2009 BentProp Progress Report # 08

P-MAN XI Update #08 - First reports from Rick and Wil
22 February 2009

I've been on the road for several days, and have had some gaps in my Internet accessibility. Not GAPS like they're presently experiencing in Palau, but at least periods when I've been unable to grab e-mail and assemble updates. Following are a couple of updates that I received yesterday from Wil Hylton and Rick Smith. I think there's also a new update in .pdf format from Flip, but I haven't been able to retrieve that one yet.

Wil's work-around for the Palau Internet problems was to send this report via text messages sent from his iPhone. At this end, it was more like Chinese Water Torture. It came to me in something like 24 separate 160-character text message fragments on my cell phone. They arrived here over a period of time, but totally out of sequence. Evidently the little message packets zoomed around in the ether for random amounts of time before reaching me. I then had to copy them to a real e-mail message that I could read on my laptop, then re-arrange the sentence fragments, like a jigsaw puzzle, back into the original document. But hey, Wil, this is just an observation, not a complaint...for your kind of magnificent writing, I'd gladly accept your inputs a character at a time - whatever you can manage. Thanks!

- Reid

From Rick Smith

Yesterday was Back in the Water Day. A chance for all to get their sea legs back and refresh some skills that may not have been exercised since PMAN X!

It was an all-day PMAN dive adventure. We spent the day in the company of the Civil Action Patrol from Koror. This is a group of working divers from the Air Force. We started with the Helmet Wreck to get us in the right mood. It's a Japanese supply ship that was sunk with seemingly its full complement of munitions, gear, and supplies aboard. Flip and Pat commented that some items seem to be missing since they last dove it a couple years ago. This is an indication that it's open season on any wreck commonly known in the Palaus. Next up was an investigation of a spot that Esther found and thought might be of interest. Turned out that Pat id'ed it as a Daihatsu barge that was blown up by the Marines. This was very shallow, so we snorkeled it. But it got us all in a hunting mood.

Next we went to the '453 [the B-24 that the BentProp team found and identified in 2004]. A moving experience for everyone, without a doubt. The team was extremely excited to do this dive, and Wil really enjoyed putting the final touches of this plane's story in his own mind. Pictures were taken, tears were shed, it was the highlight of an already thrilling start.

Paul broke out the side scan sonar and we were able to take some waypoints and get some images of the bottom. We need to determine how to rig it up on the boat we'll be using.

Finally we visited the Jake [a relatively intact Japanese single-engine float plane in shallow water north of Arakabesan] on the way home. Again, it was mentioned that the wreck looked like it had been altered since the last visit by some of the team.

One final note: the Helmet Wreck is just 500 yards from the Koror docks, where an American naval ship is currently tied up. It's a salvage vessel, and onboard are some of the dive team that participated in the '453 recovery operations. Talk about great luck! We've had dinner with them a couple of times now, and tonight they are going to brief us on tactics for the red circle operation. We are pretty ecstatic about this turn of events! Pat says PMAN expeditions just get lucky sometimes. I am true believer!

From Wil Hylton

Hey Reid!

Yesterday we dove the '453, a very special moment. Just getting out to the site by boat, looking around at the arc of islands surrounding the water, and thinking about the airmen aboard the plane, making a path across the sky there, sweeping over Koror island at first, at 17,000 feet, then taking an anti-aircraft hit on the left wing and corkscrewing down, three of the airmen popping out in chutes as the plane came over open water, veering toward Babeldoab island on the other side, while the pilot, Jack Arnett, struggled with the controls, trying to stabilize the descent, tumbling through the air as the plane finally gave way, snapping in two pieces before hitting the water - it was all still there in the skies above us and on the water, and Pat said a few moving words to remind us of what had happened, where we were, and who had been there, the men of the '453 who, even now, even after the recovery by JPAC, home again on American soil after 65 years, still feel so present here.

As we dropped in for the dive, with the tide going out, filling the water with silt and sand, it was difficult to see at first, the water milky and thick. But suddenly through the haze we could see the propeller, the one the BentProp team found in 2004.

From there we traced the story in parts - the ball turret, firing 50 cals in defense, the right wing, holding onto sky as the plane came down, the controls that Jack Arnett struggled with, still frozen in position, his final effort to save his crew. We swam around the coral and saw the tail, massive and intact, resting there against the coral head, the waist door yawning open. It was just an astonishing thing to see, and it made me think of so many people: The airmen aboard the plane, from so many corners of the country, so many small towns, their memories on every corner in places like Snyder and Marlboro and Des Ark. Their families, devastated, broken, never quite the same again, even after all these years, the questions unrelenting, their fathers and brothers and cousins and best friends just vanishing, forming this unreconcilable void that never went away.

The ten years that Pat spent looking for these airmen, the selfless sacrifice, month after month, year after year, for a decade, for no reason other than that he felt,in some private place, that he had to, he was compelled to, driven by some inner urge to help and heal. The dozens of others who have found Pat and BentProp along this journey, the generous and passionate and, yes, eccentric and quirky and fascinating team, of all backgrounds and ages, who come together on these missions each year, to give answers to American families after so many years and so much loss - to give a final, permanent home again to the men who disappeared. It really is an honor to stand among this group and be a small part of it, especially after travelling for the past year to get to know the families who have been touched so intimately by their work, and the surviving airmen who flew missions here, who can hardly believe that someone still cares enough to bring their fallen friends home.

In the evenings here, at a restaurant, enjoying sashimi and beers with the Navy Divers, it's a great time, fun and vibrant, but the biggest part of that feeling comes from the sense that what we're here for is so important. Not only that it needs to be done, but that each team member feels, in his or her own personal way, that he or she needs to do this, to be part of it, to leave their lives and loves for weeks on end, each year, to help make this happen.

It all struck me again yesterday, as we descended into the water and the team met, in some ethereal way, the team of the '453, their story still very much alive there in the hazy waters, in the shell of their last mission. It was a great and somber thing to experience - exhilarating and poignant at the same time. We have already done a lot of scouting and setting up the mission this year, as I'm sure you've heard from others, but in some way it feels like the mission really took on its own life yesterday, inspired by the '453, an unforgettable reminder of what all this means, and why we're here.

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