P-MAN VII Update
Monday 21 February
Today started out with some interviews. The first was with an elderly gentleman whom the team had interviewed a couple of years ago. We thought he might be able to elaborate on some storied he'd previously told us about POWs, but his memory is getting a bit cloudy and although it was pleasant to visit with him, we didn't come away with any new information.
We then visited an older lady in the area above Nikko Bay who was said to have some aircraft parts in her taro patch. There was some pretty awful mud in there, but nothing interesting in the aircraft sense. She said that the few pieces that had been found there were removed some time ago.
The next stop was with a man at the department of public works who is said to have information about aircraft wreckage along the compact road up the east side of the island. He was pretty busy, so we'll get some more details from him later.
We finally made a group stop at Bem Ermii, which we've affectionately dubbed "the Truck Stop." The owner was there, and he gave us a couple of new leads (and set up a contact with his brother) about some sites in southern Airai.
We went back to Airai and went down to a site at the edge of the mangrove that we found last year, hoping to find a couple of parts that we still need to identify. This site is a pretty sparse, scattered debris field. There used to be a big chunk of intact aircraft there, but a few years ago someone came in and blew up some unexploded ordnance. In the spot where Ben (Madrei's brother) told us the cockpit area had been, there is now a 30-foot-diameter crater filled with water. We did find the parts we were looking for. We now agree that one doesn't look much like aircraft material. The other, though, yielded a couple of part numbers that Mark is researching through some friends back in the States. My hypothesis so far is that this part is a tip float from an OS2U Kingfisher. We'll see.
Just above this area is an elementary school. Behind the school is an old Japanese building. Madrei had told us that there's some aircraft wreckage down the hill from this building, on a line from there to the runway of the airport. Turns out that it's a pretty big valley between the school and the runway; the runway is pretty long; and the valley is full of tall, sharp fern-grass that's way over the heads of even the tall members of the team. From the description we had, the target could be anywhere in a BIG area. Abandoning the "smart man" principle (don't waste energy on low probability things - get enough information to allow you to search efficiently and with high probability of success), we decided not to go and get Madrei to point out where the target is, and started down into the valley. Walking through dense grass that's way over your head would be taxing enough in a cooler climate. Today, it was 97 degrees in the valley, and there wasn't a lick of breeze or shade. After one half-hearted push through the tall grass to a spot just above a jungle area by a stream, we decided that maybe bringing Madrei back wouldn't be a bad idea. So we climbed back out of the valley and headed back to town.
In town, we went directly to the car-rental place to explore the possibility of swapping our van for a vehicle with which you don't have to choose between carrying passengers or going up hills. Earlier in the day, going up to the home of the lady with no airplane parts in her taro patch, the van completely crapped out going up her street. It didn't quit running, just stopped moving and started to develop a kind of desperate sound and smell. After everyone but Pat got out, the van was able to make it up to her house. The other mildly irritating quirk that this vehicle has is making sounds like the suspension is only very loosely connected to the chassis, and making loud scraping sounds when we go over little rises in the road or over speed bumps. After some wrangling, the company tracked down a better van at one of the other rental companies. We agreed to rent the other one, and turn the present one in. But at the other place, they made a clear point of saying that we must never take their van to Babelthuap. Seems that someone took this very van up to Babelthuap a couple of years ago and practically destroyed it by trashing some important things that were formerly attached to its underside. (If you review a couple of previous P-MAN expedition reports, I think you'll find a strikingly similar story in one of them.) Well...uh...going to Babelthuap is one of the major needs that we have. So we decided to keep the present van and see if we can work out access to some other vehicle that'll get us to the north end of Babelthuap and back.
The final stop of the day was a visit to interview a couple of Palauan elder women, one of whom was the daughter of the man who was Reklai (paramount chief of the eastern part of Palau) during the war. Both women told us some wide-ranging stories from their childhood. We tried to focus on what they might know or might have heard about American POWs in their area (they were from Melekiok). They painted some colorful pictures of life as Palauan kids during the war, but weren't able to add much to our investigation of MIAs.
We finally met Mark and Jennifer for dinner. Pat left early to go to the airport to pick up Mike Olds, who will be spending the rest of this year's expedition with us.
Tuesday 22 February
Today was going to be a boat trip south with the guy who's already stood us up several times. He didn't show - again. They say he left last night to go to Hawaii. Didn't just didn't bother to tell us.
So we started scrambling for a good Plan B. We called Ricky, the older gentleman we interviewed last year about two aircraft he'd seen crash in the water south of Babelthuap. He was willing to meet with us and take us to the site of the old Japanese school where, as a teenager in 1944, he was standing on the hillside when he saw one of the aircraft go down. The idea was for him to take us up to that hillside and point to where the plane went in.
When we got there, he pointed up the hill to some bamboo bushes, and said that's where he was standing when he saw the event. But his leg is bothering him, and there's no way he was going to make it up the hill today. We discussed some landmarks and things that lined up with the crash site, and thanked Ricky, who went back home. We climbed up the hill. The view is spectacular, just as he described it. We got a bearing on the propeller on the reef (Joe was able to point out the spot where that known landmark is). The thing about this site, though, is that Ricky now says the pilot bailed out and was captured - so finding the aircraft is not of any particular value to us, since there definitely wouldn't be any remains associated with the aircraft. Besides, it now appears likely that it crashed in some fairly deep water, and it's unlikely that we'd find it with the resources we have at our disposal today.
We went back to the boat and headed out around to the north side of Arakabesan. Our first dive was just a low-pressure, interesting orientation dive for Mike, who arrived last night. He did fine.
The second dive was back at the site of the two biplane float planes that we found last week. We did a sweep to the northwest and located the mystery object that Chip and Pat had found last week. We all agree that it isn't aircraft-related.
Tonight we had dinner at a bakery/restaurant where, by an amazing coincidence, they happened to have a cake that said "Happy B'day, Mark" on it. It just so happens that today was Mark's 40th.