U.S. Marines Set Up Asia Pacific Base In Australia

In April, the first company of U.S. Marines will deploy to northern Australia. The training facility there replaces U.S. bases in the Philippines that closed in the early 1990s. It will be one of the largest combined arms training facilities in the world.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Now, the Arab awakening is just one of many events that President Obama's administration has to monitor in a changing world. The administration is also shifting emphasis toward the Asia Pacific region, which is why the first company of U.S. Marines arrive in northern Australia in April. They'll open a training facility, as the U.S. replaces bases that closed years ago in the Philippines. NPR's John Burnett reports.

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JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Australians call their northernmost latitude the Top End. The territorial capital of Darwin - just across the Timor Sea from Indonesia - feels as much a part of the vibrant Asia Pacific as it does the Australian continent. It's a rowdy frontier town popular with bushmen, backpackers and off-duty soldiers. The first 250 Marines will arrive in two months, with the troop numbers eventually ramping up to 2,500. An Air Force contingent is expected to follow. They'll come here to an Australian Army outpost called Robertson Barracks, where cockatoos perch in the trees, the odd pack of dingoes follows joggers, and buff cavalrymen walk the grounds with an emu feather tucked in their slouch hats.

The commanding officer is Brigadier Gus McLachlan.

BRIGADIER GUS MCLACHLAN: I think the most significant feature of what's on offer for the Marines here is space. The range that we will make available for them to use most specifically is a range called the Bradshaw Range. It's as big as the state of Connecticut.

BURNETT: For the Marines, it will be one of the largest combined arms training facilities in the world, meaning they can fire live ammunition, lob artillery shells, and strafe targets from aloft without bothering the neighbors.

As the brigadier says...

MCLACHLAN: I got to tell you, out there, no one can hear you scream.

BURNETT: And there is, in the outback of the Top End, plenty to scream about.

MCLACHLAN: Down where the Marines will do a lot of their training at the Bradshaw Range, there's probably a man-eating crocodile about every 200 meters in the river. We have, I think, at least half of the top 10 venomous snakes in the world, you know, probably roaming freely around that range. So it is a tough, demanding place to train.

BURNETT: Marine Lieutenant Colonel Matthew Puglisi is in charge of the forward advance team at Robertson Barracks. He thinks when the Corps asks for volunteers, many hands will go up.

LT. COLONEL MATTHEW PUGLISI: I think when they hear Australia, it's going to excite them. It's something new. I know if I was young Marine, I'd be excited to go to Australia to train. And when they hear about the humidity and the crocs and the snakes? Ah, they're tough. The environment will present some challenges, and any Marine looks forward to those challenges.

BURNETT: Australia and the United States share an enduring military alliance. Aussies have fought alongside Americans in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq and currently, Afghanistan. No Australian city understands the responsibility of hosting allied forces better than Darwin.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: On Feb 19th, 1942, radio messages were received in Darwin from the Catholic mission on Bathurst Island, warning that over 100 aircraft were heading towards Darwin.

BURNETT: A film inside the military museum recounts the Japanese bombing of Darwin. The attack crippled the Australian Navy, and sunk or damaged allied warships anchored in the harbor. The U.S. Navy destroyer the Peary - which lost 89 sailors - rests on the ocean floor to this day.

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BURNETT: Darwin has already had experience with the U.S. military, between Marines who come here on joint exercises, and U.S. Navy ships that call at the port. Off duty, the servicemen usually head straight for the pubs on Mitchell Street. A Darwin lawyer who gives her name as Ruth is leery.

RUTH: I think that people worry, women worry about sexual assaults. So I think there's a certain public safety concern.

BURNETT: According to local news, Marines have been involved in some drunken brawls, and a sailor was charged with rape, but the case was later dropped. Darwin Lord Mayor Graeme Sawyer says troops - both U.S. and Australian - will misbehave, but he's not overly concerned.

LORD MAYOR GRAEME SAWYER: American troops tend to fit in fairly well, and I think American and Australian cultures match each other to a fair degree. So I think it'll all work pretty well.

BURNETT: Regional neighbors are a different matter. Both China and Indonesia voiced concern over the U.S. military buildup, worried that a closer American-Australian bond might come at their expense.

John Burnett, NPR News, Darwin, Australia.

INSKEEP: And you're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News, mate.

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