Times of Change in the Marshall Islands

The room was small, well-lit, and government blue-gray except for the floor, which was

Looking at a Modernist federal office building from the northeast. James V. Forrestal Building in 2006. (Wikipedia)

Looking at a Modernist federal office building from the northeast. James V. Forrestal Building in 2006. (Wikipedia)

highly polished government-white, gold flecked linoleum tile. A compact blue-grey table, six chairs and an incongruous soda machine humming away in the corner were the only furnishings.  There were no windows. My elation and excitement at having been summoned to the DOE, Department of Energy, Headquarters in the Forrestal Building in Washington D.C. was eroding to a sense of foreboding. I was the DOE contractor’s Pacific Operations manager and was thrilled to have been invited to brief the Pacific’s Marshall Islands Program. It was 1300 hours and a game was afoot.

To this point, everything had gone like clockwork. The afternoon flight from Honolulu, Hawaii landed spot on time in California and the middle-of-the-night nonstop commuter flight to

I walked around the Runit Dome (on Enewetak). It is completely unmarked. I would have heeded a warning sign, if it was there.' — Michael Gerrard

I walked around the Runit Dome (on Enewetak). It is completely unmarked. I would have heeded a warning sign, if it was there.’ — Michael Gerrard

Washington’s Dulles International was smooth enough to grab a few hours of sleep. A quick trip to the Dulles women’s room gave me cover to ditch the palazzo pants and cotton shirt and don the uniform; a blue power suit with a light pink silk blouse, panty hose, and matching heels. I was almost ready for my big day at Forrestal. Grabbing the bag with my newly purchased makeup, I colored my eyes, powdered my face, and painted my lips just like the sales lady at Ala Moana taught me. Throwing my tan London Fog overcoat nonchalantly over my arm and grabbing my bag and briefcase, I headed for the taxi line in full uniform. The taxi took a while but I used the time wisely writing notes to myself about things I did not want to forget. Amongst the notes on the radiological concerns at Runit Dome, the state of the program, and other worries, I wrote a reminder not to wipe the grease off of my lips with the sleeve of my suit jacket. I never wore make-up and the lipstick was driving me crazy- the first omen of the day ahead. Continue reading

Guam and the Rising Storm

Guam wanders in and out of the news feeds with the regularity of a failing Christmas tree

Satellite image of the Guam. IKONOS Quickbird satellite image

Satellite image of the Guam. IKONOS Quickbird satellite image

light.  Because I was there and because people I still care greatly about are there, I grab any posting about Guam tossed out from the world’s media like a lifeline.  I like Guam.  From its natural beauty and its people to its place in the historic context of humans and their wars, Guam is compelling.  I doubt that the Russian jets that periodically circle the island figuratively mooning the U.S. military[1] are there for snapshots of the magnificent and imposing cliffs.  And I don’t think that the Chinese siting of ICBMs placing Guam in the crosshairs is accidental.[2]

Once again, I feel the effect of impotent anger surging through the twists and turns in my brain awakening my desire to protect my country and the rainbow of people who I love.  The anger I sense is not directed toward Russia or China; countries do what countries do.  The anger is directed to the U.S. central government whose policy decisions a decade or more ago have come to fruition, cost a bloody fortune, and weakened the U.S.’s ability to protect itself, and I was part of the process.

Hafa adai is Chamorro for ‘hello’ and the first words I heard as I stepped into the terminal at Guam International in Agana, Guam in late 1997.  As one of the forward troops for a business development team, I was on the island to explore local partnering potentials for a Base Operating Support (BOS) contract that was expected to be awarded sometime around the turn of the new century. The 1997 study submitted to Congress to consolidate base operations and transfer about 2,300 military and civilian jobs to a private contractor was the result of a commercial activities study to compare costs between government and private sector providers.

The size of the potential contract definitely had the big boys’ attention.  The retired generals, astronauts, and high-ranking former government officials who inhabit the upper echelons of defense contractors’ ivory towers were working their political contacts in Washington, D.C. We foot soldiers were exploring the local possibilities. There is a great deal of money involved in the acquisition of one of the big BOS contracts and, once everybody teams up for the kill, the doors of each contractor’s business development team are incarcerated; the doors are retrofitted with cipher locks and redecorated as war rooms. Business development at this level is fun and exciting and the foreign policy decisions driving the acquisition are not even on the radar. Continue reading

The Nuclear Hydra – Proliferation

The nuclear dawn’s light powered-up the ethics banks of the self-assembling supercomputers

Alumni of the Met Lab pose on the steps of Eckhart Hall on the campus of the University of Chicago on December 2, 1946 (the fourth anniversary of CP-1 first going critical).  Front row, left to right: Enrico Fermi, Walter Zinn, Albert Wattenberg, and Herbert Anderson.  Middle row, left to right: Harold Agnew, William Sturm, Harold Lichtenberger, Leona W. Marshall, and Leo Szilard.  Back row, left to right: Norman Hilberry, Samuel Allison, Thomas Brill, Robert Nobles, Warren Nyer, and Marvin Wilkening. The photograph is courtesy the Argonne National Laboratory.

