We sneak through the tall grass and take our position behind a giant rain tree. Our mock-guns, made of scraps of rusted iron or sticks, are in battle condition. ready to attack. On our heads, in the woods around our school, some rusted helmets wear. They are World War II relics left behind by American and Japanese soldiers. Our team is Merica, our word is “America.” Hidden somewhere in the tall grass are our rivals — Team Japan.

This is a war game based on the story of a real war that took place on our island, Guadalcanal, nearly four decades ago. Our games date back to the early 1980s. We are 12 to 14 years old at St Joseph’s Catholic Secondary School in Tenaru, five miles east of Honiara, the national capital. It is a mile from the infamous Red Beach where US Marines landed in August 1942 to begin their Guadalcanal campaign.

Two miles west of the school is Bloody Ridge, named for the bloody battle between the Americans and Japanese in September 1942. One mile away is Henderson Airport, the main international airport in the Solomon Islands. It was built by the Japanese before World War II, but was taken over by the US Marines. It was later named in honor of US Marine Corps Maj. Lofton Henderson, commanding officer of VMSB-24, who was killed at the Battle of Midway.

Beyond our school fence is Hales Point. It used to be a World War II munitions depot, but is full of war relics from our childhood war games: rusted tanks, helmets, bayonets, Coca-Cola bottles, building foundations and other war memorabilia. The most dangerous are unexploded ordnance, commonly known as UXO. Hales Point is off limits to citizens.

A rusted US Marine helmet sits atop the remains of a machine gun
Remnants of World War II can be found throughout the Solomon Islands, from dog tags and helmets to tanks, planes and bombs. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat/2022

These days, I live in Honolulu, far from my childhood playground on Guadalcanal. I often think about how my old school was built on a World War II battlefield. Stories of war are etched on the landscape and documented in the ruins that litter the forests and grasslands. As children, we would retell stories from our war games, drawing on what we heard from father and read in books.

When the US and Japanese forces withdrew, they left behind sunken ships, rusted vehicles and aircraft, chemical waste, and thousands of UXO. Hales Point is now the base of the Royal Solomon Islands Police Bomb Squad and detonates many of the UXOs they acquire from there. What they find, collect and destroy is a fraction of what is there. UXOs are killing Solomon Islanders 80 years after US Marines first landed on Guadalcanal. This week the Civil Beat chronicles the UXO-related tragedies in a series of well-researched and clearly told stories.

On Monday published a story about John Manele and his 13-year-old son, Junior Dominic Butaiha, who were prepared for dinner by UXO on the outskirts of Honiara late last year. Their mother, Loretta Manelle, and her 17-year-old son, Jeffrey, were injured, but survived. Loretta is the daughter of Steven Ale from the village of Bocasugu, not far from my village on the southern coast of Guadalcanal.

After that incident, I received pictures of the dismembered body of one of the victims and messages asking if the US and Japan could compensate for their lives. My people thought that because I live and work in America, I can help. The truth is, I didn’t know what to do.

Colonial control

The Solomon Islands tragedies with UXO pose major problems. When US government officials talk about their relationship with Pacific Island countries, they often refer to World War II. The story is usually about the liberation of the islands from Japan. There are also stories of cooperation among Pacific Islanders, such as the Coast Watchers of the Solomon Islands.

What is not often talked about is how the war paved the way for the consolidation of colonial control over the islands and their use for military purposes. Some islands were used for nuclear weapons testing: the Marshall Islands and Johnston Atoll in Bikini and the US in Eniwetak Atoll; French in Moruroa and Fangataufa in French Polynesia; and the British at Maldon Island and Kiritimati Atoll in Kiribati. Kahoolawe in Hawaii was used by the US military as a bombing range.

When the US and Japanese forces withdrew, they left behind sunken ships, rusted vehicles and aircraft, chemical waste, and thousands of UXO.

They don’t often talk about the wasted war parties left behind during World War II, including UXO, and the effects they are having on the environment and people of the Pacific Islands.

In August, US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman traveled to Honiara to mark the 80th anniversary of the US Marine landings on Guadalcanal. “We remember the pain and struggle that scarred the Pacific,” she said at the ceremony. We honor the memory of those who died and were injured by unexploded ordnance and other consequences of conflict during and after the war. And we recommit ourselves to moving forward together as partners — and as true and lasting friends.”

It was good that she acknowledged the tragedies with UXO. It would have been better to announce a stronger commitment from the US and Japan to clean up UXO. As they strengthen their relationship, the US and Japan must collaborate to clean up the mess left by World War II, not only in the Solomon Islands, but also in other Pacific islands.

As I reminisce about our childhood war games between America and Japan, I think about a much bigger war game: the geopolitical rivalry between the US and China. As these world powers compete for influence over Oceania, they must help Pacific island governments, including the Solomon Islands, clean up UXO and other WWII debris. To win the hearts and minds of Pacific Islanders, the US and Japan must first undo the mistakes of the past that are killing our people.

We want a blue Pacific. No explosive Pacific.