Marine Veteran Bill Mancke and Navy Veteran Clyde Hansen and their families joined the family of the late Marine Frank Pokrop and the USAG-KA community on Kwajalein Atoll to commemorate the 72nd anniversary of Operation Flintlock, Jan. 27-Feb. 1. On a whirlwind tour of the islands, both Mancke and Hansen were able to retrace their footsteps on Roi and Namur, where they had been sent to invade 72 years prior as young men. Unlike Mancke’s dear friend, Frank Pokrop, who had returned to the atoll several times to commemorate the battle—his last being his funeral on Namur last year—this was Mancke’s first time back on the island.

Standing at the southern rim of Namur, just off the Roi-Namur Dolphins Scuba Club shack, Mancke shaded the late morning sun from his eyes Jan. 31 and pointed off to the east. It was warm and breezy, and in the distance, a couple of Kwajalein residents visiting Roi-Namur for the weekend waded through the shallow, clear water on a sandy offshoot of island jutting out into the lagoon. He had spotted, he thought, the rough location where he ran out the front of a Higgins boat Feb. 1, 1944 with a baker’s dozen other soldiers from Company G, 2nd Battalion, 24th Marine Regimental Combat Team to begin the ground assault on the islet of Namur.

“This is the area where we came in,” he said, speaking with an American Forces Network television news crew that flew out from Yokota Air Base, Japan to capture his and Hansen’s stories. “The pier over here was to our left. Mostly we just had mortar fire around the landing craft coming in. Coming in, I know we had to get our feet wet a little bit. I’m not quite sure how far out we were when they finally dumped it and let us come out. But other than that, I’m sure I didn’t see this many trees and so forth around at the time. But it’s a beautiful spot now.”

Joined by fellow Marines storming out of a steady stream of incoming Higgins boats, their objective, speaking simply, was to wrest Namur from the Japanese. But unlike Roi, there were no enemy airstrips and fighter craft located on the island. No aircraft meant fewer artillery strikes and air raids from American bombers and fighters—and a lot more jungle overgrowth on the island, which gave Japanese defenders plenty of good cover. M1 Garand rifles in their hands and clusters of hand grenades at the ready, Mancke and the 24th Regimental Combat Team began the deadly work of piercing Namur and quieting enemy pillboxes, blockhouses and sniper nests.

“I made it in to the first pillbox,”Mancke said, the azure blue lagoon water lapping onto the beach behind him. “That’s where our company was set up. I was on the right flank, trying to make contact with F Company; I was in G Company. I was with my platoon sergeant and another buddy. Just as my platoon sergeant told me to get up and go over to F Company so that we could line up and move out … I stood up.”

It was at that moment, he says, that a large enemy blockhouse, approximately located about 100 yards north of Green Beach 2, blew up. An American assault team had reportedly thrown an explosive charge into the blockhouse to clear it, not knowing it was an ammunition dump. The torpedo warheads and aerial bombs stored in the blockhouse lit up and rocked the island, projecting an immense plume of concrete, shrapnel and thick, black smoke into the sky. The infamous explosion stands out as perhaps the single most destructive chapter in the battle for the atoll’s northern islands.

“We were all pretty well knocked out, I guess,” Mancke said. “When the dust settled, there [were] many big warheads lying around. My platoon sergeant was wounded quite bad. His whole jaw was chewed up, and there was not much I could do, because I found out I couldn’t walk. So I decided to just crawl back out. E Company was in the back of us. I crawled through E Company and told them that there was a lot of guys wounded up there and to get up there and give them a hand. And I crawled back to the beach, found a stretcher there, crawled on it and said, ‘Get me out of here.’”

An officer, who saw the incident from a distance, described the scene in a chilling report.

“An ink-black darkness spread over a large part of Namur such that the hand could not be seen in front of the face. Debris continued to fall for a considerable length of time, which seemed unending to those in the area who were all unprotected from the huge chunks of concrete and steel thudding on the ground about them.

“Before the explosion, the large blockhouse was conspicuously silhouetted against the skyline. After the explosion, nothing remained but a huge water-filled crater. Men were killed and wounded in small boats a considerable distance from the beach by the flying debris.

“Two more violent explosions, but lesser in intensity than the first, occurred among the assault troops during the next half hour.” *The name of the officer is undetermined. His account has been captured in several writings on the incident. Carl W. Proehl’s “The Fourth Marine Division in World War II” is one such example.

Occurring only about five hours into Mancke’s and the 24th’s push into Namur, the blockhouse explosion knocked Mancke out of the game early on. He was taken aboard a hospital ship and brought back to Pearl Harbor, where he spent time recuperating. In June 1944 he went onward with the 4th Marine Division to Saipan, where he picked up some shrapnel, earning his second Purple Heart and remaining on the island until it was secured after a month of fighting. In July he moved on to Tinian and later to Iwo Jima in Feb. 1945, where he was taken down by more shrapnel two weeks into the infamous assault on that island. Four major battles and three Purples Hearts after joining the Marines, he was honorably discharged and hadn’t seen any of the islands since. Finally back after 72 years, Mancke said he was amazed at how much has changed.

“It’s difficult to believe this could be here in the way it is,” he said. “It’s just beautiful, and the way people are treating us here is very nice.”

