Lost Fishermen Return Home, Tell Tale of Survival

Joe Dacanay, of Kwajalein’s Vector Control group, greets and leads Godfrey Capelle, center, and Benjamim Thomas to a medical station on Bucholz Army Airfield on Kwajalein May 28. Thomas and Capelle survived 42 days at sea in a powerless fishing vessel and have returned to Kwajalein Atoll.

Two Ebeye men who washed up in the Federated States of Micronesia after six weeks adrift on a powerless boat have made it back to Kwajalein Atoll.

Stepping off Air Marshall Islands’ Dash 8 airliner May 28 on Kwajalein, Godfrey Capelle and Benjamin Thomas became the first people to re-enter the RMI since the imposition of a COVID-19-related RMI.

For nearly 1.5 months, the men’s boat drifted 1,000 miles (880 nautical miles) on a west-southwest heading, passing tantalizingly close to Pohnpei, before luckily washing up May 14 on the remote Namoluk Atoll, 130 miles southeast of Chuuk. Two weeks later, following the RMI government’s decision to repatriate the men, FSM authorities transported Capelle and Thomas to Pohnpei via a patrol vessel, after which the Air Marshall Islands flight brought them to Kwajalein May 28.

But after coming so far, they cannot go home quite yet.  Because the two men washed up in the FSM, one of the few nations along with the RMI to remain free of the coronavirus, Marshall Islands officials allowed the men back into the country, provided they undergo testing for the virus before and after travel from Pohnpei, FSM and also endure a strict 14-day quarantine on Kwajalein. Only after they complete their quarantine can they return to their homes and families on Ebeye.

The risk the fishermen contracted COVID-19 had been low, the RMI Office of the President affirmed in a May 28 statement. But the repatriation of Capelle and Thomas, along with five other RMI citizens who were permitted to take advantage of the AMI flight from the FSM, has provided the Marshall Islands government a rare cohort of people needed to test the quarantine protocols and facilities established on Majuro and Kwajalein. For the time being, these re-entries will be limited exceptions to the ongoing re-entry ban, which was extended on June 5 for another 30 days. The quarantine facilities and the medical and support staff operating them will be essential in prohibiting the transmission of the virus into the atolls of Kwajalein and Majuro and beyond.

Following a protocol developed by USAG-KA and contractor leadership, on May 28 medical staff in full protective gear greeted Capelle, Thomas and fellow Ebeye resident Connielynn Paul, who had also been stranded in Pohnpei. After taking the travelers’ temperatures, the hospital personnel gathered mucus samples for COVID-19 analysis at the hospital’s laboratory, all results of which came back negative. The visitors then began their 14-day isolation period in empty homes set aside as quarantine facilities on Kwajalein.

The threat of contracting the coronavirus has been the least of the men’s worries, however. Having survived nearly 1.5 months in the open Pacific Ocean in a small, powerless skiff, Capelle and Thomas have certainly put the worst behind them. They can endure another two weeks together, on dry land a stone’s throw from their homes and families.

Capelle took a few minutes Thursday to tell a bit of the harrowing story.

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It was a routine fishing trip April 2. Capelle, Thomas and a third man on the boat, Junior Joram, who did not survive the ordeal, had punched through SAR Pass and were working their fishing lines when the carburetor in Capelle’s 40-horsepower outboard motor jammed, he said. It was about 3 or 4 p.m., and they were already three miles off the west reef between Kwajalein and Eneobuj. The motor would not restart.

Capelle called for help via his radio at about 5:30 p.m., and within an hour a pair of RMI search and rescue vessels set out to retrieve the men and the 20-foot boat, RMI authorities stated. But by early evening, ushered west by winds gusting between 25 and 35 mph, the men were quickly losing sight of Eneobuj and Kwajalein. When the rescue group on the search vessels finally spotted Capelle’s boat shortly before sundown, the small skiff was already six miles outside SAR Pass, Giff Johnson of the Marshall Islands Journal had reported in April. 

But “I saw the federal boat come close to me,” Capelle said Thursday. “But they never see my light.” The rescuers had actually decided against pursuing the fishermen in the rough seas at night, hoping to resume a wider search the next day in safer conditions. By the next morning, well outside of working range of Capelle’s very high frequency radio, the fishermen were firmly on their way to nowhere in particular.

In the coming days, a crew aboard one of the garrison’s Fairchild Metroliners initiated a search effort west and southwest of Kwajalein. And, per request from the RMI Embassy in Washington, D.C., a U.S. Coast Guard search and rescue team flew out a C-130 from Hawaii to aid in the search effort. But all attempts to locate the blue-and-white-painted 20-foot skiff, and the three Ebeye residents aboard, turned up nothing.

“What I do is just pray,” Capelle said. For weeks, the men held on as aggressive trade winds kicked the boat through 10-foot seas broiling atop five miles of endless blue water. “Sometimes I was scared,” Capelle said. “Sometimes big waves. Big waves. Rain.”

The men still had their fishing gear and were able to catch fish attracted to the boat—the only landmark on the surface for hundreds of miles. They took advantage of seabirds landing on the boat, as well, lunging at them and trapping them with their hands. A quick whack with an oar usually did the trick too, Capelle said. Preparing the birds was unappealing, but they did their best to dry the meat out using the sun’s heat. “After maybe three hours, eat,” he said.

Long days and long nights lied ahead. Passover went by. Then Good Friday and then Easter. “Oh yeah, we pray. Prayed a lot. Every day,” Capelle said, adding that it was his faith in God and his love for his family that kept him going. He also knew if they waited long enough, the trade winds were bound to push them into one of the islands or atolls peppering the ocean surface throughout Micronesia. “I know there is an island,” he said he told himself, Thomas and Joram. “I know plenty island to the southwest.”

On April 19, 2.5 weeks into the odyssey, tragedy struck. It was at about 1 p.m. when a large wave knocked one of the boat paddles into the water, or caused it to fall out of one of the men’s hands, Capelle said. Joram knew it was dangerous to get in the water and leave the boat, but he also knew how important that oar might be to them if they sighted land. “I tell him already if something drops, do not jump into the water,” Capelle said. Joram went after it anyway. He made it to the paddle, “and so he tried to swim the paddle back but can’t. There’s too much waves, wind. We tried to help him, but cannot.”

As the boat drifted away, so did Joram’s chance of surviving. He would never make it back to the boat. “I do not know what happened to him,” Capelle said.

Four days later, around April 23, Capelle and Thomas spotted Pohnpei. The mountainous island was heartbreakingly close—about the distance Ebeye is from Carlos, said Capelle. But the trade winds had nudged his boat just south of its fringing reef, and there was no chance the men could fight the wind and close the distance with only one paddle. “I saw Pohnpei. I tried to go to it, but the wind coming northeast, so I cannot.” 

Another 2.5 weeks of survival at the mercy of the Pacific lied ahead for Capelle and Thomas. The two men sustained themselves on whatever fish, birds and rainwater they could collect. Their friend was gone, and they prayed day in and day out. At night, they looked up at the glittering arms of the Milky Way as the ocean’s black rollers slid them farther from home and hoped to make it off the boat alive.

And then, one day, they did.

On May 12, Capelle and Thomas spotted a couple of low-lying islands in their path. And as if answering their prayers, the wind blew the boat right into the reef’s embrace at about 5 p.m. It was Namoluk Atoll, a pint-sized atoll measuring only three miles long at its widest point and located 130 miles southeast of Chuuk. Only five islands comprise the atoll, and Capelle and Thomas had landed on the reef next to one of the smallest, likely Lukan, on the atoll’s northern periphery.

