2023 Explanatory Reporting, Small Newsroom finalist

UXO: Lethal Legacy

About the Project

“UXO: Lethal Legacy” documents the death and injury that has been shrouding the Solomon Islands since the end of World War II, when U.S forces and its Allies along with Japan left behind hundreds of thousands of unexploded bombs and other ordnance.

At least 20 people a year are killed or maimed by these remnants of war, although the number is thought to be much higher in the remote Pacific islands. Lack of access to medical care and poor transportation systems hinder aid to the victims.

Unexploded bombs and other war materiel, including landmines, are common in countries that have been more contemporary war zones — Vietnam, Cambodia, Afghanistan, for instance. Those countries are eligible for billions of dollars in aid from the U.S. and other well-off governments.

But that’s not ever been the case for the Solomon Islands, a place many people associate with World War II and the Battle for Guadalcanal that became a turning point in the war and the Allies success in the Pacific. Although hundreds of thousands of bombs were dropped and millions of rounds of ammunition were fired in the Solomon Islands over the course of World War II, neither the U.S. and its Allies or Japan has done much to help the Solomon Islanders clean up the still deadly mess. As Thomas reported, the Solomon Islands government also has been incapable of accessing money that may have been available through various international treaties.

To shed light on the situation in the Solomons, Thomas tracked down and interviewed families of those who had been killed as well as survivors of the bombs, people who have been not only physically scarred by the bombs but deeply emotionally traumatized. Their stories tell a grim reality — that the random, sudden deaths can happen to anyone anywhere, whether an educated resident of the capital city or a farmer working the land in a remote area. Moreover, as Thomas reports, the islanders have nowhere to turn for help.

Now, following a recent rise in reported incidents, there is a renewed call for the U.S. and Japan to return to the South Pacific nation – the second poorest in the region – and clean up the deadly mess they left behind.

Documenting the decades-long trauma suffered by victims of a now-forgotten war is an important journalistic endeavor. Thomas’ reporting resulted in an outpouring of support from readers who sent money to the families through a GoFundMe account started by a University of Hawaii professor from the Solomons. The US State Department also finally moved forward with a $1 million contract to begin surveying unexploded ordnance in the islands.

Thomas’ work has served to bring much-needed attention to the plight of the Solomon Islanders and the harm that has long gone largely unnoticed by the rest of the world. His stories have been picked up and republished by small independent news organizations throughout the South Pacific as well as by USA Today.