The guns are locked and loaded, the F-16 fighter jets line up along the runway ready to scramble at a moment’s notice and the military, as their motto proudly proclaims, are ‘Ready to fight tonight’.
Yesterday, The Mail on Sunday became the first newspaper to visit both major military bases on Guam, the tiny Pacific island in the crosshairs of the growing crisis between North Korea and the US that could lead to the terrifying prospect of thermonuclear war.
In the latest round of a series of escalating and terrifying threats, North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Un’s Stalinist regime has vowed to fire four ballistic missiles at the island.
As President Trump ratcheted up his bellicose rhetoric, promising ‘fire and fury like the world has never seen’, the 7,000 US military personnel on the island calmly prepared for battle.
President Trump has ratcheted up his bellicose rhetoric, promising ‘fire and fury like the world has never seen’, the 7,000 US military personnel on the island calmly prepared for battle
Two SSN 688-class submarines and their supply ship, the USS Emory S Land, in Apra Harbour. The subs are equipped with 12 Vertical Launch System tubes for firing Tomahawk cruise missiles that can carry nuclear warheads. At 360ft and 6,927 tons submerged, they are powered by nuclear reactors and are perfect for strike warfare
‘We are constantly in a high state of readiness,’ said military spokesman Greg Kuntz. ‘The systems are here, we are in place and we are ready to go.’
The Mail on Sunday visited Naval Base Guam and Andersen Air Force Base on the US territory and vital strategic outpost, population 162,000, just 2,000 miles from the North Korean capital, Pyongyang, from where Jong Un has threatened to launch his weapons, possibly as early as next week, to create a ‘historic enveloping fire’ around the tropical isle.
We witnessed first-hand the extraordinary, multi-billion-pound military might the world’s greatest superpower has amassed on Guam.
They include £1.7 billion nuclear-powered attack submarines, B-1B Lancer bombers capable of ‘obliterating’ North Korea’s underground missile bunkers, littoral combat ships designed for a sea- to-land invasion and the biggest weapons cache in the Pacific, 7,500 tons of explosives and munitions, stored in dozens of igloo-shaped reinforced concrete bunkers.
The collection of firepower nestling under swaying palm trees and languishing in crystal-clear tropical waters was a breathtaking – if surreal – sight.
Naval Base Guam is a 15-minute drive from the tourist centre of Tumon, a bustling area filled with shops selling trinkets emblazoned with the stars and stripes and Guam’s motto: ‘Where America’s Day Begins’ (because of its geographical location, Guam is the first US land mass to see sunrise).
The Mail on Sunday’s Caroline Graham: We witnessed first-hand the extraordinary, multi-billion-pound military might the world’s greatest superpower has amassed on Guam
Guam became a US territory in 1898 during the Spanish-American war. Residents do not pay American taxes or vote in presidential elections but are US citizens by birth. The moist tropical air is thick and causes everyone, especially those in uniform, to sweat profusely within seconds of leaving an air-conditioned car or building.
At Shamrock’s Irish bar, manager and former soldier Sean Hale, 37, whose mother is from Tipperary, said business has slumped since the crisis escalated in recent days. He said: ‘Normally we’re packed on Friday and Saturday nights but it’s dead this week. The guys are staying on base.
‘They are not drinking. They are hanging in their dorms, going to the gym. They know they have to be ready to go at a moment’s notice.’
Driving past postcard-perfect beaches filled with tourists, mostly from South Korea and Japan, stray chickens run along the grass verges outside ubiquitous American staples like McDonald’s and KFC.
In the latest round of a series of escalating and terrifying threats, North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Un’s Stalinist regime has vowed to fire four ballistic missiles at the island
THE BACKBONE OF AMERICA’S BOMBER FORCE
The BL-1B carries the largest payload in the USAF and holds almost 50 world records for speed and range.
The BI-1B Lancer is the backbone of America’s long-range bomber force.
It carries the largest payload in the USAF and holds almost 50 world records for speed and range.
The views of the Pacific, azure blue and dotted with surfers and snorkellers, give way to military signs touting ‘Marine Drive’ before you reach the stone-arched gateway to the naval base. Inside lies a sprawling collection of buildings and jetties around Apra Harbor, home to the elite Naval Special Warfare Unit One and Submarine Squadron 15 and the US Coast Guard.
Two of the four 688-class SSN submarines based at the station are tied up in the harbour.
Alongside is the USS Emory S. Land, a submarine tender and support vessel whose claim to fame is that it featured prominently in bestselling US author Don Brown’s 2012 thriller Fire Of The Raging Dragon about a fictional future war in the South China Sea.
The USS Coronado has just arrived in port. She is an Independence-class littoral combat ship, designed for speed around a trimaran hull and built to allow marines rapid access in shallow coastal waters – like those around the Korean peninsula.
