VI Update #12
First, the bad news: we didn't have access to Joe's boat today, but we had access to Joe. And we did have access to Ricky's Adelbai's boat, so Joe went with us on Ricky's boat as we attempted to locate the aircraft in the mangroves that we didn't find yesterday. Actually, that isn't the bad news. Just a description of the starting configuration.
We eased around the south shore of Koror and found the outlet of the small creek on which we believe the wreckage exists that we were pursuing yesterday (through the mangroves, in the mud that sucked Pete's shoe off, remember?). We eased dead slow up through the little cut in the mangroves as far as our boat could go, and saw nothing. The report was that there is an engine and propeller on one side of the little channel, and some other wreckage on the other side, both pretty close to the water. Or, if you believe another variation on the story, there's similar wreckage but it's on land, just short of the mangroves. In any case, we saw nothing.
So we slowly backed out of the cut into the mangroves, and went a quarter-mile to the west, to a little dock were Ricky indicated that he knows some folks who might know where to look. Ricky was gone a couple of minutes, and returned with a young Palauan who said he knew where there was some wreckage, with the implication that he was talking about the wreck that we were seeking.
Instead of taking another shot at the little channel, we went a couple of hundred meters to the east of the little creek we'd just explored, to a point where we could clearly see some wreckage back in the mangroves (the same mangroves where yesterday someone had asked if we had seen any crocodiles...). Pat didn't recognize this spot, and I'd definitely not been there before, so we put on our mangrove-slogging gear (lycra sting suits, gloves, and dive booties duct-taped to our legs to prevent them from being sucked off by the mud) and headed into the dark swamp.
In 40 meters or so we encountered some pieces of aluminum: some wing sections, a little electrical gear, then a main landing gear with wheel, and a bunch of sheet metal. It fairly quickly dawned on Jennifer and Pat that this is part of the Custer B-24 wreck that they visited last year (when they had approached it from the land side). And definitely not the one that's been reported to lie just west of this spot, which we were seeking yesterday. So we still have to find a way to get someone to help us locate the other one. Ricky said that some people are in the process of cutting back the mangroves lining the little channel back to the gravel "dock" that they use below their taro patch, and they've all been alerted to let us know if they re-discover the aircraft wreck in that area.
Okay, so that wasn't really bad news - just a trip to a piece of known wreckage that some of us hadn't seen before. Come to think of it, there wasn't really any bad news today.
Next stop was back up among the big coral heads southwest of Babelthuap. Last night, Joe talked to a fisherman who is also acquainted with the older gentleman whom we interviewed a few days ago, and who subsequently accompanied us out on the boat - without success. The fisherman had some more recent knowledge of the location of some aircraft wreckage, which he was able to communicate to Joe in considerable detail. We drove up to the "mystery prop," which has been a starting point for many of our searches in this area, since it's fairly easy to find (for experts like Joe!). From there, we followed the fisherman's directions to the north side of a small coral head, and anchored. Joe was convinced that this was the spot where the fisherman reported seeing some aircraft wreckage.
Since Ricky was able to stay with the boat, Joe went diving with Pat, Jennifer, and me. Joe and Pat were a few seconds ahead of us, and headed to the right, around the north side of the coral head. Jennifer and I went straight down the side of the coral head, and at about 40 feet, bingo! Jennifer found herself standing directly behind a large hamilton-standard propeller, sticking straight up out of the face of the coral head. This blade is perfectly straight - looks like it was in flat pitch when it sank. One of the other blades is straight, too, but the third is bent. The hub is intact.
Just below it, facing up, is another complete propeller and engine. Below these and to the right is a huge wing section. No, really: huge. Jennifer, using herself as a 5-foot measuring stick, quickly determined that the outer section we could see is more than 25 feet long. The wing is upside down, lying on a slope with the rounded wingtip at the high end.. It's the right wing. The aileron is still in place.
Okay, for those of you who've been following the BentProp saga for awhile: what 4-engine aircraft did the Americans employ in large numbers in Palau? Anyone? Anyone? Right: the Army Air Force flew a bunch of B-24s on bombing missions over Palau - many of them around Koror. How many B-24s were lost near Koror? Three, we think. How many had been found and identified during prior BentProp missions? Two. The third has been the subject of 8 years of frustrating searching by BentProp teams. This is it. It's the one from which three of the 11 crew members safely parachuted, were captured by the Japanese, were transported to the area near the Japanese police station in Ngatpang, were executed and buried there.
We've found the third B-24.
Lots of it. In a very small area.
This is some emotional stuff for me. On my first (and only other) visit to Palau as a BentProp team member in 2000, I spent the bulk of two weeks doing towed-magnetometer runs in Toachel Mid, the channel that separates the islands of Babelthuap and Koror. All of the diving that we did was in deep, dark, silty water with fast, treacherous currents. And we found nothing. Nada. Zilch. We were looking for three aircraft. The one that we spent the most time on was this one.
When you're part of a group that spends time searching like this, you tend to tell and re-tell the stories of the people for whom you're searching. And you begin to be pulled back in time, in your mind, to the events that led to the disappearance of these brave souls. You see and hear antiaircraft fire exploding around you. You feel the aircraft bucking. You feel the adrenalin rush as the deadly explosions get closer. You feel at least a shadow of the terror that must have followed as the aircraft was hit and the left wing came off, and those eight men who weren't able to get out knew in their hearts that there's no way they'd survive the violent, spinning plunge toward the water, in this beautiful corner of the world so far from home.
That's pretty intense, personal stuff, and you find yourself talking to these guys. Many times, aloud or just to myself, I've said, "Hey, guys - we're here. We want to find you. Where are you? How about a sign? Something? Anything? Is this latest magnetometer anomaly the one that's going to lead us to you? Are we really about to close the circle?"
I finally got the answer today.
So maybe you'll forgive me if I'm a little red-eyed and introspective for awhile here. I've just come back from a long-lost grave site - the final resting place of some young guys who made the ultimate sacrifice for me ... when I was three years old. I didn't appreciate it then, but I damn sure do now.
We held a flag ceremony on the foredeck of Ricky's boat. And since the search for this third B-24 and its crew has truly been a joint effort between a US team and our wonderful Palauan friends for these past 8 years, the ceremony was held by Jennifer, Pat, Reid, Joe, and Ricky, and used both the American and Palauan flags. Pat, Reid, and Joe said a few words, and Pat read the following excerpt from "For the Fallen," a poem by Lawrence Binyon.
Onward and upward! Strength through joy!