Photos and contributions to a Wall Street Journal feature on cash availability in the Marshall Islands.
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Jordan Vinson, For the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel
Feb. 9, 2015, Roi-Namur, Marshall Islands — Under a cluster of coconut palms on a tiny coral island more than 6,400 miles from Milwaukee, Lynne Rivera and Paula Smith honored their father’s final wish.
Frank Pokrop had been a sniper in the 4th Marine Division during World War II. Trudging through the jungle, trapped behind enemy lines, he was shot and nearly lost his life on Namur, one of two conjoined islands at the northern tip of Kwajalein Atoll in the heart of the Marshall Islands.
Seventeen at the time he enlisted, 18 and a corporal when he took part in the Battle of Kwajalein, the experience never really left him.
He served as president of the 4th Marine Division Association, helped organize reunions, and for 47 years ran a scholarship committee for division members’ college-bound children and grandchildren. Twice, he returned to the island for anniversary commemorations, in 1985 and 1994.
The speck of land in the central Pacific kept calling her father back, said Smith, who lives in Menomonie.
Pokrop achieved much in his life — coach and counselor, teacher and principal, community volunteer and church leader. He and his wife, Maxine, had three children and five grandchildren.
But when he died at age 89 a few weeks before Christmas — the anniversary of Pearl Harbor to be exact — it was time to head back to Namur one final time.
And so on Jan. 30, just shy of 71 years after the island battle started, Pokrop’s daughters landed here and climbed out of a 19-seat turboprop commuter plane, bringing with them their father’s ashes.
‘I Am Humbled’
Rivera and Smith were guests of honor at a special military funeral performed by American service members and civilians who work at the U.S. Army Kwajalein Atoll base. Dan Farnham, a Kwajalein resident and World War II history buff, coordinated the trip. The sisters were joined by three surviving veterans of Operation Flintlock, the campaign against the Japanese in the Marshalls in 1944 that included the Battle of Kwajalein.
Clutching a small black box containing her father’s remains, tears streamed down Smith’s cheeks as she listened to Army Col. Nestor Sadler, commander of the Army garrison on Kwajalein Atoll.
“Ms. Rivera, Ms. Smith — daughters of the late Frank Pokrop — I am humbled to stand before you today and honored by the late Frank Pokrop’s last wishes to be laid to rest among fellow Marines here on these hallowed grounds,” Sadler told the group gathered at the north end of the island. “For 71 years ago, they fought as comrades, side by side, as part of Operation Flintlock.”
Handing the black box to Sadler, Smith let go of her father for the last time. A call to arms was announced, and the three living veterans answered roll call with verbal affirmations.
Then Pokrop’s name was called three times. Each time, there was silence — an acknowledgment of his passing.
An American Legion rifle squad fired a three-volley salute. Taps poured out of a trumpet. And then Sadler scattered Pokrop’s ashes onto a dry, shaded patch of sand and soil, returning him to the earth where about 200 Americans and 3,500 Japanese defenders were killed in combat.
The ceremony was a perfect way to honor her father, said Rivera, of Milwaukee.
“It was a moving and emotional experience,” she said. “And Col. Sadler did an excellent job in embracing Dad’s philosophy in life. It was where he wanted to go back to.”
Pokrop had planned for Namur to be his final resting place since 1998, when he first wrote letters to the State Department, the Department of the Army and Marshall Islands authorities to ask permission.
In the years since, he never questioned the decision.
“My father would have been very happy,” Smith said after the ceremony.
Death Seemed Imminent
Home today to a high-tech U.S. military weapons testing range and space debris tracking installation, the islands of Namur, Roi and Kwajalein were important naval and aircraft resupply bases used to power Japanese forces throughout the central Pacific during World War II. Roi is Namur’s neighbor to the west, connected by a land bridge; Kwajalein is at the southern tip of the atoll.
