+ THORACIC DROP: < Deposit > news appropriate to this site.

+ AUTOGEDDON: Subscribe to Ballardian & receive automatic email updates

My Dream of Flying to Tinian Island

Author: • May 30th, 2006 •

Category: Ballardosphere, consumerism, features, sexual politics, suicide, WWII

Military church, Tinian, © Dan Norton 2006

Thanks to Iain X from the JGB Mailing List for this link, a series of photos taken by a ‘seabee’ stationed on the North Pacific, Micronesian island of Tinian during WWII. As the site’s author, Dan Norton, says, “These photos were developed by my grandfather in his clandestine photo lab he ran while stationed on the island of Tinian.” Many thanks to Dan for allowing me to publish some of them here.

Grandpa Norton’s photos — of mass military graveyards; bombers submerged in sand; the flash of war in a tropical setting — will resonate with anyone familiar with J G Ballard’s war stories. I travelled around Micronesia (Yap, Palau, Pohnpei, Guam, Tinian, Rota, Saipan) last year and was floored by Tinian, this serene place, and its role as the launching pad for the bombing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.

Micro Blog: Atomic Bomb Pits, Tinian
Atomic Bomb Pits, Tinian, 2005 (Simon Sellars)

On Tinian I was caught off guard in lots of ways. When I went for a skinny deep at a northern beach, I felt safe as I’d not sighted another human being for hours. But the universe conspired; as soon as I emerged naked from the water, a busload of Japanese tourists unloaded right next to my car. Where my clothes were. Women giggled; men looked away. Walking over to my clothes, I waved and tried to act natural. The bus driver, a local, looked me up and down.

‘Hey Little Boy,’ he scoffed. ‘You looking for Fat Man?’

But I was. How did he know? Oh, I see. Very funny. He gave me directions, I got dressed and hightailed it to North Field, Tinian’s abandoned US airbase.

Like Melville in Ballard’s ‘My Dream of Flying to Wake Island’, I took photos of all the abandoned runways and bases; the shot above is of the pits where the the Little Boy and Fat Man atomic bombs were loaded into the B29s that destroyed Japan. They’re now covered with plexiglass, to deter souvenir hunters I presume; a man was recently charged with stealing bits of North Field and selling them on the Internet. Or maybe it’s a deterrent to vandals… I took hundreds of shots of the remains of Japanese Zeroes, tanks and anti-aircraft guns in the Micronesian jungle, and I tried to visualise what the islands were like during WWII — Tinian was the world’s busiest air base back then, traffic generated entirely by American war planes. It’s a tiny, tiny place — peaceful and lush — so it’s very hard to imagine.

Dan’s photos fill in some of the gaps. As does Ballard…

“The B-29s which bombed the airfield beside Lunghua Camp, near Shanghai, where I was interned during the second World War, had reportedly flown from Guam. Pacific Islands, with their silent airstrips among the palm trees, Wake Island above all, have a potent magic for me. The runways that cross these little atolls, now mostly abandoned, seem to represent extreme states of nostalgia and possibility, doorways into another continuum.

It was from the island of Tinian, in the Marianas, that the atom bombs were launched against Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which ended the war unexpectedly and almost certainly saved the lives of myself and my fellow internees in Shanghai, where the huge Japanese armies had intended to make a last stand against the unexpected American landings”.

— from Ballard’s annotations, JG Ballard, The Atrocity Exhibition, RE/Search, 1990, p. 33.

Tinian, WWII, © Dan Norton

Abandoned Japanese Zero, Yap, 2005 (Simon Sellars)

In Micronesia I tapped into other Ballardian currents, especially in Saipan, an island continually lumped in with Guam as a no-culture, overdeveloped resort park for rich Japanese and Americans. It’s said that during WWII, the occupying Japanese forces wiped out the Saipanese villages and the local Chamorro culture and replaced them with facsimile Japanese towns, bars, restaurants. Landing in Saipan today, you’d be forgiven for wondering if they were ever kicked out. Hotel signage and pamphlets are often solely written in Japanese; there’s an abundance of Japanese restaurants and sushi houses; and many of the locals speak at least a smattering of the language.