Hansen, for whom it was also his first trip back, couldn’t agree more. A Nebraskan, Hansen joined the U.S. Naval Reserve’s V Amphibious Corps and trained in Idaho and Pearl Harbor as a Higgins boat operator. On Feb. 1, 1944, at the ripe age of 19, he was one of several Higgins drivers ferrying Marines of 1st Battalion, 23rd Regimental Combat Team to Red Beach 2, near the location where the Rat Shack sits today. His trips motoring to and from staging craft in the lagoon went rather peacefully and unopposed, save for the occasional mortar round coming in close by, Hansen said. Waves of U.S. artillery shots and air strikes that hit the Japanese fortifications and airstrips on the atoll in the weeks leading up to the invasion had quieted much of the defenders’ perimeter defenses. After dropping the bow door and unloading his second group of Marines on Red Beach 2, however, the Japanese defenders delivered a wake-up call. A mortar round landed square in the middle of the vessel as he attempted to motor back out for another trip.

“I picked up an artillery shell or something,” he said. “It hit at about the middle [of the boat] when I was unloaded already. … Water kept coming on so fast that I couldn’t get backed out and was starting to sink too much. I ended up in the water, so I just had to abandon it and leave it be and wade to shore as best I could. It was like a nightmare. But I was still alive, and I was thankful for that.”

After making the swim to shore, he thanked God he was still alive, he said, and joined another group at the beach, where he helped transfer supplies onto shore. Within a day, the Marines of the 23rd and 24th Regimental Combat Teams completed their treks from the south ends of the islands to their northern fringes and rooted out most of the remaining Japanese defenders. The hum of war had gone quiet, and Roi Island was a desolate wasteland, covered with sandy craters, burnt machines and busted-up bunkers. The dead would soon be cleared away and placed into deep pits by Seabees, Navy personnel and Marines.

“Barren. It was barren. No trees, no nothing standing. It was absolutely barren,” he said. “Over on Namur, now, there was a lot of trees and stuff standing there. But here on Roi, it was completely flat. To the best of my memory, I do not remember seeing a tree or building or nothing.”

Between this period and the day he earned his Purple Heart, his time on the island went a bit quieter, but no less uncomfortable. A small canvas pup tent among the blown out craters served as his barracks, and because few palms survived the American bombardment, there was no shade. There was plenty of work, though.

“Most of the time, I spent unloading LSTs

[landing ships]

and barges with supplies,” Hansen said. “I wasn’t assigned to any ship duty or shore duty at all, only except to work here on the beach and get those supplies off.”

Meanwhile, Marines set off around the islands trying to locate the remaining Japanese defenders who, hidden among debris, uncleared blockhouses and jungle overgrowth, managed to kill U.S. Soldiers on occasion.

“This one Marine walked up to us and was talking away, and all of a sudden he was saying that one Japanese come out of the brush with his rifle and his bayonet,” Hansen said. “And he was coming towards him like he was going to charge him. One of the Marines that was in the group said, ‘Stand back guys. I’ll take care of him.’ He walked up and met this Japanese, and he had his bayonet on his rifle set too just like the Jap did and gave him one good poke in the chest. He said it was all over. I can hear that yet, that Marine telling us about it. This was four or five days after the invasion.”

12 days into U.S. ground operations, a Japanese counter-attack, thought to have originated from someplace north (both Saipan and Wake Island have been suggested as origination points), shook the Marines and Sailors on the islands Feb. 12. An air raid siren went off, and Hansen scrambled to find something he could hide under, he said. A road grater parked at the west side of the battered runway was all he and a few others could find.

“I can vaguely remember of hearing plane engines, and it was real faint,” he said. “And it made me wonder how in the hell so high up they could hit this little spot down here. But they hit a bull’s eye.”

While Imperial Japanese fighters blanketed the ground with heavy machine gun fire, seaplane bombers flying over the atoll had let loose their cargo and blasted the already heavily cratered surface of Roi. One bomb came down onto an American ammunition stockpile near Hansen and blew sky high. Second only to the Namur blockhouse explosion in ferocity, it was like a hellish inferno, he explained.

“Debris was falling from the air. Oh I don’t know what it was. I suppose it was coral, metal, whatever,” he said. “But I know I was hugging that big wheel on that grater. There was two other people beside me trying to get behind that wheel, because we was on the south side and all the ammunition and stuff that was going off when the bomb hit was north of us. So we was kind of getting protected from that wheel. But as far as stuff coming down, we had no cover.”

Several Americans had taken off running out onto the coral off the west side of the island to get clear of the explosions and shrapnel but had a tough time getting back onto land.

“All of a sudden I heard a couple of gunshots,” Hansen said. “They was starting to come back, and somebody must have thought they was being invaded, because they [the troops on land] fired a couple of shots, and I could vaguely hear, ‘Don’t shoot! Don’t Shoot! We’re not invading you! We’re not the Japs!’”

Still hugging the ground by the big tire of the road grater on the side of the runway, he and the men flanking him were still pinned down by exploding ammunition when he was knocked unconscious by an explosion and suffered second-degree burns on his back. One of the men at his side was badly injured, part of his face taken off by shrapnel.

“I don’t know what happened. I guess I got a concussion or something,” he said. “About the next thing I knew, here I was aboard a ship out in the [lagoon]. I know I was up there in about the third-tier bunk up in a canvas bunk. I could feel I had patches on my back, but how I got there, I haven’t the slightest idea.”

