BONES, BOTTLES AND BOMBS – DIGGING 1,800 YEARS INTO KWAJALEIN ATOLL’S PAST

JAN. 20, 2018 / JORDAN VINSON

Below the sandy topsoil of Kwajalein and Roi-Namur lie countless entombed artifacts, each a reflection of pre-historic settlement, the blood shed during WWII or the follow-on military efforts to transform the islands into a Navy Base, a missile defense test site, an Army garrison and a subscale model of middle class American suburbia.

Small beads of coral on the fringe of an extinct volcanic mountain, these islands have lived many lives, each triggering its own wave of building, pouring, digging, burying, dredging and filling. Because the struggle for space on the islands is real, particularly for Kwajalein, new construction overlays old construction. Kwaj and Roi are places where critical base infrastructure runs alongside grounds likely to contain prehistoric Marshallese burial plots. It is a place where Japanese WWII bunkers sit astride Cold War-era radars, and where the brand-new Space Fence surveillance system sits entirely on ground practically pulled out of the ocean. These are islands where everything from neighborhoods, stores and offices, to fuel farms, sports fields and schools rest atop the bloody battlefields of Operation Flintlock and their conduits to the past: spent artillery rounds, mangled mess kits, flak-filled palm trunks, rusty rifles and fallen Soldiers’ remains.

Most of these artifacts will never see the light of day. But as government contractors and the Army make way for new infrastructure on Kwaj, Roi and their satellite islands, chances are they encounter these relics sooner or later.

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In a tiny closet of an office in the old Kwajalein Missile Range Photo Laboratory, Natalie Bagley flicks a light switch and opens a cardboard box. The archeologist presents a small metal container wrapped in a plastic bag.

“This is one of my favorite artifacts, although it’s really stinky,” she says grinning. A faint odor of bourbon spills out of the bag. “This is a U.S. Army canteen that totally had whiskey in it. I even tested it.”

She puts the canteen away and pulls out the tattered gray remains of what looks like the face of a tiny, smashed elephant: It’s what is left of a U.S. Army 7th Infantry gas mask. To her right lie the rusted steel bodies of a heavy Japanese machine gun and a type 38 bolt-action Japanese Arisaka rifle, both of which Bagley unearthed last August. Behind the guns sit dozens of American and Japanese glass bottles and porcelain dishes. Along another wall sit a pair of black bookshelves holding boxes of human bones waiting to be sent off to the RMI government for safekeeping.

Bagley’s curation area houses but a sample of the artifacts archeologists on the island have pulled out of the earth during excavations for jobs ranging from Air Force Space Fence construction to Department of Public Works utility lines repairs. Together the archeologists—whether they work for AMEC Foster Wheeler at Space Fence or KRS on the garrison—tell crews where it is safe to dig and where a backhoe shovel might hit a pit of unexploded grenades, mess tent silverware or WWII trash deposits.

In my visit to the Kwajalein Range Services Archeology Office, Grant Day, the chief archeologist for KRS, makes it a point to emphasize something that is counterintuitive to me. The archeologists’ goal is not to mount excavations and dig up katana swords or dog tags or to locate and excavate pre-1900s Marshallese burial sites—though they know with certainty that they are out there. Instead, on an island garrison where construction, maintenance and excavations must keep moving, the paramount objective is to prevent impacts on archeological sites. If they guide construction crews correctly, earth movers cut into nothing but clean soil, sand and coral rubble. The contractor crews, in turn, incur less construction delays stemming from artifact discoveries and lengthy excavation jobs at uncovered archeological sites. It’s a symbiotic win-win, Day says. If artifacts and human remains can be avoided during construction it saves time and money.

“As the consultant, we want to make the path of least resistance,” he says. “We want to make everyone happy.”

This is not to say that all projects are able to completely avoid archeological deposits. If it’s not practical to work around a known or supposed artifact site, it’s time to excavate, identify and relocate the artifacts and remains. Day points at a color-coded geographic information systems map on a computer monitor. He uses maps like these to assess the likelihood of crews digging into WWII detritus and human remains on Kwajalein. Red areas on the GIS map represent areas more likely to contain sensitive artifacts and remains. These are sections of the island that used to lie along the original lagoon-facing shore of the Kwajalein before American crews enlarged the island’s footprint with dredge filling in the 1950s-1960s. Green sections on his map show him where excavations are far less likely to uncover artifacts, disturb the dead and cause construction delays.

Of course, green doesn’t always mean go, especially on Kwajalein.

“That soil has been dug up, distributed and redistributed around the island” to such a great extent that even dig operations in suspected safe zones turn up artifacts from time to time, Day explains.