Micro Blog: Simon Sellars
Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, Banzai Cliff, Saipan, 2005, (Simon Sellars)

In the north, possibly Saipan’s most beautiful region, filled with rolling hills and lush beaches, there are numerous monuments, statues and homages to the war-dead Japanese. There’s a happy-go-lucky atmosphere at these monuments. Busloads of Japanese tourists make the circuit from cannon to cliff, from the early morning to the late afternoon, laughing and joking, taking snaps and enjoying picnics.

At Banzai Cliff I witnessed something extraordinary, the afterimage of which has remained with me ever since. Some background: it was at this cliff where, during the war, hundreds of Japanese families committed mass suicide rather than surrender to the Americans. The youngest child would be the first to go, pushed over the edge by the next youngest, and so on, until the mother pushed the last child over. Finally, the father pushed the mother over before he too made a running jump. This story sums up the futility of the Japanese war effort, especially considering the return of the Japanese these days, in greater numbers and as valued customers. Looking over the cliff, I was caught up in mad visions of the raging water swirling below, imagining I was one of those poor children, beginning to understand that I was looking at death.

Micro Blog: Simon Sellars
Banzai Cliff (northern Saipan), 2005 (Simon Sellars)

I heard some giggling: a young Japanese girl dressed in fashionable camouflage pants and cap was posing by one of the monuments, having her photograph taken. OK, that’s what Japanese tourists do; but then she began to pout sexily, twirl her hair seductively, and tilt her head at a come-hither angle. When she slipped her top down to reveal a nipple, the penny dropped. She was either modelling the latest in camo gear and had picked a suitably war-drenched region to pose against, or it was some kind of soft-porn shoot…with a war theme.

I found this odd couple ahead of me at two other monuments — this young, desirable girl and her photographer, an older guy in his forties, dressed like the hip movie director in Lost In Translation, with his baggy pants, blow-waved hair, John-Lennon sunglasses and red baseball cap. At an old WWII Japanese cannon near Banzai Cliff, I watched her mount the weapon then dismount, pouting and pretending to lick the barrel. She was incredibly un-self-conscious, and at one point looked me directly in the eye with a dazzling smile. I was beginning to understand where these pictures would end up; maybe I’ll do a Google search in a few months time (something like ‘saipan banzai nipple gun barrel’) and all will be revealed.

Micro Blog: Simon Sellars
Hotel Nikko (northern Saipan), 2006 (Simon Sellars)

On the way to Banzai Cliff is the Hotel Nikko Saipan, especially notable for its futuristic design: the architects must have modelled the Nikko on the domed city from the ’70s sci-fi film Logan’s Run. Clearly this luxury hotel was meant to herald in a tourist-driven utopia that would transform Saipan. There’s no doubt that Saipan is very popular with the Japanese, but not nearly as much since the bottom fell out of the Asian economy a few years back. The local Chamorros seem to have traded in their cultural heritage for a stake in this consumer-driven utopia, only for the gamble to backfire. Even more so than Guam, there’s a fully devolved Chamorro culture in Saipan, replaced by the rusted hulks of abandoned shopping centres.

Across the road from the Nikko is one of these burnt-out shells, the La Fiesta shopping centre. The Lonely Planet guidebook touted this as a major hub, but things have obviously changed in the five years since the book was written. The La Fiesta was like San Francisco at the start of another ’70s sci-fi flick, The Omega Man: there were cars and other technological signs of civilisation, but no indication whatsoever of human life. I wandered around for a good ten minutes, staring at abandoned Japanese restaurants and computer-less Internet cafes filled with wires and cables, before I saw another person. A man – stepping from the shadows, well-dressed and genial. He smiled and winked at me, then disappeared into an office. I was spooked. An apparition? But there were other people, busily typing away at their desks. I discovered another office, with more actual people, but the whole centre was infused with a dank melancholy. I couldn’t help but think that these office workers — like the last survivors of a nuclear war, holed up underground and trying to restart civilisation on a scorched Earth — were clinging to Saipan’s dreams of a tourist utopia, desperately trying to kick-start the economy all by themselves…

Micro Blog: Simon Sellars
La Fiesta Shopping Centre (northern Saipan), 2006, (Simon Sellars)


“These illustrations of the Pacific atoll, with its vast concrete runways, he had collected over the previous months. Melville’s real interest had been in the island itself, a World War II airbase and now refuelling point for trans-Pacific passenger jets. The combination of scuffed sand and concrete, metal shacks rusting by the runways, the total psychological reduction of this man-made landscape, seized his mind in a powerful but ambiguous way.