After spending a few weeks recovering in Pearl Harbor, he was handed a .45-caliber and put on guard duty for several weeks at the personal dining quarters of Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

“That was pretty good duty,” Hansen said. “I remember he comes up to our barracks one morning, and he says, ‘We’re having schooling this morning on how to disassemble your .45-caliber pistol. Would you like to come down and join us on how to do that?’ He says, ‘I can’t command you to do it.’ But he says, ‘If you want to do it, you’re welcome. If not, that’s fine too.’ I did go. I went down and wanted to learn all I could about the arms I was carrying.”

On May 18, 1944, Hansen received a Purple Heart for his injuries and bravery on Roi and returned to action on the water. He went on to participate in the Philippine Liberation Campaign and later performed more amphibious landings with the Marines during the invasion of Okinawa.

Having gotten the rare chance to travel back to the island he was sent to invade and was wounded in combat 72 years ago was like a dream come true, he said.

“I never thought I’d be back,” he said. “Never.”

Touring the islands of Roi and Namur, Hansen said that the islands’ current beauty is astounding and that their use as a premiere missile test range and space surveillance site makes him proud.  “I’m glad to see how the island is being used now,” he said, smiling, admiring ALTAIR Jan. 31. “It’s good to see that all our effort was worth it.”



He was a dear friend, with a bushy gray mustache, a low, warm, cavernous voice and a stupendous sense of humor. He was a father, grandfather, husband and brother, a sweetheart of a man and one of the kindest, most generous and funniest Roi Rats to grace the small community with his presence. He was a Navy Veteran and a radar engineer, whose work was integral to the Reagan Test Site’s Kiernan Re-entry Measurement Site. He was an avid scuba diver and licensed fireworks explosives tech with a flair for photography, both underwater and on land.

He was that and much more. He was Jim Bennett, and he will be dearly missed. Roi residents woke Monday morning to the news that Bennett had passed away in his sleep. He was 67. He is survived by his sons Kevin and Jason, his grandchildren Addison and Matthew and siblings David, Regina, Robert and Judy. Shaken, members of the Kwajalein and Roi communities paid their respects at several events on both islands early this week. Roi rats gathered at the Outrigger Monday evening to grieve and console one another and celebrate Bennett’s life with stories about the man. Installation residents, led by American Legion Post 44, saluted Bennett Wednesday morning, draped an American flag over his remains and travelled together to Bucholz Army Airfield to transfer him to the plane that took him back to family and friends in the States. Wednesday night, Chaplain Steve Munson and Roi resident Laura Pasquarella-Swain hosted a memorial service for Bennett at the Trade Winds Theater. There, U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll Command staff joined Bennett’s TRADEX colleagues and dozens of Roi and Kwaj friends to share and hear personal stories of Bennett, stories of how he lit up each and every one of their lives.

“When I think of Jim, I think of three words: drinking, stealing and lying,” Reagan Test Site Range Director. Lt. Col. Humberto Jones told the crowd at the theater. “Jim drank from the fountain of love for his fellow man. He stole. He stole the moment every day to do something for each and every one of us. And he lied. As he lied down every night, he thanked God almighty that he was a member of one of the greatest teams that anybody put together. You know, the Roi team, the TRADEX team, the Kwajalein Atoll team, we’re pretty impressive. And you can see the love right here by your presence to say farewell to Jim. … Jim, we know you’re up there. Thank you so much for touching each and every one of us. We love you. We will see each other again.”

A resident of Roi for the past six years, Bennett worked as a receiver antenna engineer at TRADEX, contributing decades of knowledge to the radar’s team, placing his team’s safety above everything else and improving the sensor site’s workflows. Kwaj resident Johnathon McClellan, a fellow receiver antenna engineer at TRADEX, worked alongside Bennett. He emphasized the impact of Bennett’s sudden absence on the TRADEX team.

“I feel fortunate to be able to say that I’ve had the unique pleasure of working with Jim on a daily basis for the last couple of years,” McClellan wrote via email. “He was one of the most kind-hearted, quirky, hardworking and genuine individuals that I’ve ever met. Jim’s expertise spanned many fields, and I feel blessed to have been given the opportunity to learn so much from him, personally and professionally. His passing came as a shock, but it’s exactly as he would’ve wanted it—to have been loved and surrounded by his friends right up until the end. Even though it’s painful now, I’m glad that my life was one of the many that Jim touched.”

Reading from an email from Rick Saggers, one of Bennett’s old co-workers at Motorola in the U.S., Roi resident and friend Jerry Baxter highlighted Bennett’s unrelenting work ethic.

“I remember one of his anniversary celebrations at Motorola, he didn’t show up at the cafeteria at the appropriate hour,” Baxter read. “We went back to the lab and found him discussing an installation problem with someone in the field. After a couple of attempts to get him to hang up, we finally disconnected the telephone from the wall jack and started pushing him in his office chair down the hallway toward the cafeteria. He was one dedicated, hardworking individual. We will all miss him.”

But Bennett was far more than a radar engineer. He was a social engineer who knew how to find common ground with a diverse range of individuals and make connections that went far deeper than simple niceties and small talk. Want a pick-me-up during a bad day? Go see Jim Bennett, his friends said this week.

“I guess it finally sank in this morning, in the pouring rain, at the spot on the road where I would pass Jim Bennett every morning,” friend Brandi Mueller wrote on Facebook Thursday. “He would have smiled and waved, even though he was soaked, and it would force me to smile too, at 6:30 in the morning, as rain was pounding us both. It made me think about how much he gave to all of us, Nonstop smiles and jokes, always brightening whatever day we were having. We should all strive to share that sort of positivity with the world around us.”

