New Push to Uncover Wartime Bombs in Solomon Islands Amid US Pacific Re-engagement

The Pacific Asia

Decades after World War II ended, the United States is still grappling with its explosive legacy in the Pacific. Amid new awareness of the importance of Pacific relationships, the United States has committed new funding to clearing unexploded bombs in the Solomon Islands.

Unexploded bombs from World War II still litter Pacific island countries decades after the conflict ended, a legacy that the State Department is now addressing with millions of dollars in new funding.   

The State Department announced in December that $1 million will go towards the launch of a comprehensive unexploded ordnance (UXO) project in the Solomon Islands in 2023.

Addressing UXO legacy issues was one of the main priorities identified in the Declaration on U.S.-Pacific Partnership issued last September, amid a sustained push by the United States to re-engage in the region.

The Solomon’s decision to sign a security agreement with China in 2022 prompted the United States to put new priority on its relationship with the country and prepare to reopen its embassy in Honiara for the first time since 1993.

The HALO Trust, which identifies itself as the world’s largest NGO dedicated specifically to landmine clearance, will receive the funding to locate and mark unexploded ordnance while providing training to the Solomon Islands police.

Hidden bombs continue to prove hazardous to Solomon Islanders, with fatalities reported as recently as May 2021. Two people were killed after arranging a cook-out in a private residential area, not realizing that an explosive was buried underneath.

Allied forces and Imperial Japan fought a series of battles between 1942 and 1943 around Guadalcanal, the largest landmass on the Solomon Islands. The Allied victories in the Solomons and in neighboring Papua New Guinea paved the way for significant offensives in the Philippines and in Okinawa which would lead to the surrender of Japan.

According to HALO, a lack of reliable survey data has hindered efforts at UXO clearance in the Solomons, leaving the local police’s disposal unit relying on the public to report bomb discoveries. Reporting frequency is variable, but tends to increase only after a new fatality has highlighted the tragic consequences of the problem.

In addition, some locals do not report discoveries to the police, instead choosing to sell unexploded devices to so-called “fish-bombers,” who use them for fishing. HALO’s approach relies on local surveying specialists who will engage with local communities to encourage proactive reporting. They will also make use of military maps with information on the locations of battlefield sites and troop deployments.

“Responding to the tragic legacy of unexploded ordnance in Solomon Islands offers an opportunity for the United States to both address a critical humanitarian challenge spanning eight decades and to enhance bilateral ties with a nation of growing geopolitical importance,” said Simon Conway, head of programme development at HALO.

US aid in UXO clearance has primarily been concentrated in Southeast Asia, where over $400 million has been spent on such activities in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia since the United States normalized relations with Vietnam in 1993.

Aaron McNicholas is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington. He is a graduate student in the MA in Asian Studies program at Georgetown University, with a concentration in politics and security.