Follow the dedicated team trying to make thousands of unexploded wartime bombs safe on the Pacific islands of Palau.
Tuesday, May 21, 2013 - 21:31

The beautiful sandy beaches and blue seas of the Pacific islands of Palau reveal little at first glance about the bloody battle between the US and the Japanese that took place there in the Second World War.

But in fact the legacy of the fighting is hidden everywhere, with thousands of unexploded bombs and grenades lost in the undergrowth and hidden in caves.

David Brill reports on the effort to find and remove them; 23,000 explosives have already been cleared in the past three years.

Not only are the bombs potentially lethal to locals and the huge number of tourists, they're also corroding and leaking acid into the islands' pristine waters.

It's a hazardous race against time to remove them, but also an opportunity to remember what happened on the now peaceful islands nearly 70 years ago.

WATCH - Click to see David's report.

AUSTRALIAN AID - The Australian Government's AusAID is among those funding the demining in Palau, with a contribution of $4.4 million. There's more information, including an interview with Steve Ballinger, on the SBS World News Australia Radio website.



Imagine this, you set out for your well-earned holiday on a pristine Pacific Island, only to find that thousands of unexploded bombs litter the area, threatening the lives of both holidaymakers and locals. Enter a husband and wife team, backed by their dedicated staff, determined to rid the island of this deadly legacy. Here's David Brill.

REPORTER: David Brill

Beautiful Palau and its string of tropical islands is a magnet for tourists but this sparkling holiday destination hides a bloody history.

VOICE OVER: In the south-west Pacific, 500 miles from the Philippines are the Palaus. On a tiny one called Peleliu, the Japs have a good air strip. We must seize it to protect our invasion of the Philippines. We begin by softening it out, bombing it.

A ferocious WW2 battle has begun. The Japanese have fortified this strategic island and will fight to the death.

VOICE OVER: Jap mortar and artillery fire is heavy. 20 landing vehicles are knocked out, but we are on the beach.

CASSANDRA MCKEOWN, CLEARED GROUND: This is one of the famous landing beaches on 15 September 19944, the Americans swept in from out here on the reef. On the promontory just down here they hadn't realised there was a huge bunker so they were directly in the firing line when they landed.

Cassandra McKeown is a key figure in Cleared Ground, a not for profit, demining organisation. She knows this area and its terrible history well.

VOICE OVER: Casualties, 92 killed, 1100 wounded, 58 missing. 15 million rifle and machine gun bullet, 90,000 mortar shells, 150,000 field artillery shells and 125,000 hand grenades will be presented by the marine Corp to imperial Japan.

STEVE BALLINGER, CLEARED GROUND: Just over there in the mangroves there is actually probably a 100 kilogram bomb that is sticking out of the mangrove itself.

Steve Ballinger is also with Cleared Ground. They're here to clean up a legacy that's remained for 70 years and he is a de-mining expert.

STEVE BALLINGER: This one here has a little crab on it. This looks like it has been opened and the explosive has been removed or it has leaked out, one of the two.


STEVE BALLINGER: Over on the far side it won't quite reach you can see there is a hexagonal nut. That is a sea mine. We are only looking in an area around 20 foot by 20 foot and already we have five items of Ordinance.

REPORTER: It seems to me Steve that when people ring up and say I have found one, you get out here and end up finding a lot more.

STEVE BALLINGER: Yes, that is quite often the case, actually. Obviously people are concerned, they have seen an item and then we come out here and do a thorough check and generally walk away with an awful lot more. What we have actually identified already, now the tide has gone out, we have three Japanese sea mines and four aircraft bombs. They are all laying on the edge of the mangrove. Alright, any questions?

RAY: It is all good kit.


Steve and his team have been working here for four years. They have removed 23,000 explosives.

REPORTER: Coming from here, and doing this now, surprised so many Ordinances are left around?

RAY: Yeah, I am very surprised. Growing up of course we see them laying around, but you never know that they are this big and so many of them around.

