Coast Guard Cutter Lends a Helping Hand at Remote Pacific Island

TARAWA, Republic of Kiribati — A Coast Guard Cutter last week helped the residents in the town of Betio, on one of the southernmost islets of Tarawa Atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.

Tarawa is known primarily as the location of a pivotal battle between the United States and Japan in World War II. Growing international attention, however, has been placed on the social and economic plight of this small atoll in the equatorial Pacific. Already rivaling Hong Kong and Singapore among the most densely populated areas of the world, Tarawa’s population is expected to double by 2013. Disease, malnutrition, and a lack of natural resources are the daily realities of life on Tarawa.

Coast Guard Cutter Kukui, which is home ported in Honolulu, is a 225-foot buoy tender which services aids to navigation throughout the Pacific. The cutter routinely responds to cases where vessels have run aground and pose a risk to the environment through an oil spill or leak of hazardous materials. The buoy tender is equipped with environmental clean-up equipment and also a crane which helps the crew haul aboard large buoys, which are serviced on deck. The Kukui’s executive officer (or second in charge), Lt. Peggy Britton, began to research the possibilities of providing aid when she learned of Kukui’s two week-long voyage to Kiribati.

Using years of experience gained as an instructor for the Coast Guard’s International Training Division, Britton was well-versed in the needs of impoverished countries. In a matter of weeks, Britton organized the “Toothbrushes and T-Shirts for Tarawa” campaign. Reaching out to Kukui crew members’ families, fellow Coast Guard units, and the local community in Honolulu, Kukui’s crew hoped to collect clothing and toiletries for the poor of Tarawa.

The response was extraordinary: more than 750 toothbrushes, 700 tubes of toothpaste, 25 stuffed animals, 15 assorted sports balls, and nearly 2,000 T-shirts, pants, and other clothes ranging in sizes from infant to adult, poured in from as far as Florida.

Classrooms across the country learned of the mission and started a campaign of their own, sending their items to Kukui and tracking the ship’s progress across the Pacific. The response was so overwhelming that Kukui had to make use of the Commanding Officer’s cabin, the wardroom, and the ship’s cargo hold to transport all of the donated items.

Father Mikaere Teatia, pastor of the church at which the items were delivered in Tarawa, said, “I must express my words of gratitude to your crew and friends that have donated so generously to help our people. On behalf of the community of Betio, Tarawa, we thank you and the Coast Guard.”

In addition to the efforts of the T-shirt and toothbrush campaign, Kukui and her crew also took part in “Project Handclasp,” a program which provides humanitarian, educational, and goodwill material for distribution directly to the needy. In late February, Kukui’s crew onloaded four pallets of goods from Naval Base Pearl Harbor in Honolulu in preparation for Project Handclasp. Kukui’s crew transported 45 cases of paper, 19 cases of clothing, and more than 20 boxes of elementary school books nearly 3,000 miles across the Pacific Ocean.

In the days leading up to the ship’s arrival in Tarawa, the crew of Kukui learned much of Tarawa’s rich World War II historical significance. The remnants of tanks and bunkers were a harrowing reminder of the 1,001 marines and 30 sailors that were killed in the Battle of Tarawa.

The Kukui crew held a wreath laying ceremony at the memorial of these fallen soldiers and it was at this ceremony that the crew decided to return to the memorial to remove overgrown grass and shrubs, as well as place a foundation of wood chips and mulch.

Kukui’s successful mission in Tarawa was predicated upon the effectiveness of interagency coordination. Kukui’s crew optimized professional relationships with officials from Australia, New Zealand, and the Republic of Kiribati in order to provide much needed humanitarian aid to Tarawa.

In order to recognize these international counterparts, the officers and crew of Kukui hosted a reception aboard ship. The event, which was exceptionally catered by the Kukui’s food service division under the direction of Petty Officer First Class Marty Scott and Petty Officer Second Class Carl Wilson, welcomed numerous dignitaries, officials, and guests, as well as 16 representatives from the U.S. Peace Corps.

The reception held aboard Kukui fomented bonds between the U.S. Coast Guard and its international partners, as well as buttressed Kukui’s reputation as one of the premier humanitarian aid platforms in the Coast Guard’s 14th District.

Cutter Kukui is a 225-foot buoy tender home ported in Honolulu and services aids to navigation throughout the Hawaiian Islands and the Western Pacific Ocean. Other primary missions include maritime law enforcement, homeland defense, international engagement and marine environmental protection.

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