; kʷuwːɔ͡ɛt̪ʲl̪ʲɪn̪ʲ; common English
pronunciation , often nicknamed Kwaj
, by English-speaking residents of the U.S. facilities) is part of the Republic of the Marshall Islands
(RMI). The southernmost and largest island in the atoll is named Kwajalein Island
The atoll lies in the Ralik Chain, 2,100 nautical miles (3900 km) southwest of Honolulu, Hawaii at .
Kwajalein is one of the world's largest coral atolls
as measured by area of enclosed water. Comprising 97 islets, it has a land area of 16.4 km², and surrounds one of the largest lagoons
in the world, with an area of 2174 km².
Kwajalein Island is the southernmost, and the largest, of the islands in the Kwajalein atoll. The northernmost, and second largest, island is Roi-Namur.
The population of Kwajalein island is approximately 2,600, mostly Americans and a small number of Marshall Islanders and other nationals, all of whom have express permission from the U.S. Army to live there.
The primary mode of personal transportation is the bicycle and housing is free for most personnel, depending on contract or tour of duty.
Current use by U.S. military
These are the two main islands used by the U.S. personnel, and their families are accommodated in trailers or hard housing. Most unaccompanied personnel live in apartment-style housing.
Since 1944, when American forces captured the atoll from the Japanese in the Battle of Kwajalein, it has been used for military purposes by the U.S., while escaping the fates of the nearby atolls of Bikini, Rongelap, and Enewetak—Kwajalein has never been a site for nuclear detonations and has never been covered with any significant nuclear fallout from the tests that were conducted during the 1940s and 1950s. It was, however, the main support site for this weapons-testing program, namely Operation Crossroads.
Eleven of the 97 islands are leased by the United States and are part of the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site
(RTS), formerly known as Kwajalein Missile Range. RTS includes radar installations, optics, telemetry, and communications equipment, which are used for ballistic-missile and missile-interceptor testing and space operations support. Kwajalein hosts one of five ground stations (others are at Diego Garcia
, Ascension Island
, Colorado Springs, Colorado
, and Hawaii
) that assist in the operation of the Global Positioning System (GPS
) navigational system.
More recently, the extensive infrastructure has attracted SpaceX
, which built a commercial launch site on Omelek Island
for its Falcon 1
History prior to 1944
Prior to 1944, Kwajalein (Kuwajleen) Atoll had always been an important site of great cultural significance to the Marshallese people of the Ralik chain. In Marshall Islander cosmology, Kwajalein islet was the site of an abundant flowering utilomar tree from which great blessings flowed, and people from all over would come to gather the "fruits" of this tree. This, explain many elders, is a Marshallese metaphor that describes the past century of colonialism and serves to explain why Kwajalein is still so precious to foreign interests. This story was also the origin of the name Kuwajleen, which apparently derives from Ri-ruk-jan-leen, "the people who harvest the flowers.
However, even immediately prior to militarization, the islands of Kwajalein, and particularly the main island, served as a rural copra
-trading outpost administered by Japanese civilians under the Japanese Mandated "South Seas" Islands of Micronesia (the Nanyō Guntō) for nearly thirty years. The earliest-known Japanese record of Kwajalein and the Marshall Islands appears in the writings of Suzuki Keikun, who was dispatched to the Marshall Islands in 1885 to investigate a Japanese shipwreck. And although this visit was followed by two decades of German colonial
rule in the Marshalls, Japan peacefully took control of the islands from Germany in 1914 and established administrative control in 1922 under a League of Nations
Early Japanese influence
Japanese settlers were few in Kwajalein Atoll (known in Japanese as Kuezerin Kanshō), comprising mostly traders and their families who worked at local branches of shops headquartered at nearby Jaluit
Atoll. There were also local administrative staff, and with the establishment of Kwajalein's public school in 1935, schoolteachers were also sent to the island from Japan. Most Marshall Islanders who recall those times describe a peaceful time of cooperation and development between Japanese and Marshallese.
In the late 1930s, Japan began to centralize military power in Micronesia in line with its expansionism. Japanese civilian engineers and conscripted Korean
and Japanese laborers worked together with the Marshallese to build fortifications throughout the atoll, although archaeological evidence and testimonies from Japanese and Marshallese sources indicate that this project would likely not have begun until the 1940s and was not even complete at the time of the American invasion in 1944. A second wave of Japanese naval and ground forces was dispatched to Kwajalein in early 1943 from the Manchurian front, most of whom were between the ages of 18 and 21 and had no experience in the tropics.
