2009 POW-Site Report # 05

POW Site Update #05 - Area B, Depressions and Graves
30 March 2009 - by Mark Swank

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Today started like every other day so far in Palau. On a typical day we would all meet in Flip's room (aka team ready room) for breakfast, cleanup, and then prepare our backpacks for the days mission. The group of photos we call "The Bishop Photos" (which we located at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu a few years ago) were taken in July of 1944 and were as vital to my theory as the actual hand-drawn maps of the execution areas. These photos were high-altitude high-resolution photos that completely covered the Police Hill area in North-South and East-West photographic passes with Police Hill being almost dead center where the two photo runs cross. They were important to us in identifying roads that existed in 1944 but that are nearly invisible today. This day I made sure I had plenty of cropped Bishop photos of Area B. This particular jungle area is shaped like a U. Our plan was to have Joe take us in on the southern edge of the jungle (which faces Area A) and then to spread out and make a coordinated walk through the southern edge of the jungle area and then turn back around and come up through the middle of the jungle area back to the western edge where we entered. If my theory was right, the southern tip of the jungle was the general area where the bones of those executed and burned on the last day of the war would have been re-buried.

After we had the room all cleaned up and our gear loaded into the two vans, we started out on the 30-minute drive that would take us from Malakal to Koror and finally to the island of Babelthuap where Police Hill is located. On a good day Pat would give us history lessons as we passed key land features that played an important part of the war or the loss of a specific American plane. He could point to an area of land and recite every detail about the area and how they eventually found a missing plane buried deep in the mangroves. We newbies were always interested in hearing Pat's stories of how the planes were attacking when they were shot down. He knew all of the details of each mission, the angle of attack, how much anti-aircraft artillery the plane had suffered, and the crew that were lost, And before long we would be at Police Hill.

I pulled out some photos and showed them to Joe and explained the plan to search Area B. He would take a quick look at the photo and that's all he needed to get his bearings straight. All loaded up, we started up the hill to the ridge and started our walk down that road that was becoming more and more familiar to us all. When Joe had reached a specific spot in the road he stopped and waited for everybody to catch up. Then we made our way down the sloping ridge to the jungle. Here is a photo of Joe leading us one day back into Area B. You can see in this photo just how much the ridge sloped down and the type of terrain we would have to cross for 150 meters just to get to the edge of the jungle.

Photo Courtesy Molly Osborne

As you get closer to the jungle in some areas the elephant fern grass is as much as six feet in height. Here is a team photo op to give you an idea of just how thick this stuff was.

Photo Courtesy Flip Colmer

After we made it down the ridge and into the jungle we spread out and began another coordinated walk of the area. We were looking for anything that would be an indication of military occupation. More importantly, we were looking for for holes or depressions on the ground that would be consistent with a hole that was filled in and settling occurred over the years. The description of the final burial hole was that it was in the shape of a letter L, several meters long. As we walked along we came across several clearings in the jungle that just stuck out as being odd, so we took pictures of them. Here's an example of one such area that Pat was preparing for his metal detector.

Photo Courtesy Molly Osborne

We came across several depressions in the ground that definitely looked man-made. The first was a small area that was only about 2 meters by 1 meter in size. Smaller than the area we were looking for, it still didn't seem to fit. Here is another picture of Pat preparing the area for a once-over with his metal detector.

Photo Courtesy Mark Swank

As we continued on, we came across a single foxhole on the southeastern edge of the jungle. The metal detector picked up a hit that we found out was an L bracket that may have been used in the construction of a cover for the foxhole. Nearby we found this rice bowl:

Photo Courtesy Warren Bruce

We continued up to the southwestern corner of the jungle and decide to take a lunch break. Mother nature decided we needed a bath, too, so she obliged us with one of the hardest rains I have ever seen. After waiting about 15 minutes for the rain to subside, we decided that we might just as well start eating, so we broke out the peanut butter and some apple slices and ate while the Palauan skies unloaded on us.

Photo Courtesy Molly Osborne

After eating we decided to head along the western edge of the forest making our way to the north side of the jungle. We did find one 55-gallon drum near the edge of the jungle. After cutting a hole in it we found it completly empty. Not surprising as it's bottom was probably rusted out. It was still odd that it was here, so we got some pictures. Here is a picture of that drum.

Photo Courtesy Molly Osborne

Along the way I heard someone say that Joe had found some graves. We all rallied near them and were trying to determine their age. Joe looked at them and said that they were NOT ancient. Soon someone found more graves nearby. Before long we had found about ten of them in all. Our first thought was that this might have been an area where the Japanese could have buried their own war dead. Pat did note that the Japanese tended to cremate their dead, but that he could believe that during war they would not want to have a fire burning to signal their occupation area - so maybe they did bury their dead. Pat also seemed to think there was a remote chance these graves could have been the graves of the missionaries, even though that theory would not agree with the testimony statements. Here is a picture of one of the graves. Typically they were mounds about 6 feet long and about 3 feet wide with stones about 6-8 inches in diameter placed all over the mound.

Photo Courtesy Molly Osborne

We finished searching the remaining jungle of Area B without finding anything of interest. On a subsequent trip back to Area B with the Navy MDSU team guys, we were able to identify a couple more interesting clearings and depressions. One area we found was in the middle of the jungle that was heavily laiden with fist-size stones much like those we found on the graves. What was odd about this area was that there were stones everywhere except in this one area that was rectangular in shape about 2-1/2 meters by 5 meters. Hmmmm, that looked interesting, so we took GPS waypoints and pictures.

We also checked the area just outside the jungle in the direction of Area A. The testimony stated that the remains were re-buried 100 meters from the edge of the original execution. Google Earth showed that Area B was about 120 meters away from Area A. So we were compelled to test the 100 meter distance and walk through 6 foot high elephant fern grass to search for depressions...and we found some. Here is a picture of Wil Hylton standing just outside area B. We ended up finding at least 3 areas of distinct man-made depressions. We took pictures and took GPS waypoints for our case to JPAC.

Photo Courtesy Warren Bruce

Back inside the jungle, Paul managed to find what we consider our highest-probability burial location that almost matches the testimony perfectly. It was an area that was L shaped and about the same size as the one described in the testimony. It also had spill-dirt (extra dirt after filling a hole) to the side. Here is a picture with Paul and Pat sitting inside the hole near the bend in the L. Notice the spill-dirt on the left of the hole. Although this picture doesn't do much justice to the actual depression there in the woods, it was almost certainly man-made with distinct angles in the dirt that would form the shape of the hole.

Photo Courtesy Molly Osborne

I'm sure our case to JPAC for a search and recovery mission will include this very depression as a highly likely location for the remains of those executed and buried near a lonely ridge on the island of Babelthuap.

Next Installment: Just to be sure... a search of Areas C, D and E

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