SMH – SYDNEY MORNING HERALD – 24 September 2020
The death of two bomb-disposal experts in the Solomon Islands has put the spotlight on a decades-old problem in the Pacific. Why are the islands dotted with bombs? And why is the danger increasing?
When Australians think about our Pacific Island neighbours, we picture pristine beaches, verdant jungles and delicious fresh seafood.
At least, that’s the cliche.
But in a year in which a global pandemic has killed nearly a million people, the deaths of two people – Newcastle man Trent Lee, 40, and British national Luke Atkinson, 57 –in a bomb blast captured headlines and left many shocked. Lee and Atkinson were working for Norwegian People’s Aid, an organisation that operates in 19 countries to remove undetonated wartime explosives.
How on Earth was a piece of unexploded ordnance (known as UXO) from World War II discovered in suburban Honiara, the capital of the Solomon Islands – 75 years after the war ended? Was this unusual? And what is being done about this lethal legacy?
Why are there bombs in the Pacific?
The challenges posed by anti-personnel and anti-tank landmines left behind after a war are relatively well known. Iraq, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Angola and Vietnam are among 10 countries estimated to have the worst contamination of landmines (defined as more than 100 square kilometres of land), according to the 2019 Landmine Monitor report.
In total, an estimated 59 countries around the world have some level of landmine contamination and tens of millions of the deadly devices remain in the ground and active.
Right on Australia’s doorstep, a similarly sinister problem exists with unexploded ordnance and dumped munitions – bombs, artillery shells, hand grenades, some land mines and more – scattered across nine islands in the Pacific.
The three worst-affected nations are Papua New Guinea, the Solomon Islands and Palau but the danger is also present in the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Tuvalu, Nauru, Kiribati and Vanuatu.
There are no reliable estimates about what exactly was left behind in the Pacific islands by the United States, its allies including Australia, and Japan during World War II. Fierce, bloody battles were fought between the Japanese forces that had occupied places such as the Solomon Islands and Palau – as well as troops that had landed on PNG – and the US, Australia and other allies before Japan’s eventual surrender in September 1945.
Pushing back the Japanese advance meant fighting in the hills around Honiara, the Solomons’ capital, battling through the fortified caves and bunkers of Peleliu, an island that is part of the Republic of Palau, and scrapping for airports and other strategic assets.
It also meant raining down thousands of tonnes of bombs and other munitions on some of the islands – some of which failed to explode and which remain in place. Troops also set up supply depots for fuel, weapons, munitions and more on other islands such as Espiritu Santo and Efate, Vanuatu.
While the victorious American forces were supposed to “properly” dispose of all that unused UXO by taking it miles out to sea and dumping it in the water, in practice that didn’t always happen. Sometimes the unused ordnance was just left behind or dumped in waters close to shore.
It wasn’t just weapons that were dumped, either. Off the coast of Espiritu Santo, a place dubbed “Million Dollar Point” is the final resting place for millions of dollars worth of trucks, bulldozers, jeeps, forklifts and even cases of Coca-Cola, according to the US-based Cabinet magazine.
What’s the scale of the problem?
John Rodsted, a Griffith University adjunct professor and former photojournalist who works for Safe Ground, an NGO that documents explosive remnants and how they impact communities in the Pacific, says it’s difficult to estimate the exact amount of UXO left behind but “it’s many millions of tonnes, but no one knows how big”.
“Vanuatu had four or five million tonnes dumped in its harbour.”
Australian National University military historian John Blaxland says the volume of dangerous, degrading munitions is “massive”.
Across the Pacific and elsewhere, people routinely die when they pick up something interesting they find from World War II.Military historian John Blaxland
“As time goes on, as corrosion makes these pieces of ordnance more vulnerable, the challenges relating to their safe disposal grows. Across the Pacific and elsewhere, people routinely die when they pick up something interesting they find from World War II,” he says.
Marcus Fielding, a former Australian Army engineer deployed to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the early 1990s to train locals in how to dispose of unexploded ordnance, says “there is no effective way to estimate how big the problem is”.
“If you asked me about my degree of confidence on the estimated number of land mines [that still need to be disposed of], I’d say ‘low’. If you ask for an explosive ordnance figure – it would be impossible.”
