FEB. 3, 2018 / JORDAN VINSON
If you have recently ridden your bike around the Small Boat Marina during the night, you’ve likely seen long tails of fiery sparks arcing into the air at the back lot of the Marine Department. There, a team of 12 expat contractors and local employees work around the clock, torching, grinding and welding sheet metal on one of the most important vehicles at U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll and the Reagan Test Site: Landing Craft Mechanized 8605.
LCM for short, the vessel is one of the garrison’s and test range’s beasts of burden. Able to haul up to 60 tons of cargo, from aggregate to generators to mission support equipment, USAG-KA’s LCMs are the big rigs of the lagoon, says Welder Chris Rice-McClure. He has spent the last four months on LCM 8605, working with a large team to rehabilitate the boat and put her back to work for the test range and garrison.
“We need to have it back in the water by the 13th of February,” he says before handing me a hard hat and escorting me across a worksite showered in ruddy phosphorous light. Up the LCM’s thick steel plated bow doors we walk, stopping before a two-man crew grinding and torching dilapidated steel deck plating weathered by the harsh equatorial Pacific elements.
A Gold colored welder’s mask protecting his face, Rice-McClure leans into the gunwale aboard the deck of the boat and unleashes the light of a small sun, pushing molten carbon steel into the nooks of a two-feet-long hull stiffener he’s been attaching to the boat. It’s but one of many jobs going on around him. To his right, Peter Davis, another welder, pulls out rods of carbon steel, sticks them into his welder, slaps down his welder’s mask and lays down a small puddle of metal along the seam of a small entryway into the hull. Amid the whirr of air movers supplying fresh air to workers downstairs, banging, scraping and cutting occurs up and down the deck as a half-dozen coworkers dig into the boat like ants to a dead beetle. It’s a ballet of sorts to accomplish so many tasks aboard a 71-feet-long LCM with a little over two weeks left in the project, Rice-McClure says.
For a long time, it was just five of us working on the welding side of it,” he says. “Right now we’ve got about a dozen people working on it. Again on the welding, metal working side of it. There’s also other people working the day shift, from the paint shop, blasting and repainting.”
The main objective for the project being to replace the cargo deck of the LCM, the torchers and welders work through the night seven days per week to cut and burn off the old steel platform and then cut, emplace and weld together huge sheets of brand-new plate steel to form the new deck. A day shift crew then comes in after the night crew clocks out freshly laid metal. Working in tandem like this allows for as quick a work rate as possible.
“That’s the gist of it. There’s also the engine shop,” Rice-McClure says. “They just put in the replacement engines back in, and the electrical shop wired everything together behind us. And the carpentry shop does all sorts of odds and ends too” like building consoles for instruments, interior work, benches and signs.
A welder with about four years of one-the-job experience, Rice-McClure takes a great deal of satisfaction from the type of work he does—though he admits the hours are often grueling. He was one of several welders who tackled the Space Fence sensor project build, installing the shielding around the radar. His job there finished, he joined Chugach last September to help the Marine Department get boats rehabilitated and back into the water. While the Space Fence facility is important to the Air Force’s mission to identify and track debris and satellites in the Earth’s orbit, vessels like the LCMs are just as important to the missions of the garrison and the test range.
“With Space Fence, we started with nothing and turned it into Space Fence,” he says. “With something like this, we start with a boat that’s got a lot of rot on it, and when it’s done we should have a pretty good unit ready to go back in the water, back into service for several more years.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
July 29, 2017 / JORDAN VINSON
There is a place on Kwajalein where long parkas and thick, black beanies are standard issue. A place where small chandeliers of ice grow above thermometer displays showing numbers like -13 F. It’s a place where all your bananas, yogurt, milk, eggs and TV dinners come from. And without it, you’d be eating nothing but canned beans and jerky. Welcome to Cold Storage, says Nikki Ellis, the Cold Storage Warehouse supervisor. The only person in the facility wearing a T-shirt, she gives me a tour of one of the most vital links in the distribution chain assembled on and off the garrison to supply residents with cold and frozen food items.
