Three journalism awards organizations have honored the Pulitzer Center-supported project WWII: Collateral Damage, 80 Years On. The project, led by grantee Thomas Heaton, was published by Honolulu Civil Beat last fall.
On March 9, 2023, the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing (SABEW) celebrated the project’s “deep on-scene reporting [...] which brings great force and immediacy to the work, as the implications for all concerned [...] come to life painfully and powerfully on the page.” WWII: Collateral Damage, 80 Years On won the International Reporting, Small Division category of SABEW's Best in Business contest. SABEW is the world’s “largest and oldest organization of business and financial journalists.” It launched the Best in Business competition in 1995.
One World Media (OWM) longlisted the project in its Popular Feature category, which is meant for stories that take a creative approach to Global South issues. The long list also included projects by grantee Aknkur Paliwal and Rainforest Investigations Network Fellow Hyury Potter.
Best of the West, a regional award for reports on the American West, awarded the project first place in the Social Justice Reporting category. A judge said of WWII: Collateral Damage, 80 Years On: “This package by the Honolulu Civil Beat is beautifully written and powerful testimony to the forgotten victims and damaging legacy of warring nations.” Contest proceeds provide grants to support hotlines for free or low-cost legal advice for journalists seeking to access public records.
WWII: Collateral Damage, 80 Years On profiles Solomon Islanders and other stakeholders reckoning with unexploded ordnances (UXOs) left behind by the Japanese and U.S. militaries during WWII. “Every year, researchers estimate, more than 20 people are killed or seriously injured when one of the thousands of [...] bombs [...] is set off,” Heaton writes. An estimated 30% of the bombs dropped did not detonate. Experts think it will take 20 concerted years to remove them all.
The Solomon Islands is a nation of six major islands and nearly 1,000 outlying islands between Fiji and Papua New Guinea. 700,000 people live on about 300 of those islands. Travel can be extremely costly and time-consuming. “Many bomb victims die before reaching the hospital,” surgeon Dr. Rooney Jagill told Heaton. Even if victims can reach a public hospital, staff and facilities are often overburdened and underprepared.
“Sporadic and meager” aid from the United States and Japan, in combination with Solomon Islands’ government inaction, protracted the problem long into the 21st century. Bombs are well-embedded into the lives of ordinary islanders: Children play with discarded helmets and rusted tank shells; fishers collect explosives for “dynamite fishing,” which can yield enormously profitable catches but are environmentally destructive; and civilian curators collect hardware to display in makeshift museums designed for tourists. All of them risk daily injury.
With the help of Australian NGOs, some citizens have taken matters into their own hands. Safe Signals, one such coalition of islanders, combs through building sites, churches, homes, and government buildings. They are unable, however, to dispose of the bombs they find as police bomb squads maintain sole authority.
While the U.S. and its allies plan for a stronger presence on the islands to deter another South Pacific conflict, this time with China, they still haven’t cleaned up the detritus from their last war. The U.S.—along with Russia and China—refuses to sign bans on land mines nor cluster munitions. Prospects of U.S.- and Japan-backed victim compensation programs are poor. Political will in the Solomon Islands also ranks the unexploded ordnances below “health care, social services, domestic violence, and [...] corruption,” which are “more immediate” in the developing nation.
Families torn apart by the bombs hoped that speaking out will bring new urgency to regular tragedies. Heaton’s reporting for the Honolulu Civil Beat highlights their voices.