A glory at Kwaj

In about 1987 I had a chance to travel to Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. Kwajalein Atoll is part of the Republic of the Marshall Islands. It’s about 10 degrees north of the equator and about 13 degrees on the other side of the International Dateline (the US government stretches the dateline west to include Kwajalein in the same date as the mainland US). It’s 2500 air miles from Hawaii, which is about 2400 air miles from Los Angeles, which is just under 2000 air miles from Atlanta. It is, in other words, remote.

The US has operated a base on Kwajalein Island since the end of World War II US Army Kwajalein Atoll, or USAKA). They also operate bases on other islands in the chain, including one called Roi-Namur.

I took this picture when I flew from Kwajalein to Roi-Namur (Roi and Namur were originally two separate islands, but they were joined by an artificial causeway by the Japanese during World War II.)


Here is another I took on the same flight.


This is a glory. This is not an especially good example, but any example of a glory is a wonder. A glory is a bright ring that forms around the shadow of an observer when the sun is behind the observer and the observer looks towards his own shadow. Glories can often be seen from airliners flying over clouds, or in fog with bright lights behind the observer. I showed a glory in fog in a previous post, although I didn’t actually identify it as a glory. You might also see a glory in smoke.

The Wikipedia article on glories indicates that there is some scientific uncertainty about the source of the phenomenon, but other sources indicate a fairly simple explanation that I think is accurate. It is basically caused by scattering of light by cloud drops or other particles in the air. In the case of most particles or droplets, most of the light that interacts with them is scattered in the same general direction as it was originally traveling. That’s why, when clouds cover the sun or moon, you can see a bright area around where the sun or moon is, as long as the clouds aren’t thick enough to completely block the light. However, a large portion of the incident light is scattered back towards the source. That’s what causes the bright ring around the observer’s shadow. Back scattering, as it’s known, is what makes it hard to see in thick fog if you use your car’s high beams.

The (relatively) simple explanation is also consistent with the fact that you can see a similar phenomenon on a sunny day if you look at your shadow on the ground. There should be a brighter area on the ground surrounding your shadow. That bright area is light that is preferentially scatted back towards the light source.

The Wikipedia article about Kwajalein Atoll has at least one mistake. It says that the total area of the atoll islands is about 16 square miles, when it is, in fact, about six square miles. They may have been referring to the total area of the Marshal Islands, which includes other atolls.

The Marshall Islands are probably most famous as the site of a lot of the US atmospheric nuclear weapon testing.

Kwajalein Atoll is now used by the US Army as a missile and missile defense test site. The current name of the site is the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site (usually called simply the Reagan Test Site, or RTS), named in honor of President Ronald Reagan because of his pursuit of the fantasy of a defense against a large-scale missile attack on the United States.

More than 70 years ago, in 1944, US forces invaded Kwajalein and Roi-Namur as part of the strategy of island-hopping across Pacific on the way to the Japanese homeland. Kwajalein was invaded a few months after Tarawa, which was the first really bloody lesson the US learned about what fighting the Japanese would be like. The planners for the Tarawa invasion thought they had bombed and shelled the island so much that there would be little resistance; that turned out not to be the case. So when they planned the amphibious invasion of Kwajalein, by one estimate, they poured about 6000 tons of bombs and shells onto the island. That’s equivalent to about 40 percent of the size of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Another estimate was that it amounted to about 100 pounds of explosives per square foot of the island.

The battle for Kwajalein Island lasted four days. It’s pretty amazing to think about, especially if you have actually visited that island. At almost any point it’s possible to see the ocean on both sides at the same time. Back then I was still running; it was an easy run around the entire perimeter of the island.

The invasion of Roi-Namur occurred next. That island is tiny, even in comparison to Kwajalein Island. That battle took a day. As a result of that 24 hours of fighting, four Medals of Honor were awarded.

There are quite a few relics from the Japanese occupation and the US invasion. Here is a Japanese headquarters building.


