As China and the U.S. jockey for control of the Pacific, little attention is being paid to the bombs that litter the island nation.
Coconut crabs roast atop a sheet of roofing iron, heated by a fire below, as the Manele family prepares for a typical Monday night dinner in Guadalcanal.
Standing next to the fire, which has been set at the foot of the stairs leading up to the house, John Manele, a subsistence farmer, chats with his sons — 13-year-old Junior Dominic and 17-year-old Jeffry — as the sun goes down.
A few yards away, Loretta Manele, the boys’ mother, fixes the rest of the meal next to the family’s traditional thatched-hut kitchen.
The cooking fire snaps. It cracks again. Then it explodes.
The blast hurls the four Maneles off the ground, sending them flying.
The blazing airborne metal mangles John and Junior. John dies where he lies, Junior in a hospital, two hours later.
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When Jeffry comes to, he finds himself beside his mother, her legs scorched and pocked with shrapnel.
A two-inch metal shard was lodged inches from his heart, blood seeping from his chest.
“Everything went black, full black,” Jeffry recalls.
His eardrums were blown out, and he struggled to see in the smoke-darkened dusk. He was dumbstruck. “I couldn’t feel anything.”
A year later, he’s sitting in the family’s home, a wooden structure built on stilts in the typical Solomon Islands way that’s designed to keep the interior cool and to keep vermin out.
He’s recounting a night of tragedy and horror that has become all too familiar for families living in the formerly war-torn Solomon Islands, the site of one of the most famous battles of World War II.
Every year, researchers estimate, more than 20 people are killed or seriously injured when one of the thousands of unexploded World War II-era bombs left behind by the U.S. and Japan is set off.
It might be a child whose parents warned about the neighborhood’s rusty detritus. It could be a fisherman, who has repurposed a bomb to ensure a good catch. It may be a farmer burning trash or tilling the land, with no idea what sits below.
Oftentimes it’s a family, like the Maneles, cooking over a fire, set above unseen and long-buried explosives.
This has been going on, year after year, for decades.
Explosive remnants of war have plagued the Solomon Islands since Japan, the U.S. and its allies withdrew from the fighting in the mid-1940s, after WWII, leaving a deadly legacy the developing South Pacific nation has been unable to deal with, despite its pleas for help.
Some aid has come from the U.S. and other countries since the war ended, but it has been sporadic and meager as American geopolitical priorities shifted away from the historic battleground. Since 2011 the U.S. has spent $6.8 million on the clearance of unexploded ordnance and local training programs in the Solomons, a fraction of what has been directed to other countries where the U.S. has left behind the dangerous remnants of war.
That’s not to say the U.S. has forgotten the Solomons. In fact, U.S. diplomacy has returned to the islands, but with a different threat in mind: the increasing Chinese presence in the Pacific region.
Earlier this year, hundreds of dignitaries — including U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Caroline Kennedy, U.S. ambassador to Australia — were sent to the Solomon Islands to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the first U.S. Marine Corps landing at Guadalcanal. The 1942 arrival of U.S. forces marked a turning point in Allied efforts to repel Japan’s southern advance in the Pacific, eventually leading to its defeat.
They delivered speeches across the capital city of Honiara, celebrating Allied servicemen’s gallantry, bravery and sacrifice. One ceremony was dedicated to Solomon Islanders and their contribution to the war victory. As U.S. Admiral of the Fleet William F. Halsey famously noted: “The Coastwatchers saved Guadalcanal, and Guadalcanal saved the South Pacific.”
But little was said this summer about the death toll that has continued year after year or the threats Solomon Islanders face every day from unexploded ordnance, commonly referred to as UXO.
Local reporters raised the issue soon after Sherman, the deputy secretary, met with Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare. Sherman said that clearing explosives “is a deep commitment” for the U.S. and its Allies.
Just a day later, on Aug. 13, WWII explosives were uncovered in Taro, 300 miles northwest of Guadalcanal, at a wartime airstrip that was being tar-sealed for domestic flights. In subsequent weeks, hundreds of pounds of explosives were found there, and police designated the tiny township a “danger zone,” due to the sheer amount of bombs throughout the area.