A born raconteur, Bennett had a gift for gab and making others laugh and feel special. Whether he told you a story about his days as a pyrotechnic, a lewd joke, some photography tips he’d picked up recently or the number of computer programming languages his sons knew, you’d often walk away having learned something interesting about him, about life and maybe even about yourself. Roi resident Bo Dearmon, who often ate lunch with Bennett attested to that.

“We were sitting over at the old fart’s table one day,” Dearmon said Wednesday. “We were sitting there, and I went up and got me some cake, and I got some chocolate ice cream and mixed it all up in there. And I came back and I sat down. And Jim says, ‘Bo, it looks like your cake took a crap.’ I didn’t bat an eye, and I said, ‘Yeah, Jim, but that’s alright. I’m a trained professional. I’m a certified waste water operator.’ And he about fell off of his chair laughing. He was one of those people who liked it when you came back at him with all those kind of things.”

Kwaj resident Jon Sok and Roi resident Todd Gowen also picked up on Bennett’s wit and ability to build personal bridges with anyone immediately after meeting him. It was something you couldn’t escape—or want to—they said.

“I met Jim when he was a patient of mine at the dental clinic,” Sok said. “When I first met him … he had an NRA hat on. We started chatting about guns, God, family. The nurses left the room, cancelled the next patient, and we became fast friends. So anytime we had Jim on the schedule, they had to do a sweep after him for about an hour, because they knew that he and I would just gab. He was always a highlight. And I’ll remember him for that always.” Gowen echoed Sok’s sentiment.

“One of the first things you would do when you first come to a new island to start a job as your vocation, is you go and you meet the people you talk to,” Gowen said. “You meet your customers. It’s a good thing to put a face with somebody. Except with Jim. I went off and met him. He greeted me. He was super friendly. He showed me everything he was working on. He showed me the history of it, how it was going. Two hours later, I was still there, and all I wanted to do was say, ‘Hi.’ But I was entertained. He made connections with me. He found the little bits of common ground. He found those little connections and found them in not only myself but anybody he talked to.”

Bennett was a sentimental and loving man. His wife Barbara had passed away 11 years prior, but he brought her along with him wherever he went, with some of her ashes tucked away into a little vial he kept in his pocket at all times—even while scuba diving.

“I remember a story about Jim losing the vial on a dive one day near the Gardens at Eighth Island,” Roi resident Sandra Garrison wrote via email. “The next day some other divers went to the same area and found the little vial in the coral! Considering how tiny the vial was and how big the Gardens area is, it really amazing.” It was a story Bennett loved to tell.

Bennett not only loved his wife and family deeply, but also encouraged others to go out and love others as much as they could. Bennett drew a parallel between his affection for his wife and others’ love for each other. Friend Rachael Shidler looks fondly on those words of encouragement, she said.

“Anytime I saw him he’d always give me a big hug and a kiss on the cheek and make sure that life was good,” Shidler said. “He was always the first one to ask me to dance at the bar when we were having a good time. He was always telling everyone, especially me, to always love and dance as much as you can. I’m going to miss him.”

Kwajalein residents Melissa Oliver and Paul Haislip were constantly goaded by Bennett to not delay and go ahead and tie the knot, Oliver said. It’s something they can now say they’re moving quickly toward, and it’s news that Bennett was thrilled to receive shortly before his passing.

“When Paul came along and our love grew, Jim would always ask when we were going to get married,” Oliver wrote via email. “He would playfully hit Paul in the arm and tell him he’d better hurry up and marry me. He told us about his love for his wife and how they had so many wonderful years together. He grieved over her and wished for more time with her. He was very happy when he heard we were engaged and hugged me when he saw me. I was able to tell him last month that we had narrowed the time of our wedding to October, and he was very excited. He told me he hoped we will be as happy as he and his wife were.”

In addition to playing cupid, Bennett was known on Roi as someone the community could depend on. He’d often lend out his tools and other belongings. You might have to listen to a 30-minute instructional session by Bennett and get an itemized tour of everything he’d made with the tool before checking it out, but he’d gladly lend it out. He’d take countless photos for everyone at the island’s parties and community events, giving them out as keepsakes and mementos and passing them off to the Kwajalein Hourglass. He’d fix people’s jewelry out of the kindness of his heart and do a better job than a paid professional. In the end, if one had to define Bennett’s legacy on Roi, it would be one of constant giving. Whether it was a classic “dad” joke to chuckle at during lunch or a sewing machine to borrow to make Christmas stockings; an idea to improve operations at TRADEX or a warm face to smile back at during a rainy bike ride to work—or a reason to reach out and love like there’s no tomorrow—Bennett’s existence centered on the act of giving, and that act of giving touched the lives of everyone around him. His sudden absence has now left behind a void on Roi-Namur, a void that community members will overcome and fill with the fond memories they have of Bennet, Chaplain Steve Munson said Wednesday.

During a conversation with family back in the States, Munson had to explain a bit about the type of person who moves to the Marshalls to advance USAG-KA’s and the Space and Missile Defense Command’s missions. His explanation was revealing.

“Someone asked me back home, ‘What are these people like on Kwaj and on Roi?’ And I said to them: ‘Have you ever watched the old Western movies where the pioneers go west?’ I said, ‘These are the rugged people that go west, and when something happens, they just dig deep, suck it up and move on.’ I said, ‘They’re kind of like Soldiers that I’ve met that have gone through difficulty, who know how to deal with life and just choose to march on and make the best of things.’ People that come here … to this part of the world are a little different than everyone else.”