Melville prowled along the mantelpiece of the beach-house, slapping the line of photographs. ‘Look at those runways, everything is there. A big airport like the Wake field is a zone of tremendous possibility — a place of beginnings, by the way, not ends’.

He resolved to make his world-wide journey, externally to Wake Island, and internally across the planets of his mind”.

— J.G. Ballard, ‘My Dream of Flying to Wake Island’, 1974.


Distressed B29, Tinian, © Dan Norton 2006

Find all posts by

Older: «

38 Responses »

  1. more photos of the abandoned shopping mall, please. There is an entire subculture of people in America that like to go exploring abandoned buildings and a subset of these people document abandoned shopping malls. There are a surprising number of sprawl and big box malls in America that stand empty.

  2. I like the Distressed B29 caption.

    Has Tinian been thrust too deep into the modern era for any cargo cults to have developed there?

  3. Kevin, i’ll hunt around for more pics. do you have any shots of those abandoned american malls? i’m putting up a photo gallery on this site that anyone can post to…it would be great to see some of your shots, if you have them

  4. Gnothe, cargo cults are a Melanesian (rather than Micronesian) phenomenon, aren’t they?

    And yes, Tinian would be too developed for that to occur.

  5. […] This is an aside. I am really pointing to a lovely post by Simon Sellars which mixes Tinian and J.G.Ballard. He is currently travelling, writing a guidebook for Lonely Planet. […]

  6. […] BIO: Simon Sellars is a freelance writer and editor. He’s also the founder of the Liquid Architecture Festival of Sound Arts; of Subterrain, a magazine of writings by homeless people; and of Ballardian, a website recording the career and influence of the novelist J.G. Ballard. For the past three years Simon has been performing extensive work for Lonely Planet Publications, including a notable stint in the Micronesian region. He’s also a co-author of the forthcoming Lonely Planet Guide to Micronations.   […]

  7. Awesome posts. I would be interested in finding out more. This article sparked my enthusiasm. Great pictures by the way. Didn’t know there was a subculture that explored abandoned buildings though.

    Fan of Don Lapre


  9. I spent Five years on Tinian as the only pilot based on Tinian for the local airline. I combed every bump and hole on that Island, I know it well. Maggie, there were a couple of gun emplacements, the one you are refering to is not off of Broadway it is just to the northwest of the village. That Gun did a huge amount of damage to the “Fake” U.S. invation force on the south of the Island because it’s location was so well hidden. it was eventually found and dystroyed by the USN. the island in view is called Aguijan or as the locals call it “Goat Island”

  10. Simon, this is a very interesting article.

    My dad was a Seabee stationed on Tinian during World War II. He was a heavy equipment operator and worked on the construction of Broadway.

  11. Thanks guys for all the stories I’m off to Tinian tommorrow for 6-8 weeks of work on a transmitter station there. I will take the time to look at the interesting features you all mentioned.. Thanks again I’ll take some new pics for you all!

  12. Kevin! how are you! it is deborah flemings (connie’s sister) daughter leila. how strange to find you.

    Great article. i am a teacher on saipan gathering information for my kids to learn more about what people experienced in what they call home during the war 60 years ago. if you have any other stories to share i would love it. i am also looking for civilian stories

  13. Kevin,this is Cindy How are you now that u r 50 like me…..Would love to talk to you ….hope u read this, I am still in the phone book on Oahu……….love and miss ya…congrats on your new marrage…….Aloha…

  14. Kevin, missed your call..rats!! Please try aand contact me again. How cab I reach you? Next time u call leave your e-mail address so we can talk…..Thanks for the call, WHAT A SUPRISE!!!!!!!!!
    Love and miss ya. Take care in That land, for I have been there!!!!! Aloha. Cindy

  15. My Dad Cap.Richard Flanagan.Was The Navigator for A-29-B29 During WWII..He was stationed on Titian during WWI..21 Bombing Runs..(Safely)..Unfortunately He passed away 2 years ago..

