VIII Update #11
Last night was a SHORT night. We met the Haakes at the airport, and by the time we got them to their hotel and we all got back home and settled, it was past midnight.
This morning we met Joe at Neco Marine at about 7:30 and headed out toward Peleliu with Donnie at the helm of the KevCat, a sport-fishing boat that travels well in rough water. It has a partially enclosed cabin and soft seat cushions! It was a bit rainy and misty so the enclosed cabin was pleasant, but the water was about as calm as it gets. We stopped first at Palau Pacific Resort (PPR) on Arakabesan, to pick up Don, Jane, and Sarah - and we were actually on time!
The ride down to Peleliu was leisurely, as we cruised among the rock islands and allowed the first-time guests to drink in the breathtaking beauty. It's a trip that never loses its thrill. We docked at the north end of Peleliu, where we were met by Tangie Hesus in a big van. It was way before check-in time, so Tangie stopped at Mayumi, the inn where we would be staying, to drop off our gear. After only a short break, we swung into full BentProp mode, which means gearing up and heading out.
Our first planned activity was to go to an entry point into the jungle north of Pope's Ridge, along the East Road. The first leg of our hike took us from there into the upper end of Horseshoe Valley, where our first stop was at a little ledge on the west wall of the valley where there's a piece of the vertical stabilizer of Ens. Donald Baxter's TBM Avenger, which crashed on Pope's Ridge in 1944. Don Haake and Jane Haake-Russell are Ens. Baxter's nephew and niece; Sarah is Jane's daughter. Jane and Don's mother, Marty Haake, was Ens. Baxter's sister. She named Don after her brother, the pilot of this ill-fated TBM. The family was able to photograph and touch the piece of aluminum bearing the "Bureau Number" that uniquely identifies this aircraft as their uncle's.
We continued over into the next valley and stopped at one of the Avenger's wings, which is suspended part-way up the west wall.
Advancing northeast, we stopped by a wing flap, then continued to the other wing, which lies just above a deep cave. It's been rainy for the past couple of weeks, so the jungle was steamy and dripping. The jungle sounds, new to these visitors, were pleasant and relaxed. From the second wing, we re-traced our steps and emerged back on the East Road where Tangie met us with some sandwiches.
We took a lunch break and discussed what we'd seen, using maps to help the family get oriented.
After lunch, Dan O'Brien rode back into town with Tangie, and the rest of us headed back up into the upper end of Horseshoe Valley. The valley widens and opens to the south. The floor of the valley is littered with unexploded ordnance (mortar shells, artillery shells, and hand grenades, for example), making it necessary to walk gingerly and be sure that you don't step on anything that could explode. Yeah, it's been over 60 years, but there's still some stuff out there that's capable of ruining a nice hike. There are also other things - a few aircraft pieces, some miscellaneous junk (parts of vehicles and other stuff that an occupying army might leave behind), and some big pits left over from mining operations before the war. The walls on the east and west sides of the valley also contain numerous caves, in which the Japanese hid and from which they rained down deadly fire on the American soldiers who advanced through the area.
At the open end of the valley, near the very end of Pope's Ridge, we planned to climb up the eastern slope of the ridge to the area that JPAC excavated last year in an attempt to recover remains, around and below the point where the engine of Ens. Baxter's aircraft is presently embedded in the hillside. [None of the remains have yet been identified by JPAC.]
Dan O'Brien is one of the principals of PostStar Productions, a group that's producing a documentary about Pat Scannon and the BentProp Project. In town, Dan had picked up a video crew with whom he'd worked before (from "Roll 'em Productions" in Koror). They met us as we emerged briefly from the jungle, just before we headed up the hill to see the engine. The camera and sound men scrambled up the hill to the base of the area where JPAC had dug, then Pat and the family and the rest of us followed. The area that had been scraped down to bare coral less than a year ago turns out to be completely covered with new vegetation, much of which is 7-8 feet tall!
Sarah, an avid fan of Survivor, had her jungle fantasy come true when Pat handed her a machete and showed her where to begin clearing a path for the rest of us to follow. It also didn't hurt Sara's excitement to learn that Joe, our guide, was a major assistant when Survivor filmed a series here in Palau in late 2004, or that Jeff, the cameraman, was one of the cameramen who actually shot the Survivor program.
Now logistics kicked in. The JPAC dig had essentially removed EVERYTHING from the hillside leading up to the engine, including the trees and vines that we formerly used to help in climbing up the steep face of the ridge. Joe scouted out a reasonable way up, and deployed an 80-foot climbing rope that Pat had brought along to assist in the steep scramble. We all headed up the hill to a spot near the engine, from which Sarah and Don again used machetes to clear a path to the engine and knock down enough of the weeds to reveal the engine.
Pat explained the general theory of how the aircraft had come apart, why the engine (the heaviest component of the aircraft) had traveled the farthest and come to rest here, and why JPAC had chosen this area to search for crew remains.
The family contemplated this sobering story, then each had a chance to try to describe (for the camera) what this moment and this place means to them. This is really emotional stuff for all of us. I'm sure the experience isn't as intense for us as it is for families to whom our efforts have brought closure, but man, it's gotta be a close second. There aren't many things in life as deeply rewarding as being allowed to participate in an event like this.
The scramble back down the hill was pretty much a repeat of the precarious dangling of the ascent, but everyone survived.
We headed back to the Mayumi inn, checked in, cleaned up, and had our traditional beverage-and-crunchies-at-sunset session on the beach.
Night life on Peleliu pretty much consists of watching the street lights come on and watching the dogs go to sleep. So we were all in bed by 9:00. The last time I went to bed at 9:00 was the last time I was on Peleliu....