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From the Archives

Year in review: A look back at the top Pacific stories from 2002

Year in review: A look back at the top Pacific stories from 2002

U.S. Army Capt. Misty Cornett sings the National Anthem at the start of the USA vs. South Korea World Cup game held in Taegu, South Korea.

U.S. Army Capt. Misty Cornett sings the National Anthem at the start of the USA vs. South Korea World Cup game held in Taegu, South Korea. The World Cup, shared by South Korea and Japan, was a highlight of 2002, for the host nations and for the U.S. troops in the area.


1. Turmoil in South Korea

The death of two South Korean girls — run over in June by a U.S. armored vehicle — generated more anti-U.S. military demonstrations than the country had seen in years.

The U.S. military ruled the incident an accident, and President Bush, four-star generals and the two sergeants involved all offered public apologies.

But the November acquittal of Sgt. Mark Walker and Sgt. Fernando Nino, both of the 2nd Infantry Division, enraged many South Koreans, who called for revising the status of forces agreement. The SOFA governs relations between South Korea and the U.S. military, including jurisdiction of U.S. soldiers accused of crimes.

Shim Mi-sun and Shin Hyo-soon, both 13, were killed June 13 while walking to a birthday party near the Twin Bridges training area about 15 miles north of Seoul.

Investigators determined Walker, who was driving, couldn’t see the girls because of a blind spot on the vehicle, a 60-ton bridge carrier. Walker didn’t hear verbal warnings because the radio traffic in his headset was too noisy, U.S. Army officials said.

Many South Koreans demanded the soldiers be tried in Korean court. U.S. installations became targets for both violent and peaceful protests. Molotov cocktails were hurled at some sites, while others saw protesters clipping base fences and sneaking inside. Off post, some U.S. soldiers were threatened and abused by small groups of South Koreans.

On Sept. 14, a Camp Red Cloud private involved in a fracas on a train was detained by a group of protesters until he apologized to a former South Korean lawmaker for punching him in the nose. Korean National Police filed no charges in the incident.

The accident and the presence of U.S. troops became a major issue December in the South Korean presidential election. President-elect Roh Moo-hyun campaigned on a platform of more control over U.S. soldiers in South Korea and changes to the SOFA agreement. But he toned down those statements shortly after his election.

— Jeremy Kirk


2. Philippines mission

It had the makings of a Tom Clancy novel. Characters included secretive Special Forces soldiers fighting the war on terror. The villain was a militant extremist known for decapitating American and Philippine hostages and holding two American missionaries for ransom.

It was marked with tragedy. A U.S. helicopter crashed, leaving 10 Americans dead. A bomb blast killed another and wounded one more. In the end, a shootout rescued one hostage and killed another, and spy technology tracked down the leader and led to a shootout on the high seas.

The final chapters left the rebel leader assumed dead — shot and fallen overboard into shark-infested waters. The body still has not been found.

Special Forces from Okinawa’s Torii Station, Marines from Camp Hansen and Kadena airmen carried out The hunt for the Abu Sayyaf and its flamboyant leader, Abu Sabaya.

Sabaya, in the end, was betrayed by one of his own, tracked by a beacon stuffed in a backpack and shot by a Philippine special warfare group.

The mission took shape early in the year. Joint Task Force 510 deployed in February to Zamboanga and Basilan island. Their mission was to train Philippine forces to hunt and kill terrorists. Soldiers would join patrols, carry live rounds and could return fire in self-defense.

Tragedy marred the mission almost as soon as it started. An Army MH-47, a heavy assault helicopter, from a detachment of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, crashed at sea Feb. 22 en route from Basilan Island to Mactan Air Base. Eight soldiers from the 160th SOAR and two airmen from Kadena’s 353rd Special Operations Group were killed.

Efforts to track the elusive Abu Sayyaf through the Philippine jungles and hills proved frustrating. Navy P-3 Orions, unmanned aerial vehicles and other U.S. intelligence sources aided in the hunt to rescue abducted missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham.

A Philippine patrol picked up the trail of the Abu Sayyaf June 7 and ambushed the group of terrorists holding the Burnhams. U.S. helicopters ferried a wounded Gracia, shot through the leg, and the bodies of her husband, Martin, who died shielding her, and Philippine nurse Ediborah Yap.

The mission officially ended July 31, but U.S. Special Forces remained for follow-up civic projects. Small-scale training exercises began again in October when a bomb blast ripped through a market in Zamboanga, killing a U.S. Special Forces soldier and wounding another.

A Christmas Eve bomb blast killed 13 and injured Filipinos, including the mayor of Cotabato in the southern Philippines. The device was believed to be linked not to Abu Sayyaf but to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which the Philippine government said aided Abu Sayyaf.