This is what’s left of one of the Japanese defense positions.

This is a wall of a building with graffiti left from that time.


This is some of the debris left from US equipment lost on the beach. I found some old rifle cartridges in the water near Roi, but have long since lost them.


Today, the islands are pretty.



Base personnel cut the coconuts down from the trees to keep them from falling onto the heads of residents.

It’s not what you think of as a tropical paradise, but that image probably comes from volcanic island rather than coral atolls. Coral atolls have no mountains. The highest natural elevation on Kwajalein is probably less than six feet above mean sea level. Fortunately for Kwajalein, it is close enough to the equator that hurricanes almost never hit the island. However, when I was there, a strong storm had only recently hit the islands, resulting in a lot of losses for the Marshallese. Kwajalein’s and Roi’s facilities weren’t harmed, but those facilities are American and more sturdily built.

Kwajalein Island and Roi-Namur Island are reserved for US personnel. Any Marshallese working on the islands must return back to their home islands after each work day.

The reason US personnel are at USAKA is to take part in US missile testing. US intercontinental missiles are sometimes launched from the coast of California to reenter at Kwajalein as part of routine testing of US offensive weapons. Personnel at Kwaj also take part in missile defense testing. This is used for both purposes.


This is ALTAIR (ARPA Long-Range Tracking and Instrumentation Radar), operated by MIT Lincoln Laboratory. ARPA is the Advanced Research Projects Agency, which is currently called the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA. There are other radars located around the islands.

My visit was part of a small sounding rocket test associated with the old Ballistic Missile Defense program, the one that was going to protect the US from a massive Soviet missile attack. I flew into Kwaj one day and then flew with a few of my fellow contractors and some government workers to the island of Roi-Namur. I stayed at Roi for a few days before the missile test I was involved with. It was a nice vacation. I spent it walking around the island, reef walking and taking photographs (the slides from which the images here are scanned). The weather was warm and humid but reasonably pleasant. The facilities on the island are pretty primitive in some respects. It was at Roi that I learned that if you don’t keep Diet Coke cool, the Aspartame in it breaks down into something that doesn’t taste very good. At all.

Our test, which was a small one, failed. It involved what’s called a sounding rocket, which is a smallish missile that barely reaches outer space and then returns. Our missile had three stages. When the first stage separated, it “chuffed” (residual propellant ignited and puffed out). When it chuffed, the first stage bumped into the second stage and damaged it. The missile then went out of control and had to be destroyed.

So we packed up and went back home, and I never went back again.

Friday Felines

Smokey got into it with our hedgehog cat toy a few nights ago. He’s ready to start it up again here.

smokey ready to pounce

He’s our most playful cat. I think he was tired here, because he had already thrashed the hedgehog for a while. I wish I could have got him in action because he does go bonkers.

Catching up

This is a catch-up post for a few things that have happened recently that don’t really merit their own post.

First, we finally got our building permit last week. Two things surprised me about it. The first is that they handed me a permit right after they confirmed that I had all the documents they require. They didn’t require any kind of approval prior to giving the permit. The second thing that surprised me was the cost of the permit. The cost made it clear to me that the building inspection department uses permits as a revenue source.

The permit box, full at last

The permit box, full at last

So now the building site has an official document allowing us to proceed with construction. Unfortunately, it has been raining so much that neighbor John, who will excavate for the basement and foundation, hasn’t been able to work. We have a chance of rain through next Tuesday, and then, at least for now, a forecast of several sunny days. Those days will come right about when we leave for a few days on vacation. John isn’t sure whether his helper will be back from his own vacation by then, so maybe they won’t be able to work until I get back. I really need to be there when the work is done. I expect some questions to come up, especially when they hit bedrock a few feet under the surface.

