P-MAN VIII Update #6
19 February 2006

Today's plan was to go up to the area where we found the Avenger wing in the mangroves last year, and expore the hillside where Fuana's father told her that he saw an American airman parachute from the stricken plane. The airman, so the story goes, swam to shore where he was picked up by three Japanese soldiers and executed on the spot.

Upon closer inspection, the base of the hill that Fuana pointed out to us last year turns out to form a high cliff that plummets to the water. Even an uninjured swimmer couldn't possibly have crawled out of the water directly onto the slope that Fuana pointed out. But adjacent to the hill is a little cut or cove - presently choked with mangrove but possibly only a rocky beach in 1944 - that makes a better fit with Fuana's story. This looks like the only access from the water where a pilot could have approached the vicinity of the hill and climbed out onto land. It's also closer to the point where Fuana's father is said to have climbed over a ridge to a hiding place from which he could witness the execution.

What the hill looks like today. There's been some dramatic growth in the
mangroves near the wing since last year. © Reid Joyce 2006

We tied up the boat close to that mangrove-filled cove and scrambled up the rocks to a little ridge, then plunged into the forest and worked our way back down to the area behind the mangroves at the focus of the cove. We did some sweeps with a metal detector and uncovered some .50-caliber shells - clear evidence that American planes had strafed the area up at the top of the hill where there was a large shore gun and one or more anti-aircraft artillery installations. But the area at the base of the hill between the high-tide line and the bottom of the hill is very small, suggesting that maybe if the pilot did swim in here, he was taken up to a much larger wooded area just above, before being executed. The area just above is also a good match with Fuana's father's story, in which he said he climbed up from the far side of that ridge and was able to look down on the execution proceedings.

But the problem is that it's a fairly large area up there, and relatively featureless except for trees, bushes, and tons of what we call "sticky vines" (think of them as organic barbed wire). We did find several small depressions that had some of the characteristic of burial sites, and we checked them all with the metal detector. The only metal objects we uncovered included several more .50-caliber brass shell casings (from the machine guns on American fighters and bombers), and at least one .50-caliber bullet, indicating that at some point this area had been a target, not just a spot that attacking aircraft had to fly over to get to the guns on the hill.

We did go over to the hillside that Fuana had pointed out for us, and found it to be a pretty inhospitable place. It's presently covered almost entirely by that dense, tall "fern grass" that's like hiking through a giant Brillo pad. The underlying surface of the hill is also not the sort of place where you'd want to dig a grave. It's mostly dense clay with large rocks embedded in it. And the hillside has obviously been burned over numerous times: most of the clay on the surface looks like "fried clay," much like the area in Ngatpang on and around Police Hill. We worked around the lower perimeter of the hill, and up and down the middle and the sides, without finding anything more than a few more .50-cal shells and some shrapnel.

Mike's red shirt shows that the fern grass
is up to his chest. That makes it
about eye-level for me... © Reid Joyce 2006

We went back into the area above the cove, and found little evidence of military habitation beyond what appear to be some fire pits, and nothing that was clearly a grave.

We climbed back down to the boat to have some lunch, then returned to the woods for about one more hour to examine two sites we'd marked before lunch. No joy.

The bottom line for this location is that we don't know which three men were aboard this aircraft when it was shot down; we don't know when it was shot down; and we don't know where the single surviving airman was executed or buried. Fuana has offered to introduce us to her nephew, who she says knows where there's some more of the aircraft wreckage - but it could turn out to be the wing we already know about. We'll see...

We finally wrapped up at Fuana's location about 3:00. Joe had managed to talk to Lazarus, our old friend/acquaintance/nemesis (take your pick) about some aircraft wreckage he'd seen on the western reef, so before heading home we went over there. It was close to low tide, and Lazarus had said that at low tide the landing gear sticks out of the water, making that a good time to go searching - you might hit it if the tide were high enough to conceal it, close to the surface.

We drove along dead slow in the shallow water for quite a way, but eventually found the object. Sure enough, it was one main landing-gear strut, sticking right out of the water. The water was only about 3 feet deep, so we all jumped in and explored. There appears to be a complete wing attached to the gear, with an intact aileron. Mike roamed around with the metal detector and got a large number of hits.

Mike stands on the underside of the right wing of what is probably a Japanese "Zero."
The high-tech metal detector works under water, too! © Reid Joyce 2006

The bulk of the wreckage is buried under less than a foot of sand, but without shovels we could only clear bits of it at a time. That was enough, though, to clearly identify the aircraft as Japanese. We were able to uncover the red "rising sun" emblem on the underside of the wing near the landing gear. Initial inspection of the landing gear and the configuration of the wing suggests that this is a Zero. Not expecting to get in the water today, I hadn't brought the underwater camera housing, so this is all you get to see for now.

The darkening clouds you see in the background in the photo above turned into a full-bore torrential rainstorm that began before we got out of the water and continued until we got back to Neco, with visibility sometimes dropping to a hundred meters or so. The rain and wind made us reluctant to get out of the water - it was much warmer in the water. The trip back was an excellent demonstration of why we bring rain gear even when we intend to get wet. An unprotected, wet person on a fast-moving boat is likely to become hypothermic pretty quickly. Fortunately, we all carry the right kind of gear.

Tomorrow it's breakfast with Abby, and maybe a trip to Police Hill with the President's chief of staff.

- Reid