Kwajalein, Marshall Islands
"Nature, in her most dazzling aspects or stupendous parts, is but the background and theatre of the tragedy of man." John Morley
40 hours of travel, 23 of them in the air, 5 airports and 4 flights to reach a 1.2 square mile island with 1 bar and 0 tourism.
As we came in to land I was floored by the simple beauty of the island, a long flat boomerang strip of land dominated by the runway and dotted with palm trees, tranquil beaches and stunning aqua water exposing the coral reefs below like a glass showcase, all set under an unrelenting equatorial heat.
Kwajalein Island is one of 97 that make up Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, situated 2100 miles from Honolulu, 2000 miles from Australia and 2100 from Japan so about as remote as you can get in the enormous Pacific ocean. Kwajalein has been occupied exclusively by the US military since World War 2 when it was taken from the Japanese and is currently used for long range missile testing – they literally fire missiles at it.
For security reasons only staff can live on Kwajalein, tourists aren’t allowed. However residents can have friends and family visit, subject to a security clearance, so when my friend Jen invited me it was too good an opportunity to miss. Indeed, there is so little visitor information on Kwajalein that I had a request for a blog from a soon-to-be resident before I’d even written it.
Despite its military status all but a handful of the 1100 residents are US civilian contract workers, plus a few Marshall Islanders (Marshallese). Everyone is there in a professional capacity, the island has no private housing.
As I cycled around locals waved hello, mostly because that’s just what people do but some already knew who I was – visitors are rare and everyone knows everyone else. Besides, most significant spots on the island – the convenience store, bar, beaches – are all within a 10 minute bike ride across the eastern side of the island, it’s like Disneyland for grown-ups. I felt very welcomed and very safe.
The standard of living is much higher than you find on an average remote island. They have all the mod cons you could wish for in their assigned housing which ranges from brick houses to fibre-glass dome houses, apartments and mobile trailers for those on the island for only a short time. However, the supermarket runs out of various foods regularly – eggs, diet soda, milk to name a few, and there are other things you just can’t buy on the island, but which can be ordered online and delivered.
Bikes and houses are left unlocked, you can leave your bag anywhere and it’s safe everywhere at all times of day and night, it’s very liberating.
There is no dress code, people wear jeans and t-shirts to work and out socially, delightfully laid back. But the island is a mass of contradictions and underneath the relaxed veneer is a strict security protocol – I had to pass a security check to get a visitor permit and was given a police briefing on arrival. There were things I couldn’t photograph and several more I wouldn’t be comfortable divulging. Any security breach or bad behaviour and I’d be on the next plane off the island, along with my sponsor who was accountable for me during my stay.
Unusually for a tropical island there’s nothing deadly here, no snakes, spiders, crocodiles, I didn’t even see a mosquito. There are sharks out in the sea but they won’t bother you if you don’t bother them.
Being almost on the equator, the heat is constant through rain, wind and the dead of night, averaging 86°F/30°C year round although it feels hotter with the high humidity. With sun-block and a good hat there’s a lot to enjoy outside. Watersports dominate the island, not least because you’re never more than a few hundred feet of it and the water temperature never drops below 80°F.
The Scuba club runs training courses and check-out dives for new arrivals, after which you can dive free of charge with dive gear available to rent. The diving here is renowned due to the number of World War 2 wrecks. There are several ships and over 100 planes which were pushed into the water during the post-battle clear up. Add to this the crystal clear waters, warm temperatures and stunning tropical sea life and you’ve got yourself a winning dive. Sadly for me, the weather was too windy – gusting 40 knots at times – for us to take a boat to these wrecks.
I was briefed not to touch anything underwater. You should never touch anything underwater anyway, but here there is a special incentive – there are unexploded bombs and most likely a skeleton or two from World War 2 in the water. A diver was badly burned when his souvenir turned out to be a phosphorus bomb which, despite its age came to life when he surfaced. It’s another display of the island’s contradictions that such beautiful waters harbour such horrors.
The snorkeling is fantastic, especially on the eastern side of the island which has 8 huge rock pools up to 8 feet deep, fed by the ocean which crashes over the far edge of the pools even at low tide.