Asked how he felt Thursday when setting foot on the beach, Capelle was reserved. “I just thanked God and pray,” Capelle said. “I was happy.”

That night on the small island he noticed lights on the larger island, Namoluk, to the west just about a mile away. “I saw the light on the Namoluk. So I said, ‘Oh there’s people there. Tomorrow we go there.’” After sleeping on solid ground for the first time in six weeks, Capelle and Thomas got up and paddled all the way to Namoluk Island, meeting the villagers who would take them in and radio authorities in Chuuk for help.

Capelle and Thomas spent the next two weeks in Chuuk. While the governments of the FSM and RMI figured out how to possibly repatriate the fishermen under the ongoing COVID-19-related travel restrictions and re-entry bans, the men had time to reflect on how fortunate they were to wash up on Namoluk. Had they missed the little atoll, the next possible body of land on Capelle’s and Thomas’ heading—barring currents—would have been a northern province of Indonesia: an additional 1,700 miles of travel and approximately another nine weeks of survival in Capelle’s small boat.

At the time of the publication of this story, Capelle and Thomas are on day nine of their quarantine on Kwajalein. Capelle said he’s pleased with the quality of care he’s receiving from the medical and support staff tasked with monitoring his health and delivering hot meals and other supplies to the men three times per day.

But 62 days after setting out on that ill-fated fishing trip, he can’t wait to get home to Ebeye to see the people he cares about the most.

“I want to see my family and my friends,” he said.

After that? Well, Capelle’s got to provide, he said: “Back to fishing. I will look for another boat.”

Back on the Range: Former KMR Range Ops Officer Reflects on Atoll’s Missile History

U.S. Army Maj. Carl McGrew (Ret.), a former Kwajalein Missile Range Range Operations Officer, poses in front of Meck Island, where he supported test launches of several generations of anti-ballistic missile systems through the years.

A searing sun slides into the horizon, revealing a cavalry of puffy horsehead-shaped clouds marching slowly westward. Carl McGrew, a visitor all too familiar with the iconic cotton-candy-pink sunsets of Kwajalein Atoll, props himself on the mainsail boom of his son’s sailboat, Cherokee, and lets the moment soak in. “How sweet it is,” he says, clasping a cup of icy gin and tonic water.

Between brief, quiet moments of reflection, he tells story after story about his adventures on and off Kwajalein Missile Range, hitting everything from his involvement in the Terminal High Altitude Aerial Defense program, to catching massive marlin with nothing but the head of a mop and fishing line. His presence aboard the boat is one of the reasons I’ve accepted a last-minute invitation to set sail on a short trip to Roi-Namur with him, his son, Paul, and friends and family. If Carl was going, I wanted to go, too. Not only to share his company but also to record a little of the history of the anti-ballistic missile programs in which he was involved.

A retired Army major in the explosive ordnance disposal field, and later a Kwajalein Missile Range operations officer with more than 13 years of service on Kwaj, McGrew helped direct missions on the range through the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. These were pivotal times for America’s anti-ballistic missile programs.

McGrew’s assignment as an EOD officer at White Sands Missile Range was one of his earliest forays into the ABM industry.

Beginning in the mid-1960s, Bell Telephone Laboratories, Western Electric and other contractors hired by the Army Rocket and guided Missile Agency were tasked with developing a viable ABM system, busying themselves with early test launches of the superfast short-range ABM missile called Sprint. McGrew was assigned to EOD support for these missions.

“There were some 45 Sprint missiles launched at White Sands,” he says. “I was able to support some 15 of those there in the early development of the Sprint, since it was a very hot booster system.” Equipped with a small, 1-kiloton thermonuclear warhead, it was designed to intercept ICBMs inside the atmosphere just 15 seconds after launch. In testing, the two-stage missile popped out of its silo via a small explosive piston, after which its first stage ignited and accelerated the vehicle at more than 100Gs to a max speed of Mach 10 in just 10 seconds—so fast the nose cone became incandescent. The missile’s engineering was nearly beyond the state of the art. “They had about a 50 percent success rate just to get [Sprints] out of the silos,” McGrew tells me. But the early testing at White Sands created a stable foundation for engagement and intercept testing at Kwajalein, where McGrew would continue to work with the Sprints and another longer-range missile system called Spartan.

A Sprint missile is prepared on the launch rail at White Sands Missile Range June 24, 1965. McGrew supported 15 Sprint launches there.
A Sprint, incandescent from intense speed and air compression, is fired from Meck, supported Safeguard launches.

As the 1960s gave way to the 1970s, the Nixon administration, the Joint Chiefs and a slim congressional majority supported deployment of these ABM missiles and two families of advanced phased array radars in an ABM arrangement called Safeguard. Centered among the wheat fields outside of Nekoma, North Dakota, construction of the Stanley R. Mickelsen Safeguard Complex was nearly complete, with systems soon coming online, when McGrew, still an Army EOD officer, moved his family to Kwajalein in June 1974. Flight tests of the Safeguard program’s Sprint and Spartan interceptor missiles were launching from Meck and Illeginni at a breakneck rate: roughly one M2-series intercept attempt a month, and the population of Kwaj was more than 6,000, McGrew remembers. He was assigned to Kwajalein Missile Range’s range operations group, working in the building now known as 1010, and he and four officers directed the range’s operations and mission scheduling for the Sprint and Spartan launches. “When Sprint finally arrived at Kwajalein, it was very successful,” he says. “The development program allowed for it to launch from Meck Island and Illeginni. So, Sprint was a very successful, high-performance missile.” Meck was a beehive of activity until the final test shots, Safeguard M2-545 and M2-548, blasted off the pad at Meck the following April, ending this crucial testing period for the Safeguard program.

U.S. Army Safeguard Command activated the Mickelsen Safeguard Complex in North Dakota on Sept. 28, 1975, and only 19 weeks later the Joint Chiefs ordered the site to shut down: The slim congressional majority that had authorized the program years earlier had given way to voices opposed to Safeguard. It was the end of the line for nuclear-armed ABM missiles on American soil. A new phase in the evolution of ABM defenses would soon begin.

“Those programs were very successful,” McGrew says. “But with the [Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty] agreements, those systems were taken off the shelf, and new systems that were less hazardous to nuclear detonations—hence the rise of kinetic kill programs—came online.”

McGrew loved his assignment on Kwajalein and extended his two-year tour to three years. “I loved the environment to raise my kids in, and it was a wise move.” Apart from his work on the missile range, he became an avid scuba diver, organizing Kwajalein Scuba Club trips to Pohnpei and Chuuk. In 1975, he and 29 other Kwajalein divers checked 60 KSC air tanks onto a Continental Airlines flight, paying $5 per tank, and spent two weeks of diving the reefs and wrecks in those Micronesian states.

“We did the same trip again the next year in 1976,” he says. “The scuba club was very active—a lot of divers, and there were never enough tanks.”

In 1977, the Army assigned McGrew to Huntsville, Alabama, where he retired from the Army as a major, completing 20 years of service. It was the beginning of the Pentagon’s studies into methods of destroying incoming ICBMs through blunt impact instead of nuclear explosions: like hitting a bullet with a bullet, the Army says. One of those early studies, begun in 1977, was the Homing Overlay Experiment, and McGrew was brought aboard by Lockheed Corporation to assist. While the Army and its contractor teams performed deep dive studies on improving radar and computer abilities to discriminate enemy warheads—that is, identify warheads from decoys, penetration aids and debris while en route to their targets—the Army also began developing kinetic kill vehicles. By using rocket stages to launch an independently steerable, thruster-powered object guided by infrared optical guidance systems, the idea was that a KKV could collide head-on with a target, destroying it: no nuclear detonation needed.

