AUG. 29, 2015 / JORDAN VINSON
One morning in July 1972, Army Signal Corps Cameraman Lee Parker trained the lens of his camera on an aspect of life on Kwajalein that has persisted through the decades of the Army’s presence on Kwajalein Atoll: the Kwaj bike.
Tasked with capturing unedited B-roll footage (aka filler material used later in fully-edited film) to be incorporated into a film about the development work of U.S. military Civic Action teams in Micronesia, Parker and his Army Signal Corps teammates appear to have hit the island with rolls of film and cameras in hand to document a bit of the daily goings- on of life in Guam, Kwajalein and elsewhere in Micronesia in the early 1970s.
The predominance of the bicycle as the primary means of transportation on the island seems to have captured the film crew, who spent ample time gathering shot after shot of hundreds of bikes parked outside the then-bustling airport terminal. In some of the footage, which staff at the National Archives and Records Administration’s Motion Picture Preservation Lab in Maryland recently digitized and sent to the Kwajalein Hourglass, khaki-clad Army staff and posh housewives bike down a busy Ninth Street between the airport terminal and the Island Memorial Chapel—perhaps to catch a flight to Roi or Meck.
On its own, the 25 minutes of digitized Army Signal Corps footage would have surely been greeted with yawns by contemporary audiences; after all, watching people commuting to the airport via bicycle isn’t much of a nail biter. However, the viewer today now has the opportunity to enjoy a one-of a- kind glimpse into what Kwajalein looked like 43 years ago.
The summer of 1972 was an interesting time in the United States. President Nixon’s cronies were now being arrested for breaking into the ofices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate complex. Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and America’s “A Horse With No Name” were tearing up the Billboard charts. Jane Fonda was touring North Vietnam, posing for photos on top of anti-aircraft guns, and the first episode of the rebooted “The Price is Right” would soon air on CBS.
Locally, on Ebeye, less than 6,000 R.M.I. citizens resided on the island. Elsewhere in the islands, Iroijlaplap Amata Kabua was forming the Political Movement for the Marshall Islands Separation from Micronesia, a push to remove the Marshall Islands from the post-WWII era U.S. Trust Territory and grant the islanders their own sovereign state.
It was also during this time that the Nixon administration had signed the landmark 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, an agreement that limited the U.S. and the Soviet Union to 200 anti-ballistic missiles each and helped prohibit either power from tipping the scale of nuclear deterrence in its favor. Living on the Kwajalein Missile Range, which was a major proving ground used to develop and troubleshoot programs like the Army’s Sprint and LIM-49 Nike Zeus anti-ballistic missile systems limited by the treaty, Kwajalein residents would have surely taken notice to this news.
But instead of the heady ‘realpolitik’ of Cold War missile defense and the novelty of game show hosts blathering on about patio furniture and pie crusts (not that Kwaj residents had TV sets back then, anyway), Parker’s footage captured a few of the simple daily sights and sounds of life of Kwajalein, some which has remained the same 43 years later.
In addition to all the bike footage, Parker captured: children playing on island playgrounds (perhaps near Emon Beach and the present-day Ivey Gym); local workforce personnel doing road work; men’s softball games at Dally Field and Brandon Field; footage of the Kwajalein ‘Jogging’ Club; and even an interview with the commander of the installation at the time, Col. Jesse Fishback. Unfortunately, there is no audio accompanying the footage; perhaps this is due to the footage’s intended use as filler imagery for the Civic Action film. But the images do well in informing today’s viewers on what residents back then did for fun, such as biking, playing softball and participating in clubs—all of which hasn’t changed a bit.
Heidi Holmstrom, the motion pictures preservation specialist who reached out to the Hourglass with the footage last week, says that more Kwajalein footage shot between May and July 1972 for the Civic Action film exists, though the reels have not been digitized. Along with reels of footage from the Mariana Islands and elsewhere in the region, a fully edited, complete film about U.S. military developmental Civic Action work in Micronesia may exist in the archives. A search for the film is currently underway, but the National Archives’ Motion Picture Preservation Lab staff hasn’t made any promises.
“If the edited film was completed, we may or may not have a copy at NARA,” Holmstrom wrote via email. “Because the military produced so many films, we sometimes can only accept a sample of what is offered to us. But it’s possible we may have the film and it’s just not listed in the online catalog.”
The story of how the Signal Corps footage of Micronesia and the edited Civic Action film—if it exists—came into the possession of the National Archives is difficult to know for sure. The military services have a long tradition of documenting their activities, both for propaganda and informational purposes, and turning it in to the National Archives for preservation. For instance, about 50 percent of the film, edited and unedited, that the Motion Pictures Preservation Lab has in its libraries has come from the military, Holmstrom wrote. Most of it remains in its original form, catalogued and stored away at low temperatures for safe keeping until someone requests to view the footage. At that point, the footage is briefly pulled from the archives to be copied onto a digital medium, or digitized.
“We do all of the conservation and preservation work on the film collection and create digital copies for access,” Holmstrom wrote. “This film came to us because a researcher wanted to view it in the research room. If a reference copy does not exist that can be served to a researcher, we scan the film and make a DVD. If a film looks particularly interesting, then we’ll sometimes put it on our YouTube page or write a blog post about it.”
Having found Parker’s Signal Corps Kwajalein footage interesting enough to upload to YouTube, Holmstrom also wrote about it in an Aug. 19 post on the National Archives Unwritten Record Blog. The sheer number of bikes and their peculiar gooseneck steering columns drew her attention.
“How do you get around when you live on a 1.2 square-mile island with no privately owned vehicles? If you live on Kwajalein Island, bicycles are the answer. But these aren’t just any bicycles,” Holmstrom wrote.
“Due to the salty air and humid climate, any bike but the most sturdy will quickly rust away. The ‘Kwaj bike’ is usually a single- speed bike with coaster brakes. Some of them have been modified to elevate the handlebars to chin level, or above.”
In addition to the search for the Signal Corps’ edited Civic Action film, an effort has begun to digitize the other film reels containing Kwajalein footage that Parker and his teammates shot between May andJuly 1972. Pay attention to the coming issues of the Hourglass for updates.
In the meantime, if you’re keen on getting a glimpse 1972-era Kwaj, don’t miss this rare treat from the National Archives and Records Administration’s Motion Picture Preservation Lab. You can view the content via the following URL address or by visiting the U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll Facebook page.