P-MAN V - p. 3              

Finding, mapping and identifying one new WWII U. S. Corsair fighter crash site, Malakal Harbor, 12-14 March 2003

Major Quintus B. Nelson, USMC Over the previous nine years, I have conducted numerous unsuccessful searches for a missing aviator, MAJ Quintus B. Nelson, squadron commander VMF-122, and his Corsair. MAJ Nelson was reported by two other Corsair aviators to crash 16 APR 45 into (or near) an uninhabited island near Koror. I had found the mission report of MAJ Nelson’s last flight in 1994 (at the U. S. Marine Corps Historical Research Center, Navy Yard, Washington, DC) and was astounded that his aircraft had never been found even though he had crashed into the most populated area of Palau. In preparation, I had reviewed all available archives, as well as conducted interviews with many Palauan elders and several surviving Corsair aviators. This had opened up several possible sites. In 2002, MAJ Nelson’s son, Jim, had located me in hopes of learning more about his father. He supplied me with even more information, including an enigmatic hand-drawn map from his uncle, written just after the war, pointing to what one Marine thought had been his crash site.

One by one, I have followed every lead. Some examples: Dan Bailey, famous for his work in finding and cataloguing all the ships sunk in Palau during WWII, found some aircraft debris on a dive in Malakal Harbor in 1997; in 1999 he took the P-MAN I team to where he thought the debris field was - but we found nothing on the harbor floor. The 1999 P-MAN I team also SCUBA-searched a nearby channel (Llebuchel) extensively because of an “aircraft-looking shadow” found in a then-recent aerial photo – once again, nothing. During P-MAN II (2000), we dragged team member, Chip Lambert, through the shallow waters around southern Koror - nothing. Based on a Palauan postwar story of a crash site complete with its cigarette-smoking ghost, we slogged through the mangroves of southeastern Koror (P-MAN III, 2001) - still nothing. In 2002 we (thought we) got seriously organized and, during P-MAN IV, after re-reviewing all leads, we conducted large and extensive jungle searches, with MAJ Nelson’s son joining us, on two uninhabited islands between Malakal and Koror - exhausted, dehydrated and dejected, we walked away with nothing. During one of these searches, Flip Colmer, our resident retired US Navy aviator, dropped his sunglasses overboard into Malakal Harbor, a seemingly minor incident. Knowing we must be close to MAJ Nelson’s crash, the P-MAN IV team held a ceremony with MAJ Nelson’s son and wife, along with Bill Cantrell (who had been a Corsair aviator on Peleliu during WWII) and his wife and a visiting Marine fighter squadron, VMFA-225. That night at a restaurant sitting along the waters of Malakal Harbor, all the Marines spontaneously stood at attention and sang the Marine Corps Hymn. The next day, VMFA-225 honored MAJ Nelson and flew a lone man formation. The F-18 Hornet squadron was supposed to fly down one side of the island on which we were searching (the Llebuchel side), but they flew instead over Malakal Harbor, on the opposite side of the island - deep in the jungles, we could hear the Hornets but saw nothing.

For all of this searching, the area described is relatively small. Approximately 1 square mile, much of the area is either inhabited or major waterways. This makes it all the more difficult to imagine how an aircraft known to have crashed here with its associated debris could go missing for almost 60 years. It is possible such a debris field might have been salvaged after the war, but no one I have interviewed recalls such salvaging. Accordingly, frustrating as it was, we agreed at the onset of P-MAN V not to conduct further searches UNLESS we obtained new and convincing information. So much for plans...

When the P-MAN V team arrived in Palau, our master guide, Joe Maldangesang, reported that a very sick elder in Koror had recently told his son that he had seen or heard of an aircraft during WWII crashing into the west face of the small island of Ngermalk. As is the nature of these searches for something that happened almost 60 years ago, this elder died just a few days after we arrived. Feeling that this recollection was credible enough, the P-MAN V team agreed to make a one-day search. The west side of this island is a coral cliff topped with dense jungle, so we divided the team into two sub-teams taking separate high and low routes. Armed with new radios with greater power than we had in P-MAN IV (thanks to the research of Dan O'Brien), we were able to keep in touch in spite of sub-team separation. The jungle conditions, as I reported last year, on this coral island were horrendous. The steep western face is never traveled these days. Nonetheless, we ran a complete search from which we could find no evidence of a crash site. We did find some evidence that Japanese military had been in the area with one interesting deep multi-room cave that had clearly been built in defense of Malakal Harbor (see map below).