If work crews must break ground in a red section on his map—an area known to be peppered with artifacts and suspected human remains—the archeology team will actively monitor the excavation on site, ready to blow the whistle as machines bite into the soil. Finding harmless artifacts like Dai Nippon medicine bottles, bayonets and Type 3 heavy machine guns are often welcome opportunities for the archeologists to get their history fixes. The KRS Archeology Office has catalogued hundreds of artifacts leftover from the WWII battles alone. Several display cases around Kwajalein and Roi showcase a small sample of the objects the archeologists oversee at their office.

What they don’t want to do is find any human remains. But on a pair of tiny islands, where roughly 8,000 Japanese Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen perished during Operation Flintlock, such an objective can be hard to meet.

“We get calls for 12-15 suspected human remains a year,” Day says. “You know, a few of those end up being pig bones or some other kind of bone. But most often it’s just one or two bones from one or two individuals scattered here and there, coming up with fill.”

Most of the Japanese who died on the islands were placed into mass graves after the American invasion. This was part of a rapid clean-up effort poised to transform Kwajalein into a crucial logistics and fuel supply hub in America’s island hopping campaign across the Pacific, to the Philippines and eventually Japan. The old Photo Lab building on Kwajalein, for example, sits on two of the 10 mass graves identified on Kwajalein—burial sites number 8 and 9, which American Soldiers dug in 1944. Shinto memorials and Norfolk Pine trees on both Kwaj and Roi adorn the grave sites converted into war memorials, as a sign of respect for the dead. And Japanese citizens make pilgrimages, flying in from Tokyo every year to visit the sites. Yet, the devastation of the battle and the Americans’ rush to set up an air field and naval base on Kwajalein naturally made it difficult to fully account for all of the war dead during the effort to clean up the battlefield.

“The battle took place in a few days,” Day explains. “And then within a few months after that, we had the airstrips up and running and the military base established here. So, the cleanup was expedient, and the bombing was … well, we learned from Tarawa that you bombard first and we’ve have lower casualties when we land on the island. So, yeah, the bodies that went down ended up getting scattered.”

This is why significant human remains, while unlikely, do turn up on occasion, even in areas on the island expected to be low-risk for encountering them. For example, a construction job next to the current Space Fence personnel mess hall three years ago—a green section on Day’s GIS map—revealed a human skull. It forced the work crew to hit the brakes on the job until Bagley could excavate the remains. Using her experience in osteoarcheology, she concluded the skull belonged to a 16-22-year-old male of northeast Asian ancestry.

“He’s most likely a Japanese soldier,” she says, gingerly handling a dull white-colored human mandible that had become detached from the skull. “He’s not Marshallese.”

“I found a second burial beneath him,” she continues. “This one [was] a young Asian female. She was buried face-down, with her hands and feet kind of twisted up behind her. So again, her teeth tell me she’s northeast Asian. Her bones tell me she’s 14 to about 25 [years old], somewhere in that range.”

These finds were exceptionally rare on the garrison, and they required a modification to the mess hall construction plan to avoid disturbing the soil near the bones. It was Bagley’s first chance at performing a full-skeleton excavation on USAG-KA, a time consuming process that requires cutting out the earth around the skeleton and performing a lengthy bone identification and archiving process.

“My electricians called her Mia,” Bagley says, holding up a disc-shaped chunk of hard soil containing the bones of two small human feet. Eventually they’ll be sent to an RMI government agency.

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Respecting and honoring the dead is a top concern of U.S. Installation Management Command-Pacific and USAG-KA, says Maj. Dan Lacaria, the director of the garrison’s Host Nation Office.

“It’s a privilege to live atop a WWII battlefield and an area so rich in history dating back well before westerners began arriving,” says Lacaria. “We’re very fortunate to see this history every day and that everyone understands the responsibility that comes with being here.”

The archeology offices on U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll operate under an agreement with the Marshall Islands government: Any American human remains and artifacts associated with WWII and later eras become property of the U.S. government. Any pre-WWII artifacts and all remains of Marshallese, Japanese and Korean nationals are eventually turned over to the RMI Historical Preservation Office.

There’s a special process involved when the archeology teams find a human bone, Day says. They first call the provost marshal and the hospital, checking that there are no ongoing murder investigations. Second, they notify the Historical Preservation Office in Majuro for consultation. If it’s a single bone and there’s no indication the rest of the skeleton is nearby, authorities usually do not force a lengthy pause to construction. But if it’s an actual internment or an intact burial, the team has the choice to either excavate the remains or change the construction plan. Sort of how Bagley’s team did with “Mia.” Either is a rare circumstance, one that hasn’t occurred at the KRS Archeology Office since Day has worked on USAG-KA.

“We’ve processed about 15 human bone collections into the system since I’ve been here,” he says. “But finding intact burials, yeah that’s kind of rare.