I saw an octopus, turtle, white and black eel, an iridescent blue giant clam you don’t want to catch your hand in because you’d never get it back out and so many beautiful fish there are too many to credit. Jen saw a black tip shark in one of the pools with us but I couldn’t find him unfortunately.
Another great snorkeling spot is just off the north eastern tip of the island not far from where the ocean meets the reef. Down a few stone steps into the shallow water and the current whips you along over a band of coral, it’s drift-snorkelling, cheekily lazy.
Windsurfing, kiteboarding and kayaking are also available and there’s a marina with power boats for rent and a few privately owned sailboats. There is even a small yacht club with a delightful deck and a private bar open from time to time. Each day at the marina nurse and black-tip sharks congregate to feed on the fishermen’s cast-offs, it’s well worth a watch.
Historic Landmark Tour
As part of America’s Pacific campaign during WW2, Kwajalein was taken from the Japanese in 1944 and remnants from that battle are still very much evident today (see World War 2 History passage below). There are 10 locations on the island with information boards detailing various elements of the battle, is a great bike or walking tour, or as in my case, a golf buggy tour with the resident Osteo-Archeologist. A leaflet detailing the tour locations is available from Kwaj Lodge by the airport.
With a hired motorboat or by catching a ride with a resident who has their own you can reach some of the other islands, a few of which are uninhabited. Check with the marina which you can visit, some may be off limits for security reasons, Little Bustard is occupied by a Marshallese lady who lives off grid – incredibly intriguing but it’s her private residence so permission would be needed to land there.
Ebeye is the easiest island to visit, but offers little for visitors beyond the free ferry that runs all day for Marshallese workers. Ebeye is just 0.13 square miles with a population of 15,000 so there isn’t a town as much as the whole island is the town. It’s made up of a mix of shanty housing, a few more substantial commercial and residential buildings and a fair amount of churches, the only restaurants are more like street-food vendors with seating. Only around 1000 islanders work, collectively supporting the rest of the community, so the majority of visitors are missionaries, there’s no tourism to speak of.
New Years Day saw an impromptu ‘floaty party’ at the saltwater swimming pool where around 50 people showed up with coolers of booze and pool inflatibles, the party went on until after sunset and then resumed again when the Ocean View bar closed at midnight. Weekends see people congregating on the beaches with coolers and floaties, alternating between sunbathing in beach chairs and floating in the sea to cool off. The beaches have permanent BBQ facilities, made good use of by residents.
Ocean View Bar (aka the snake pit) is open daily. It’s an A-frame building open to the elements and overlooks the ocean side of the island. On an average night there were maybe 10 to 20 people there and I quickly made friends with a few of them, anyone new to the island is a bit of a novelty so everyone was very friendly with interesting stories to tell about their hometowns in the US. Beer is $2 a bottle and wine $3 for a large glass, it’s sometimes cheaper to buy drink here than in the supermarket.
I headed to Ocean View bar on Christmas Day for a bit of socialising. I was warned it might be closed, so I cycled off down there with a bottle of red and my laptop. Sure enough the lights were on but no-one was home. I made myself comfortable at the bar, put some music on the jukebox and got to work writing. Before long people started wandering over and we soon had a crowd which fortunately included someone who had keys to the Veterans Bar where we could buy drinks, so we all decamped there for a few hours of Christmas Day merriment.
The Vets Hall is dark and air conditioned so you could easily forget you’re on a tropical island once inside. The bar staff are the best I’ve ever seen, on New Year’s Eve the place was heaving with hundreds of islanders but they remembered what everyone was drinking, me included, and served drinks at record speed.
Significantly, as the island has no cellphone network so people tend not to carry phones, instead they look each other in the eye and have uninterrupted conversations, just wonderful!
The mode of transport is bikes, everyone has one. Due to the salty, humid air bikes typically rust out after three years so solid frames are the norm. Golf buggies are available for hire on a limited basis and there are cars used during the course of work where necessary. The first couple of days there I kept looking over my shoulder expecting a car to shoot past me at 60mph but in reality that would never happen, the top speed limit on the island is 15mph.
