VI Update #26
Thursday involved mostly running errands and getting ready for Pat's presentation at Sam's in the evening. The presentation began in a noisy,driving rain storm, which at first made it a bit hard to hear Pat, but certainly didn't keep the crowd away. Almost every available seat was filled, and the audience was attentive and very appreciative. Pat's presentation, as always, was factual, exciting, and fun.
It's now Friday, and I'm going to have to insert a little admission here. Formerly a skeptic, I've gotta say that the past couple of days have wiped out what little remaining reservation I've had about publicity. Publicity rocks!
For me, the first indication was someone who came up to me at breakfast at the Internet Cafe, to say two things. First, he said how much he enjoyed Pat's presentation last night. And second, he related a story about a radial engine that he and a friend saw some time ago while snorkeling around a nearby island. It's one we haven't heard about before. He said he has a good map at his office, which he'll copy and mark up to indicate where they saw the engine. He also said that he's known Joe for years, and will be directing anyone with similar information to Joe. We were obviously having that conversation because of Pat's talk. Also, it probably didn't hurt that the B-24 find made the front page of the latest Palau Horizon, and an interview with Pat appeared in Tia Belau, the other major paper in town.
Then when we met Joe, he said someone else had approached him last night with information about a plane up in Airai, whose description didn't sound like anything on our "known" list.
At this point (not quite 9:00) the day got a bit shaky, but only slightly. The plan had us beginning the day by meeting up with Joe's friend Asa, who is the guy who stood us up a week or so ago, without explanation. As we drove to Asa's house, we met him walking up the street. He said to Joe that he was just going up to the store to pick something up, and would be back shortly. We went down and parked near the place where we had planned to meet Asa (south side of north Koror, where Pete got his shoe sucked off in the mud, remember?).
Finally, Pat and Joe headed back up the hill in the car to find Asa. No luck. He'd just split.
Fortunately, Oell, who lives nearby and whom we'd met the first time through that spot, had struck up a conversation with the rest of us, and he volunteered to take us to the plane in the mangroves that we'd been seeking the first time down there. It's not clear that this is the one that Asa would have taken us to, but now that we're twice-burned by him as a resource, we probably won't be seeking his counsel much in the future.
So we headed back down through the Taro patch and the jungle, to the edge of the mangroves. Just not through the mud. We stopped at the same stream that we hadn't been able to completely navigate in Ricky's boat, right at the bend in the stream where people had told us there was some aircraft wreckage. Problem was, the tide was coming in. Oell said that the aircraft pieces were probably completely submerged, but he was willing to wade out to the spot and see if he could find it. He did wade out. And he did find it. And it was completely submerged. Dan O'Brien waded out after him. Then Pat followed. The consensus is that the material is aircraft, but that it's probably Japanese. The best strategy for examining it will be to come back the same way, but time the next visit to happen at low tide, so enough of it will be exposed to possibly identify the type. The tentative ID as Japanese has pushed the next visit fairly far down on the priority list.
On the way back to the car, we passed a young mother with a baby, sitting on the porch of a house. She asked if we'd seen any crocodiles down there. We said no, and asked if there are really crocs in the area. She just nodded. Like I said, low on the priority list.
Next step was a visit to the office where the individual works who gave Joe the clue last night about a wreck up in Airai. He gave Joe directions to a house where he said someone would be waiting to lead us down to the wreck. The road back to this area started out looking more or less like a road. Then a lane. Then a logging trail. Then a tank trap. At times, our poor little Toyota van was little more than a gravel-toboggan. But we made it. After a fairly short hike down a hill, we found ourselves looking at ... the monolith from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Except that the thing sticking ten feet or so straight up out of the ground was an aircraft wing, with the aileron missing.
Sticking straight up.
Out of the ground.
Pat spotted what appeared to be more debris on an adjacent hillside, and asked the guide if there was more stuff over there. He said, basically, "Uh ... it's really swampy between here and there." But by that time Pat was up to his knees in mud. And we all followed. Hey - it wasn't as bad as the mangroves.
Higher up on the hillside, we found a bonanza of stuff. American aircraft stuff. A round engine, about two-thirds embedded in the hillside clay, with the tips of two prop blades sticking up out of the ground. And landing gear, sitting almost on top of the engine. STRANGE landing gear. We speculated that this could be Wildcat landing gear (complicated folding tubular truss design), except that there were no F4F Wildcats known to be in this area during the war. And it turned out that the entire hillside is covered with debris, pretty much on a line from the wing to the engine. Down close to the swampy area, we found a collection of fairly large sheet-metal pieces, most of which were about half buried in the muck.
We hadn't come equipped to do any excavating, but we realized that we weren't very far from the SeaBees' camp, so we decided to drop by and see if we could borrow a couple of shovels, to poke around the engine and see if we could find some identifying marks. Remember the SeaBees' typical response? Yep - they came through again: several of their apprentices, Lieutenant Lepper (the OIC), Chief Grant, and a BUNCH of shovels and picks accompanied us back to the site! Some of us have been worrying a bit about wearing out our welcome with these guys, but the Lieutenant, at one point, said "This would have been a pretty dull deployment if you guys hadn't come along." And it sounded like he thinks this is a Good Thing.
Everybody pitched in, and within about an hour we had dug down to the propeller hub, found a bunch of cockpit controls and switch panels basically lying on the surface on the brushy hillside, and located the tail section, including the tail wheel yoke and the tail hook, which were lying pretty much on the surface in the marshy area.But what the heck could this aircraft be? Can't be a Wildcat, since there were never any F4Fs around here. We finally reached a point at which we had to conclude that this is a potential MIA site, so it shouldn't be disturbed any further without notification of the Historical Preservation Office and JPAC. We thanked the SeaBees, whose fish fry we've been invited to attend tomorrow night, and headed home.
By dinner time, Pat had dug into his private stash of listings of aircraft losses (which we have to use, since the Naval Historical Center has declined to share their data base with us), and probably solved at least part of the mystery. Turns out that he was right that there weren't any F4Fs around here during the war, but in September of 1944, five FM2s (successor to the F4F, and also called Wildcat) were lost in Palau, all flying from light carriers. Four of the five were lost at Peleliu.
No location was listed for the fifth one lost in Palau. Anybody wanna guess where it probably wound up?
Tomorrow afternoon, we're going to try to take some of the JPAC folks to the site, to see if it deserves being put on their list for future consideration. We're hoping that someone with more clout than we have can obtain more information about this aircraft (we have the Bureau Number of the "unknown" one from Pat's list).
Onward and Upward! Strength through Joy!