With the lights low, on a clear night, anyone in a 30-mile radius of Lompoc, California, can witness the miracle of rocket science, spearing the wee-hour sky with white-hot intensity, thrusting up, then over and out, high across the Pacific.
One summer night several years ago, camped illegally on a remote beach of Vandenberg Air Force Base (Welcome to Space Country), I saw my first missile-launch as I rubbed my eyes, tentless and shivering next to rotting kelp at the base of a low, dusty bluff.
In deep sleep I heard the launch’s muted rumble, an aural oddity blending with the south swell cracking off the reef I would surf come sunrise, risking military arrest. Coyotes howled at the thin, bright line arcing across black sky, addressing the disturbance along this otherwise serene yet high-tech coast.
I later learned that the missile was fired from a launch pad near Point Sal, 25 miles north. But where was that missile going, and why?
A week later, brunching in a sunny downtown bistro, I found a coffee-stained Santa Barbara News-Press dated from the day of the launch:
VANDENBERG AFB—An unarmed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) was successfully launched from North Vandenberg at 1:03 a.m. PDT today.
The mission was part of the Force Development Evaluation Program, which tests the reliability and accuracy of the weapon system.
The missile’s two unarmed re-entry vehicles traveled approximately 4,200 miles in about 30 minutes, hitting pre-determined targets at the Kwajalein Missile Range in the western chain of the Marshall Islands.
That evening, I fished online and found a comprehensive website for the U.S. Army’s Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site on Kwajalein, the world’s largest atoll, in the Marshall Islands, rented for $11 million annually by the U.S. for a very specific purpose:
The Reagan Test Site (RTS) is a premiere asset within the Department of Defense Major Range and Test Facility Base. The unquestioned value of RTS is based upon its strategic geographical location, unique instrumentation, and unsurpassed capability to support ballistic missile testing and space operations. With nearly 40 years of successful support, RTS provides a vital role in the research, development, test and evaluation effort of America’s missile defense and space programs.
The Marshall Islands, in the middle of the equatorial Pacific, are a Micronesian republic of 29 atolls and five individual islands, nearly all of them inhabited and swell-blessed. As far as I knew, the only surfers there were some Americans who worked for the U.S. government. Intelligence about Marshallese surf potential was scant, limited mainly to what the expats occasionally surfed on Kwajalein and Majuro atolls.
Months after my Vandenberg camping trip, on a breezy, rainbowy morning in paradise, my friend Lance deposited me curbside at Honolulu International Airport, the Marshall Islands a five-hour flight west.
There’s gotta be waves, brah,” Lance said before pulling away from the curb. “You might be the first to surf some reef pass.”
Kwajalein Atoll eluded me (“Sorry, sir,” drawled an official from the U.S. Army Space & Missile Defense Command headquarters in Alabama, “but journalists just ain’t allowed on Kwajalein.”), though my flight landed at the military base on Kwajalein Island, en route to Majuro, to offload a few government workers and contractors. The terminal was drab, unwelcoming, with rust and flaky paint—like a prison, not a gateway—with ominous armed guards prowling its perimeter, eyeing my jet.
Five weeks prior, within one minute of landing here, New Mexico-based documentarian Adam Horowitz was arrested (“It’s a shame nobody got that on video,” he said) for filming the terminal from the plane’s stairway. He was revisiting the Marshalls to create a sequel to his “Home on the Range” documentary, aired several years ago on PBS, detailing the relocation of Marshallese from Kwajalein Island to adjacent Ebeye Island, referred in National Geographic as "the slum of the Pacific.”
Wearing handcuffs while the jet full of Majuro-bound civilians sat on the tarmac, Horowitz argued with the base commander.
“What’s your idea of good journalism?” Horowitz asked. “Fox News?”
“Fox News is good journalism.”
“What about Oliver North?”
“Oliver North is a good American.”
“He subverted the Constitution.”
Red-faced, the commander finally protested, “You’re not a journalist! You’re a damned loaded gun!”
In “Home on the Range,” Horowitz declassified Kwajalein Atoll’s conversion into a top-secret U.S. missile and “Star Wars” test site, flecked with radar dishes, highlighting the squalor of Ebeye and its displaced population’s mission to regain their Kwajalein Island turf.
Three thousand Americans live on 900-acre Kwajalein Island; 12,000 Marshallese live on 80-acre Ebeye, described in my guidebook as having “the harsh, parched look of a Sonoran desert barrio that was picked up and dropped here so that Kwaj could have a supply of cheap labor.”
Horowitz, thin and pale, piercingly blue-eyed and hawkish, with a head of kinky black hair, was an archetype of his ilk, like a paparazzo or war correspondent—abrasive, edgy, focused, intelligent, cynical, stopping at nothing to gain what he needs to produce what some would define as controversial and unpatriotic. To the U.S. Army, of course, Horowitz is a parasite, out to expose impurities within the system.
“My first film made the military look pretty bad, which is easy to do,” he confided over beers one night in the crowded restaurant above my Majuro hotel. “Americans took all the best land, and the native owners live in the slum next door. Yet on Kwajalein Island, you have swimming pools, playing fields, professional landscaping, a bowling alley, golf courses, a Safeway, fresh produce, fresh meat. I hope my films will help the Marshallese gain some of the justice and basic human rights denied them by the U.S. for the sake of its weapons programs. If the American public really knew what we have done, and are continuing to do over there, they’d be outraged and ashamed.”
I said, “I’ve heard it described as a rich American suburb stuck in middle of the Pacific.”
“That’s exactly what it is.”
Japan ruled Kwajalein after taking it from Germany in 1914, during World War I, heeding a 1920 mandate from the League of Nations to govern all of Micronesia. More than 20 years later, during World War II, the U.S. Navy seized Kwajalein from Japan, and in 1947 the Marshalls were added to the U.S.’s Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands, which ultimately led to America’s infamous 11-year nuclear testing program.
Until 1958, Kwajalein was used to support the tests, which, after 66 detonations, had ruined Bikini and Enewetak atolls, westernmost of the Marshalls, vaporizing various islands and irradiating natives. (Despite relocation of their residents and millions of dollars in decontamination efforts, both atolls remain somewhat radioactive; Bikini has become an elite dive destination, while Enewetak has a bomb crater full of radioactive waste, capped with two feet of cement.)
When 1963’s Limited Test Ban Treaty banished open-air nuclear testing (France quickly took it underground in Polynesia’s surf-rich Tuamotu Archipelago), the U.S. established the Pacific Missile Range on Kwajalein Atoll. Today, Kwajalein monitors satellites and is the blue-water catcher’s mitt for measuring splashdown accuracy of rockets fired from Vandenberg Air Force Base, another militarized fetch of obscure waves, armed guards, and spooky white radar dishes.