PALAU -- The Republic of Palau is a tropical paradise made up of about 340 coral and volcanic islands. Its sandy beaches and dense jungles are rich in both beauty and history. Unfortunately, part of that history has left areas of this tropical paradise contaminated with unexploded ordnance.
The Marines of Task Force Koa Moana 21, I Marine Expeditionary Force, have collaborated with the people of Palau from 10-20 Oct., 2021 to help remedy that.
Today, the Republic of Palau attracts tourists from around the world with its rich marine environment, white sandy beaches and beautiful waterfalls, but 76 years ago, some of the most grueling battles of WWII were fought on these islands.
Almost 600 tons of ordnance was air dropped during these battles, along with another 2,200 tons of shelling from intense battleship bombardments. A large part of Palau’s islands and coastal waters are still contaminated with the remnants of these battles -- remnants that could pose a threat to potentially kill or injure indiscriminately.
This is where the Marines of Task Force Koa Moana 21 come into the picture. The Littoral Explosive Ordnance Neutralization (LEON) team is a new Marine Corps initiative that enables explosive ordnance disposal technicians to use specialized equipment to safely locate and identify underwater ordnance.
“We have two main goals with the task force,” said U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Wesley L. Buzzard, an explosive ordnance disposal technician with Task Force Koa Moana 21. “One is to gather imagery data for future planning and the other is to help locate and identify potential manmade mine-like objects in the proximity of the island.”
The LEON team employed a modified Emergency Integrated Life-Saving Lanyard that was equipped with side scan sonar to be able to quickly sweep large areas, as well as a SRS FUSION, which is an unmanned underwater vehicle used to record video footage and measurements of possible ordnance.
“So far, we have located five MMOs, which stand for manmade mine-like objects,” said U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Ryan D. Courture, an explosive ordnance disposal technician with Task Force Koa Moana 21. “We were able to gather video footage and measurements with the help of the FUSION, which will help us to positively identify the objects.”
“We had a lot of help from historical data of where pilots dropped mines during WWII,” added Buzzard. “We were also able to collaborate with the Coral Reef Research Foundation to look at some of the sonar data that they gathered while they searched for planes.”
Unexploded ordnance has a negative effect on sustainable development. It undermines the economic potential of the affected parts of the islands while also damaging the environment, which is important to Palau’s ecotourism and culture. A majority of the underwater ordnance is in a state of decay, causing it to leak chemicals into the ocean.
“Our main priority is to locate and remove UXO from the vicinity of high traffic areas or important infrastructures to help protect personnel and property,” said Buzzard. “We want to help the people of Palau feel safer when they're at the coast or in the water.
“I think the amount of underwater UXO in Palau and the work we’ve done out here has definitely helped validate our capabilities and shown that there is a need for LEON,” said Buzzard. “Having the capability to dive is going to play a big role in the future by increasing our ability to positively ID and remove underwater UXO.”
These collaborative events support the development of partner-nation capabilities for self-supported operations. Task Force Koa Moana 21 is designed to strengthen and enhance relationships between the U.S. and partner nations/states in the Indo-Pacific Region while remaining COVID-19 safe. Task Force Koa Moana has the unique opportunity and privilege of working with the Republic of Palau as a sign of the U.S. commitment to the people of Palau and its partners and allies in the Indo-Pacific Region.