Palau, partners work to remove explosive remnants of World War II

Palau, partners work to remove explosive remnants of World War II

More than 70 years after World War II, the Pacific island nation of Palau is still working to remove explosive ordnance from that conflict.

Japan claimed from Germany what is now Palau during World War I. The Battle of Peleliu, which was fought in Palau during World War II, left more than 10,000 Japanese and 2,000 Americans dead.

The process of cleaning up the remnants of that battle is still ongoing. In early July 2019, the U.S. State Department announced the successful removal of two Japanese torpedoes from the ocean floor near Palau. An international coalition is working to remove unexploded ordnance on and around the island. The State Department-led U.S. Conventional Weapons Destruction program worked in conjunction with the Golden West Humanitarian Foundation, the government of Palau, Norwegian People’s Aid (NPA) and the Japanese Mine Action Service in clearing the two torpedoes.

While munitions and mines from other World War II battlefields have been removed elsewhere in the Pacific, Palau’s terrain has made such removals challenging. The country is home to roughly 22,000 people across 500 islands. Old torpedoes pose a particular danger to Palau’s residents and those who fish its waters, and also for tourists, many of whom come to explore the World War II battlefields or to dive on wrecks dating from the war.

The recent removals of two Japanese type 91 torpedoes focused on a site popular with scuba divers. The site is known as Helmet Wreck, which refers to a World War II-era vessel that was found in the early 1990s.

“The greatest concentration, a result of fighting between U.S. and Japanese forces in 1944, still threatens the civilians living on the island of Peleliu,” U.S. State Department official Jerry Guilbert told FORUM.“From 2009 to 2018, the United States invested more than U.S. $3.5 million in conventional weapons destruction in Palau.”

Guilbert is the deputy director of the Operations Office of Weapons Removal and Abatement, Bureau of Political-Military Affairs at the State Department.

“Ongoing clearance of the famous tourist site by Japan Mine Action Service (JMAS) will continue, and our ERW/UXO [explosive remnants of war/unexploded ordnance] team will continue to destroy these hazardous items in the safest possible way,” NPA reported.

Munitions, from large torpedoes to hand grenades, are carefully removed by specially trained explosive experts, then burned under controlled conditions.

“While much UXO contamination in Palau does stem from the Battle of Peleliu, other military operations and incidents over the course of World War II also contributed to the UXO contamination problem,” Guilbert said.

Although much of the UXO is in remote locations, torpedoes and other explosives lying underwater could potentially pose a threat to maritime shipping. (Pictured: A diver examines the wreckage of a World War II-era Japanese seaplane off the coast of Palau.)

Explosive remnants from World War II and other conflicts continue to claim casualties around the globe. Over the past five years, casualties from UXO, mines and other war remnants have more than doubled worldwide, according to NPA. A 2017 study in The Lancetmedical journal found that remnant munitions claim the lives of about 6,500 people each year.

Joseph Hammond is a FORUM contributor based in London. He recently returned from a reporting trip in the Indo-Pacific region.