Stepping Back in Time: WWII History in Maloelap

WWII ruins maloelap marshall islands

Escape Mission! Some very altruistic friends loaned us their spare outboard so we could get the heck out of Majuro. We had ten days with the foster kicker, so we kept our jaunt semi-local and made for Maloelap Atoll just 100 miles to the north. We took care of formalities in the southern corner of the atoll, but a fellow kiter had shared some waypoints with us back in Fiji and conditions were lining up for his all-time favourite spot, so we upped the anchor after a few days and moved to the other end of the lagoon. The spot was as good as promised, but it would be out of sorts for us to go too long without breaking something, and after a number of purely epic kiting days our trusty 12 meter kite bit the dust, essentially halting our fun and leaving us to seek out alternate activities.

Wandering into the jungle was initially a strike mission for firewood- the landowners of the small uninhabited islet had given us the go-ahead to collect and burn at will as long as we were responsible and tidy. We beached the dinghy and clamoured up the eroding shoreline, past the façade of pandanus and into the shade of the seemingly nondescript forest of coconut trees. What had been completely invisible from the boat, however, and what the landowners had entirely failed to mention, is that we had just stepped onto a sprawling and shockingly intact Japanese military installment. The Marshalls are home to a host of WWII ruins from their time spent serving in the Pacific Theatre and it’s not unusual in particular atolls to come across a relic or two, but this was, to say the very least, unexpected. The sun was setting quickly so we gathered enough sticks to start a fire and relocated to a nearby sandspit where we promptly revised the next day’s agenda.

The compound that once served as a power station was sitting on unusually undulant ground; small hills and valleys that you would find nowhere else made little geological sense, raising a million questions as we walked what could only be described as a ridgeline towards the main building. Standing on the threshold of the looming structure we faced an overwhelming episode, seemingly suspended in time, and timidly tiptoed around the exterior. Curiosity ultimately got the better of us and with somber but unrestrainable excitement we passed through a doorway, stepping carefully into another time, whispering as though we might wake up a sleeping war. The ground level had been thoroughly burned and the blackened walls stripped of their tiles that now lay on the floor, heaped together with a more recent layer of coconut shells. Concrete from the ceilings had been violently cast downward, and the once smooth walls were peppered with holes of obvious origin. A utility room still housing its water heater sat adjacent to a kitchen with traditional Japanese ovens, and a bathroom where someone had thoughtfully arranged the shattered porcelain plumbing fixtures along the rim of a tub. At the centre of this all was a wide, sunlit stairwell to the second level, and despite heavy emotions it was hard not to appreciate the architecture. Upstairs was, in strange contrast, a room brightly lit by blown-out windows and a roof perforated by mortar strikes, where determined trees and vines growing skyward appeared to both consume and preserve the building. No one had removed the rubble. No one had roped off dangerous areas. It had been abandoned, left as it was at the height of the war, and forgotten.

Back outside we discovered more buildings; mostly fuel and water storage, a pump house, and foundations demonstrating the accuracy of airstrikes. The hills and valleys that were at first so puzzling started to add up as forcefully moved earth, either by detonation or as an effort to create a barrier. From the top of one of the mounds we caught a glimpse of yet another structure and made our way over to discover a bunker tucked along the shoreline, hidden within the trees alongside an anti-aircraft gun aimed out over the lagoon.

The tide had gone out since we landed on shore, exposing most of the seaward reef, and we made time for one last venture before heading back to the boat. The coral plateau was long dead and revealed little of interest, but just as we called it a day and turned back towards the dinghy my foot kicked something into a tide pool. I bent down and picked up two heavy metal objects roughly the size and shape of a finger, rusted and deformed, though clearly recognizable as ammunition and still possessing the unmistakable smell of explosives.

No book or movie could ever prepare someone for how rattling and how awe-inspiring it is to walk through such a preserved piece of history. The locals have more or less left it alone, using it only to store the refuse from copra processing, and the jungle seems to be the last man standing as it slowly reclaims its rightful land. There are live rounds scattered throughout the handful of islands involved in the war, so if you find yourself lucky enough to stumble upon this or another site, tread carefully.

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