by Jim Haw
Originally published at ScientificAmerican.com
The tiny island of Peleliu (5 square miles) is the second most southerly state of Palau — we reached it in 50 minutes on a very fast boat from the capital of Koror.
In September 1944, U.S. Marines and U.S. Army soldiers invaded this island in what was supposed to be a quick and straightforward operation to take Peleliu’s airstrip in support of the upcoming Philippines campaign. What ensued was two months of the worst fighting of the war as the Japanese shot back from tiny caves rather that consume themselves in self-destructive countercharges.
The United States’ casualties on a percentage basis were among the highest in history. Nearly all of the Japanese defending the island were killed. A few surrendered — the last small group in 1947. The island proved to be of no strategic value for the remainder of the war. The Americans moved on. But Palau remains indebted to the U.S. military; a few weeks ago another Palauan solder in the U.S. Army was killed in combat operations in Afghanistan.
Almost 67 years after the Battle of Peleliu we pulled up to the tiny dock on the northern end of the island. Approximately 600 Palauans live on Peleliu now. It is not the most isolated place on earth, but it is a remote outpost in a tiny republic in a vast ocean. We were expecting that World War II tourism would be central to the island’s economy. Two battered tour vans eventually arrived, and we loaded in.
In Palau everyone is related to someone else, and employment opportunities sometimes flow from one’s relationship to the state governor, who is a generation or so from being a chief. This system is sometimes not as efficient as a meritocracy, and the guides were not on top of their game. To be fair, a decent understanding of history requires a lot of context, and how do you get much context living your entire life on Pelileu?
The war museum, a half-blasted concrete and rebar Japanese command building, was fascinating — it is stocked largely with disintegrating Japanese weapons and artifacts recovered from the jungle after decades in situ. The jungle trail up Bloody Nose Ridge was loaded with more wreckage and personal artifacts of the conflict, mostly Japanese. Still, something else was going on. Our vans would start down one road, stop in place, turn around and then drive to some other part of the island without much explanation or communication. One of the guides barked orders at our students.
Peleliu is not betting its future on military history tourism — Peleliu is a marijuana plantation. Raids every month or so by Palauan authorities seize hundreds or sometimes thousands of plants, but the news stories usually conclude by reporting that no arrests were made and no citations were issued. Palau is proud of the fact that there are no guns in their country. On May 3, 2011, a man on Peleliu was beat to death with a baseball bat. The local news reported several days later that the suspect had not been apprehended and his whereabouts were unknown.
Is the marijuana cultivation on Peleliu meeting local demand or being driven by consumption in other parts of the world? Taking a short cut between our hotel and our diving operation one night in Koror we passed through a set of simple houses with an atmosphere heavy in marijuana smoke — but the residents of these improvised dwellings were not paying top dollar to drive any illegal industries.
Peleliu has become a battleground in another international conflict — drug trafficking from environmentally sensitive regions to the more-populated, industrialized world. And that airfield that so many American marines and soldiers died for finally has a strategic purpose — flying those illegal drugs out of Peleliu.
Dr. Jim Haw is Ray R. Irani Professor of Chemistry and director of the Environmental Studies Program in USC Dornsife. He is also a scientific, technical and recreational diver.