Extract from my memoirs.
The discovery of an old World War II six inch live shell placed in the machinery in the mill at the Solomon Islands Plantations Ltd (SIPL) in 1999 brought home the reality of the sleeping giant of unexploded ordinance in our midst.
The shell did not explode despite having passed through the sterilizer where the heat exceeded 140 degrees Celsius: had it been deliberately planted in the palm fruit awaiting processing? The incident also highlighted the uncertainties when dealing with old munitions.
During the height of the national crisis occurring on Guadalcanal, I took precautions to have the old WW II munitions storage area at Hell’s Point guarded, but I only became fully aware about the existing, potential danger of UXO’s after leaving the Islands: the extent of my ignorance surprised me, so I have attempted to come up to date in this chapter – or at least as far as 2011 with an overall combined opinion and commentary, so that readers can get a clear, reasonably up to date picture, as to what dangers exist here in the Islands; what is being done about it; some practical thoughts about how to handle these munitions that are – literally on the ground amongst everyone’s footsteps.
By researching into Google ‘Solomon Islands UXO’s,’ several sets of information regarding these UXO problems appear for general readership. I have combined munitions information, in part from an August 2011 study by Steven Francis and Loane Alma, with contributions added by Lorraine Kershaw.
My original eye was caught by the reference to the RSIPF and naturally…
Also, from the book ‘The small Arms Challenge in the Pacific,’ by David Capie which is an excellent read.
Assorted observations, comments, opinions are my own.
For ease of reader understanding and sensible space on these pages I have classified the following items as unexploded ordinance -- UXO’s. They range from assorted bombs, hand grenades, shells, mines: small arms ammunition as used by both American and Japanese ground troops and their aircraft: general purpose explosives of one kind or another which are not encased in outer containers such as bombs.
Include a few pill boxes, old tanks, sunken vessels; all of which are playgrounds for children, SCUBA divers, snorkellers; the curious.
Excluded from the UXO definition are original wartime made firearms, both Japanese and American; rifles, pistols, machine guns, mortars and artillery pieces of various sizes.
Excluded, also, from this section are re- build or re-worked firearms; locally made firearms, imported sporting firearms, shotguns; stolen arms and explosives from the Gold Ridge Mine premises and, of course, those modern firearms stolen from the Rove Police Armoury.
Also not covered are marine problems such as oil spills from sunken vessels and on land chemical damage due deterioration.
The word ‘weapons,’ has a slightly different, more modern meaning, in today’s world so that word is excluded; although it is widely used and interchangeable with the word firearm. However, here in the Islands things are much more laid back or even comfortably backward – after all who wants a missile weapons system here in a backyard?
The 3.5 tons of explosives and WWII munitions that were destroyed during the gun amnesty which followed RAMSI’s intervention were in fact a small part of the UXO’s which are literally lying around the Solomon Islands. However, every little bit helps.
Again, I do admit that I had given little thought, prior to the discovery of that live shell, of the vast quantity of munitions left over from the fighting on Guadalcanal during the Second World War, although intelligence reports had indicated the GRA armed militants had painstakingly made home made weapons fashioned from wartime firearms – an indication of the shortage of working order WW11 munitions.
Reports of stock piled wartime ammunition also came in, but it did not seem to be used much – who wants to be firing ammunition that has at least a 50% chance of not going off; or misfiring and jamming up a perfectly capable firearm.
Besides which a few re- built rifles along with unreliable ammunition paled against the threat of what had disappeared from the Rove Armoury at the time.
Shelf life is an expandable or expendable subject – a tin of canned food left out in the sun will expand and self destruct. The same applies to ammunition and firearms, especially explosives like gelignite which becomes very sensitive with both heat and age.
Dropped bombs still had live fuses in them that had not gone off the first time, for whatever reason – such as soft ground or angle of penetration – move them, drop them, kick them; here was their second chance to complete the job they were designed for.
I had not given proper, prior consideration to the proliferation of munitions because I had focused on necessary law enforcement. UXO’s were not my primary area of expertise – law enforcement was.
During the time I was Police Commissioner in the Islands another ethnic war was in progress in Europe, the other side of the world – the death of Marshal Tito brought about the splitting up of his Yugoslavia: the result was a nasty mini war; NATO involvement in 1999; lots of mines scattered in many undocumented mine fields – modern UXO’s.
Little was heard about this war here in the south Pacific – we were involved in our own ethnic strife at the time. Yet an interesting event happened in the Solomons in 2012.
Some 15 years after the Yugoslavia war ended HRH Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, heir to the British throne arrived for a Royal visit along with his wife the Duchess of Cambridge.