There are few shops on the island so, refreshingly, shopping is not a weekend sport. There is a convenience store, gift and clothing store, bakery, post office, dive store, Micronesian arts and crafts shop and a supermarket. Unusually for a remote island, prices are cheap due to US military subsidies on shipping.
There are no real restaurants, just a ‘chow hall’ canteen widely used by those who live in apartments with limited cooking facilities, and a food hall offering Subway, Burger King and Pizza. So for those days when you really can’t be bothered to cook or want a special meal out you’re out of luck.
A there’s no cellphone network on the island, residents rely on landline phones which are dotted all around the island, including in the supermarket and on the beaches. Phone numbers are 4 digits and calls are free. WiFi is now available in most homes, bars and on the popular beaches.
However, the ‘coconut wire’ is probably the most effective means of communication, news can travel across the island by rumour in record time!
World War 2 History
Beach Blue Two is not a popular beach because not only is it far from the main housing area but it’s littered with WW2 debris; tanks, jeeps and other hulks rusted beyond identification except for the black tyres that look like new.
I stood on the pale yellow sand as the crystal clear water lapped over my feet, and the rusting steel next to me. I took a minute’s silence as I tried but inevitably failed to comprehend the death and destruction that had come before me. So many lives lost to pave the way for me to stand here on this beach, free as a bird, privileged, safe, happy. How many men’s shoulders was I standing on, and how many others of my generation even cared to know?
Approximately 450 American and 8000 Japanese men died on Kwajalein Atoll with many bodies yet to be discovered, part of the 40,000 still missing in action from both sides during the Pacific battles of WW2. These in turn make up some of the estimated 60 million global casualties of World War 2 – 3% of the population at that time, the numbers are beyond comprehension. There are ten mass graves on the island, nine have been located, the tenth is suspected to be under the runway which is shortly due for renovation. The implications of unearthing this grave have significant implications, not least because the airport is by far the main form of transport to and from this uniquely remote island.
After the battle here 70 years ago they had a hell of a job to clear up and sadly an easy option was to either bury damaged and unneeded kit or throw it into the sea where it remains today. The relics are many, and with each year more reveal themselves. There are bunkers and memorials across the island, many marked as part of a Historical Landmark Tour. Each time they build on the island they unearth more – vintage coke bottles, army issue food bowls, medicine bottles, live ammunition, phosphorus bombs, torpedoes, and bones. There is an Osteo-Archeologist on staff who collects these items, categorises them and works with the appropriate authorities to repatriate them. It is doubtful this task will ever end.
Each year a group from Japan visits the Japanese Memorial on the island to pay their respects to their ancestors. In many cases the Japanese did not tell the families their sons had died until after the war, or which island they’d died on so visiting Kwajalein is symbolic for many.
Recently they found ‘Mia’ (missing in action), a Korean sex slave estimated to be between 13 and 24 years old who was found bound by her hands and feet, face down and shot in the back of the head. She had been brought to the island by the Japanese prior to the battle with the Americans. Her parents never would have given up hope of her returning home. The political complications of repatriating her now are many, so for now she rests in an office.
Up until 5 years ago I had little interest in World War 2, I had grown up with my parents telling me stories about their childhoods in the suburbs west of London, living on rations, retreating to air raid shelters at night and putting on their Sunday best to pay their respects to the occupants of the nearby properties blown up in the bombing raids. It had become a bit of a broken record, always finished off with “you don’t know how lucky you are.”
Then after countless recommendations I finally watched Band of Brothers and The Pacific, the Spielberg/Hanks World War 2 mini-series. It was a revelation. By the end of the series I got it, the sacrifice, the horrors and the incredible bravery shown by the millions who fought. I say I got it, I got it as much as you can when so far removed from the horrors.
What is heartbreaking to me now is the realisation that many of my generation and those to come will have less and less of an idea of what went on, why we have what we have and how incredibly fortunate we are, even on our worst day.
For further information on World War 2 in Europe and the Pacific I highly recommend the following:
With the Old Breed by Eugene Sledge
Helmet for My Pillow by Robert Leckie