P-MAN VII Update
Saturday, 5 March
Today was a good day.
But it got off to an inauspicious start when we arrived at the dock near our expected guide's house and he wasn't there. Or at his house. Or, apparently, anywhere in the state. The stories we got from neighbors ranged from "He went fishing early and hasn't come back" to "He went to Koror." So the "airplane in shallow water with the wheels pointing up" on Aimeliik Reef that the guide had promised to show us didn't appear to be in the cards for us today. Nobody was particularly surprised that this particular guide had stood us up, but we decided to head out to the general area anyway, to just get a feel for what it's like.
Mark, who has been trying since we got here to finish his SCUBA certification, had brought along a dive instructor from Neco, Greg Cropper, who had agreed to come along and run Mark through his final two open-water dives if we could fit them in. We stopped at the south end of the shallow area, anchored, and let Mark and Greg do a relatively shallow (~40 feet) dive while the rest of us continued to try to figure out how to sequence the rest of the day. The dive went well for Mark.
Earlier in Aimeliik, Einstein, another Palauan Neco employee who had come along, told us about a "wing" that he's seen in very shallow water along the eastern shore of Aimeliik, close to the border between Aimeliik and Airai. We put that one on the list for later in the day.
After Mark's dive we headed over to a dock near the power plant in southern Aimeliik and picked up a couple of Palauan hunters, Jason and Pat, who had told some folks earlier that they know where there's some aircraft stuff in the mangroves near there. Remind me later to tell you the story of how we got this connection.
We drove back around the southwestern point and tied up the boat at a small beach beside a nice house. We put on mangrove-slogging clothes and followed the boys up the hill. Turned out to be a fairly long up-and-down jungle crawl through poison-tree headquarters just to get to the mangroves. Then it was a fairly straightforward slog through the mangrove roots and mud back to an area where we came upon...an almost intact right outboard Avenger wing! Complete with Star and Bar and a couple of hard points on the underside. It's missing some upper skin from a point outboard of the slot to the point where it separated from the aircraft just outboard of the wing-fold point. There had obviously been some serious fire inside the root end of the wing. It's lying leading-edge up, wedged in a crook in a fairly large mangrove tree. We haven't yet had a chance to research whose aircraft this might have been; we're not familiar with any that were supposed to have gone down in this area. But it's definitely Avenger.
One of the boys indicated that he knows someone who has seen other parts fairly nearby in the same mangroves, and he promised to put us in touch with the other guy within the next couple of days.
On the chance that this aircraft may be associated with as many as three MIAs, we held a brief flag ceremony at the wing, complete with American and Palauan flags.
After the hike out of the mangroves, we dropped Jason and Pat back at the dock near the power plant, and headed out to a moderately deep area for a bite of lunch, after which Mark and Greg jumped in for what would hopefully be Mark's final check dive. They made it to about 70 feet, and came back all smiles. There was a round of applause, back-slapping, and Oreo cookies when they came back aboard. Conrgratulations, Mark!
It was getting late when we headed east to the area where Einstein had seen the shallow "wing" a couple of months ago while diving for sea cucumbers to use as bait. The low sun angle and low tide meant that the water was murky with silt coming out of the mangroves, and the angle of the light made it difficult to see much on the bottom, even in fairly shallow water. We drove around for a bit, but decided that we need to return some time when there's a rising tide around mid-day, with the sun high and the visibility better. Time finally ran out and we headed back to Neco.
Well, that's it for today. No, wait - I promised to tell you the story about how we came to meet the people who led us to the Avenger wing. Last week we had spoken to some folks at the fish and game comission who suggested that we talk to an old guy from Peleliu. He'd recently moved up to Aimeliik, they said. So on one of our road trips we stopped in the village where they said he lived. We saw a middle-aged Palauan standing by his boat, and stopped to inquire about our man. The man by the boat turned out to be the chief of Aimeliik. He said he'd never heard the name of the man we were seeking, and suggested that we go back to the State office to see if they could direct us to him. But he also mentioned that we might want to interview his own father, if things didn't work out with the mystery man.
The State-office people never heard of the guy, either. So we went back to the chief and asked if we might speak with his father. He said the old man had a bad heart, but might be up to it. He went off to check. Came back and said okay, come on around back. Around back, there was the whole extended family, obvously in the process of preparing a huge meal. A daughter volunteered to translate for us - she said she presently lives in Charleston, South Carolina. Sadly, it turns out that the reason for the big family gathering was the death of the daughter's son, whom she'd brought back to Palau to be buried. This was part of a wake.
But they were glad to talk to us, and the old man told us some interesting stories. As the interview proceeded, several of the family members gathered around, obviously getting into Great-Grandpa's stories (which many of these folks had never heard) and also into our stories of what we're trying to accomplish here in Palau - bringing closure to American families who haven't known the fate of their loved ones for over 60 years.
Still with me? Here's the part where there just aren't any coincidences: when we left, we gave several of the family members our BentProp business cards, as we always do, and told them they could contact us at our hotel or at Neco Marine if they later thought of anything else they thought we should know. Later in the day, someone from that family called and left a message saying that they'd thought of some crab hunters who know of some aircraft wreckage in the mangroves near the village.
Those would be the hunters we picked up at the power plant, and that would be the new Avenger that we found today.
So if we hadn't followed some bad information and gone to their village looking for the wrong guy, we never would have found the Avenger. Stuff happens. For a reason.