Eight decades after their forces fought for supremacy in the War in the Pacific, now-allies Japan and the United States are partnering with Palau to free the island nation from the lingering threat of the unexploded bombs that contaminate its beaches, reefs and jungles.
U.S. Marines and Sailors with Task Force Koa Moana 21, I Marine Expeditionary Force, collaborated with the nonprofit Japan Mine Action Service in October 2021 to pinpoint World War II mines, shells and other ordnance scattered across Palau’s more than 300 coral and volcanic islands. (Pictured: United States Marines and Japan Mine Action Service personnel inspect images of mine-like objects found off the coast of Palau in October 2021.)
“Our main priority is to locate and remove UXO [unexploded ordnance] from the vicinity of high traffic areas or important infrastructures to help protect personnel and property,” U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Wesley L. Buzzard, an explosive ordnance disposal technician with the task force, said in a news release. “We want to help the people of Palau feel safer when they’re at the coast or in the water.”
As part of the task force, a new initiative known as the Littoral Explosive Ordnance Neutralization (LEON) team used a modified Emergency Integrated Life-Saving Lanyard equipped with side-scan sonar to search large areas below the surface, according to the U.S. Marine Corps news release. Additionally, the unmanned underwater vehicle SRS FUSION gathered measurements and video footage of potential UXO.
The LEON team and Japan Mine Action Service located at least five mine-like objects over several days. The nonprofit group, which was established in 2002, supports local and regional partners on demining and related projects, including in other Indo-Pacific nations such as Cambodia and Laos. It provides ordnance disposal training and develops demining instruments and techniques, according to its website. The nonprofit estimates that millions of land mines and other ordnance still mar the sites of long-ended conflicts around the world.
Thousands of tons of ordnance were dropped or fired on and around Palau during World War II, and its waters are also littered with the wrecks of warships and fighter aircraft. As well as posing the danger of explosion, decaying ordnance leaks harmful chemicals into the environment.
For Palau, the UXO endangers lives and livelihoods — before the pandemic, the tourism industry accounted for about 20% of the nation’s gross domestic product and employed 1 in 5 of its workers, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior.
“I think the amount of underwater UXO in Palau and the work we’ve done out here has definitely helped validate our capabilities and shown that there is a need for LEON,” Buzzard said in the U.S. Marine Corps news release.
Under their Compact of Free Association, the U.S. is responsible for the defense of Palau, which became a sovereign nation in 1994. The work of Task Force Koa Moana 21 demonstrates the strength of the Palau-U.S. relationship, according to the U.S. Marine Corps. The 200-member task force, whose name means “ocean warrior” in Hawaiian, will also conduct disaster preparedness, engineering, maritime law enforcement and medical projects during its five-month deployment to Palau, The Guam Daily Post newspaper reported.
IMAGE CREDIT: SGT. MARVIN E. LOPEZ NAVARRO/U.S. MARINE CORPS