The HOE project was the start of McGrew’s 18-year stint in KKV development with Lockheed, and the project brought him and his family back to Kwajalein Missile Range for a second tour. In three tests in 1983, the Air Force launched Minuteman ICBMs toward Kwajalein Atoll, and the Army’s HOE interceptors failed in each test to destroy the dummy warhead. “It was a challenging program” that used off-the-shelf technology, essentially, McGrew says. But on June 10, 1984, the date of the fourth and final test, the HOE’s 13-feet-wide umbrella skeleton wrapped the Minuteman re-entry vehicle in a concussive death hug with a closing speed of more than 6 km per second. McGrew and the HOE planners were elated.

“It was the first kinetic kill, and that was the start of Star Wars, according to President Reagan at the time,” McGrew tells me as we sit at anchor off Roi-Namur.

An ERIS interceptor pokes its nose cone out of the silo at Meck. This missile scored America’s second kinetic ABM kill, a project McGrew looks back on fondly.

Formally known as the Strategic Defense Initiative, Star Wars programs blossomed in the coming years, each fixated on different ways to destroy incoming warheads without the use of nuclear explosions. Some were fanciful for their time—think lasers and platforms bursting with KKVs in orbit around Earth—and some were more straightforward. McGrew moved on to a program grounded on past successes, the Exoatmospheric Re-Entry Interceptor Subsystem, which was a direct descendent of the HOE program and designed to kill ICBMs at long range, outside of the Earth’s atmosphere. On Jan. 29, 1991, the ERIS crew launched the 200-kilogram ERIS booster and KKV from Meck and scored a direct hit against a target Minuteman launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. McGrew looks fondly on that achievement: They had proven KKVs might work in the real world. “Fortunately, we were very lucky and got the first round off and also had a first-round kinetic kill hit,” he says, acknowledging the long road kinetic defense programs still had ahead of them.

A second intercept attempt in March 1992 tested the KKV’s ability to discriminate the correct warhead using its onboard infrared sensors but failed to destroy the target missile. Budget constraints forced an end to ERIS testing soon after, but the knowledge the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization gained on infrared seeking, onboard discrimination, KKV vector thrusting and more were transferred directly to the following—and current—generation of exo-atmospheric kinetic ABM systems: the Missile Defense Agency’s Ground-based Midcourse Defense. With 44 Ground-Based Interceptors deployed in silos at Fort Greely, Alaska and Vandenberg, the system is charged with protecting the United States from limited ICBM attacks from adversaries.

McGrew looks back fondly on his involvement in HOE and ERIS and his role in ushering the long-range kinetic system from infancy to deployment.

“We did a lot of work out here,” he told me, staring off at Meck Island as we sailed by. “A lot of important work.”

His favorite program, he later tells me, is THAAD, another kinetic ABM system with roots planted during the Reagan Star Wars years. The theater defense system was borne out of the High Endo-atmospheric Defense Interceptor program and designed to destroy medium- and long-range theater ballistic missiles primarily just inside the atmosphere. THAAD was McGrew’s last assignment with Lockheed. He worked as the mission director for a total of nine launches of the THAAD interceptor at White Sands before later system testing took place on Kwajalein Atoll, Wake Island and elsewhere.

“That was a very successful program,” he says. “And it’s operational now, along with the GBI in Alaska and Vandenberg. So, I’m fortunate to see two programs to their fulfillment, and that was 20 years with Lockheed.

“And it’s good that’s deployed,” he continues. “Because things in Korea and in other places have requirements for that system. And it’s nice to see that the Army is able to activate it and keep the Soldiers trained on it.”

A recent THAAD test occurs. McGrew supported several THAAD launches before retiring.

The 13.5 years McGrew spent on Kwajalein Atoll left an indelible impression on him. He’s proud of the roles he had in testing critical ABM systems deployed today, earning many titles though the years. But he’s most proud of calling himself a father, husband and Scoutmaster, he says. Scouting was a way for him to spend time with his family, give back to the community and integrate into the local Marshallese community in ways most people can only imagine now. McGrew and scout leaders from Ebeye would join forces to organize massive, annual Boy Scout jamborees on Bigej, inviting the 500 Marshallese Boy Scouts living on Ebeye and the 30 Kwajalein Boy Scouts for a week-long adventure of cooking pigs in earth ovens and practicing scouting skills.

“Everybody loved to sail, fish and scuba dive,” he says. “But since I was a scout master and had two boys—one became a Life Scout, and one became an Eagle Scout—I enjoyed scouting.”

The fundraisers McGrew helped organize would pull in enough money from the Kwajalein community to send $25,000 checks to the Boy Scout leadership in Honolulu and buy Cadillacs for raffle winners. Yes, Cadillacs for raffle winners on Kwajalein—It was a different time. Other adventures included Boy Scout reef hikes from Ninji to Kwajalein during low-tides, before the causeway from Gugeegue to Ebeye was constructed.

He tells of catching so many marlins that he and his friends employed a clever safer way of continuing to fish them and release them back to the ocean: using the head of a mop, literally. It helps if he explains the quirky technique himself:

“I think I got about 28 marlin up next to the boat. I learned after about 10 of them that it was hard to get the hook out of them and hard to release them. So we went with what is called a mop head technique. You could actually buy a mop at the store and make three lures. And it didn’t have a hook. You just tied the 300-pound line around it and towed it, and it would splash up, and the marlin would hit it. It would hit the mop head like it’s a fish and try to kill it. And its beak would tangle into the mop head getting so tangled up that we were able to reel the marlin in—without a hook. Using that technique, we caught a lot of them safely. The mop head would stay attached to the beak and the big marlins would just walk on top of the water with the mop head behind the boat. The mop head would eventually break down in the water and come off the marlin’s beak. So that was a lesson learned on catching marlin and releasing them.”

McGrew discusses his 13.5 years of experience testing ABM missile systems on Kwajalein Atoll.

A lot has changed on Kwajalein since McGrew first arrived 45 years ago. The Kwajalein Missile Range is now the Reagan Test Site, but it remains a critical test bed for the nation’s missile defense programs, the Air Force’s follow-on test shots of Minuteman III ICBMs and space surveillance and new foreign missile launch tracking. But in the world of missile defense, much of the range activity that kept scientists, engineers and Soldiers busy in earlier decades has moved to other national missile ranges, McGrew says. A population of more than 6,000 in the early 1970s has dropped to just more than 1,000 today. But while budgets are a function of the number of boots on the sand here, enjoying life on Kwaj and Roi is not.

“The lifestyle is the same,” he says. “It’s the most beautiful place to live and raise a family, to enjoy the natural environment to its fullest. It’s great to be able to get these experiences time and time again.”

McGrew, seated next to friend Courtney Swanson, flashes a thumbs up before setting sail on their next leg to Nell.

As Paul motors me away from Cherokee so I can catch a flight back to Kwaj, Carl sits on the stern of the boat, flashes a thumbs up and says goodbye. I remember him saying this might be his last sailing adventure on Kwajalein Atoll. That partly saddens me, but I’m reminded he’s got plenty of other adventures ahead—plus five nights at Nell, the next destination for the Cherokee crew on their trip around the largest atoll in the world.

Reagan Test Site Role Highlighted at Space and Missile Defense Symposium

Lt. Gen. James Dickinson, commanding general of U.S. Space and Missile Defense Command, addresses the annual Space and Missile Defense Symposium in Huntsville last week.

