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Bomb disposal in Palau

October 8, 2010


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Clement Paligaru: World War Two ended 65 years ago. But on the small island of Peleliu, in Palau, the danger still isn't over. Thousands of unexploded but highly corroded bombs remain. Finally, experts have arrived to start clearing the lethal legacy of what was one of the bloodiest battles of the war in the Pacific. Here's Pacific correspondent for Australia Network news, Sean Dorney with a story that first ran on Newsline.

Sean Dorney: Reminders of the war are everywhere on Peleliu Island - some with the capability still to kill. Ten thousand Japanese soldiers died defending Peleliu and there were eight thousand American casualties.

C. Desengei Matsutaro - Speaker, Peleliu State Legislature: There's lots of unexploded ordinance that's been left behind from the battle that was fought here in Palau. You know, although it's been 65 years these unexploded ordinances are still alive.

Icangichi Uchau - Governor of Peleliu State: It's been a long time since the war (was) over and these bombs are there until now.

Sean Dorney: The Governor of Peleliu, Ichangichi Uchau, is delighted that at long last a team has arrived to start clearing away the bombs. Stephen Ballinger and Cassandra McKeown are the principles of the English registered charity, Cleared Ground Demining.

Stephen Ballinger: Yeah, but we're going to clear inside the cave first because I've noticed a few hand-grenades and mortars in there.

The reason we're clearing this cave of ordinance is that it is a pre-determined site in an agreement between the Government of Japan and the Government of Palau. There are human remains that have been here for 65 and a half years. So just watch your head on here, please, Sean.

Sean Dorney: The Japanese dug themselves into caves all around Peleliu and it's one of the reasons the Americans found them so difficult to defeat.

The Japanese defended these caves ferociously and some of them died a horrible death being burnt to death. The Americans used flame throwers and some of this blackened material here is the result of the flame throwers being fired in.

Stephen Ballinger: Just here we have an 81 millimetre mortar. Just here there are two 50 millimetre Japanese nee-mortars. Here is a large series of human remains. In the centre of these human remains is a Japanese type 99 fragmentation hand-grenade which although it still has its pin, safety pin in it , the pin is very corroded and very weak.

Sean Dorney: Cleared Ground Demining has trained a number of Palauans to help with the clearance. Yosko O Ngiraked began this work eight months ago.

Stephen Ballinger: Now we clear it through a methodology where we do hand over hand clearance. So you don't move yourself forward, don't clear ahead more than one hand's width.

Sean Dorney: And, as she goes through, she could find more stuff hidden underneath, I imagine?

Stephen Ballinger: Every stone is turned and we do find in the caves we've cleared to date, we find all the things hidden under the rocks, the stones, hidden under artefacts. I can imagine we will find a lot more than what you can actually physically see here based on our experience to date.

Sean Dorney: Yosko O Ngiraked says the people of Peleliu never disturbed the caves because of a fear of the spirits of the dead. As a child she never went near the caves.

Yosko O Ngiraked - Cleared Ground Demining: Because I know there's bones in there, Japanese bones. So I'm scared.

Sean Dorney: One cave that they have already cleared is known as the Thousand Man Cave. It is now open to tourists who have to contend with bats who colonised it long ago.

This is the most extensive cave on the island. It was built in 44 days by Korean labourers and was the hospital and one of the battalion headquarters.
Along one of the many branches - the remains of a Shinto shrine. The non lethal remnants of the war have been left where they lie. While many Japanese soldiers perished in the caves a lot of Americans and one distinguished Australian were killed out here in the open. And this old war cemetery was where they were first buried.

Cassandra, this island also has some significance for Australians from the war?

Cassandra McKeown - Cleared Ground Demining: Very much so. Australia's very famous war cameraman, Damien Parer, he actually died in the battle of Peleliu and was buried here actually in this cemetery along with all the US servicemen. The graves were later, in 1947, relocated to Hawaii. But it's still very significant that he fell in battle here.

Sean Dorney: The now disused war cemetery opens out onto this pretty beach which was the scene of much bloodshed.

Cassandra McKeown: This is basically the landing beach for D-Day. The boats came in. The landing vehicles then brought the troops up. Now they weren't expecting the amount of fire power from the Japanese when they got here and they also hadn't suspected the coral ridges. So it was actually, unfortunately, where a lot of the soldiers fell right at the start of the battle.

Sean Dorney: It's a favourite for tourists and so was one of the first places cleared.

Cassandra McKeown: One of the old ladies who comes down here crabbing said she'd seen this piece of metal on the beach. We came in and we dug around it and we found this massive sea mine.

Stephen Ballinger: This is Cleared Ground's Unexploded Ordinance Storage Site. So we collect things here and every two months we destroy them explosively. These two items here are Japanese type JE Sea Mines. The device weighs 106.5 pounds and contains 48 pounds of high explosive. So you can imagine the effects of this going off would be pretty devastating.

Ok, what I'd like to show you next is some Improvised Explosive Devices that we found in the Thousand Man Cave just south of the North Dock of the island. We found eight of these devices in the cave.

Sean Dorney: They look just like a big brick don't they?

Stephen Ballinger: So I'm just going to lift off the top of this now and show you what's inside. We have is we have a Kiren beer bottle. Inside the bottle is a mixture of black power, sulphuric acid and gasoline, quite a volatile mixture. What we have at the top here are two copper wires leading to two electrical leads and ultimately into a detonator. What's also most interesting is that inside this mixture of lime and stone are lumps of metal.

Sean Dorney: Shrapnel?

Stephen Ballinger: Exactly! That would act as your fragmentation, your secondary fragmentation - shrapnel.

Sean Dorney: So, Steve, since you began, it's what - eight months, nine months or something - what have you found? How much have you found?

Stephen Ballinger: 5,484 items.

Sean Dorney: Some in people's back yards. Martha Giramur didn't realise that she and her family cooked pigs next to an unexploded naval artillery shell.

Martha Giramur - Peleliu resident: When we have a party they put something here and kill the pig here. And then make a fire on this side.

Sean Dorney: And the bomb was here all the time?

Martha Giramur: The bomb was here all the time! So we just walk to step the bomb. I didn't know what's that so I step around. I didn't know what is this? So the time when I talk to him and when he come and say, 'Oh, you're lucky it isn't bomb yet!'

Sean Dorney: Oh dear. It would have blown all this up.

Martha Giramur: I know. I'm lucky. So that's why I say, 'He's a good guy!'.

Stephen Ballinger: It's pretty amazing that it's took this long for what I would call a full scale clearance operation to go into place. And I think it's pretty unfair to the people of Palau to have to wait this long to get it cleared up as well.

Johnson Toribiong - President of Palau: Peleliu was heavily bombed during the war by air and by sea, from ships and by airplanes. And they claim that 10 to 15 percent of the bombs would not detonate upon being dropped on Peleliu. So to the Peleliu people, World War Two has not yet ended.

Sean Dorney: Palau is seeking funding from international donors to ensure the work can continue and Peleliu can finally be made safe.

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