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Last Updated: Wednesday, 3 August 2005, 09:18 GMT 10:18 UK
War shadow lifts from Pacific island
By Julian Siddle
BBC producer on Pacific Footsteps

Tinian airbase (BBC)
The footprint of war is still visible from the air
Arguably, the single most significant event in the ending of World War II 60 years ago was the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

It is seen as a milestone in history, signalling the start of a new era. But the events immediately prior to the bomb drop have faded into obscurity.

It is well known that the bomb was delivered by plane, the B29 bomber the Enola Gay. Yet, little is known about the tiny west Pacific Island from where it took off.

The island of Tinian forms part of the Northern Marianas group.

It is very much overshadowed by its larger neighbour, Saipan, the seat of local government and now a tourist destination.

Tinian is tiny, only 62 sq km (24 sq miles); it has a population of around 1,200 and there is pretty much nothing there.

Tinian Island (BBC)
Approaching from the air, what you do notice are the huge runways at the north end of the island.

In 1945, this was the largest military airfield in the world. One hundred and eighty-four km (114 mile) north of Guam, it became the centre for US bombing raids on Japan.

Local schoolteacher and American ex-pat Don Farell has developed an obsession for the history of the island.

He explains why the US built its forward air base here. "Originally it was planned for Guam, but because Tinian was a hundred miles closer to the target and therefore 200 miles of fuel closer to home, Tinian was chosen," he told the Pacific Footsteps series.

During the war, the US developed the island massively, building roads to ferry its equipment. Don drove us down the main road on the Island.

"This is about 8ft deep of compacted coral; it had to be this strong to carry all the equipment, troops and bombs that went to Northfield."

New casino (BBC)
The future lies in tourism
Last year, the pilot and navigator of the Enola Gay revisited the site. General Paul Tibbets, then a colonel at just 30 years of age, was fully aware of what was being planned. He met the scientists building the bomb.

"I got acquainted with Dr Oppenheimer, when they were talking about the equivalency of 20,000 tonnes of TNT. I got to thinking I've never seen one pound of TNT explode never mind 20,000 tonnes. So my question was how do we get away from it?"

Navigator Theodore 'dutch' Van Kirk says Japan was warned, too; but in a rather indirect way.

"We dropped hundreds of thousands of leaflets over Japan that notified the Japanese people that they would face a rain of ruin from the air."

The island was Japanese before the war, but the US invaded in July 1944.

US marines sneaked ashore at a site now called "invasion beach" while the main Japanese defence force was occupied by a sea bombardment and a "fake invasion" further down the coast.

Historian Don Farell (BBC)
Farell has become an expert on the island's history
The US set fire to the island using recently invented napalm bombs and killed the entire Japanese garrison of 8,000 men.

After the war, the US kept the Northern Mariana Islands, including Tinian and Saipan.

Local people were encouraged to return, and today the economy is kept afloat by US federal handouts. A few tourists do come to Tinian.

There are Japanese bus tours and an international airport is being developed. But it has yet to receive direct flights; for our visit we took a 10-minute flight in a six-seater Cessna from neighbouring Saipan.

However, Tinian is hoping to develop as a centre for gambling. A huge Chinese-owned casino has been built and intends to attract newly rich Chinese billionaires.

Enola Gay ground crew with pilot (centre)
Tibbets (centre) with Enola Gay's ground crew
Pacific Footsteps is a co-production between ABC Radio National and the BBC World Service marking the 60th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War.

It presents snapshots of the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines and the Northern Mariana Islands, four countries in which Americans, Australians, Japanese and indigenous people fought and suffered great hardship during World War II.

The programmes can be heard on the ABC website built to accompany the series.


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