“It all comes from here,” Ellis says Tuesday, leading me through a door that opens up into the dark, icy warehouse. Men dressed in heavy winter clothing shuffle from pallet to pallet carrying stacks of stapled carbon paper order forms in their hands. They inspect the contents of boxes brimming with onions, lettuce and avocados and pull on manual forklifts. It seems to be bustling.
“Tuesday is a busy day,” Ellis affirms. “It’s produce day. We get fresh fruits and vegetables flown in every week. They [get] it to us, and we sort it every week.” Over the loud din of the refrigerator fan units overhead, the men inside look over the order forms in their hands, head into the inner, colder recesses of the warehouse to prep the next pallet for delivery somewhere on the garrison. The next order of frozen or chilled items could be going to any number of places: the Zamperini Dining Facility, Meck, Café Roi, Roi Surfway and ships at sea like the Coast Guard’s Sequoia. Yep, even the Coast Guardsmen need milk with their cereal. But because it’s Tuesday, most of the sorted pallets are heading to Surfway. Tucked into a stack of boxes filled with tomatoes, one of the order forms sticks out. It’s an order submitted to Cold Storage by Surfway Assistant Manager Joann Hermon. Ready for shipment, the pallet has been stationed next to a small entrance opening up into the early-afternoon Marshall Islands heat, and in a few minutes, a warehouse crewmember will pick up the pallet and take it down to the supermarket’s loading dock for the Tuesday evening rush.
A Cold Storage Warehouse lead since November 2016, Tom Barragan says working at the focal point of cold foods distribution on U.S. Army Garrison- Kwajalein Atoll is both rewarding and enjoyable.
“I’ve been doing this type of work for about 40 years,” Barragan says. “And it’s just really fun. Otherwise, if I didn’t like this I would have gotten out of it years ago. It’s a very rewarding job to know that we’re making sure that everybody gets fresh, edible food.”
Dressed like I just got off a sailboat, I know I’m not in the right clothing. But I want Ellis to take me into the other areas of the warehouse. Going through door after door, the ambient temperature inside the warehouse units sinks lower and lower . The 38 F sorting platform where the crew is still assembling deliverable pallets now seems much warmer than it was before. We pass crates of Go-Gurt and small mountains of eggs, 30-pound buckets of Bavarian cream filling and enough yard mulch-sized bags of cake batter to bake a cake as big as Ebeye.
Entering the coldest place on the garrison, I feel little part of me beginning to die. Under the dull green glow of the lights overhead, the thermometer reads 7 below zero, and it’s the deepest cold I’ve experienced in nearly a decade. I manage to snap a few photos of Ellis standing proudly in her T-shirt, all smiles, in front of a small snow bank growing out of the corner of the room. I last another two minutes before my ears and hands burn with pain, and I’ve got to bail. Surrounded by the heat of the doldrums in the steamy Marshall Islands, I’m still having a hard time understanding how these people do their jobs in such an environment. As I begin the thermal transition from subarctic temperatures, to the refrigerator-friendly 30s, to the office-standard 70 F, Ellis puts it bluntly enough: “You get used to it.”
JULY 22, 2017 / JORDAN VINSON
It is summer time in the Marshalls, and that means great views of the Milky Way’s galactic core. To check it out, look south-southeast after sundown and fix on Scorpius, a large, popular constellation that looks like a scorpion— or, if you will, a giant fishhook. Look leftward a few degrees and fix on Sagittarius, the eight brightest stars of which resemble a sort of teapot. (Following ancient Greek beliefs, Sagittarius is really a centaur.) The true rotational center of the galaxy lies behind the star forming Sagittarius’ “spout” on its right side and the stars forming the tip of Scorpius’ venomous tail (or the pointy end of the fishhook). The bulge of the core encompasses this area and reaches northward a few degrees well into Ophiuchus, the serpent bearer.
