As time passes World War II continues to become a distant memory, but the destruction left behind is shockingly real to those able to walk through war's legacy today. Even though over 70 years has passed since the end of the war and the painful memories continue to slip away with the passing of veterans, explosive reminders of this horrible war remain lurking in the depths of the sea and shadows of the jungles throughout the Pacific Ocean. The conflict between Japanese and American forces over Taroa Island in the Marshall Islands was a minor skirmish compared to the many larger battles in the Pacific Theatre, but because it was positioned as the most easterly Japanese airfield base the island was strategically important and was accompanied by a large garrison with heavy defences. It is here on this tropical coral island covered in palm trees and surrounded by white sand beaches where thousands of soldiers died and the ruins of this WWII legacy can still be explored today.
Taroa Island is the most prominent one on Maloelap Atoll. It is a coral atoll consisting of 71 islands spread around the reef enclosing a lagoon 970 kilometers square. Sunny and hot year round this atoll is one of the 29 that make up the Republic of the Marshall Islands, where the country's highest elevation only reaches ten meters above sea level (Taroa only reaches three meters above the ocean). Most widely known for the US nuclear testing program on Bikini Atoll after WWII, these remote islands lay claim to a remote part of the Pacific Ocean the size of Mexico. There is only 180 square kilometers of land in this entire region. Currently around 1000 people in total inhabit various islands in Maloelap atoll. The Marshallese have a diverse culture closely related to their ocean environment and the islands they call home.
Travelling through the Marshall Islands is difficult but not impossible. The only international airport is in the capital on Majuro Atoll and apart from occasional domestic flights to the outer atolls large enough to have an airstrip, it is difficult to visit these remote communities resulting in very little tourism. A cargo ship visits the outer islands only 3-4 times a year to bringing supplies and passengers. As an island nation the best way to visit the country is by sea, and fortunately for myself I had the opportunity to spend three months cruising through the remote outer islands on a sailboat. Dropping anchor in front of the village living on Taroa Island it was not surprising that they only have very few people visit them in a year. This is how I found myself in a place where the white sand beaches and pristine coral reefs are merely a backyard for the children to play in and where families live inside the concrete bunkers not destroyed during the war.
Today the Marshall Islands has strong diplomatic ties with the United States of America, but for the first half of the 20th century Japanese influence and development of the islands was the most prominent. After WWI dominion of the Marshalls and other Pacific islands was transferred from the Germans to the Japanese in the Treaty of Versailles, but with a condition to prohibiting any military build-up. Nonetheless development was done under a veil of secrecy by severely limiting foreigners access to the region, but because the islands held little military value this development that did occur was limited only to commercial activities. The islands were too low, small, and limited in food supply capable of sustaining any significant garrison. Common with the introduction of new technology, this viewpoint rapidly changed with the widespread use of airplanes in the 1930's. All of a sudden vast regions of the Pacific became easily accessible by plane, with the calm waters of the lagoons and flat coral islands being ideal landing strips for aircraft. It was obvious that bombers, fighters, and seaplanes could easily move throughout the Pacific and find shelter at coral atolls similar to Maloelap. Shortly after introducing the use of airplanes in the Pacific an airfield base was established on Taroa Island, making it a strategically important position for the Japanese in the Central Pacific region. Officially the Japanese claimed that Taroa Island was not fortified with military installations until after WWII in the Pacific had started in the Spring of 1941, but recent surveys of the airfield now believe that due to the complexity and attention to details in building construction that the military buildup on Taroa started under secrecy at the very latest in 1938 in anticipation of the war.
Following the local children through the fields of palm trees acting as tour guides I visit dozens of Japanese fortifications across the island. With over 380 buildings from the Japanese identified by archaeologists we only have time to explore some of the more prominent sites that were not completely destroyed during the American bombing runs. These buildings were constructed to last centuries and as a testament to their careful planning and attention to detail I was able to enter personnel bunker and not see a single sign of decay in the concrete. I did not even hurt myself when I bumped my head on the low doorway because all of the edges of the bunkers are beveled to reduce any sharp angles. It was obvious that a lot of planning and consideration went into the the military buildup of Taroa Island by the Japanese. At the ammunition depot, a massive concrete storeroom used to keep all of the explosives, I am still easily able to swing open the steel doors as large as pick-up trucks to walk into a massive chamber the size of multiple tennis courts. Gliding past the concrete pillars I can imagine the racks of explosives carefully stored inside only seventy years ago patiently waiting to arm the Imperial army during their conquest of the Pacific Ocean. On another part of the island I use a machete to clear away the overgrowth to revealing a rusting coastal defence gun with a barrel as long as a lamp post still pointing out across the empty horizon of the ocean. Indeed many of the buildings were destroyed by bombs but you can still see why this carefully planned base was one of the most heavily fortified Japanese positions in the Pacific Central, and the Americans had no idea it even existed until their reconnaissance missions in early 1942.
