Cover story, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel: “In death, Marine returns to island where he survived battle”

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Jordan Vinson, For the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

Feb. 9, 2015, Roi-Namur, Marshall Islands — Under a cluster of coconut palms on a tiny coral island more than 6,400 miles from Milwaukee, Lynne Rivera and Paula Smith honored their father’s final wish.

Frank Pokrop had been a sniper in the 4th Marine Division during World War II. Trudging through the jungle, trapped behind enemy lines, he was shot and nearly lost his life on Namur, one of two conjoined islands at the northern tip of Kwajalein Atoll in the heart of the Marshall Islands.

A Young Frank Pokrop, shortly after joining the Marines.

Seventeen at the time he enlisted, 18 and a corporal when he took part in the Battle of Kwajalein, the experience never really left him.

He served as president of the 4th Marine Division Association, helped organize reunions, and for 47 years ran a scholarship committee for division members’ college-bound children and grandchildren. Twice, he returned to the island for anniversary commemorations, in 1985 and 1994.

The speck of land in the central Pacific kept calling her father back, said Smith, who lives in Menomonie.

Pokrop achieved much in his life — coach and counselor, teacher and principal, community volunteer and church leader. He and his wife, Maxine, had three children and five grandchildren.

But when he died at age 89 a few weeks before Christmas — the anniversary of Pearl Harbor to be exact — it was time to head back to Namur one final time.

And so on Jan. 30, just shy of 71 years after the island battle started, Pokrop’s daughters landed here and climbed out of a 19-seat turboprop commuter plane, bringing with them their father’s ashes.

‘I Am Humbled’

Rivera and Smith were guests of honor at a special military funeral performed by American service members and civilians who work at the U.S. Army Kwajalein Atoll base. Dan Farnham, a Kwajalein resident and World War II history buff, coordinated the trip. The sisters were joined by three surviving veterans of Operation Flintlock, the campaign against the Japanese in the Marshalls in 1944 that included the Battle of Kwajalein.

Clutching a small black box containing her father’s remains, tears streamed down Smith’s cheeks as she listened to Army Col. Nestor Sadler, commander of the Army garrison on Kwajalein Atoll.

“Ms. Rivera, Ms. Smith — daughters of the late Frank Pokrop — I am humbled to stand before you today and honored by the late Frank Pokrop’s last wishes to be laid to rest among fellow Marines here on these hallowed grounds,” Sadler told the group gathered at the north end of the island. “For 71 years ago, they fought as comrades, side by side, as part of Operation Flintlock.”

Handing the black box to Sadler, Smith let go of her father for the last time. A call to arms was announced, and the three living veterans answered roll call with verbal affirmations.

Then Pokrop’s name was called three times. Each time, there was silence — an acknowledgment of his passing.

An American Legion rifle squad fired a three-volley salute. Taps poured out of a trumpet. And then Sadler scattered Pokrop’s ashes onto a dry, shaded patch of sand and soil, returning him to the earth where about 200 Americans and 3,500 Japanese defenders were killed in combat.

The ceremony was a perfect way to honor her father, said Rivera, of Milwaukee.

Paula Smith, middle, and Lynne Rivera, right, watch as the ashes of their later father, Marine Corporal Frank Pokrop are spread on the island of Namur. The two made the trip from Wisconsin to fulfil their father’s dying wish, to be spread on the battlefield on which he fought 70 years prior.

“It was a moving and emotional experience,” she said. “And Col. Sadler did an excellent job in embracing Dad’s philosophy in life. It was where he wanted to go back to.”

Pokrop had planned for Namur to be his final resting place since 1998, when he first wrote letters to the State Department, the Department of the Army and Marshall Islands authorities to ask permission.

In the years since, he never questioned the decision.

“My father would have been very happy,” Smith said after the ceremony.

Death Seemed Imminent

Home today to a high-tech U.S. military weapons testing range and space debris tracking installation, the islands of Namur, Roi and Kwajalein were important naval and aircraft resupply bases used to power Japanese forces throughout the central Pacific during World War II. Roi is Namur’s neighbor to the west, connected by a land bridge; Kwajalein is at the southern tip of the atoll.