Toward the northernmost portion of the bulge, you’ll notice a nice bright “star” that doesn’t flicker like nearby Antares, the red supergiant in Scorpius. That’s Saturn. Moving through orbit at an average speed of 515,000 mph, Saturn, Earth, the sun and the rest of the solar system take 230 million years to do a complete revolution around the galactic bulge. The last time we were in this position in orbit around the center of the Milky Way (in terms of our position relative to neighboring galaxies in the Local Group) it was the Triassic period on Earth, a time when the first dinosaurs and mam mals were evolving into distinct life forms.
Located nearly 30,000 light years from the core, the Earth’s vantage point of the entirety of the galaxy is somewhat limited. The NASA depiction above illustrates our position relative to the rest of our spiral-armed Milky Way. While we have brilliant views of the core and the galactic arms reaching outward on our “side” of the galaxy, we cannot see past the galactic bulge and enjoy the sights of the star clusters, nebulae and more lying “on the other side.”
There’s another thing astrophysicists cannot see but know is there. It’s the supermassive black hole lying at the dead center of the core. Named Sagittarius A, it is a massive emitter of radio waves and is believed to be spatially large enough to fill the orbit of Mercury and contain the mass of 40,000 suns.
JUNE 6, 2017 / JORDAN VINSON
Claude Nelji is Chugach’s newest service order supervisor. In an office hugging the lagoon near the Small Boat Marina, he tracks an array of departmental activities, from materials purchases and deliveries to HAZMAT and safety record keeping for the Public Works Department’s Construction Shop. He’s the point man for assigning labor crews to tackle work orders across the island, and he coordinates with facility managers to ensure those work orders are completed to those managers’ requirements. With his hands at the helm of the second-largest government property account on the island, Nelji carries a considerable amount of responsibility.
He didn’t reach his current position by accident, said Construction Shop Superintendent Don Ryan.
A Public Works employee for the past five years, Nelji was recently promoted to his new position after department managers noticed the integrity, hard work and dependability he injected into the team, especially when his supervisors were off island. Successfully filling that leadership vacuum was crucial to enabling his department to move forward with its mission, Ryan said.
“Nelji has dedicated himself to becoming the next supervisor and has proven to me and my boss that he has the knowledge of the duties, the moxie to lead the workforce without fear of repercussions and the computer skills to keep up with the work,” Ryan stated.” Each time one of our supervisors would go on leave, the amount of service orders dropped dramatically, and the crews’ moral increased. The crews worked harder and produced more work, all of which is the sign of Nelji being a great leader.”
Nelji’s promotion is also special in that he’s only one of a handful of RMI supervisors on the garrison, Ryan said: “It’s a big deal. Promotions like this can happen.”
April 29, 2017 / JORDAN VINSON
Meet Joe Rubon. He is one of half a dozen Marshallese citizens whom Kwajalein Range Services hired in recent years to keep the Kiernan Re-entry Measurement System site on target in its mission to monitor space around the Earth for satellites, debris and foreign missile launches.
Rubon works at the ALTAIR radar complex, a place he’s called home for nearly seven years. As an ALTAIR transmitter field engineer, he’s part of the team on which the Reagan Test Site depends to continually perform space operations for the Space and Missile Defense Command. It’s a role he took up last year.
Rubon’s manager in the ALTAIR transmitter area, Engineer Allan Foreman, has seen Rubon rise up through the ranks and calls him one of the smartest and most hardworking and resourceful employees he’s had on Roi-Namur.
“He’s awesome. He was a plumber, and now he’s become very helpful fixing electrical problems,” Foreman said. “He’s really versatile.”
Always motivated to take on new challenges and unafraid to speak his mind to test drive new ideas, he’s what other ALTAIR managers define as the ultimate utility player.
“He’s well versed on the antenna and transmitters,” ALTAIR Transmitter Lead Adam Vail said. “I mean he literally knows the ins and outs of the facility.”
While transmitter operations is Rubon’s primary task at the radar, he also uses his experience from previous professions to fix plumbing and electrical issues. It’s a great resource to have on hand in a place filled with very expensive water-cooled electrical and mechanical components, his bosses said.
