naval Hospital - he is getting a bit slower on his legs these days. We hoped to get the keys for the gate on the 'Admiral's Cabin' while we were there but missed out. But we, at least my ex-infantry sidekick and I, clambered over, under, in and around most of what there was remaining - as I said we have quite a lot of images. One thing that was not lost to us was what it must have been like wading that long walk ashore, we did it a number of times across several reef/beach spaces - how difficult that must have been those years ago. On one of our many journeys back to land my mate stopped just off the big guns at Temakin Pt (Green/Black corner) to examine a familiar shape visible in the white coral sand. Stooping down he recognized it, grasping what was visible, he drew up a spare barrel off a .50 Cal Browning MG. I think it most likely came from one of the two LVT that found the mines on this corner. It now rests in the 'Brown Collection'. The old Japanese turret of the light tank that used to lie around behind some shipping containers next the Japanese memorial garden has vanished, I think it might have been sacrificed to the last scrap metal merchant by some enterprising soul. The interior of the power bunker is suffering advanced concrete cancer, most of the walls and roof are peeling away from the rebar which gets thicker with rust each day. We missed some action while we were up in Butaritari, one of the big container forklifts that hangs around the port space was moving something around one evening when the driver spotted smoke. Apparently the resulting fire could be seen clearly from the Captain's Bar (eastern end of Betio) where many an expat waters the horse. The forklift was carrying a gas cylinder at the time but they managed to get it away. The 'fire brigade response' went something along the lines of a fellow carrying a small hand held extinguisher wearing shorts, thongs and a T-shirt. We saw the remains when we pulled alongside on our return from Butaritari. There's many a story to tell, but I had better not bore you . . . . .