The small island of Mili in the southeast corner of the Marshall Islands is now populated by only 300 people and was once under Japanese Imperial Army control during World War II.
Time has passed but the artefacts of war remain and make the island a virtual military museum with remains of the past still to be discovered.
The locals have made use of some of the artefacts in their everyday lives. Anet Maun, pounds dried panadanus leaves with an old projectile. Maun uses the leaves for weaving and said, “This works really well and gets the work done much faster. The leaves flatten very nicely.” Rachel Boyce, a volunteer teacher from Utah, said, “One thing I learned here is that you use everything that comes. So if it’s an old WWII machine, you can hang things on it,” referring to the residents using them to dry laundry.
After WWI, Japanese forces used Mili as a radio and weather station. Then during WWII, it was converted into an active base with an airfield, runways, and hangars, to fight the United States. In 1945, after nearly two years of bombing attacks, Japan surrendered and the United States took over the Marshall Islands. “From our documentation, there is at least 15,000 tons of explosives that were dropped on the Marshalls and that’s a conservative estimate,” archaeologist Michael Terlep told reporters. Terlep said that US explosives had a 50 percent failure rate at that time, so there are potentially many explosives remaining on the islands.
The safety of the remaining weapons is still a concern. It’s estimated that in 1969, Peace Corp volunteers assisted the locals in destroying 2,500 items housing explosives to render them safe. Wilbur Heine, Internal Affairs Minister and Mili Senator, explained that some of the war items have been gathered however, “there are still various places with things like this”. Boyce recalled that her initial concern was, “Oh my gosh, my students! What if they get blown up?” But she soon realized that they had grown up learning what safety measures were necessary and they were “too smart” to get in harms way.
While no major accidents have been reported on Mili, there is still concern about chemicals from the remaining weapons. Terlep says that picric acid, an explosive chemical that was used in the Japanese weapons and the TNT used in US bombs, pose serious health risks. Heine believes there is “no evidence of contamination,” because, “People have been eating, they are enjoying their food.” But he would like to have further soil studies done to confirm that belief. Terlep said, “Another problem is these bombs that are actually in the water, it’s then getting into the food supply, it’s getting into the fish, people are eating the fish.”
In the future Heine would like to see some islanders trained in proper weapon disposal techniques for times when international assistance is unavailable. Overall, he would like to allow his residents and visitors to enjoy Mili’s natural beauty and learn about its WWII history in a safe environment.
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