In September 1944, Marine Lt. George P. Shultz landed amid gunfire on a Palauan beach to drive out the Japanese in the battle for the South Pacific. Today Shultz returned as secretary of state to revisit a scene from his past and welcome this small island group into a new status of permanent association with the United States.

A sudden tropical squall within minutes of Shultz's arrival dampened the island welcome for the highest ranking U.S. official ever to visit Palau. But Shultz, who said his trip marked "the threshold of a new era," beamed broadly a few minutes later as the sun came out over the deep azure lagoon, coconut palms and banana trees of America's far-away empire near the Equator 4,500 miles west of Hawaii.

Since 1947, Palau and other Micronesian islands have been administered by the United States under a United Nations trusteeship. This February, 72 percent of Palauan voters approved a "compact of free association" to become permanently affiliated with the United States and to be a fallback base for U.S. military forces in case they have to leave their bases in the Philippines.

The Soviet fleet and Soviet fishing trawlers have become increasingly active in the South Pacific, prompting U.S. concern about an area that, since Shultz's wartime days, has usually been an exclusive U.S. preserve. Soviet diplomats, in an effort to block the new permanent arrangements for Palau and other Micronesian island groups, are expected to cast a veto when the plans comes up for approval in the U.N. Security Council in the next several months.

The Palauan vote was intensely controversial among islanders, as could be seen by signs along Shultz's route condemning opponents of the new U.S. tie as "Palauan communists" who should "go home to Russia." The decision is being contested in court by the traditional chief of the capital city of Koror, where about half of the 16,000 Palau islanders live.

Affiliation with the United States is not the issue, said the chief, former U.S. Army sergeant Yutaka Gibbons. Instead, Gibbons questioned the terms of the arrangement.

Gibbons said he is worried about the authorization for U.S. nuclear-armed ships to call here, despite Palau's constitutional ban on nuclear weapons testing or storage. Gibbons also said that Palau needs a lot of things it is not getting in the deal, including clear title to lands seized by the U.S. government after the war, and more aid for education and medical facilities.

Palauan President Lazarus Salii, who backs the accord, said that "if Palau has any communists you could count them on the fingers of one hand."

"We don't want nuclear waste dumped in the Pacific, we don't want to see nuclear proliferation," said Salii, who studied at the Unversity of California at Berkeley. "But we realize that in order to achieve peace and security in the region, we must give the United States minimum means to achieve that."

A senior Defense Department official recently called Palau "part of our alternative to the Philippines" but said there are no immediate plans for a major investment in U.S. military facilities.

"Having fought for these islands and remembering the number of guys who laid down their lives there, I realize anew how strategically important they are," said former lieutenant Shultz, who landed on Angaur Beach south of here in 1944.

After his three-hour stopover in Palau, Shultz spoke enthusiastically of the Palauan harbor he had toured as "one of the world's greatest." His presence, and his comments, suggested a quickening U.S. interest in its empire in the South Pacific.