The American plan to take the Marshalls came on the heels of a controversial battle at Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands two months earlier. Nearly 6,400 Americans, Japanese and Koreans died in 76 hours of fighting. The carnage stunned the American public, although Adm. Chester Nimitz defended the effort for knocking down “the front door” of the Japanese defenses.
Vowing to avoid another Tarawa, U.S. commanders hammered Japanese bases on Kwajalein Atoll from the air and sea, leveling much of their defenses before troops poured out of their landing craft onto the beaches.
Nevertheless, a formidable Japanese contingent remained, tucked in foxholes, bunkers and concrete fortifications. Having largely fled Roi after the shelling, the remaining defenders took up protected positions on Namur and waited.
Pokrop and five other snipers found themselves trudging through the sunbaked jungle on a patrol run Feb. 1, 1944. As daylight began to fade, small arms fire barked out from a concealed Japanese position, killing one of the snipers instantly and wounding four of the others, including Pokrop.
“Somehow they got surrounded by Japanese on three sides,” Smith said. “They didn’t realize they had gotten behind Japanese lines. … They thought they were dead.”
Then Marine Lt. Col. A. James Dyess appeared, pushed the Marines into “some kind of hole,” Smith said, and fought the Japanese back.
“With no protection and heavy fire coming at us from a few feet away and dusk approaching, we were certain to be killed,” Pokrop wrote in a 1988 letter featured in a 2001 biography of Dyess. “All of a sudden Col. Dyess broke through on the right, braving the very heavy fire, and got all of us out of there.”
Dyess would die the next day, while leading his unit toward one of the few remaining Japanese positions at the north end of Namur. He was awarded the Medal of Honor a few months later; the airfield on Roi bears his name.
Coming Full Circle
Having experienced war and facing what he thought was certain death, Pokrop never took life for granted, Smith said.
Using the GI Bill, he earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, and two master’s degrees — from Western State College in Colorado and the University of Michigan.
He went on to work as coach, counselor, teacher, vice principal and principal at numerous places, including Bay View, James Madison and Rufus King high schools.
He led the Holy Name Society and the choir at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church, and served as a lector for a half-century. He and his wife, who died in 2008, worked together for years on the Jackson Park Fourth of July celebration.
Their two daughters remain in Wisconsin. Rivera works for Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare and Bon Ton Stores; Smith teaches harp at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Their son, Frank L. Pokrop III, lives in California and works for CareFusion, a medical technology corporation.
Through it all, Pokrop’s brethren in the 4th Marine Division — and one fallen comrade in particular — stayed with him.
“As you may see, Col. Dyess has never been out of my thoughts for these 43 years,” Pokrop wrote in 1988. “And he will always be there until I die.”
Now, Pokrop is back where those memories began.
“Yes,” Smith said before catching her flight back to Wisconsin. “He’s come full circle.”
Jordan Vinson is a freelance journalist and photographer who lives and works on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.
Link to online version: http://bicycletimesmag.com/feature-bikes-in-paradise/
Jordan Vinson, for Bicycle Times
On a tiny flyspeck of land, in the middle of the massive Western Pacific, isn’t where you would expect to find a rich and thriving bicycle culture. The U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll, located on the remnants of an ancient volcano in the western archipelago of the Marshall Islands, is home to the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site.
Living among the installation’s array of radars, rocket launch pads, missile tracking stations and WWII-era Japanese pillboxes and blockhouses are roughly 1,200 Army personnel, MIT scientists and civilian contractors. Together, they operate and support a state-of-the-art American weapons test range and deep space surveillance site on the islands of Kwajalein, Roi-Namur and smaller satellite islands peppered along the rim of the largest natural lagoon on the planet.
They also ride bikes. A lot.
Wedged into rickety wooden bike racks, propped against swaying coconut palms and constantly tipping over in the steady trade winds, the number of bicycles on the installation is greater than the number of people living there. Even Copenhagen doesn’t have a bicycle ownership and usage rate to this degree.
