2009 POW-Site Report # 01

POW Site Update #01 - Police Hill and a warm-up hike
06 March 2009 - by Mark Swank

I'm back in Maryland now, and after a good night's sleep I am finally able to start putting to words the experiences of the past two weeks. Sorry I was unable to get daily updates out as I had hoped. I just didn't have the patience like the others on the team to sit and wait up to 30 minutes just to get a web page to load. Add to that the planned rolling power outages that seemed to occur about every 30 minutes in Palau and would crash your computer just as you were about to send an email. Murphy's law kicked in and we got Internet hookup in the room on my last day on the islands.

In any case, my plan is to send several installments on how we conducted the search for the execution sites on Police Hill. What follows is the first installment:

Police Hill and a Warm-up Hike

We had a couple of free hours late on Friday afternoon (20 February), my first full day on the islands, so Pat agreed to give us a warm-up hike on Police Hill to get the lay of the land, so to speak. Police Hill is just a name BentProp gave to a specific area in Ngatpang (pronounced not-pong) where the Japanese Kempei Tai (aka Military Police) had headquartered during the war and where we believed they had executed many if not all of the American POWs they captured from July through September of 1944.. After parking the van as close to the top of the hill as the now worn-out road would allow us, we checked our hiking gear, made sure we had water in our backpacks and began walking the 3/4 of a mile hike along the ridge of the hill.

We managed to lose Flip and Katie along the way because Flip was wearing flip-flops and the jungle is not kind to exposed skin or any kind of footwear short of hiking boots. Katie agreed to be Flip’s buddy and stay behind with him. We never leave anybody without a buddy or a way to communicate in the event of an emergency. You see, there was no plan to go up to Police Hill that day and so Flip figured he was OK with wearing flip-flops. I could have easily made the same mistake as I later learned that when in Palau with Pat, be prepared for all scenarios. If a water day is planned, bring your hiking gear too, because you never know when Pat will pull the boat up to an island and want to climb a coral ridge.

After looking at photos of the hill for the past 3 years I figured I'd know exactly where I was. Not so. Photos taken from 16,000 feet do absolutely NO JUSTICE to terrain features on the ground. We truly were walking along a ridge of a mountain with vegetation and jungles sloping down on both sides of the road. This was definitely not what I had expected. I chalked that error up to my not reviewing the topographical maps more closely before heading to Palau. However, it didn't take long for me to be able to identify the jungles and get my bearings straight. The topology of the area hadn't change my mind on my theory, but it did make me re-think the testimony statements to see if things still fit. They did. It's absolutely amazing how little the jungles have changed in 65 years. The road at the top of the ridge was beginning to grow over with vegetation in some places but overall the tire paths where vehicles once traveled back during the war were generally still visible and not too bad to traverse. Along the way we came across a dugout cave-like hole along the side of the road. We later found out that this was most likely an air-raid shelter used by the Japanese to quickly get out of view from oncoming American B-24 bombers.

After about a short 20-minute hike we finally made it to the area where I believed the executions occurred. Following Pat’s lead, we all just stopped and I think Pat said "Well, this should be it. If your theory is correct, this would be the jungle where the executions occured".

The edge of the jungle for Area A and the vegetation leading up to the jungle.
[The ground slopes sharply downward at the edge of the grass.
Here you're just seeing the tops of some pretty tall trees. - Reid]

I then gave everybody a quick overview of my theory, pointed across the valley to an area where I believed we would find the Kempei Tai headquarters and explained my logic as to why this particular jungle area seemed to fit. I would get my chance to explain my theory in detail to everybody when I give a presentation on my research and analysis of the maps, statements and photos.

Next Pat took us past an area they had been years before and labeled it "Ammo Fire Pit".

Photo of the fire pit taken by Reid in 2006.

Apparently someone had decided to burn off some ammunition in a small area along a narrow road (now almost completely unrecognizable) that ran perpendicular to the ridge road and along side of my proposed execution jungle. We later figured out that the 55-gallon drum nearby was the container for the burning of the ammo. Lead from the bullets was still recognizable along the base of the now rusted drum. There were small arms bullets, some mortar heads and assorted other ammunition of which I have no clue what they were. Seeing it for real on the ground with the full surroundings just seemed to put it all into perspective for me. All in all it was interesting to me that we had a "burn area."

You see, the war crimes testimony stated that on the last day of the war (August 15, 1945) the Japanese dug up the remains of those executed and burned their bodies, finally re-burying the bones some 100 yards away. The assumption is that this was their attempt to hide the fact that the executions occurred. There is still some thought that the burning of the remains never occurred at all and that it was just a story to deflect the investigation of the murders away from the additional murders that may have occurred. Rest assured that we will ask the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC), the military organization charged with locating and identifying the remains of American service members from all wars, to follow through on both the burning-of-remains and NOT-burning-of-remains scenarios. Rule No. 1 in the field: If you don't know what it is, don't touch it. Rule No. 2: If you do know what it is, don't touch it.

After looking at the Ammo Fire Pit, I was still unsure if this was the area where the bodies could have been burned. Whether the ammunition was burned immediately after the war or it was burned in the years following by a hunter didn't make much difference to my case at this point. Mental notes made, we proceeded to the edge of the jungle for a quick peek inside. Pat led us in along what appeared to be a footpath leading into the jungle. I later realized that it was simply a water run-off area that led into the jungle ultimately dumping the water into a ravine in the middle of the jungle. This was important to note since the photographic images we have of the area dating to July 1944 showed at least two areas that looked like footpaths entering the jungle. It's quite possible that they were just water runoff paths that limited the growth of vegetation.

After walking around for about 15 minutes and finding some large dug-out areas, Pat rounded all of us up like a schoolteacher gathering students up after recess. We were all newbies to the land and at that moment Pat was the only one who had been in the jungle before, so he smartly exercised caution in keeping us close to him. We would later discover just how glad we were that he only gave us a few minutes to look around. All gathered up, we headed back to the ridge road and started our trek back up the road toward the van where we met up with Katie and Flip along the ridge road. With jungles on both sides of the road, Flip wasn't about to take a chance on which jungle we had walked into and so he figured it best to just stay on the road and wait for us.

Warm-up hike complete, we now all had a good feel about the area and terrain we would be spending the next two weeks searching. For me, I now had an image in my mind to work with over the next few days while I waited for our next trip to Police Hill. It would be two long days before I would get back up to the hill to begin implementing my plan. The two longest days of my life.

Police Hill 2nd Installment: Searching for the Kempei Tai headquarters coming soon.

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