Pentagon officials now are considering replicating the largely successful Balikatan mission to Sulu and Jolo islands, two smaller island near Basilan, the Washington Post has reported. Military planners are considering “possible future training,” the report said, but no decisions have been made.

— Mark Oliva


3. USS Kitty Hawk skipper fired

Despite being lauded as a “national hero” and leading the Yokosuka, Japan-based aircraft carrier on an unprecedented mission during Operation Enduring Freedom, Capt. Thomas Hejl was removed as skipper in September.

Hejl, who assumed command of the USS Kitty Hawk on Aug. 1, 2001, was dismissed after his superiors lost confidence in his ability to “lead his crew and carry out essential missions and taskings,” according to a Navy statement.

The order was given by the 7th Fleet commander, Vice Adm. Robert F. Willard, who expressed loss of confidence in Hejl after a string of breakdowns in the ship’s condition and crew proficiency.

Navy officials said incidents — such as the ship striking a buoy on its way into a Singapore port and failing a major pre-deployment engineering test — led to the action.

But they acknowledged several ugly on-shore incidents involving Kitty Hawk crewmembers also contributed to the decision. A half-dozen sailors were arrested on charges ranging from attempted robbery to car-jacking.

Hejl was transferred to the Naval Air Forces staff in San Diego; his replacement, Capt. Robert D. Barbaree, led the ship on a routine seven-week cruise this fall.

The Kitty Hawk battle group was listed as one of the three carriers that could be tapped to deploy to the Persian Gulf.

— Joseph Giordono


4. Woodland, Kawai convictions

The outcomes of trials of two Kadena Air Base airmen convicted in 2002 of crimes committed in 2001 reverberated through Okinawa’s U.S. military community this year.

In March, Staff Sgt. Timothy Woodland received 32 months’ confinement in a Japanese prison. The sentence came after a Japanese court convicted him of the June 29, 2001, rape of a 24-year-old Okinawan woman in the parking lot of a popular shopping mall.

In May, Airman 1st Class Damien G. Kawai received life in prison for the Nov. 17, 2001, dormitory murder of Airman 1st Class Charles F. Eskew.

Woodland’s case drew international attention, leading Japanese officials to call for revising the status of forces agreement that governs the legal rights of U.S. servicemembers in Japan. At issue was how long U.S. military officials took to transfer custody of Woodland.

Under the current SOFA, troops are held in U.S. custody until indicted, unless Japanese police arrest them first. In 1995, following three American servicemen’s brutal abduction and rape of a 12-year-old Okinawan girl, U.S. officials agreed to transfer custody quickly in cases of felony crimes such as rape, arson and murder.

Kawai’s case did not cause international ripples, but the murder’s viciousness impacted the military community.

Kawai, formerly a jet engine mechanic with Kadena’s 18th Maintenance Squadron, was transferred from Okinawa’s Camp Hansen Brig to the military’s maximum-security prison in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., in November — almost a year to the day after Eskew was murdered.

Woodland, a member of Kadena’s 353rd Special Operations Group, was transferred to a Japanese prison near Tokyo to serve his time.

— Carlos Bongioanni


5. Kinnick High School assembly

On March 15, Kinnick administrators called all black students — about 60 — out of their classes in the middle of the school day to hear a “scared straight”-style speech from a chief petty officer. The move shocked and angered students, parents and Japan’s Yokosuka Naval Base community.

Days later, Principal Tari Wright stood before a group of parents, apologized and took full responsibility for the incident, which she described as having started with good intentions. Instead, it led to accusations of racism and civil rights violations and threats of litigation.

After an investigation by DODDS Pacific, military and civilian officials, Wright and other administrators kept their jobs but faced undisclosed “appropriate” actions.

The report recommended several short- and long-term fixes to the damage caused by the assembly, including forming a parents’ concerns council. Since then, several parents and students involved in the incident said they are hopeful the school and community have healed and moved on.

— Joseph Giordono


6. USS Safeguard investigation

Naval investigators cited the Sasebo, Japan-based salvage ship USS Safeguard’s top leadership for a lengthy list of discrepancies that caused the death of Seaman Matthew Draughon, 26, a diver. The discrepancies were detailed in a report, obtained this summer by Stars and Stripes, of a command investigation on the fatal incident. The drowning occurred in Pacific Ocean waters off Ripsaw bombing range near Misawa Air Base, Japan, on May 5, 2001, while Draughon — and another diver who was rescued — were salvaging wreckage of an F-16 crash.

Among discrepancies noted in the lengthy report were poor operational risk management, failure to take fatigue factors into account and deteriorating weather conditions.

Receiving non-judicial punishment was the ship’s commanding officer, Lt. Cdr. Ross Mitchell; executive officer, Lt. William Block; master diver, Senior Chief Petty Officer Jimmy Plummer; and dive officer, Lt. Rebecca Aten.