Alumni of the Met Lab pose on the steps of Eckhart Hall on the campus of the University of Chicago on December 2, 1946 (the fourth anniversary of CP-1 first going critical). Front row, left to right: Enrico Fermi, Walter Zinn, Albert Wattenberg, and Herbert Anderson. Middle row, left to right: Harold Agnew, William Sturm, Harold Lichtenberger, Leona W. Marshall, and Leo Szilard. Back row, left to right: Norman Hilberry, Samuel Allison, Thomas Brill, Robert Nobles, Warren Nyer, and Marvin Wilkening. The photograph is courtesy the Argonne National Laboratory.

within the Manhattan Project scientists’ brains.  The scientists that rode the Manhattan Project from the laying of the first brick in 1941 to Trinity’s detonation in 1945 were arguably the single largest aggregation of brilliance the world has ever seen.  These were the foundering brothers who built the atomic bomb.  They also realized the raw power they had unleashed would never be controlled by them.  Many members of the founding brothers awakened during the final stages of the bomb’s development.  The amoral need to find the answer just because it needed finding morphed into the question of ‘what have we done?’.  The awakening began a quest to neutralize the power of their scientific discoveries and the quest was at odds with the political and military objectives of the day.  They were heroes, physics and chemistry’s answer to Hercules, fighting for the survival of the human race bound in the chains of secrecy.  Although this group of scientists embodied the idea the Greeks called pathos, the experience of virtuous struggle and suffering, they would find the promised reward of fame and immortality a dubious honor.

The first controlled nuclear fission reaction of Enrico Fermi’s pile on December 2, 1942 marked a major milestone in the laboratory underneath the bleachers of the abandoned Stagg Stadium in Chicago. Scientists from the left and right American coasts were assembled in the middle to kick-off the Manhattan Project under the guise of a new “Metallurgical Laboratory”[1] at the University of Chicago.  Most of the scientists and technicians just referred to it as the Met Lab with a wink

Stagg Field (named for coach Amos Alonzo Stagg)

Stagg Field (named for coach Amos Alonzo Stagg)

and a nod as they tore into meeting its three simple objectives with a religious fervor; 1) develop chain-reacting “piles” for plutonium production, 2) devise a method for extracting plutonium from irradiated uranium, and 3) to design a weapon.  They did that.  Not a bad achievement considering that President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s approval for the Atom Bomb’s development had been given a little over a year earlier on October 9, 1941.[2]

The Met Lab successes spurred the design and construction phases into overdrive.  Ordinary citizens, whole communities, farmers and ranchers by the dozens were removed from several tens of thousands of acres of land across the country by a government hungry for nuclearX10Complex1 facilities supported by a congress vying for the economic windfalls such sites would produce, and a population terrified and driven by a terrible war.  Nuclear sites sprouted; Oak Ridge in Tennessee, Hanford in Washington, and Los Alamos in New Mexico became working sites. The Met Lab, the mother lab, diversified and became the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory.

The successful detonation of the Los Alamos’ Trinity test on July 16, 1945 changed the world forever.   Meanwhile back at the Met Lab, six star-studded committees had already been

The Trinity Test It was 5:30 am on the 16th July 1945

The Trinity Test It was 5:30 am on the 16th July 1945

formed and were plotting regularly on how to best influence future nuclear policy.  James Franck, who along with his partner, Gustav Ludwig Hertz, won the 1925 Nobel Prize in Physics for their work in 1912–1914 supporting the Bohr model of the atom, headed the Committee on Social and Political Implications, one of the six committees.  Other Met Lab Social and Political Implications Committee members included:

  • Glenn T. Seaborg who together with Edwin Mattison won the 1951 Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for their discoveries in the chemistry of the transuranium elements”.[3]
  • Donald Hughes who specialized in neutron physics.[4]
  • James J. Nickson who influenced the handling and management of radioactive waste at Met Lab.[5]
  • Eugene Rabinowitch a Russian born American biophysicist who went on to become a founder and editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.[6]
  • Joyce C. Stearns who was the Met Lab Director between November 1944 and July 1945.[7]
  • Leo Szilard, one of the physicists who along with Einstein petitioned FDR to begin the search for the Atom Bomb, was adamant that the A-Bomb should not be used.[8]    Continue reading

The Monster Meetings of 1968

Monster meeting is a quaint, old-fashioned term describing protests and demonstrationsprotest_monster_meeting and 1968 was a vintage year.  Lately I’ve been thinking about the incredible impacts of the 1968 demonstrations and musing about my time in Australia where I spent that fateful year.  Maybe it was the January 30th anniversary of the Tet Offensive in Vietnam or, perhaps, it was the recently released National Security Archive cautionary tale of the Tlatelolco Massacre before the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico.[1]   Mostly, however, it is the recent homeschool-driven, in-depth study of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution,[2] which protects the right of ‘people peaceably to assemble’.  Around today’s world, including in the U.S. where the citizen’s rights are supposed to be protected, demonstrations by the people are being met with terrible violence.  In Australia, a bastion of several great experiments in democracy, at least one politician wants to “place the power to decide what is ‘legitimate protest’ in the hands of police”.[3]  Monster meetings are important catalysts of change.  They spark fierce debates that tear at a country’s soul and may change its direction for better or worse.  If proof is required, the protests of 1968 stand now in mute testimony.

