Thousands of Marines will land on this island in the next few years, and their first steps will fall on a sturdy pier in a sheltered Pacific harbor rebuilt to carry wave after wave of tank-driving troops.
“We’re ready for them,” said Cmdr. David Ellis, executive officer at a Navy base swelling with military construction projects to prepare for the new troops.
What’s less certain is what the Marines will do when they get here.
This U.S. territory in the Western Pacific, long a way station for passing jets and submarines, is about to become a hub for a force of 4,800 Marines who’ll be charged with readying for war and disasters in East Asia.
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The trouble is the Pentagon has not yet persuaded two nearby islands to accept a proposal that would give the Marines a space to train during Pacific patrols. Some suggest it may be difficult to station so many military service members on Guam if they cannot train nearby.
On one island, Tinian, a Marine plan to practice ground maneuvers is setting off fears that the sounds of mortars and rocket blasts will quash a budding Chinese-backed tourism-casino industry. The companies behind the casinos have been hinting they’d pull out if the Marine proposal becomes a reality.
On the other, Pagan, a proposal to make a massive international military training zone on an island known for its namesake volcano is hitting a nerve among people who dream of returning to it three decades after an eruption forced their evacuation.
Both islands are governed by the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, a separate U.S. territory that revealed its concerns when it hired an attorney known for fighting Pentagon plans in the Pacific.
“Having a place to fire cannons and practice obviously is essential, but this just isn’t the right place,” said Nick Yost, the San Francisco attorney hired by the commonwealth.
It’s another clash in the Defense Department’s campaign to find new places for the U.S. and its allies to practice military exercises near the scene of brewing conflicts in East Asia.
They’re drawn to Guam and the Mariana Islands because they’re American territories that would offer reliable space without worries of a foreign government revoking a partnership with the U.S. military.
In Guam and the Marianas, the Defense Department wants to create a space for large-scale exercises involving every branch of the American military and its Pacific allies.
It would help the military draw down its ranks on the Japanese island of Okinawa, where Marine bases have motivated public protests for decades.
Japan, which hosts most of the troops who would be sent to Guam, is paying for more than a third of the estimated $8.7 billion cost of creating the new Marine facilities. Japan likely would participate in joint exercises if the training grounds are built, and Marines on Guam would be expected to respond to a disaster in Japan, 1,400 miles to the west.
“It’s location, location, location. We’re U.S. sovereign soil and we’re basically in the same time zone as Japan. The next closest U.S. soil is a seven-hour flight to Hawaii,” said Guam Gov. Eddie Calvo, one of the boosters behind the military buildup in Guam and the neighboring Northern Mariana Islands.
Guam gets concessions
But some islanders want a smaller military presence on territories the U.S. has held since it seized them from Japan in World War II.
The military controls more than a quarter of the land on Guam’s 212 square miles. The territory contains a sprawling Navy base and an Air Force base.
Adding the new training areas would mean that three of the 15 islands in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands north of Guam would be used mostly for the military. The U.S. already uses one for aircraft bombing practice.
“We’re going to become this island with only one purpose, and that will be for the military,” said Victoria-Lola Leon Guerrero, 33, who has been protesting the military plans for five years.
Her activism under the banner of a group called We Are Guahan compelled the Pentagon to scale down its original plan for Guam, from sending 8,600 troops to 5,000.
With the plans for the Guam buildup set, activists are pushing back against the military’s proposal for Tinian and Pagan.
Islanders push back
Tininan, where Chinese companies say they want to build three multimillion-dollar casinos, contains the runway the Air Force used to strike Hiroshima with an atomic bomb in August 1945. The military has a lease to use much of the island, but locals describe the current activities as “unobtrusive.”
The island has about 3,000 residents who’ve been raising concerns that increased military training could curtail investment. .
Pagan hasn’t had much of a population since Mount Pagan’s eruptions drove away residents in the early 1980s. Yet it’s considered a homeland for many Chamorro descendants who want to return there.
The island has inspired its few visitors to speak out against a proposal that would turn it into a military training ground for up to four months of the year.
“We all came back feeling ‘let’s put our bodies in front of the bullets,’” said Michael Hadfield, a professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii who participated in a wildlife survey on Pagan in 2010.
What we’re talking about is the destruction of the place.
Michael Hadfield, a professor emeritus at the University of Hawaii
He and his colleagues were taken by the island’s beauty. They grew concerned that it would meet a fate similar to the Hawaiian island of Kahoolawe, the former Navy bombing range that remains mostly uninhabited decades after the military ceased using it for training.
“If they station 2,000 Marines on it and blast the hell out of it, what we’re talking about is the destruction of the place,” he said.
Military leaders are inviting feedback to make a stronger proposal. They twice extended a public comment period on the first draft this summer. The Marines received 9,000 public comments about the training plan and have agreed to conduct a further study on possible impacts to coral off of Tinian and Pagan. An updated draft is expected next year.
The alternatives for Pacific training likely would be in other countries, such as Australia or the Philippines.
On Guam, some political and business leaders are concerned that the military will retract its investment in their territory if it can’t train on Tinian or Pagan.
They’re hoping to build on the first wave of Marines heading to Guam, aiming to draw in more troops and military families over time.
“This is so big that people are going to have to learn to get along,” said John Thomas Brown, the director of a business-backed group called the Guam-U.S. Security Alliance, which favors the military buildup. “If they can’t get the Marianas, they aren’t going to come. It can be done. It should be done. Time is wasting.”