REPORTER: Alright, Ray, good luck.

RAY: Thank you. Hopefully there will be no red mist when I come back.

It is dangerous heavy work carried out in extremely hot and humid conditions.

GOVERNOR LAYLANI REKLAY: More than everything we are starting to realise the dangers, not only to the people but to the environment.

Governor Laylani Reklay says the rusting relics threaten not only the locals but the economy as well. Palau's tropical islands and spectacular diving lure tourists from all over the world.

GOVERNOR LAYLANI REKLAY: Tourism being, as you can see, being our main industry, maybe the only industry that is bringing in new dollars into the economy. A lot of the Ordinance are in the areas where the visitors are going to.

REPORTER: If something happens...

GOVERNOR LAYLANI REKLAY: And something happens;

REPORTER: It will destroy the industry.


And for the Governor the issue is personal.

GOVERNOR LAYLANI REKLAY: People getting her limbs blown off or dying altogether. My grandfather had both of his hands blown off from the activity. I guess they knew some of them were still live but they tried to disassemble them and;



And here is the environmental problem that the Governor mentioned.

REPORTER: What is that stuff?

MAN: Acid.

REPORTER: That is acid, is it?

MAN: Yeah.

REPORTER: Poison acid going into the rivers, hey?

MAN: Mm.

REPORTER: Not good.

MAN: Not good at all.

REPORTER: So you got four of them this morning?

MAN: Four here. We have just got another report that there is two more down in that area.


MAN: We are going to go and get those two.


MAN: Yeah.

REPORTER: Never ends.

MAN: Never ends. The acid inside, even after all of these years it is still active. We still want to get rid of them. That is the main thing that is destroying the mangrove areas here. I mean a lot of the mangrove crabs, food that the local people eat here..

As the team is retrieving this massive bomb, they receive a call from this area.

REPORTER: Where did you find it?

WOMAN: Right there, next to the tree.

REPORTER: This is it here, right?

WOMAN: Yeah.

REPORTER: And this is your son?

WOMAN: Yeah, this is my son.

REPORTER: Does it worry you that he is running around here with these bombs?

WOMAN: Yeah.

REPORTER: It worries you?

WOMAN: Yeah, it worries me, yeah. Just a lot of people burning trash and stuff and I don't want to get it exploded and my son is still too young to get exposed to chemicals and stuff from it.


No sooner have we left this house than we are called to a neighbour's place where Steve's team has been busy.

REPORTER: Tell me about this stuff around here, please.

MAN: This is an American hand grenade.

REPORTER: American than grenade, yes.

MAN: And that is a mortar. That is a mortar.

REPORTER: Right. Where did you get this stuff from?

MAN: Um, this house in the backyard.

REPORTER: Near this house?

MAN: Yeah.

On this occasion, the bomb awareness message doesn't seem to have got through.

REPORTER: Are you worried about them?

BOY: No.

REPORTER: Why not?

STEVE BALLINGER: I would be pretty worried, contain high explosives, I would be pretty worried about it myself. What we are do is, I will leave a couple of guys here to secure the items. We will get the items taken away.

It is not just the land that is being cleared. The team works under water - a very complex job.

STEVE BALLINGER: Basically they have attached the lift bag.

REPORTER: That is that yellow bag?

STEVE BALLINGER: It is an underwater recovery system so that is attached to the 1,000-pound bomb.

The company has a policy to employ and train locals. These men will able to work in the dive industry when the clearance project is finished. And now there's one less bomb for Palauans to worry about. When enough ordnance has been collected, it is very carefully prepared and then detonated from a safe distance.

STEVE BALLINGER: Firing, now!!

As well as the mine clearance, there is another reason for coming. I want to learn about a famous Australian who died here. Damien Parer was a young combat cinematographer, whose work and dedication I greatly respect.

CASSANDRA MCKEOWN: What happened was they first tried to take the promontory but they only had one tank.

Parer was killed three days into the battle as the troops pushed forward.