In the Pacific during World War II, Fielding says, there wasn’t a large use of land mines “but when you have two armies fighting each other you get a lot of ordnance that is stockpiled and then the end of the war is declared … and what you find in places like the Solomons [is] you get piles of ammunition left behind”.
Blaxland says Australia, through the Defence Force specialists, has been working with these Pacific states for decades to tackle the problem by running training programs for locals and clearing operations.
He breaks down the problem into two parts.
There are ones you have to treat carefully, place detonation material around them and blow them up.John Blaxland
“There are bombs that are in good enough condition that they can be physically defused. And then there are ones you have to treat carefully, place detonation material around them and blow them up.”
Operation Render Safe is the Australian Defence Force’s initiative to safely dispose of World War II-era explosive remnants, run at the request of Pacific governments. It began in 2009, and though hamstrung by COVID-19 travel restrictions at present, Defence is planning activities for 2021.
The most recent operation was in the Solomons, where Australia supported the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force with advice, training and operational funding.
The United States runs programs around the world too, and produces an annual To Walk The Earth in Safety report that details those efforts. In south-east Asia and the Pacific, most of the US funding is spent in three countries – Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam – on de-mining and removing unexploded ordnance.
But the 2019 report notes that Marshall Islands, Palau and the Solomon Islands all face “serious impacts” from World War II UXO and three countries have received several millions dollars in funding over the past decade.
How do you dispose of ‘UXO’?
Fielding has recently released a book, Dealing with a Deadly Legacy, that details the exploits of 92 Australian Army engineers deployed as part of a UN team that operated from 1989-94 training locals and de-mining in Afghanistan after the war with Russia ended.
It might be a bomb dropped on London by the Germans, it could be an Italian land mine in the deserts of Africa, or a mortar left behind by the Americans in the Solomons.Former Australian Army engineer Marcus Fielding
Though explosives disposal was not his specialisation, Fielding had army training in the area and says that disposing of unexploded ordnance – especially when the weapon belongs to another military, and therefore less information is available about it – is incredibly challenging.
“It might be a bomb dropped on London by the Germans, it could be an Italian land mine in the deserts of Africa, or a mortar left behind by the Americans in the Solomons,” he says.
“It’s one of those trades that you really never learn everything, one of those things where you constantly come across new things.”
The mission saw Fielding and his colleagues training local experts in disposal.
“So we would teach them to identify a piece of UXO, expose enough of it – a couple of square inches – to attach an explosive charge to and then blow it up in situ,” he says.
Sometimes the people doing the disposal can’t blow it up in place so they are forced to move it, which is inherently dangerous.Marcus Fielding
“Sometimes you make it safe and then relocate the item to another place where it can be disposed of in a different fashion. Sometimes the people doing the disposal can’t blow it up in place as it is in the middle of a village or town, so they are forced to move it, which is inherently dangerous.”
What is the impact on people in the Pacific?
All that unexploded ordnance has had a major impact on Pacific communities. Villages can’t be expanded or established because of what is buried beneath; soil hasn’t been safe to farm for decades; there is a litany of tragic accidents and locals who have lost limbs while attempting to use discarded munitions for fish bombing.
Rodsted, from Safe Ground, says that level-one surveys, which would accurately document the scale of the problem, are urgently needed across the Pacific islands as the munitions deteriorate and become more unstable.
World War II ended, everyone went home and everyone forgot about it and the locals just got stuck with these stockpiles.Safe Ground’s John Rodsted
“This is so untouched compared to, say, Cambodia, where a level-one survey was done in the late ’90s. The due diligence was done and Cambodia is becoming a major success story. It’s never happened for the Pacific and it’s an international disgrace,” he says.
“No one really knows about this, it is the land that time forgot. World War II ended, everyone went home and everyone forgot about it and the locals just got stuck with these stockpiles.
“But if it was used in wars then it was there – aircraft, bombs, artillery, mortars, chemical weapons, land mines.”
- James Massola is south-east Asia correspondent based in Jakarta. He was previously chief political correspondent, based in Canberra. He has been a Walkley and Quills finalist on three occasions, won a Kennedy Award for outstanding foreign correspondent and is the author of The Great Cave Rescue.