Island of Pagan opposes plan to use it for Marine invasion training

Foes say Marines' plan to use Pagan for training will reduce the Pacific island to wasteland

The tiny Pacific island of Pagan is a lost world of deserted black sand beaches, feral pigs and huge fruit bats. Two active volcanoes, one at each end of the spoon-shaped isle, rise over a deep blue horizon.

A rusting Zero fighter plane lies near a derelict Japanese-built runway still pockmarked with craters from an American bomber attack seven decades ago in World War II.

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FOR THE RECORD

An earlier version of this post identified Jerome Aldan as the mayor of the Northern Mariana Islands. He is the mayor of Pagan and other northern islands in the Northern Marianas chain.

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Now, if the U.S. Marine Corps gets its way, Pagan will go to war again — regularly.

The Pentagon has proposed leasing the entire 18-square-mile island in the Northern Marianas to practice live-fire amphibious invasions with fleets of warships and planes, just like days of yore.

The back-to-the-beaches proposal is in response to the U.S. military "rebalance" in the Western Pacific, partly to counter China's growing clout, that President Obama announced four years ago.

Precisely why the Marines need so much training in beach assaults is unclear. They haven't done one in combat since the successful invasion of Incheon on the Korean peninsula 65 years ago.

Yet plans call for guns-blazing war games on Pagan at least 16 weeks a year. Hundreds of Marines, potentially joined by troops from Japan, Australia and South Korea, would storm ashore in landing craft, firing mortars and small arms, backed by naval bombardments, swarms of helicopters, drones, fighter jets and perhaps B-52s dropping real bombs.

The plan has sparked an outpouring of resentment toward the U.S. military, fueled by strong sentiment that Pagan's future should be determined by the people of the islands, not by Washington.

"We love our island. We don't want to give it up," said Jerome Aldan, the 40-year-old elected mayor of the Northern Mariana Islands. "This proposal is going to turn it into a wasteland."

Aldan was 6 when the eruption of Mt. Pagan forced the island's residents — about 100 families in all — to evacuate 200 miles south to Saipan, capital of the Northern Marianas, a U.S. commonwealth territory. The military, he fears, will turn Pagan into a war zone and kill the families' decades-old dream of returning.

Marine Corps officials say Pagan is the only island available with beaches large enough for major amphibious maneuvers. They would repair the old Japanese runway, now peppered with hardened lava, to ferry in supplies. They would set up bombing targets on the slopes of Mt. Pagan, which last spurted lava in 2010.

"This is a perfect training opportunity for us," Craig Whelden, executive director of Marine Corps Forces in the Pacific, said in an interview. "It's also a beautiful island with some endangered species. We would protect it like it was our own."

The Marines do live-fire training at many bases, and practice beach assaults with landing craft at Camp Pendleton, near San Diego, and at Camp LeJeune, N.C. But Pagan offers much more.

A draft Navy environmental impact report, released in April, says Pagan would "provide the maximum available flexibility … in a nearly unconstrained environment."

"Training units would develop a detailed plan for … amphibious assault, ground maneuvers, air, artillery, mortar and naval gunfire," the 1,300-page report says.

The report concluded that most of the effects of the live-fire exercises could be "mitigated."

With as many as 5,000 Marines due to move to Guam in the next decade, the Pentagon says it badly needs training sites in the Western Pacific.

Guam is too heavily populated for large-scale war games. Pagan, 330 miles to the north, is easily reachable by ships and aircraft.

If war returned to the Pacific, Pentagon planners say, Marines might have to fight on the beaches again. China is building its own amphibious invasion capability and has become more assertive about pressing territorial claims to islands and atolls also claimed by U.S. allies in the region.

The Pentagon already uses Farallon de Pajaros, the northernmost island in the Marianas, as a practice range for naval gunfire and bombing. Pagan would give the Marines more flexibility for training.

Some former residents want to turn the tropical island, which has rare flora and fauna, including the threatened humped tree snail, into an ecotourism resort. Some want to resume ranching or harvest copra (dried coconut meat). Some want it left alone.

The Marines counter that the two volcanoes makes resettlement too hazardous. A few homesteaders have gone back, living without sewers, schools or shops.

"It is dangerous for anyone to stay on Pagan," said Whelden, a civilian Marine Corps official who is leading talks with the Northern Marianas government.

To defuse opposition, the Marines have announced that they would scale back their plans, using inert bombs in some cases and limiting use of live bombs to a so-called High Hazard Impact Area on Mt. Pagan.

If the Marines reach a deal to lease the island, beach landings aren't likely to start before 2017. If they fail to reach an accord, local lawmakers are nervous that Congress could take the land by eminent domain under the terms of the 1975 compact between Washington and the Marianas.

Some local lawmakers have suggested that the Marines confine their training to Tinian, another island where the military already leases two-thirds of the land. The Marines could not practice full-scale beach assaults there, however.

The Pentagon has insisted it needs both islands and isn't willing to compromise.

Tinian, about twice the size of Pagan, is best known as the takeoff point for the U.S. planes that dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, ending the war in the Pacific. Today it hosts a casino, among other amenities.

The Marine Corps says its plans would bring much needed investment and jobs to the isolated and largely impoverished archipelago.

"The economy is going to benefit," Whelden said. "There's going to be hundreds of millions of dollars in construction contracts, and to the extent we can use local contractors, use local food, it will maximize the benefits."

That puts local officials in a difficult spot. The Marianas' economy has collapsed over the last decade as a once-thriving garment industry has moved elsewhere.

But opposition has grown so widespread that many here doubt that Gov. Eloy S. Inos ultimately will approve a lease.

Hundreds of residents turned out for a recent community forum at Garapan Elementary School in Saipan, and speaker after speaker denounced the Pagan plan. "Don't bomb a small island," said Stanley Torres, a former legislator.

In April, the Federal and Foreign Affairs Committee in the Marianas House voted 19-0 in favor of a resolution for Inos to "oppose any and all proposed military use of Pagan." The measure is waiting action in the full House.

"What is it that they can't understand?" Arnold I. Palacios, floor leader of the Northern Marianas Senate, asked of the Marines. "The people are saying no. They just keep saying, 'We want to bomb.'"

"We've made a stand," said Rep. George Camacho. The military assumed that "it could just plant the flag" and that "we're still savages in grass skirts," he said.

The governor has yet to announce his view. He told a local newspaper recently that he planned to meet soon with Aldan, who is leading the opposition, "to make sure we're on the same page."

Aldan went to high school in Kansas while living with an uncle who was serving in the military at Ft. Riley. His son serves in the U.S. Army. A faded U.S. Marine Corps sticker is on his dilapidated truck.

He's not about to surrender.

In a contentious meeting with Whelden, he recalled the Marines' sacrifice to free the islands from Japanese control in World War II.

"I told him, 'You liberated us. Now you are going to destroy us.'"

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