Indeed. Jim Bennett was a little different than everyone else. As we continue onward, he will be truly missed and never forgotten.



A country boy from Mississippi with a low, southern drawl, Raymond Stigler is a mechanic at the Roi Power Plant. He’s spent the last eight years of his career operating the litany of machines buzzing loudly at the plant, performing preventative maintenance, building pumps and more. You know, the expected stuff that keeps the plant pumping out the juice needed to operate everything on the islet, from the KREMS sensors to the Christmas lights at the Gabby Shack.

But Stigler is much more than a mechanic. An experienced metal worker with a knack for problem solving, his real skills lie in making his and his peers’ work lows at the plant easier, safer and more streamlined and efficient. Pairing decades of experience in metal work with his unique ability to recognize and cut out the unnecessary, wasteful and riskier fat embedded within work routines at the plant, Stigler has transformed the way many of the jobs at the Roi Power Plant are done.

“The guys come up to me and say, ‘Hey, make our job easier, safer. What can we do?’” Stigler says. “I say, ‘OK.’ They tell me what they want. I think about it and, first of all, [find out] what kind of material we have on and, you know.” Using the parts he can get his hands on, from new stock at the metal shop, to old, scrap equipment lying around the plant that he can cannibalize, Stigler has transformed chunks of metal into an array of money- and time-saving tools that he and his peers now depend on.

Take a tour of the plant with Stigler, and you’ll see why his coworkers think of him sort of as a self-styled metalworking MacGuyver. The place is filled with projects he’s pieced together throughout the years. There are fleets of custom fabricated metal carts and buggies, each with a specific function that streamlines each job associated with it. Employees use them to transport and work on extremely heavy parts like piston heads for the plant’s goliath engines. They use them to house and transport all the tools and parts needed to work on specific machines, cutting out the time they used to waste walking back and forth from parts storage areas or using forklifts to move parts that were once kept on pallets. There’s one notable cart called the Super Sucker that Stigler built specifically to help operators pump out fluids from the plant’s engines. The job used to be messy, time consuming and risky; now it’s a piece of cake that helps keep operators out of harm’s way.

Stigler’s ability to see and implement safer, easier methods for performing routine tasks has been an apparent breath of fresh air for his co-workers.

“Oh yeah, he makes the job a lot more easier,” Danny Nabu, a mechanic at the plant, says. “He always says, ‘It’s better to work smart than harder.’”

Jobs that used to take a toll on Nabu’s knees and back are easier than ever. A good example is the small, crane-like boom extension Stigler built from old, decommissioned saltwater pump parts that operators use to swap out bad clutches on motors.

“In order to change the clutches out, the electric motors got to be pulled off and clutches put on and then slipped back in,” Stigler explains. “Right there where the motors are … there’s pipes and all right there, and it’s really hard for a man to get into and then be down like this, pretty much on his knees on pipes in order to pull the motor out.”

Now Stigler’s improvised little crane support the motors from above, removing the load from the operators’ backs and knees and making the job instrumentally more efficient and safe. Seeing it in action, it’s hard to see why this device was never part of the process from the start. One gets that impression from most all of the devices the man makes for the plant. Seeing solutions like these before anyone else even realizes they need them is part of his talent—like a southern, blue collared Steve Jobs.

Another example: a large, bright red piston repair rack that allows operators to work on the engines’ pistons while standing, eliminating a hunched over posture that used to come with the job. He’s even built ingenious tools fashioned from golf clubs that keep workers from having to get on their hands and knees and bending over repeatedly to retrieve fallen debris from under grating surrounding the plant’s engines. And custom-built sunshades and light swivel fixtures aid the men when they work in their outdoors workshop.

Stigler’s efforts result in more than just less strain on workers’ bodies, though. His creative solutions have netted the Roi Power Plant serious savings in time and cash. Before he got on the job, for instance, the plant’s operators would have to throw out pricey reusable fuel filters when the inner brackets holding the filters to the engines would start to give out. The units’ ability to filter the diesel fuel entering the engines was, of course, unharmed—each $200 unit, being reusable, can be cleaned and used over and over—but because the brackets went bad, the units were regularly scrapped and replaced with brand-new filters. Not anymore.

“Scott [Maddox, the Roi Power Plant supervisor] wanted me to come up with something,” Stigler says, thumbing a ring-like chunk of metal in his hand. “So I built these washers.” In his hand are two doughnut shaped slices of metal welded together to serve as a replacement—and much more durable—bracket fixture to pair a filter to a motor. These fixtures slip down into the filters, it the filters to the engines and greatly expand the lifespans of the units. He’s built 20 of the fixtures, and they’re in use in each engine now.

Stigler’s solution to the once-cumbersome and pricey job of replacing the exhaust systems on the plant’s engines is also eye opening. Each large, macaroni-shaped component pipe in an engine’s exhaust once had to be disassembled, even if operators wanted to replace a simple gasket. It was time consuming and pricey, Stigler says.

“Each one of those pieces get gaskets and bolts, and it’s pretty expensive,” he says. “Like 98 dag-gone bolts to put the whole thing together.” But a long metal rack system Stigler made now allows workers to remove the entire exhaust pipe in one fell swoop. “We can pick up that whole exhaust and move it away from the engine without busting those other seals, see? And that saves money. That saves time. … Now we can take it off as one piece. You’re saving time and money on parts.”

