On a morning in early March, a group of less than 25 US military personnel, a much smaller military landing than originally planned, was flown into Peleliu on helicopters, touched ground at the airport, and met with Peleliu Governor Temmy Shmull.
Colonel Michael Nakonieczny, Commander of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (31st MEU), USS New Orleans Skipper Captain Brian Schrum, and Major Gamble See of the US Embassy joined Governor Shmull, and the Governor was presented with a ship’s wheel, which he received and said was “to help guide our partnership in the right direction”.
In an ensuing conversation with the commanders, Governor Shmull discussed the possibility of further military exercises on Peleliu in the coming summer.
When speaking over the phone with Island Times on Monday morning, Governor Shmull commented that Peleliu welcomes humanitarian exercises, and that he is open to the possibility of more defense exercises come the summer, so long as US representatives meet ahead of time to discuss with him so that the people of Peleliu remain informed and calm. He added that both Peleliu and the US are mindful of the responsibilities they have towards each other under the Compact of Free Association.
The comments may seem to contrast with the tone of a letter which the Governor sent to the Vice President and Minister of State Uduch Sengebau Senior on March 1, expressing frustration that sensitive information detailing a potential exercise on Peleliu which was sent from the US Embassy to the Ministry of State (MOS) and the Office of the President on February 10 was never forwarded to him. In the letter, the Governor expressed concern over “negative impacts” which a “surprise visit” might have on Peleliu’s population.
Vice President Senior later told reporters at a press conference that the MOS and the Office of the President will be more mindful of disseminating sensitive information in the future.
But Major Matthew “Gamble” See, who served as Liaison at the US Embassy for a deployment of nine months up to his departure on Monday morning’s flight, said that the lapse in communication which prompted the letter was one bump in an otherwise strong collaboration among US and Palauan partners, in the face of many logistical challenges.
Major See said that what happened on Peleliu was “about bringing people together”, which he said is what his job at the Embassy is all about, and not about “tearing people apart”, addressing previous newspaper reports which focused solely on the contents of the Governor’s letter.
The original exercise which was planned for Peleliu was a Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief (HADR) exercise, which would have involved an amphibious landing of around 200 personnel from the 31st MEU and the Navy’s Amphibious Squadron 11 on Bloody Beach, after which they would have moved inland and secured the airstrip and received disaster-relief materials from aircrafts. Major See said that the plan had been to establish a squared-off “bubble” on Peleliu to prevent interaction between Peleliu’s local population and the Marines and Navy personnel, although he added that the vast majority of them had been vaccinated, that they had all received negative COVID-test results, and had been at sea for quite some time.
This was one of two exercises being considered by the Navy and Marines, with the other planned for Sonsorol.
In the week before the planned landing, two US Navy ships, the USS New Orleans and the USS Ashland, had been conducting joint operations with Palau’s Division of Marine Law Enforcement (DMLE) in Palau’s waters and elsewhere. Along with AH-1Z Viper attack helicopters and Bell UH-1Y Venom utility helicopters, they coordinated patrols and maneuvers in open sea with the Remeliik II.
Major See said that the February 10th diplomatic note to Vice President Senior, which explained the details of the possible exercises the Navy and Marines were considering, had been sent with as much advance notice as possible.
“There’s a lot of sensitivity about movement of ships, because they move slowly,” said Major See. “Often that means that we cannot give as much notice as we would like.”
Major See said that he had called Governor Shmull on February 23, after learning that the Navy and Marines had decided to land on Peleliu rather than Sonsorol. He had been surprised to learn that the Governor had never received information in the diplomatic note, and he arranged a meeting later in the week with the Governor along with numerous stakeholders to discuss the exercise. Governor Shmull had ultimately approved the 12-hour exercise for March 1 and 2, while Major See worked with the Ministry of Health (MOH) to assure additional COVID tests for the Navy and Marines who would be landing.
Major See said that he had “coordinated with all different matters of government agencies” in order to determine safe ways to bring the military personnel onto land, and to provide an updated quarantine waiver for them. He communicated with Ritter Udui at the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and Peter Polloi at the Bureau of Aviation regarding the change in plans, but eventually they decided that a smaller group would be easier to receive such a waiver, and the plan for a 200-person landing was dismissed in favor of a much smaller one.
The 23-person military group which arrived by helicopter on March 3 met with Governor Shmull, conducted a survey and assessments of the airport in case of emergency, and also conducted unexploded ordnance (UXO) monitoring.
Major See called the exercise “a piece of the larger framework of the US’ defense of Palau, as set forth in the Compact”, which otherwise involves Air Force operations such as Cope North in February, and Army operations such as Defender Pacific.
While the US military and Palau National Government maintain a strong bond based on the Compact, US military activity has also demanded relationship-building with the individual states, particularly the outer islands. Angaur Governor Kennosuke Suzuky has previously expressed hope that the US will build an “active military base” on Angaur, and Sonsorol Governor Nicholas Aquino has voiced support for an ongoing US project to build a helicopter landing site on Sonsorol, which he said has potential to bring infrastructural development and a means of quick medical evacuations to the island.