P-MAN VIII Update #23
The first part of today involved more analysis and map-wrangling. We decided that it was going to be worth checking out a Japanese military "fortress" up in Airai, north of the present-day airport. This is a location that we've know about from writing, but never really expected to be able to find until we were able within the past couple of days to decode the military map that was graciously given to us by Kurata-san.
We got an early call from Emiko, saying that her father had made contact with the woman on whose Arakabesan property there are believed to be some old graves. We were to meet at Kurata-san's place at exactly 1:50 to drive over to see the grave sites.
We had planned to go up either to Airai or Police Hill this morning, but last night when we got back from dinner, there was a message from the President's Chief of Staff, requesting that Pat call him. By the time Pat tried to call, everyone had gone home for the day. So we began at about 8:30 this morning trying to call. We continued to analyze maps and trying to call. We felt that we shouldn't leave town until we found out what the Chief had in mind, in case he'd set up some kind of meeting.
After lunch, when we still hadn't made contact with the Chief, we went over to meet Kurata-san and Emiko. We stopped by the hotel that's run by their Arakabesan friend, and Kurata-san jumped out of the car to get her. When we all gathered in the parking lot to head over to the area where the graves are located, Kurata-san was wearing the BentProp hat we'd given him on Sunday, and carrying TWO machetes! This 80-year-old tiger is really getting into the mission!
After a short ride to the area on Arakabesan just east of PPR (Palau Pacific Resort), we stopped at the friend's property, walked back into the woods through their taro patch, and cleared some weeds in the garden around a small rectangular-outline pile of rocks. The pile is laid out north-to-south, as you would expect a Japanese grave to be. And it's in an area that was formerly a large Japanese naval seaplane base that the Americans bombed heavily during the war. In the woods a few meters away there are several more potential graves - rectangular outlines of small rocks of a kind that someone would have had to carry here from the hillside just to the east - there aren't any other places in this garden area where such rocks naturally occur. Mike scanned the area with the metal detector and got a few hits around the grave areas, but since the whole place is full of fair-sized bomb fragments, that didn't really tell us anything. Tentative conclusion is that these are probably graves, but there's a good chance that they're Japanese or even earlier Palauan. We'll report the location to HPO.
Having decided to try to hike in along the old Airai road to the command post that we'd located on our new map, we headed toward Airai. But on the way Pat called the Chief of Staff on Joe's cell phone and finally got through. Turns out that the Chief has scheduled a short meeting for 10:00 tomorrow morning just with Pat, to discuss several things.
On to Airai. We decided to try the south approach. The old Airai road was never exactly a super-highway (it's basically just a road cut out of the slippery red volcanic clay, winding through the jungle and around the hills) and now, having been abandoned for more than a decade, much of it is overgrown, rutted, and not passable even by a 4WD vehicle. It starts down by the airport, passes by the area of the old Japanese fortress, and continues north to eventually merge with the present Compact road (that's Compact as in the Compact of Free Association with the U.S., which has brought money to Palau for construction of an around-the-island road). The fortress is almost equidistant between the ends of the closed road. We decided to hike in from the south and see how far we could get. By the time we started it was about 4:00 in the afternoon. Sunset is a little after 6. So we planned to hike until we got there or until 5:00, whichever came first, then start back no later than 5:00.
The road is pretty much as billed. Although there are still some relatively open areas, most of the road has been reclaimed by trees, weeds, and waist-high ferns. Do you know what's more slippery than red volcanic clay after two days of rain? Yeah - me neither. At least the road was easy to follow, and didn't involve hacking through the jungle.
The road winds up toward and around the tallest mountain in the area (over 200 meters elevation at the top), near which the map indicates the location of the fortress. We got to within about a half-mile of the site before having to turn around and head back to the car, but we'll definitely be back. This was just a recon mission. It'll definitely be an all-day trip to locate and explore the fortress.
Along the way, we spotted and explored a couple of Japanese light amphibious tanks. There were detachable flotation devices that look like the bow and stern of a boat, which would have been attached to the ends of this vehicle while it was in the water, then set aside for travel on land. Now, at least on this vehicle, there's a pretty good chunk of land growing on the bow.
The sun was setting as we returned to the car. We drove in the gathering darkness back up north on the west Compact road to at least spot the point where this old Airai road rejoins the Compact road. We found the spot. At least there at its northern extremity, it looks even rougher than the part we traveled up from the airport. Careful measuring on the map indicates that it's pretty much of a tossup, distance-wise, whether you try to reach the fortress from the north or the south on this road.