The American plan to take the Marshalls came on the heels of a controversial battle at Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands two months earlier. Nearly 6,400 Americans, Japanese and Koreans died in 76 hours of fighting. The carnage stunned the American public, although Adm. Chester Nimitz defended the effort for knocking down “the front door” of the Japanese defenses.

Vowing to avoid another Tarawa, U.S. commanders hammered Japanese bases on Kwajalein Atoll from the air and sea, leveling much of their defenses before troops poured out of their landing craft onto the beaches.

Nevertheless, a formidable Japanese contingent remained, tucked in foxholes, bunkers and concrete fortifications. Having largely fled Roi after the shelling, the remaining defenders took up protected positions on Namur and waited.

Pokrop and five other snipers found themselves trudging through the sunbaked jungle on a patrol run Feb. 1, 1944. As daylight began to fade, small arms fire barked out from a concealed Japanese position, killing one of the snipers instantly and wounding four of the others, including Pokrop.

“Somehow they got surrounded by Japanese on three sides,” Smith said. “They didn’t realize they had gotten behind Japanese lines. … They thought they were dead.”

Then Marine Lt. Col. A. James Dyess appeared, pushed the Marines into “some kind of hole,” Smith said, and fought the Japanese back.

“With no protection and heavy fire coming at us from a few feet away and dusk approaching, we were certain to be killed,” Pokrop wrote in a 1988 letter featured in a 2001 biography of Dyess. “All of a sudden Col. Dyess broke through on the right, braving the very heavy fire, and got all of us out of there.”

Dyess would die the next day, while leading his unit toward one of the few remaining Japanese positions at the north end of Namur. He was awarded the Medal of Honor a few months later; the airfield on Roi bears his name.

Coming Full Circle

Having experienced war and facing what he thought was certain death, Pokrop never took life for granted, Smith said.

Using the GI Bill, he earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, and two master’s degrees — from Western State College in Colorado and the University of Michigan.

He went on to work as coach, counselor, teacher, vice principal and principal at numerous places, including Bay View, James Madison and Rufus King high schools.

He led the Holy Name Society and the choir at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church, and served as a lector for a half-century. He and his wife, who died in 2008, worked together for years on the Jackson Park Fourth of July celebration.

Their two daughters remain in Wisconsin. Rivera works for Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare and Bon Ton Stores; Smith teaches harp at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. Their son, Frank L. Pokrop III, lives in California and works for CareFusion, a medical technology corporation.

Through it all, Pokrop’s brethren in the 4th Marine Division — and one fallen comrade in particular — stayed with him.

“As you may see, Col. Dyess has never been out of my thoughts for these 43 years,” Pokrop wrote in 1988. “And he will always be there until I die.”

Now, Pokrop is back where those memories began.

“Yes,” Smith said before catching her flight back to Wisconsin. “He’s come full circle.”

Jordan Vinson is a freelance journalist and photographer who lives and works on Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.

Magazine Feature: “Bicycles in Paradise”

April 2016 feature in Bicycle Times
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Jordan Vinson, for Bicycle Times

On a tiny flyspeck of land, in the middle of the massive Western Pacific, isn’t where you would expect to find a rich and thriving bicycle culture. The U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll, located on the remnants of an ancient volcano in the western archipelago of the Marshall Islands, is home to the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site.

Living among the installation’s array of radars, rocket launch pads, missile tracking stations and WWII-era Japanese pillboxes and blockhouses are roughly 1,200 Army personnel, MIT scientists and civilian contractors. Together, they operate and support a state-of-the-art American weapons test range and deep space surveillance site on the islands of Kwajalein, Roi-Namur and smaller satellite islands peppered along the rim of the largest natural lagoon on the planet.

They also ride bikes. A lot.

Rick Broomel, a commercial diver from Knoxville, Tennesse, sports a prime example of the classic Kwaj bike, replete with the gooseneck stem extension indigenous to Kwajalein Atoll.