Forty-six years ago (January, 1968), I was sweating in a blue bungalow in a new housing tract Australian Prime Minister Harold Holt with US President Lyndon Johnson.in Adelaide, South Australia reflecting on my immigration adventure and contemplating a beach day, when news of the Tet offensive in Vietnam flashed across the airwaves and through the radio to which I was half-listening.  Vietnam seemed much closer in Adelaide; just an island’s hop, skip and jump away.  Australia’s political and military establishments supported the U.S., but lately its people were beginning to rebel.  I recalled the late Prime Minister Harold Holt’s battle cry, ‘All the way with LBJ’, and now wondered how this latest escalation would sit with Australians.  The month before, December 1967, Harold Holt had apparently drowned while swimming and Australia was in a political uproar.  Conspiracy theories surrounding his death were spawning like mushroom spore and growing in the same medium.  Australia’s political system was in turmoil as each political persuasion posited its ideas for Holt’s replacement and the newspapers were experiencing a windfall of storylines.

I immigrated to Australia from Africa for £ 10, and when I arrived in Sydney the government sent me to Adelaide, South Australia.  There I joined thousands of other immigrants from

Advertisement for Australian immigration

Advertisement for Australian immigration

England, the Ukraine, Europe and Colonial Africa.  Times were tough in the 1968 Australian trenches.  A disagreement between Holt’s Liberal government and the agricultural community had driven produce prices through the roof and the legacy was a terrible inflation.  During this period, my neighbors and I paid $1.00 (Australian) for a potato and shared the cost of inexpensive cuts of mutton to feed our families.  I do hope I never have to eat mutton again.   Meeting the challenges of daily life in Adelaide was not without its rewards, however.  We were a collection of immigrants who brought our recipes and our cultures to the neighborhood table.  Somehow there was always plenty of red wine and laughter, while we chased our neighbor’s escape-artist wallaby or took turns buying the local newspaper for a community read.  Maybe in Sydney, they would protest, but in Adelaide the game of survival was being played in earnest.

Continue reading

What’s Up with China and Japan?

Tension charges the Pacific rushing to fill the global atmospheric voids and drenching the

Lightning over the South China Sea (Dean Mullin)

Lightning over the South China Sea (Dean Mullin)

world’s peoples with anticipation of the first lightning strike of the storm, that violent discharge of energy that loose the bonds of war.  Friends and colleagues scattered throughout the Asian Pacific Islands are convinced that the storm, should it unleash, will begin between China and Japan.  Their opinions are echoed by no less than U.S. Pacific Command commander. “I am concerned,” Admiral Samuel Locklear, Commander of US Pacific Command, told reporters here when asked about the current state of tensions between Japan and China. “I would say that any time you have two large powers, two large economic powers, two large military powers that have a disagreement that they’re not talking to each other about, that has no clear diplomatic end state in sight, that the cost calculation can grow….”[1]  Another writer describes Japan as an ‘unsinkable American aircraft carrier’ and cites that as the red flag waving in the dragon’s face.  Are the economic and military dynamics between China and Japan the only reasons for the rising storm?  

Engagement first sino-japanese war (oil painting) (Wikipedia Commons)

Engagement first sino-japanese war (oil painting) (Wikipedia Commons)

Scholars are all over the geopolitical spectrum on Sino-Japanese history and the causes of the centuries old rift between China and japan.  Oh, the learned men and women agree on the major dates of specific milestones between China and Japan:  China’s first mention of Japan about 2000 years ago followed by cultural exchange; Japanese sovereignty and diplomatic relationship development about 400 years later and their first war 200 years after that; a long period of mutually beneficial maritime trading until the 1600s; Japanese piracy during that same time frame; and the final tearing of the Sino-Japanese relationship beginning in 1598 with Japan’s Hideyoshi’s Korean invasions through the reign of the Shoguns, World War I, World War II, the Cold War and here we are. 

After reading a selection of diverging analyses, struggling through dynastic timelines and cultural sidebars designed to drive my little engineering brain straight round the twist; it hit me that China and Japan are simply two peas fighting over the same pod.  They are the Asian Pacific long version of the U.S.’s feuding families; the Hatfields and McCoys.  It is nice to back on solid, quasi-Boolean ground with comfortable true-false options. 

O.E. Westad, London School of Economics, opines that Japan is unnerved by China’s dynamic economy, which puts Japan’s to shame.  He lays the rising tide of the Chinese youth’s resentment, bordering on hatred, of Japan back on the Chinese leadership of the 19th century. 

“…The real explanation lies further back. Japan’s rise in the late 19th century was seen as an affront by China, which had always felt entitled to the mantle of regional leadership. Mao Zedong and other founders of the Chinese Communist Party adopted these views and bequeathed them to their successors. 