Mitchell and Block were relieved and reassigned to shore duty. Plummer was assigned to a shore command in Virginia, where he awaits results of an Inspector General appeal of the charges brought against him. Charges against Aten were dismissed with a warning.

The ship’s subsequent leadership instituted procedures in various aspects of Safeguard diving operations to prevent a repeat of the discrepancies that led to Draughon’s death.

— Wayne Specht


7. Former Greeneville captain returns

The former commander of the USS Greeneville returned to Japan in December to apologize in person to the families of the nine victims who died when the submarine he was commanding struck a fishing boat almost two years ago.

Retired U.S. Navy submarine skipper Scott Waddle placed flowers at a grave and reportedly met privately with some of the families.

On Feb. 9, 2001, nine men and teenage boys from the school were killed when the nuclear-powered submarine that Waddle commanded accidentally rammed and sank the Japanese trawler off the coast of Oahu, Hawaii.

The Uwajima Fisheries High School’s boat was on an annual school training excursion to Hawaii.

Families of the Ehime Maru victims accepted a $13.9 million settlement on Nov. 14, 2002. The deal, signed at the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, covers 33 of the 35 families of the individuals involved in the accident.

The two remaining families hed demanded the meeting and apology from Waddle before they would settle. One of the families announced during his visit it, too, would agree to the settlement.

Waddle was reprimanded by a U.S. military court of inquiry, which decided against a court-martial. He was allowed to retire at full rank and pension, raising criticism in Japan that he got off lightly.

Cmdr. David Wells, a U.S. Naval Forces Japan spokesman, recently said the Navy had no involvement with Waddle’s Japan visit.

— Chiyomi Sumida


8. MWR kicks out smoking

A smoking ban signed into law more than five years ago caught up with smokers at U.S. military installations worldwide in 2002. Morale, Welfare and Recreation facilities had until Dec. 8 to either prohibit smoking indoors or install an expensive ventilation system that funnels smoke outside.

For some smokers, the change was barely noticeable: The Shogun Lounge at Yokota Air Base’s Enlisted Club spent about $70,000 for the special ventilators, and smokers continue to light up inside the bar. Other facilities, however, banned smoking outright, forcing smokers to take their habit outdoors.

Some smokers grumbled about the new policy, but non-smokers said they welcomed the fresh air.

— Jennifer H. Svan


9. Super Typhoon Pongsona

Military personnel, civilians and family members stationed on Guam experienced the worst typhoon to hit the island in almost five years.

Super Typhoon Pongsona ravaged the U.S. territory on Dec. 8 with winds that reached 184 mph. No one was killed, but the island sustained hundreds of millions of dollars of damage.

For the first week after the storm, U.S. Naval Forces Marianas and Andersen Air Force Base residents were without commercial power; some lacked power even longer. “Big Navy” also lost its ability to treat tap water, and gas was rationed on the entire island. The winds and rain flooded many military homes and blew out windows and doors. Damage claims at both bases were expected to top $500,000.

Pongsona was the second major typhoon to batter Guam this year. Super Typhoon Chata’an crippled power, water and sewage services on July 5 with winds of more than 120 mph.

— Jennifer H. Svan


10. Goooaaallll!

That had to be what was on the minds of millions of South Koreans and Japanese during the 2002 World Cup, co-hosted by both countries.

And what a lofty goal it was: Two countries, often torn by strife over past encounters, working together to host a sporting match with worldwide appeal.

For the normally conservative Japanese, who rarely sport the hinomaru, or Japanese flag, in public, it was a time to paste hinomaru stickers on every lightpole, taxicab and human being within reach. Celebrations in the Tokyo streets lasted until early-morning hours following victories, ties and even after the team lost its quarterfinal game to Germany.

Many said they were happy because Japan had done better than expected. And fears that European hooligans would wreak havoc proved unfounded — although initial concern was so great that some stores sold shirts reading “I am not a hooligan” in Japanese so locals would not be ignored by taxi cabs afraid to pick up potentially violent fares.

In South Korea, which has participated in the World Cup much longer than Japan, the fans were out in full force. Some 1.8 million people filled streets throughout Seoul; 1.1 million were in City Hall Plaza and the Kwanghwamun intersection near the U.S. Embassy. Two men in Pusan died of heart attacks while watching the home team beat Italy 2-1. The team got knocked out in the quarterfinals.

Even the United States, not normally swept up in soccer frenzies, got into the act. Servicemembers and civilians across both countries filled seats to cheer on Team USA. Many also said they were surprised and pleased the U.S. team did as well as it did, making the quarterfinals.

In the end, Brazil came out on top. Now its team can hold the victor’s banner high for the next four years.

But even a tournament that can unite longtime adversaries can’t heal all wounds. North Korea televised delayed, edited versions of the World Cup games — refusing to broadcast South Korean, U.S. or Japanese games.

— Rick Chernitzer