VIII Update #20
Over the years, especially since Pat first found the opportunity to review hundreds of pages of tribunal transcripts, we've found ourselves scratching our heads over things and places mentioned in the transcripts. What appears to be useful information is frustrating when we discover that some of the names used by the Japanese during wartime are not the names used by the Palauans today. And not the names used on the maps to which we've had access.
The process of cracking this code began a week or so ago when Vernice Stefano at the PALARIS office allowed us to make copies of a 1944 Japanese map that she'd uncovered back in D.C. at the Library of Congress. Just yesterday, translation of much of that map was completed by a couple of Japanese dive guides at Neco Marine. Also, a couple of days ago Jon Vogt introduced us to 80-year-old Yoji Kurata and his daughter Emiko. They both agreed to accompany us today up into central Babeldaob - a little road trip for the purpose of putting names to places, and discussing Kurata-san's recollections of how the Japanese military was deployed during wartime. Jon Vogt also came along. To complete the picture of gracious and generous cooperation, Dermot Keane and Sam Scott at Sam's Tours lent us a very comfortable 8-passenger, 4-wheel-drive van to make the trip a bit more comfortable for Kurata-san than it would have been in the bare-bones and very utilitarian van that we've been using.
Kurata-san came to Palau from Japan when he was about 12 years old. During the war, he was a civilian biologist working for the Japanese, with a focus on fisheries. He worked on the south side of Koror. He was drafted into the army in July of 1944 at age 18, and after a brief time up here he was moved to Angaur, where he was captured by the Americans when Angaur was invaded in mid-September. He was taken to the United States as a POW, where he spent about 6 months in various locations in the midwest.
As we headed out, Jon agreed to drive. Dan sat in front, twisting around to capture the extended interview with the video camera. He'll probably have to spend the next couple of days in traction (or at least visit the chiropractor). Yoji, Emika, and Pat sat in the middle seat. Mike, Joe, and I squeezed into the back back seat.
We headed up the compact road from Airai into Aimeliik and Ngatpang, stopping along the way to discuss various landmarks and listen to Kurata-san describe the extent and purpose of each of several villages that have all but disappeared. He has considerable knowledge of the places in which the military was deployed. His research has turned up many books and maps covering the region; he has lent several of them to us to copy.
At several points Kurata-san asked Jon to stop the van. Yoji would jump out and sprint off across the road or up a jungle path, with the rest of us having to scramble to keep up.
We drove up to what we've been calling "Police Hill," which Kurata-san readily identified in ways that match our 1944 aerial photo of the area, pointing to places down near the compact road that he said used to contain many buildings housing soldiers. Up on the hill, he immediately identified the spot behind the pillars as the army's initial headquarters after they moved up here from Koror. He said they picked the location because from the hilltop you can see many miles in every direction. Unfortunately for the military, he said, that also meant that the spot was dramatically visible to the Americans, who bombed it over and over. Realizing that this was a really bad spot if you wanted to survive, the Army then moved its headquarters down into the jungle - down there, he pointed - and he pointed to exactly the place to which Chief Techitong told us last year that the army had moved.
Kurata-san had not heard stories about Americans or priests being interrogated and/or executed here (he was shipped off to Angaur before most of these things would have happened here), but he speculated that the Americans would have been kept apart from other captives. He said that pretty much everyone in the Japanese military was afraid of the Kempei Tai, and stayed as far away from them as possible. He also said that he thought the Kempei Tai presence here at the time was very small - only a few men. Men whom most people tried hard to avoid.
We visited several other current and former villages and discussed some of the tropical agricultural research that the Japanese conducted in central Babeldaob, to try to identify species of plants that could both feed a large number of people and grow in the relatively poor soil and conditions that exist here.
At one final stop, Jon jumped out of the van and ran up an old Japanese road that we showed him, thinking the rest of us were just deep in discussion. Kurata-san banged the door open, jumped out, and sprinted up the road after Jon...and caught him (Jon is one of those nuts who do "hash runs" in the jungle - for fun. Kurata-san's main objective was to collect some orchids. He found a couple. His daughter says that as an expert on orchids, he's sometimes asked to host groups of orchid-lovers from Japan. They occasionally want to come at a time when the orchids are not blooming, but they respect him so much that they come all the way to Palau anyway. So he shows them pictures...
We feel that the time Kurata-san and Emiko generously shared with us today has greatly multiplied (not just added to) our understanding of the area and the way the Japanese forces were deployed here. We also have some additional maps and a couple of books that Kurata-san lent us to copy. We plan to share these valuable new resources with HPO and PALARIS, where such information could greatly facilitate their work, too.
It also appears that our contact with Kurata-san may not be finished. He's told us that he knows someone who has seen some bones in a cave on one of the islands in Nikko Bay, and he's not sure if they're American, Japanese, or Palauan. Kurata-san hasn't been there yet, but he's interested too and will try to contact his friend to see if it's feasible to be taken out there for a look. We offered to provide a boat if it turns out to be possible. There is also a grave site on Arakabesan that he thinks may be of interest to us, but he needs to contact the land owner there to secure permission to visit the site. With luck, both of these things might happen before we leave (only 10 days from now!).
We swung by the house of the man who's going to go with us to the Aimeliik area where he scavenged an airplane wreck as a young man during the war. He's still very busy, but indicated that he'll probably be able to go with us next Sunday or Monday. We'll check back with him on Saturday.
Most of the day there's been a tropical storm warning in effect, making us happy that we got the last Peleliu trip out of the way Saturday. The storm was 350 miles away to the southeast Saturday morning; it's much closer today. Dermot Keane's advice for tomorrow: batten down the the hatches and stay home.
Driving home from dinner tonight, we couldn't help noticing that the bank and computer-supplies store had taken this advice to heart. Note the metal shutters on all of the bank's windows, and the plywood covering the entire front of the computer store...
Through the magic of time zones, datelines, and a little sleep before finishing today's report, I can say with confidence that this is what the infra-red satellite picture is going to look like as of 4:30 tomorrow morning our time: