POW Site Update
#03 - Finding the Kempei Tai headquarters
Monday, 23 February
Today began like every other day so far. Breakfast in the team room served up by Flip. We became used to getting SPAM-something-or-other for every breakfast. One day we had Spam-n-eggs on a bagel. It was actually quite good. I never did see Molly or Warren eat any of the SPAM. That was fine with me because that just left more for Flip and me to eat. We cleaned up and headed over to see the guys from the US Navy's MDSU-1 Company 18. MDSU stands for Mobile Diving Salvage Unit. These guys know Pat and BentProp all too well and were always glad to help us in any way. They helped the the water mission team with SSS (Side Scan Sonar), printed out and gave large-scale nautical maps and even walked Police Hill with us looking for MIAs. I think they are glad to see BentProp in Palau because there is always something going on when the team is there. These guys were involved with the recovery of the B24 the previous year. From what I've heard from Wil Hylton (our newest team member who happens to be an excellent writer and recent author of the GQ article LNMB - "Leave No Man Behind"), even muscle-bound navy divers cry. You have to read LNMB to know what I'm talking about. I should also note that the BentProp team comes up with acronyms for everything. SSS, MIA, MDSU, LNMB, LFH, and WCT were just a few. Flip had some others he told us about when describing found objects in the field, but I can't remember them right now. For the longest time I thought they were saying Mud Suit when they were saying MDSU. I don't think I was the only person who thought that. Oh well, we newbies were learning something every day there.
Anyway, the reason we went to the USNS SAFEGUARD to see the guys from MDSU-1 was to see these two HUGE anchors, a buoy and chain they had pulled out of Malakal Harbor. Katie had forgotten to bring her ID and Joe, our local master guide (I'd follow Joe anywhere, he's just THAT GOOD), didn't have any ID either. If I had been thinking clearly I would have challenged Katie with the BentProp coin at that moment because chances are she didn't have it. If you don't know the story behind coin challenges, you'll have to join the team and learn for yourself. If you've ever seen the BentProp coin [part of our logo on this Web site] and wonder what those red and blue stripes mean, well I'd tell you, but that's a team secret that even I don't know yet. I've been working hard to get it out of those who do know, but they're not giving it up. But that's OK, I have a plan for that too. Enough Red Rooster beers and loose lips sink ships. :)
Anyway, Katie went back to the hotel to get her driver's license and Joe tried talking to the guard in Palauan to see if he could get in without an ID. That didn't work. The rest of us went in and boarded the SAFEGUARD. It wasn't long before Katie and Joe were onboard too. The Navy guys went back to guard house and pulled some strings to get Joe in. On the ship the huge objects were encrusted with 65+ years of coral and god knows what else. For a while it looked like the SAFEGUARD was going to get stuck with these three huge objects and the nearly 1000 feet of chain they were hooked to underwater. I would have loved to have one of those anchors sitting in front of my bar in Gambrills, Maryland. Did I mention that my wife and I own a bar called Crofton Cantina? Ok, I got my plug in and would love to see anybody show up one day and say "Hey, I've been following the exploits of BentProp". First drink is on me.
After departing the USNS SAFEGUARD we headed back to our vehicles when we realized that Wil had lost his badge. You can't leave the Navy base without your badge. You see, I had been waiting patiently for two LONNNNNNNG days to get back to Police Hill. Then there was the side trip to the SAFEGUARD, followed by Katie forgetting her ID, followed by an hour on the ship and then Wil loses his badge. I thought to myself "Is this as good as it gets"? Badge found we finally headed up to Police Hill.
On the way to the hill was always a treat for me. I often wondered what it looked like during the war. The current day road has been built by the U.S. over the past few years and is by far the best on all of the islands. To tell you the truth, it beats most Baltimore roads too. Our trip took less than half an hour. From what I've heard from Pat and Flip the trip used to take HOURS before the new road was built. They said there were times they would take a boat because it was quicker to bypass all of the old bumpy roads and then come in from the bay. Having not been there when the old road was still in use I had no basis on the savings the new road meant for us. We were getting a good solid 7 hours a day on the hill. I can only imagine what it was like when you had to plan on 4-6 hours of travel time.
As we approached a certain spot in the road where I had expected the entrance to the Kempei Tai to be located we found a small patch of asphalt off to the side where we were able to park our vehicles. I later found out from Jolie that when the new road was constructed they added the asphalt bump-outs wherever there was an old road. We all jumped out and checked our gear. Warren, our safety officer, went through the safety check. Everything had to be covered, water, DEET (bug replellent), boots, gloves, hat, sunscreen, machete, first-aid kit, maps, we had it all. Car keys hidden (so nobody would loose them in the field), we were ready to go. I broke out some maps and explained to everybody that we didn't know what to expect. We had drawings that showed as many as 13 buildings and an Air Raid Shelter. Pat had noted before that he never found any building anywhere in Palau that survived the war unless they were made of cement. He had heard that Palauns used the wood after the war possibly during the rebuilding phase. Jolie later told us that after the Americans took control of the islands they destroyed almost everything that was of Japanese military origin. All I knew was that I was hoping to find a cement Air Raid Shelter. I explained to everybody what we were looking for and off we went.
