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By Graham Earnshaw

KWAJALEIN ATOLL, Marshall Islands, Aug 26, Reuter – On a lonely atoll in the northern Pacific Ocean, it is literally always yesterday, by order of the United States armed forces.

The U.S. Strategic Defence Command runs a sophisticated missile testing range on Kwajalein Atoll, monitoring missiles fired from the U.S. mainland on the other side of the International Dateline.

Kwajalein does not work on Marshall Islands Time, but exactly 24 hours behind the rest of the country to avoid confusion in the missile tests, said an American scientist working in the area.

“They do it so the missiles do not arrive yesterday,” he told a Reuters correspondent on a recent visit.

The isolation of the base, and the fact that even getting off the plane there is forbidden without military clearance, means that it doesn’t matter too much what day of the week it is.

But the United States is trying hard to build up the image of the Marshall Islands and its other former trust territories in the Pacific as independent nations — no easy task when it effectively controls their defence, economy and foreign policy.

One U.S. official said the State Department had urged the U.S. military authorities on Kwajalein to work on local time, like every other U.S. military base around the world.

The Marshall Islands occupy a vast area of the Pacific 2,500 miles (4,000 km) west of Hawaii, and an hour or so west of the International Dateline dividing Monday from Tuesday.

The area was a United Nations Trust Territory administered by the United States until 1986 when it was granted a degree of independence.

But the United States still controls the region’s defence and has the right to keep its missile and radar installations on Kwajalein for at least the next 13 years, probably longer.

All the 2,500 Americans on Kwaj (rhymes with dodge) and the 10,000 Marshallese on the island next door live and work yesterday.

The same applies to Bikini Atoll, 300 miles (500 km) northwest of Kwaj where the United States conducted 23 atomic bomb tests between 1946 and 1958.

The atoll is now uninhabited due to high radiation levels in the soil, except for a small field station operated by the U.S. Department of Energy.

“We work on the same time as Honolulu and Kwajelein,” said one field worker on Bikini. “It’s less confusing that way, otherwise they’re talking Wednesday and we’re talking Tuesday.”

Commercial airline flights island-hopping through the region pass from Thursday to Wednesday and back to Thursday again as they transit Kwaj, which can create some confusion with airline bookings.

The acting president of the Marshall Islands Republic, Henchi Balos, said the government had considered the problem of its territories living exactly one day behind the rest of the country, but had no immediate plans to ask them to catch up.

“Maybe in a couple of years we will consider it,” he said. REUTER GAE MH

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