 Most Chinese today therefore regard Japan’s wealth, and its position as America’s main ally in Asia, as results of ill-gotten gains. Even when the Chinese state was at its weakest, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, its elites felt that the Confucianism China had exported to its key neighbors — Korea, Japan and Vietnam — was the root of a common culture. Other countries in the “Confucian zone” were supposed to simply accept China’s natural leadership.

Beijing’s policies in the South China Sea today resemble those of the Qing empire, China’s last ruling dynasty, in the late 18th century. The emperor then, Qianlong, liked to speak to the “myriad nations” to the south as a father would address his children. Current Chinese leaders, who are exerting their influence in countries like Vietnam and Laos, echo his paternalism.

It is unlikely that China’s neighbors will appreciate this now any more than they did then. Qianlong got involved in a war in Vietnam in the 1780s that severely weakened his empire. Since then, the countries in the region have had their own waves of nationalism, often in response to Western colonialism. Indonesia, a country of 248 million, does not regard itself as “small,” even compared with a giant like China. It is bound to seek to counter China’s power unless Chinese attitudes and policies change….”[2]

Westad’s foreign policy approach has great merit[3], but the recent Japanese history of the atrocities committed in China during World War II cannot and should not be ignored.  The Japanese government continues to deny its World War II crimes in China and the U.S. did little to hold the Japanese government responsible. The Nanjing massacre, according to Japanese revised history, was a lie that the U.S. used to excuse the use of atomic weapons.  The war criminals that led the Nanjing Massacre are enshrined by the Japanese as ‘martyrs’.  Japan’s Prime Minister visited the shrine in December 2013 and his tribute and revisionist views continue to draw global rebukes.[4]  Although graphic, the world’s citizens need an awareness of the level of Japan’s atrocities at Nanjing between December 1937 and February 1938.[5]  Continue reading

China: A Morphogenetic Creation

[Author’s Note: A special word of thanks is due John Malch and the Webmaster at the Full-Spectrum-Dominance docking site for forcing the questions that needed asking.]

For 2,000 and more years China lived under imperial rule.  China’s silk, tea and the sciences

The Qing Dynasty ruled China from 1644 to 1911. (Source: Shutterstock / Hung Chung Chih )

The Qing Dynasty ruled China from 1644 to 1911. (Source: Shutterstock / Hung Chung Chih )

brought home to Europe by Western explorers donated fuel to restart the engine of Western civilization after the dark ages.  Thanks to China’s development of the compass, gunpowder, paper making, and printing,[1] we in the West  have been able to find ‘the war’, wage it, record it and get the word out to everyone else about how well it all went.  Like any other large central government, Chinese imperial rule bred massive corruption, a military turned inward on the people, a nanny-state to keep the citizenry predictable and rebels easily identifiable, and the required surveillance to calm the state’s paranoia.  And then, in 1912, the 2,000 years of imperial rule was over; ousted by a few insiders that liked the ring of the word ‘republic’.


The three-year old Pu-Yi, Emperor of China (standing); his father, Prince Chun, and his younger brother.

The three-year old Pu-Yi, Emperor of China (standing); his father, Prince Chun, and his younger brother.

The embryo of the Chinese republic was an interesting hybrid.  As the cells of the new body politic came alive, “the embryological processes of differentiation of cells, tissues, and organs and the development of organ systems according to the genetic “blueprint” of the potential organism and environmental conditions”[2] began to unfold; the morphogenetic creation that is China today was underway.  China’s imperial rule ended bathed in corruption rather than blood.  The Qing/Manchu Dynasty’s Aisin-Gioro PuYi, China’s last emperor, abdicated the Dragon Throne by proxy; the Empress Dowager Longyu, the mother who adopted him, signed the paperwork.

The Set-Up

China was up to its imperial neck in debt when the toddler, PuYi, assumed the Dragon Throne in 1908.  Foreign entanglements, particularly with Britain, had “humbled the Qing in

Sun Yat-sen (seated, second from left) and his revolutionary friends, the Four Bandits, including Yeung Hok-ling (left), Chan Siu-bak (seated, second from right), Yau Lit (right), and Guan Jingliang (關景良) (standing) at the Hong Kong College of Medicine for Chinese.

Sun Yat-sen (seated, second from left) and his revolutionary friends, the Four Bandits, including Yeung Hok-ling (left), Chan Siu-bak (seated, second from right), Yau Lit (right), and Guan Jingliang (關景良) (standing) at the Hong Kong College of Medicine for Chinese.

battle, carved out rich territories and extracted huge payments”[3]. The imperial goods were pawned for state income because income from other sources had slowed to a trickle. Provinces separated from the empire, citizens revolted and demanded a republic.  The revolutionaries were rewarded on October 10, 1911 in Nanjing when Sun Yat-sen was installed as the first president of the Republic of China. In a last ditch effort to regain central control, General Yuan Shikai became the court appointed prime minister.  General Yuan Shikai wasn’t overly attached to the idea of a republic but he did want the Qing dynasty gone by whatever means necessary.