Perhaps Stigler’s most significant contribution was the solution he helped devise and implement when the plant’s new exhaust stacks were installed more than two years ago. When crews installed the stacks, they discovered that a handful of the plant’s concrete structural support beams blocked the path of a series of vents needed to funnel the exhaust from the engines to the stacks.

Stigler again stepped up to apply his ingenuity, the result being a series of custom built offset connectors that allow the exhaust system to sidestep those structural beams and connect the stacks with the engines.

“That saved a lot of time,” Maddox, Stigler’s boss, says. “That saved weeks.”

One could easily say that all the time and effort Stigler has put into improving the Roi Power Plant’s operations goes above and beyond what is required of him. But say that to Stigler, and he’ll quickly shoot you down. He’s not in it for a fancy award he can frame and pin to the wall. He simply gets satisfaction from making everyone’s jobs easier, more efficient and safer, he says.

“It ain’t what the power plant can do for you, but what you can do for the power plant,” he says laughing.

Sure, there’s a degree of sarcasm there, but when you spend as much time at the Roi Power Plant as Stigler—think six days a week, every week for the past two years—you want to make your work life as smooth, safe and efficient as possible. Plus, he seems to really enjoy the place.

“It’s a good job,” he says, stepping outside into the sunshine where he keeps an outdoors workshop. “It’s kind of like a home away from home. Can’t complain.”

Marshall Islands Cast Votes for New RMI President

Thousands of Marshall Islands citizens came in droves Monday to the Island Community Center on Ebeye to cast their ballots in the Republic of the Marshall Islands 2015 local and national elections. While many came to the polls from their homes on Ebeye, others travelled down the east reef causeway from Gugeegue, North Loi and so on to get to Ebeye. Others living on Enubuj (Carlson) Ennylabegan (Carlos) and Bigej came in via boats. All endured long lines that snaked throughout the entrance of the community center to registration tables and finally to voting booths where citizens marked in their choices on paper ballots before slipping them into secure boxes, each marked with the name of the voter’s respective voting district.

The elections gave R.M.I. citizens in the islands, including those outside the country using mail-in ballots, the opportunity to reset their political representation nationally and locally. At each polling station, voters wrote in their choices for their local atoll government council members, their atoll mayor and their senators. The last opportunity they had to do so was during the election cycle in 2011, when voters’ current leaders were voted in.

Ebeye’s wasn’t the only polling station open on Kwajalein Atoll Monday. In addition to Ebeye, there was one opened at Ennubirr, Majetto and Ebadon, the latter two of which are located at the north-west tip of the atoll. Citizens on the atoll, and elsewhere on other atolls and islands, either made their way to the closest polling station, or they mailed in their ballots from outside the country.

The most local level of democratic political governance for an atoll’s residents is the local atoll government council, and on Kwajalein Atoll all nine Kwajalein Atoll Local Government Council member positions were up for grabs this year. More than 50 candidates campaigned for the positions. Those who get voted in will work with and advise the incoming mayor, also to be elected, in drafting regulations governing all local aspects of life on the islands that make up Kwajalein Atoll. (The islands making up U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll are an exception).

Republic of the Marshall Islands citizens residing on Ebeye, Enubuj, Ennylabegan, Kwajalein, Gugeegue and other causeway islands cast their ballots during the 2015 local and national elections at a polling station on Ebeye Monday.

At the top echelon of local democratic atoll governance is the atoll mayor, and eight candidates battled for the top spot. Following the passing of late KALGOV Mayor Johnny Lemari in March, the incoming mayor will take over from acting Mayor Card Subille and lead the local atoll government council. Because R.M.I. law forbids mail-in ballots from being opened and tallied until 10 days after the election, the results of both of these elections are still undecided at the time of this writing and will likely not be released until early December.

On the national level, 33 senators represent the R.M.I. citizenry in 24 districts, and all of those senators were up for re-election during the 2015 election cycle. Each district is allotted its number of senators based on the district’s population size—similar to the number of representatives each U.S. state has in the House of Representatives. Majuro Atoll, for instance, is afforded five senators; Kwajalein Atoll, with a population of 12,000, is afforded three senators. Kwajalein Atoll Sens. Jeban Riklon, Tony deBrum (deBrum is also the current R.M.I. foreign minister) and Iroij Michael Kabua were up for re-election this year. They faced challenges by four atoll natives: Stephen Dribo, Ataji Balos, Alvin Jacklick and David Paul. Again, because of R.M.I. law, the results of these elections will not be released until early December.

Finally, it should be noted that, unlike the United States, the R.M.I’s political framework does not allow for citizens to decide, via an electoral vote, the nation’s president. The individual who becomes the president of the Marshall Islands is decided by the next crop of 33 senators placed into power by the voters. They make the selection via a vote at the start of the Nitijela’s next session the following January after the election. The newly-elected president will then select 10 senators out of the remaining pool of 32 to fill the positions in his executive cabinet.

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.



One morning in July 1972, Army Signal Corps Cameraman Lee Parker trained the lens of his camera on an aspect of life on Kwajalein that has persisted through the decades of the Army’s presence on Kwajalein Atoll: the Kwaj bike.

Tasked with capturing unedited B-roll footage (aka filler material used later in fully-edited film) to be incorporated into a film about the development work of U.S. military Civic Action teams in Micronesia, Parker and his Army Signal Corps teammates appear to have hit the island with rolls of film and cameras in hand to document a bit of the daily goings- on of life in Guam, Kwajalein and elsewhere in Micronesia in the early 1970s.