Tack on his multilingual skills, his continual effort to maintain the radar complex’s SDS and HAZMAT paperwork and his willingness to take on graveyard shifts and extra hours, and you’ve got an important asset for the ALTAIR team.
“If I had ten Joes, I could get rid of the rest of my workforce,” ALTAIR Sensor Lead Kenny Leines joked. “He’s the kind of guy that, if you could clone him, you would.”
A native of Jaluit Atoll, Rubon has spent most of his life on Enniburr. He got his first job on Roi-Namur, working on a roads and grounds maintenance crew. A three-year stint at the Public Works plumbing department lasted until 2009, after which he became an antenna tech at ALTAIR. From 2010 to 2016, he worked as a transmitter tech at the radar, and it was just last year that KRS promoted him (along with five other RMI citizens) to his current position as a transmitter field engineer.
As for what Rubon thinks about his new role with KRS at ALTAIR? “ALTAIR is a perfect place to work. A great place,” Rubon said. “The only word I can [use to] describe it is epic.”
APRIL 22, 2017 / JORDAN VINSON
Like many Pacific islanders, folklore and spoken tales were extremely important tools around which traditional Marshallese communities organized themselves, set ethical norms and taught younger generations about how to live as Marshallese.
Many Marshallese mythological tales sprouted purely out of the creative minds of those who told them, such as the myth of the nonieb, the invisible island dwarves that make themselves known only to certain individual Marshallese. Other tales have their roots in the night sky. Similar to how ancient Hellenic societies assigned creative stories and background context to groups of stars and the planets (Take Orion the Hunter, for instance.), the traditional Marshallese came up with their own constellations, but based them on aspects of their own culture. Instead of rams, bulls and lions, there may be breadfruits, frigates and canoes.
The story of Jebro is an example of a spoken tale derived from the unique Marshallese cultural interpretation of the stars in the night sky. One of the most popular tales still known today, the story follows brothers Jebro, Lumur and their mother Loktanur on an epic canoe race across Ailinglaplap Atoll, an atoll located about 120 miles south of Kwajalein Atoll.
The story goes like this: The race pits the many sons of Loktanur against one another to see who could travel by canoe the quickest from Woja, the westernmost island of Ailinglaplap atoll (where Loktanur and her sons live), to Je, located more than 30 miles away to the northeast. The winner of the race becomes Iroij (king) of the East.
As the sons dash off the beach on Woja into the lagoon to begin the race, Loktanur, who has a large bundle of clunky material at her feet, calls out to her sons to let her on one of the boats to join the race. Seeing that she wants to bring a bunch of extra weight on board, the sons dismiss her call one by one. Tumur, the oldest son, shouts that she should go on the canoe of Mejdikdik, the second oldest son. Paddling out into the water, Mejdikdik tells his mother to go with Majlep, who in turn dismisses the request and tells her to go with Majetadik. So it goes with each brother, each one passing the burden onto the younger one. That is until Jebro, the youngest of all the sons, gets the request.
Jebro stops paddling, and Loktanur tells him to beach his canoe. “What do you mean beach!” Jebro yells. “The race has begun. Hurry, or we’ll be too late!”
“Beach your canoe,” Loktanur tells Jebro. “Then help me bring my stuff.” Jebro looks at the big bundle of heavy, useless junk at her feet and is dismayed.
“Jij! This is a race,” Jebro sighs. “How can I paddle that stuff against the wind?” Finally, casting away any hope of winning the contest, Jebro gives up, beaches the canoe and helps his mother bring her stuff onboard. Once everything is onboard, Loktanur gets to work, and to her son’s surprise, her pile of junk isn’t junk after all. It’s a sail.
Made of woven pandanus leaves, the sail is unfurled by Loktanur’s confident hands and attached to a makeshift mast. Having never seen a sail before, men from the village on Woja crowd around the boat and stand back, amazed at how effortlessly the canoe cuts through the water with the wind.
The era of travel via pure muscle power was over, and the era of sailing had begun.
