Solomon Islands Ballalae Bombers

I visited Ballalae Island in the Shortlands Island Group of the Solomon Islands while researching the 7th edition of Moon Handbooks South Pacific. The handbook's 8th edition carries this description of Ballalae:

The airstrip (BAS) serving the Shortlands is on uninhabited Ballalae Island, with access to and from Korovou by motorized canoe (30 minutes, SI$30 pp). Be prepared to get wet. There are Solomon Airlines flights from Ballalae to Gizo (159 km, SI$230) and Honiara (536 km, SI$593) twice a week.

During WW II the Japanese forced several hundred British civilian prisoners brought from Singapore to build the airstrip on Ballalae and none left the island alive. Sadly, no memorial has been erected to those who suffered and died here, and the victims have been forgotten. What can be seen are numerous vestiges of Japanese military might. Japanese propellers flank the small airport terminal, and on the short trail from the terminal to the beach you pass one wrecked plane and a half dozen Japanese trucks in various stages of decay. Three small steamrollers used to build the airport are in the bush west of the terminal and another is behind the beach.

A Japanese AA gun is between the southwest end of the airstrip and the point, but the real attraction here is the large number of wrecked Japanese planes including fighters and twin-engined "Betty" bombers. They're in the bush on both sides of the airstrip: turn right at the terminal and walk northeast about halfway down the airstrip. There, cut in on either side and search (the planes are easy to find and no guide is required). The planes are surrounded by large circular craters left by the bombs that destroyed them, and if you look long enough you might see the crumpled aluminum fuselages of several dozen aircraft, a few still in fair condition despite the years. Bring insect repellent and be prepared for black stinging ants.

In November, 2007, an American traveler and war historian, Justin Taylan, happened upon an illegal salvage operation underway on Ballalae. Solomon Islands law prohibits the export of war relics without official permission. Evidentially, such permission had not been granted, but rather than investigate Taylan's report, the authorities in Gizo arrested Taylan and three companions and charged them with immigration offenses. At last report, Taylan was still under “boat arrest” at Gizo and the looting of Ballalae continues with corrupt local officials turning a blind eye. The full story is on Justin Taylan's website Pacific Wrecks.

This reminds me of something similar which happened to me when I visited Maloelap Atoll in the Marshall Islands some years ago. Maloelap was an important Japanese base during World War Two and much war wreckage remains on the atoll. I had only one day on the atoll, and while rushing around seeing as much as I could, I noticed that many of the wrecked planes had been roped off and were surrounded by surveyor's stakes. Back at the airport, I asked an American I bumped into what was going on. He said that he was working for a Japanese museum and that the planes were being removed from Maloelap with the blessing of the local chiefs. Well, such activities are also illegal in the Marshall Islands, and upon returning to Majuro I wrote a letter to the Marshall Islands Journal protesting the pillaging of Maloelap. This sparked an investigation by the country's cultural authorities and the Americans involved in the salvage operation were arrested and deported.

The question is, should Pacific islanders be allowed to sell WWII planes abandoned on their property to foreigners for export to Japan, the U.S., or wherever? Or should the relics be protected as historic sites? One argument for removal is that the aluminum planes will eventually crumble and be lost unless they're salvaged and restored in museums or private collections. And for most island governments, preserving the vestiges of war isn't a high priority. Yet any profits the islanders might make from selling war relics is soon dissipated and potential tourist attractions are lost forever. Like other archaeological remains, war relics lose much of their value and interest when removed from their original site.

UPDATE: A report on the fate of Justin Taylan and news of the memorial created on Ballalae just after my visit is on Ballalae Bomber Whistleblowers Released

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