"A Thousand miles from nowhere"
Chickasaw archaeologist uncovers World War II relics on remote island
April 21, 2022
KWAJALEIN ATOLL, Marshall Islands - A Chickasaw archaeologist is uncovering and identifying remnants of a key World War II battleground in the midst of a runway construction project on a U.S. Army base.
Working as the sole archaeologist and environmental inspector for a military contractor, Chickasaw Matt Griffin is unearthing, documenting, identifying and interpreting discovered military artifacts at the Bucholz Army Airfield Runway.
Part of the Republic of Marshall Islands (RMI), Kwajalein is located roughly halfway between Hawaii and Australia, 6,195 miles from Griffin's home in Oklahoma.
The RMI hosts the U.S. Army Garrison Kwajalein Atoll, including the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site, a key component of the U.S. missile defense network.
Kwajalein was also the site of Operation Flintlock, a major four-day battle in 1944. More than 8,000 Japanese soldiers died in the battle to maintain control of the island, which was Japan's outermost defensive perimeter.
Griffin's role as the construction archaeologist for his employer, Parsons Corporation, is to ensure the company complies with various preservation and antiquity laws while contracted with the United States for major construction jobs, such as runways and road construction.
The Kwajalein project's scope includes repairing the existing airfield and improving the runway, taxiways, aircraft parking aprons and lighting.
The day before sitting down for a Zoom interview, Griffin's team found yet another hand grenade – more than a half dozen total – and had to halt all work and call explosive ordinance staff to the site.
"Hopefully, we are finished finding explosives," Griffin said.
"My primary duties are to monitor all phases of digging during the project for archaeological significance, and to ensure the cultural plan is followed."
Any recovered artifacts are identified, or the proper individual is located to assist with identification.
Griffin said crews began uncovering Japanese military weapons in late 2020 while building a new navigational aid (NAVAID) building.
"They found five 75 mm rounds of Japanese artillery and decided to bring in an UXO (Unexploded Ordnance) team," he said.
The Corp of Engineers suspended construction until experts could join the project.
Due to COVID-19 and RMI's strict quarantining policies, the project was delayed about one year to allow for crews to arrive on the island.
Once the project resumed, more than three dozen 75 mm Japanese bombs, shrapnel from U.S. Navy rounds, pieces of guns and hand grenades, and American artifacts were unearthed.
Trenches, excavated for new water and electrical lines, produced a cache of weapons.
"The first 10 feet, we found the remains of a Japanese Asakazemarn (rifle), which was followed by the discovery of ammunition, a bayonet and a knife," Griffin said.
Excavations also revealed what appeared to be human remains, which were later confirmed to be those of five to nine Japanese soldiers. After careful excavation, identification and documentation, the artifacts will be returned to the proper country for reparation.
"This is one of the biggest finds on the island in probably 40 years," said Griffin.
As the team studied the artifacts, the history of the island began to speak.
Griffin interprets the location to have once been a WWII-era Japanese firing nest, where 75 mm ammunition was used.
"It was a major, tactical spot, hence finding stuff like shrapnel from a 16-inch naval round," Griffin explained, describing the ammunition as enormous, "like shooting a Volkswagen in the air."
"That's why (the U.S.) was bombing, because they knew it was something major," Griffin said.
The first few days of the 1944 Battle of Kwajalein there was a lot of offshore bombings at the Japanese-occupied island to soften their defenses, he explained.
"You have this large place that was being bombed repeatedly by our offshore weaponry to take this island."
Thinking an initial recovered bone would lead to the discovery of one soldier's remains, the crew carefully resumed excavation and found additional remains, along with Japanese coins, buttons, an ink pen and other items.
"As we got down to the water table, we found two bodies that were almost perfectly intact. They had been there as they fell. They had weapons, they had their guns with them, they had bayonets, all sorts of different rounds in canvas cases. The canvas had actually survived, which is amazing," he said.
One body was about 95% complete.
"He was lying face down. His gun was underneath him and his arm was positioned as it had been holding the gun when he went down. There is also a helmet there. Stuff you would have never imagined, like it happened yesterday."
When all artifacts were recovered, the crew studied the sediments and deduced the two soldiers in the water table were killed in the naval bombardments.
"They never saw an American, and eventually covered up due to the bombardments," Griffin said.
Three or four additional soldiers were buried in the crater caused by the bombing after the battle.
An area which had been used for cooking was also unearthed.
"Basically, what we found was the first thing ever like this in the last 40 years on the island. There have been discoveries - isolated finds such as finding a metal Japanese bowl - but these are things that people just don't find.
"It's amazing to be a part of it, because everyone out here has read the Wikipedia page or the brochure. There is a tour about the island's history. The Americans came in and we bombed from Jan. 31 to Feb. 4, 1944. They know the nuts and bolts, but we actually get to see a glimpse into that battle. A glimpse no one gets to see.
"Being able to put more of a face to what was going on, to see the fine strokes to what happened out here, it's an amazing thing to get to be a part of," Griffin said.
Asked if the discovery was the biggest find he had ever unearthed, he answered, "It depends on how you want to think about things.
"I worked with the Chickasaw Explorers and we found a house. That is the basis of culture.
"Archeology isn't about finding shiny stuff. It's about adding to the database of culture," Griffin said.
As he lives and works on the island, Griffin discovers many cultural and family ties to the area, including naval ships USS Mississippi and USS New Mexico fought in the battles. He spent his childhood in New Mexico and has family ties in Mississippi.
Marines also utilized at least one Navajo code talker during the battle for the island.