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Despite the sheer tonnage of bombs dropped and blood shed during Operation Flintlock, not everything the archeologists find in the soil on Kwajalein and Roi relates to WWII. Kwajalein Atoll and the islanders that called it home were here long before the Spanish, Germans, Japanese and Americans knew the archipelago existed.

Since roughly 100-200 A.D., islanders lived out their lives on this very atoll. They stared at a gleaming night sky buttressed by palm trees and wove together a deep catalogue of Micronesian folklore, passing origin stories down the generations that followed. They sailed great distances, using nothing but their understanding of the constellations and their readings of the ocean currents and swells to guide them. It is thought that they wore small, Spartan loin cloths and skirts made primarily from woven pandanus mats, hibiscus and other vegetation, as was done among Marshall Islanders during early contacts with European sailors and whalers. In fact, almost everything the early islanders used in their daily lives, from food preparation to home and outrigger canoe building, was essentially temporary, compostable—erasable. The same goes for the generations that followed and spread throughout the archipelago.

Aside from rare artifacts like adzes, fish hooks carved out of coral, fire pits and large pandanus pounders, not much of these early islanders lives remain in the soil for humans to find more than 90 generations later. Except for bones.

That there are ancient internments of Marshall Islanders in certain areas on USAG-KA is something few USAG-KA residents are aware of. A good example came in March 2001. A crew was digging a utility trench next to the ALTAIR radar on Namur when it cut into a WWII bomb crater filled with a mess of unexploded ordnance and the remains of two people of Asian descent: most likely Japanese defenders or Korean laborers. After the USAKA archeological team reburied the human remains in a safe place nearby, the construction crew continued the pipeline dig. What they found next was truly remarkable. A nearly complete single skeleton, along with small shells that appeared to be part of a chiefly necklace, was uncovered in a plot of soil a bit farther away, the color and composition of which indicated the site predated WWII.

“The bones are almost petrified,” then- USAKA Resident Archeologist Dr. Boris Deunert said in an interview with the Hourglass after the find. “If we get permission, we will radiocarbon date these bones.”

On April 20, 2001 Deunert hand delivered some of the small shells and a fragment of the individual’s left humerus (upper arm bone) to International Archeological Research Institute, Inc. in Honolulu. Specialists ruled against the likelihood that the shells were chieftain artifacts. But results were different for the humerus: Radiocarbon dating by scientists at Stafford Research Laboratories, Inc. in Colorado determined the humerus to be between 1880 and 1630 years old.

The individual was among some of the earliest generations of islanders to settle in the Marshall Islands.

“These results provide a high level of confidence that the dated remains pertain to an indigenous prehistoric inhabitant of the Marshall Islands,” wrote Dr. Rona Ikehara-Quebral and Dr. J. Stephen Athans in December 2001 on behalf of International Archeological Research Institute, Inc. “The results further suggest quite an early time period for the remains, probably within a century or two of initial human occupation of the Marshall Islands as suggested by current archeological evidence.”

The individual—the sex of which was not possible to determine—had lived and died on Namur at a time when the Roman Empire had reached its height and begun its descent in the Mediterranean. And about 1,800 years later, in 1968-1969, the Advanced Research Projects Agency installed ALTAIR a stone’s throw away from their grave for the purpose of studying ballistic missile re-entry characteristics during the Cold War.

This juxtaposition of historic artifacts and chapters of history—from prehistory, to WWII, to the Cold War—on Kwajalein Atoll’s islands is what makes the place a truly remarkable archeological gem, Day says.

“It gets a little intense out here,” he says, looking at his GIS maps. “You’ve got historic everywhere. And then you’ve got prehistoric right below that. And the Cold War era closing in on top of all that.”

A recent discovery of a more contemporary Marshall Islander artifact in 2016 helped illustrate Day’s point.

Near Camp Hamilton, along the original, pre-1944 lagoon shoreline of the island, an earth mover peeled away a section of earth, revealing an old Marshallese earth oven, or an “um.” After digging up the fire pit and allowing construction to continue, the archeology team found small fish bones, coral stones colored black by carbon buildup and remnants of coconut husks used for charcoal.

The oven, says Day, is significant direct evidence of early human occupation in that area of Kwajalein and evidence that more intact archeological features may be located in that vicinity.

“Now we’re running carbon dates on the charcoal to get an age,” he says. “But it looks like it’s at least 150-200 years old. Well before Japanese occupation.”

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On Kwajalein, Roi-Namur and satellite islands like Gagan there are likely dozens more “ums” out there in the soil. There are certainly many more prehistoric burial plots and tools like pandanus scrapers and pounders out there to be found. And there are without a doubt literal tons more explosives hidden under the soil’s surface and in the waters around the islands. But in order for the archeologists to research and interpret them, those bones, bottles and bombs must first reveal themselves—either via erosion or during dig projects. Until then, we remain blind to the conduits of the past and questions they answer about the long, singular history of this atoll.

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