With this trek behind us and with no further information, our search for MAJ Nelson had no where to go – so we halted further work and went on with the remainder of our agenda. With the exception of the southwest quadrant, virtually all the area within the red box has been searched from 1996 on, without success, by P-MAN teams – perhaps we should have prospectively considered that.

But, just a few days before we were scheduled to leave Palau, we were once again reminded that one never knows what might happen on these missions and, sure enough, something new came up – along with an anchor being hauled out of Malakal Harbor. We had just returned to Neco Marine late in the day on 11 APR 03 (from another investigation in which we identified aircraft debris in 55 feet of water we believe is a flap assembly from an Avenger – but more on this later). The dive shop owners, Mandy and Shallum Etpison, eagerly told us that in the process of pulling up an anchor nearby, they found what they thought was airplane debris.

The next day we dove on the site and came across a tail wheel assembly imbedded into the coral in about 20 feet of water. Immediately I identified it as belonging to a Corsair and got so excited I yelled it into the water to the rest of the team. Since there were no other Corsairs lost anywhere near this field, even during the SCUBA dive I realized that this must be MAJ Quintus B. Nelson’s crash site and, more importantly, his final resting place.

To demonstrate how we visually confirm identification of objects found at crash sites, here's a side-by-side comparison between the Nelson site tailwheel (left) and a Corsair tailwheel photo taken at the National Museum of Naval Aviation, Pensacola NAS (right). Left: © PostStar Productions 2003, photo by Clem Major.
Right: © Reid Joyce 2003

Other features quickly confirmed this as a Corsair. We found one of the main landing gear assemblies, a section of the underside of the fuselage, which would have been just beneath the cockpit, part of the tail assembly and other debris that made the typing certain. We also found two coral encrusted .50 caliber machine guns, and parts of all three blades of the Hamilton-Standard propeller. We found no human remains. During one of these dives, Joe found something in the middle of the crash site - Flip's sunglasses that he had lost last year. Because the water was so shallow (and warm), we spent most of our time initially gaining a sense of the debris field. We determined that this Corsair was contained in a relatively small area (approximately 75 yards by 150 yards). Based on the training provided during P-MAN IV by Dr. Bill Belcher, an underwater archeologist from the US Army Central identification Laboratory, Hawaii (CILHI), we devised a plan after the first dive to map/document this debris field to help determine what had happened. The next day, armed with every empty water bottle we could find, we numbered and attached them to key pieces within the debris field, allowing us to see and target from the boat the bottles, when released to the surface. We also searched extensively for evidence of the cockpit area, finding only a small piece of the instrument panel. With bottles bobbing up to the surface, several team members also surfaced and, with two separate GPS devices, recorded in duplicate the latitude/longitude coordinates for all the labeled pieces in the debris field after which the bottles were recovered. With the debris field contained into such a small area, we have concluded preliminarily that MAJ Nelson's Corsair was hit by enemy antiaircraft fire while in a steep dive (headed west on an approximately east-west line) and entered the water with no course or attitude change. Of course, massive destruction occurred and is evidenced by the R-2800 engine lying fragmented in small pieces, along with the prop. We believe the tail section was thrown forward, toward the shoreline. Although he reportedly took off from Peleliu field with two bombs, we did not find them, supporting his wingman's observation that he had released both prior to crashing. MAJ Nelson's wingman, LT Dilks, commented in his After Action Report about seeing an explosion near the southeast dock of Malakal just before MAJ Nelson disappeared, he noted the explosion as unexplained both in location (not on target) and timing (not timed, as would be expected, with the other explosion seen on target). We now believe that what LT Dilks saw, in all likelihood, was his squadron commander's crash. LT Dilks was killed in action over Palau a few days later.