Together, Jebro and Loktanur travel quickly, working the sail’s sheet to adjust for wind directions, and make up for lost time, catching up to the brothers paddling their way to Je. Halfway to Je, they come across Lumur, the oldest son, who is now too tired from paddling to go on. Taking pity on his brother, Jebro stops the canoe and helps Lumur aboard, but Lumur quickly takes control of the boat and throws his mother overboard. Jebro cuts one of the sail lines and jumps in after her, and together they swim east to Je.
Lumur, with the sail sabotaged by Jebro, and not knowing how to properly sail the canoe, makes little progress and eventually starts drifting back to the west. Jebro and Loktanur, meanwhile, swim on and on and at dawn finally reach Je, the “Island of Sunrise.” Jebro has won the race.
After drifting all the way back to Woja, Lumur finishes repairing the sail and sets off for Je once again. Some time later he reaches shore and, thinking Jebro has drowned, claims first place for himself. But when Jebro comes out onto the beach, showing that he is the true winner and true Iroij of the East and now the Iroij of Ailinglaplap Atoll, he shames Lumur for his awful treatment of his mother and disdain for everyone else. Lumur turns away, sails back to the west and never again looks at his brother.
Today, Jebro is immortalized as Jeleilon, the constellation that the Western world calls Pleiades, or the Seven Sisters. It was a traditional waypoint in the sky that skilled Marshallese navigators used to help guide them on their ocean sailing voyages. Jebro is synonymous with endurance, security, peace and love. The information for this article was obtained from Gerald Knight’s “A History of the Marshall Islands” and “Life in the Republic of the Marshall Islands,” by Anono Lieom Loeak, et al.
APRIL 15, 2017 / JORDAN VINSON
Meet Hesbon Jokas and Jerry Samuel. They are two members of a small group of Marshallese citizens employed by Kwajalein Range Services to keep the Kiernan Re-entry Measurement System site on target in its mission to monitor space around the Earth for satellites, debris and foreign missile launches.
Both Jokas and Samuel work at the TRADEX radar complex on Namur. They transitioned into their current roles from other jobs with the KRS team, and both have been working on island since the 1990s. Samuel has worked at the radar since 2009, when he was hired by TRADEX Antenna Lead Conrad Nakasone. Jokas was brought in to join the team in 2015.
As radar technicians, they busy themselves with constant maintenance and troubleshooting jobs on the radar antenna and radar receiver system. The goal is to keep the sensor continually pirouetting on its axes and tracking targets in orbit.
They tend to the radar’s water, air and oil lines and fix issues with the brakes and motors used to physically steer the massive dish. They chip and paint the radar structure to prevent corrosion in the atoll’s harsh saline winds, and they do a lot of welding and piping work as crews make improvements to the radar system during preventative maintenance projects.
Samuel, a Third Island native whom TRADEX Sensor Manager Jeff Jones calls a master welder and fabricator, has been integral to the radar team’s performance during the last eight years, Jones says.
“He’s the best welder on this island – bar none,” Jones says. “That’s his claim to fame. And he’s a great fabricator.”
Both Jokas, a relative newcomer, whom Jones describes as a “jack of all trades who will help out anybody” and Samuel have recently stepped into new, more technical roles. Now, either can be called upon to work the radar’s transmitter system during space surveillance operations. That makes them a crucial pool of support whom TRADEX managers can rely on when there are staffing shortages, Jones says.
Jokas, a Utirik Atoll native, says the new role has been a rewarding challenge, and that he has enjoyed getting up to speed at the radar. “I’ve been learning a lot,” he says. “There are lots of new things. If new things come through, we have to learn how to do it. It’s a great job.”
