Island mulls showcasing rusting land relics

The jungle has enveloped the abandoned World War II Japanese military headquarters. Huge trees grow on the roof of the power plant, their aerial roots forming a woody cocoon around the lower floors.

Nearby, US tanks rust at attention, guarding the intersection of vine-choked roads. And high above, corroded Japanese artillery pieces poke out from caves. Coconut trees flank the still-shiny wreckage of a downed Japanese bomber, its cockpit already scavenged for souvenirs.

Fifty-four years after the end of World War II, many of the tiny, far-flung islands of the Central Pacific remain littered with wartime relics left behind after the devastating Pacific campaign. Thousands of Americans, and tens of thousands of Japanese, died fighting over the tiny islands and atolls of the Marshall and Caroline Islands.

Now the foreign soldiers are gone and the islands are ruled by the natives themselves. And as the islanders prepare themselves for the global economy, the leaders of the region's tiny developing nations are deciding what, if anything, is worth preserving from a destructive war fought on their soil by foreign powers.

"For Palauns the war was somebody else's history that we got caught up in the middle of," says Faustina Rehuher, director of the Belau National Museum in Koror. "The [battlefield] relics are an attraction for outsiders. For Palauns the war is just a bad memory."

Peleliu, a two-by-six mile island in Palau, was the site of some of the fiercest fighting of the Pacific campaign. The 1944 battle reduced Peleliu to a denuded wasteland. Most of the island remains abandoned to this day, its 600 residents concentrated in a village at its northernmost tip. But Palau's newfound tourist wealth - mostly from Japan - may allow the islanders to extend electricity - and development - to the rest of the island. Nobody knows what that will mean for the battlefield relics.

The Marshall Islands, also in the central Pacific, have a similar surplus of wartime runways, hangars, unexploded ammunition, artillery, bunkers, tanks, and aircraft. Many relics are rapidly deteriorating due to the harsh sun, ocean air, and high humidity. The Marshall Islands are a poor country that can only spare resources for relics that might attract tourism profits.

"We can justify investing in the preservation of underwater relics because the diving market is growing worldwide," says Ben Graham, director of the Marshall Islands national tourism agency in the capital, Majuro. "On land it's a marginal and shrinking market."

Proposals to include the region's relics in the US's Guam-based War in the Pacific National Park never got off the ground. As former US trust territories, Palau, Micronesia, and the Marshall Islands are eligible for National Park Service programs, but there wasn't sufficient US support to secure the required funds.

"It's far away and no Americans are buried there," says Haydn Williams of the American Battle Monuments Commission in Alexandria, Va. "There was never any deep support or pressure to extend the park there."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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