General Yuan Shikai (1859-1916)

General Yuan Shikai (1859-1916)

Shikai made an offer the imperial family could not refuse.  When faced with beheading, Empress Dowager Longyu, Prince Yikuang, and the Empress Dowager’s head eunuch, Xiao Dezheng each took over $1.6 billion in silver to the bank.  The rest of the royal court was given the leave-or-lose-your-head option only.  PuYi left the Forbidden City, and as he grew into manhood ruled a Japanese controlled corner of North East China briefly.  Later, Chairman Mao allowed PuYi to work in the Botanical Gardens until his death in 1967, from complications of kidney cancer and heart disease.  We know this history through Jia Yinghua’s, The Extraordinary Life of the Last Emperor.[4]  An historian and former government official, Yinghua, compiled the fascinating history of China’s pivot point between imperial rule and a republic from the secret archives at Zhongnanhai, the Chinese leadership compound, and from interviews with relatives of the imperial courtiers. Continue reading

A Christmas Island Tale

Dedicated to the Memory of Jack Livingston (1921-2007) and all the other ‘Rocket-Men’ of the Pacific

Jack Livingston told me about Christmas Island.  He’d been there in the 1960s with Holmes &

Christmas Island is the largest coral atoll in the world, measuring 248 square miles (642 square kilometers) including a large infilled lagoon. (Image courtesy NASA Earth Observatory.)

Christmas Island is the largest coral atoll in the world, measuring 248 square miles (642 square kilometers) including a large infilled lagoon. (Image courtesy NASA Earth Observatory.)

Narver preparing the abandoned island for the scientists, engineers and technicians who would run the atmospheric nuclear tests that were part of Operation Dominic.  It was the late 1980s when Jack told me his tale.  He was sitting in his office on Johnston Island and I had wandered in from down the hall to see him.  Before we venture to Christmas Island, there are some things you ought to know about Jack.

Jack managed ‘real property’ on Johnston Atoll and did so in accordance with the Air Force regulations on such things.  Holmes & Narver, the company we both worked for, was a Department of Energy, DOE, Management and Operating Contractor, but on Johnston Island, we worked for the Air Force.  Of course, an on-island DOE Contracting Officer Technical Representative made certain the contract

Mike Boat

Mike Boat

boundaries were maintained.  I was in Jack’s office because a rule change that expanded the definition of real property was being met with some resistance.  Jack was not happy.  He kept track of all real property on 3X5 ruled index cards and his space looked like a rogue library card catalogue.  If, however, you needed a 40-year old propeller for a Mike Boat, Jack could produce one in no time from one of the many places he squirreled away inventory.

Jack had his back to me as I walked into his office.  He was in uniform; an Aloha shirt-out-and a pair of Bermuda shorts, brown shoes, white socks.  Our offices were inside an old, windowless, steel building.  The mish mash of ages and types of fluorescent lights coupled with the smell of ancient paper in a humid environment provided a unique ambience.  Jack growled at me about having to keep track of chairs on an island.  He was old then, mid to late 60s, wizened and bent with curly gray hair and a yellowed complexion from too many bouts with his liver.  His face bore deep furrows born of 40 years of curing in the tropical sun.  I suggested we procure an automated property management system like the government wanted us to do.  He turned then, and I braced for the onslaught.  The old curmudgeon was smiling but there was an edge in his voice as he commanded me, “sit”.  I sat, struggling to remember I was supposed to be the boss and in charge.  Jack advised me that he and a small team had prepared, inventoried and cataloged Christmas Island for nuclear testing in a very short time period without so much as a telephone and certainly no damn computers. Continue reading

A Bikini Night

Sunset over lagoon at Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands, Micronesia.

Sunset over lagoon at Bikini Atoll, Marshall Islands, Micronesia.

Those who know me are aware that I am a slow learner – a pedantic, trudging engineer who likes toys and shiny things.  It is a thread woven through the fabric of my being.  In the late 1990s, I had the privilege of attending the big Atlas Foundation meeting back East courtesy of an innovative free thinker, Ricardo Valenzuela.  Among those people, I found myself at home with the ideas and philosophies that had nettled my soul and kept me restless for decades before and I knew for a certainty that I was not alone with my books and philosophy.  Many of the people I met and admired were going on from the Atlas conference to the Mont Pelerin Society meeting. My chosen profession, Cold War itinerant engineer supporting the government, was a source of unabated internal conflict; the locus of my personal philosophy at odds with the locus of my profession.

A few days ago I read Alberto Benegas-Lynch, Jr.’s article On Selling Classical Liberalism in this month’s The Freeman published by FEE.  As a former board member of the Mont Pelerin Society, it seemed reasonable that he might provide some insight in how to communicate ‘my’ thoughts without someone throwing something at me.  The insight was definitely there.  Benegas-Lynch’s observations on the difference between selling goods and ideas were as clear as the finest crystal and as well crafted.  Why did understanding come now, when I am well into my sixth decade, rather than the time I most needed it – on Bikini when Charles asked me for advice and I had little to give.