Wedged into rickety wooden bike racks, propped against swaying coconut palms and constantly tipping over in the steady trade winds, the number of bicycles on the installation is greater than the number of people living there. Even Copenhagen doesn’t have a bicycle ownership and usage rate to this degree.

The explanation for the small community’s apparent love for leg-powered travel is, at its core, rather simple: Because the garrison consists of only a handful of remote islands with a cumulative landmass no larger than a few big city blocks, no personal motorized vehicles are permitted. Nor are they required. Commutes to work are, generally, a breeze. A trip to Surfway, the garrison’s sole supermarket, takes only a few minutes—even when competing for cheese and avocados, both prized food items for remote island dwellers. When you need to haul a big load around, you simply attach a rugged, two-wheeled trailer and tow your payload home like a beast of burden.

Ron Sylvester tows his children Myles, left, and Kaya in his custom-made rickshaw on Kwajalein. From Florida, Sylvester is a 1600-ton vessel master and ship captain.

Driving the Kwajalein and Roi-Namur communities’ rich diversity in bicycles is the residents’ desire to stand out from the crowd, said Normen “Auntie” Sablas, a long-time Kwajalein resident and logistics support coordinator for test range customers with the Missile Defense Agency, NASA and so on.

“Everybody has different personalities,” he said outside his home on a blustery afternoon in early February. “So they want to fit their bikes to their own personalities. Some like bikes with the high-rise handlebars … And some prefer just a standard look and feel. It’s all about individual preference.”

The peculiar “high-rise” handlebars that Sablas mentioned are usually one of the first things newcomers notice about the Kwaj (island speak for Kwajalein) and Roi-Namur bike scene. Called “goosenecks” by locals, they’re emblematic of the classic Kwaj bike, and at first glance they look both goofy and completely inefficient in terms of getting anywhere quickly. But Sablas pointed out the true utility of the gooseneck: comfort level and cool points.

Normen “Antie” Sablas, from Lahaina, Maui, is the logistics support coordinator for test range customers like the Missile Defense Agency, the Navy, NASA and so on. He lends out more than 100 Sun cruisers to installation visitors free of charge.

“It’s easier to ride, and it’s easier on your back,” he said. “You’re sitting up straight. The only problem is when you’re riding against the wind. But other than that, it’s kind of a cool thing to ride on it.”

Fellow Kwajalein resident Michael Symanski hit on another key point: Nobody’s really going anywhere very quickly. “My strongest and most common impression of the beach cruiser bike culture here is best described as ‘island time,’” he said. “Extremely relaxed, mellow and comfortable, such to the point that the slow pace of riding seems to defy the laws of physics.”

Michael Symanski, a fire systems tech from Chicago, uses his Kwaj bike to haul his surfboard to a favorite surfing locale on Kwajalein.

Nailing down the origins of the Kwajalein gooseneck is difficult. Sablas, who owns and lends out more than 100 Sun Bicycles beach cruisers to visiting engineers, Missile Defense Agency mission leaders and other visitors, has lived on Kwajalein off and on since 1975. He’s never known a time in which the classic longneck stem wasn’t in vogue.

Wayne Christian, a crane mechanic from Fayetteville, North Carolina, hauls a big load down the road to his home. Sights like these are common on the installation where no personal motorized vehicles exist.

Army Signal Corps footage shot in 1972 and recently digitized by a National Archives team in Maryland documents the use of the gooseneck in the early 1970s, a time when thousands more people lived on the garrison to support America’s Cold War ballistic missile defense strategy.

According to Bill Remick, a former long-time Kwaj resident and author of a history on the island titled “Just Another Day In Paradise,” the use of the gooseneck has to have sprung up sometime during the late 1950s or early 1960s. It was at a time when an influx of civilian contractors began streaming in to support the Army’s brand-new Nike Zeus anti-ballistic missile system designed to destroy Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles.

“I heard from two sailors who were there [in] ’55-’56, and none of the military guys had bikes,” Remick wrote via Facebook from his home outside Phoenix. “They either ran or walked to where they needed to go … If I had to guess, it began with the arrival of construction people. Folks with the requisite skills to make the goosenecks.”