MARCH 11, 2017 / JORDAN VINSON
Cocooned in a small, cozy cockpit washed in late morning sunlight, Maj. John Osterson and Chief Warrant Officer 4 Billy Kilgore flick a few switches at a control panel. The Army Lakota UH-72A the two men are piloting comes alive. Motors switch on, turbines turn and a dozen gauge needles jump to life. Several audible beeps emanate from the cockpit while the pilots run through their final preflight checklists. They focus on stuff like fuel quantity, rotor brakes and oil pressure. You know, the important stuff—the systems pilots want to make sure are 100 percent when they’re hovering at 10,000 feet in a chunk of metal that can careen down the gravity well back to the planet’s surface. A few minutes later, the pumpkin-orange Lakota’s rotors now whir. The fuselage shakes, and the passengers inside—three Americans and two Australians—rattle. Fiddling with their headsets, they watch an airport operations crewman, LaDon Daniels, give the green light for takeoff.
“Departing in five, four, three, two, one,” Kilgore says into his headset on a common band shared with the passengers inside. Osterson shimmies the cockpit cyclic stick, works his foot pedals and opens up the throttle, lifting the helicopter gingerly off the tarmac and sending it strafing east 10 feet off the ground like a giant hover board. Gaining altitude, he puts the helicopter into a slight bank and flies us over ocean-side breakers exploding on the reef, putting distance between the helicopter and the island of Kwajalein opening up below. He points the nose of the Lakota north-northwest, and we head toward Enubuj to begin a loop of the small islets making up U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll.
WEARING MANY HATS
For Kilgore and Osterson, not every workday is like this. Flying, in fact, is only about 10 percent of what the Soldiers do as Army aviators.
“Our primary roles out here are not necessarily to be pilots,” Kilgore says later after the flight. As the USAG-KA director of logistics, Osterson approves contractor flights on Army aircraft or DoD-contracted aircraft, reviews flight schedules, grants visitors’ permission to the land at Bucholz Army Airfield and directs airfield operations. And as the garrison’s aviation safety officer, Kilgore share’s Osterson’s duties and has his own special suite of responsibilities. Working as a technical monitor for the aviation portion of the USAG-KA operations contract, the chief assesses the performance of Berry Aviation, Chugach and PAE, all of which occupy different roles in USAG-KA aviation, from Lakota maintenance projects to local Metroliner flights and inbound and outbound ATI and United flights.
It’s a lot of work behind a desk, Kilgore says matter-of-factly, looking down at the Fitbit on his wrist. “I worked 10 hours the other day and only walked about 3,000 steps. It’s amazing how sedentary you can get.”
It’s one of the reasons the two relish the moments they get to swap their keyboards and computer monitors for cyclic sticks and helicopter windshields. As government flight representatives, the two must be rated aviators, and that means time in the cockpit.
“Flying is the number one thing I like about my job,” Osterson says, and
Kilgore agrees: “It allows me to have interaction with the entire community, not just the military. … I get to see more of the atoll than most people get to see, and I get to see it on a weekly basis, sometimes daily basis. The views are spectacular; they never get old. Even though it’s a very small, local flying area, the views are phenomenal.”
Both pilots have a big place in their hearts for the Black Hawk, a larger airframe they’ve spent much of their time in during their Army careers, especially during deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. But they point to the lighter utility Lakota as the best fit for the unique missions and geography of the test site and garrison at Kwajalein Atoll. It may not be as sporty, fast or maneuverable as the Black Hawk, but it gets the job done efficiently and at low cost, they say.
During the hours Kilgore and Osterson set aside to get flight time each week, they use the Lakotas to run out Reagan Test Site staff and supplies to garrison islands like Legan, Illeginni, Gagan and Meck. This is the core purpose of maintaining and flying the Lakota aircraft on Kwajalein Atoll, Kilgore says: “It’s a rapid and efficient means of transportation to the outer islands, to get people to work every day and pick them up at the end of the day. That’s the Lakota’s primary function.”
Our flight on this day is different, though. When distinguished visitors and Department of Defense partners stop by the garrison as Army guests, the pilots may use their flight hours to show the individuals around and give them a lay of the land. Much like the security surveillance reef sweeps the pilots perform before any major military operation on the range, a trip like this around the atoll gives guests dense visual packets of information about the range, garrison and atoll they cannot get by skimming PowerPoint slides.