When the first runway was built on Kwajalein islet by mostly Korean laborers, the Japanese public school and all civil administration was shifted to Namu Atoll, and Islanders were forcibly moved to live on some of the smaller islets in the atoll. The trauma of this experience—together with the influx of these young, underprepared troops—surprised the local population, and many Islanders make clear distinctions in their recollections of civilian and military Japanese for this reason.
During and after World War Two
On February 1, 1944, Kwajalein was the target of the most concentrated bombardment of the Pacific War. Thirty-six thousand shells from naval ships and ground artillery on a nearby islet struck Kwajalein. American B-24 Liberator bombers aerially bombarded the island, adding to the destruction.
Of the 8,782 Japanese personnel deployed to the atoll (including Korean laborers), it has been argued that only 2,200 were combat trained. Despite this likelihood, Japanese resistance was strong and resilient, even given the fact that Japanese troops were outnumbered by tens of thousands of American troops. By the end of the battle, 373 Americans were killed, 7,870 Japanese and Koreans were killed,, and an estimated 200 Marshallese were killed.
Kwajalein was one of the few locations in the Pacific war where Islanders were killed while actually fighting for the Japanese. On February 6, 1944, Kwajalein was claimed by the United States and was liberated from Japanese rule. Although some Americans mistakenly claim that Kwajalein was "taken back" by the United States, the Marshall Islands had never been a United States territory prior to the initiation of the U.S. Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands that followed World War II.
Very few Japanese or Korean remains were ever repatriated from the atoll; thus both Kwajalein and Roi-Namur have ceremonial "cemetery" sites to honor this memory. The memorial on Kwajalein was constructed by the Japan Marshall Islands War-Bereaved Families Association (Māsharu Hōmen Izokukai) in the 1960s, and the memorial on Roi-Namur was constructed by American personnel. Both memorial sites are dedicated not only to Japanese souls but also to the sacrifices of Koreans, Marshallese, and Americans. There are similar (but poorly maintained) memorial sites at various atolls throughout the Marshall Islands, with a large Japanese Peace Park on Majuro and a smaller Korean memorial nearby. US Marine Corps intelligence records and photographs at the US National Archives, together with the testimony of US veterans, indicate that there was a mass-burial site consolidated into one place on Kwajalein islet, at or near the current cemetery. However, remains are also scattered throughout the islet, at Roi-Namur, and in various places throughout the atoll. Bereaved Japanese and Korean families have mixed sentiments about whether or not to return these remains to their home countries, as none of them are identifiable, and various "bone-collecting" missions are sometimes perceived by bereaved Japanese families as an insult to the dead or a political stunt by the Japanese government. Japanese bereaved family members also consider the sites of sunken Japanese shipwrecks in Kwajalein lagoon to be sacred gravesites, and they are often discouraged by the activities of American divers who attempt to disturb these wrecks.
A ceremony is held at Japan's Yasukuni Shrine annually in April (originally held in February to coincide with the anniversary of the battle), where the memories of the Japanese soldiers are honored and surviving families make prayers to their spirits. Small groups of bereaved Japanese families also have made pilgrimages to Kwajalein on a semi-annual basis since the 1990s, the first of these groups being the Japan Marshall Islands War-Bereaved Families Association, which negotiated its visit with the US Army as far back as 1964 and made its first visit in 1975 at the invitation of the Kwajalein Missile Range. The bereaved families of conscripted Korean laborers have also recently traveled in groups to the Marshall Islands, although they have not yet paid a visit to Kwajalein.
Although the Marshall Islands was officially granted independence from the United States, and became an independent republic in 1986, Kwajalein atoll is still used by the United States for missile testing and various other operations. Although this military history has deeply influenced the lives of the Marshall Islanders who have lived in the atoll through the war to the present, the military history of Kwajalein has made tourism almost non-existent and has kept the environment in relatively pristine condition. American civilians and their families who reside at the military installations in Kwajalein are able to enjoy this environment with few restrictions. Kwajalein lagoon offers excellent wreck diving of mostly Japanese ships, a few planes, and the German heavy cruiser Prinz Eugen. Spear fishing and deep-sea fishing are also exceptional. Water temperature of 80 degrees and 100 foot visibility are common when scuba diving on the ocean side of the atoll.
A neighboring island Ebeye has the largest population in the atoll, with approximately 13,000 residents (mostly Marshall Islanders and a small population of migrants and volunteers from other island groups and nations) living on 80 acres (320,000 m²) of land. Ebeye is one of the most densely populated places in the world.
Roi-Namur used to be 4 separate islands: Roi, Namur, Enedrikdrik (Ane-dikdik), and Kottepina. The pass between the islands was filled in using sand that was dredged from the lagoon by both the Japanese and Americans between 1940 and 1945, and after the war the resulting conjoined islands were renamed Roi-Namur.