  16. Sorry…….He was stationed on Titian during WWII..
    Michael..can’t edit post..

  17. I was with the 3l3 wing, 99th bomb group and lived in a quanset hut and would love to see the place some day. We made a landing on Guam one day and remember north field. 63 years ago is hard to remember.

  18. I was Captain of inter-island cargo ship “Maria”, c. 1995, 96.
    Lost rudder and took her into the innermost harbor, by the launch ramp, to lift her strern with a crane. I swam under the hull to position slings, was surprised to see a lot of 50 cal. or 20 mm live ammo on the bottom, only 3 feet or so under the hull. A PT boat sailor was told me that ammo was routinely cleaned after 2 or 3 trips, then chucked overboard after that.

    We were usually the only vessel in the large, well built harbor.

    No-one here has mentioned the suicide cliffs at the south end of Tinian, where civilians jumped as on Saipan.

  19. My Bio father was with the bomb from New Mex to Tinian and actually drove the truck that took the bomb to the Enola Gay. He was in a secretive group with the military. I have searched the net and unable to find anything. He told us that the small group was used as guina pigs during the test.His name was JV Powell.

  20. Hafa’dai Capt.Kevin!!!
    often thought of you & jeffer, scapades of whisking my sister connie from the tinian health center under the guard’s nose and approving salute! fun times and black token winnings at the dynasty, so many pleasant memories….we miss you, tinian misses you!!!

  21. My father was stationed on Tinian Island as a bombadier. He told me alot of stories about his time there, including the arrival of the “bomb” by the Indianapolis.

    I wish he was still here… I have so many questions about his time of service on B-29’s.

    He will always be a hero in my book… best to you dad (LT. Kenneth James Bateman)

    Your son, William

  22. My grandfather Master seargent Kenneth Olinger was stationed on Tinian. He was a part of the 421st squadron 504thBG . If anyone out there knew him please send me email mmojan@juno.com

  23. My father Frederick E. Horn was on Tinian and worked on the engines of the Anola Gay. He never talked much about what he did. He had a stroke about 2 years ago. While cleaning some things from his house we found several pictures including a picture of the Anola Gay with what looks like the crew. Our family would be very interested to learn more about his activities, unfortunately he is not able to spead since his stroke.

    If anyone has additional information I can be contacted at fwh@multipondamerica.com

  24. I sure do miss home…

    As I read the words of others, their descriptions fill my head, allowing me to see what they saw. Images in my head; memories of family outings, playing with my many cousins, on, near, and around these places.
    I sure do miss home…

    It saddens me to know that as time goes on more vandals tarnish and pillage the remains of what we are all holding dear and close. Artifacts moved from the site. Taken. For Money. Stolen. For Greed. Very very sad.

    I love you Tinian.

  25. 06/18/09
    I just returned from Tinian and Saipan. My father flew on B-29’s and was stationed on Tinian. I must say i was taken back by the lack of care for the memorials there.Tinian certainly is completely deserted near north field. We saw only one car. Definately an experience. I do not recommend staying on Tinian. The Dynasty Hotel was bad and almost deserted.Saipan is much better.

  26. 10/23/09

    A good friend, Jacob Beser, (now deceased) was the only man to fly as a crew member on both the Enola Gay and the Bock’s Car. His son Jerome, has established the Beser Foundation for Archival Research and Preservation, a not for profit organization. He has accumulated a vast archive of information related to the atomic bomb development and delivery. The foundation website is under construction but is on line at:


    or at my website at:


    Either Jerome or I can provide additional information off line.

    A new book “The Tinian Atomic Bomb Files” is being prepared by Don Farrell who lives on Tinian. Anyone interested can contact me and I can put you in contact with Don.

  27. While stationed at Camp Courtney, 3rd Marine Division (Okinawa), I was part of a survey party consisting of Marine Corps engineers and SeaBees first two weeks of Nov ’71. The leader our survey team was (then) Cololonel Vincente T. Blaz, CO of 9th Marine Reg’t. He was young boy growing up in Guam while the Japanese occupied the island. He was the first Chamarro to become a commisioned officer in the U.S. Marine Corps.
    One afternoon, we broke for lunch at Chulu Beach, observing pillboxes hiding in coral where the beach met the lush foliage. Also, a magazine grown onto the coral and the remains of axle of an Amphibian tractor (USMC). Another member of our team was a Marine Mustang … a LtCol from 3rd Eng’r Bn, who landed there as a young enlisted Marine in ’44 … his storytelling of that amphibious assault was so interesting!
    I have photos of the old Spanish church in Tinian town, now named San Jose … I guess all that remains of the church is the bell tower. Also have pictures of Atomic Bomb loading Pit #2 … before the glass canopy was added.