Jordan Vinson, for the U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll’s Kwajalein Hourglass

The annual Space and Missile Defense Symposium took place last week in Huntsville, Alabama, hosting thousands of service members and professionals working in the fields of space, missile defense and cybersecurity.

Held Aug. 7-9 at the Von Braun Center in “Rocket City,” the conference featured speeches by leaders within the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command, the Missile Defense Agency and U.S. Strategic Command. Panel discussions, scholarly research presentations and technology exhibits by defense contractor companies and select foreign military units were also part of the three-day event.

Lt. Gen. James Dickinson, commanding general of U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command, addressed the symposium Aug. 7, commending the globe-spanning active duty and civilian workforce that make the SMDC mission possible.

Via a live video link at the conference center, the general did a question-and-answer session with 12 members of SMDC, each in a different geographic location, from Kuwait to Kwajalein. Along with presentations of short videos recorded with these personnel on site at the featured far-flung SMDC posts, Dickinson and his team described how individuals and their skillsets contribute to the force and how SMDC accomplishes its broad range of space and global missile defense missions.

One of the videos Dickinson called up for symposium attendees featured SMDC Space Officer Capt. Wojciech Stachura. At a sunny, ocean-side location on Roi-Namur, Stachura explained the importance of SMDC’s Reagan Test Site to American missile defense and space operations.

“Today I am here at the Kwajalein Atoll, home of the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site, also known as RTS,” Stachura said in the video. “RTS is operated by Army personnel, government civilians, technical support contractors and scientists from MIT Lincoln Laboratory. We have over 40 years of experience supporting missile testing and space operations. RTS conducts continuous operations in support of the U.S. Strategic Command, U.S. Air Force space programs and the National Aeronautics and Space Administrations, as well as other government and DOD organizations.

“Operations on Kwajalein Atoll offer many advantages,” the space officer told the crowd. “The austere location helps minimize the inherent risk and safety concerns involved in launch operations. And its proximity to the equator and vast open areas make it very efficient at conducting rocket launches to a wide range of orbits. The Reagan Test Site is, and will continue to be, a significant asset for the U.S. Army.”

A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor is launched from Meck Island on its way to intercept a ballistic missile target during an MDA flight test Oct. 24, 2012.

While Dickinson was one of the key speakers at the symposium, he shared the stage with plenty of other high-profile Pentagon leaders in the space and missile defense community.

In an Aug. 7 speech at the symposium, Air Force Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, highlighted the importance of vigorous investment in space-based sensors to counter accelerating offensive threats from China and Russia.

“You can’t call them our friends if they’re making weapons that can destroy the United States of America,” he told the crowd.

Radars like Cobra Dane on Shemya Island in Alaska, ALTAIR on Roi-Namur and Joint Tactical Ground Station sites in Japan, Germany and elsewhere are critical to the nation’s new foreign missile and rocket launch duties. But Hyten said ground-based radars’ line-of-sight limitations could be overstepped with a globe-spanning constellation of dependable yet affordable sensors that are parked in low earth and dedicated to watching for and tracking hostile launches from boost to impact.

“There is not enough islands in the world to build radars on to see all the threats to be able to characterize the threats,” said Hyten. “You just can’t get there from here, so the only place to go to do that is a place where the U.S. is actually strongest and technology is there to do it, and that’s in space. We have to move into space.”

The point, the symposium speakers explained, is to improve the lethality of American missile defense systems like the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense in the U.S. and systems abroad in theater like deployed Terminal High Altitude Aerial Defense and Patriot batteries, as well as sea-based Aegis systems on missile destroyers and Aegis Ashore sites in Romania, Poland and—in the future—Japan.

Without the necessary sensor infrastructure online, the mission of missile defense would be entirely different, Hyten said. It was a point he hammered on, saying, STRATCOM needs “sensors first, shooters second, capacity third. … If you don’t have the sensors, then the other two really don’t matter.”

At a time of widely reported Chinese and Russian advances in non-ballistic hypersonic weaponry development, a constellation of enhanced sensors designed to detect and track launches early in flight could significantly aid America’s defense against these superfast vehicles, according to some analysts in the missile defense community.

“The most important thing to do in the missile defense business is making sure you can see and characterize the threat,” Hyten told the Symposium crowd. “If you can’t see and characterize the threat, I don’t care what kind of shooter you have. There is nothing you can do about it. So the most important thing is as you look at all the threats that are coming together, hypersonics, etc.—is that we have to be able to see that threat.”

A duo of missile tracking satellites collectively known as the Space Tracking and Surveillance System was put into orbit in 2009 and is still active, but the system is used primarily as missile test launch assets. Another Air Force multi-satellite network, the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS), is now emplaced in orbit and can currently detect and track launches.

But, according to Michael Griffin, the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, the existing capabilities are by no means future proof.

They are, “exquisitely capable, very expensive, very vulnerable systems that were designed and deployed in an era where we really didn’t have any space adversaries,” Griffin told the symposium crowd.

The timeline to build, launch and validate a cheaper, more advanced and hardier system will depend on collaboration between the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and the MDA, the release of the government’s anticipated Missile Defense Review and, of course, congressional approval.

Also part of the symposium’s three days of events were discussions on ways to improve sharing missile defense intelligence with U.S. allies; renewed Congressional effort to authorize funding for development of a space-based interceptor system capable of striking down missiles around the world in their boost phase; and what the proposed Space Force might look like.

Hyten had this to say about the Space Force proposition.

“You’ve seen the Congress of the United States pass a law that says we have to go look at developing a Space Corps inside the United States Air Force to figure out how to do that,” said Hyten. “And we have reports to Congress that are due back this month, talking about that. You see Congress talking about standing up a sub-unified command for space now. You see the president of the United States calling for a Space Force. …

“If you take one step back and you look at all the things leading up to that, they all say the following: We have a threat in space; space is a warfighting domain; we have to treat it like a warfighting domain. That’s it, and that’s exactly what we’re doing. So as we do all this, we’re going to be in a much better position as a nation.”

HOURGLASS INTERVIEWS Ambassador Hideyuki Mitsuoka

Interview by Jordan Vinson, for the U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll’s Kwajalein Hourglass

Japanese Ambassador to the RMI Hideyuki Mitsuoka was on U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll last week to work on bilateral issues involving Japan and the RMI and to also visit with Japanese citizens who flew to Kwajalein Atoll to honor the Japanese service members who perished during WWII battles in the archipelago. Mitsuoka took a few minutes to talk with the Kwajalein Hourglass about his job in Majuro and diplomacy between Japan, the RMI and the United States.

Kwajalein Hourglass: Why is it important for Japan to maintain a strong diplomatic link with the Marshall Islands?

Ambassador Hideyuki Mitsuoka: This is a very important question for us. I think there are several reasons for that. For example … this year marks the 30th anniversary for the establishment of diplomatic relations between our countries. Our historical ties, however, date back more than 100 years. And we have enjoyed and developed a cooperative relationship over a long time. And also, Japan has been an active and consistent developmental partner of the RMI since the 1980s. So, I believe that Japan’s development assistance in the RMI has greatly contributed to the development of the RMI.

This is the first reason. And secondly, the area you see around the RMI is a good fishing ground for tuna and bonito for Japan. … About 80 percent of consumption of tuna and bonito in Japan comes from these areas of sea around the Pacific island countries, of course, including the RMI. This is the second reason. I think the third reason, in addition to the bilateral relations between our two countries, Japan and the RMI have a cooperative relationship in the international arena, such as in the United Nations. And the RMI always supports Japan’s position in international society. For instance … RMI supports Japan’s aspirations to seek a permanent seat in the UN Security Council.