The plan was to go a few hundred yards north along the road and then into the jungle on the west side. Since I was basing my distances on Haller's map, I figured we would start somewhere around 6/10ths of a mile from the Missionary Barracks location and then head southward. There was also supposed to be a former headquarters for the Sumida Unit nearby just north of the Kempei Tai, so we were on the lookout for anything that could be associated with that unit. Sumida was a transportation company that had about 150 vehicles attached to it with about 15 men to support the unit.
After following a water runoff ditch that paralleled the road northward we entered the woods on the left about 80 meters in and spread out in a line. We had hoped that if we could form a line and walk a slow pace southward we would eventually come across something. If not the Sumida Unit, certainly the Kempei Tai headquarters. As we walked the river (more like a creek to me) seemed to bend back southward almost encircling the area we were searching. The terrain started to lead us up a hill at a fairly steep ascent. Along the way we came across a couple of foxholes. Just as Pat had said, a foxhole dug 65 years ago is still a foxhole today. The soil on Babelthuap was very acidic and apparently once you got down past the top soil, not much would grow. I think we were all surprised to find the foxholes still looking almost exactly as they did the day they were dug...short of a little dead leaf foliage that may have fallen over the years. Before long we no longer had our straight line and we were getting out of sync with each other. Me, I was half way up the hill and still looking for that elusive cement Air Raid Shelter. It wasn't long before I heard Flip's voice come across the radio with something like "Joe's found a cave-like structure that might be your Air Raid Shelter". I said "made of cement". "Nope, just dirt dug into the side of the hill". "Ok", I said, "Get some grid coordinates on it and take some pictures" and I continued up the hill along with the rest of the team. All along the way up the hill we came across more foxholes and got coordinates and pictures of them. Poor Molly and Warren were moving from foxhole to foxhole getting GPS waypoints that they didn't have any time to look for stuff with us. They did a fantastic job. Once we reached the top of the hill we started heading back east where we ended up meeting up with the main road, only we were about 70 feet up in the air. In the picture below you can see the road below us heading north. The hill was so steep that if you slipped, there was no stopping you from going all the way down. At this point I was totally exhausted.
It was either Pat or Flip that said, "Look, over across the valley there should be your execution site". He was exactly right. Here is a view over to the area we were on that previous Friday night. It's a little hard to see, but that small patch of jungle on the ridge line slightly to the right of center is our Area A.
After we all got a good rest and drank as much water as we could, we started heading back north along the hill edge. Passing more foxholes along the way, we finally reached the infamous "cave-like Air Raid Shelter". After we stared at it for about 5 minutes someone said "Look at the map, maybe they were drawing it looking down on the shelter and not straight at it". Then we noticed that the area was in the shape of a letter D and there was a trench in front of it forming the flat side of a D. Then we realized that we had our Air Raid Shelter where at least 3 of the prisoners were held hours or minutes before being led across the valley to be executed. We ended up going back to the Kempei Tai area a total of four times during the two weeks I was there. The final time was on my next to last day so that Paul, Wil and I could get more accurate waypoints for all of the foxholes, building areas (flat, dug-out areas in the side of the hill that were generally about 10'X12' in size), and any cave structures.
Here is a photo op (l-r Paul, Wil, John and myself) of us inside the shelter the second time we went back into this jungle with the MDSU guys (Paul and John). They had some time off and wanted to come along to help us search for MIAs. You'll notice that there is no vegetation at all inside of the shelter. I'm sure it looks the same way today that it did 65 years ago.
It's also worth noting that the picture above does no justice for the actual shelter. There were two entrances (east and west) to the shelter. This was the west entrance. The hole circled back and to the left in this picture exiting out at the east entrance which was only about 10 feet away. If I had to guess, I'd say the shelter would have held 10-15 people easily.
While we were standing in front of the shelter that first day someone on the team found some more insulators lying on the ground. These insulators were used to hold communications lines above the ground. They were just another nail in the coffin for me, confirming the Air Raid Shelter since it would make perfect sense that the shelter would want to have comm lines run to it. Here is a picture of two of the insulators.
No, that's not my backback leaking water on me. That's pure perspiration. It was hot and muggy in the jungle with almost no airflow. The foliage was so thick in this area that it almost looked like dusk all of the time. Now you can see why the Kempei Tai had their headquarters here. There was no way American aircraft could see through this thick jungle when looking for targets.
To give you an idea just how the layout of the Kempei Tai headquarters was configured, here is a screen shot of our waypoints. Notice all of the foxholes located around building areas. The QK D SHAPE CAVE is the Air Raid Shelter.
It was shorthly after lunchtime that Monday that we felt confident that we had located the Kempei Tai headquarters area as we followed Joe out of the jungle. He led us right to our car parked less than 40 feet away. It was then that I realized that the asphalt we had parked on was probably the original entrance to the Kempei Tai area. Mark one up for Lt.(jg) Haller. He was right on the money. Almost exactly 7/10th of a mile south of the Missionary Barracks is exactly where we found the Kempei Tai area.
Next we headed back to our usual parking area just north of the Missionary Barracks area and had lunch. It wouldn't be long before we would be walking that 3/4 of a mile hike along the ridge and entering Area A again, this time for a more thorough search.
Next Installment: Area A, Holes and Depressions