As the day surrendered its light and heat that summer in 1991, the stars reported to their appointed posts to cast the world in a less harsh relief.  About an hour earlier, I had left my teammates barbecuing the tuna caught on the last trip out in the boat.  I set out from the project camp at a good clip headed for my favorite spot on the ocean side of the north end of Bikini Atoll. It was a bit of a hike and no one would miss me for a long time; tales and beer were already flowing and the fish was on the barby. It was a rare chance for private reflection.  The outer reef broke the waves and the tide was low.  The tidal pool I occupied was warm and the gentle surges from the great Pacific soothed my tired, aching body.  My mind focused on what I would say to Charles the next day. But wait, there’s more!

On Building Artificial Reefs (Just For fun)

The alarm in my Johnston Island[1] second floor apartment rang promptly and unceremoniously at 0300 hours but by then I was already on my second cup of coffee. Running to shut down the noisy

Johnston Atoll. The reef  was in the dark blue ocean in the foreground.

Johnston Atoll. The reef was in the dark blue ocean in the foreground.

alarm clock beside my bed, I crashed to the floor. So much for not waking the neighbors, thought I. Grace has never been one of my long suits. Only the power and water plant operators, the Master Sergeant, MSgt, and I were up at that unholy hour.  The operators were always present with coffee and food available. Abruptly, I decided to complete my work at the power plant. I smiled as I left the apartment and heard the MSgt urging the troops to formation in his ever gentle voice, the tone and texture of which would make a grizzly bear envious. Seated in my usual spot at the power plant work table, reassured by the regular rhythm of the fly wheels, fortified by a cup of hot, strong coffee and a plate of loco moco, I was finally ready to review the plans for the reef dump scheduled to begin at the turn of the tide.

Having no reef dump experience, I was determined not to overlook anything. This reef dump had been two years in the making. A dangerous series of dives to verify the location and inventory species had been conducted almost exactly two years ago to the day. Johnston Atoll is a series of natural and man-made coral islands growing from the top of an old volcano, which is outlined by a

protective reef. Inside the lagoon it is peaceful and beautiful. Outside the lagoon the story is quite different. The ocean’s bottom drops off smartly as soon as one exits the protected lagoon. In fact the tangent to any given point on the slope of that old volcano approaches one; it is very steep.

What we were attempting to do!

What we were attempting to do!

Although my staff boasted of having several divers with industrial certifications, this was a specialty dive that employed contracted personnel. The rapid change in depth, differing salinity levels and temperatures meant the currents were wild and unpredictable.

Completion of the proposed reef site studies marked the advent of the project’s age of paper. Reports, proposals, equipment excess lists, justifications, and study documents were prepared into tidy packages and sent to a range of approvers; the Department of Energy, the US Air Force, Federal Fish and Wildlife Service, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Everybody got everything. Everyone who received the package sent it to their staffs and each staff person, so as not to be out-done, commented on their own material and everyone else’s material as well.

Suggestions, improvements and checklists flowed like water in the lagoon. Q: Had we looked at Tinian, Guam, and Florida’s lessons learned? A: Yes, but we would review them again. Q: Could we affix the forklifts and frontend loaders to the barge? A: Not really, if they were being used to push stuff over the edge but we would check into a restraining harness arrangement. S: More study was required. A: Okay what? We studied the sea animals, flora, temperatures, salinity, outcroppings, caves, and migrations. What else would you like studied? S: You are in operational control, you

Boobies watching people (photo courtesy Lindsey Hayes USFW)

Boobies watching people (photo courtesy Lindsey Hayes USFW)

determine the scope, we feel there is inadequate study. A: Okay, how about we look at whether or not the lagoon based flora and fauna use the area outside of the lagoon? S: Excellent! A: Done!  And so it went, iteration after iteration until the tide was stemmed and a checklist was agreed upon. The day was finally here.

For weeks the staff had been preparing the items to be dumped. Running a very active island on a shoestring budget means equipment comes from whoever wishes to give it to the program. Better funded programs give away perfectly good old stuff and, on Johnston Island, we were always grateful to receive it. Because we had older stuff, the stuff had a shorter life cycle and so we had lots and lots of goodies for the artificial reef dump.  Excessed equipment like cherry pickers and cranes were stripped and burned. Trucks and other vehicles also had to be denuded of anything harmful or hazardous and burned. Stuff that might float had to be cut so that it would not. The work had been time consuming and painstaking but it had been done well. Several hundred tons of excess was cleaned and loaded onto the barge along with the frontend loaders and forklifts to shove it overboard; firmly harnessed, of course. Everything was waiting.

Dawn on Johnston Atoll that day found a flotilla of small vessels and a big barge making good progress exiting the lagoon. Standing on the barge, I marveled at the thin columns of clouds that stood from sea surface to the sky circling the horizon. As the columns turned pick, then red in the light of the rising sun, I was reminded once again of feeling like I was living within an ancient Greek temple to some illusive water god. Back to the task at hand, we picked up some onlookers. A pod of Pacific Bottle Nose dolphins was curious about what we were doing. Since EPA as well as Fish and Wildlife official observers were on one of the smaller VIP boats, we refrained from feeding them from the fish buckets we brought for that purpose. We’d drop the fish offering off to the dolphins later. An offering to our sea brothers and sisters was a tradition of our team.