The second event was Zeke’s most recent bid for freedom on Saturday. I opened the door onto the deck so that our little dog Lucy could go out. Some time later, after we had forgotten about the door being open, Zeke apparently squeezed out. We didn’t realize he had escaped until at least an hour later when we called the dogs to get some table scraps and Zeke didn’t come. He was out about five hours. I drove around looking for him, but never saw him. Around 10 pm I took Lucy out for her final walk and found Zeke in the back yard.

When he saw me he glanced around, like he was considering running, but something stopped him. That something was a fairly badly sprained right wrist joint. He had some real difficulty walking, and some obvious pain from it. Here he is looking sheepish back on his bed in the living room.

sheepish zekeNote the wet spot on his bed next to his left foot.

I gave him an NSAID prescribed for the back pain he has sometimes, and that seemed to help, at least by the next day. He has recovered enough that I can take him on a short walk, which he seems to tolerate, but an hour later he limps a little more. I won’t go back to our regular walks until next week.

I also discovered that he tore his left dewclaw again. He did that originally a few months ago when he wandered away from me while I was working at the new house site. He has been licking his wrist and his dewclaw since then.

This nail is not supposed to be this color

This nail is not supposed to be this color

The last item is another turtle report. We found this one crossing Huffaker Road as we returned from our weekly huevos rancheros fix at our favorite Mexican restaurant. (We do it often enough that our regular waitress came to the table with one sweet tea, one unsweetened tear, a bowl of lemon slices, one bowl of ranchera sauce and two bowls of regular salsa in addition to a bowl of chips, even before we ordered.)

We went back to help him across the road. I know it was a “he” because of Wayne’s previous help with that identification.

Turtle, giving me the evil eye

Turtle, giving me the evil eye

He was just small enough for me to pick him up with one hand. He ducked into his shell at first, but came back out to look around as I moved him to the side of the road. He was not exactly feisty, but he was also not shy. I put him in the grass on the side of the road he had been heading towards. I hope he won’t remember any business he left undone on the other side.

An unfortunate start to the hummingbird season

I wish I could start the hummingbird season with a happier story.

On Saturday we had left the screen door to the deck open for the cats and dogs. Unfortunately, a hummingbird came in and trapped itself against the sliding glass door. I drew the curtains across the window, hoping to help it find its way back out the open part of the door. I looked from the outside, but all I saw was Lucy between the door and the curtain. I hoped that the bird had found its way back out, but a few minutes later when I looked in Lucy’s kennel, I saw this sad, little body.
dead hummingbird

Sorry to subject you to that.

I guess the hummingbird dropped to floor level after I closed the curtain and Lucy went for it.

I was not happy. (Leah says I went ballistic on her.)  I know, Lucy is a dog, and dogs are predators, so they will kill animals under the right (or wrong) circumstances. Sylvester, one of our cats, has also killed a hummingbird. Sylvester routinely kills anything he can, from lizards to birds. I expect it, but I still don’t like it. We have already had to take down a bird-seed feeder because Sylvester was using it as a hunting ground. I don’t want to have to stop feeding the hummingbirds.

I don’t like it when one of our cats or dogs kills anything around here, but I especially don’t like it when they kill hummingbirds. Hummingbirds are one of my two favorite birds. Even aside from their beauty and amazing flying ability, they seem to be interested in us, at least a little. Sometimes when I’m out in the yard, one will fly up to me and hover at eye level, staring at me. It seems to be sizing me up for something. It finds it, or not, and then flies away. A few days ago one flew up to the same door that proved so deadly a trap on Saturday and stared inside. That door is where we hang the hummingbird feeder. It seemed to be letting us know they’re back. I’m anthropomorphizing, but still, the most interaction we get with other birds is when they fly away when they see us.

My other favorite bird is the pileated woodpecker, and I think it’s for exactly the opposite reason. The pileated woodpecker seems supremely uninterested in humans and their petty activities. They’re busy and just can’t be bothered.

I get the sense that they think they’re better than us. Maybe they are