The first bombs dropped on Taroa Island by American strike forces began in 1942 but for the next two years the Japanese easily responded with fierce resistance. The airfield was the main fighter plane base in the region providing protection for their military installations on various atolls in the region. The base was garrisoned by approximately 2500 military and 1000 civilian personnel and fearing a coastal invasion from the Americans the island was heavily fortified with coastal defences. The large civilian force of Korean and local inhabitants would immediately repair any damage as a result of bombing raids, allowing their fighter planes to be sent up against future bombing runs in defence. Even the power generation plant was built on a different island to help prevent its destruction and supplied the airfield with power through a sub-sea cable. For these reason it was decided by the Americans that Taroa would not be invaded, but rather neutralized by air and naval bombardment. For the next three years as the Japanese heroically fought to keep their airfield operational Americans dropped over 4300 tons of explosives on the island while slowly cutting off the garrison from re-supply ships. The plan was to slowly starve any resistance to a standstill.
Despite all their efforts it became more difficult for the Japanese to sustain their combat readiness as time dragged on. The naval blockade over time the bombings destroyed the fleets of vehicles and resupply vessels attempting to reach the island. Large resupply ships that used to arrive three time a month were continually obliterated in surprise bombing runs, with the last ship sinking in 1944 effectively isolating the garrison. The blitz attack from Americans code named Operation Flintlock II on January 29, 1944 completely destroyed the last shreds of Japanese resistance. By the end of the day their was not a single operational aircraft on the island. The survivors began the futile task of rebuilding the base in the hope that more reinforcement planes would return someday. None did. They became so desperate to keep the base operational the Japanese would sink the their last operational transport vessel during the day and bail it out at night when it was needed for transport. Because of their continued efforts to keep these bases operational, the Americans were pressured to continue bombing them even as hundreds began dying from starvation.
At this point in the war Taroa had be come a practice range long after it had been neutralized. It was nicknamed the Milk Run by Allied bombers because of the lack of fighter planes defending the base; 878 bombing sorties took place in the Marshalls during the month of February alone. Photos from after the war show little vegetation left on the island. In total an equivalent of 5.5 pounds of explosives per square meter were dropped on Taroa over the years. The island also became a testing ground to experiment with new weapons such as napalm. Even with the near constant bombing the Japanese faced a larger threat to their very existence, famine. An estimated 40% of their food stores were destroyed by bombing and being cut off from resupply vessels hunger quickly became the leading cause of death on the island. Both moral and the physical ability to any work was gone by the end of 1944. Japanese Admiral Kamada once stated in an interview after the war that by 1945 "it took 10 to 50 men to do the same tasks then that had taken only one before they became isolated from resupply". As food stocks sank progressively lower the garrisons resorted to desperate means to fight off starvation. Fish were dynamited producing immediate results, but which potentially worsened their situation by killing off the other small fish and their food supply. They were so hungry that even the hordes of rats swarming the islands became the targets of organized hunts. The local Marshallese had restricted access to foraging on the island and faced prosecution if they were discovered collecting food. In order to survive they had to scavenge for food at night or risk their lives fleeing to another island on Maloelap. By the end of the war all efforts to rebuild fortifications were abandoned and the primary occupation for the remaining personnel was making gardens in an attempt to provide food. In total over 1251 men starved to death and an additional 566 died during bombing raids on Taroa Island. All this was accomplished without a single American stepping onto the beaches.
Sitting on the beach outside of a partially destroyed bunker I sort out bullets from the seashells. To my left is a pile of bomb casings that were disarmed after the war; live ordnance buried in the sands of the island still pose a threat to the locals to this day. To a visitor such as myself all of the wreckage and weapons of war are shocking, however for the locals who live here they make the best of their situation. Whatever could be reused is adopted for a more peaceful purpose while the rest fades slowly away into the jungle overgrowth. Families live in the intact personnel bunkers and as I walk past one I noticed an engine cowling from a Japanese zero being used to cover up a well. The children lead me towards the ruins of the communications centre where they show me a game they play when sliding down the concrete banister in the stairwell. They also like to climb over the wrecked planes in the jungle while their parents fish around the shipwreck of the Terushima Maru in the shallows of the lagoon. Talking to the leaders of the community they question how sustainable tourism can be fostered on their island while preserving both the WWII ruins and their way of life? It is a tough question to answer and I hope through sharing their story and the history of Taroa Island to a larger audience that only positive things will come after such a tragic past. Lifting anchor we sail away onward to our next destination in the Marshalls carrying a sense of humility and a deeper connection to our past.
Adams, W.H., Ross, R.E., Krause, E.L., & Spennemann, D. (1997). Marshall Islands Archaeology – The Japanese Airbase on Taroa Island, Republic of the Marshall Islands, 1937-45: An Evaluation of the World War II Remains. San Francisco, California: Micronesian Endowment for Historic Preservation, Republic of the Marshall Islands, U.S. National Park Service.