Jerry Baxter, a Reagan Test Site radar field engineer from Squires, Missouri, sits atop his tiny ride in front of the ruined WWII Japanese Air Operations Command Building, a relic still standing more than 70 years after America and Japan went to war on Kwajalein Atoll in 1944.

Regardless of the true origins of the high-rise stem, there’s much more to the bicycle culture of Kwajalein and Roi- Namur than goosenecks and Sun Bicycles beach cruisers. Cannibalizing existing frames and transforming them into completely new rides has a long track record on the far-flung Army base, where free time abounds and replacement parts can be hard to come by.

Few understand the Kwajalein and Roi-Namur communities’ obsession over bicycle customization better than Doug Hepler, an industrial technology and history teacher at Kwajalein’s small high school. A former metal worker with the Navy, he has cut, sculpted and welded aluminum and steel into roughly 20 bicycles over the years, many of which are one-off Frankenbikes that are both a means of getting around the island and a medium for creative expression.

The islands’ bike customization culture is a big part of what makes living on the installation a real diversion from life in the average American city or town, he said. “I think it really displays the great creativity that both our engineers and non-engineers have,” he said. “It shows real ingenuity to help make this space the world-class facility it is. And it shows what people will do to accommodate their rides to get around as comfortably as possible.” 

The small fleet of run-of-the-mill Sun and Giant bikes parked outside his family’s home is a testament to the bicycle’s role as an inescapable feature of life on the islands. But it’s his custom-built DIY creations that speak volumes on the importance of taking an idea, making it your own and doing it with limited resources found on the islands.

LEFT: The Army base commander Col. Michael Larsen sits atop his unassuming all-black cruiser. RIGHT: Kwajalein bike customization wizard Doug Hepler shows off his “red car.”

His “red car,” for instance—a four-wheeled beast he cobbled together using scrap parts found at the landfill and elsewhere around the island—is a prime example. Taking inspiration from a junked child’s pedal car his son had found one day, Hepler decided he could make one himself—but for an adult. Like most of the original bikes he fashions, the emphasis was on re-utilizing spent parts and buying brand-new as little as possible.

“The wheels were donated from a friend who collected bike wheels, and he gave me a stack about five feet high when he [moved],” he said. “I bought the chain and the spray paint and the stainless bolts. Everything else came from the dump … and parts I found by the side of the road.”

Hepler took a similar approach with another custom ride he built, this time a cargo-friendly workhorse tricycle named “the truck,” which he uses to haul everything from groceries to lumber and loads of air tanks needed for the scuba diving classes he teaches. Because “the truck” was welded together completely from scrap aluminum pulled from the frame of an old backyard awning, the only items he had to buy brand-new were hardware, a chain and some other minor odds and ends.

However, like everything else in life, bikes have life cycles, Hepler explains. He’s not afraid of parting ways with his creations after he’s gotten his use out of them. Maybe he’ll sell a particular bike or, even better, cannibalize it for parts to use in other custom rides. “Yeah, I’m a cannibal,” he said with a smile. “I’m definitely a cannibal.”

The passion to modify the bikes and create original designs from the ground up is a carry-over from America’s obsessive car culture, among a few other reasons, he said. “I think it’s pride,” he said. “I think a few [residents], and I emphasize the word few, just like to show off. Some, like me, like to build them just for fun. I have more fun building them than I do riding them. Other people are determined to build something unique so that it’s obvious it wasn’t bought at the store—and therefore it’s a lot harder to steal.”

Tom Sandifer, another Kwaj modifier, echoed Hepler’s opinion. Having just finished a custom-made two-wheeled cargo carrier in early February, he said that the drive for modifying bicycles lies in people’s desire to strike personal identities for themselves. There’s also the free time people often have, he added.

Tom Sandifer, a Kwajalein resident from South Carolina, sits atop a recently finished Franken-bike he had put together to help him haul things around the island.

“Part of it’s just to be unique, to be different,” he said, loading his rig with packages at the Kwajalein post office. “Everybody’s got a Sun bike here. Everybody wants to have something a little unique. I’ve seen the recumbent bikes. I’ve seen the three-wheeled bikes and four-wheeled bikes and all kinds of different little contraptions out here. It’s just something to kill the time and just be a little interesting.”