HG: What are a few of the most important bilateral projects the RMI and Japan are working on together?

AHM: Currently, we are working on a project of the installation of a solar electricity system in Ebeye. In November last year, their minister of foreign affairs and trade, John Silk, and I signed an exchange of notes for the project. … I hope that this project will greatly contribute to the RMI’s national energy goal, for renewable energy to cover 20 percent of domestic power demand in the RMI by 2020. Also, we’re a country working on youth exchanges, such as middle school students and high school and college level. Also the revitalization of sister cities between Majuro and Kawai-cho, Kawai Town in Nara Prefecture.

HG: Japan is a major financial and capital donor to the Marshall Islands. Last November, for example, you oversaw the donation of $65,000 to Majuro’s Waan Aelon in Majel (WAM) canoe and outrigger sailing construction and education school. The grant was funded through Japan’s Grant Assistance for Grassroots Human Security Projects (GGP). Can you tell us more about GGP and other grant programs Japan maintains for the RMI?

Japanese Ambassador to the Marshall Islands Hideyuki Mitsuoka, interviewed by Jordan Vinson on Kwajalein March 24, 2018.

AHM: Japan has mainly carried four types of assistance in the RMI. First is project type grant aid implemented through JICA: Japan International Cooperation Agency. The size of one project is the largest amount of any of Japan’s assistance programs, typically around 10 million U.S. dollars. An example for a project type grant aid is Majuro Hospital and the fish base at Uliga Dock in Majuro. Another type of assistance is economic and social development grant aid, called non-project type grant aid, which is basically the procurement of products and equipment that we give to the government of the RMI.

The [Japanese] embassy is in charge of coordinating, and the size of the grant amount is usually one-to-three million U.S. dollars. In the RMI, examples are heavy equipment, desalination units, waste metal compressors and plastic compressors at the recycling center in Majuro. The third is GGP [Japan’s Grant Assistance for Grassroots Human Security Projects]. This is smaller size assistance available for local governments, schools, hospitals, local government, energy use and others for the improvement of the social wellbeing of people at the grassroots level. In principal, the grant amount is up to around 90,000 U.S. dollars. Since 1995, over 141 projects of this type have been granted in the RMI. The fourth type, other types or programs conducted by JICA, are technical cooperation, such as providing training opportunities in Japan [and JICA volunteers in the RMI]. Currently 17 JICA volunteers are working for various places, such as elementary schools, Majuro Hospital, MINTA, the EPA and so on. Among them, 16 volunteers are in Majuro, and one volunteer is in Ebeye; he works for Ebeye Elementary School as a mathematics teacher. Usually they spend two years on assignment.

HG: Does Japan funnel any money or capital assistance to the outer atoll communities like Mili Atoll or Jaluit Atoll?

AHM: As far as grant aid to the outer atolls, outer islands, Japan has implemented almost 80 projects through GGP since 1995. These projects were implemented not just in Mili and Jaluit, but also in more than 20 atolls, such as Ailinglaplap, Namorik, Aur, Arno, Ebon and so on.

HG: How many Marshallese citizens, or persons of Marshallese heritage, live in the nation of Japan?

AHM: We have Japanese government statistics. According to the statistics, there are 11 Marshallese citizens living in Japan, and I understand that most of them married Japanese people. Just 11.

HG: What are some of the most important policies or agendas Japan and the United States need to work on?

AHM: I can say that, you know, Japan and United States are strong allies, sharing basic values and strategic interests with the Japan-U.S. security arrangement at the core. This is a very important arrangement between our two countries. So, under such a strong alliance, our two countries are closely working together and sharing roles and responsibilities not only in bilateral relations, but also in regional issues in Asia-Pacific and global issues, such as human security, human rights, climate change, disaster risk reduction and disarmament and non-proliferation [of nuclear weapons]. Moreover, I think the cooperative relationship between our two countries in the international society is getting more important.

HG: North Korean ballistic missile testing and, of course underground nuclear warhead tests, are concerns common to Japan and the United States. What can you say about the importance of the Reagan Test Site, here on Kwajalein Atoll, to Japan’s strategy in dealing with North Korea’s ambitions toward nuclear-armed ICBMs?

AHM: As you know, North Korea has launched missiles flying over Japan several times. And it has said it would launch missiles aiming at the area of sea around Guam. So North Korea has become a serious threat, not only to Japan and the U.S., but also to the whole international society. So, I think the RMI is located in a place between Guam and Hawaii and occupies an important position in terms of the U.S. strategy. This is my personal view. I personally recognize that that the Reagan Test Site plays an important role in terms of playing a deterrence power against North Korea.

HG: Thousands of Japanese Soldiers, Sailors and Airmen died during WWII fighting here on Kwajalein Atoll, in the greater Marshall Islands and in neighboring countries. The Japanese War-Bereaved Families Association (Nippon izokukai) is the organization that flies living relatives of those fallen warriors to visit their graves on these islands in which they perished while fighting for their nation. Can you tell us a little about the role this organization plays in honoring the legacy of Japan’s lost service members, and can you tell us what your office’s interaction is with the organization when it visits the RMI?

AHM: This organization is a nation-wide incorporate foundation chartered by the Japanese government. And its main services consist of a memorial service of the war dead, welfare promotion for the war bereaved families and collection of the remains of the ware dead. So, the Japanese government … supports the foundation by consigned government services and providing financial assistance. Therefore, our embassy extends possible assistance to [the association’s] visits. … The organization has played an important role in honoring the legacy of Japan’s lost service members. Specifically, in order to honor the legacy of Japan’s lost service members, war bereaved families visit many places, many countries, like the Marshall Islands. They visit the Marshall Islands once or twice per year to conduct a memorial service. Other than the Marshall Islands, war bereaved families [visit] many places, such as China, Russia, Mongolia, the Philippines, Myanmar, Taiwan, Papua New Guinea, Palua, the Federates States of Micronesia, the Solomon Islands and so on. Not only to the RMI.

HG: How are Japan and the RMI partnering up against climate change?

AHM: We recognize that climate change is an issue that requires immediate action by international community. The U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change conference of parties has been a pivot for active discussions to reduce greenhouse emissions on the global level, every year since 1995. Japan has actively participated in negotiations on climate change. In December 2015, the Paris Agreement—you know, this was a very important agreement—was adopted as a new international framework for greenhouse gas reduction in the post-2020 period. Actually, Japan has been working with other countries, including the RMI, to develop guidelines for the Paris Agreement realize effective greenhouse reductions by all parties.

The RMI, as you know, is a low-lying nation which is very vulnerable to the adverse effects of climate change. And they have been raising this issue with great eagerness. … The area of climate change was one of seven areas decided for enhance cooperation between Japan and Pacific island countries, including the RMI At the seventh Pacific Island Leaders Meeting, which was held in Japan in 2015. Climate change is most likely to continue to be one of the very focused areas of cooperation between Japan and Pacific island countries at the eighth Pacific Island Leaders Meeting, which will take place in Japan in mid-May this year. This meeting is a summit-level meeting between Japan and 14 Pacific island countries. So, leaders from these countries will come to Japan to discuss many common issues. This summit-level meeting has been held every three years since 1997. So, this year Japan will host the eighth meeting in Fukushima. This is a very, very important conference between Japan and the 14 Pacific island countries.

HG: Lastly, if residents here had seven days to spend in Japan, what cities or prefectures do you recommend they spend their time in?

