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Brits make pals in Palau on latest stop of Pacific peace mission

16 April 2018
Yellow-orange balls of fire billow as ‘war’ briefly returns to a Pacific island paradise 73 years after the guns fell silent.

Brits make pals in Palau on latest stop of Pacific peace missionExplosive ordnance teams blew up long-forgotten wartime shells and bombs unearthed on the tiny island of Peleliu in Palau, scene of some of the most bitter fighting of World War 2.

The Palau islands – 500 miles east of the Philippines and 500 north of Papua – were the latest port of call for the US-led Pacific Partnership 2018 deployment.

Each year, the US military sends ships and personnel on a goodwill tour of the Pacific region – the deployment grew out of the international response to the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami which devastated swathes of the region and killed hundreds of thousands of people.

For the 13th iteration, the Americans have committed two vessels: hospital ship USNS Mercy and the fast military transporter USNS Brunswick, the latter uniquely commanded by a Brit, Captain Peter Olive.

His ship can get into ports and islands the Mercy – roughly the size of HMS Queen Elizabeth – cannot, such as the Palau chain.

The people of Palau are warm and their hospitality is gracious. We enjoyed working, meeting, sporting and dancing with them

Captain Peter Olive RN, Deputy Commander Pacific Partnership 2018 mission

At each stop on the deployment, medics, engineers, vets and disaster relief experts pour ashore to offer advice and assistance to islanders.

In Palau that meant a major humanitarian aid exercise, medical clinics run with local health providers, engineering support to community and school projects, sport and community events (Capt Olive posted sixth in the 5k run, Army medic Cpl Darren Phillips fifth in the half marathon) and, on Peleliu especially, the echoes of World War 2.

“The impact of the war is still evident across the island,” said Capt Olive. “There are still thousands of pieces of unexploded ordnance scattered across the jungle and reefs.”

The Battle of Peleliu was one of the longest and most ferocious of the entire Pacific Campaign. It took US forces two and a half months to capture the island – half the size of Portsmouth – despite enjoying a five-to-one superiority in men and tremendous military support. Of the 10,900 Japanese defenders, all but 200 gave their lives.

US Marines and Japanese medics jointly laid a wreath in honour of all those killed in 1944, while Capt Olive was invited to join the US bomb disposal team in getting rid of some of 1,200lbs of once-dangerous explosives.

That was by far the most solemn part of a two-week visit which, Capt Olive said, would remain fixed in the hearts and minds of everyone aboard the Brunswick.

“The people of Palau are warm and their hospitality is gracious. We enjoyed working, meeting, sporting and dancing with them.

“Palau is truly a breathtaking place to be cherished – we left with sadness in our hearts, but with the joy of many new friendships.”

The Brunswick – with Americans, Britons, Japanese and Australians aboard – continues its peace mission in eastern Malaysia before moving on to Thailand and Vietnam.

Mercy, with three British medics aboard – Lt Cdr Mark Middleton, Capt Oliver Britland RMC and Flt Lt Stu Lowry – is calling at Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam.

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