Tinian: ‘We Believed In America’ - 12/2016
Most of Tinian is already under lease to the military. But residents who were expecting a base may now get multiple live-fire ranges that could destroy the island’s environment and devastate its tourism economy.
TINIAN, Northern Mariana Islands — The mid-afternoon sun is oppressive as Don Farrell walks toward the aging monument.
The cluster of statues looks like it belongs in Japan, rather than Tinian, a small island in the Western Pacific north of Guam in the Mariana Islands.
But the American Memorial was actually built by Navy Seabees in 1945 after Japan surrendered, Farrell explains. The historian and educator is an expert on Tinian, once a key battle site during World War II and now a U.S. territory.
The years haven’t been kind to the monument. Termites ate the traditional wooden Japanese gate known as a torii that used to stand in its center, and someone stole its brass plaque, Farrell says.
Still, much like the rest of Tinian, the memorial holds a quiet significance.
It’s down the road from North Field, an old airfield that was built during World War II and was once the busiest airfield in the world.
That’s where the Enola Gay took off to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, changing the course of world history.
Farrell believes the American Memorial was the first peace monument built after Japan surrendered the war. But despite its historic value, “This will be destroyed,” Farrell says matter-of-factly.
The U.S. military, which already leases the northern two-thirds of Tinian, is planning to turn part of it into an artillery range, and the memorial is within the high-hazard impact zone.
The artillery range is just one of several live-fire training ranges the Navy is proposing that are expected to destroy coral reefs, obliterate forests that are home to rare birds, damage cultural sites and create big craters in the ground.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says the Navy risks contaminating the island’s aquifer, its only source of groundwater.
In 1944, North Field — previously known as Ushi Point — was the busiest in the world.
Courtesy of National Archives
The Navy’s proposal is the latest in a string of military proposals to extend or increase training on Tinian, on Pagan and on Guam.
The move is in response to years of protests from Okinawan residents against the military’s presence.
The military has long been conducting low-impact training on Tinian, where its 50-year lease isn’t up until 2033. The military also has the option to unilaterally extend its lease until 2083.
“It’s a perfect place for us to conduct training,” Whelden says.
Currently, the military trains on Tinian for only a few weeks each year, practicing ground and air operations with live-fire practice limited to snipers firing into bullet traps. But proposals to ramp up the training have been in the works for years, buoyed by the military’s stated focus on the Asia-Pacific.
In 2010, the Marine Corps proposed allowing groups of 200 Marines to conduct war games on Tinian.
The Air Force received approval this year to build an airfield next to Tinian’s tiny airport that could serve as an alternative if anything should happen to Guam’s Anderson Air Force Base.
But the Navy’s plan, the most ambitious, calls for multiple practice areas on Tinian where Marines can launch grenades, shoot rockets, drive tanks and train platoons for 20 weeks each year. The Navy has also considered extending training up to 45 weeks per year but Whelden says that would be years away and require more environmental review.