Thirty miles away, at the northern tip of Guam, is Andersen Air Force Base. It is here that any attack on North Korea would begin.
Last month, after North Korea launched its latest ballistic missile test, two B-1B Lancers left Andersen and flew over the Korean peninsula in a show of force.
The USS Coronado is an Independence-class littoral combat ship, designed for speed around a trimaran hull and built to allow marines rapid access in shallow coastal waters – like those around the Korean peninsula
‘DO NOT LOOK AT THE FLASH OR FIREBALL – IT CAN BLIND YOU’
Authority’s in Guam issued the guide to residents on how to survive a nuclear attack by North Korea
Guam authorities issued a chilling guide to surviving a nuclear attack on Friday which warned: ‘Do not look at the flash or fireball – it can blind you.’
Hotel manager Ermar Reyes, a father of four, said: ‘Everyone’s stocking up on food and water. When you live on Guam, you are used to typhoon warnings but this is the first time they’ve issued a nuclear guide. It’s chilling.’
Several of the F-16s are airborne during our visit. No operational details of exercise missions are made public, but locals have reported higher than normal sightings of F-16s and other aircraft, including maritime patrol planes and refuelling tankers, in the skies in recent days. Asked about reports that North Korean missiles could strike Guam within 14 minutes of launch, a military insider laughed: ‘They’ll never get this far.’
Andersen is home to THAAD, the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, a multi-billion-dollar state-of-the-art system designed to engage ‘multiple targets simultaneously’ using radar and interceptors fired from trucks.
Developed after Iraq’s Scud missile attacks during the first Gulf War in 1991, it is designed to shoot down short, medium, and intermediate-range ballistic missiles as they descend towards Earth.
A sleek B-1B Lancer bomber is parked on the runway. Nicknamed ‘The Bone’ (from B-One), the supersonic bombers cost £250 million each and can fly at Mach 1.25.
This photo distributed by the North Korean government shows what was said to be the launch of a Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile, ICBM
A PAC-3 interceptor is deployed in the compound of a garrison of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force in Konan
It comes after Pyongyang carried out missile test launches. The US and the rogue state have exchanged fierce rhetoric in recent months
Carrying a huge payload of conventional or nuclear weapons, there are thought to be at least six B-1Bs at Andersen. They would serve as the first line of attack should Trump order a military strike. America would be likely to use stealth bombers such as F-22s, F-35s and B-2s alongside the B-1Bs to, as one source told me, ‘obliterate the missile bunkers, the missiles and Long Dong Kim if it comes to it’.
In military-speak, Guam is a ‘power projection platform’.
Lieutenant Colonel Chris Occhiuzzo, deputy operations group commander, says: ‘We train every day. We don’t train for any specific threat. We are ready to fight tonight.’
One of the most extraordinary sights on the base is a line of ‘Hayman igloos’. The storage units, along a half-mile-long road, are packed with 7,500 tons of explosives and weaponry: the largest cache of munitions and explosives in the Pacific region.
‘This is one of the most strategically important bases for the US in the world,’ one airman tells me. ‘When weeks like this happen, the world focuses on Guam, a place most people couldn’t even find on the map. But it is a critical base for the US 365 days a year.’
One of two U.S. Air Force B-1B Lancer bombers is refueled during a 10-hour mission flying to the vicinity of Kyushu, Japan
On Andersen, so big it feels eerily quiet, the only openly busy place on a Saturday afternoon is the PX shop, known as ‘The Exchange’.
The car park is full of vehicles, their bumper stickers declaring Freedom is Not Free and Heroes Don’t Wear Capes, They Wear Dog Tags. There are 7,000 military men and women on Guam and another 7,000 family members. Inside the PX, wives stock up on groceries but also luxuries at the in-store Victoria’s Secret lingerie outlet.
‘Nothing gets in the way of combat shopping,’ a source joked. ‘This is the most action at the base outside of the runways. The wives never know when their men might be called to action. Shopping is a necessity but also a good tension buster.’
There is a stoicism to the islanders but also very real concerns. The latest rumour spreading like wildfire is that an attack could come as early as tomorrow or Tuesday.
Boutique worker Padgy Conlu, 28, is married to a soldier. ‘My husband tells me not to worry, that everything is under control but, of course, I worry for my family,’ she said.
Like many here, she is critical of Trump for ratcheting up the rhetoric against the ‘crazy’ North Koreans. ‘I agree with the President on many things but not this,’ she said, shaking her head.
‘What will any of this accomplish? You don’t argue with a crazy man. Trump needs to calm things down.
‘No one wants to go to war. We just want this whole thing to settle down and go away. We just want to go back to our quiet island life.’
However, if the US, and, potentially, long-standing allies such as the UK, have to go to war, the forces on Guam are prepared.
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