P-MAN XVI Update # 27 - Peleliu: the last flight of Bill "Nose" Cantrell; R.V. revisits the battlefield.
09 April 2014
Yesterday was a great trip to Peleliu. We had two very compelling reasons for going. First, we were returning Billy "Nose" Cantrell, LCOL, United States Marine Corps, back to his battlefield from World War Two. "Nose" was a Marine aviator who flew Corsairs off of Peleliu. He survived the war and passed away last Thanksgiving. One of his last requests was to have his ashes scattered over the waters of Peleliu. Robin his daughter escorted him to Peleliu and the ceremony that we would be attending was the public celebration of his return.
Our second reason for going to Peleliu was due to one of the V.I.P. guests onboard the boat, R.V. Burgin. He is a Marine who led a mortar section during the war, made landings all over the Pacific including Peleliu and Ngesebus. Ngesebus is a small island right next to Peleliu. This was the shortest amphibious operation of the war. The landing craft left Peleliu, crossed a couple of hundred yards of channel and made the landings on Ngesebus. If you saw the HBO miniseries The Pacific, you met him. This trip was his first return to Peleliu since the war and he had a desire to return to Ngesebus to see the bunker he took out. His daughter Terrie was with him to experience his return.
The rest of our entourage consisted of Governor Perry and his family, Darcy and Kay Anderson, Eric Terrill from Scripps and his family, a few more folks from Scripps and some more folks who really packed the dive boat. But not everyone in BentProp went to Peleliu.
We also had folks up on Police Hill. Mark and Jolie continued their work up there rather than head to Peleliu. Their time on island is very limited so they kept their noses to the grindstone while we went on a tourist outing. It rained on them a bit, but they were able to poke around a bit more. Nothing earth shattering has come from their searches. Yet.
The Peleliu crowd planned to push off the dock at 0730. This was Casey's operation. Moving a company sized group, BentProp, Texas contingent, Civic ActionTeam (CAT), movie production company and others that can't be grouped easily, is always a challenge. Casey had a plan and we tried our best to help him complete it. And the day came off without a hitch even though we had to make some adjustments.
Robin and Nell went to Peleliu via helicopter. Matt from Belau Air graciously offered to use the helicopter to spread Billy's ashes. And since he was going down there anyway.....Robin got a taste of what her father saw when he was flying around the Palau islands when it wasn't so safe.
It was pouring rain off and on in Koror. We left Neco Marine and the rain did not stop until most of the way to Peleliu. But then the sun came out for the rest of the day and it did not rain on us again until a little sprinkle on the way home. As I said out there, "today, God is a Palauan Marine."
The first glitch was due to the weather. The ceremony was going to take place in a pavilion near South Dock on Peleliu. But the sea state was pretty rough. Casey had been in contact with Des, a tour operator on Peleliu that BentProp has known for years. He's the one who made the call to shift debarkation locations. So we all docked at North Dock and Des had enough transportation to get us all to South Dock.
Once at the pavilion, the ceremony commenced. In addition to all those who came down in our little armada, the President of Palau, Tommy Remengesau, Jr. and Governor Temmy Shmull of Peleliu joined Governor Perry and Pat Scannon on the dais for the ceremony. A large number of residents from Peleliu were also in attendance. Cleared Ground Demining had a large contingent of folks as they were intimately involved in the Ngesebus trip. There was an especially colorful group of red shirted women in their own special seating area.
Derek was the M.C. He introduced the speakers on the dais and kept us on track throughout. Pat spoke first to set the tone of why we were all here. Governor Shmull gave his thanks on behalf of the people of Peleliu.
The President had declared that since Billy would be here forever more, he was now a Palauan. Robin addressed the crowd expressing her appreciation for all that everyone has done to make this happen.
Casey read from the poem For The Fallen, which we read at each flag ceremony we do. Although I've sent this to you before, it's always worth repeating:
They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Derek concluded the ceremony and directed the audience to the beach.
Robin and Dan O'Brien headed to the airfield. After everything was setup on the helicopter, and everyone was in position along the southern point of the beach, Matt launched with Billy "Nose" Cantrell on his last mission over Peleliu.
Matt flew past the crowd, came about south of Peleliu and flew north along the reef. Right in front of the crowd, Billy's ashes were scattered and he rejoined Palau forever.
Although some folks came to Peleliu just for the ceremony, all of us tourists also came to see R.V. back on his battlefields. Our next stop was Orange Beach. This is where he came ashore. We parked the vehicles, and walked past the Wildcat Division's memorial markers and watched as R.V. set foot on Orange Beach for the first time in 70 years. As he said to us earlier in the day, 'Last time I didn't need a passport to get here.'
He had a chance to walk the beach and tell us a bit about his experiences. Des had his picture book that he uses to talk about the invasion and R.V. could appreciate the photos since he most likely was in one of them.