The explanation for the small community’s apparent love for leg-powered travel is, at its core, rather simple: Because the garrison consists of only a handful of remote islands with a cumulative landmass no larger than a few big city blocks, no personal motorized vehicles are permitted. Nor are they required. Commutes to work are, generally, a breeze. A trip to Surfway, the garrison’s sole supermarket, takes only a few minutes—even when competing for cheese and avocados, both prized food items for remote island dwellers. When you need to haul a big load around, you simply attach a rugged, two-wheeled trailer and tow your payload home like a beast of burden.
Driving the Kwajalein and Roi-Namur communities’ rich diversity in bicycles is the residents’ desire to stand out from the crowd, said Normen “Auntie” Sablas, a long-time Kwajalein resident and logistics support coordinator for test range customers with the Missile Defense Agency, NASA and so on.
“Everybody has different personalities,” he said outside his home on a blustery afternoon in early February. “So they want to fit their bikes to their own personalities. Some like bikes with the high-rise handlebars … And some prefer just a standard look and feel. It’s all about individual preference.”
The peculiar “high-rise” handlebars that Sablas mentioned are usually one of the first things newcomers notice about the Kwaj (island speak for Kwajalein) and Roi-Namur bike scene. Called “goosenecks” by locals, they’re emblematic of the classic Kwaj bike, and at first glance they look both goofy and completely inefficient in terms of getting anywhere quickly. But Sablas pointed out the true utility of the gooseneck: comfort level and cool points.
“It’s easier to ride, and it’s easier on your back,” he said. “You’re sitting up straight. The only problem is when you’re riding against the wind. But other than that, it’s kind of a cool thing to ride on it.”
Fellow Kwajalein resident Michael Symanski hit on another key point: Nobody’s really going anywhere very quickly. “My strongest and most common impression of the beach cruiser bike culture here is best described as ‘island time,’” he said. “Extremely relaxed, mellow and comfortable, such to the point that the slow pace of riding seems to defy the laws of physics.”
Nailing down the origins of the Kwajalein gooseneck is difficult. Sablas, who owns and lends out more than 100 Sun Bicycles beach cruisers to visiting engineers, Missile Defense Agency mission leaders and other visitors, has lived on Kwajalein off and on since 1975. He’s never known a time in which the classic longneck stem wasn’t in vogue.
Army Signal Corps footage shot in 1972 and recently digitized by a National Archives team in Maryland documents the use of the gooseneck in the early 1970s, a time when thousands more people lived on the garrison to support America’s Cold War ballistic missile defense strategy.
According to Bill Remick, a former long-time Kwaj resident and author of a history on the island titled “Just Another Day In Paradise,” the use of the gooseneck has to have sprung up sometime during the late 1950s or early 1960s. It was at a time when an influx of civilian contractors began streaming in to support the Army’s brand-new Nike Zeus anti-ballistic missile system designed to destroy Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles.
“I heard from two sailors who were there [in] ’55-’56, and none of the military guys had bikes,” Remick wrote via Facebook from his home outside Phoenix. “They either ran or walked to where they needed to go … If I had to guess, it began with the arrival of construction people. Folks with the requisite skills to make the goosenecks.”
Regardless of the true origins of the high-rise stem, there’s much more to the bicycle culture of Kwajalein and Roi- Namur than goosenecks and Sun Bicycles beach cruisers. Cannibalizing existing frames and transforming them into completely new rides has a long track record on the far-flung Army base, where free time abounds and replacement parts can be hard to come by.
Few understand the Kwajalein and Roi-Namur communities’ obsession over bicycle customization better than Doug Hepler, an industrial technology and history teacher at Kwajalein’s small high school. A former metal worker with the Navy, he has cut, sculpted and welded aluminum and steel into roughly 20 bicycles over the years, many of which are one-off Frankenbikes that are both a means of getting around the island and a medium for creative expression.
The islands’ bike customization culture is a big part of what makes living on the installation a real diversion from life in the average American city or town, he said. “I think it really displays the great creativity that both our engineers and non-engineers have,” he said. “It shows real ingenuity to help make this space the world-class facility it is. And it shows what people will do to accommodate their rides to get around as comfortably as possible.”
