2009 POW-Site Report # 04

POW Site Update #04 - Area A, Holes and Depressions
19 March 2009 - by Mark Swank

After coming out of the Kempei Tai area we decided to take a quick lunch break before heading up to Area A. Here is a picture of us during that first break. The jungle area directly behind the vehicles was where the Kempei Tai Headquarters was located.

Photo Courtesy Molly Osborne

Notice in the picture that Pat is standing there with his arms crossed as if to say "What, you guys are tired?" You couldn't tell it from my muddy pants. I had mistakenly taken one step with my right foot into what I thought was a small stream. My leg went deep into the mud all the way up to my hip. Quicksand came to mind at that moment as I kept sinking deeper and deeper. Luckily someone was there to grab my hand and pull me out as the hole filled back in with a sucking sound. I don't remember who it was that pulled me out - it could have been Flip - but I'm darn glad someone was there. We also learned one other lesson that day. Notice in the picture that Pat is wearing Yellow and Katie is wearing Pink. Yeah, when you're in the jungle and you're dressed in brown, black or blue, it just doesn't stick out. There were times I would be 20 feet away from someone and yelling "where are you" only to see them waving an arm right in front of me. We made up our minds that for future missions we would wear bright colors. Katie suggested pink. I heard someone say "I don't think so". Would you expect anything less from a bunch of guys?

So after another fine lunch and a gallon of water we hopped in the vehicles and headed up the road to our normal entry point for Police Hill. After we got out of the vehicles I quickly went over the plan and explained that we were going to head up to Area A and perform a coordinated search of the area. I figured once we got to the area I'd remind them of the key points in the testimony statements that I had gone over with everybody just two days earlier in the ready room. After everybody had their backpacks on we started up the last leg of the hill for the 3/4-mile hike across the ridge. Over the years Pat and the old-timers of BentProp had spend many days in the Police Hill area searching for the POWs. The road had washed out over the years to the point where the vehicles could no longer get to the top of the ridge. When you look at the road you can just imagine what it would have looked like 65 years ago. I remember reading a particular War Crimes testimony statement in which the author noted that the road had washed out from heavy rains. There in front of us was plenty of washed out road. I wondered from time to time if this was the same area where the road would have washed out back during the war.

Once we reached the top of the ridge we started our walk following the old vehicle tracks that were still visible today. There were many times during the walk where you have plenty of time to just think. Most days I thought about what it must have been like back in the war with Japanese military all over those hills. I wondered what it must have been like for that last walk or ride for those that were executed.

The first jungle area we pass on top of the ridge is an area the team appropriately named "Kidney Bean" because of its shape. Pat pointed out that there was a former hospital area within the jungle and maybe on the way back from from Area A we would take a walk in to see it. While BentProp was in Palau for PMAN X Katie, Jim Woomer and I came across the Lt. (jg) Haller map. In that map he drew the kidney bean jungle area and noted that it was probably the area where the executions occurred. As it turns out, he made that assumption based on a statement by a local Palauan. Because of that comment, BentProp spent several days scouring the jungle area for execution-like features during P-MAN X. Anyway, we were on a mission to Area A and so we kept on walking.

To give you an idea of what the road looks like in the GOOD areas, here is a picture showing some minor washout areas. Trust me when I say this is a picture of a good portion of the road. There were areas where the washout was 3 or four feet in depth. This picture is also typical of the areas around the ridge where there was NO JUNGLE and the brush was about 2-3 feet high with small trees spread throughout.

Photo Courtesy Molly Osborne

Finally after about a 20-minute walk we reached Area A. The first time we were here was for our warm-up hike the previous Friday night. Now that we'd found the Kempei Tai Headquarters area, we were getting ready to walk into the jungle where its quite possible the executions occurred. My plan was to start at the western edge of the jungle where it butts up against the ridge road and to form a line with each of us abreast of each other much like we did in the Kempei Tai Headquarters area. I explained to everybody that we were looking for anything that could resemble a hole or a depression that was supposed to be about 5 meters long and 1 1/2 meters in depth. This was the description of the execution site for the missionaries and at least 3 American aviators. Then I explained that Charlie Smith, a British National who was executed in the same jungle, was executed in a hole near the edge of the jungle that was described in the testimony statements as being a former air raid shelter. Ironically, there was a hole dug for Charlie Smith a few days before his execution that his executioners could not find and so they chose the air raid shelter for their deed. I also had somewhat hoped we would be lucky enough to find a spent cartridge that was used by one of the execution party members. Because other testimony had indicated that the jungle was also used by the Ordnance Duty Unit, I explained that we might find unexploded ordnance or possibly the storage containers for the ammunition. Pat explained that NOTHING, and he meant NOTHING, that wasn't metal or concrete seemed to survive the years and the climate.

