Out of the Doorway the Bullets Rip...
10 May 2014 | Maleolap Atoll
The beheading station sits at the southernmost point of Taroa, a small islet along the eastern side of Maloelap in the Marshall Islands. A small patch of coconut palms sway in the gentle trades. The little white sandy isthmus reflects all the tropical turquoise one can imagine. Only 100 yards or so away from an elevated cement platform, the soothing sound of waves break on the reef. Some claim there are hundreds of human heads at the bottom of the dark hole in the center of the structure. From 1939 to 1944, Taroa was the site of a massive military buildup by Japanese forces before and during WWII despite specific international tribunal regulations prohibiting such activities. The Japanese had quietly fortified similar South Pacific atolls such as Tarawa and Butaritari in the Gilbert Islands and considered these pivotal to their campaign in the Pacific. With prison labor, two airstrips were built that criss-crossed the island. Two hundred cement buildings including heavy ammunition bunkers, giant fuel storage tanks and an impressive 3-story concrete command center encircle the airfield. When workers became resistant or were no longer needed, they were simply led out to the beheading station and dispatched. The primary function of the 3000 troops that were stationed here was to support a fleet of Betty Bombers and Mitsubishi Zero fighter airplanes--the most agile, lethal, and feared weapon of the Japanese Air Force. After the Pearl Harbor attacks, the USA concentrated efforts on removing Japanese forces from the mid-pacific. In addition to fighting the bloody battles of Tarawa and Makin, forces from Operation Crossroads began daily air raids and lobbed thousands of tons of explosives at Taroa. With Kwajelain and Tarawa now under American control, all supply lines to Maloelap were severed and in the end, two thousand Japanese died from air raids, disease, and starvation before finally surrendering to US forces. Today, coastal defense guns rust away silently at the waters edge, still aimed menacingly at the horizon, their foundations crumbling beneath them. Various mortar shells and casings lie scattered on the beaches. Betty Bombers and Zero fighters shot down in combat peek through the brush, riddled with bullet holes. The reef on the ocean side is littered with thousands of bullets in sizes ranging from 50-cal and 306, to smaller bullets about the size of a 223. Walking in the shallow water on the reef, it's hard to imagine that amount of of lead spraying around. Large bullet hole craters dot concrete bunkers with their peephole firing positions. Some larger chunks of twisted shrapnel lie just below the waters surface on hard coral - remnants of larger ordnance. On the lagoon side, with its masts still towering above the surface, lies the wreck of the Japanese ship Toroshia Maru, still rumored to have unexploded depth charges in its hold. There is an eerie feeling about the place. The kids won't swim near the wreck as they tell of a huge "snake" (or eel) that lives in the ship. But they smile and pose atop anti-aircraft guns and speak highly of the American might that liberated their island from the Japanese. In such a beautiful peaceful tropical island setting, it is difficult to imagine the point of arsenal amassed here in 1944... but the remains dominate the place. I always find myself wondering, "what must the local islanders have thought of all of this?"