For today’s guests, two Royal Australian Navy sea patrol experts, a reef swap could be particularly helpful. Assigned by the Australian Navy to help the Marshall Islands ward off illegal fishing vessel incursions into the RMI’s exclusive economic zone, they’re invited by USAG-KA Host Nations Director Maj. Dan Lacaria to use the flight opportunity to see, with their own eyes, the layout and vastness of one of the largest atolls in the world. What they learn on the flight may help them determine where the RMI government might dispatch patrol vessels to counter illegal trawlers coming into the region from Southeast Asia.
HUNDREDS OF BLUES
Back on the flight, we coast over Enubuj (Carlson), and the Aussies stare outside the fuselage of the Lakota, wearing smiles. Kilgore issues a barrage of factoids he’s learned about the atoll and its islands, people and history over his roughly two years of service as a government flight representative at USAG-KA. He explains details of the different reef passes in the area—which passes are suitable for large vessels and which passes may beat up on the hulls of larger boats. Strapped tight onto either bench in the fuselage, the Aussies nod, listening to Kilgore’s tinny voice piping in through their headsets. He continues, telling of past search and rescue efforts involving lost or damaged boats in the area. When the Lakota circles the wreck of the Prinz Eugen, he explains the German heavy cruiser’s history, its role during the 1946 Operation Crossroads nuclear weapons tests and how the 700-foot ship ended up turning turtle in the lagoon only meters off Enubuj. Flying north, the pilots give a cursory description of Reagan Test Site mission assets on Legan and Illeginni and boast of the small islands’ importance to the optical imaging mission at the test range. Old, grass-covered pockmarks on the helipad at Illeginni show signs of intercontinental ballistic missile re-entry vehicle strikes performed on the island many years ago.
Entering waters northwest of Illeginni, Osterson takes the Lakota down to a couple of thousand feet, and the air in the helicopter becomes hotter. “We might see some big fish balls and bird piles today,” Kilgore says, switching the topic of his monologue from RTS capabilities and atoll history to the importance of sport fishing to the garrison community. Peering through dark visors shielding their upper faces from the harsh sunlight piercing the cockpit, Osterson and Kilgore peer off their respective sides of the helicopter down at the navy blue water below. On cue, Osterson spots a swathe of water boiling like mad. Hundreds of birds—black noddies likely—flap their wings, diving and rising, a sign of a feeding frenzy happening below. The pilot slows the Lakota down and puts it into a steep bank, turning up the gravity inside the fuselage and pushing our bodies and bellies into our seats. We circle the boiling water to get a better look, and there it is: Like the tongue of Cthulhu rising from the depths, a massive column of mahi mahi shoots to the water’s agitated surface. Their long, blue-green, metallic-looking bodies glint sunlight, and there are hundreds of them, all feeding on small fish huddled together for protection under the water’s surface.
“That’s a good one,” one of the pilots says in our headsets, releasing us from our banking ellipse and pointing us onward. A gleaming white yacht, is spotted. Osterson slows the Lakota to get a closer look at the catamaran, something the pilots often do when they find boats on the ocean. “Whenever we see boats ocean-side, we tend to just go circle them real quick and make sure they’re OK,” Kilgore explains later. “You never know when you may fly over a vessel out there in the water that may be in distress and may not have radio communication for whatever reason.”
No apparent problems with the vessel crew below, Osterson points the aircraft northeast toward Roi-Namur and puts on the brakes about 15 miles away. We can’t fly over Roi today due to radar operations, Kilgore tells us, and the Aussies look out the starboard window, eyeing the island in the distance. The hulking metal body of the ALTAIR radar is easily discernible—little, white pimple perched atop a small flat green pancake bridled by the Pacific.
“How high can you take these helicopters,” I say into my headset as we turn back southeast. 14,000 feet, Kilgore replies—about three times the cruising altitude of the Metro flights most USAG-KA residents are used to.