Since 1961, several tests of anti-ballistic missiles were conducted on Kwajalein. Therefore, there are launchpads on Illeginni Island (), Roi-Namur Island () and Kwajalein Drop Zone, Pacific Ocean ().
Land lease disputes
Under the constitution of the Republic of the Marshall Islands
the government can own land under limited circumstances. Practically, all land is private and inherited through one's matriline and clan. Since the United States began leasing land, the issue of proper land payments has been a major issue of contention for landowners which continues today. "Landowners" here refers to the consortium of irooj (chiefs), alaps (clan heads) and senior rijerbal (workers) who have land rights to the places used for military purposes by the US. Unclear and insufficient in the opinion of these landowners, the original lease arrangements with the US were finally renegotiated only after the landowners and their supporters demonstrated in the early 1980s with a peaceful protest called "Operation Homecoming," in which Islanders re-inhabited their land at Kwajalein, Roi-Namur, and other restricted sites in the atoll. This resulted in the first official Military Use and Operating Rights Agreement (MUORA) between the United States Army and Government of the RMI, which was linked to the Status of Forces Agreement
(SOFA) that was written into the larger Compact of Free Association
with the United States. Article 3 of the MUORA obligated the RMI to lease specific sites from their owners through a Land Use Agreement (LUA) and then sub-lease them to the United States. The first MUORA guaranteed total payments of roughly US $11 million to the landowners through the year 2016, the majority of which went to the irooj (chiefs), who had the largest stake in the land. Some American observers claimed that these land payments were "misused." These funds were rental payments that landowners could use at their own discretion, separate from whatever funds the US earmarked to help develop or improve Kwajalein Atoll, which were funneled into the now-defunct Kwajalein Atoll Development Authority (KADA.)
In advance of its expiration in 2016, this MUORA was renegotiated in 2003 as part of the Compact of Free Association, with the US agreeing to pay the landowners (via the Republic of the Marshall Islands) $15 million a year, adjusted for inflation, with the option to use Kwajalein through 2066, renewable through 2086. The landowners, affiliated under the Kwajalein Negotiations Committee (KNC), strongly resisted this negotiation, stating that they had not been consulted about this agreement. By their independent land appraisals and calculations, the KNC had already determined that the minimum acceptable compensation they should receive for Kwajalein lands was at least $19.1 million annually, adjusted for inflation. The landowners also claimed that there were many other terms by which they wished the US would abide should the lease be extended, including providing better support and infrastructure to Ebeye, improving healthcare and education, guaranteeing that the missile testing was not creating environmental hazards, and providing a comprehensive life and property insurance policy. The landowners thus refused to sign the newly proposed LUA with the RMI government; so although the new Compact and its component MUORA was ratified in 2003, they have since held out, insisting, through Kwajalein Atoll elected representatives, that either a new LUA should be drafted that considers their needs or the US will have to leave Kwajalein when the active LUA expires in 2016.
Currently the US pays an annual $15 million to the landowners, as agreed provisionally in 2003; however, as the LUA has not been signed, the difference of roughly $4 million goes into an escrow account. If the Republic of the Marshall Islands and the landowners do not reach an agreement about land payments by the end of 2008, the Compact states that these funds in escrow will be returned to the US Treasury. Landowners have vowed not to give in to this pressure from the US or from their own government, stating that it would be "insane" for Marshallese people to put up with another 70 years of the kind of circumstances that exist today in Kwajalein Atoll at Ebeye and other islands. In 2008, a new government was voted into power in the Republic of the Marshall Islands, with Litokwa Tomeing as President and Tony deBrum as foreign minister. This new government is very sympathetic to the needs of the Ebeye community and the Kwajalein landowners, partly because it is a coalition government formed in part from the Aelon Kein Ad Party (formerly known as the Kabua Party), which represents Kwajalein landowners and is led by Paramount Chief (Iroijlaplap) Imata Kabua. This new government is actively pursuing a more productive and mutually beneficial agreement regarding the Kwajalein Atoll Land Use Agreement with the United States.
Amidst this tense stalemate between Marshall Islands central government leaders and Kwajalein landowners, the U.S. Army Kwajalein Atoll (USAKA) installation has also been downsizing, in part because of budget constraints and technological improvements (such as a new trans-oceanic fiber-optic cable) that will allow the testing range to be operated extensively from sites in the United States, thus minimizing operation costs and the need for on-site workers or residents. Nevertheless, the enormous investment in these new technologies and recent statements by Army leadership indicate that the United States is deeply committed to remaining in the Marshall Islands at Kwajalein Atoll for the foreseeable future.
