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Sasebo's cultural resources manager, Thomas Smith, poses with a Japanese Imperial Navy cannon, one of about 200 cultural or historic relics for which he's responsible.

Sasebo's cultural resources manager, Thomas Smith, poses with a Japanese Imperial Navy cannon, one of about 200 cultural or historic relics for which he's responsible. (Juliana Gittler / S&S)

SASEBO NAVAL BASE, Japan — Before crews break ground on the next construction project on base, they’ll get to know Thomas Smith, Sasebo’s cultural resource manager — one of a half-dozen jobs he holds with the environmental division on base.

He is charged with preserving anything cultural or historic, from the 200 or so items previously identified, to things still hidden — arrowheads from prehistory, old war munitions or burial markers for unknown deceased.

It’s a job requiring a love of history and cultural appreciation — skills learned on the job. Smith began his career at Sasebo as a hazardous materials manager.

“I need to know Japanese history, to know why things are the way they are,” he said. “We have a responsibility to Japan and to the U.S. to make sure we don’t destroy anybody’s property.”

For his efforts, Smith earned the 2005 Commander Naval Operations cultural management award, beating out all other Navy commands.

He picked up his award last month at a ceremony in Washington.

The win was a shock.

“You’re competing with the world,” he said. “I thought, ‘a small little base like us doesn’t have a hope of getting anything.’”

The award focused on several highlights: helping renovate historic buildings; safeguarding a memorial to Japanese servicemembers killed in an accident that was almost destroyed; and requesting a field study on an area for a future construction site.

Smith’s work doesn’t require lightly brushing off relics at a dig under the hot sun. He primarily uses records.

Every five years or so, visiting archaeologists map all known cultural and historic items. When a construction project is to begin, Smith compares the plans with the list of known relics and makes recommendations.

Once an item is found, Smith alerts Japanese authorities and helps determine whether it can be moved or ignored.

All bases have similar positions, but in the States historical associations and a catalog of state and federal laws determine the bottom line. Not so in Japan, where rules and perceptions differ, Smith said.

Japan isn’t that interested in preserving World War II relics, something Americans find fascinating, Smith noted. And Navy rules only say to consider your actions carefully.

“It’s really a hard call sometimes, to decide what you’ll let go,” he said.

There are also fewer resources available, Smith said.

Recent excavations unearthed arrowheads, pottery and unusual ceramic grenade shells, which were created during the war when steel fell in short supply.

“This is a wonderful job,” Smith said. “If it wasn’t because I have to feed my wife, I’d probably do it for free. It’s been a growing experience.”

Director honored for keeping up environmental standards

It seemed pretty obvious to Sasebo’s environmental division director, Richard Whittier: If you want compliance with environmental standards, go to the guys doing the work in the shops.

And, instead of handing them a binder of rules or a 200-page checklist, hand them a short summary checklist including what’s relevant.

The idea — starting with workers and simplifying everything to ensure compliance — helped Whittier and his command earn an honorable mention last month from the White House “Closing the Circle” Awards, which recognize achievements by federal agencies to improve environmental standards.

About 200 agencies applied. The White House selected 16 winners and 11 honorable mentions. Sasebo was the only overseas military base to earn recognition, according to a White House news release.

It starts with identifying all the processes that can or do have an environmental impact in an area, Whittier said. A worksheet then defines those impacts more specifically.

A checklist is created asking the user yes-or-no questions that can tell Whittier if the process is meeting compliance standards. The checklist narrows the entire Navy code to what’s relevant.

Using maps and pictures — rather than long lists — helps users recognize exactly what to look for, he said. It helps the end user stay compliant and frees Whittier’s office to focus on trouble spots.

— Juliana Gittler

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