Pockmarked by the craters of bombs that did explode, as well as endangered by a variety of unexploded ordnance from both sides of the epic struggle over this WWII Japanese airbase, Taroa will soon become a safer place for its 300 or so residents and visitors. The Japanese built a significant military installation here prior to the beginning of WWII, with the objective of projecting air power throughout the Pacific.
Today, the remnants of that effort—Japanese ‘Betty’ and ‘Nell’ bombers, and portions of the renowned Zeroes, rest in pieces, entangled in the roots of the pandanus and other trees that have reclaimed the island. The artifacts create the impression of a World War II time capsule—from the saki bottles and china dishes still to be found on the beaches, to the extensive collection of remaining barracks, bunkers, cisterns and administrative buildings, many cratered by bomb blasts, that stand like pieces of a modern Stonehenge in the tranquil community on Taroa. The airbase was rendered useless following the capture of Kwajalein in early 1944, though the Japanese garrison on Taroa, by-passed by the war, hung on and finally surrendered in early 1946, after many hundreds of native and imported laborers, as well as Japanese soldiers died of starvation. Two years of ‘milk run’ bombing, including the early use of napalm, left the island a wasteland at the end of the war, and it wasn’t significantly resettled until the 1970’s.
Today, the lush vegetation, the idyllic village, and the perfect beaches bear no resemblance to the abject terror of 70 years ago—with one exception: abundant quantities of bombs and shells that litter the beaches, bays and forests of Taroa. Golden West Foundation and a five-man crew led by Len Austin is currently on-site rendering much of that still-lethal ordnance harmless. The project is funded by the U.S. State Department and is a result of priorities expressed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the Pacific Islands Forum meeting in the Cook Islands nearly two years ago. From Maloelap, the team will move to Mili Atoll to undertake a similar effort, stretching over nearly six weeks.