Back into the vehicles and everyone went to the Peleliu museum. This museum is housed in a Japanese built concrete building built during the war. The walls are exceptionally thick. But it was taken out by a direct hit of a 16 inch round from a battleship. The holes that shell created are now windows in the structure. The museum holds mostly battlefield memorabilia as well as photos and maps of Peleliu. Many items are from veterans who have sent things to the museum for their use.
Well, everyone except BentProp went to the museum. We had one more task for Billy's return to Peleliu. We went off away from the crowds and found a private, protected quiet spot and dug a little hole. Robin had authorized us to set a bit of Billy permanently into the grounds of Peleliu. A place where he will be able to rest in peace.
We also know that Billy's drink of choice was Bombay Sapphire Gin. So with our glasses held high, Billy had one more sip of gin and we saluted a great friend. We closed the hole, placed a flower on top and headed back to the crowd.
We caught up to the group at the Marine Memorial. R.V. and Terrie were being well taken care of in our absence. But we had to move on. We had to stick to our timetable for a very good reason. Tides. Our trip over to Ngesebus is not very far: about 200 yards straight across the channel. However, it is a very shallow channel. If the tide was out, we wouldn't be able to make it. If it went out while we were there, the boats might not get back out in a timely manner. But no assault should happen on an empty stomach so we had lunch at North Dock. The VIP contingent had a tablecloth setting on the dock set up by the Peleliu Governor. The tourists in the group had cheeseburger sack lunches. Best damn cheeseburger I've had in awhile!
When all was ready, we boarded the boats and crossed for our invasion of Ngesebus. This island isn't on the tourist map. It really hasn't been cleaned up at all. So no one goes there. Our V- hulled boats could not get all the way to the island. Everyone was going to get a little wet wading the final 10 yards getting there. R.V. was saying how he would stay in the boat. Derek and Casey, in true Marine fashion, thought that 'HEY!!! he came all this way after 70 years, a little water shouldn't stop him.' So without any fanfare, they waded to R.V.'s boat, and brought him ashore with a two-man carry. Of course I wasn't set up to take a picture, so maybe someone on Facebook captured it. If anyone finds a photo, feel free to send it to me.
But to condense the story, Bill Belcher says "If you don't know what it is, don't touch it. If you do know what it is, don't touch it." And as they say in National Parks everywhere "Take only pictures, leave only footprints."
Steve and Cassandra from Cleared Ground, along with their crew, cut a trail 200 yards long through this battlefield right to the bunker R.V. destroyed during the war. I know I can't do the story justice, but the gist is this bunker was a serious problem that the ground Marines needed to destroy. R.V. ran back to the beach, got an LVT with a B.A.G. (Big Ass Gun) and had the bunker pierced. Then they dealt with the Japanese soldiers that now found the bunker uninhabitable.
Cleared Ground made a safe path through the battlefield. On the path, it was UXO free. Outside of the stakes that marked the path, there was all sorts of stuff. And lots of it.
R.V. told us his stories along the path and at the bunker. Past the bunker Cleared Ground made a small trail loop that showed more military hardware abandoned during/after the war.
Someone from the great state of Texas created a great moment for R.V. and Casey by laying claim to the bunker one more time.
We left Ngesebus in stages. Those that wanted to see the 1000 man cave took the first boat out while the rest of us waited for R.V. to finish his tour. Once again, the boats couldn't get all the way to the beach and Casey and Derek did the honors for R.V.. I haven't looked at my pictures yet so as I add photos to this, I'll know if I captured the moment.
Back at Peleliu, we waited for the tourists to finish the 1000 man cave and then we headed back. Everyone but R.V. and Terrie. Dave McQuillen and Steve Cypra hosted them for a night on the island. No film crews, no masses of tourists, no hustle and bustle of having a schedule. R.V. and Terrie had no pressing engagements until 1900 the next night. I have found that Peleliu at night is one of the quietest places on earth. You can hear a pin drop even if it was dropped up in Koror. It's also the place that if you're going to see ghosts, it will be there. But R.V. and Terrie were hosted by people who love Peleliu for what it was and is today.
For those of us returning to Koror, a trip to Peleliu wouldn't be complete without a swim call. Even though we were not hiking the jungles of Peleliu on searches, it was still hot and humid and this break was a welcome cool down. Joe took us to a small protected reef where we could swim, look at pretty fish and not get bounced around by wind and waves.
Back at home plate, all the guest scattered. BentProp got cleaned up and went to Krämers for dinner. Coincidentally, Rene the owner was putting on a presentation of his latest yachting adventure.
The good news is everyone lived. The bad news is the sailboat is a loss on a charted reef that is supposed to be hundreds of meters deep. This happened somewhere between Borneo and Mindanao. He had beautiful pictures of the islands he sailed past and of the nature that surrounded him. He also obtained a few photos from the rescue vessels after the boat went aground. Those were heart-wrenching. He told the story of rescue, pirates, attempted recovery of the boat and finding it trashed and stripped.
In the big scheme of things as he said, that was all just stuff. Nobody lost their life. But it's sad to know the owners of the boat lost their home and a big investment.
All photos © Flip Colmer2014