The news made headlines in the Solomon Islands’ two national newspapers, but barely registered with the international press that had followed the official delegations of the U.S. and its Allies to the islands.
Hundreds of thousands of bombs were dropped and millions of rounds of ammunition were fired in the Solomon Islands over the course of World War II, when the then-British protectorate was overrun by foreign militaries vying for an upper hand in the Pacific.
Across the country, UXO are still lodged in the soil 80 years later.
Solomon Islanders do not know for sure how many people are killed or injured every year. No comprehensive records are kept, no government agency comprehensively tracks death or injuries by UXO.
An Australian nonprofit called SafeGround — a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 — has advocated for bomb clearance in the Solomons for almost a decade, trying to leverage its years-long research and relationships within the international anti-land mine community.
The number is probably more than 20 killed every year, according to SafeGround’s Pacific Islands Program Coordinator John Rodsted, who speaks frequently to Solomon Islands medical staff and is convinced that most victims die before making it to a hospital.
Help is just too far away when a boat is the chief form of transport, especially for those outside the most populous island of Guadalcanal.
“They just die,” Rodsted says. “They just turn around and go home again and then bury them.”
A Difficult Life
The Solomon Islands is a nation of six major islands and nearly 1,000 other islands, stretching 930 miles between Fiji and Papua New Guinea. About 700,000 people live on more than 300 of those islands.
It is a developing nation, the second poorest in the Pacific. People largely subsist on the sea and by planting crops on ancestral lands. Running water is rare, electricity a luxury — life is difficult.
Even in the capital city of Honiara, life for its more than 80,000 people is not much easier. Persistent power and water outages beset the city, while Solomon Islanders from other areas flock to the urban setting in hope of a better life.
The Solomon Islands was a British territory until 1978, initially colonized by the U.K. for its geopolitical location in the South Pacific.
But before 1941, the idea of WWII was an abstract concept for Solomon Islanders. It was something happening in Europe. That all changed when the Imperial Japanese attacked Allied naval fleets in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, kicking off war in the Pacific.
Britain began evacuating its colonial settlers and sending Solomon Island workers back to their villages or into hiding.
By May the following year the Japanese had taken the Solomon Islands, continuing its eastward campaign, and began building an airstrip on Guadalcanal. Allied forces feared the Japanese would destroy a key communication line between the U.S. west coast and the Australian east coast.
Thousands of American soldiers, sailors and pilots descended on the country on Aug. 7, 1942, heralding the beginning of a five-month battle over the strategic military location.
Historians would come to see the Battle for Guadalcanal as one of the most pivotal theaters of the Pacific war, helping the Allies push the Imperial Japanese forces back, ultimately leading to their downfall and surrender.
U.S. Ambassador to Australia Caroline Kennedy recounted the freedom Allied servicemen fought for and her own connection with the country when she spoke at the August celebrations. Her father, President John F. Kennedy, was rescued by Indigenous scouts after his crew’s boat, the PT-109, was sunk by a Japanese destroyer.
The scars of WWII are spread throughout the islands, from Guadalcanal westward to the border with Papua New Guinea.
The land, coasts and seabeds are littered with the remains of warships, from Guadalcanal’s Iron Bottom Sound to the far-western provinces, where the fighting continued after Guadalcanal. Countless Japanese and American airplanes and tanks rust in place.
And though the remnants of war are often hidden, buried at sea or in the land, they are far from forgotten by Solomon Islanders, who continue to grapple with WWII’s bloody aftermath.
An Uncertain Future
Loretta Manele sits on the bare wooden floor of her simple home, at least 30 minutes’ walk from the closest paved road and another 30-minute drive to central Honiara. Her remaining five children huddle around her as she speaks to a visiting journalist.
Rain pours down outside the windows, made of chicken wire. Her two oldest sons fetch a bed sheet to cover the window as a squall pushes through the building. The deck soaks up the rain.