After two hours, all the officials were satisfied we were at the correct location. In spite of the buoy, measurements were taken and the location was ‘precisely’ determined so that all signatures could attest that their makers had witnessed the process. The frontend loaders and forklifts, in full harness, began the difficult and dangerous task of pushing the skeletal hulks of the excess over the side to begin a new life as a fish habitat. The work continued all morning as the equatorial sun beat down on us unmercifully.

The dolphins, however, thought we were having a party and jumped, skid and chirped with joy. They seemed particularly attached to a game of following each piece discarded over the edge to its final resting place on the sea floor. Then they were back for the next one. Work was suspended for about an hour when a pod of whales with young showed up to find out what was happening. We

View from the Waikiki Club

View from the Waikiki Club

were worried that the youngsters’ curiosity brought them too close to the edge of the barge. It took us a while but we all got organized so no one would get hurt. Shortly after lunch, the VIPs and other officials departed. For the next several hours, it was just us; the workers, the dolphins, the whales and a few other curious fish. It was quite a team. The job was finally over at dusk, we offered our buckets of fish to the delight of dolphins and whales alike, and we turned our tired tails home to the island. That night we laughed and relived the day at the Waikiki club soaking up the sea breeze close to the lagoon.

Johnston Atoll was a very busy little island and the artificial reef building experience quickly faded into the background noise. Eighteen months later, though, the contract to study the effectiveness of the artificial reef was executed. The divers returned, took their lives in their hands and re-visited the reef site. Nothing was there. Absolutely nothing! Apparently, the reef materials hit the side of the mountain and just kept rolling. Somewhere in the great depths of the Pacific at the base of a very old volcano is a big pile of stuff. Recently I’ve learned that deep reefs are also wondrously rich with marine life and I hope that the excess material we provided is a good home to many species of flora and fauna.

[1] Johnston Atoll National Wildlife Refuge; Johnston Atoll National Wildlife Refuge is located in the central Pacific Ocean, 717 nautical miles west-southwest of Honolulu. The refuge is managed for 14 species of breeding sea birds and 5 species of wintering shorebirds, and for its coral reef and diverse marine organisms, including the threatened green turtle. http://www.fws.gov/refuges/profiles/index.cfm?id=12515

Are the Philippine Bases Back in the Inventory?

A couple of years ago the government contractor rumor fly wheel began to spin the yarn that military bases in the Philippines were being resuscitated. Fantastic as it seemed at the time, it may be so; at least for Subic Bay and Clark AFB. The Hill’s Carlos Munoz said …“The deal to reopen Subic Bay and Clark Air Force Base was struck during Dempsey’s visit to the Asia-Pacific region to

An aerial view of the station and, to the left, Naval Air Station, Cubi Point. 1 Jan 1990; PH1(NAC) DAVID R. SANNER

An aerial view of the station and, to the left, Naval Air Station, Cubi Point. 1 Jan 1990; PH1(NAC) DAVID R. SANNER

attend the Shangri-La defense talks held in Singapore last Saturday…” (06/06/12).[1] More recently, The New York Times Asia Desk ran a Floyd Whaley piece confirming that “…A subsidiary of a major U.S. defense company is bidding on ship repair and logistical support contracts, and the Philippine Department of National Defense has reserved large portions of the former base for future use by the Philippine military and its allies, principally the United States.” (April 26, 2013).[2] If it is true that the U.S. and the Philippines kissed and made up, it is good news for U.S. Pacific forces stuck on vulnerable pieces of land like Guam.

It seems like only yesterday, I was dealing with an antsy Johnston Atoll Base Commander, an Air Force Colonel, preparing for General McPeak’s visit. The general was on the return leg of a visit to the Philippines to decommission Clark Air Force Base, located about forty miles northwest of

Mount Pinatubo eruption from Clark AFB

Mount Pinatubo eruption from Clark AFB

Manila. General McPeak’s airplane was also carrying the last Clark AFB commander and his wife back to the U.S. For Johnston Island, General McPeak was a big deal; a four-star general, chief of staff of the US Air Force, and a decorated Vietnam fighter pilot combat veteran.

It is no small wonder that the Johnston Island Base Commander was worried about everything from flag protocols to FOD, Foreign Object Debris. Air Force service members are, in general, obsessed with FOD on runways and taxiways because it breaks airplanes. The Base Commander took FOD to a whole new level when he directed a full sweep of the island accompanied by stain removal. Roads, sidewalks, maintenance yards, and parking lots were spit polished and gleaming in the tropical sun; a shining city with no hill. In preparation for the visit, the fruit and snacks were inspected and re-inspected and the tour route of the environmental remediation projects was arranged and re-arranged. Island residents, civilian and military, were washed and re-washed before donning their Sunday best. I was relieved when General McPeak and the others finally landed and taxied to the terminal.  General McPeak was a tightly packed, no nonsense, squared-away general. Following introductions, the premier tour commenced immediately. The only departure from the itinerary was that I, as the contractor manager, was assigned to take care of the Clark Base commander’s wife’s dog. Bummer, I got to step and fetch it to every whim of a cool canine while our base commander drank Tums.