He also finds ways to connect with the island's students and feels a kinship with the Indigenous Marshallese people, who are believed to have migrated from Asia to the Marshall Islands several thousand years ago.
When a local teacher was planning a lesson about native languages, she reached out to Griffin and invited him to share the Chickasaw language, and other First American language and culture with the class.
Another learning opportunity emerged when a class visited the dig site to see the island's history uncovered.
"Finding a mass grave with five to nine burials is not something you see every day. It's important on this island, this was part of WWII and (the findings) tell how the U.S. came to the island. It's a big deal and the kids love it."
Griffin also shares insights about potential career opportunities with students.
A chance to help the Marshallese students who live on the nearby island of Eyebe was met with a backpack drive, hosted by Griffin's company, which helped 120 students get ready to go back to school.
As a Chickasaw, Griffin sees similarities with his own culture and that of the Indigenous people of the island.
"One of the first things I learned, we (Chickasaws) don't say goodbye. Neither do the Marshallese. They say 'Bar lo eok' which means, 'see you later,' like 'Chipisala'cho.'" I thought that was one of the neatest things when I first got here - we didn't come up with it on our own. Somebody else we never met is the same way. They don't believe that anyone ever leaves, they feel they will see them again, the same way we do," he said.
Connecting with his Chickasaw culture and heritage was the motivating factor for Griffin to pursue a bachelor's and a master's degree in anthropology after earning a bachelor's in communications.
Growing up in New Mexico, he and his sister, Erin, knew they were Chickasaws "from day one," but did not have many connections to their tribe, such as family stories and extended family kinship, he said.
"Dad was military, and we didn't really go to Ada or Tishomingo. We knew we had ties there, but we were really never told anything," he said.
A Quest for History
Griffin's Chickasaw great-grandmother, Maggie Cravatt, an original enrollee, died in the 1920s, and his grandfather was sent to a boarding school, but the patriarch would not share any details with his family.
"All we know is that he ran away from the boarding school at a young age and enlisted in the military," he said.
His grandfather fought in WWII in Italy, but that is all the information he would share.
"He wouldn't tell us anything. It was his cross to bear, and he wouldn't want to put it on anyone else."
Likewise, Griffin's father served in Vietnam, and he would also not talk about the war or share much about his childhood.
"He was telling me about the time when he was young, and they watched Governor Overton James speak, and I said, 'Dad, you told me your dad would not tell you anything about when he was younger. You don't tell me anything, either."'
After Griffin's father retired and began researching family genealogy, he opened up a little bit.
There were not a lot of details about cultural traditions, because they were not passed to him from his father.
"Wanting to know more about culture and the way cultures worked is what took me to anthropology and archelogy, because it's a different way to look at the past," he said.
He focused his area of study on Paleo Indians, in part because he grew up near an archaeological site in New Mexico, which was the first site to produce scientifically accepted evidence that people had been in the Americas before a few thousand years ago. Mammoth, bison, camel, saber-toothed cat, short-faced bear and other extinct Pleistocene animals once roamed the area, Griffin said.
"To me, we are all the same people. We all started from the same place, we just went off in our own directions and made our own niches. Instead of worrying about our differences, (we should) focus on what made us who we are," he said.
"The details were not there for me to find. I could just find the broad picture. But, at least it was some place to start."
Griffin credits the Chickasaw Nation for helping him find his path, beginning with financial assistance for his education.
"The Chickasaw Nation, my family and friends deserve all the credit."
He earned his first undergraduate degree at Cameron University, and second bachelor's and master's degree at Eastern New Mexico University.
"The assistance of the Chickasaw Nation helped me further myself," Griffin said. "The Chickasaw Nation offers things to help advance your career, and without the tribe's help it wouldn't have been possible."
Griffin was also assisted through the Healthy Lifestyles program, and he is grateful.
"If we think we can go this path alone, we are wrong. We all need help along the road, and not only did I get it, I was smart enough to see it and take hold of it," he said.
He served two years at the Chickasaw Cultural Center, Sulphur, and was blessed to get to know several Chickasaw elders, such as Carlin Thompson and Rose Jefferson, and learn their stories.
Griffin was also able to honor his father and grandfather's legacy by donating a Class "A" uniform and replica WWII medals, respectively, to the Holisso Center.
The Journey to Kwajalein
In 2020, in the height of the pandemic, Griffin was waiting for an opportunity to go work on a pipeline when he saw the job posting in Kwajalein.
On a whim, he sent his resume.
Within 24 hours, he was contacted for an interview. Three days later, he was asked when he could start.
He had heard of the island, but never fathomed he would live there.
He flew from Oklahoma City to Dallas to Honolulu, where he spent two weeks in strict mandatory quarantine at a hotel near Hickam Air Force Base, followed by three weeks of quarantine on the island. To date, Kwajalein is one of the few places in the world with no documented COVID-19 cases.
Living in Kwajalein took a bit of adjustment for Griffin.
The time zone, 1, is 17 hours ahead of Oklahoma time.
"Everything starts here," he said.
The hardest adjustment? Monday night football airs Tuesday at 1 p.m.
In his spare time, he earned dive certifications and now explores the many shipwrecks that surround the island.
Griffin, an avid golfer, also spends time on the links and preparing for an upcoming triathlon, the Rustman, so named because the tropic environment leads to rust on every surface.
His two biggest wishes are to receive a care package full of ingredients to make pashofa and to find out if any Chickasaws ever served at the island.
"I would like to know if there were any Chickasaws here, to tie it into my life, to know that someone with my own cultural beliefs was here. My biggest hope is to find out someone's Chickasaw grandfather fought here."