The house sits on a ridge, overlooking the Manele’s land, the hills blanketed with cassava and the flatlands filled with potatoes and fruit trees. A pen of boisterous white-skinned pigs pays the rent to the landowner. A nearby spring, or sometimes just the rain, is the main source of water.
Loretta’s father sits cross-legged in a chair next to his grandchildren. The memory of the blast that killed his son-in-law and grandson remains fresh. It’s been a year since John and Junior died.
Other family members, who live on the same hill, stand crowded at the door, which is propped open by a car battery — the family’s source of electricity, topped up by a small solar panel.
They want to be interviewed and share their account of the day that changed their lives.
They describe how Loretta’s 11-year-old son, peppered with shrapnel, lay face up, drifting in and out of consciousness, limbs gnarled by the blast. They point to their own bodies, describing a ghastly scene of flesh and metal.
Loretta describes how shrapnel tore straight through her husband’s chest, killing him almost instantly. Other family members explain how his lower leg was torn from its socket.
She was knocked to the ground by the blast.
“I couldn’t move, I was in shock,” Loretta says, “I thought ‘Jesus, what happened?’”
The Royal Solomon Islands Police Force bomb squad eventually determined the blast came from an improvised device, made by putting explosives into a steel pipe to mimic a Bangalore torpedo, a long, tube-like explosive used to destroy obstacles.
Police arrived at the scene a few hours later, to find John dead, in the dark amid the debris. Junior, Jeffry and Loretta had been taken to a hospital, 6 miles away. They went by car because ambulance services are unreliable even in the capital city.
Junior died two hours later. His mother and brother remained at the hospital — Jeffry for three months, Loretta for six.
The huge scar on Jeffry’s chest is a reminder of the blast. But Loretta’s scar-ridden leg is a foreboding sign of the struggles they are yet to face. She cannot walk without crutches, which means she cannot work the land.
The Maneles scraped by when John was alive, able to pay for what they needed by selling what they didn’t eat.
When asked how life has been without her husband, Loretta sobs uncontrollably. She stares out the open doorway, into the distance, as she wipes her cheeks.
The Maneles are struggling to regain some semblance of life before the blast but their prospects are dire. Her 72-year-old father, Steven Ale, moved from his village on Guadalcanal’s southeastern coast to help the family.
“They lost their daddy and she is disabled now,” Ale says. “They find life very hard.”
Loretta’s main concern is the education of her children. It’s supposed to be free in the Solomon Islands but while John was alive much of the family’s income — about $1,100 a year in U.S. dollars – had to be used for school fees.
Junior Dominic had a promising future. He once spoke in front of the Prime Minister, representing his entire school, and he consistently scored well on tests. He wanted to be a pilot, like those who fly over their farm and into the nearby Honiara International Airport.
Now, Loretta and her father just want to cobble together enough money to send her other children to school. They say they have exhausted every avenue they can think of, including people they know in the U.S., to get financial assistance.
In fact, few, if any, organizations exist in the country that might be able to help. The Solomon Islands government has said it does not accept responsibility for the bombs but Japan, the U.S. and its WWII Allies do not have any victim assistance programs in the country.
About 10 years ago, the Pacific Islands Forum, a 17-member intergovernmental organization, took on the problem of leftover bombs in several island nations. The forum conducted research and developed a policy to advocate for remediation. But its priorities shifted and any help fell by the wayside.
Japan has delivered aid for road-building and recently donated a few vehicles and some equipment to the Solomon Islands police bomb squad. Australia has maintained the most significant presence in the country over the past 20 years, when it was invited by the Solomons government to help stabilize the nation following ethnic conflicts.
The U.S. has recently agreed to put at least $1 million toward what land mine and UXO experts say is a long-needed survey of explosives in the Solomon Islands.
Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta believes the problem has been largely ignored for far too long. He spoke at length to Civil Beat for this series of stories.
“Those island nations obviously went through hell during the war,” Panetta says. “And I think we owe them a responsibility to try to see what we can do to make sure that those islands are cleaned up for the citizens of those islands and their families and their kids.”