To call Sandifer’s bike “a little more interesting” would be an understatement, though. Consisting of the back end of a Schwinn cruiser mashed together with cannibalized sections of an aluminum Huffy frame, his two-wheeler features a large cargo bed that rests between his gooseneck stem and an extended fork that stretches out about eight feet from the rear tire. What might seem like a completely impractical setup to the untrained eye, Sandifer’s bike makes complete sense to him.

“It’s Kwaj. Everybody’s got a bike. Everybody’s got a trailer,” he said. “I had [a trailer] on the back of my bike, but it made the bike top-heavy, and I could only carry so much on it. I just wanted something that I could carry stuff with and just have one piece.”

Four of the roughly 80 Roi-Namur residents pose in front of the ALTAIR radar, which was built 53 years ago and is still going strong. From left: Tommy Drabek, a transmitter field engineer from California; Shelley Easter, an mission operations director from St. Johnsbury, Vermont; Richard Carroll, a field engineer from Pensacola, Florida; Allan Foreman, an ALTAIR transmitter engineer from Epping, New Hampshire.

The bikes of Kwajalein Atoll may be extensions of riders’ personalities, but they share one major element in common: They are the residents’ only means of personal travel. Chains and forks broken down by heavy salt spray, humidity and heat; the act of dodging coconuts, crabs and rats along paths and streets; the struggle of pedaling into the trade winds and having to root around the island looking for your “borrowed” bike are only a few aspects of the islands’ rich bike culture that the residents can collectively identify with.

And as long as the missiles keep flying and the radars keep humming, those bikes—whatever forms they may take—will be there with those people, making their lives a bit more interesting and their time on the islands a bit more special.



Global Strike Command Launches Threat Cloud at Reagan Test Site

Feb. 11, 2017 Kwajalein Hourglass
A trio of mock warheads re-enter the atmosphere at Kwajalein Atoll during the GT221 launch of a Minuteman III ICBM from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. It was the Air Force Global Strike Command’s first test of multiple independent re-entry vehicles in years.

The Air Force Global Strike Command lobbed up a cluster of mock warheads aboard a Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile Thursday night. Completing its 4,200-mile journey from the mid-California coast in roughly 30 minutes, the ICBM’s payload bowled into the atmosphere east of Kwajalein Atoll shortly after 8 p.m., deploying a trio of re-entry vehicles aimed for pre-planned impact areas in Mid-Atoll Corridor waters.

GT221, the official name of the exercise, was the first test in years in which the Global Strike Command put the Minuteman III’s ability to carry and deploy multiple warheads to a flight test. Many U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll residents took the opportunity to witness the rare sight. From a moonlit vantage at North Point on Kwajalein, hundreds of Kwaj residents watched the three re-entry vehicles pierce the planet’s atmosphere in excess of 9,900 mph and strike the ocean in a dim orange glow, a faint sign of the ferocious impact between the vehicles and the water.

Minuteman III post-boost assembly breaks apart, releasing debris and chaff to burn up in atmosphere. Three faint lines emerge from the fire in this long-exposure shot; they are the three mock warheads.

The launch and re-entry test was part of the Air Force’s long-standing program put in place to evaluate the longevity and accuracy of America’s fleet of nuclear-armed Minuteman III ICBMs. These “glory trip” tests, as they are fondly described in the space and missile community, occur several times a year at America’s western missile test range. Each test involves a launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California and observation missions by personnel farther downrange, primarily at the Maui Air Force Optical Tracking Station and the Reagan Test Site at Kwajalein Atoll.

After the missile maintainers and launch officers at Vandenberg launch the ICBM, it’s the job of mission technicians and engineers in mobile observation platforms and at Maui and Kwajalein Atoll to study the missile’s health during each stage of its journey. Using computerized telescopes and powerful radars, personnel collect the missile’s performance data and track its payload as it careens along a ballistic flightpath that takes it up to 700 miles above the Earth’s surface, far outside the planet’s atmosphere. As the mock warhead post-boost vehicle assembly nears its destination at Kwajalein Atoll, the radar systems at the Kiernan Reentry Measurements System site on Roi-Namur play a major role in determining how close each warhead comes to hitting its pre-planned mark at the atoll. Because accuracy is paramount in these tests, data collected by motion- and impact-sensitive watercraft are also pulled in to corroborate the radar systems’ data and help inform Global Strike Command how accurately the warheads performed.