Prince William's mother the late Diana, Princess of Wales, was a principal champion of the clearing up of UXO’s, and her help pushed the 1997 Ottawa Mine Ban Treaty through the United Nations. Over 160 countries, including the Solomon Islands, became signatories to the treaty.
Yes, we have the ongoing UXO problem here – all over the Islands in much more diverse and larger quantities than anything in now named Kosovo.
Old UXO’s are nasty, dangerous objects – especially to playing children who tend to get curious around them.
In addition they are bad for commerce – new finds as recorded in the Solomon Star, Honiara, dated 23 November 2010, reported that 12 unexploded bombs had been found by construction workers at a new complex beside the QQQ Wholesale shop in Honiara’s Chinatown – 12 on one site! In a commercial district some 70 years after the war…
So what is our history of clean up here? Unfortunately, ongoing documentation is more or less in the same state as it was when the munitions were literally dropped; so updates by region and village is spotty to say the least.
In recent years cleanup work has become the responsibility of individual countries in the Pacific with training coming from mainly Australia and the USA. Based on the Honiara station in my day we had 6 trained RSIPF experts.
After RAMSI arrived that force was augmented by RAMSI staff and operations expanded throughout the Islands to a larger degree.
However, despite being discussed at consultation meetings with assorted officials in 2010, which included our then Police Commissioner, local government officials, staff from the USA Consulate and the Japanese Embassy; cleanup work has proceeded in what can only be described as standard mode, first gear.
The mix of UXO’s are much more varied than in the example of Kosovo used. Likewise the age and weather conditions has caused serious deterioration in ammunition and related explosives; including chemical substance leakage – lead, copper, zinc and that ever unstable nitro –glycerin.
WW11 ammunition usage, despite assorted reports and media exaggerations, seems to be restricted mainly to scrap metal and gun powder sales where there is profit to be made – somewhere in excess of S$1000 per litre. Insurgent usage has turned out to be more hype than fact.
WW11 firearms – scrap metal. When one thinks about it, climate conditions here in the Islands does little to encourage longevity. Leave anything alone for a while and we all know what happens…
However, the Solomon Star report, quoted, underscores about what accidents must go unreported or are not filed in a central data bank of incidents – it seems there just isn’t one.
RSIPF staff can show at various times, in their storage facilities, large quantities of miscellaneous ammunition ranging from small arms ammunition up to aircraft delivered bombs. And reports confirm that after heavy seas more ‘of the usual,’ wash up on shore.
And of course we have the ‘parachute’ media stories about reports from their ‘sources,’ claiming assorted groups having stockpiles here and there.
Back around 1998-99 an Isatabu Freedom Movement leader told one such journalist about their collection of WW11 rifles and machine guns. However, what appears not to have been mentioned by either the IFM leader or the journalist were whether these firearms would work and likewise any available ammunition.
Again in testimony to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), George Grey, a known IMF Commander, made comments supporting the belief that most ammunition was either .30 or .50 calibre, which was used in homemade guns.
Something to remember here is that we are talking about munitions in use well away from the Papua New Guinea (PNG) situation which was more intense, more involved and one could say more sophisticated as far as firearms are concerned.
Local Island journalists overall reported that they had seen very few ex WW11 firearms along with working ammo back in 1999. Police reports from the UXO section confirmed that the firearms had become mostly junk and that the biggest danger to life and limb were the explosives along with detonators.
As this mix of firearms and ammunition grows older they take on ‘camouflage’ configurations – blending with nature, so that one does not recognize what it is.
Yes there are admitted limitations as to what can be done. One argument that can be said is that for once, time is on the Islands side, as steady deterioration caused by over 70 years of Island weather and nature is taking care of things.
The one item that does stand out here though is the 50 calibre American machine gun ammunition which RSIPF units confirmed was holding up remarkably well and was being used in homemade guns and opened up to salvage the powder for general use.
I believe we know what we do have here and it is a controllable situation. Villagers know to teach their children what to look for. Village elders know their history; as to what is where and must share that knowledge.
It could be said that UXO’s are part of one’s growing up education – rather like learning to look both ways before crossing the road.
Scrap sales and old explosives for fishing is part of local commerce and survival: and supply reduction, as much as it is illegal. Large commercial developments including hotel construction know what to look for and now are required to clear all UXO’s off the property before any construction starts.
The point is that there are limited financial and manpower resources available. Should they be used to clear 70 year old deteriorating munitions? Or be used to build commercial projects such as hospitals, schools, which can advance life in a much broader way.
One thing that should be said is that we all owe a great deal of gratitude to those officers of the RSIPF and those from the regional military who have and continue to put their own lives at risk when disposing of and dealing with the old stocks of UXO’s.
To be continued ..
Policing a Clash of Cultures Part 45: UXO's - Our Ongoing Sleeper Factor.
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