By late afternoon, the visit was all over and the general’s jet was serviced, cleaned, re-provisioned and ready to fly. If the tour had gone well, we’d be celebrating at the Waikiki club at the edge of the lagoon by sunset. If not, we’d be drowning our sorrows at the same location. We contractors huddled outside the debriefing room waiting for a sign; white smoke for all clear or black smoke for trouble. The general made no comment on the touted plutonium clean-up project, the unique Agent Orange RCRA Part B facility, the innovative weathered diesel project, or the JACADS operation. In fact the only thing he said was that Johnston Island looked like a gypsy camp. We were not properly painted in accordance to Air Force Facility Standards. And so the base commander worried about his future and the contractors drowned their sorrows.

In the overall scheme of Cold War (1947-1991) phytoplankton, Johnston Island was too small to be seen with the unaided eye. The Philippine base closures were, by contrast, significant.  The Navy’s Subic Bay and the Air Force’s Clark AFB, have histories that go back to the Spanish Colonial period. The Philippines was a well-documented key player in WWII’s Pacific theater.  The advent of the Cold War ushered in a whole new era of military service. Michael Haydock’s article in VFW Magazine provided an outstanding overview of the lay of the Cold War landscape, “The Cold War in Asia took place in a vast theater. It stretched from the icy waters north of Japan—where a downed flier could freeze in six minutes to the muggy jungles of the Philippines and beyond to the desert wastes of the Australian outback. In many instances the duty, necessary and often dangerous, was little-known or even secret from civilians at home.”…

What began as support to the Filipino fight with Communist led rebels, the Hukbalahap (Huks), the military arm of the Communist Party of the Philippines, taking advantage of an emerging nation ended with a vital role providing forward base support to Vietnam.  The U.S. faces increasing challenges from China, North Korea and other Asian players. The current Pacific military base locations are either too far away, such as Hawaii, or too close, such as Guam and Japan. The Philippines is in the ‘Goldilocks’ zone, which offers sufficient time to launch a counter-strike in the event of a missile attack.  Clark Air Base’s runways can land the largest U.S. military airplanes and Subic Bay, once the largest American overseas military base in the world, has a harbor capable of handling submarines and the largest naval vessels.[3] If the goal can be realized, bases in the Philippines are an excellent investment.

There is trouble in paradise, however. It seems the U.S. government cannot keep its word to the Philippines. According to Philippines Politics Buzz, “While the Philippines keeps hoping for USA to come for a rescue and honor the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) during the china’s (sic) invasion in Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, USA opted not to side with the Philippines but take its neutral stance proving that the USA-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty is futile. The very important decision of USA proves that they could not honor what they have signed for the Philippines.”… [4] This decision will, no doubt, lead to re-examination of the wisdom of dealing with the U.S.

On July 29, 1991, Ted Galen Carpenter issued the Cato Institute Foreign Policy Briefing No. 12: The U.S. Military Presence in the Philippines: Expensive and Unnecessary.[5] I disagreed with Carpenter then, and I disagree with him now that I have re-read the discussion. I have never bought either the ‘diminishing threat’ or ‘implausible missions’ concepts in Asia. The Pacific is an enormous theater and there are not too many places to hide. The U.S. has a decreasing military land base from which to maneuver. The Philippines is an excellent, strategically located base for operations, if they can be convinced the U.S. government is a faithful ally. Why is it that both the Islamic extremists and Communists are so hot to trot for a Philippines takeover? Islamic extremists do not comprehend western civilization. China is not a friend of western civilization and they are increasing their military presence. With the world swirling in a geopolitical maelstrom, one would think the least the U.S. government could do is keep its word, for once.


[1] The Hill; Carlos Munoz; 06/06/12; The Philippines re-opens military bases to US forces; http://thehill.com/blogs/defcon-hill/operations/231257-philippines-re-opens-military-bases-to-us-forces-

[2] The New York Times; FLOYD WHALEY; April 26, 2013; Shadows of an Old Military Base; http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/27/world/asia/27iht-subic27.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

[3] Business Insider; Robert Johnson; June 8, 2012; The US Will Open Massive Philippine Bases Not Occupied Since The Cold War; http://www.businessinsider.com/the-us-is-reopening-massive-philippine-military-bases-not-used-since-the-cold-war-2012-6

[4] Philippine Politics Buzz!; Philippine close deal for ISRAEL MISSILE SYSTEM after USA dishonored MDT for China’s invasion in Scarborough; http://pinoypolitikas.blogspot.com/2013/06/philippine-close-deal-for-israel.html

[5] Cato Institute Foreign Policy Briefing No. 12:The U.S. Military Presence in the Philippines:Expensive and Unnecessary; Ted Galen Carpenter; July 29, 1991; http://www.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/pubs/pdf/fpb012.pdf