Each dazzling GT re-entry at Kwajalein Atoll wraps up the end of a long logistical preparation phase involving agencies spread throughout the Department of Defense. Starting the process is missile selection: An armed Minuteman III gets randomly pulled from the fleet of about 450 nuclear-armed ICBMs spread across Air Force Bases in Wyoming, North Dakota and Montana. Then the missile is transported to Vandenberg, the go-to site for all operational launches and missile tests in the western continental United States. Later, missile maintainers and launch officers from one of three 20th Air Force missile wings join contractors and government officials at Vandenberg to set up the missile for launch and turn the keys to send the ICBM flying.

For Thursday night’s test, Airmen from the 91st Missile Wing, from Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, were pulled from their Minuteman III silos at Minot and assigned to perform the test launch alongside Global Strike Command’s 576th Flight Test Squadron, the latter of which is based at Vandenberg to help perform the GT missions with visiting Airmen. The squadron commander commended the Minot group for its performance during the test mission.

“The men and women from the 91st Missile Wing Task Force, the Airmen from my squadron, and our host unit here at Vandenberg worked tirelessly to pull this launch off—it was awesome to see everyone’s hard work pay off!” said Col. Craig Ramsey, 576th Flight Test Squadron commander, in an Air Force statement. “These Airmen make me proud every day, and efforts like these make nuclear deterrence effective.”

Keeping the Radars Humming

Feb. 4, 2017 Kwajalein Hourglass

When a foreign nation launches a satellite into orbit, the Department of Defense puts eyes on it quickly, turning to the historic nest of radars at the Kiernan Re-entry Measurement System Site on Roi-Namur.

In such a scenario, ALTAIR—a heavy hitter in U.S. space surveillance missions—pivots and tilts in a rush, each movement under the command of sensor operators in the United States. Staring into the reported direction of the launched spacecraft, the hulking radar spits out and sucks in streams of high-frequency electromagnetic waves, detects the “new foreign launch,” fixes on the satellite and tracks it along its orbit around Earth. High-bandwidth KREMS radars like MMW and ALCOR may take a handoff from ALTAIR at this point, switching on and homing in on the satellite’s location to provide detailed imagery of the vehicle—all of which gets packaged up and sent off to the intelligence agencies for further investigation.

It’s an exciting, complex ballet involving physics and national defense. It’s one of the primary missions of the KREMS radar bank at the northern tip of the atoll, and every time a new foreign launch is detected, the Reagan Test Site gets a reaffirmation of the strategic importance and daily utility of the Army and Air Force missions in the Marshalls.

But one crucial element in this chain of events is often overlooked.

If a mission is to track a new foreign launch, keep tabs on thousands of orbiting satellites each month or perform space object identifications of the growing field of man-made debris in orbit, that mission goes nowhere unless the Roi-Namur Power Plant can supply the juice to keep the sensors humming.

Roi-Namur Power Plant Electrician Jim Friedenstab checks the vital signs of the plant’s hulking diesel engines, always waiting for calls from RTS staff at the Kiernan Re-entry Measurement Site. .

“If the power goes down, you don’t have the radars,” says Roi rat Jim Friedenstab, an electrician at the power plant. “And the radars are the reason why we’re here.”

Operating a power plant that feeds an island grid built to power energy-hungry radars used for unpredictable tracking missions is not a normal power plant job. Other power plants are often able to source data to identify trends in energy usage and predict peak consumption times, making it easier to know how much energy will be needed when and where. On Roi, those predictive qualities are largely absent.