The small fleet of run-of-the-mill Sun and Giant bikes parked outside his family’s home is a testament to the bicycle’s role as an inescapable feature of life on the islands. But it’s his custom-built DIY creations that speak volumes on the importance of taking an idea, making it your own and doing it with limited resources found on the islands.
His “red car,” for instance—a four-wheeled beast he cobbled together using scrap parts found at the landfill and elsewhere around the island—is a prime example. Taking inspiration from a junked child’s pedal car his son had found one day, Hepler decided he could make one himself—but for an adult. Like most of the original bikes he fashions, the emphasis was on re-utilizing spent parts and buying brand-new as little as possible.
“The wheels were donated from a friend who collected bike wheels, and he gave me a stack about five feet high when he [moved],” he said. “I bought the chain and the spray paint and the stainless bolts. Everything else came from the dump … and parts I found by the side of the road.”
Hepler took a similar approach with another custom ride he built, this time a cargo-friendly workhorse tricycle named “the truck,” which he uses to haul everything from groceries to lumber and loads of air tanks needed for the scuba diving classes he teaches. Because “the truck” was welded together completely from scrap aluminum pulled from the frame of an old backyard awning, the only items he had to buy brand-new were hardware, a chain and some other minor odds and ends.
However, like everything else in life, bikes have life cycles, Hepler explains. He’s not afraid of parting ways with his creations after he’s gotten his use out of them. Maybe he’ll sell a particular bike or, even better, cannibalize it for parts to use in other custom rides. “Yeah, I’m a cannibal,” he said with a smile. “I’m definitely a cannibal.”
The passion to modify the bikes and create original designs from the ground up is a carry-over from America’s obsessive car culture, among a few other reasons, he said. “I think it’s pride,” he said. “I think a few [residents], and I emphasize the word few, just like to show off. Some, like me, like to build them just for fun. I have more fun building them than I do riding them. Other people are determined to build something unique so that it’s obvious it wasn’t bought at the store—and therefore it’s a lot harder to steal.”
Tom Sandifer, another Kwaj modifier, echoed Hepler’s opinion. Having just finished a custom-made two-wheeled cargo carrier in early February, he said that the drive for modifying bicycles lies in people’s desire to strike personal identities for themselves. There’s also the free time people often have, he added.
“Part of it’s just to be unique, to be different,” he said, loading his rig with packages at the Kwajalein post office. “Everybody’s got a Sun bike here. Everybody wants to have something a little unique. I’ve seen the recumbent bikes. I’ve seen the three-wheeled bikes and four-wheeled bikes and all kinds of different little contraptions out here. It’s just something to kill the time and just be a little interesting.”
To call Sandifer’s bike “a little more interesting” would be an understatement, though. Consisting of the back end of a Schwinn cruiser mashed together with cannibalized sections of an aluminum Huffy frame, his two-wheeler features a large cargo bed that rests between his gooseneck stem and an extended fork that stretches out about eight feet from the rear tire. What might seem like a completely impractical setup to the untrained eye, Sandifer’s bike makes complete sense to him.
“It’s Kwaj. Everybody’s got a bike. Everybody’s got a trailer,” he said. “I had [a trailer] on the back of my bike, but it made the bike top-heavy, and I could only carry so much on it. I just wanted something that I could carry stuff with and just have one piece.”
The bikes of Kwajalein Atoll may be extensions of riders’ personalities, but they share one major element in common: They are the residents’ only means of personal travel. Chains and forks broken down by heavy salt spray, humidity and heat; the act of dodging coconuts, crabs and rats along paths and streets; the struggle of pedaling into the trade winds and having to root around the island looking for your “borrowed” bike are only a few aspects of the islands’ rich bike culture that the residents can collectively identify with.
And as long as the missiles keep flying and the radars keep humming, those bikes—whatever forms they may take—will be there with those people, making their lives a bit more interesting and their time on the islands a bit more special.