  28. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by PD Smith. PD Smith said: "Scuffed sand and concrete, metal shacks rusting by the runways": @ballardian on Tinian Island http://bit.ly/dz71GW […]

  29. […] The novelist JG Ballard, whose childhood experiences in Japanese internment camps were immortalised in Empire of the Sun, was a teenager caught in a mad world of death marches, torture, murder and starvation on the Chinese mainland when the bombs were dropped. As he wrote later: […]

  30. My dad was there with the 2nd Marines. We found a picture of him in the Tinian welcome book coming onto the beach. He was part of the deversionary force. He said some press guys drove up to him in a jeep, and took his picture sitting on an ox cart. Sure would like to find that one, he would get a kick out of it. I had the pleasure of being on the island when I was stationed at Yokota Air Base, Japan. This was in 1986 on a joint excercise with the Seabees, and Marines. They were using our C-130’s. We set up “camp cool out” on one of the northern runways. Beautiful place. I took a bunch of pictures, and pull them out once in awhile. If anyone knows of the picture I mentioned, please contact me asap. Thanks.

  31. Should have said he was on both islands, but the picture was taken on Tinian, and also that is where I was too.

  32. My father was the pilot of a b29 superfortress. Nose art “Dream Girl”. My father is now deceased and I would like to see if anyone possibly has any info about him. His name was Thomas R. Lowe Jr. and I do know from one of our infrequent WW II conversations he flew into and out of Tinian many times.

    If anyone has any info that they could share with me that would be greatly appreciated.

    Thank You

  33. There was an article written in the New Hampshire Sunday News (Manchester, NH) August 6 1995 about two men on Tinian. One of the men is my Dad’s brother. He remembers getting a letter from there stating “it will soon be over but I can not talk about it”. In the article, my uncle is holding a original picture taken of the Enola Gay just after it landed.

  34. To Thomas,

    My father was a B-29 lead crew aircraft commander, also flying off Tinian. Interestingly enough, he also flew a B-29 named “Dream Girl”, among many others. Unfortunately my dad died 11-10-11, so i can’t ask him if he knew your dad. Just ran across your post when I Googled “B-29 dream girl”. Though I’d just let you know it’s a small world.

    Good luck


  35. My dad has a picture mother gave to me before she died of dad on a 504 group jeep in front of the plane before it took off with the bomb. The group secured it and maintained the plane, it’s engine repair, radio, electrical ect to be sure everything worked properly. Dad was not allowed to fly due to his poor vision without his glasses but knew how to in an emergency non the less. No one that I know, still living, will tell about the things there. I think dad may have faked his death to go back there in the early 60s. His death was just too predicted by him. I just can’t understand what would make him leave us to suffer without him, including mother. It was so utterly hard on her. Dad was in high security levels, wouldn’t have taken a whole lot to stage this, he had acted in plays many times, had the connections to go back and he was almost 40 years of age when guys do really crazy things to their family. All we have now are the few memories we can remember about him. He made the last payment on the place he bought for us just before he left for good. I just wish he had come back to us. The stories he never told to us are gone forever.

  36. To John response number 34
    I think my father was the radio operator with your father on Dream Girl. I would be really interested in talking with you. shirtsr@gmail.com

  37. I would like to contact the above Coco Ikehara if possible about some pictures in my possession that might be of interest to her. My father-in-law was stationed on Tinian and Saipan during the War and brought back a picture album with post cards. We had some of them translated and they mention a Captain Ikehara’s farewell party. It was his wish that maybe some of these families could someday find these family heirlooms again. Please contact me. Thanks.

  38. Hey,
    just found this sight! My dad Charles Meeks flew 35 missions from Tinian. in 1945. He was in the 9th bomber group. He was bombardier in the Loy crew.

Leave a Reply