AHM: If you visit Japan, for the first time, I would recommend you to travel the so-called Golden Coast, which means Tokyo to Osaka, by bullet train. You can stay in Tokyo for two days. As you know, Tokyo is a very unique city. Why? That city has two faces: One face is a very modern face; the other is a very historical face. It’s very unique. Of course, this is the capital city of Japan and center of politics. And then, after Tokyo, you can go to Hakone. Hakone is very famous for its hot springs. So you can experience hot springs there.

After that, you can move to Osaka. On the way to Osaka, you can see Mt. Fuji and Haman-ko—Like Hamana. And then you can get to Osaka. After that, you go to Kyoto and Nara and back to Osaka. You would go back to Kwajalein from Osaka. This is the typical course for the beginner.

SMDC Commander Briefs Kwajalein Community

During a speaking event Wednesday, Jan. 18 at the KHS Multi-Purpose Room on Kwajalein, Lt. Gen. James Dickinson, addresses Reagan Test Site personnel, U.S. Army Garrison Kwajalein Atoll Command staff, DOD civilians, Kwajalein residents, off-island visitors and the U.S. Ambassador to the RMI.

Jordan Vinson, for the U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll’s Kwajalein Hourglass

Lt. Gen. James Dickinson, the newly appointed command­ing general of the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Com­mand, made his first visit to the Reagan Test Site on U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll this week. It was an opportunity for the former U.S. Strategic Command chief of staff to get a ground tour of RTS facilities on Kwajalein Atoll, receive briefings on RTS orbital tracking and anti-ballistic missile missions and meet the men and women who make RTS and USAG-KA tick.

During a speaking event Wednesday, Jan. 18, Dickinson made it a point to emphasize that his first work trip out of Redstone Arsenal after assuming command should be Kwajalein Atoll.

“It’s very, very important what happens out here,” Dickin­son told a crowd of island residents and off-island visitors at the Kwajalein High School Multi-Purpose Room. “Important enough that … this is my first trip. I wanted to come here first and then continue onward to Fort Greely, Alaska.”

It’s there in the subarctic that Soldiers of the 49th Missile Defense Battalion man some of the deployed anti-interconti­nental ballistic missile interceptors that form the backbone of the Missile Defense Agency’s Ground-Based Midcourse De­fense system. As the senior commander of both Fort Greely and RTS—which plays a major role in all GMD flight tests—Dickin­son’s eagerness to put eyes on the Kwajalein Atoll element of the sweeping system was apparent.

The general led a viewing of the SMDC’s new command mis­sion video, designed to provide an engaging five-minute over­view of the agency’s current capabilities and emerging tech­nology testing programs, and he said he was happy to see how often RTS sensors, facilities and personnel are featured in the video package. Everything from Kiernan Re-entry Measure­ment Site radars to the Kwajalein Mission Control Center make an appearance. It’s a reflection, Dickinson said, of the strategic importance of the test site and the hard work of the people who operate it.

“The mantra is that the sun never sets on SMDC/ARSTART,” Dickinson said. “That’s because we have Soldiers across 11 time zones and 22 different locations around the world. You are one of them.”

Dickinson also took a moment to reflect on not only the ca­maraderie of the people behind the Kwajalein Atoll mission, but also the quality of life available to those who live and work here.

“Coming out here, my impression is this is a great team,” he said. “Particularly with the seamlessness between the op­erations piece, the garrison piece, the testing piece and having families and programs here on the island to support all that. … You can come out here and spend an indefinite period of time … and have all of these creature comforts that you have [in such a remote place.]”

Dickinson ended his address to the Kwajalein community with an optimistic message, reflecting on mission and garri­son funding and the recent transition of responsibilities for base oversight from the SMDC to the Installation Manage­ment Command.

“I’m your advocate, one of the advocates for the quality of life and mission support out here … And, again, it’s a very im­portant job,” Dickinson said. “I think you’re on a great path with funding and some of the [transitions] that have occurred over the past year or so. So, I’m optimistic about your future, in terms of the strategic plan.”

Ebeye Local Government Briefs U.S. Ambassador on Progress

Kwajalein Atoll Senator David Paul, left, briefs U.S. Ambassador to the Marshall Islands Karen Stewart on the progress of development projects in the island community of Ebeye in September 2010.

Jordan Vinson, for the U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll’s Kwajalein Hourglass

Karen Stewart, the United States’ new­est ambassador to the Marshall Islands, flew to Kwajalein Atoll this week to meet local RMI leaders and the U.S. Army Gar­rison-Kwajalein Atoll Command team. During a three-day visit away from the U.S. embassy in Majuro, Stewart joined Matthew Mathews, the State Depart­ment’s deputy assistant secretary for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, visiting from his post in Washington, D.C. Together, they received briefings on sweeping development projects slated for Ebeye and met with the men and women driving the space and missile missions of the Reagan Test Site and the garrison which houses it.

During a Sept. 7 meeting on Ebeye, Kwajalein Atoll Sen. David Paul, a resi­dent and native of Ebeye, highlighted for Stewart and Matthews the litany of chal­lenges facing the island population of 12,000. The newcomer to senatorial of­fice explained plans to incubate bold ad­vancements to counter issues relating to health, education and the community’s aging infrastructure.

Doubling as chairman of the board of the Kwajalein Atoll Development Authority, Paul spoke to the visitors at length about the high-profile $19 million overhaul of the community’s water, sew­age and sanitation distribution system. Funded by the United States, Australia and the Asian Development Bank, con­tractors broke ground on the project in April 2015 and are scheduled to finish in four years.

In the meantime, a new reverse osmo­sis system should be built and switched on early next year, Paul said. Fed by water pumped up from the islet’s freshwater lens, the new station will be able to pro­duce 500,000 gallons of potable water every 24 hours, a sizeable increase from the current station’s capacity of 180,000 gallons per day. The station’s ribbon cut­ting planned for February should be a welcome relief for Ebeye residents, all of whom this year experienced, in no small measure, the effects of extreme drought during one of the strongest El Niño sys­tems on record.

While the threat of climate change was a point of discussion during the group’s talks, Paul emphasized the importance of renewable energy to the future of Ebeye, Kwajalein Atoll and the greater Marshall Islands. Working with U.S. solar power system manufacturer SolarCity, Paul ex­plained the goal of shifting 40 percent of the island’s electricity consumption to solar energy in coming years. The move, funded by grants and low-inter­est financing from the World Bank and other international organizations, could equate to serious fuel savings, which could fuel other projects, he said.

“Depending on the cost of fuel, we’re talking about $1.2 million to $1.6 million [in savings] a year,” he told Stewart and Matthews. “These are the initiatives that we are trying take ourselves so that we can continue to reduce our costs.”

With respect to the Marshall Islands’ ongoing clamor for a reduction of green­house emissions, a large-scale conver­sion to solar energy would also send out important political signals to the inter­national community, Paul said.

Kwajalein Atoll Senator David Paul, left, briefs U.S. Ambassador to the Marshall Islands Karen Stewart on the progress of development projects in the island community of Ebeye in September 2010.

The fact that the community plans to generate electricity the old fashioned way—going to the extent of purchasing new diesel generators—should not call into question his government’s dedica­tion to the effort, Paul said.

“What we want is stability,” he told the visitors. “When we bring in new genera­tors, the world is going to look and [say], ‘Hey, you guys are telling us to reduce our emittance on CO2, but then you guys are investing in conventional technolo­gies for electricity.’ What we’re doing is telling them, ‘Hey, we still need have power, right? But at least we’re making the effort to reduce our … global emis­sions to zero percent.’”

