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  • Writer's pictureBy Pacific Island Times News Staff

University of Guam researchers to study less-documented WWII sites in Chuuk

A 1944 photo of the American bombing of Tonoas in Chuuk, which was considered by the Americans as payback for the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. The 50–60 sunken ships that resulted from the bombing are now known as the “Truk Lagoon Underwater Fleet” and have been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1976. It is one of two sites in Federated States of Micronesia dedicated as a U.S. National Historic Landmark (1985). Photo: National Archives

A University of Guam team led by Associate Professor William Jeffery has received grant funding to identify, survey, and help preserve the less-documented World War II sites, including three unlocated shipwrecks, in Chuuk — the Micronesian island the Americans attacked in 1944 in retaliation for the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor.

The funding is a $150,000 grant from the American Battlefield Protection Program of the U.S. National Park Service.

The project aims to recognize Chuuk’s World War II heritage more holistically for purposes of historical preservation, interpretation, and appreciation of the Chuukese experiences during World War II.

One focus of the project will be terrestrial surveys on the island Tonoas.

“While Chuuk’s underwater cultural heritage sites are locally, regionally, and internationally well-known from a tourist perspective, the terrestrial sites and living heritage are not,” Jeffery said.

Tonoas housed the Japanese headquarters and the greatest concentration of buildings in Chuuk when the Americans attacked.

Through site surveys and oral history surveys with the residents of Tonoas, the researchers will identify and interpret underrepresented terrestrial sites, such as those where U.S. military personnel were imprisoned and facilities used by the Japanese commander-in-chief. It will also include Chuukese traditional indigenous heritage impacted by the war.

The project will also explore the less-documented aspects of shipwrecks from the war.

Chuuk Lagoon, also known as Truk Lagoon, was bombed over an 18-month period sinking 50–60 major ships and killing more than 5,000 Japanese and 1,000 Chuukese. At one stage the United States considered dropping an atomic bomb in Chuuk, but this never eventuated.

While the shipwrecks have been documented as far as the ships’ structure and remaining cargo, the project will record their “natural heritage” — the flora and fauna that is “known to be of great value and importance for tourist divers,” Jeffery said. This will help determine what management and future research are required to help protect and preserve the health of the sites.


Lastly, the sites of three shipwrecks that are documented in the U.S. National Archives but have not been found will be surveyed as to their nature and condition. Using photogrammetry techniques, the researchers will produce 3D models, which will facilitate the identification and interpretation of the wrecks.

The research team — consisting of Jeffery, a maritime archaeologist, and UOG Associate Professors David Atienza, an ethnographer and linguistic anthropologist, Peter Houk, a marine biologist, and members of the Chuukese community — will commence the project in January 2022, if pandemic restrictions allow, and fieldwork in May 2022. They expect to complete the project in 2023.

Their work will ultimately be shared in a technical report, maps, and still imagery to be used in tourist signage and brochures and in training programs for local tour guides and historic preservation staff. Detailed maps will also be available on the Blue Lagoon Dive Resort website. (UOG)

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