The predominance of the bicycle as the primary means of transportation on the island seems to have captured the film crew, who spent ample time gathering shot after shot of hundreds of bikes parked outside the then-bustling airport terminal. In some of the footage, which staff at the National Archives and Records Administration’s Motion Picture Preservation Lab in Maryland recently digitized and sent to the Kwajalein Hourglass, khaki-clad Army staff and posh housewives bike down a busy Ninth Street between the airport terminal and the Island Memorial Chapel—perhaps to catch a flight to Roi or Meck.

On its own, the 25 minutes of digitized Army Signal Corps footage would have surely been greeted with yawns by contemporary audiences; after all, watching people commuting to the airport via bicycle isn’t much of a nail biter. However, the viewer today now has the opportunity to enjoy a one-of a- kind glimpse into what Kwajalein looked like 43 years ago.

The summer of 1972 was an interesting time in the United States. President Nixon’s cronies were now being arrested for breaking into the of􀏐ices of the Democratic National Committee in the Watergate complex. Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and America’s “A Horse With No Name” were tearing up the Billboard charts. Jane Fonda was touring North Vietnam, posing for photos on top of anti-aircraft guns, and the first episode of the rebooted “The Price is Right” would soon air on CBS.

Locally, on Ebeye, less than 6,000 R.M.I. citizens resided on the island. Elsewhere in the islands, Iroijlaplap Amata Kabua was forming the Political Movement for the Marshall Islands Separation from Micronesia, a push to remove the Marshall Islands from the post-WWII era U.S. Trust Territory and grant the islanders their own sovereign state.

It was also during this time that the Nixon administration had signed the landmark 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, an agreement that limited the U.S. and the Soviet Union to 200 anti-ballistic missiles each and helped prohibit either power from tipping the scale of nuclear deterrence in its favor. Living on the Kwajalein Missile Range, which was a major proving ground used to develop and troubleshoot programs like the Army’s Sprint and LIM-49 Nike Zeus anti-ballistic missile systems limited by the treaty, Kwajalein residents would have surely taken notice to this news.

But instead of the heady ‘realpolitik’ of Cold War missile defense and the novelty of game show hosts blathering on about patio furniture and pie crusts (not that Kwaj residents had TV sets back then, anyway), Parker’s footage captured a few of the simple daily sights and sounds of life of Kwajalein, some which has remained the same 43 years later.

In addition to all the bike footage, Parker captured: children playing on island playgrounds (perhaps near Emon Beach and the present-day Ivey Gym); local workforce personnel doing road work; men’s softball games at Dally Field and Brandon Field; footage of the Kwajalein ‘Jogging’ Club; and even an interview with the commander of the installation at the time, Col. Jesse Fishback. Unfortunately, there is no audio accompanying the footage; perhaps this is due to the footage’s intended use as filler imagery for the Civic Action film. But the images do well in informing today’s viewers on what residents back then did for fun, such as biking, playing softball and participating in clubs—all of which hasn’t changed a bit.

Heidi Holmstrom, the motion pictures preservation specialist who reached out to the Hourglass with the footage last week, says that more Kwajalein footage shot between May and July 1972 for the Civic Action film exists, though the reels have not been digitized. Along with reels of footage from the Mariana Islands and elsewhere in the region, a fully edited, complete film about U.S. military developmental Civic Action work in Micronesia may exist in the archives. A search for the film is currently underway, but the National Archives’ Motion Picture Preservation Lab staff hasn’t made any promises.

“If the edited film was completed, we may or may not have a copy at NARA,” Holmstrom wrote via email. “Because the military produced so many films, we sometimes can only accept a sample of what is offered to us. But it’s possible we may have the film and it’s just not listed in the online catalog.”

The story of how the Signal Corps footage of Micronesia and the edited Civic Action film—if it exists—came into the possession of the National Archives is difficult to know for sure. The military services have a long tradition of documenting their activities, both for propaganda and informational purposes, and turning it in to the National Archives for preservation. For instance, about 50 percent of the film, edited and unedited, that the Motion Pictures Preservation Lab has in its libraries has come from the military, Holmstrom wrote. Most of it remains in its original form, catalogued and stored away at low temperatures for safe keeping until someone requests to view the footage. At that point, the footage is briefly pulled from the archives to be copied onto a digital medium, or digitized.

“We do all of the conservation and preservation work on the film collection and create digital copies for access,” Holmstrom wrote. “This film came to us because a researcher wanted to view it in the research room. If a reference copy does not exist that can be served to a researcher, we scan the film and make a DVD. If a film looks particularly interesting, then we’ll sometimes put it on our YouTube page or write a blog post about it.”

Having found Parker’s Signal Corps Kwajalein footage interesting enough to upload to YouTube, Holmstrom also wrote about it in an Aug. 19 post on the National Archives Unwritten Record Blog. The sheer number of bikes and their peculiar gooseneck steering columns drew her attention.

“How do you get around when you live on a 1.2 square-mile island with no privately owned vehicles? If you live on Kwajalein Island, bicycles are the answer. But these aren’t just any bicycles,” Holmstrom wrote.

“Due to the salty air and humid climate, any bike but the most sturdy will quickly rust away. The ‘Kwaj bike’ is usually a single- speed bike with coaster brakes. Some of them have been modified to elevate the handlebars to chin level, or above.”