Paul’s and his staff’s plans for meet­ing these development goals and fur­ther goals down the road could all go by the wayside should they prove unable to modernize the system by which land lease agreements are created on Ebeye and the other causeway communities. In order to build anything, ranging from a private home to a public medical clinic or a public sewer pipeline running along a neighborhood street, mortgagors, inves­tors and project managers must current­ly work their way through a complicated system with individual landowners. It’s an unorganized an ineffective land ten­ure system that inhibits investment se­curity over the long haul—and can even drive away some investment opportu­nities, Paul told the group. The World Bank, for instance, has allocated $45 mil­lion for the construction of coastal pro­tection measures on Ebeye and all the way up the causeway to Ninji, Paul said; however no funds will be release until the senator and his team can provide le­gal proof that those investments will be secure over the long term.

The implementation of what Paul de­scribed as a master lease plan could re­solve the problem, he told Stewart and Matthews.

He used private home construction as an example.

“If you look at most of the houses on Ebeye, they’re considered makeshift,” the senator explained. “Because, you know, it really boils down to economic security, right? If you don’t have a valid lease, there’s really no collateral, no se­curity for that mortgage that you’re tak­ing out. So if you’re taking out $100,000 mortgage to build a house and there’s no land security. You have to be able to comfortably take that out, and no bank will lend that money to you. So with this lease in place, we’ll facilitate all of that.”

In other words, the Kwajalein Atoll Development Authority would step in and serve as a “one stop shop,” Paul said.

“We would be the one to give you that permission. And then you can take it to the bank, and the bank would actually commission that financing.”

The plan is ambitious. And while offi­cials view it as a necessity for long-term development in the local island commu­nities, it could take 10-15 years to fully implement, the senator said.

After their meetings with Paul, Stew­art and Matthews took the opportunity Wednesday to tour Ebeye’s current re­verse osmosis station, power plant, hospital and the causeway before flying north to visit the people of Enniburr.

Also part of their stay on the atoll were briefings with Reagan Test Site staff members’ about their missions in orbital tracking, foreign launch intelli­gence and weapons testing for the Army, the Air Force and Department of Defense clients. Matthews flew to the Federated States of Micronesia Thursday, continu­ing his tour of Micronesia, and Stewart returned to Majuro the following day.

Atoll Rallies Against West Winds

Kwajalein Atoll and the rest of the Marshall Islands were battered by one of the worst El Niño-related weather episodes in recent history. A ferocious pack of westerly winds swooped through the region during the morning of Oct. 7, holding the islands hostage for nearly 24 hours.

Pumping in sustained gusts of up to 43 mph, the front wrecked residents’ boats, stranded nearly 850 Ebeye residents overnight on Kwajalein and tested the garrison’s emergency responses capabilities.

For safety reasons, all ferry runs were halted during the late morning hours of Oct. 7. This wasn’t necessarily an unprecedented move: In the months of exceedingly damaging winds that this year’s El Niño system has produced locally, ferry runs have been occasionally halted. Wind-driven chop in the lagoon had made it unsafe to run the ferry boats at times, and allowing time for the lagoon to calm down and make for safer passage between the islands had usually solved the problem. But on Oct. 7, that calm never came, and garrison leaders had a serious problem on their hands. 845 Ebeye residents who had come to Kwajalein earlier in the day had no way of getting home. They were stuck on Kwajalein overnight for the first time in recorded history.

Kwajalein Range Services President Cynthia Rivera and garrison leaders immediately set up a plan to house and provide meals for their Marshallese guests, Rivera said. The decision to immediately ramp up the meal counts at the Zamperini Dining Facility was made, and a plan to find beds for the guests began.

“We talked through all of the potential housing options and capacities and other resources, such as blankets, pillows and cots,” Rivera said. “We knew that our community would step in to help, so our first option was to request volunteers to house colleagues and friends. We prioritized the facilities that we would use, if needed, beyond the Kwaj Lodge, Macy’s and BQs, such as the CRC, ARC, REB, MP room, MDA homes, etc.”

381 individuals were, fortunately, able to check into the Kwaj Lodge, and they did so in less than three hours, a true record, Rivera said. 140 stayed overnight in the work areas, and many others found a place to stay in the homes of residents who pulled together all the extra bedding they could find. Volunteers within the community, such as Protestant Pastor Heather Ardrey and residents Mike and Linda Lowry, also stepped up to take care of the 60 Ebeye residents stranded overnight at the DSC. An influx of food, blankets and pillows helped get the R.M.I. citizens through the night until the ferry runs opened up again early the next morning.

U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll Commander Col. Michael Larsen said that show of support at the DSC was special.

“I was blown away by the local citizens’ donations of food, pillows and blankets for some of the folks who got stranded at the Dock Security Checkpoint,” Larsen said. “The people here in our community amaze me every day.”

Kwajalein Atoll local government leaders commended the garrison, KRS and the Kwajalein community for their response to the incident. And Rivera, while acknowledging a few areas that her team could improve in, said she was proud.

“All of the KRS staff really went the extra mile to do their best on this very long day,” she said. “It was a tremendous amount of work for quite a few people, and we really appreciate everyone’s hard work and support. … While we can always improve, especially in communications, we did a lot right. We made the right decision to not put people in harm’s way; we pulled together as a team to figure out how to proceed; and we executed the plan safely and effectively. Above all, we are grateful for our Kwaj community who we can always count on when help is needed.”

Larsen agreed.

“My hats go off to the KRS team for making this all happen,” Larsen said. “It was a great effort getting our Marshallese teammates a place to stay for the night and a good meal. I really appreciate CMSI and KRS and others for covering the dining cost for the R.M.I. workforce. That truly displays your commitment to taking care of the team.”

For some garrison residents, such as Ed and Sue Zehr, the mark the Oct. 7 winds left was more lasting than for others. Each had gotten the phone call that morning that all boat owners fear: Their yacht, Casa Chica, had broken free of its mooring and had washed up onto the rocky riprap outlining the island. Making matters worse, a second yacht, this time Panacea, broke its mooring and impacted Casa Chica. Together, the two yachts heaved against the rocks with the rushing water of each wave.

Ed Zehr, a Kwajalein resident and yacht owner, assists a heavy equipment crew relocating this damaged vessel to the shipyard.

Hopeful onlookers speculated that the yachts might yet make it out in one piece with the rising tides later in the day. Others were a bit more realistic—and with good reason. Casa Chica’s stern, after an hour’s time butting against the starboard hull of Panacea, pierced Panacea below the gunwale introducing water into the vessel. With each impact, more of Panacea’s wooden hull was chipped away. With water now rushing into the cabin, the yacht hunkered down, became weaker and slowly broke apart.

The next morning, as Kwajalein’s Heavy Equipment crew hoisted still-intact Casa Chica off the riprap and onto dry dock, the remains of Panacea—scraps of wood, lines and metal—bobbed in the surf. The Zehrs’ boat hadn’t broken apart, though it sustained some hull damage. They said they were relieved Casa Chica appeared reparable, but their hearts went out to the owners of Panacea.

The Zehrs weren’t the only residents whose boat was impacted by last week’s fierce winds. Brad and Beth Mitchell’s small yacht, Emma, completely sank during a rescue effort. Fortunately, the volunteers were able to recover the boat the next day using lift bags, motor boats and a tractor. But when, and if, the boat will hit the water again is hard to tell. Moreover, Dragon Princess, a small boat owned by Will and Jenny Smith, broke from its mooring earlier in the week and impacted island infrastructure, and at least one yacht still hanging on in the mooring field lost its mast.

The ravaging winds Oct. 7 amounted to only the latest of many wild weather events that Kwajalein Atoll, the rest of the Marshall Islands and other nations throughout the equatorial Pacific have experienced in 2015.