Other islands in the Kwajalein atoll
Other islands in the atoll:
- Ebeye is not part of the Reagan Test Site, it is a Marshallese island-city with shops, restaurants and an active commercial port. It is the administrative center of the Republic of the Marshall Islands at Kwajalein Atoll, and the Kwajalein Atoll Local Government (KALGOV), completely separate from the United States military operations in the atoll.
- Enubuj or "Carlson" Islet (its 1944 U.S. operation codename) is situated next to Kwajalein Islet to the northwest. It was from this island that U.S. forces launched their amphibious invasion of Kwajalein. Today, it is the site of a small Marshallese village with a church and small cemetery. The sunken vessel Prinz Eugen, used during the Bikini Atoll atomic weapons tests, is located here along the islet's northern lagoon side.
- Ennylabagen or "Carlos" Islet (codename) is also site of a small Marshall Islander community that has decreased in size in recent decades but was once a bigger village. Until recently, it was actively utilized by the Reagan Test Site for tracking activities during missions, and has been one of the only non-restricted Marshallese-populated islands used by the United States Army. As such, power and clean drinking water were provided to this island free-of-charge like on the other military-leased islands. This is likely to be phased out if the island ceases to be used for future mission support.
- Ebadon is located at the westernmost tip of the atoll. It was the second-largest island in the atoll before the formation of Roi-Namur. Like Ebeye, it falls fully under the jurisdiction of the Republic of the Marshall Islands and is not part of the Reagan Test Site. The village of Ebadon was much more largely populated before the war and it was where some of the irooj (chiefs) of Kwajalein Atoll grew up. Like many other key islets in the atoll, it has much cultural and spiritual significance in Marshallese cosmology.
- Enmat is "mo" or taboo, birthplace of the irooj (chiefly families) and off-limits to anyone without the blessing of the Iroijlaplap (paramount chief). The remains of a small Marshallese village and burial sites are still intact, but this island is located in the Mid-Atoll Corridor, and no one can reside there or on surrounding islands due to missile tests.
- Meck is a launch site for anti-ballistic missiles and is probably the most restricted island of all the U.S.-leased sites.
- Roi-Namur has several radar installations and a small residential community of unaccompanied U.S. personnel who deal with missions support and radar tracking. Japanese bunkers and buildings from World War II are still in good condition and preserved. Roi and Namur were originally separate islets that were joined by a causeway built predominately by Korean conscripted laborers working under the Japanese military. There is a significant indigenous Marshall Islander workforce that commutes to Roi-Namur from the nearby island of Enniburr, much like workers commute from Ebeye to Kwajalein. These workers are badged and have limited access to the island like their counterparts on Kwajalein, although access is granted for Islanders who need to use the air terminal to fly down to Kwajalein.
- Bigej (Marshallese "Pikeej") is uninhabited and has no buildings on it but many people from Kwajalein island in the south of the atoll come up to visit it for picnics and camping. It is covered with lush tropical palm trees and jungle. It is a site of cultural significance to the indigenous people of Kwajalein, as are most of the small islands throughout the atoll. Some Kwajalein landowners have proposed developing Bigej to look similar to the landscaped beauty of Kwajalein, for the exclusive use of Kwajalein atoll landowners and their families.
- Legan (Marshallese "Ambo") is uninhabited but does have a few buildings on the southern part of the island. Most of the island is thick jungle like most islands in the Marshall Islands. Unlike most islands though, Legan has a very small lake in the middle.
- Omelek Uninhabited, leased by the US military. Site of SpaceX launch facility.
- Little Bustard (Marshallese "Drebubbu") is the first island north of Kwajalein on the East reef. During low tide and with protective boots, it is possible to wade across the reef between Kwajalein and Little Bustard.
- Nell Island (Marshallese "Nōl") With a unique convergence of protected channels and small islands, the Nell area is unique and a popular destination for locals and Americans sailing through the area with proper permissions from the Republic of the Marshall Islands. (All non-leased islands are strictly off-limits to American base residents and personnel without applying for official permission.)
Passes near Kwajalein Island
- SAR Pass (Search And Rescue Pass) is closest to Kwajalein on the West reef. This pass is manmade and was created in the mid 1950s, it is very narrow and shallow compared to the other natural passes in the lagoon and is only used by small boats."
- South Pass is also on the West reef, north of SAR Pass. It is very wide.
- Gea Pass is a deep water pass between Gea and Ninni islands.
- Bijej Pass is the first pass on the East reef North of Kwajalein & Ebeye.
About the Marshall Islands and current events
Work on Kwajalein