CASSANDRA MCKEOWN: Tanks came down this way, of course they were aiming towards this island here. Damien was behind the very first tank.

REPORTER: In this area generally where he was killed?

CASSANDRA MCKEOWN: Yes. Practically here.

REPORTER: He would have had a wonderful career, I think, he was very talented.

From here the battle raged up the hill.

VOICE OVER: That is Bloody Nose ridge in the background. Up there the Japs are heavy entrenched. That is where they will make their final stand.

If anything, here the fighting became even more intense.

VOICE OVER: There is a Jap!!

The enemy was blasted and burnt out of the caves. Like 70 years ago, the caves are still very hard to see and I can't imagine how the soldiers fought their way up here. Getting into the caves is even more difficult.

STEVE BALLINGER: The first thing we come across here is an American marine helmet and the artefacts are very important just so we can establish who was in the caves and create a sort of historical document, not just a clearance document but a historical document.

REPORTER: What else have we got here?

STEVE BALLINGER: Directly down in front of me here we have human remains. They are marked.

REPORTER: Can you pick that up?

STEVE BALLINGER: Well we tend not to disturb the human remains. We then have to do a human remains report that goes off to the President of Palau's office and then anthropologists come and test them to establish what they are American or Japanese or in fact Palauan remains who has been found inside the cave as well.

There is reason to move very carefully in here.

STEVE BALLINGER: Yes, so these are incendiary grenades as well. Some have the pins in, as we can see and others have corroded away.

REPORTER: Could they be quite dangerous if you played around with them too much?

STEVE BALLINGER: It could be extremely dangerous, but when we clear the caves, when the clearance is taking place it is one man one risk.

REPORTER: What do you mean by that?

STEVE BALLINGER: Well, we only ever have one person in the cave at any one time whilst they are conducting clearance. We can't really proceed any further. As you can see when we pan across you can see numerous fragmentation hand grenades and our clearance de-miner has come across three here which have their safety pins still in.

REPORTER: The red ones there.

STEVE BALLINGER: Yeah, so what he has done he is gagged the grenade so the safety pin can't come out.

REPORTER: It is getting very hot in here.


REPORTER: You could imagine the soldiers living here and working here, let alone seeing your colleagues now trying to get rid of all of this stuff.

STEVE BALLINGER: A pretty difficult task.

REPORTER: A very difficult task.

I was relieved to get back out into the fresh air.

REPORTER: Is it important for you to clear these caves?

STEVE BALLINGER: Yeah, it is, because Palau has a lot of tourism and a percentage of that tourism is World War II history tourism. People want to see what the fighting and living conditions were.

The echoes of battle are everywhere here. The old Japanese headquarters struggles to hold back the jungle. It's easy to imagine the frantic activity here as the Americans closed in for the kill. The monuments bear witness to the fallen.

VOICE OVER: From a tree-covered strong hold, Bloody Nose ridge has been reduced to a heap of rubble, strewn with Jap dead, over 10,000 of them. And we have what we came after - the air strip!

REPORTER: This is the strip that the fighting was supposedly all over.

CASSANDRA MCKEOWN: That is right, this is what it was all about - this is 1800 yards. This is the landing beaches over here, they swept across and then you have the ridge over here.

As we drove I couldn't help thinking about all of those who died, from both sides, for these 1800 yards.

VOICE OVER: Some of these Marines were on Peleliu for only a few hours. Some will remain forever.

It was a long time ago but at last the legacy of that fateful battle has been addressed.

ANJALI RAO: David Brill sweating it out in Palau. David tells us that Cassandra McKeown was once a trader on the London Stock Exchange. She swapped her Gucci handbag and pinstriped suit for khakis and humanitarian work because she thought there was more to life than making big profits for big banks. Who's paying for the Palau clear up? Well, the Australian Government has put over $4 million into the project. You can find out more on our website.




Original music composed by VICKI HANSEN

Still courtesy of Neil McDonald

Historical Footage clips from FURY IN THE PACIFIC

21st May 2013