It’s all due to “The Little Boy”—El Niño, said Joel Martin, the Reagan Test Site Weather Station’s chief meteorologist. Consisting of a natural, one-two year warming cycle of Pacific equatorial waters, an El Niño can alter normal wind patterns and precipitation levels for one-two years at a time in the region and go on to impact weather trends elsewhere on the globe.

A particularly strong El Niño can have particularly strong impacts on local and global climates. 2015 just happens to be host to one of the stronger El Niños in recent history, Martin said. Locally, it has produced extended, severe west winds and abnormally high amounts of rain.

“Based on research by Mark Bradford, our Chief Scientist Emeritus, the last time we experienced this frequency and severity of west winds was 1997, 18 years ago,” Martin said. “That was also the last major El Niño. 2015 appears to be shaping up as a record El Niño year and, yes, we are seeing extremes in west winds that we don’t see in records.”

The weather on Oct. 7, stood out from that of previous weeks and months during this El Niño. The reason: nighttime convection collapsing. As part of the Earth’s energy cycle, air that had risen due to heating by the sun’s rays at or near sea level during the day had fallen back down via cooling during nighttime hours. The effect can sometimes result in small-scale wind bursts, Martin said; and they are almost always unpredictable.

“These wind bursts are on smaller time and space scales,” he said. “They are essentially the monsoon trough exhaling after a hard night’s work developing convection, which is usually strongest between midnight and sunrise. Broad clear areas sink at night, which squeezes up much stronger convection before sunrise. When that convection collapses, the down rush can sometimes focus localized wind bursts.”

Through it all, the Kwajalein community came together, learned from the experience and seems better prepared to weather similar situations in the future.

“Thanks to everyone for being so flexible, dynamic, and compassionate in regards to taking care of our fine Marshallese partners,” Larsen said.

Eyes on the Sky at the RTS Weather Station

Jordan Vinson, for the U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll’s Kwajalein Hourglass

Mike McMurphy, a technician at Kwajalein’s RTS Weather Station, pulls gingerly on the long, white string tied to the bottom of a helium-filled weather balloon he is about to send 20 miles into the Earth’s atmosphere.

“OK, here we go,” he says, letting go of the string.

He cranks his head back, watching the balloon shoot away into the air, climbing at a pace of 300 meters per minute. Within half a minute, it’s but a small white dot amongst a sea of blue sky. Trailing quickly behind at the other end of that long string, a small white package called a radiosonde begins its journey up into the atmosphere.

Weighing only about 250 grams, it contains a small suite of sensors that measure humidity and air temperature, as well as its Global Positioning Satellite location data. An antenna on the ground feeds incoming data delivered by the radiosonde via radio waves to operators at the station who follow the unit’s position on their computer monitors. In only 1.5 hours the 3.5-foot-wide orb will have ascended to an altitude of 110,000 feet, reaching 20 miles into air and well into the lower stratosphere. Significantly lower air pressure there will allow the balloon to swell up to 20 feet in diameter—more than five times its size at ground level—before its thin mylar skin stretches beyond its limit and bursts.

Today, weather agencies throughout the world have been outfitted with increasingly sophisticated satellite and radar technology. But the trusty weather balloon is still a mainstay in their arsenal of tools used to probe, measure and monitor local and regional meteorological conditions; the RTS Weather Station is no exception. For the folks working there, sending a radiosonde via weather balloon into the stratosphere is daily ritual that still yields a heap of helpful data.

“It measures its position via GPS and radios back down its three-dimensional position, and the positional change tells you what the winds are,” says Mark Bradford, the chief meteorologist at the station. “From that we can derive everything we need to know about the atmosphere. … And it’s still critical. Even though we have satellites everywhere, those observations twice a day form the basis for our forecasting of the weather everywhere.”

Back inside, the data fed into McMurphy’s computer by the ground antenna tracking the radiosonde gives the technician a bird’s eye view of its location, speed and direction of movement and more. A little white dot on his computer monitor represents the device’s location and shows it’s moving in a lazy arc to the northwest. After the swollen weather balloon breaks up in the lower stratosphere, the radiosonde will probably fall into the ocean within about 20 miles of Kwajalein, Bradford says. But some drop way outside that range.

“Maybe the farthest that they get out is like 100 miles or something like that,” he says. “So if we have strong Trade Winds and we have Upper Level Flow going strongly [to the west], then they might make it out 100 miles, maybe 150 at the farthest.”

Tucked into the middle of Holmberg Fairways on the southern rim of Kwajalein, the RTS Weather Station staff launch these balloons and electronic devices every day as part of their effort to keep their eyes on the weather for the RTS and U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll. They perform several daily forecasts of numerous weather conditions, which they distribute via TV, email, on their website and in the Hourglass. During test range missions, the station provides frequent, specialized forecasts of weather conditions using everything from radiosondes and rain gauges spread throughout the atoll, to its prized Kwajalein Polar Metric Radar—one of the most sophisticated radars in the world used for meteorology.

The station also searches for and alerts local communities of any and all dangerous weather conditions that might impact the atoll. It covers aviation hazards for aircraft, high possibilities of lightning strikes, rough winds and ocean conditions affecting small vessels, as well as incoming typhoons and tsunamis.

Fortunately, Kwajalein Atoll doesn’t have to contend with serious storms too often.

“We are in the un-sexy end of weather,” Bradford says. “For tropical meteorology, the sexy end is hurricanes, typhoons, tropical cyclone development and the last-stage impacts of them when the storms are really intense. We almost never get that here.”

One area of caution, however, is the low elevation of the islands making up Kwajalein Atoll and the greater Marshall Islands.

“When we’re 10 feet above the ocean with no protecting topography, a little bit of water can be quite disastrous,” Bradford says. When asked about the greatest meteorological threat to the area, he’s frank. “It’s [a] typhoon,” he says. “So we average a typhoon about every … five-to-seven years. But now it’s been nine years since we’ve had one. So you’d say that we’re overdue.”

Typhoons in the past have been catastrophic in the Marshall Islands. Typhoon Paka in Dec. 1997, for instance, inundated Ailinglaplap Atoll with water up to a depth of 12 feet in some places, damaging 70 percent of houses there and destroying most of the coconut trees and vegetation on the islands. The Japanese, meanwhile, recorded water to a depth of three feet on some islands of Kwajalein Atoll during storms in the 1930s, says Bradford. Since the beginning of the United States’ presence on the atoll, nothing as serious as what the Japanese experienced has passed through the area. But Bradford says that’s unlikely to be the case forever.

“When I do the monthly island orientation, I always point out that all the vegetation—all the trees on this island—have been completely destroyed twice,” Bradford says. “Once in 1944 by the 7th Infantry Division artillery and once in 1875 by a typhoon. So the question is just when is it going to happen again?”

Of course, the most pressing meteorological issue to impact Kwajalein Atoll lately hasn’t been anything to seriously worry about— unless you absolutely hate rain. During last month alone, the station registered a staggering 13.82 inches of rainfall. And the current amount of rain the area has received is more than 14 inches above average for the year.

“It’s more than we’ve ever measured,” Bradford says. “It’s the most rain we’ve ever had in February.” Believe it or not, Bradford explains, all that rain was actually a byproduct of the Polar Vortex that ravaged parts of North America with some of the worst winter conditions seen there in some time. While 7,000 miles separate Kwajalein from the eastern United States, the Marshall Islands’ climate is part of an interconnected global system that can be impacted from halfway around the world, Bradford says.

“Even though the systems and everything are very different, it’s totally interrelated,” the meteorologist says with a smile.