“Want to go up?” he asks, and the pilots fly us slowly toward the long, lonely, landless stretch of reef between Gagan and Gellinam known as the Takamushikan Reef. A few silent minutes pass as we ascend. Kilgore points down at the diminishing reef to a splotch of dark residue covering a swathe of reef. “That’s the remains of the RO-60 submarine,” he says. The WWII-era Japanese sub had been attached to the Japanese Navy’s Fourth Fleet at Kwajalein Atoll. A participant of the Dec. 1941 invasion of Wake Atoll, it ran aground onto the reef about 17 miles south of Roi-Namur during its return from Wake. There it lay for decades before enough Japanese and U.S. explosive disposal operations and target practice reduced it to the coal-black skid mark it is today.
The RO-60 blemish shrinks as we continue our ascent, and the air in the fuselage becomes colder.
“We come up here for a little air conditioning,” Kilgore says as we crest 10,000 feet and hold. Looking over my shoulder, I see Osterson has popped open a little side window panel to his left to let in the cool air, which has reachd nearly 10 degrees Celcius cooler than the balmy heat we experienced at lower altitudes.
The whirring of the rotors and the vibrations running through the fuselage do nothing to shake the serenity of the view. Small puffs of low-lying cumulus clouds march slowly westward, casting slight shadows on the flat, featureless ocean sprawling to the horizon. We’re too high to discern any white caps on the water’s surface. A gradient of 100 blues stretches from horizon to zenith.
Circling back south, we leave the Takamushikan Reef and fly onward, passing Gagan, Meck, Gugeegue, the causeway islands and Ebeye. Osterson, Kilgore and Lacaria talk host nations stuff with the Aussies. They touch briefly on the history of the island causeway linking Ebeye to Gugeegue, the recent passing of Leroij Seagull Kabua, the story of Ebeye and more. We motor back to Kwajalein and hover over the lagoon while waiting for an incoming ATI flight to land. From our height, the Boeing 757 looks like a toy model scooting down on a tiny landing strip, a counterpoint to the sheer largeness of everything our eyes took in a short time ago at 10,000 feet. The pilots busy themselves pointing out to the Aussies some of the garrison’s marine assets lining the western rim of the island, and within a few minutes word comes over their radio we’re clear to land. Osterson touches the Lakota down onto the tarmac and shuts the engine down. When the rotors stop moving, the Australian Navy personnel leave with further questions for the Host Nations director, and the pilots turn the Lakota over to the ground crew outside the terminal building. They come inside to chat and grab a cup of coffee.
The mission of the Lakota aircraft on the garrison and the test site is monumental, the pilots explain, and they make it a point to emphasize the importance of the helicopter maintenance crew on USAG-KA, where weather conditions—salt spray, wind, humidity and so on—are 22 times more corrosive than they are on average in the States, they say. “Our helicopters spend more time outdoors than the Metroliners,” Kilgore says. “And so, they’re very labor intensive, very maintenance intensive aircraft. … [The maintenance crew is] working on them every day, whether that’s washing them, waxing them, turning wrenches on them, whatever the case may be. They’re putting in a lot of hours on these birds to keep them flying.” It’s clear the pilots could go on for an hour talking about how grateful they are to the mechanics putting in the legwork on the helicopters. I divert them with another question.
Asked whether they’ll continue to fly well into the future, Osterson says he’s sure of it; whether he transitions to fixed wing airframes or stays with helicopters, only time will tell, he says. I assume the chief will continue flying, essentially forever; I can’t not see it. “You go where the jobs are,” he counters. “I hold my FAA rating, so I can go into the civilian community and fly if I want to. So that is one option. But I have other options as well. You can only fly as long as you keep passing your physical,” he adds, laughing.
Regardless of what lies in their futures, the pilots say they’re grateful for the positions they currently hold. “Nowhere else in the world can we have a job like this as Army aviators,” Kilgore says. “It’s very unique. And it’s very unique in what we do every day. And the type of flying that we do, and just the roles and responsibilities and what we contribute to the garrison and hopefully contribute to and give back to the community by what we do. It’s very rewarding.” Turning away, the pilots head back into the airport base operations office and prep for their next flight set to depart in less than an hour. This time it’s a passenger transport run to the outer RTS islands we flew over only minutes ago.