WWII Caves: Preserving History

The Saipan battlefield retains considerable integrity in certain areas of the island. The viewshed from many points is excellent and a constant reminder of the activities that took place during 1944. Locals and visitors are reminded of the battle daily by the remnants of the war, such as tanks and guns scattered inland and along the coastline, pre-war and WWII Japanese structures covering the island, and large and small caves hidden in the bush. While the island is easily recognizable as a battlefield site, it has experienced extensive development and commercial and private building that can obscure prominent features and sites.

Small cave site with WWII and modern debris. Photo Julie Mushynsky, Flinders University.

There is no question that caves have always held a special attraction for people and animals. The shelter they provide has spanned the millennia. It is not surprising that during WWII the caves were used by both the civilian population and the Japanese military. A range of cave types exist in various forms from natural, to modified, to fully human-made intricate tunnel systems. Post-war, the extensive material cultural they contained was simply abandoned.

Photo by W. Eugene Smith, 1944. NARA.

Due to the excellent preservation environment of caves, these sites still contain valuable historical and archeological material culture and context. Growing tourism has meant that these sites are actively being compromised and destroyed by cave explorers, souvenir hunters and tourists.

Photographs and videos posted on the internet have shown individual(s) picking up both artifacts and human remains, which is prohibited by both Commonwealth and Federal law. The rapid increase in these activities raised concern with the Saipan Historic Preservation Office about access to sites and their protection, particularly on private property. It also alarmed local Indigenous community members who were concerned with the publication of Indigenous rock art on the Internet.

In 2012, Ships of Discovery (Ships) was awarded a National Park Service (NPS) American Battlefield Protection Program (ABPP) grant to address these concerns. Researchers from Ships and Flinders University (FU) traveled to Saipan several times to evaluate the caves, conduct research, speak with stakeholders, and hold community meetings.

One very public outcome was the production of video and audio PSAs, entitled This is Our History, These are Our Stories. The videos feature the stories of local families and their survival during a difficult and dangerous period in the island’s history.

Documentary film maker, Richard Coberly, Windward Media, capturing a family’s story of their cave. Photo by Toni Carrell, Ships of Discovery.

While PSAs raise community awareness, providing guidance and ideas to preserve these sites was also crucial. A multi-year planning and preservation plan was produced. It was based on a thorough evaluation of the resources incorporating the ideas, wants, and needs of the community and stakeholders as expressed in individual and community meetings concerning the future of the sites and battlefield. Protection for numerous significant cave sites rests solely in the hands of local landowners and the government agencies charged with managing these resources. Outlined within this plan are strategies for addressing preservation through partnership opportunities and as well as information about financial and technical sources of support. A copy of the management plan is available here.