With our line formed and starting at the northwestern corner of the jungle, we started our walk. I don't think we walked 30 seconds when someone yelled out that they had found a big hole. It was a hole we had seen during our warm-up hike the previous Friday night. This time we had time to really check it out. So of course we all immediately moved over to that area. Pat had seen this hole years before but made no special note of it as at that time they were only walking through jungles just to look for signs of military occupation or anything that would be worth noting (like the Ammo Fire Pit). As we looked at the hole it seemed to be a perfect fit for the execution site of Charlie Smith. The hole was indeed near the edge of the jungle and it would be easy enough to deduce that it could have been a former air raid shelter. Here is a picture of Pat running his metal detector through the hole looking for a spent shell casing or possibly the lead from a bullet.

Photograph: Courtesy Molly Osborne

It's worth noting that Molly took this picture from above the hole. Pat was about 10-12 feet below. He did get some metallic hits, but nothing worth noting at that point. After a few minutes someone noticed a 55-gallon drum nearby and so we headed the short distance to see it. We got good pictures of this area and the drum and then we re-formed our line and headed deeper into the jungle. It wasn't long before we started spotting flat dugout areas against the side of the sloping hill that were about 12' X 12' in size. We ended up finding more than 10 of these areas in all. It was then that we realized that these were probably the ammunition storage areas mentioned in the testimony. The jungle we were walking in tended to slope down forming a V-shaped ravine. It makes sense that they would have to dig flat areas against the slope to store the ammunition in. This was also a good fit for several testimony statements that noted the missionaries were executed in an area of a jungle that sloped down and then up, much like a ravine.

We kept walking and getting GPS coordinates for every area that fit the description of an ammunition storage area and for generally flat areas that just didn't seem to be natural in the area. Then someone came across the radio and said they had found a hole that looked like it was dug and never filled in. We all rallied near the hole and sure enough it was a hole with the fill-dirt still sitting on the side of it just like it was prepared for a grave. It's worth noting that of all of the foxholes we had found in the Kempei Tai Headquarters area, none of them had fill-dirt stacked to the side of the hole. In this case, there was a nice neat pile of dirt sitting right beside this hole ready to be filled in once the deed was done. Being that it turned out to be the ONLY hole we found in Area A even remotely resembling a foxhole, I'm confident this was the original hole dug for Charlie Smith's execution.

After getting a good GPS waypoint on this hole we spread out again and continued our search of the jungle area.

Anyway, back to that Monday afternoon. As the whole group started heading back up the ridge road toward the vehicles I think we all had the feeling that it was a good day. Not only had we found what we are confident was the Kempei Tai Headquarters, but we also felt sure we had found the jungle where the executions had occurred. All of the testimony fit. The original ordnance storage areas, the former air raid shelter, the original hole for Charlie Smith's execution, and the jungle that looked like a ravine. Yes, it was a good day.

As we walked along the ridge road Pat decided to give us a walk through Kidney Bean and so Joe (our fantastic guide) took us right to the area of interest. As I said, this wasn't the first time the team had been in this jungle. Over the years they had been able to identify it as having possibly been a former hospital area. There were thousands of tiny bottles and other medical supplies just lying there on the ground. Here is a picture of some of those bottles today still filled with some form of medicinal liquid:

There was even a rusted gurney lying on its side along with oxygen tanks and some form of water purification system. Exiting Kidney Bean we headed back to the vehicles and called it a day on Police Hill. I heard a Red Rooster (the only Palauan brewery) calling my name.

Next Installment: Area B, Depressions and Graves

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