“Reactive is how I’d call it,” Friedenstab says, turning knobs on a long bank of machines that control the plant’s hulking diesel engines—the real hearts of the radars. Reactive as opposed to predictive, he says: There is no schedule of new foreign launches RTS can send to Friedenstab and his co-workers at the plant. Some satellite tracking and space object identification tasks are scheduled ahead of time and predictable; other regular missions surely aren’t. Not knowing when KREMS is going to need all the juice the plant can muster leaves plant personnel on edge, forcing them to be ready to act in a moment’s notice, Friedenstab says.

“When the radars call, we go,” he explains. “Because right now, I’m running the island on [several] engines. When the radars call, I’ve got to go at least one more engine. … Sometimes it can get to enough that [several] more engines are switched on.”

Constantly increasing and decreasing large amounts of voltage produced by the plant engines is a delicate balancing act that requires constant vigilance. Ensuring the safety of the grid and the people living and working on the island is a major part of Friedenstab’s job. Too little juice and systems “brown out.” Too much and you get fried equipment and exploded transformers.

“It’s a mad house,” he says. “It drives me nuts.”

The Roi Power Plant, like most, is a 24-hour operation. But, even at night, when the ovens, lights and water heaters are off and the grid energy usage low, the radars need to come online and to perform tracking missions. The process requires just as much work from the plant during the night as during the day. It’s a constant battle, Friedenstab says.

“There’s no holidays,” Friedenstab says. “No, ‘Hey, honey, I’m going to go put this on auto pilot, and we’re going to take off and go have Christmas dinner.”

Having now spent four years at the Roi-Namur Power Plant, it’s there that Friedenstab has worked some of the most demanding shifts of his nearly 30-year career as an industrial electrician. There’s a learning curve, he says, newcomers should be aware of.

“When you come in here, you don’t know nothing. And you better learn quick,” he says. “Because you’re expected to have an electrical knowledge. And it’s not rocket science. But at the same time, if you’re weak in [terms of] being an electrician, you’re not going to make it.”

Marshall Islands Mourn Passing of Leroij Seagull Kabua

Feb. 4, 2017 Kwajalein Hourglass

Leroij Seagull Kabua passed away Jan. 24, leaving tens of thousands of Marshallese in mourning. Younger sister to Iroijlaplap Imata Kabua, the paramount chief of the Ralik Chain of the Marshalls, she was one of the highest-ranking traditional leaders in the western Marshalls.

Scores of traditional chiefs, Kabua family members, RMI politicians and U.S. government personnel joined thousands of Ebeye residents Thursday on Ebeye to commemorate her life.

A slow, solemn boat procession carrying Kabua’s remains from Kwajalein allowed her family members to reflect both on the contributions she made to Marshallese society and the leadership vacuum she’s bound to leave behind. Sitting in the afternoon sun at the Ebeye pier, Iroij Mike Kabua, her brother, said one of her true passions was working to conserve the ways of the past. She had been a strong advocate of preserving and performing traditional Marshallese cultural customs and had devoted much of her life to organizing and helping women, her brother said. Ensuring the longevity of traditional weaving, handicraft making, Marshallese language and healthy homemaking and family relationships for her people were important to her, he said: “It was something that she really enjoyed.”

On arrival at the pier, RMI President Hilda Heine, RMI cabinet members, Kwajalein senators, foreign dignitaries and U.S. Army Garrison-Kwajalein Atoll leadership joined Kabua and his family, offering condolences. Having transferred the late leroij’s casket to a lead vehicle festooned with woven palm fronds, event directors led a 40-minute procession around the entire island, allowing the thousands of people gathered on the island to pay their respects.

At the Ebeye United Church of Christ, Jobwa Stick Dancers standing guard at the entrance of the building blew conch shells, signaling the final phase of the procession. Pall bearers adorned in traditional attire hoisted Kabua’s casket onto their shoulders and began a reverent procession into the church while the church choir and visitors sang hymns.

Speaking during the leroij’s funeral, RMI President Heine was joined by Iroijlaplap and former RMI President Christopher Loeak in commending Kabua’s contributions to her people and offering condolences to the loved ones she left behind.

Leroij Seagull Kabua was born in August 1950 on Enmat Island, located next to Nell, on the west reef of Kwajalein Atoll.

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.

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.