During P-MAN IV, we had held a ceremony for MAJ Nelson while his son was in Palau with us. With MAJ Nelson's Corsair now identified, we decided to hold a second American flag ceremony on the dive boat. In the Hawaiian tradition taught us by Bill Belcher, we gathered flowers and, after Jennifer quietly sang “Amazing Grace”, we gathered along the port side of the boat and threw the flowers onto the calm and warm waters of Malakal Harbor. While on the boat, we also realized that the VMF-225 Missing-Man flyover had gone right over this crash site – just where it should have, although unbeknownst to us at the time. We waited till late that night, impatiently I might add, for dawn in far away Houston, Texas and called the Nelsons to let them know. As the phone was passed around to allow each person to share individuals thoughts with Jim, I think we all gained a deepened sense that what we provide from our searches extends way beyond documenting bent pieces of aluminum and iron in written reports - which will be filed away and, most likely, forgotten.

Flip Colmer on his command post helping Val Thal
set buoys over selected parts of MAJ Nelson’s Corsair
for later GPS determinations. © Val Thal 2003

Bent Prop at Nelson crash site.
© PostStar Productions, 2003, photos by Clem Major.

Main gear strut at Nelson site.
© PostStar Productions, 2003, photos by Clem Major.

Catapult hook located under cockpit area.
© PostStar Productions 2003, photo by Clem Major.

Here's another visual comparison - a main gear strut found at the Nelson crash site, and an inboard view of a right-side Corsair main gear strut - from the museum in Pensacola.
Left photo © PostStar Productions 2003, photo by Clem Major
Right photo © Reid Joyce 2003

Val Thal-Slocum Examining Machine Gun Found by Jennifer Powers.
© PostStar Productions 2003, photo by Clem Major

Pat Scannon examining vertical stabilizer.
© PostStar Productions 2003, photo by Clem Major

Subsequent to our discovery and identification of this site, we reported our findings to the Palauan Ministry of Justice, the Palauan Historical Preservation Office, other Palauan dignitaries, the U. S. Embassy in Palau, the U. S. Navy Historical Center, and the U. S. Army Central identification Laboratory, Hawaii. Ordinarily, U. S. Navy policy (as I understand it) is to leave underwater remains in place. Furthermore, it has been the policy of the BentProp Project to respect the wishes of both Palauan and United States agencies not to disclose publicly any crash site location. However, this situation is unusual in that a) the site’s proximity to the local community is such that Palauans had heard of our find the same day we located it and b), the crash site (with artifacts highly desired by collectors) lies in relatively shallow water in a very accessible area which may be disturbed in the near future due to dredging considerations. I have sent these agencies and individuals a summary of our findings and requested that consideration be given to protecting the site, especially since it is the final resting place for MAJ Quintus B. Nelson. I have been notified by the Minister of Justice that Palauan laws already exist which protect identified underwater archeological sites (such as this one). Additional evaluations are also underway.

In April, Jim and Neel Nelson invited the P-MAN V team to their home in Houston, TX, to acknowledge together our finding his father’s crash site. Our gathering consisted of two key events. The first of these was to meet privately with the Nelson family to deliver, as a team, the American flag we flew at his father’s crash site. This ceremony, conducted in the Nelson home, was emotional – with the purpose of the occasion at least partially offset by the fulfillment of knowing the location of MAJ Quintus B. Nelson’s final resting place. The second event was a cocktail party presumably for the Nelson family to introduce the PMAN team to interested neighbors. Unknown to the team, one of the Nelson’s invited neighbors was one with quite a personal interest in our efforts. It was a surprise and pleasure to meet former President (and former Ensign) George Herbert Walker Bush that evening. Ensign Bush was a U. S. Navy Avenger pilot, who flew missions over Palau during WWII. I had the honor of spending a considerable amount of time with him that evening discussing his military experiences around Palau, including the loss of his immediate superior, LT R. R. Houle on 27JUL44. Ironically, LT Houle was shot down, with his crew of two, over Malakal Harbor – the same harbor over which MAJ Nelson was shot down 9 months later. LT Houle and the fate of his crew and aircraft remain unknown.

The Nelson family surrounded by
the P-MAN V team (Neel, center, with flag).
©Tom Krasny, 2003

Former President Bush
recalling WWII in Palau to Pat.
© Barbara Bush 2003