In addition to the search for the Signal Corps’ edited Civic Action film, an effort has begun to digitize the other film reels containing Kwajalein footage that Parker and his teammates shot between May andJuly 1972. Pay attention to the coming issues of the Hourglass for updates.

In the meantime, if you’re keen on getting a glimpse 1972-era Kwaj, don’t miss this rare treat from the National Archives and Records Administration’s Motion Picture Preservation Lab. You can view the content via the following URL address or by visiting the U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll Facebook page.

Navy Divers Train for Underwater ICBM Scoring System Repair

Navy Seabees Magazine, Aug. 2015. Link to digital version:

A crew of divers from the Navy’s Underwater Construction Team 2, headquartered in Port Hueneme, California, executed important training dives off U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll last week.

A Navy diver hits the water to train for a project slated to repair underwater ICBM impact scoring systems at Reagan Test Site, Kwajalein Atoll, Republic of the Marshall Islands.

The 10 men of Team 2’s Construction Dive Detachment Bravo worked off USAG-KA vessels for several weeks to prepare for the installation of Reagan Test Site mission assets at the garrison. The project, a joint effort between the Air Force—a heavy user of the test site—the Navy and the Army, is poised to boost quality of service to those who rely on the test site, said Henry McElreath, an RTS site engineer who worked extensively with the men of Detachment Bravo.

“This mission is about providing the best support possible to the Air Force and other customers,” McElreath said. “RTS and Kwajalein Range Services personnel have participated in the design and installation of these new assets, and they will serve as the operations and maintenance team once installation is complete.”

Supported by contractors and Department of the Army civilians on the program, the eight divers, one mechanic and one communications technician worked together off the garrison’s Great Bridge and Patriot vessels for the better part of two weeks. The relatively short training mission the divers were sent to the atoll to perform was actually preceded by many hours of preparation on land and topside on the boat decks, said Bravo leader Chief Petty Officer Jason Cortez.

Geared and up and ready to go, a diver gets some last-minute help from his teammates before getting the green light to hit the water south of Third Island June 9.

“Practice makes perfect,” Cortez said June 9 during a training dive off the Great Bridge a couple of miles south of Roi-Namur. “Everything is going really well today. I’m definitely pleased with how the detachment is handling these workups. Not only is it great diving, but it’s great training also.”

The rationale behind so much preparation for a short mission was made evident by the heaps of high-tech, deep diving gear the divers surrounded themselves with on the deck of the boat. Working out of four large storage containers, the divers prepared hundreds of feet of air supply umbilical hoses, scuba tanks, banks of large cylinders containing gas mixtures, diver-to-surface communications equipment, special deep diving helmets, hydraulic cutting tools and more—all of it necessary for even a short, routine mission. The scene was a strong reminder that, tethered to the other end of those umbilical hoses, were crewmen submerged in an environment that could easily kill them if something catastrophic impaired their equipment—or if their topside teammates performed carelessly.

“When we’ve got guys in the water, there’s no room for error. Their safety is my number one priority,” Cortez said as his team tweaked air regulators on the divers’ equipment and dialed in the controls on a large air supply control station that the team calls a surface-supplied system. “We’re doing these dry runs to make sure we work out any and all kinks there might be.”

Topside, the crew maintains constant communications with the two divers below as the due work through an hour of procedures in the tropical waters of Kwajalein Lagoon.

With the help of topside crewmembers remaining on deck, divers wedged their heads into the heavy, yellow helmets fit to resist pressures of up to 800 feet in depth, and after a lengthy equipment check, leaped off the deck of the Great Bridge into the warm, turquoise-colored water and started their descent.

“Divers are travelling,” yelled a topside crewman, hunkered over a small monitor that provided the crew a first-person view from the divers’ helmet-mounted cameras. Connected to another part of the helmet was the suite of umbilical tubes feeding the divers with the air they needed to survive. A pair of crewmen topside tended to the divers below, feeding the hose to them as they descended to the lagoon bottom and moved about.

After the first pair of divers reached the required depth, performed the required procedures underwater and ascended to the surface, it was another pair’s turn. And then another. It went like that for much of the day, the entire diving crew rotating in and out of stations, some tending to the divers underwater, others monitoring air consumption rates at the air supply control station, and others gearing up for the next dive or working as stand-by divers. Giving each team member regular experience in every possible role is crucial to the detachment’s success, Cortez said.

“We all work together really well,” the chief petty officer said. “It helps that we’ve all worked together for several years. It helps develop teamwork and makes our process on the job smooth and efficient.”

For Construction Mechanic 2nd Class Tristan De Delva, the June 9 training runs off the Great Bridge were a learning experience. The group’s early dives presented a couple of obstacles that the team hadn’t expected but was able to learn from and adjust to in later dives, he said.

“The training is going well,” De Delva said. “We hit a few bumps along the road, but this team is flexible, and we adapted to the things we learned during the first few dives. This is a good group of guys, and there’s nothing we can’t do. I think that when the live mission comes, these guys are going to kill it. I’m pretty stoked.”

Underwater Construction Team 2 does missions on military and civilian assets along the United States’ west coast, throughout the Pacific and into Asia. The training mission on Kwajalein Atoll is but the latest stop for the men of Construction Dive Detachment Bravo. Out on a seven-month deployment from their home base at Port Hueneme, Bravo has completed work in San Diego, the Philippines, the Solomon Islands and Korea. After a final, follow-up mission in Korea, the men will head back to their friends and families in California.

Navy Diver David Miller climbs back aboard the Great Bridge after completing the first dive of the day.

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.